The Zahuri Sufi Web Site: Articles
|This is a brief account of two doctors. They were not medical men. Dr
Samuel Johnson(1 (1709-1784) the celebrated man of letters and
author of the first significant English dictionary was given an honorary
doctorate by Oxford University. Dr Zahurul Hassan Sharib (1914-96)
an eminent Sufi and Head of the Gudri Shahi Order, received his
doctorate in law from Lucknow University. They were however both
doctors in another sense for they both in different ways administered
effective remedies to the moral and spiritual needs of many.
Two Doctors: Dr Zahurul Hassan Sharib and Dr Samuel Johnson
Jamiluddin Morris Zahuri
Whilst it would be erroneous in any proper sense of the word to refer to Dr Samuel Johnson as a Sufi, there is no
doubt from his writings, and the accounts of him by, amongst others, his famous biographer James Boswell, that Dr
Johnson had a moral and mystical tendency and a greatness of mind that found a sympathetic resonance with the
Sufi trained mind of Dr. Zahurul Hassan Sharib. Even though on the surface they were separated by centuries and by
great differences in culture and religion.
One thing we know for sure was that not only did Zahurmian (as Dr Sharib is usually and affectionately called) avidly
read works about and by the English master of language and thought, he also quoted these extensively in teaching
sessions with disciples. Whilst in England he visited Dr Johnson's house in London at least twice, and also visited his
grave in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey. Wide and deep as Zahurmian's knowledge of other major western
literary figures was, it is probably fair to say that few were as extensively referred to by him.
Here, as a tribute to my late, yet still living, and much loved master, I have given some of the main stories which he
would most frequently quote, with some comments of my own attempting to relate these to what I understood of
Zahurmian's way of thinking and living.
Persons with a background in English literature may well be familiar with many of these stories - without perhaps
seeing any connection with a Sufi way of life. Sadly, these days, it is also true that many will not be so familiar with the
stories and thus may find this an interesting introduction. The first excerpt from Boswell's Life of Johnson is a case in
point - probably one of the most famous moments in the history of English literature.
Having described his great keenness over many years to meet 'Dictionary Johnson' James Boswell, who was then 22
years old, describes the meeting as follows.
Mr. Thomas Davies the actor, who then kept a book shop in Russell Street.. a man of good understanding and
talents with the advantage of a liberal education...........was a friendly and very hospitable man. Both he and his
wife...maintained an uniform decency of character; and Dr Johnson esteemed them and lived in as easy an intimacy
with them as with any family which he used to visit...
On Monday the 16th May, when I was sitting in Mr. Davies' back parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs.
Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass door in
the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us, - he announced his aweful approach to me, somewhat in
the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost,
"Look, my Lord, it comes." I found I had a very perfect idea of Johnson's figure from the portraits painted by Sir
Joshua Reynolds.... Mr. Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated; and
recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch , of which I had heard much, I said to Mr. Davies, "Don't tell where I come
from," - "From Scotland." cried Davies roguishly. " Mr. Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot
help it." I meant that as a light pleasantry to soothe and conciliate him.......But however that might be, this speech was
somewhat unlucky; for with that quickness of wit for which he was so remarkable, he seized the expression 'come
from Scotland', which I used in the sense of being of that country, and, as if I had said that I had come away from it,
or left it, retorted, "That sir, I find is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help." This stroke stunned me a
great deal; and when we had sat down, I felt myself not a little embarrassed, and apprehensive of what might come
The relationship between Boswell and Johnson which was not unlike in some respects master/disciple relationships
found in Sufi history was to develop as one of the most famous in English literary history. Zahurmian often pointed
out that the pairing of the two names was reminiscent of relationships like that between Mevlana Rumi and
Shemsuddin Tabriz. One could not mention one without the other. Rumi it is often said would have been merely a
highly respected scholar without that meeting and Boswell would have been a forgotten name but for this relationship.
