For a sober description of Islamic Sufism get and read Mark Sedgwick’s book, Sufism:The Essentials
Sedgwick states that Islamic Sufism was practiced within the social context of Islamic faith and was never meant to be a cloak and dagger, drama ridden Dungeons and Dragon game. (My paraphrase). It was meant to support spiritual practice, not use secrecy and elitism to inflate someone’s personal egotism.
This suggestion by Sedgwick seems to be supported in a much earlier book by David Edwards, Heroes of the Age
: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier–available online
In the biography, The Lives of an Afghan Saint
, written by an anthropologist who interviewed Pashtun in Pakistani refugee camps
Edwards states that a Sufi center, where everyone was socially equal and all deferred to the Pir or spiritual leader, in that particular social context (Pashtun tribal life), actually provided a relief from the heavy social pressures imposed by the Pasthun code of honor.
In outside life the Pastun men were constantly on guard. Men had to be suspicious in relationship to each other. Families could be hotbeds of competitionl. Pashtun males fretted about their prestige, whether they’d been insulted, or threatened, when and how to retaliate so that honor could be maintained. Maintaining one's place in the tribal pecking order was nerve-wracking.
One respite was to become involved with a Sufi center. At the khanaqh, everyone’s social rank ceased to matter because all deferred to the Pir (Sufi leader).
Edwards interviewed disciples and learned their reasons for keeping their discipleship secret–it was for reasons of humility, based on their Muslim faith and very different from the elitist, clubby secrecy Western esoteric cults enjoin:
“Despite the fact that there is no shame attached to following a pir (Sufi leader), it is the practice in some areas for disciples to keep secret their involvement with pirs. The reason for keeping this attachment a secret is difficult to ascertain, but it seems at least in part to keep the moral worlds of honor and Islam separate and thereby avoid the kinds of contradictions that ensue when the two overlap.
‘An alternative explanation is offered by an informant from Paktia Province who explained the practice as follows:
“Most disciples do not want to reveal that they are followers of a pir. They think that [revealing this fact] would be a way of projecting yourself as a good person, which is [an attitude] that Allah wouldn’t like. Basically, one becomes a disciple to seek guidance on the right path to Allah. One doesn’t do it for any other reason, and it should be kept secret as much as possible.
“In the case of our family, it happened so many times that one of our family members became a disciple without our even knowing about it. Because of this attitude on the part of the disciples, it is difficult to know how many have accepted the tariqat.”
Edwards does not say so, but my layman’s hunch is that if transferred to a Western democratic society, this same master disciple relationship which was apparently therapeutic for Pashtun disciples living in their traditional honor driven feud culture might, if transferred to Western egalitarian society, lead to regression on the part of Western followers.
To put it in a nutshell, the Pashtun who followed their Sufis leaders were assertive and saw themselves as custodians of their family honor. Western spiritual seekers are usually kind, polite people, wrecked by self doubt, unsure of their purpose in life and sometimes unsure of their identity.
With submissive and biddable Western disciples, a Sufi leader whose tough style would balance perfectly with a tough tribal ego might have a tyrannically crushing impact upon Westerners.
What in the Khyber mountains was a liberating alternative to the tense hyper macho Pashtun scene would, if practiced by polite Westerners warp into something quite different. Western disciples who see themselves as flawed individuals, rather than custodians of clan honor would bring different problems to their spiritual leader.