In these adversarial times when most people are too busy or rushed to practice manners or respect for others, Sufis are the finest ambassadors of civility that we have come across. Those on this mystical path practice adab, a way of life that includes courtesy, respect, and appropriate behavior in all situations and relationships. In The Book of Language, Sufi sheikh Kabir Helminski defines it as "courtesy, appropriate behavior . . . a subtle discipline of mind and body that expresses humility, respect, patience, and sensitivity." We also like Al-Shiran's definition as "a profound courtesy of heart that arises from a deep relationship with the Divine and expresses itself in refined behavior of all kinds with other beings."
There is an adab for every situation. We've witnessed it at gatherings where Sufis go out of the way to make their guests feel welcome, putting the well-being and comfort of others above their own. Once we were at breakfast at an interfaith conference. While most people were chatting away over their coffee, we noticed a Sufi friend quietly and humbly going from table to table asking if anyone needed a refill or, perhaps, tea. She had what we call "beautiful adab."
There is an adab for every relationship including with animals and objects. One of the ironies of our materialistic times is that we treat the materials of our lives with such carelessness and even distain, seeing them merely as resources to be exploited and then discarded casually when they are of no further use to us. How different is the Sufi way of adab.
Acknowledging that all creation is a manifestation of the Beloved, Sufis approach objects with reverence. What a profound message is conveyed when a dervish kisses the glass from which s/he is drinking or the rug on which s/he has just prayed. What care and love is conveyed when a Sufi musician pauses before playing to ask permission of his/her instrument. Adab is even reflected in language. According to Kabir Helminski, we do not "put out" a candle, we "put the candle to rest."
We think this kind of respect for things is a good first step for any revival of civility to take root in our lives and in our society. We intend to take a look at the practices of other spiritual traditions for their special contributions to our understanding and appreciation of the refined behavior of courtesy.