It would not be out of place here to recall the famous meeting between Mevlana (Rumi) and Shems - Mevlana was at
the time a highly learned and respected teacher of theology and one day he was riding on a mule, perhaps on his
way to his Medrasa when he was accosted by a stranger who, taking hold of the reins, asked who was the greater the
holy Prophet Muhammed or Bayazid Bistami (a famous Sufi Sheykh). Mevlana replied that the holy Prophet was
greater. The stranger, who was none other than Shems -i-Tabriz, said "Then how is it that the Holy Prophet said he
did not know God as well as it was his duty to know Him - whilst Bayazid Bistami said "Glory be to me" (implying
unification with God)? Some versions of this story stop the dialogue at this point - others go on to describe Mevlana's
reply as; "The holy Prophet was greater since he was able to imbibe drink after drink of divine revelation whilst not
yielding to ecstatic utterance whilst after one such draught Bayazid could not restrain such an utterance." At all
events it is clear something more than words passed between the two and they embraced and went off together in a
mystical relationship of love that carried them both towards the great heights both of spiritual development and
historical fame. The importance of the spiritual look that passed between the two is often referred to.
Such meetings and the implications for personal transformation are a model which may be said to have been
repeated on a more modest scale on many occasions in the history of sufism as the disciple 'finds' his master. As we
have seen in the story about Johnson and Boswell this is not restricted to sufism - or even to spiritual/religious
meetings such as those between Jesus and his disciples.
The Qualities of the Master
There are many aspects of the relationship between Johnson and Boswell that remind of us a master/disciple
relationship as found in sufism. Not the least was the dedicated recording of the great man by Boswell. It is from this
recording that much of the best information and insight in Johnson comes. Examples of this in sufism can be found in
'The Morals of the Heart' - the recordings of a disciple of the great Sufi sheykh - Hz Nizamuddin Awliya of Delhi. Let
us look at some examples from Boswell's work.
A story often repeated by Zahurmian relates to the deep repentance felt by Johnson over an incident with his father
in his youth. "Once indeed, (said he) I was disobedient; I refused to attend my father to Uttoxeter-market. Pride was
the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago, I desired to atone for this fault; I
went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where
my father's stall used to stand, and I hope the penance was expiatory."
In sufism of course the stage of repentance is the first and essential stage in the development of the disciple. It can
be the source of much spiritual energy since a disgust with one's former actions drives one to resolve to change and
at times may appear to the individual to demand expiatory acts.
As well as the aspect of penitence and repentance in that story we may also note that Zahurmian argued forcibly in
his lectures and writings for the importance of the family unit as the building block of society a fact to which Johnson
was also sensible.
Zahurmian also referred frequently to Johnson's early poverty. In his youth as a student at Pembroke College,
Oxford, Johnson reached the stage where he could afford no shoes. However when some fellow students left shoes
outside of his study he became disgusted and threw them away. The refusal to show poverty or accept charity is
seen at times in sufism. The holy Prophet is reported to have said 'poverty is my pride' and this theme is echoed by
many Sufi saints. Not only did they embrace material poverty but they went to great lengths to conceal it. To pretend
to wealth for the sake of avoiding exposure of their poverty was a trait in some Sufis based not on vanity but to avoid
exposing the virtue of poverty or to avoid reliance on other than God to provide for their needs. Of course there is
another aspect to spiritual poverty amongst the Sufis - in this essentially the individual aims to be destitute before
God - a vessel empty of self waiting to be filled by divinity.
About Johnson's poverty Zahurmian writes in one of his lectures:-
"He was [financially] a poor scholar. He had undergone privations and sufferings. He knew and he had realised the
difficulties and hardships besetting a scholar's life. He wrote thus in one of his poems entitled 'The Vanity of Human
'There mark what ills the scholar's life assail -
Toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail.'
He was not discouraged by his poverty though he realised that poverty was an hindrance and constituted an obstacle
to the recognition of a man's worth and merit. He wrote in his poem 'London' thus:
'This mournful truth is everywhere confessed,
Slow rises worth by poverty depressed'."
from 'The Signature of Happiness' Dec 1983.
