Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee – ADAB — Sufi Etiquette in the Outer and Inner Worlds

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee


published in Sufi: Journal of Mystical Philosophy and Pratice, December 2013

Good breeding is a mark of those God loves.

Sufism is good nature. He who has the better nature is the better Sufi.
—attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib,  the fourth Muslim Caliph (1)


Adab is a code of behavior that is central to Sufism, a way to walk the Sufi path with the correct attitude and true courtesy. On the deepest level, adab is the attitude of the soul before God, the way the soul bows down before its Lord with utmost respect, and then lives that respect in the outer and inner worlds. It is a way of being with God in one’s actions and behavior. To quote Hujwiri, “Towards God one must keep oneself from disrespect in one’s private as well as public behavior.”(2) And the wayfarer on the Sufi path aspires to bring this innermost respect into daily life, into his way of being with others, with himself, and with God.

In early Sufism adab was connected with the ideal of Sufi chivalry and the futuwwah orders that grew out of the early mystical teachings of Islam. Futuwwah is the way of the fata, which in Arabic literally means a brave young man. After Islam, and the use of the word in the Holy Koran, fata:

came to mean the ideal, noble, and perfect man whose hospitality and generosity would extend until he had nothing left for himself; a man who would give all, including his life, for the sake of his friends. According to the Sufis, Futuwwah is a code of honorable conduct that follows the example of the prophets, saints, sages, and the intimate friends and lovers of Allah.(3)

This code of conduct as expressed by the early Sufis is a way to behave that embodies the inner nobility of the path. There were early Sufi textbooks that described these teachings, one of which was The Way of Sufi Chivalry compiled by the eleventh-century Sufi Abul-Husayn îbn Sam’un:

Futuwwah means opposing and arguing little, being fair; preventing errors in oneself and not criticizing the errors in others; lowering one’s ego; being pleasant both to the old and the young, doing good deeds, giving good advice, and accepting advice; loving one’s friends, and bearing peacefully with one’s enemies. These are the visible aspects of the path that are sufficient for us to know until we are able to hear and tell about the truths of futuwwah.(4)

These qualities of superior character and behavior reflect an inner purity, such that there is no difference between inner attitude and outer act. The Sufi does not do in private what he would be ashamed to do in public. Instead of seeking the faults of others, he looks for his own faults. And when trouble and suffering come, he accepts them and does not complain. To have a good nature and a positive disposition whatever happens is a central quality of adab.

Another important Sufi quality is ithar, which means putting others first, and is considered the ultimate sign of Sufi chivalry. It is exemplified at Sufi gatherings by darvishes sitting in the back row rather than the front seat, and also by not reserving a seat. It also means to avoid passing judgment and even to justify the actions of others even if they appear to be wrong. The followers of “the Path of Blame,” the Malamatis of Nishapur, laid down the rule: “Respect others, regard others with favor, justify the wrong-doings of others and rebuke your own self.”(5)

Following this code of character, the Sufi aspires to live to the highest ideal. And this is especially reflected in his interaction with other Sufis, brethren on the path. A principle of futuwwah is never to forget your brothers in the path. Muhammad al-Jurayri said: “Loyalty to and consideration for others is a means to awaken consciousness from the sleep of heedlessness and to prevent thoughts from the disasters of imagination.”(6) Thus the correct attitude and behavior are also seen as ways to stay awake and attentive, to remain in a state of remembrance rather than slipping into forgetfulness where one is caught by the illusions of the mind and the ego. The early Sufis especially felt that associating with other Sufis was a protection against being drawn into forgetfulness and heedlessness.(7) Being in the community of Sufis who share similar ideals and code of behavior helps the wayfarer to stay true to the sincerity of the heart. Sincerity felt and expressed outwardly toward your brethren is the basis of this morality. The governor Abu Ahmad al-Hafiz reports these words of a wise man:

