Chivalry on the Sufi Path

John Eberly

Burn like wax, and give light.
Stitch like a needle, and look barren.
Last of all, become thin as a hair
So your work will not be wasted.
– Rabi’a al-Adawiyya (717 A.D.)

Before the mind lazily grew satisfied with the limitations of words to represent realities, there were extraordinary anonymous ones whose entire lives were spent in self-sacrifice in the service of others. If these first lovers of Truth are now forgotten, it is only because their nature – a lack of the need for name or fame – made them virtually invisible in the midst of those that they served. These special human beings always kept their word, and remained self-effacing under all circumstances, exhibiting kindness and unconditional love toward everyone. In time, certain qualities, which people of service exhibit, were recognized and categorized through concepts such as: the basic consideration for others (morowwat), self-sacrifice (ithar), and devotion (fada-kari). One who noticed such an exceptional person might seek their help in cultivating habits and attitudes of service.

In the Middle-East, these people, and those who would emulate their qualities became known as Chevaliers (javanmardan), and their activity in the world was called Chivalry (javanmardi). In Arabic this is the way of the fata, and Chivalry is also known as futuwwah, after the Qu’ran, a code of conduct that follows the examples given by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW.), the Imams, and the Saints.

The traditional example of one who practices futuwwah is that of the prophet Abraham, whose hospitality to God’s angels resulted in the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Hadrat ‘Ali (598-661 C.E.), cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.), exhibited javanmardi through his devotion and consciousness of service to those around him. He once said:

An evil that repels you is fairer than a good deed that charms you.

The Spiritual Chain of Saints and Masters of the Sufi path is known as the silsilah. This lineage in every Sufi Order begins with Hadrat ‘Ali, who, it is said, received a personal mystical initiation from the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.). This individual initiation into the Mysteries became the model for initiations into the Sufi Orders that would follow.

Sufism can generally be described as a school of perfection in which the initiated learns to serve humanity in the way of futuwwah, This training, coupled with an understanding of the doctrine of the Unity of Being (wadhat al-wujud) through the practice of unifying into One (tawhid) is the Way of the Sufi, which ultimately leads to Reality, or the Truth (al-Haqq).

In the 10th century C.E., Ibn al-Husayn al-Sulami wrote what has become a classic text of futuwwah entitled The Way of Sufi Chival, which illustrates the Sufi synthesis of service and spirituality.

During the reign of Caliph al-Nasir al-Din Allah (1180-1125 C.E.), worthy princes and dignitaries given the “rank” of futuwwah ceremonially dressed in special vestiments and drank from the cup of knighthood. These affectations are, of course, superficial in regard to the inner meaning of javanmardi or futuwwah, and yet they continue to live symbolically in the imagination when we think of Chivalry. Perhaps they archetypically express the true rank of such beings in the spiritual hierarchy of Truth.

In a gathering place of Sufis, known by various names such as khaniqah, or in Turkish: tekke, the darvishes (“poor ones”, initiates in Sufi training) are typically busy with a variety of tasks. If an Order admits both men and women, the men are usually busy with fix-it jobs in or out of the house, while the women prepare food and do other inside chores. This activity goes on after the day’s work in the community and on the weekends. The Master, or his representatives, the Shaykhs, attend to the questions and needs of the darvishes, or interview curious seekers who are led to the khaniqah’s door. Everyone is busy with a task. When the hour arrives, all – including visitors – gather to eat a communal meal. Each act of the group is predicated upon service to one another in a seemingly inverse hierarchy where the Master of the Order is such because he ultimately serves everyone. His generosity is only superseded by that of God’s.

One on this path gives up all that he possesses
But never gives up his generosity
He gives without being asked,
For he does not wish others to suffer the pain of asking.
– Muhammad ibn Tahir al-Waziri

On certain evenings the darvishes gather for majlis (spiritual gathering), an opportunity to practice remembrance of God (zikr), usually held in a dark room where all present may lose their individuality and become one body, one voice, one living flame of Love.

Concerning the communal life of bees, the mystical philosopher Maurice Maeterlinck referred to the “spirit of the hive”.

“It is not simply an assembly of individual bees; the beehive really has its own specific soul … it is the entire beehive that is wise.”.. echoed the anthroposophical adept Rudolf Steiner. The selfless acts of the worker-bee who physically wears himself out in the service of the hive is Nature’s model for a chivalrous human ideal. Perhaps through the observation and emulation of Nature’s systems humankind may yet reach high enough to realize a God-given and God-like potential. Steiner felt that the life of the individual bee and it’s community, in which sexual love has been transmuted into love in the heart, has evolved beyond that of the human one. Chivalry on the Sufi path represents the willingness of the individual to give his/her very life for the sake of the evolution of the rest of humanity.

Consider the soul as the bee-hive where the honey is kept. The honey is the heart. Those who cultivate the honey of Love do it by giving themselves away.

Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all transliterated terms in this article are Persian (farsi).


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