We’ve been posting several letters from Shamcher to Murshid SAM lately, so this review fits right in!
Mansur Johnson’s Murshid
Mansur Johnson’s recent book, Murshid, is a wide ranging account of his pivotal years as student and secretary to the remarkable sufi mystic, Samuel L. Lewis, now known as Murshid Sufi Ahmed Murad Chishti. Taking place at the end of the 60s, the memoir draws directly from Johnson’s diaries in which he noted both the sacred and the mundane, along with quotes from Lewis’s correspondence of the day.
The book, a Personal Memoir of Life with American Sufi Samuel L. Lewis, covers the years 1967-1970, as the transformational energies of an increased interest in spirituality in San Francisco area drew students and seekers into the sweep of new consciousness.
This consciousness was nothing new, however, to experienced sufi Murshid SAM, who soon found himself to be a teacher and leader of this new generation of seekers. Speaking to them in a language that had never blossomed in quite that way before, using dance and song and meditation and all his years of training in Zen, Sufism, Yoga, esoterics, using all his travels and awareness, and mostly by following his inner intuition Murshid SAM gave not only Sufi Dances (now the Dances of Universal Peace) but an inspiring rare outlook on the world which for some became a lasting awakening.
What was happening behind the scenes in San Francisco, while he spread his message of awareness? Who had supported him before the young people began to flock at his feet? Many such questions are answered in this book, but many are still left to be discovered in other writings on his life and work. Mansur has simply selected a small area in which to focus and express some of the larger imponderables. Many of these larger philosophical issues he has left to others to define. Instead, he gives us an immediacy in the form of an almost daily log.
Here his edited and slightly annotated diary entries mingle with quotes from correspondence and unpublished papers. Covering the time of the origin of the San Francisco Oracle, the Sufi Dances in the park, and the rise of the Grateful Dead, the book reveals a social history by intimation. It also directly documents Mansur’s relationship with Murshid SAM as his pupil and oft-time secretary, and bravely reveals both his youthful devotion and limitations.
One value of this book lies in the very details that many readers could find superfluous. A scholar himself, Mansur is aware that the price of the meal taken at a specific restaurant could be of interest in the future. A mention of a name, a detail that seems to over-ride other information, these are all here as diarized, and as such, they provide a verity that mere theoretical or mystical speculation would never offer.
Sufi history (in the west) and politics of spiritual organizations, are all touched upon here, as are the direct ways that his teacher had to struggle to create a capacity for the work that he had to complete in his lifetime. The pupils he worked with, many of whom are mentioned in this memoir, went on to carry on his legacy. (It was almost as if they had been gathered to him to receive the energies in his final years on earth, to validate, amplify and pass them on.)
None of this is emphasized in the memoir, which is as down to earth as you can get, and gossipy as well. Any one participant in any event has his own point of view, and Mansur Johnson is no exception. Not only by repeating some of Murshid’s words on his opposition to Paul Reps, a famous fellow-pupil of Inayat Khan, but also by printing some of his own opinions on events, Johnson could be accused of not telling the whole story, or of being biased. Everyone caught in human events is naturally biased and subjective – this is the value of first-person narrative history. We will have to wait for alternative first-person accounts to give other aspects, or wait further for an impartial history.
Until then, we have Mansur’s account – which is inspiring and revealing. Shamcher (an old friend of SAM’s and also a fellow-pupil of Inayat Khan) often repeated the quote that history was the story of something that never happened, written by someone who wasn’t there. Well, Mansur was there, and because of that his book is a great read!
Murshid is a long and dense work, yet it only covers a few years. It is filled with photographs, and is rich with detailed lists: the 422 characters mentioned, a full glossary of terms, an extensive index and full bibliography of books mentioned. Johnson indicates that a shorter version may be released in the future, and perhaps in that volume he may reveal more of how he actually felt, or what his conclusions are, now that life and time have taken their course.
From the heavens to the most mundane, the book takes the reader on an extraordinary journey. It’s fascinating for its behind-the-scenes look at what happens in the close proximity to a mystic. Some may feel “you had to be there” to fully understand what this book is about. I disagree. In many ways, with this book Mansur takes his readers a place in proximity to Murshid SAM where very few individuals had the opportunity to go. Into the room where he is preparing to give a talk to his students. Into the car to drive to do necessary errands. Into the mystical realm where much remains unexplained. – Carol Sill