Another side of Johnson was the very high quality of generosity of which he was capable. Amongst Sufis generosity is
ranked by Shah Wali Ullah just a little below justice (the highest of the four cardinal virtues- the other two being
humility and purification). Here is an example:
His liberality, indeed, was at all periods of his life very remarkable. Mr. Howard of Lichfield, at whose father's house
Johnson had in his early years been kindly received, told me, that when he was a boy at the Charterhouse, his father
wrote to him to go and pay a visit to Mr. Samuel Johnson, which he accordingly did, and found him in an upper room,
of poor appearance. Johnson received him with much courteousness, and talked a great deal to him, as to a
school-boy......when he came to know and understand the high character of this great man, he recollected his
condescension with wonder. He added, that when he was going away, Mr. Johnson presented him with half-a-guinea;
and this, said Mr. Howard, was at a time when he probably had not another.
In this account we see both sides of generosity which Zahurmian frequently pointed out. One was the ordinary
generosity associated with the gift of money he could ill afford and the other the generosity of spirit or condescension
as Boswell calls it.
Much that I think Zahurmian found attractive in Johnson can be traced to his morality in things great and small.
Zahurmian's teaching and writing placed much emphasis on moral behaviour and a moral attitude of mind, as an
essential component of what he called 'better living'. Here is another example from Boswell:
Johnson gave a very earnest recommendation of what he himself practised with the utmost conscientiousness: I
mean a strict attention to truth, even in the most minute particulars. 'Accustom your children (said he,) constantly to
this; if a thing happened at one window, and they when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass,
but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.' .....He inculcated upon all his friends
the importance of perpetual vigilance against the slightest degree of falsehood; the effect of which, as Sir Joshua
Reynolds observed to me, has been that all who were of his school are distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy,
which they would not have possessed in the same degree, if they had not been acquainted with Johnson.
There were several respects in which some of Johnson's personal qualities could also be observed in Zahurmian. A
prodigious memory was one of them. There is a story of Johnson's childhood related by Boswell in which it is told that:
The power of his memory, for which he was all his life eminent to a degree almost incredible, the following early
instance was told me in his presence at Lichfield in 1776, by his step daughter Mrs. Lucy Porter, as related to her by
his mother. When he was a child in petticoats and had learnt to read, Mrs. Johnson one morning put the
common-prayer book into his hands, pointed out the collect for the day, and said, 'Sam, you must get this by heart.'
She went upstairs, leaving him to study it: But by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following
her. 'What's the matter?' said she. 'I can say it,' he replied; and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read
it over more than twice.
At another point Boswell says that Johnson's 'memory was so tenacious that he never forgot anything that he either
heard or read.'
Those who knew Zahurmian know well that his ability to recall and recite verses and other passages, in various
different languages was also of an extraordinary nature. Indeed when he sat down to write, a frequent occupation as
attested by the very many books he wrote, he would often write with great intensity, quoting numerous texts from an
extensive array of authors - frequently without pausing to look up references. A glance at his published lectures will
show the remarkable accuracy of such quotations - whilst the odd minor error (not counting printing errors) actually
attests the fact that he drew these directly from his prodigious memory. Zahurmian however generally denied having
anything of a photographic memory for detail of things in the environment, he used to admire Dickens's amazing eye
for detail in this respect.
With regard to habits of attention we may also find some similarities. Zahurmian had a remarkable habit of intensity of
concentration. Whether he was reading a newspaper, watching something on television or perhaps reading
billboards by the side of the road on a journey, he could frequently be seen to be employing very complete attention,
the effect of which on the observer was increased by his aquiline features to suggest a comparison with a hawk,
flying high and peering intensely at the ground as he followed his prey.
Boswell also comments on the habits of concentration of mind of Johnson with an example that must have required
the use of his memorizing faculty. Boswell notes that Johnson composed 70 lines of The Vanity of Human Wishes,
one of his better known poems, in a single day without putting a single line on paper. Zahurmian's concentrated
attention on his writing was also evident to many who knew him - retiring as would to his upstairs study for many
hours at a time working with an intensity few would care to interrupt..
In one of his lectures Zahurmian points out that Sufis tend to be thorough rather than hasty in their approach, even
to small things. This emphasis on thoroughness applies to both thought and action, and reflects (in part) the
implication of the word Sabr found in the Holy Qur'an, as for instance in the Sura3 whose last verse (ayat) exhorts
people to vie with one another in patience. As Yusuf Ali4 explains in his comments patience implies more than just
waiting - it implies self-restraint, which thoroughness also requires. It is also said patience is the key to joy.