One of the rules of the brethren is that they should love each other wholeheartedly, teach and educate each other with their words, aid each other with their property, straighten each other with their morals, and defend each other in their absence. Associate with those who are superior to you in your spiritual dealings and with those who are less fortunate than you in your worldly dealings.(8)

This code of behavior acts as a protection, helping one to avoid the pitfalls of the ego and negative character traits, such as pride or being judgmental, and to develop positive character traits, such as humility, generosity, and positive thinking. Adab is not a formal or imposed pattern of behavior like manners, which may differ according to different social or cultural standards, but comes from an inner attitude, which expresses itself naturally in outer behavior. It is an expression of the real nobility of the human spirit. For example, a generosity of spirit freely expresses itself as outer generosity; an inner attitude of humility becomes manifest in a natural act of putting others first. At the same time Sufis are only too aware of the danger of the ego subverting any spiritual behavior for its own self-promotion. Acting in a humble manner is easier than attaining real humility, and the ego can easily use it to lay claim to a spirituality it has not earned. The Malamatis were especially aware of this danger, and would often act in an “unspiritual” way in order to attract blame and negate the ego.



These traditional Sufi practices offer a valuable way to live the real nobility of the soul, to affirm the respect that belongs to a true human being. However, the practice of Sufism in the West today takes place within a very different cultural environment from that of the early Sufis in the Middle East. While baseness of character and selfish behavior have always been present in humanity, our present culture of global consumerism actively promotes the ego and its desires, encourages ambition rather than humility, and supports greed rather than generosity. The values of this era cultivate self-interest as opposed to real nobility of character, and appear to foster disrespect rather than ways of developing and practicing respect. Today’s materialistic wasteland presents special challenges for those who wish to practice the qualities that nourish the soul.

Furthermore, our Western focus on individualism with its attendant images of freedom makes any outwardly suggested pattern of behavior more difficult to embrace. We may devour self-help books, but learning codes of spiritual behavior is unfamiliar, and may even carry the taint of cultism or fundamentalism rather than coming across as a path to true humanity. What this means is that we have to rediscover what adab means to each of us. Rather than studying an eleventh-century manual, we need to return to values of the soul that are within us, learn what it means to live with God. In this era of individual responsibility, it means to take individual responsibility for our relationship with each other, with our own soul, and with God.

Outer practices may help us to avoid being dominated by the ego and our lower nature. But this inner adab creates the real container we need in order to carry the path into our everyday life in today’s culture. Without developing an inner adab we are easily swamped by the ego-driven values that surround us. We become lost in a culture of forgetfulness.

Inner adab is an affirmation of the qualities of our own soul and the real dignity that is within us. It has to do with a deep respect for the divine that is within our own hearts as well as within all of life. If we can live this respect for the divine, we will find a natural way of being that nourishes our own soul and the souls of those with whom we interact. We learn to live in the presence of God. The story of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus is an example of a basic attitude needed when approaching the divine. When God called to Moses out of the burning bush, Moses answered, “Here I am.” And God said, “Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”(9) Learning to take off one’s shoes, which symbolize one’s worldly attitudes and way of behaving, is necessary if one is to stand on holy ground. Otherwise, one does not have the right attitude of respect.

Spiritual life is about how to first approach and then make a relationship with the divine. We need, like Moses, to take off our shoes and leave behind the ways of the ego and our lower nature. If we are to hear the voice of God, we need to learn how to be in His presence with the correct attitude. This attitude comes from inner adab.



In order to make the journey towards God, we need to reclaim what it really means to be a human being: our nobility of spirit. This is a journey from the world of the ego and our lower nature to a life lived from the deeper qualities of the soul. It involves an inner transformation, an inner alchemical process that turns the lead of our own darkness into the gold of our true self.

Any inner transformation requires a container to insure that the process of transformation is not contaminated or disrupted. In alchemy this is called the vas bene clausum, or “well sealed vessel,” that is needed if the opus is to be completed. For the alchemist of the heart the attitude of character, especially of inner adab, is the container that stops base elements in the psyche or outside influences from disturbing or interrupting this vital process. The alchemists often warned that if the vessel is cracked or broken, the whole process has to begin again.

