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From the point of view of the student, the provenances of these two teaching systems are distinctly different. Gurdjieff chose not to relate just how he came across the ideas he brought to the world at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Instead, he characteristically left "clues" about their origins in his writings. The leads seem deliberately obscure and are susceptible of many interpretations. Since his death in 1949, researchers have been unable to locate his sources. Two schools of thought have emerged as to the origins of his system. One holds that he stitched together the ideas on his own from multiple (yet unknown) sources; another proposes that the ideas were found in one place where they had been preserved from time immemorial. Most adherents prefer the latter view, given the unity of the model and the odd way portions of it have of cropping up at central spots in other sciences, philosophies and religions.

Most of the Sufi orders trace their lineage, leader by leader, back to the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). These records are carefully maintained and hagiographies of many of the leaders are extant. Great emphasis is placed on the selection and training of a successor. The special gifts of each leader, or Grand Shaykh, are known and said to enrich the heritage of the order. Today, after 1400 years, the number of generations in each order is hovering around forty. Because their sphere of influence within the community can be substantial, collateral histories often date from the tenure of each grand shaykh. Sufism and Islam are inseparable. Their histories are not merely intertwined, they are in a sense, the same thing. Thus, the histories of the Sufi Orders tend to be well known and well documented.


Few would earnestly argue that the Gurdjieff succession was not a clouded one. Near his death he began making mysterious and contradictory statements about what was to become of his followers, and different people heard different things. Almost by default, some of those who had direct contact with him assumed that they were qualified to teach his system or felt obliged to do so. Leadership has branched out from this trunk while many offshoots have sprung forth a bit farther from the tree.

Each Sufi succession, one Grandshaykh to the next, is a somewhat more formal proceeding. The leader selects his protégé decades before he passes the torch, and trains and tests him intensively over that period. In the case of multiple successions the master may name two or more deputies to lead the order, one after the other, thus predicting the order of their deaths. At the time his own death, the Grandshaykh passes on the secret of the order to the new leader. Each successor is linked to his master and remains so linked even after the death of the latter.

A Matter of Emphasis

While many of the elements of these two teachings line up with equivalents on either side, there are distinct differences in emphasis. Gurdjieff's Great Ray of Creation is crowned with the Absolute, and various references are made to a supreme being in All and Everything and some of his earlier talks. Those in the Gurdjieff Work often say that it is not "a religion", rather it is religion, that which lies behind all religions. However, the emphasis is neither devotional nor religious in the conventional sense. The Sufis, on the other hand, are firmly seated in the middle of one of the world's mainstream religions. They are resolutely focused on the worship of Allah, His unity, His power, and His supremacy. The central exercise of self remembering in the Gurdjieff sense, is wedded to the remembrance of Allah in Sufism.

From the point of view of the student, the approach to self-awarenes is quite different between the two systems. In the Great Ray, the Absolute hovers above his creation, insulated from the lower level containing the Earth by layer upon layer of worlds and intervening laws. He isn't so much ignored, as simply removed from our immediate consideration. On the other hand, invocations of the divine permeate the Sufi practices reflecting, as the Quran puts it, the fact that "Allah is closer to you than your jugular vein." In truth, this is more than a difference in emphasis, it is the signature of Islamic Mysticism. An intense and disciplined focus on the creator has shaped most of the Sufi perspective. All daily experience is gauged in terms of waves that Allah sends rippling out across the sea of causation. The waves roll in each day and can break hearts, gladden hearts or polish hearts, depending on the strength and skill of the individual seeker. As in the Gurdjieff work, great emphasis is placed on technique in the Sufi Orders.

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