Gurdjieff, Sufism & Mohammed

by William Patrick Patterson

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     Ever since Mr. Gurdjieff’s death, Sufis have claimed him as one of theirs. Either that or claimed that the teaching he brought is really Sufism in disguise. Parallels between Sufism and the ancient teaching of The Fourth Way can be pointed out, of course, certain of his dances, music and perhaps some practices. No one reading the first two series of his Legominism, All & Everything, could doubt his familiarity with and respect for Mohammed, Islam and Sufism. But does that make Gurdjieff a Sufi?

      Gurdjieff is a Christian. But not of contemporary vintage. He often made fun of contemporary Christianity. The Orthodox, he said, had retained at least something, but Roman Catholicism had degenerated entirely. He held that Jesus Christ was not the only divine messenger to the planet, which would of course exempt Gurdjieff’s adhering to the Nicene Creed. Still, in even a casual look at his life, his ‘Christianity’ is so obvious as to make one wonder why it would remain a question. Gurdjieff was baptized a Christian, educated by Russian Orthodox priests, and at his death services were conducted at his request in the Russian Orthodox Church in Paris by a Russian priest.

Gurdjieff’s Vision of Christianity

       Four months after finally succeeding in opening his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, he declared, “The program of the Institute, the power of the Institute, the aim of the Institute, the possibilities of the Institute can be expressed in a few words: the Institute can help one to be able to be a Christian.” [Emphasis added.] He went on to say, “Christianity says precisely this, to love all men. But this is impossible. At the same time it is quite true that it is necessary to love. First one must be able, only then can one love. Unfortunately, with time, modern Christians have adopted the second half, to love, and lost view of the first, the religion [of being able to do], which should have preceded it.”

      He then added, “Half the world is Christian, the other half has other religions. For me, sensible man, this makes no difference; they are the same as the Christian. Therefore it is possible to say that the whole world is Christian, the difference is only in name. And it has been Christian not only for one year but for thousands of years. There were Christians long before the advent of Christianity.” [Emphasis added.]

      This last statement accords with what P. D. Ouspensky reports Gurdjieff said in Russia some seven years before. When asked what is the origin of The Fourth Way, Gurdjieff said that to understand what is meant by the term Christianity one would have to “talk a great deal and to talk for a long time.” Then he declared: “But for the benefit of those who know already [that is, know what he means when he says ‘Christianity’] I will say that, if you like, this is esoteric Christianity.” [Emphasis original.]

      Later on, Ouspensky reports Gurdjieff saying:

It will seem strange to many people when I say that this prehistoric Egypt was Christian many thousands of years before the birth of Christ, that is to say, that its religion was composed of the same principles and ideas that constitute true Christianity…. The Christian church, the Christian form of worship, was not invented by the fathers of the church. It was all taken in a ready-made form from Egypt, only not from the Egypt we know but from one which we do not know. This Egypt was in the same place as the other but it existed much earlier.

      What isn’t commonly understood, though the clues are there in Search, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson and Meetings with Remarkable Men, is that Gurdjieff discovered the teaching of The Fourth Way in Egypt and Ethiopia (Abyssinia). That was his first journey. His second was to rediscover, reassemble and reformulate elements of the original prehistoric teaching of Christianity—existing in Egypt before 3,000 b.c.e.—that over time had moved northward with Pythagoras and into Central Asia.

Bennett’s Bias

      One of the advocates for the notion that Gurdjieff’s teaching is based on Sufism is J. G. Bennett. In his Making a New World, an otherwise interesting study of Gurdjieff and his teaching, Bennett clearly overlooks the importance of Gurdjieff’s connection with Egypt while greatly emphasizing that of Central Asia. But he does write:

We know that the Eastern churches have admirable spiritual exercises, some of which Gurdjieff taught his own pupils. He refers to a journey to Abyssinia with Professor Skridlov. He stayed for three months in Abyssinia where he followed up indications he had found in Egypt of the importance of the Coptic tradition. At the end of his life, I more than once heard him speak of Abyssinia, even referring to it as his ‘second home,’ where he hoped to retire and finish his days. He also mentioned the special knowledge of Christian origins possessed by the Coptic Church that had been lost by the Orthodox and Catholic branches of Christianity.

