Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 22, Vol. 3. Vernal Equinox 2012
Sufism for Western Seekers: Path of the Spiritual Traveler in Everyday Life, Dr. Stewart Bitkoff. Abandoned Ladder, 2011. 175 pages. $10.95
Dr. Stewart Bitkoff’s Sufism for Western Seekers presents to the reader the teachings of a Sufi path based on what is sometimes known as Universal Sufism. That is to say, it is a form of Sufism that understands itself to transcend the religion of Islam. As Bitkoff repeatedly says in the book, it is the religion before religion. As a type of Universal Sufism, referred to by Bitkoff as “the mystical school” more often than as Sufism, anyone from any religious or spiritual background, can partake of the lessons offered, though Bitkoff’s language tends towards being only inclusive of the Abrahamic religions.
Sufism for Western Seekers is written in the form of a dialogue between the author and his higher self. Though this may seem odd at first, it is quite effective, if only because the personalities presented by the two voices are quite different. Though it lacks the sophistication of, for instance, the Platonic dialogues, this two-pronged approach to spiritual teaching, one from the perspective of the ordinary person, one from that of a more purified soul, is quite effective, but only if the reader allows it to be so.
The book’s fifteen chapters present a large array of topics, slowly built one on top of the other. The narrative is largely biographical in nature, which helps ground the information in something familiar to the reader: a real-life story. The teachings, though, don’t come from Bitkoff but are representative of his own teacher, an anonymous Sufi called “Sam,” who lives in New York.
The teachings of the mystical school are presented in an engaging and thoughtful way. There are some of the standard “this is how reality really is” speeches; they are not the typical rhetoric. In fact, the one time this is really brought to the fore, Bitkoff points out how arrogant such statements sound. The reply is Bitkoff receives from his higher self is important. Unlike the usual form of this statement, which includes the command that the reader believe the writer without evidence, the teachings of the mystical school require the student to not believe until they can experience what is being spoken of. Blind belief is, in fact, one of the things Bitkoff warns against as being inimical to the spiritual path.
To further this end, Bitkoff present several exercises for the reader to try. These are perhaps nothing like what a reader familiar with books on occultism might expect. There is nothing like the Middle Pillar Exercise or the chanting of divine names in some foreign language. Rather the reader is advised to practice gratitude, or to begin practicing an art form or craft that helps us feel creative and spiritual. Some of the exercises are more akin to lectio divina than magic. This shouldn’t be at all surprising, given that Sufim represents a mystical, rather than magical approach to spirituality. That they are related to the Sufi doctrine of maqamat, or “spiritual stations,” is similarly unsurprising.
I found many of the ideas presented in Sufism for Western Seekers insightful and truly spiritual. I could not help but notice the similarities between many of the teachings and those found in Neoplatonism, which influenced many Sufi schools. Even if you are not interested in the exercises, Sufism for Western Seekers has much to offer, and I highly recommend it to the spiritual seeker.