Interview with Thomas Interfaith Sufi Spirituality
So Thomas, before we begin, how about you can tell me a bit about yourself? Where are you from?
I am from France, born in Sarlat, a famously historic place where people have been living for a very long time.
So what is your family background?
Both my parents felt a spiritual need for something more than Catholicism- I don’t know what was missing, not something pragmatic but just a feeling. They both felt this need separately before they met in a providential way; they were looking for the same book in a small bookshop and afterwards started dating. After they got married they investigated Buddhism, Judaism, and Protestantism trying to find their own way. My father travelled around the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). At one point my father heard about a very famous North African master called Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, master of Tariqa Alawiyya, a Sufi religious organisation. He went to Paris to see him speak at a conference and he had a spiritual conversion experience; he felt this was his “way” so, in 1987 both my parents became Muslim and part of Tariqa Alawiyya, when I was 1 year old, so I was brought up totally in the spiritual Sufi tradition. They follow the basic rules of Islam but they still look French. They came to Islam through Sufism, the opposite of most people, who usually discover Sufism after already being Muslim. Generally in Europe people born into Islamic cultures focus on the cultural aspects rather than the spiritual. Sufism is a mystical Sunni tradition.
Nowadays, a lot of people come to Islam because they feel lost in their life and they want the strict rules of Islam to rebuild their life thought the rules, and they forget the rules and traditions of their own culture. My parents are the exact opposite. My parents wanted something totally different. They wanted to find the deepest feeling of the meaning of life, more spiritual and really alive – as there was a real master in front of them when they converted. This is like how people react to the Dalai Lama. There is something different about him. God gives everyone different skills some people are good at science, mathematics, etc.; personally I’m good at understanding people, that’s my gift, I’m bad with computers for example.
And so to what degree do you practice? You drink alcohol right?
In Sufism people don’t drink. From my personal perspective, drinking one glass doesn’t matter, as long as you have your conscience, because you have to be responsible for all your life. God gave you consciousness, so you have to keep it. Drunkenness makes you irresponsible and you must always be responsible to god, that’s why it’s forbidden. Everything that makes you lose your mind is forbidden. So in my personal perspective it’s not really forbidden to have a drink but to be drunk because you lose your consciousness.
I was never a big drinker before I got into Sufism more deeply when I was 21. I was thinking about life deeply before that, everybody called me a philosopher, so I felt like I wanted to do it more deeply, and I’m still trying!
I was educated in a spiritual way, and so when I go to Buddhist people or Sikh people I feel at home, I feel the same spirituality as them, we have the same values, mainly fraternité, caring about human beings (I have also this felt at a Buddhist/Dharma conference in the UK). We share compassion towards animals, killing them in a way that’s respectful of their way of life. Halal, by the way, is not just about killing animals, but it’s about living a righteous life.
From my perspective, religions are all one piece of the same puzzle. In every piece we have the same puzzle but they have differently developed parts. So for Sikhism, there is a great emphasis on compassion. I’ve personally never heard of as much compassion in Islam as I have in Sikhism. This helped me discover that when you see another religion you are able to know more about the subject that is developing more than in your own religion. So if I stayed only with Sufis I wouldn’t have heard about compassion in the same way. However I should point out that a real Sufi is a saint, someone who is very very close to God; I am just a Fakir (someone desiring knowledge of God).
How do believers from traditional Muslim cultures like North Africa react to your unorthodox views?
The good thing is I don’t look like a Muslim. I can talk to a Muslim guy and not tell him I’m a Muslim. Sometimes I don’t tell them because they might not understand the journey I’m on, and might not be sympathetic because I don’t pray. Sufism is a real way of living, not just a set of rules. I grew up outside of a Muslim community so I have the spiritual way but not the cultural or legal way. So spiritual people understand me but it’s problematic for more practical legalistic people. God will give the authorization to pray when I will be ready to do it. Prayer is not just the practice, it is something more deep. One is allowed to do something when you’re ready, that’s a typical Sufi attitude. Sufis don’t push you, but try to help you on your way. Sufism is about a link between you and God, the Sheik is just there to help.
And what about prayer?
My main goal is to practice the law more. With your legs, you need both of them to walk; in the same way you need both law and spirituality to serve God. God gives you what you need in the right place at the right time. When I said to my master I need to go forward religiously, he said to keep going on my path. This July he is allowing me to go on a spiritual retreat.
Do you have a particular place of worship in London? I take it you don’t go to Finsbury Park mosque (a famous fundamentalist mosque).
I don’t go to the Mosque because I’m too strange for them there because I’m white and into interfaith spirituality.
So where does Sufism come from? Give me a bit of history.
It has been around since the beginning of Islam, and it gained another form in the 16th Century. Sufism was practiced in Turkey and in the Ottoman Empire, in Senegal and in North Africa. The famous Persian poet Rumi was Sufi.
So how do you see interfaith work? Is it a social exercise or a spiritual one for you?
For me, it is definitely spiritual, because if you agree on the spiritual then you will manage all other topics. Let’s say we are in a deep conversation with Jewish people, then the superficial things won’t matter if you share a serious and helpful common point after, so maybe Kosher/Halal won’t seem like such a big difference afterwards. We should try to share our common points, to learn about the richness of our differences. The real richness is not in the common points, but the differences. First we must share the common point to create an atmosphere of brotherhood, and afterwards we then must learn about the differences.
This is the real meaning of the v 13 Surat 49 (Yusuf Ali translation):
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”
If everyone was the same then we wouldn’t learn from each other. This is true of man and woman as well, like Ying and Yang we share characteristics, but we need others to complete ourselves. The “pure/righteous” part encourages you to go through the religion into the spirituality, and then God will love you.
This verse isn’t pushing Islam above all religions, it just wants to push you through the religion and through others. You have to respect others, because all nations and tribes are created by God, this is what I would say to a terrorist: look in your Quran, you must respect everyone, Germans, Americans Muslims, and Protestants… Practice not just the law but also the spirit, give food to your soul. If you do this, Allah will love you.
What about people of no religion?
It’s not a problem, I can learn from everybody. Religion first of all is a link between one physical person and one spiritual entity, between cult and culture in French. Everything someone does is cult in French, they don’t talk about anybody else, it’s the private relationship with God, but spirit is most importantly spirituality. We think of religion as purely social but the individual side has been forgotten, that is culture not religion, like drinking beer in Britain is culture it has nothing to do with God.
Can a non-believer have a relationship with God? I don’t know, everyone has to find their own answer but God will still care for them, but the more you care about him the more he will care about you. “If you walk 1 step to God, he will run 2 to you,” it says something like that in the Quran.
It’s up to each individual person. Personally, I’m not here to judge someone, I’m here to learn from them. I know for me spirituality is useful. If someone doesn’t find that, that’s not a problem for me as long they’re a good person, they can still be my friend and share my hospitality. Sheik Khaled said he will give his advice to anyone, no problem, Muslim or not.
James Jackson and Thomas Gilet