      So, like a good bit of what has happened to the Work since Gurdjieff’s death, the Work has largely brought this confusion upon itself. The recent new edition of Ouspensky’s Search shows on the cover a Sufi in a turban. This is congruent with covers of Gurdjieff books which show either Arabic writing or Persian rugs. This denial of the origins of Gurdieff’s Fourth Way, intentional or otherwise, now with a historical clash between Judaeo-Christianity and Islam coming to the fore, must be righted if Gurdjieff and the teaching are not to suffer by association.

      Thus, with the understanding that Gurdjieff is a true Christian and that The Fourth Way is an ancient teaching rooted in prehistoric Egypt—and therefore, being the original source teaching for all subsequent teachings—let us look at Gurdjieff’s connection with Islam and Sufism.

       In The Herald of Coming Good Gurdjieff speaks of a brotherhood—a word he puts in quotations apparently to signify that it is something more than a brotherhood as commonly understood—which exists in the heart of Central Asia. Later he will refer to it as a “certain Dervish monastery” where he spent two years studying oriental hypnotism. Because, he says, “I foresaw certain possible changes in the conditions of ordinary life [there would be a world disaster, if the ‘wisdom’ of the East and the ‘energy’ of the West were not integrated and made harmonious—see Fritz Peters’ Boyhood with Gurdjieff and Gurdjieff Remembered] and decided therefore to confide my intentions to a ‘brotherhood’ with a view to securing in certain ways their future co-operation.” He mentions that long discussions followed concerning mutual obligations “which, on my side, were chiefly on the grounds of my future religious and moral actions, and, on their side, were on the grounds of guiding, in strict accordance with the means indicated by me, the inner world of people whom I would confide to them.”  

      Gurdjieff is not going to the West as a disciple or student. He is directing them in how the students he will send will be taught—“in accordance with the means indicated by me.” In the translator’s note to Meetings with Remarkable Men, it states that “Gurdjieff was a master…an actual incarnation of knowledge.” (This is heartening, as Gurdjieff is often characterized as a “philosopher and mystic,” but unfortunately speaking of him as a master was not continued.)

      Certainly Gurdjieff was well acquainted with Islam and the Sufis. After his sojourn in Egypt he adopted a disguise and traveled to Mecca, and later he and Professor Skridlov disguised themselves as a direct descendant of Mohammed, a Seïd, and as a Persian dervish, respectively, in order to explore Kafiristan (if Gurdjieff had indeed become a Sufi, why the disguise?). Gurdjieff certainly holds dervishes in high regard, for he writes in the First Series: “By the destruction of this ‘dervishism’ those last dying sparks will also be entirely extinguished there which, preserved as it were in the ashes, might sometime rekindle the hearth of those possibilities upon which Saint Mohammed counted.” He speaks in high terms of the founder of Islam calling him “the Sacred Individual Saint Mohammed” and of Islam as “the fourth great religion.” With time, however, the purity of the religion was diluted by mixing into it “something from the fantastic theory of the Babylonian dualists” and “about the blessings of the notorious ‘paradise’ which as it were, existed ‘in the other world.’” He notes that Islam “from the very first split into two schools the ‘Sunnite’ and the ‘Shiite’” and that the “psychic hatred of each because of frequent clashes now transformed completely into an organic hate.” He warned: “Beings of certain European communities have during recent centuries greatly contributed by their incitement…in order that the animosity should increase should they ever unite, since if this was to happen, there might soon be an end there for those European communities.”

      If one brotherhood stands out above all others for Gurdjieff it is clearly the World Brotherhood. “Among the adepts of this monastery there were former Christians, Jews, Mohammedans, Buddhists, Lamaists, and even one Shamanist. All were united by God the Truth.”

      This World Brotherhood is Gurdjieff’s Brotherhood.

Notes

  1. Orthodox had retained at least something. J. G. Bennett, Idiots in Paris (York Beach, Me.: Samuel Weiser, 1991), p. 52.
  2. The program of the Institute. G. I. Gurdjieff, Views from the Real World (London: Arkana, 1984), p. 152.
  3. Christians long before the advent of Christianity. Gurdjieff, p. 153.
  4. This is esoteric Christianity. P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p. 102.
  5. Prehistoric Egypt was Christian many thousands of years before the birth of Christ. Ouspensky, p. 302. To follow Gurdjieff’s search in Egypt, see the video Gurdjieff in Egypt (Fairfax, Calif: Arete Communications, 1999).
  6. Certain Dervish monastery. G. I. Gurdjieff, The Herald of Coming Good (Edmonds, Wash.: Sure Fire Press, 1988), pp. 59, 19.
  7. I foresaw certain possible changes in the conditions of ordinary life. Gurdjieff, Herald, p. 59.
  8. Gurdjieff was a master. G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1963), p. x.


