Jerayr Avadis-Rostamian
English 305
Janet Cross
March 2002

Sufi Teachers and Redefining the Traditional Student-Teacher Relationship

"What does it mean-and more important, what should it mean--to be educated?" (58) A response to Spayd's begs another question. Is education the objective itself or the means to the objective? For some people education is just a degree, a piece of paper framed on the wall. One can say, a person with a diploma has received an education, but it is not certain that the person is educated.

This paper relates to those individuals who use education as a means to reach their objective. For them, education is not a straight line with a definitive start and finish. It is a journey full of crossroads and choices, which require direction from a guide. For a student, the teacher is that guide. The teacher teaches the student how to find the right way in his journey and from time to time, help redefine student's objective. The teacher's role in a student's journey is a central issue for a fruitful education. A teacher's methodology and the relationship between student and teacher greatly affect the content of education and its relevance to real life. A student's role is equally important in an effective teacher-student relationship. As a receiver of information and training, the student must respect and love the teacher and also have keen interest in the subject matter.

This paper is intended to focus on the importance of a teaching methodology, content and philosophy of teaching and learning for an effective and fruitful student-teacher relationship.
A dramatic example of a powerful teacher-student interaction is found in the Sufi Order and the way the Dervish teach their students. By understanding the teacher-student relationship in the Sufi Order, one may redefine his understanding of what should be expected from a teacher and a student. It is not a coincidence that the collage of personalities illustrated in Spayde's "Learning in the Key of Life" includes one of the most famous teachers in the Sufi Order, Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi.

The Sufi Order is most prevalent in the Middle East in general but specially in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and India. Sufism is a mystical religion based on fundamentals of Islam promoting the most simple and direct connection between human beings and God. An accomplished member of the Order who has completed his training is called a Dervish. The Dervish traveled across villages, towns and sometimes countries, (usually by foot) spreading the teachings of Sufism. Even today, it is not uncommon to encounter a traveling Dervish when one visits the countries in the middle-east. They spread the message of love and mercy, helping the needy and poor people. The Dervish have no earthly possessions other than the clothes on their back. Their lifestyle is dominated by teaching through story-telling, singing, fortune- telling (using astrological calendars) and healing the sick with herbs and extracts. It is important to realize that there are many sects within Sufism, which reflect its evolution similar to other religions or ways of life. A qualified description of Dervish is provided by Kabir Helminski an author and translator of three books of Sufi poetry and a recognized leader in the Sufi Order.


"A dervish is an apprentice, one who is learning the profession that will provide eternal livelihood. This profession is still taught in certain "schools of higher learning." While there are many skills that can be self-taught or learned alone, the skills of dervishhood are learned by being in relationship to a sheikh, or guide, and within a spiritual family, a Sufi circle. There will always be much to learn on one's own, through one's own efforts, and within one's own understanding."(Helminski)


A dervish, who teaches students, is called "Sheik" or guide. Each Dervish with his student is a member of a spiritual family a "Sufi Circle". Each Dervish works with one student at a time. The student makes an unconditional commitment to the teacher to go where the teacher goes and learn along the way. The student starts a new life as a "Mystic". Someone how wants to be a Dervish himself. Kabir Helminski describes that as following.


"A Dervish is one who has made truth his or her master desire and is willing to submit all other desires and aims before this aim." (Helminski)

A fundamental component in the teaching methodology is student's obligation to review and analyze the occurrences of each day and hears the teacher's interpretation through examples and stories. The British novelist and short-story writer Doris Lessing states the following about the Sufis learning methodology.

"What Sufis offer is learning through experience."(Lessing)

The learning experience of the student occurs not in a classroom but the entire world. This correlates with Jon Spayde's opinion: " The whole world is a classroom, and to really make it one, the first thing is to believe it is."(62)

As an essential part of the educational content the students learn the native languages of places they travel through, math, physics astronomy and theology. Another learning experience is the identification, harvesting and utilizing the herbs in the healing practices by the Dervish. From time to time, the Dervish may direct their student to study at a university or a religious institution for a period of time. This may include enrolment in prestigious European universities and after graduation return to the same simple Dervish life. The basic philosophy requires that the learning occur through interaction with common people in daily life, which teaches the student respect for people of various cultures and the communities they visit. There is no fixed curriculum, which provides for flexibility in the learning process. Each student may desire a certain order of progression for the subject matter, but the objective is to become educated. Doris Lessing the British novelist and short-story writer in a article about Sufism explains.