It is clear that Johnson recognised that an habitual attitude of mental vigour is of great importance. In his thinking he
practised organising his thoughts very clearly, in every circumstance, so that this became an habitual process and
could be applied to matters great and small with relative ease. It was the cause of frequent astonishment to his
Sir Joshua Reynolds once asked him by what means he had obtained his extraordinary accuracy and flow of
language. He told him that he had early laid it down as a fixed rule to do his best, at every occasion and in every
company, to impart whatever he knew in the most forcible language he could put it in, and that, by constant practice
and by never suffering any careless expression to escape him, or attempting to deliver his thoughts without arranging
them in the clearest manner, it became habitual to him.
In the matter of religion there is no doubt that Johnson was a devout Christian and Zahurmian a Muslim. What they
shared was a broadness of mind that made this a virtue in each, rather than an impediment to a deeper
understanding of the human condition.
JOHNSON.... 'Why, Madam, the greatest part of our knowledge is implicit faith; and as to religion, have we heard all
that a disciple of Confucius, all that a Mahometan, can say for himself. '
The Love of Books
The love of books was an interest shared by both. Boswell writes: Johnson knew more about books than any man
alive. Though Zahurmian himself said on various occasions that sufism cannot be learned from books and referred
approvingly to stories of Sufi saints who had given up book-learning in favour of gaining direct experience of the
divine, he nevertheless had a passionate interest in books. The paradox in this cannot be easily explained. We must
recognize that Zahurmian had reached that stage of development whereby he had already tasted5 the divine. From
such a vantage point of knowledge one may return to books or indeed other modalities unencumbered by the
restrictions such things can otherwise place on acquiring direct tasting. Whilst we have not tasted directly we are like
the donkey to whom books are of no value merely a burden. But one who has tasted is no longer like a donkey but
like the learned person who can read and benefit from books.
In fact, in Islam generally and Islamic mysticism particularly, the Book is central both in the sense of the Qur'an
specifically, as the direct word of God, and the Qur'an as the most refined manifestation of the universal Book
deriving its source from the Word. In a sense it is the Qur'an that is the enduring miracle of the holy Prophet
Muhammed, working its effect hundreds of years later whilst other miracles by other prophets were shown and then
passed into history. In my own view books for Zahurmian had a certain sanctity that derived from their association
with the Word, though I have never heard it stated explicitly by him. For certain this cannot be understood by a
I have frequently heard Zahurmian talk of the importance of words - good words such as a polite greeting are not
vacuous even if the speaker does not intend them with any great sincerity, but their power is evident in the feelings
Johnson was of course a master of the telling comment and his renown for driving his point home with a telling and
triumphant phrase is well recorded. I have noted too that Zahurmian appeared to relish the moment when a decisive
phrase finally cleared away the clouds of specious logic which may have been presented to him by a disciple. The
reported tendency of Johnson to partake in verbal battles and to carry them through to victory - more or less
irrespective of the object of the argument - seems to me to have been more a case of maintaining his habits of clear
thought and expression and to have taken place in a culture which demanded this. His real tenderness for those who
he may have inadvertently hurt is frequently referred to by Boswell.
Zahurmian had an extensive personal library containing books on a vast variety of subjects, poetry, philosophy,
social studies, religion, various forms of mysticism, histories, biographies, novels, etc. He had read these books
thoroughly and talked of books affectionately as his friends. Books can offer a route for minds to meet - the benefits
of the company of great minds would have been even more acutely felt by one with his highly developed inner
The last journey that Zahurmian undertook in this life - other than the one to hospital, was to a book shop. He had
been very ill for some time and confined to the family quarters of the house, being unable to climb the stairs to his
study. He fretted at times that his confinement to that room had become very irksome to him - medically he appeared
in no condition to go out. Whilst expressing sympathy I could not think the visit to a local book shop he wanted to be
desirable, especially given the chaotic state of the narrow Indian gulleys that would have to be traversed and the
narrow stairways that would have to be negotiated. But he had an indomitable will and contrived somehow to arrange
to be carried out to a waiting rickshaw. Desperately grasping pieces of medical equipment I found myself next to
Zahurmian in a small rickshaw juddering its way through the lanes of Ajmer, my every thought crying out against the
wisdom of this action. We arrived somehow at a very small bookshop and whilst I did my best to recover from the
general shock of the experience Zahurmian pounced avidly on a small pile of books and with the peculiar avidity and
concentrated sense of purpose that he always demonstrated in bookshops, he selected some volumes within a few
minutes and we were bustled and jostled back to the house. His sense of triumph on return was evident and probably
more therapeutic than any other care might have been. As a matter of fact the books he had picked from the very
limited range available were novels which he would be unlikely have selected in other conditions (one I noticed was a
James Bond novel) and which he was not destined to read since his departure from this world was not far away at
that time and he never returned to a sufficient state of consciousness to do so. I am convinced that the unitive state
in which he found himself was such that he had passed beyond discrimination between 'good' and 'bad' books - a
discrimination which he otherwise made quite clearly, referring to good books as friends and bad books as worse
than poison. A discrimination which in less exalted states has great importance.
