Sufism as self-improvement tends, like many religious enthusiasms, toward competition. Secret knowledge is a significant part of all mystical traditions and Sufi wisdom, issuing as it does from the heart and not the mind, comes in stages. Not everyone is equally advanced. I was told that as a guest I wasn't going to get any "secret knowledge." I said that as an outsider I probably wouldn't be able to distinguish what was secret and what wasn't anyway—still, what kind of secret things did they mean? One member of the tariqa told me that Sheikh Mokhtar, a roundish man in his early 50s, knew everything. He's a wali. That fact didn't quite register with me until after the meeting, when I saw Muslim men reaching out like Romans to touch the sheikh's blue suit. Ahmed and I got to meet with him briefly.
Ahmed excitedly told the sheikh that he was writing his philosophy dissertation about the differences between Sufi tariqat. Sheikh Mokhtar was furious. "There are no differences between Sufis!" he shouted. (We learned later that Sheikh Mokhtar was in the middle of a fight with his brother, another Sufi wali who led a tariqa of his own. Their argument had degenerated so far that the two brothers had accused each other of apostasy—a charge that in Islam frequently leads to a death sentence.) Ahmed was red with public shame. The sheikh, still in a rage, told me that if I wasn't Muslim, there was little for me in Sufism.
I wasn't expecting anything from Sufism. It was worse for my crestfallen Muslim friend, who had wanted to abandon himself to something like the philosophy of his ancestors, Ibn al-'Arabi and Rumi, who had built a part of that world.