A Comparison Between Sufism and Psychoanalysis (4) by Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh

The Chain of Initiation (Silsila) and Authorization of Mastership

Sufis believe that a person is not qualified to be a spiritual master unless he has traversed the stages of the Path under the guidance of a “Perfected One.” Moreover, he must have been authorized to be a master by the previous master or qutb. In short, a master must have had a vision of the Path, traversed it from end to end, and come to know it thoroughly. The chain of initiation which exists in genuine sufi orders reaches back to the Prophet himself and from him to God. Thus, a master who is not connected to an authentic chain of initiation is not considered by the sufis to be eligible to guide others. Since such an individual has not traversed the Path and learned its principles under a true master or qutb, he cannot help or guide others. Moreover, the danger exists that such an individual will mistake the transference phenomenon for true iradah and thereby unknowingly communicate his own defects to others. In other words, a master who has not been authorized to be master by a previous master connected to an authentic chain of initiation will not only be unable to lead a disciple to a state of perfection but may very will turn the disciple into one who is empty-handed and sick. As psychoanalysts have rightly pointed out, unless a person has already been psychoanalyzed, he cannot himself analyze anyone else. Of course, the question arises here of who analyzed Freud.

The Relationship of Transference to the Spiritual Life of the Sufis

To truly distinguish between transference and iradah is extremely difficult. Only sufi masters and saints, very few of whom exist in every age, can draw the line between the two. Unfortunately, in different eras various people connected with sufism on the popular level have mistaken transference for iradah. Thus, so-called “masters” who had not reached perfection unknowingly misused the transference phenomenon for their own benefit, without considering its egotistical aspects. In connection with this idea, Rumi has said:

On this account the whole world is gone astray
     and is scarcely cognizant of God’s abdal (saints)

Mathnawi(Vol. VII, p. 16)

Such “masters” would attract the mentally ill as disciples. These disciples would then establish a transference relationship with the master and make converts for him by acting as missionaries and claiming that miracles had taken place which were in fact only the result of the strong emotions established by transference. The imperfect “master,” unaware of his own egotism, would in turn benefit from people’s ignorance. By calling himself a saint, he would establish a parasitic livelihood for himself. Sometimes, upon hearing a disciple attribute a miracle to him, he would come to think that all the while he had in fact been a man of God but simply not realized it. In effect, this kind of “master” would be pulled along by the crowd because of his need to make a living, becoming more and more certain of his own claims. Thus, a vicious circle would be created between the disciple and “master,” both of them firm in their own egotism.

In every age, this vicious circle would stimulate a certain number of people to become “masters.” These masters would attract disciples who would then become enchanted and start telling extraordinary stories about them. In this way, “sufi” schools would be established which were really nothing more than shops for these “masters” to display their wares and for disciples to worship the very idols that they themselves had created. This type of master was, in fact, dependent upon his disciples. The disciples enjoyed having a certain man as their master and the master, because of his defects and imperfections, enjoyed having a crowd of followers to support him. Here Rumi has said:

(Beware, for) the crows (imperfect masters)
     have lit (the lantern of) fraud:
They have learned the cry of the white falcons.

Mathnawi(Vol.IV, p. 366)

The result of this type of false Sufism was that the imperfect masters were unable to raise true spiritual progeny and bring them to a state of perfection and mastership. Consequently, the majority of such masters, introduced their own offspring as successors and thus transformed the basis of spiritual mastership in their orders into a matter of blood inheritance, a strictly material affair.

The genuine and perfect masters of the Path, on the other hand, should accept only those disciples who were chosen by God and free from mental illness and ulterior motives. It was only after the disciples had fulfilled such conditions that they were trained and guided. While most masters would not accept the psychologically ill, there were some masters who were so perfect that they would accept this type of person as well. Such disciples, or rather patients, would undergo treatment through psychoanalysis and transference before entering upon the Spiritual Path itself. However, there were very few masters of such a degree of perfection. One of the most outstanding of these was Shah Ni’matullah who used to say “send me whoever is rejected by other masters and I will train him according to his aptitude.” Referring to the greatness of Shah Ni’matullah, Rida Qull Hidayat has written, “The narrow streams complain about the rocks, but the ocean shapes them.”

Owing to the skill and courage of such perfect masters, elementary classes were established in sufi orders to cure the psychologically ill. In such classes, a perfect master or “divine physician” would, through transference, treat patients in need of psychological care. When this treatment was over and the patient had recovered, he would either leave the school or, if it were God’s will and iradah had helped him, he would be initiated and admitted into the esoteric circle.

Summary and Conclusion

While superficial similarities do exist between Sufism and psychoanalysis, there is no real similarity of a genuine and profound nature between the two. The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat an abnormal person and bring him to a state of “normality;” the aim of Sufism is to treat a psychologically normal person and bring him to the state of perfection. The analyst-patient relationship is based upon transference, whereas the relationship between master and disciple is based upon iradah. Transference is a material, psychic, and temporal process, while iradah is spiritual, divine, and eternal.

However, even granting its material, psychic, and temporal qualities, transference has not been ignored by the sufis. Although in quasi-sufi schools the transference phenomenon has caused a number of imperfect individuals to claim spiritual mastership and to lead others to ignorantly follow them as disciples, there have nevertheless been perfect masters who have validly used transference, sometimes as a therapeutic instrument for patients in need of psychological care and sometimes as an initial step in the real program of Sufism.


This article was translated by William Chittick and edited by Jeffrey Rothschild. It was originally published, in a slightly different version, as Part Two of an essay in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry (Vol. 24, No. 3). A different version of Part One was published later as the first essay in Dr. Nurbakhsh’s second book translated to English, The Path: Sufi Practices. The entire two-part essay was included in Dr. Nurbakhsh’s third English titleWhat the Sufis Say, which is no linger in print. Footnotes have been omitted.
Article taken from Sufi Journal, Issue 76

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