First printed in The Gurdjieff Journal.

William Patrick Patterson is the author of seven books on The Fourth Way, the latest of which is “Spiritual Survival in a Radically Changing World-Time.”

3 Comments

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  1. Anonymous

    Good article, William. I’m unsure – is some of it your own, or was all of it printed in the Gurdjieff journal?I’m also unsure that Sufis have claimed Gurdjieff as one of their own. I’m only aware of Idries Shah’s orpinion that Gurdjieff was trained by Sufis, but left his training too early, so that his system was flawed. Part of Shah’s mission, apparently, was to revitalise Gurdjieff’s teaching, which had become crystallised, as all teachings do after a while. He did take on some Gurdjeffians, though not all of them. His brother Omar probably also took some on.It’s interesting that G. considered himself an esoteric Christian, because this very label has been applied to Sufis even though they’re often thought of as Muslims; but Shah and other Sufis, including the Hindu Sufi teacher of Irina Tweedie, maintain that Sufism predated Islam by millenia, so in a way that ties in with Gurdjieff’s statement about Christianity predating Christ.Some Islamic “Sufis” these days seem to be pale imitations of the real Sufi greats such as Rumi and Ibn Arabi, who were Muslims, to be sure, but didn’t consider orthodox Islam to be essential, and indeed had disciples of other faiths, including Christians.I must say, Sufism has enhanced my understanding of Christianity, and isn’t at all incompatible with it.

    • Anonymous

      The untitled comment is a sly, probably crypto-Idries Shah-Sufi, bit of disinformative innuendo. Mr. Cee casually expresses two “uncertainties” to evoke vague suspicions regarding the article. There’s no reason for the uncertainty about whether it was written by Mr. Patterson as, following the article title he is explicitly given as the author. Nor for raising doubt about the authorship because it was first printed elsewhere. Have Sufis claimed Gurdjieff as one of their own? The example of Idries Shah’s indirect claim is used as an opportunity to repeat Shah’s unsubstantiated negative evaluation of Gurdjieff’s Teaching. Shah went fishing in Gurdjieffian waters for the disaffected so he could turn them to his brand of Sufism. He even went to the extreme of writing, under a pen name, a book about Gurdjieff’s purported teachers to demonstrate the superiority of his own lineage. In Patterson’s video, Gurdjieff in Egypt, he demonstrates compelling parallels between Egyptian myth-history of creation and Gurdjieff’s account in The First Series. These complement what he reports Gurdjieff having told Ouspensky about the Teaching’s origins in prehistoric Egypt. I know of no such comparable demonstration regarding Sufism. As an example from my own direct experience, a disciple of a Sufi master living in Canada, told me his master had evidence of the Sufic origins of the enneagram, and that he would search his papers for it. It hasn’t turned up yet in over 10 years.

  2. alan francis

    Opinions vary and to put a label on Gurdjieff is formatory. That is why he scattered dust into peoples eyes. If you understand this and the true meaning of paradigm it is to keep the question open. To explore and continually suffer the unknown in the face of the pursuit of knowledge. That said, he did make some statements that should be addressed. Gurdjieff was a Master in many ways and this includes strategic positioning and part of that clearly took in the fact that the focus of his Work would take place in Christian countries and for example very little in China. Thus, as one example, it makes perfect sense to emphasize Christianity and deemphasize Taoism. The point is when you try to take something Gurdjieff says at face value you are grossly underestimating him. Yes, this may be esoteric Christianity from ancient Osirian Egypt, but for most people this means nothing. Or it may be esoteric Taoism from two princes who migrated from ancient Gobi to the Yellow River. As with professor Skridlov and Prince Lubovedsky the external curiosity must not obscure our true search within.The problem is no one wishes to hear qualified statements, the modern mind thrives on unequivocal answers, yes and or no. Ancient schools would put an advocate in the position of adversary and have them support opposing views in order to force people out of their crystalized positions. Of course this is not helpful with someone like Indries Shaw who knowingly falsified in Teachers of Gurdjieff and seems to have merely sought to feed an overweaning ego or was there something more to him? At the same time we search with this openess like a lamb we need to be able to make decisions and carry out actions in life, with our children, in our own Work. To be in question and not be paralyzed from action this is the great Koan of our Work. Live it.Have the courage to act without the need to be right, to be self-righteous.Think in different categories, think relatively, think on different levels – think.

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