The story of Dr Johnson meeting the King of England (George III) in the royal library was one frequently told by
Zahurmian and it serves the purpose of introducing another topic which held a particular fascination for him.
In February, 1767, there happened one of the most remarkable incidents of Johnson's life........being honoured by a
private conversation with his Majesty, in the Library at the Queen's House. He had frequently visited those splendid
rooms and noble collection of books....the librarian took care that he should have every accommodation. His Majesty
having been informed of his (Johnson's) occasional visits, was pleased to signify a desire to be told when Dr Johnson
came next to the library. Accordingly the next time...Mr Barnard stole round to the apartment where the King
was...and lighted his Majesty through a suite of rooms, till they came to a private door into the library, of which his
Majesty had the key. Being entered Mr. Barnard stepped forward hastily to Dr Johnson, who was still in a profound
study, and whispered him, 'Sir, here is the King.' Johnson started up, and stood still. His majesty approached him and
at once was courteously easy.
His Majesty began by observing, that he understood he came sometimes to the library; and then mentioning his
having heard that the Doctor had been lately at Oxford, asked him if he was not fond of going thither. To which
Johnson answered that he was indeed fond of going to Oxford sometimes, but was likewise glad to come back
again..... The King, with a view to urge him to rely on his own stores as an original writer...then said 'I do not think you
borrow much from any body.' Johnson said he thought he had already done his part as a writer. 'I should have
thought so too, (said the King) if you had not written so well.' - Johnson observed to me, upon this, 'No man could
have paid a handsomer compliment; and it was fit for a King to pay. It was decisive.' ....During the whole of this
interview Johnson talked to his Majesty with a profound respect but still in his firm manly manner, with a sonorous
voice, and never in that subdued manner which is commonly used at the levee...
Johnson is described as a confirmed royalist by Boswell and though this could hardly apply to Zahurmian in the same
sense, he constantly showed a fascination with royalty. His knowledge of the British monarchy was extensive, indeed
he had a picture of King Edward VII (?) on the stairs leading to his house in Ajmer, India. His knowledge and interest
extended also to the various Emperors and Rajas of the Indian subcontinent and they along with British and other
monarchies were frequently referred to in his conversations.
There are a number of features involved in the relationships of Sufis to royalty. In some orders Sufis became closely
linked as holders of spiritual (though not necessarily religious) authority. Sufis in the Mevlevi order at certain points in
history are known to have exercised great authority over royalty. However the Chishti order to which Zahurmian was
so closely linked generally refused to have connections of this type, and I believe it was Nizamuddin Awliya, a Chishti
saint, who said, on being told that a certain royal personage wished to visit him, "If he comes in by one door, I will go
out by another." There are numerous stories of this kind, much repeated by Zahurmian.
Despite this, Sufis have generally taken the line that the properly constituted authority as embodied in royalty and
administrative and legal authorities were allowed that power and authority by the Divine Universal Administration
which governs the entire universe, and that it was not the place of the Sufi to outwardly oppose the established order
of things - though there are numerous stories of kings who opposed Sufi sheykhs and who met untimely ends, with
the implication that the inner spiritual sovereignty of the Sheykh concerned was thus made manifest. When Khawaja
Muinuddin Hasan Chishti was ordered by the local Hindu Raja to leave Ajmer he did so, but as he predicted returned
soon after, following the defeat of the Raja at the hand of an invading army. There are of course also examples of
sheykhs put to death by the worldly authorities.
