"Etiquette, manners, thoughtfulness — no single expression adequately captures the full meaning of adab. Adab is the ability to sense what is appropriate to each moment and to give to each its due — a continuous process of refining one's speech and actions. To have adab is to be cultured.
"It has been said that the highest attainment of Sufism is nothing but good character. What is meant, however, is not a rigid moralism but a natural, spontaneous beauty of character that is the result of a long maturing process of transformation. The ripened fruit of this kind of practice is not an abstract and impersonal ideal, but a person with whom you would like to sit down and have a cup of tea. It is an embodied spirituality.
"Some years ago, a group of American spiritual teachers, all of whom were representatives of traditional Sufi lineages, were gathered in a home in San Francisco. Someone proposed a question: Of all that this tradition has taught us, what stands out as most important and valuable? We were all trained in different orders, from cultures as different as Turkey, North Africa, Iran, and South Asia, and were startled by how quickly we arrived at a consensus. Adab stood out as the most valuable teaching we had received.
"Neither our American culture nor the times we lived in had put much emphasis on 'manners.' We had been a rough-and-tumble generation that had passed through a period of rebellion against what we saw as the hypocrisies of our society: informality was viewed as authentic behavior; manners, or etiquette was at best a quaint and irrelevant concept. What, then, accounted for the magnetic power of adab?
"From what I remember of our conversation that day, we seemed to think that adab had enabled a certain quality of relationship among ourselves, across the boundaries of our orders, and in the teaching situation within our own communities. It had softened our egos, and introduced a quality of refinement in our relationships. On the path of Sufism my own idea of spiritual attainment had been transformed from austere enlightenment to an embodied humility. This is not to say that any of us felt we had attained this ideal, but we held an image of it in our hearts, an image that had been formed by contact with certain of our teachers who were living examples of humility, sincerity, sensitivity, respect, courtesy — in short, adab.
"Some of the best examples of adab are those I have seen being lived in certain Sufi families. We have known and welcomed as guests into our home three generations of the direct descendants of Rumi. A more cultivated and courteous family I have never known. Adab is reflected in every aspect of life: dressing, eating, serving food, speaking, welcoming guests. I remember one cold winter morning in our farmhouse in Vermont when I came down to the mud room, to find that the dozens of shoes and winter boots had all been aligned in rows with the toes pointing into the house. Jelal Chelebi, the twenty-year-old twenty-third generation descendant of Rumi, had taken it upon himself to put our shoes into order. Instantly, it came back to me that in Turkey I had never seen a chaos of shoes in a Sufi home. When I thanked our young Chelebi, it was clear that his was an act of humble service and not in the least a criticism or reprimand.
"Children in Sufi families are lovingly given subtle cues about how to behave and move through the world. Abdulbaki Gölpinarli, perhaps the greatest documentor of Sufi life in the last century, wrote this about his own upbringing:
"I remember that, when I was a child, if I walked quickly, or stamped my feet, people would say to me (not out of anger), 'What are you doing, Baki? What kind of a way is that to walk? My child, everything has a heart, a life, a soul; wouldn't the wood get hurt? Look, it's laid itself on the floor for us to walk on. Shouldn't we show respect, and not hurt it?'
"If I smacked my lips during a meal, all it took to stop me was a look. Except for conversation, a meal was to be silent. If one made a noise by setting one's glass down, for instance, it was considered unmannerly, a sort of minor sin; neither the glass nor the place one put it on should be treated carelessly. What a bad thing it was to drink water without interacting with the glass, without kissing it before drinking from it, or again before putting it back down! 'The glass,' they would say, 'is serving us; we should honor it.' While going to sleep every night and again while waking up every morning, I would kiss the pillow; while pulling the sheets up over me or taking them off, I would interact with them as well.
"In the Mevlevi tradition this respect was extended to inanimate objects to such an extent that one would never say, 'Please put out the candle,' but rather, 'Put the candle to rest.' Nor would one 'close' a door, but 'cover' it. Fastidious care was taken to convey respect in one's language. And for every object that one used in daily life, one would engage in a reciprocal seeing with it. In other words, as I pick up my coat, I might kiss it lightly, see it, and be seen by it. In Turkish there is a phrase which literally means 'seeing with it.' Gölpinarli continues:
"In our household, we wouldn't shout to each other, or interrupt someone while he was speaking, and when in a group, we would speak to the whole group, not just to one or two people. The idea of whispering in someone's ear, or of laughing loudly, was foreign to our household.
"The practical outcome of adab was to help create an atmosphere of sharing, of unity, of coherence. Within a Sufi environment, conversation around a table does not quickly break up into several personal discussions with whoever is adjacent, but proceeds as a shared experience. If one has reason to address another person, one doesn't thereby cut oneself off from the conversation of the whole.