The wayfarer is often unaware of the subtleties of this journey, of the dangers in the process of transformation. We are given access to deeper energies within our own psyche, energies that require maturity of character and purity of intention if we are not to become unbalanced. For example, psychologically when we encounter the primal depths of the psyche, it is our steadfastness and good character that protects us from the amoral nature of the archetypal world and its often destructive powers.

On this journey any outwardly learned code of behavior is inadequate: the real guidance and discrimination have to come from within. It is our inner character that can be attacked or subverted by forces or energies outside of our control, and it is the inner qualities that we have developed that are needed to balance and contain us. For example, humility is necessary when we experience forces in the archetypal world that can easily lead to inflation. If our inner adab is not strong enough, we can easily become caught by these forces, and we can lose the connection that guides us and become lost. These forces may even psychologically damage us.

The Self, the divine light within us, is our real guide and protector. Through our aspirations and devotions, we create a connection with this light within the heart. The Self guides us through the maze of our own psyche and is the agent of our transformation. But how often does our lower nature interrupt our aspirations, veil us from our light? How often are we caught in anger or hostility? The ego leads us astray again and again, and the unconscious tries to seduce us. Without good character, we are at the mercy of our lower nature, as al-Hamawi observes:

If someone does not merely fail to observe the standards of behavior proper to togetherness with the Lord [adab al-ma ‘iyyal] but keeps company with his own lower self [nafs], that person is screened from his master by his own lower self, and it is the most seriously obstructive of all screens.

As Dhu’l-Nun once put it: The most seriously obstructive screen, and the hardest to detect, is attention paid to the lower self and its schemes.(10)

In Sufism “togetherness with God” means observing the correct adab for being with God, and is based on the Koranic verse, “He is with you wheresoever you are” (57:4). He is always with us. We walk the path with Him. And we need to be always on our best behavior for His sake, even if we are not aware of His presence.

In states of remembrance, when the heart is awake with Him, it is easier to practice our adab. Like any lover we want to be our best for our Beloved. But it is when we are in a state of forgetfulness, when He appears veiled or inaccessible, that we most need to remember our adab. Because it is in these times that we are most susceptible to the voice and deceptions of the ego and our lower nature. When He is veiled we are still connected to our own inner light, but if we become caught in the “schemes” of the ego, we can easily lose this connection and fall further into forgetfulness, even become lost in the darkness. And the ego has many “schemes,” many arguments and plans to subvert us. It is very inventive, and can so easily manipulate the illusions of the world to divert us from the path and keep us in its power.

The path is also full of unexpected happenings and difficulties. Life presents us with many opportunities. Without the light of the Self to guide us, it is so easy to lose our way and miss the opportunities we are given. It is so easy to get caught in dramas and distractions that take our energy or may even divert our whole life in an unnecessary direction. This is one of the reasons the Sufi practices watchfulness, to remain in a state of inner attention. But nobility of character also protects us, and keeps our connection to our inner light even in the most challenging times. Later, when we are merged more deeply within the heart, we come to a stage where we can never lose the light of the heart. It is always present in our life. But we still need the qualities of good character to help us to walk in the inner and outer world, to stay true to what is real amidst the many deceptions and challenges we encounter.

Practicing adab is learning what it means to live in the presence of God, how to be here for His sake. Without adab we are at the mercy of our lower nature, veiled by our ego. How then can we be His servant, attentive to His call? Adab is the container and protection we need, enabling us to walk together with Him and serve Him as He wills. We all have these qualities within us because they belong to our soul, to our divine nature. But we have to learn how to develop and live them, how to bring the innermost respect of the soul into everyday life. And we need to remember that we live in a culture that does not support these values, that seeks to pull us further into forgetfulness. That is why we need the company of friends, those who share the qualities of the heart, whose adab assists us on our journey, just as our good nature brings light to all around us.