Shah Wali Ullah a great 17th century Sufi clearly held the view that order, even when far from perfect, was in general
preferable to disorder and chaos.
So how to explain the fascination with royalty? I do not know that a full explanation was ever given by Zahurmian and I
don't propose to explain what he did not see fit to - but some hints may be given as pointers to the questing intellect
even though by this means one cannot grasp the full implications. Firstly there is the level of symbolism - the unseen
world is in many respects reflected in this world. There is order and status established in the unseen world. Just as in
this world there are those in authority and those in lower positions. However frequently it is those in relatively
powerless positions in this world who are the real spiritual kings there. Whilst those who have authority in this world
may, though not necessarily so, be in reality slaves and beggars and impoverished in the next. Many Sufi stories
relate to kings and princesses and courtly life - see for instance Bagh-o-Bahar, by Amir Khusrao. Using the
symbolism of royalty in this world they convey the mind to this true royalty in the unseen.
We may also consider that the inner government of the universe is conducted by using as tools the outward forms
and structures that exist - so when the Divine Will requires a certain thing to happen it generally tends to arrange
matters through existing power structures6. The Sufi who thus observes with interest the unfolding of the Divine Will
in the universe may do so through an interest in, and observation of, the existing power structures - including royalty.
However a real knowledge of this requires a certain level of spiritual development and thus may not be universally
understandable. The reason that some Sufis guarded themselves from entanglement with actual royalty or power
structures, when they did, is that for the individual there are real risks of corruption - the corruption of relying on
material or worldly power rather than spiritual means. Though they may be the unconscious implementers of Divine
mandates, the actual person holding office may be individually corrupt and corrupting, with an individual will that
attempts to oppose the Divine Will. The classic confrontation told in various places in the holy Qur'an and elsewhere
between Moses and Pharaoh has many lesson within it relating to this subject.
This has perhaps been something of a diversion from the theme of Zahurmian's interest in Dr Johnson - and I have
seen no evidence that Johnson formulated the reasons for his interest in royalty in this way, nor have I heard
Zahurmian express it in quite this way- though I have reason enough to think the latter would not have found this
explanation, partial as it is, not too wide of the mark.
Sufi teaching not infrequently involves drawing symbolic inference from actual events. There is one passage in
Boswell's Life of Johnson when, sitting together en-route for Harwich - and Boswell's departure for Holland, after
discussing the trip to Holland, Boswell says:
I teized him [Johnson] with fanciful apprehensions of unhappiness. A moth having fluttered round the candle, and
burnt itself, he laid hold of this little incident to admonish me; saying, with a sly look, and in a solemn but quiet tone,
'That creature has its own tormentor, and I believe its name was BOSWELL.'
It is probably coincidental that the symbolism of moth and candle reiterates a well known Sufi symbol for annihilation
in love, but the use of an actual event to convey a message does occur in sufism. Its prime model of course is based
on the Qur'anic story in which, following the murder of Abel by Cain, Cain is taught how to bury his brother by a bird
performing that action for another bird. It could be said that this is one of the meanings of the term ayat or sign which
we are so frequently advised to pay attention to throughout the Qur'an.
Another example of a use of an actual event from which Johnson drew a powerful teaching message is the following:
...Dr Johnson and I took a sculler at the temple stairs and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a
knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education. JOHNSON. 'Most certainly,
Sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a
difference learning makes on people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much
connected with it...' 'And, yet (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good
advantage, without learning.' JOHNSON. 'Why, sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of
any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the
Argonauts, who were the first sailors.' He then called to the boy, 'What would you give, my lad, to know about the
Argonauts?' 'Sir, (said the boy), I would give what I have.' Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave
him double fare. Dr Johnson then turning to me, 'Sir, ( said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of
mankind; and every human being whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get
There is a story about Dr Johnson which I have heard Zahurmian repeat and which may repay a brief visit. It relates
to Johnson's marriage and the drive to church on the nuptial morning. Boswell quotes Johnson himself, referring to
his bride, as saying:-
Sir, she had read the old romances, and had got into her head the fantastical notion that a woman of spirit should
use her lover like a dog. So, Sir, at first she told me that I rode too fast, and she could not keep up with me; and when
I rode a little slower, she passed me, and complained that I lagged behind. I was not to be the slave of caprice; and I
resolved to begin as I meant to end. I therefore pushed on briskly, till I was fairly out of her sight. The road lay
between two hedges so I was sure she could not miss it; and I contrived that she should soon come up with me.