"Learning How to Learn" (the title of one of (Sufi masters) Shah's books) means shedding ideas you begin with and allowing yourself to understand what exactly is
being offered. This could be a definition of the "Sufi Way." (Lessing)

During annual rituals, the students are expected to demonstrate examples of what they have learned and experienced. Students graduate and elevate to status of Dervish only when they demonstrated that they have learned all that their teacher can teach them. Thereafter the new Dervish are qualified and permitted to take students of their own. The organization of Sufi order describes in the article titled Initiation and search for a Murshid as following.

"At the bottom rung of the Sufi ladder of all schools stand the mystic himself. Immediately above him stands his Murshid (Sheikh) or master, who is more than a philosopher, guide and friend to him. Next higher is the Murshid of the mystic's Murshid and so on." (Initiation and Search for a Murshid)\

The fundamental components of the teacher-student relationship revolve around the students finding themselves, the maturity to teach Sufism and the continued student status even after the student has become a Dervish himself. Everything the Dervish teaches to his student is from their daily life and includes feedback from the society and the people around them. The student not only learns the subject matter but also the right way to learn it. Education as a matter of definition is the collection of information and skills one accumulates intentionally and willingly. To be educated, however is a larger concept that includes life experiences by the way reading, traveling, exploring, expressing and growing spiritually as a human being in pursuit of maturity and excellence.

The teacher-student relationship in Sufism is highly effective. In order to comprehend the effectiveness of the teaching methodology and the learning philosophy, one must understand the environment, in which the Dervish live and serve. In olden days, and even today, resources of the governments in most middle-eastern countries has been limited or marginally available to the farmers and peasants living in the remote towns and villages. The disadvantaged and the poor are usually unable to receive medical care or receive guidance in personal and spiritual matters. The Dervish fill the need by providing herbal remedies, spiritual guidance, entertain and give hope to people that otherwise would be helpless. For the very same reason, the fundamentalist Mullahs who fear loss of power and dominance over the common people usually persecutes them. It is because of the depth of knowledge and the spiritual commitment to serve people that the Dervish have survived and maintained their mysticism throughout history.

The story telling and sharing of folklore by the Dervish is another significant aspect of their contribution to their society. In the absence of television and literacy, the Dervish have continued to provide access to literature, music and philosophy to people who otherwise would have had no opportunity to experience it.

To have education is to receive information and skills intentionally for a specific use. But to be educated, one must have a rich and multifaceted collection of experiences intended for ones spiritual and mental growth towards fulfillment and excellence. An effective and fruitful student-teacher relationship must incorporate the philosophy that the teacher is the central figure in the educational process and should have the freedom to organize the curriculum free of formalities. It is the teacher how harmonizes the educational content with real life and shapes the teacher-student relationship. An effective methodology must be based on teacher's will to guide the student through his journey towards real education with real applications in life and the student's respect and admiration for the teacher in addition to having a keen interest in the subject matter.
A Sufi Master's relationship with his student, however dramatic it may be, is the most productive and rewarding model for a life-long student-teacher relationship.

Works Cited


Helminski, Kabir. "Dervishhood".
http://www.sufism.org/books/sacred/dervish.html
(9 March 2002).

Spayde, John. "Learning in the Key of Life." The Presence of Others Voices and Images That Calls for Response. Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz. New York: Bedford St.Martin's, 2000 , 58-64.

Lessing, Doris. "On Sufism and Idries Shah's The Commanding Self (1994)".
January 31, 1999.
http://www.sufis.org/lessing_commandingself.html
(9 March 2002).

"Initiation and search for a murshid".
Hazrat Sultan Bahu . November 24, 2000.
http://www.bahu.co.za/hazrat_sultan_bahu.htm
(9 March 2002).