5 Sufism and the Gurdjieff Movement: Multiple Itineraries of Interaction 129

In: Sufism East and West
Author: Mark Sedgwick

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The interaction between Sufism and the movement established by the spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff (1866–1949) has been one of the most complex interactions between Sufism and Western culture. Firstly, Gurdjieff was an Armenian Greek, and his movement derives from Russia, involving us in areas that do not fit the neat binary division between East and West. Secondly, the role and importance of Sufism for the Gurdjieff movement varied over time. Initially, Central Asian Sufism played an essentially mythic role: the early Gurdjieff movement was thought to be of Sufi origin, but in fact drew only very little on Sufism. Then, between the 1950s and 1970s, Turkish Sufism played an increasingly important instrumental role, as those parts of the Gurdjieff movement that were associated with John G. Bennett drew more and more on Sufi sources. At this stage, not only was Sufism important for the Gurdjieff movement, but the Gurdjieff movement became important for Sufism. Then, after the 1980s, the importance of Sufism for the Gurdjieff movement has faded. For the Free University of Samadeva, an increasingly important group, Sufism plays much the same mythic role that it originally played for Gurdjieff, but the rest of the Gurdjieff movement now ignores Sufism. The developers of the enneagram, a personality analysis tool derived from Gurdjieff’s teaching, first emphasized Sufism but then de-emphasized it, and the attempt to popularize a “Sufi enneagram” has had little success. Tracing these multiple itineraries shows how the role of Sufism expanded and was amended. This chapter also asks why the role played by Sufism in the Gurdjieff movement first increased, and then decreased. The influence of individual biographies, it is suggested, is important, but even more important may be the decline in the value of the Sufi “brand” in a time of conflict between the West and the Muslim world.