When she did, I observed her to be in tears.'
In an age and culture sensitive to political correctness between the sexes we might at first be inclined to read into this
episode an emphasis on masculine dominance - but in fact I think the most important feature relates to the phrase I
resolved to begin as I meant to end , since the establishment of patterns of interaction between persons is of great
significance - a weaker mind might have tolerated the actions and resolved to remediate the state of affairs later - in
practice such a thing could only be accomplished with much greater difficulty and with much more ill-will, if at all. In
fact Johnson does not aim to dominate but to ensure he is not dominated and though Boswell found it a singular start
to marital felicity it may well have been of great significance in this regard setting a healthy marital pattern and there
is little doubt from Boswell's accounts that Johnson held his wife in great affection and esteem - 'it was a love
marriage - on both sides.'
The Circle of Followers
Two further areas where we can see some connections between Johnson and sufism remain to be discussed. The
first relates to Dr Johnson's famous club and in another sense his circle. There is perhaps no exact parallel in
western culture for the circle of disciples who gathered round the great and lesser Sufi masters. Though religion
played a significant role in this it was the spiritual power (baraka) of the master and the line of saints he represented
which was the central magnate. Along with this came the traveling Sufi masters, who would visit to pay respect and
benefit and be benefited by the association with the resident Sufi. Though what we can see today may not be the full
glory of this as it was in the heyday of sufism, the gatherings around Zahurmian (and I have seen this repeated in
other situations) involves a meeting of minds and personalities whose commitment to better living created a source of
spiritual and moral wealth by which all benefited. The Club formed by Johnson and Reynolds 1764 certainly seem to
fill a general need in mankind to form such associations - a kind of second family formed by spiritual , or perhaps in
some cases intellectual, affinity rather than biological ties.
In the case of Zahurmian the extension of this spiritual family to westerners and others from outside the cultural
groups traditionally associated with sufism was a marked achievement, and one which his extraordinary knowledge of
world literature facilitated. Bringing together people of such diverse cultural backgrounds as Zahurmian did was a
much greater spiritual feat than can easily be appreciated - and I am sure he did not find it always an easy task -
though it was one given to him by his own guide, Nawob Gudri Shah Baba. He would frequently quote these lines-
These woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The crucial and essential point is that the central gospel of sufism is divine Love and humanism, and the premise for
the experiment of thus spreading sufism (and I do not talk here of those who set up organisations for purposes of
personal aggrandisement), is that the power of Love is such that it, and it alone, can really achieve the ideal of
multicultural unity, even if its full manifestations are occasional and the path to it strewn with difficulty.
There is no doubt from Boswell's accounts, and those of others, that the power of Johnson's personality drew people
to him in a way which Sufis would ascribe to baraka. Many explanations in terms of Johnson's specific skills etc. may
be given to account for this magnetism, but in truth they do not adequately explain it. It is rather as if we tried to
account for the flow and majesty of a river by detailing elements of the way the banks etc. are formed. It is of course
really the immensity of the force of the natural law of gravity drawing the water from its sources to the oceans, that is
the underlying reality. That Johnson had a power of attraction not unlike that we see in the real Sufis, was evident
even in childhood. From an early age Johnson had shown signs of arousing in others much esteem and affection so
that they readily accepted his leadership. At school he had such an impression on his peers that:-
such was the submission and deference with which he was treated, such was the desire to obtain his regard , that
three of the boys, of whom Mr. Hector was sometimes one, used to come in the morning as his humble attendants,
and carry him to school. One in the middle stooped, while he sat upon his back, and one on each side supported
him; and thus he was born triumphant.