"Another aspect of adab is being conscious when one uses the words 'I' or 'me,' when one uses them at all. In certain Sufi orders, for instance, it would be customary not to use the word 'I' while working or serving in the tekke. Some prefer to refer to themselves as 'this fakir,' meaning one who is destitute and utterly dependent on God for everything.
"Adab in practice is subtle and nuanced. To become judgmental because others fail in their adab would be rude and antithetical to adab itself. And for adab to degenerate into rigid formality would also belie its essence, for there is a proper adab for every situation. Among intimate friends, for example, the proper adab may sometimes be utter informality and ease. Adab is best learned by example and in community.
"It is said that there is an adab within spiritual circles, with parents and children, with elders, and even with God. Al-Hujwiri, an early (d. 1077) commentator on Sufism, wrote:
"A person who neglects this discipline cannot ever possibly be a saint, for the Prophet said, 'Adab is a mark of those whom God loves.' One must keep oneself from disrespect toward God in one's private as well as one's public behavior. We have it from a sound Hadith that once, when God's Messenger was sitting with his legs akimbo, the Angel Gabriel appeared and said: 'Muhammad, sit as servants sit before their master.'
"There is a story of a Sufi, Muhasibi, who for forty years never stretched out his legs even when alone. (To point the soles of one's feet directly in the direction of others is not considered well-mannered in most cultures outside of America.) When questioned, he answered, 'I am ashamed to sit otherwise than as a servant while I remember God.'
"It should be emphasized, however, that in Sufi understanding substance takes precedence over form, inner intention counts for more than outer behavior. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, said that to be valid the ritual prayer must be accompanied by presence (hudur) — it is not the outer form alone which is obligatory. At the same time, Rumi proposes that the observance of these outer requirements polishes the essence. Properly understood and consciously applied, attention to the details of form is a way of working on our own essence. Ritual prayer gives the body an experience of surrender that would be difficult to achieve in any other way.
"The Prophet Muhammad is known to have acted in specific ways — always putting on the right sandal first, or stepping into a house with the right foot, and out of it with the left. His behavior is widely imitated. Some formalists, insist on mimicking his behavior as if there was something objectively better about using the right foot first, but could it be that these behaviors are reminders to help us live more attentively? The outer aspect of adab is intended to guide us toward greater consciousness and inner sincerity. The form is not an end in itself but a potential container for various qualities of being.
"The spiritual path of Sufism is informed by an awareness of levels of reality, of inner purification, of qualities of consciousness. Shari'ah is the level of religious law and external morals, while tariqah is the esoteric path, a complete education of the human being under the guidance of a teacher. Among the Sufis, adab practically became their shari'ah. Instead of merely avoiding immoral and destructive behavior, the Sufis attempted to embody the qualities of kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity, and self-sacrifice.
"Here is a story as told by Abdulbaki Gölpinarli that shows how he as a young child was taught the significance of adab in relationship to the mystical Path:
"One day, I went to a tekke with Ahmed Hamdi Tanyeli to ask a question. I knocked on the door of the harem, and we heard a shrill female voice, as if it was scolding us: 'Who is it?'
"Ahmed Hamdi Tanyeli said that it must be the tenants. We asked for the shaikh.
"The woman shrieked again:
" 'They are on the other side of the building.'
" 'I told you so,' said Ahmed Hamdi.
"We went to the selamlik, the part of the building reserved for greeting people outside the immediate family. From the main entrance we walked through the garden and knocked on the door. From inside we heard a sweet voice ask us, 'Who is it?' We asked for the shaikh.
"She replied, 'He has traveled to Allah.' We asked for his son. The sweet voice said, 'He has gone as well.' She asked if we needed anything. 'Please, sit on the bench in the garden,' she said, 'and fakir will soon come to you.'
"We sat down. After a couple of minutes, a middle-aged woman came out and served us cups of Turkish coffee. She sat down and greeted us. We told her what we had come for, and she gave us as much information as she could.
"We talked a little more, and then we asked for permission to leave. She accompanied us to the door, and as we departed we heard behind us her sweet voice saying, 'Goodbye! Be well! You brought good luck. Inshallah, come back again.'
"Ahmed Tanyeli turned to me and said:
" 'That first place we went to was shari'ah; this place is tariqah.'
"It will certainly seem unfair in the eyes of some to dismiss, or even condemn the level of shari'ah in this way. Perhaps what the shaikh was pointing to is the need for another level of awareness. Sufis refer to an 'adab of service' which is the realization that every moment of our lives can be lived in service to Allah. If such an adab were to permeate one's life, one would know how little belongs to us and how much is owed to God."