At the heart of symbolism

(Sufi) Islamic orientation and tradition

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Sufi tradition

According to the polar mode (see the orientation), the observer facing North is giving preference to the right or East compared to left or West. Particularly cherished by Sufis, East is assimilated to the dwell of light whereas West represents darkness. They consider that East and West are losing their geographical meaning to take on a metaphysical or spiritual sense. Sufis regard East as related to the Universal Spirit or Being and West to the human world or being; East to esoterism, the inner or the spiritual knowledge and West to exoterism, the outer or the letter; East to the essence, the Principle or integrated world, source of all manifestation in connection with the descend phase from light to darkness and West to the substance, the manifestation or fragmented world in relation to the ascending phase from obscurity to enlightenment.

A constant move between East and West, day and night, light and darkness operates as a pulsating heart. Sufi's spiritual voyages on the ascending path start with a Western wandering in the obscurity, the world of duality, the first step on the way to re-integration into the Eastern lighted source of the Spirit. So, the Damned belong to the left hand or West before having access to the world of the Chosen on the right hand or East.

Most common Sufi ritual practices consist in recalling divine Names (“dhikr”) and entering a cosmic dance (“sama'”):

The day the sun will rise at sunset, the human being will return to the Oneness or enlightened world, where everyone is coming from. While facing West at sunset and reciting divine Names in hushed voice, the human may perceive, at twilight, the resorption of the visible sun and whispered words into the silence of the night. Going through the murky depths of darkness, the word sounding is vanishing and its real meaning emerging while looking at the invisible or midnight sun. Then, the being may have access to the inner light, at dawn, while facing East. Vibrating to divine Names recited in a loud voice and resonating to their real meaning, He is identified to the Divine, the Being. From now on, the sun, rising at East, will never set, having been for ever absorbed into the heart of the spiritual Being.

The gate of repent (“tawba” meaning return to the Oneness) is, in principle, definitively closed behind Him, without any way back possible to the obscure world.

As the Being dominates Its creation, East prevails over West and right over left. Similarly, day comes before night and the loud voice recitation overcomes the low one.

In accordance with the polar circumambulation (refer to orientation)Dancing dervish, Sufis are dancing in a ring like astral objects. Following the example of dancing dervishes, they are whirling around themselves and in a circle from right to left. As symbols of the World Axis, they hold the right palm open to Heaven to receive the celestial influence and the left turned towards Earth to transmit it.

To illustrate the Sufi doctrine, find hereafter two stories which are circulating among dervishes and their disciples.

Dervish's stories

The frantic quest

An old wise man used to sit cross-legged on the door step and to observe the daily life in the village where he lived. His attention was particularly attracted by the comings and goings of Mohammed who used to pass him, three times a day, on the way to the mosque. The man never gave much thought to the old wise man, except for thinking that he did nothing but spend all his days sprawling in the sun, without caring about God's presence. One day however, he saw the old man crouching down and carefully looking at the ground. In front of this strange behaviour, Mohammed came closer and asked, “What are you looking for ?”

“I am looking for my lost needle,” replied the old man.

As a good Muslim, Mohammed helped him in the search for the working tool. However, the quest was vain despite their joint efforts.

“Are you sure you lost it here ?” Mohammed asked, just in case.

“Not at all,” answered the needle searcher.

“And where did you lose it ?”

“Inside the house,” retorted the old man.

“And you are looking for your needle outside !” Mohammed exclaimed.

“Of course, it is so dark inside whereas we see so much better here,” said the old man disconcertingly.

“You are totally mad ! Have you ever seen someone looking outside for something which is inside,” uttered Mohammed.

The old man let a moment of silence passing, then looked at Mohammed straight in the eyes and said, “Really ! What about you ? Are you not going three times a day to the mosque, searching for a God that you carry in your heart !”

Three pieces of precious advice

Once upon a time a man caught a very little bird that told him:

“As a prisoner, I will not be very helpful, but if you let me go, I will give you three pieces of precious advice.”

The bird promised to give the first piece of advice while the man would still hold him; the second when he would be perched on a tree branch and the third at the instant he would have reached the summit of a mountain.

The man agreed and listened to the first piece of advice, “If you lose something, do not regret it even if you care about it as much as your own life.”

The man released the bird that perched on a branch before giving the second piece of advice, “Do not believe anything which does not agree with common sense.”

Then the bird flew to the top of a mountain where he declared, “Poor luckless guy ! Do you know that my body contains two enormous jewels, the lucky owner of which you could have been if only you had killed me.”

The man, stricken by a horrible torment at the thought of the lost gain, beseeched the bird, “Give me at least the third piece of advice.”

“What a fool you are, replied the bird. You are here, asking me another piece of advice when you paid no attention at all to the two first ones. I told you not to be worried if you have lost something and not to believe what is going against common sense. And this is precisely what you are doing right now. You let others make fun of you with nonsense and you moan because you have lost something. Do you really believe that my small body would be able to contain two enormous jewels and carry them to the top of a mountain ? You are only an idiot, prisoner of twaddle hawked here below.”


  • Emir Abd el-Kader:
  • “Spiritual writings” presented and translated by Michel Chodkiewicz. Seuil Publisher,1982.
  • Jean Chevalier:
  • “Sufism”. “Que-sais-je” series. PUF Publisher, 1996.