The Bonds of Affection
This brings us to the last of the areas of commonality I propose to discuss. It is one which is perhaps in many ways
the most significant, or at least the most personally touching. That is the bonds of affection which are formed
between master and disciples. I do not think there is a single serious disciple of Zahurmian who, reading this, would
not find in the following passages something to which he or she can relate.
Being informed he was at Mrs. Thrale's ..... I hastened thither and found Mrs. Thrale and him at breakfast. I was
kindly welcomed. In a moment he was in a full glow of conversation, and I felt myself elevated as if brought into
another state of being. Mrs. Thrale and I looked to each other while he talked, and our looks expressed our
congenial admiration and affection for him. I shall ever recollect this scene with great pleasure. I exclaimed to her, 'I
am now, intellectually, quite restored by him, by transfusion of mind.' 'There are many (she replied) who admire and
respect Mr. Johnson; but you and I love him.'
This evening while some of the tunes of ordinary composition were played......I was conscious of a generous
attachment to Johnson, as my preceptor and friend, mixed with an affectionate regret that he was old man, whom I
should probably lose in a short time.....I thought I could defend him at the point of my sword. My reverence and
affection for him were in full glow. I said to him, 'My dear Sir, we must meet every year, if you don't quarrel with me.'
JOHNSON. Nay, Sir, you are more likely to quarrel with me, than I with you. My regard for you is greater almost than I
have words to express; but I do not choose to be always repeating it; write it down in the first leaf of your pocketbook,
and never doubt it again.'
Johnson achieved an immortality in literature and in the communal consciousness of England which is perhaps not
even second to that of Shakespeare. If you are anything like as avid a reader of newspapers as Zahurmian was you
will not have failed to notice, even in this frenetic and sceptical age with its vast amount of diversions, that some
words of wisdom from Johnson will nearly always be encountered. Nevertheless it is perhaps true that 'a prophet is
never quite honoured in his own country' as he deserves. It was a small and ailing Indian Sufi and man of letters
(Zahurmian) who, upon visiting Johnson's grave in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, expressed his shock that the
grave of such a person should be set in the ground in such a way that people would walk over it. People, he might
have added, who owed to such a mind the deepest respect and reverence.
Jamiluddin Morris Zahuri
1. Dr Samuel Johnson
1709-1784. Lexicographer, critic, poet. Son of a Lichfield bookseller. 1728 Pembroke College, Oxford. Left without degree due to poverty.
After short spell as school usher went to work for a Birmingham publisher. 1735 married Elizabeth Porter, widow 20 years older. 1737
went to London. Various journalism and satire in magazines. 1747 prospectus for Dictionary of the English Language. 1749, Vanity of
Human Wishes. 1755 Dictionary. Given an M.A. by Oxford. 1759 Rasselas written to pay for the funeral of his mother, who died aged 90.
1762 granted a pension of £300, "and the rest of his days were spent in honour, and such comfort as the melancholy to which he was
subject permitted". Following year met Boswell. 1765 edition of Shakespeare. 1779-81 Lives of the Poets, in 10 volumes. He had a
"lifelong and morbid fear of death [but] his last illness was borne with fortitude and calmness". Buried Westminster Abbey, monument
in St Pauls, statues in Lichfield and Uttoxeter. Degree of LL.D. from Oxford and Dublin. As well as Boswell's Life, Sir John Hawkins
published a biography in 1787. Outstanding qualities considered to be honesty and courage, "had the tenderest of hearts", and in
conversation "so full of matter, strength, sense, wit..."
Culled from Everyman's Dictionary of Literary Biography, D.C. Browning, Dent 1958, 1962 by Mr Mikail Ali Clarke, Southampton.
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Biographical notes on Dr Sharib (click here)
3. Holy Qur'an - Sura III:200
4. Perhaps best known of the translators of the Qur'an into English.
5. Tasted - refers to the sufi's experiencing of the divine immediately, not through reason or thought but by direct apprehension in way
which can only be known and not adequately described.
6. See Shah Wali Ullah
The picture of Dr Johnson is derived from the last portrait by John Opie. He passed away after sitting for the original. (from Boswells,
The Life of Samuel Johnson - edited by John Canning published by Guild Publishing)
Published by The Zahuri Sufi Web Site: August 1999