Psychologists believe with some significant evidence that human ability to concentrate, contemplate, and self-control can be increased through a variety of techniques.
Despite questioning their ethics, doctrine, and Islamic credentials, there is no doubt that some Sufis can perform fanciful illusions. Most of us can vouch for that because we have had either direct or indirect experience of such extraordinary happenings. These stunts are commonly related to information about our personal lives, future life events, and about delivering divine relief for undoing personal misfortunes or offering heavenly backing for forthcoming decisions. It is also true that some among them are not charlatans; but only because they very sincerely believe in what they are doing. The obvious logical question now would be as to how do they actually do these tricks?
Last time I wrote about Sufi methods, Syed Sarfraz Shah (kahay faqir fame) was alarmed that I had leaked secrets which can be dangerous for impressionable young minds. I had respectfully but passionately disagreed with him as a student of science and rationality because knowledge is about sharing and that is how civilisation has progressed; otherwise, we would still be living in caves. It might even be about “professional” jealousy because we happened to share three “clients” at one point in time – a senior police officer, an ambitious general and a famous politician. The one who listened to me is going from strength to strength; but the other two are extremely depressed after their careers are sadly heading towards an unceremonious finale.
For a start, there is no doubt that most Sufi establishments are business outlets that take advantage of vulnerable peoples’ gullibility and ignorance. Just like other businesses, they have their marketing campaigns, which are fronted by clever agents who in their case happen to be their own elite muridain; but they also get business through the word-of-mouth spread around by their innocent victims. These proxies disperse fantastic and all-embracing anecdotes about their Sufi pir’s miraculous powers (karamaat), which are either blatant lies or based on chance happenings. Where the expectations go completely wrong, victims are told that it was written as such in their fates.
Leaving these quacks aside, let us proceed to those Sufi characters who actually believe that they perform these “miracles” as a result of their spiritual capabilities.
It is a cliché but let me reiterate that there is really no limit to what human beings can achieve physically, cognitively and psychologically. We, therefore, marvel at Messi in Football, Federer in Tennis, Ali at Boxing or Jordan at Basketball; yet, we are able to appreciate their supreme skills. However, if we see or experience something that is outside the range of our perceptive faculties or experiences, we become dumbfounded; and this is exactly where the realm of Mysticism, Sufism and Spirituality begins.
During ancient times, the man had no idea why and how even the simplest of natural events or the day-to-day incidents took place. Nonetheless, natural events did take place, according to the law of cause-and-effect, as they still do now-a-days. Human beings attributed those events to mysterious forces in the past, but do not assign them to supernatural powers now because we exactly know how these events happen. Similarly, there are things which we do not understand today, but as soon as we do tomorrow, their mystery will also disappear. Same is the case with mind-related human capabilities including faculties of thinking, inspiration, creativity, and will-power as possessed by everyone except those who are disabled. Therefore, initially the man had worshiped the forces of nature in “The Age of Worship” until he came across “super humans” as people who possessed comparatively extraordinary knowledge or capabilities in “The Age of Magic”.
Magic as knowledge and dexterity was known in ancient Egypt. It moved to Greece from there and was called Hermetic Science before landing in Babylon and finding notoriety. Where such knowledge remained hidden in the East, it slowly drifted into Occultism in the West. Its followers believe there is a world (Astral World) which exists beyond perception where everything and everyone from the known world is present as a mirror image or replica and things get transmitted from there to here through a Universal Agent. Since this agent controls communication between the human and replica-minds, if one can find favour with him, one would control whatever happens in the world subsequently. This status can be achieved through concentrating one’s internal energy on a focal point by going through some transcendent exercises. Needless to say, people often make fun of this belief system as magic and its tricks can be learned as an art and are performed on stage.
Somewhat related to magic-craft is the psychic industry, which is a multi-billion-dollar business in the West. A psychic is a person who claims to use extrasensory perception (ESP) to extract information hidden from the normal senses, involving telepathy or clairvoyance, or who performs exploits that are apparently inexplicable by natural laws. One would think that instances of proven psychic fraud, bad press and bankruptcies over the years would weaken the credibility of psychic claims but there are still many people who believe in the power of psychic ability. According to a US Gallup survey, more than one-quarter of people believed that humans have psychic abilities – such as telepathy and clairvoyance. Such people, according to a study, think less analytically as they tend to interpret the world from a subjective point of view and, therefore, fail to decipher information accurately.
Sufi claims are often very general and vague – such as foretelling a plane crash, war breaking out, floods, earthquake or celebrity death. Therefore, they are more likely to come true, and this is in part why so many people believe in them. Research has shown that believers in such psychic and Sufi abilities tend to give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of predicted events as well as their own personalities, that are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of events and people. By making such claims, Sufis make you believe they’ve got access to some incredible insights, when they’re really just telling you what you want to hear, and doing it in a way that prevents you from noticing their tricks. This is a common psychological phenomenon and is known as The Barnum effect; the name refers to a circus man called Phineas Taylor Barnum, who had a reputation for being a master psychological manipulator.
Spiritual claims are usually very difficult to test or confirm as they almost always have some alternative explanation attached to them. Sometimes, a statement a psychic or Sufi makes, no matter how vague, will miss the mark completely. When that happens, they have developed some time-honoured ways of backtracking to cover up their error. Whenever these supposed abilities were subjected to scientific scrutiny, researchers have essentially discredited them. This was true of Derek Ogilvie in the 2007 TV documentary “The Million Dollar Mind Reader” and of the Russian young woman who claimed to know unseen matters or predicted future events a few years ago. Both of them, however, very sincerely believed that they had such powers but they could not prove that they read peoples’ minds or saw the future. A paper was published in the journal Nature in the 1970s, which supported genuine psychic ability, but major methodological flaws were discovered in the experiments later, including a hole in the laboratory wall that afforded views of drawings that the psychic had “psychically” reproduced.
A classical Sufi is known to speaks less, but listen and observe you much more. You do not realise that you are actually doing most of his work by providing him or his muridain all the information about yourself in the first instance. There is a reason that Sufis often talk slowly; whenever they make any statement, they are waiting to see how you will react in terms of your body language and facial expressions. They have rigorously trained themselves to spot these clues and use them in their reading of their subjects. You can actually learn a lot about a person simply by paying closer attention to his clothing, behaviour, speech patterns, etc. Like good old Sherlock Holmes, Sufis are the people who just know how to do it better than most because they have trained themselves. You are left with no choice except taking your doctor seriously after he asked you to help him with the surgery. If you practice it yourself by paying attention to the clothing of the people around you, and the way they carry themselves, you will be surprised what you start to notice what this says about them.
In addition to the way we dress, walk and talk, our ages (Three ages/stages of an Eastern man), professions and body movements/gestures can tell others a lot about us. For example, leaning forward/backwards (means = being attentive/losing interest), closing eyes (means = trying to hide from someone/situation), covering the mouth with a hand (means = trying not to say something), rubbing the chin (means = trying to decide), rubbing/wringing hands (means = positive feelings/anxiety feelings), crossed arms (means = being defensive), and style of handshake are clues to what is going on in our minds. Similarly, some of the tricks used to influence people are: Looking at someone’s forehead or shoes while talking to them (makes them uncomfortable), nodding while asking a question (makes them agree), mimic someone’s behaviour (makes you likeable), a pat on someone’s back or upper arm while talking to them (tells them you are the boss), telling someone a secret (makes them feel they are close/special to you), personally serving/pouring food/tea (makes you fond of them).
Psychologists believe with some significant evidence that human ability to concentrate, contemplate, and self-control can be increased through a variety of techniques. A charismatic and strong-willed person can easily take over a submissive and weak-willed person through various skills to such an extent that he becomes a slave to his master’s commands. He can do it primarily by influencing his subject’s mind following which his subject’s perceptive faculties and actions are completely at his mercy. He can then make his subject believe, see, experience or do anything as he wishes. There are various methods to acquire this self-discipline and mind-control – all of them are about achieving self-awareness and acquiring the ability to focus one’s absolute concentration on a focal point. These methods include Mesmerism, Hypnotism, Sufi method, Cold & Hot Readings, Psychoanalysis, etc.
(to be continued)
M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.