The Iron Rules

Netanel Miles-Yépez


Adab is etiquette on the path.

There are lots of things we do naturally to serve one another, to take care of one another’s needs that are an expression of elegance in a moment. Discovering the aesthetic of the moment and how to serve it, how to make it beautiful through a loving act—whether anyone else is present or not—is adab. But within the Inayati lineage of Sufism, there are also more formal rules of adab, guidelines for action in the world, through which we express our spiritual chivalry to one another, and to the earth.

We call these four sets of ten rules: the Iron Rules, the Copper Rules, the Silver Rules, and the Golden Rules. Proceeding from Iron to Gold, we pass through the most basic levels of adab up to more refined or subtle levels. Thus, the Iron Rules are considered foundational.

As Inayati Sufis, we recite the various rules and try to put them into action daily. That is to say, we put our thoughts, words, and deeds through the filter of the various rules. Not that we ever succeed in following them perfectly, but the more we engage with them, the more they influence our actions. With each rule, you can ask yourself—“What does that mean for me today, in this moment, in this situation?”


1. Make no false claims.

The list begins by addressing, “My conscientious self,” and then gives the first Iron rule: “Make no false claims.”

What does that mean to you?

ERICA: After the retreat last summer, I began the practice of the Rules, starting with the Iron Rules. I actually didn’t lie for forty days! But then I got stuck on the second rule and stopped. They’re really hard!

NETANEL: It’s not about perfection. If you get obsessed with perfection, you’re going to stop. Even forty days is an enormous accomplishment.

But notice that it doesn’t actually say, ‘Don’t lie.’

ERICA: What is a ‘false claim’ then?

NETANEL: My point is that the phrasing is more sophisticated. It’s not as blunt as, ‘Don’t lie.’ It says, “Make no false claims.” That’s a sharper tool. Do not claim as your own, or as true, something which is not your own, or not true.

Do you hear the difference?

If I were to say, ‘I’m Enlightened.’ Well, that would be a false claim, claiming ownership of something which I do not possess—‘Enlightenment.’ [Laughs.] In the case of statements like that, I don’t want to lead anybody into the impression that I’m some sort of spiritual luminary, or that I’m better than I actually am.

When we’re telling stories about things that happened to us, we tend to improve them. We all do it, but those little ‘improvements’ are also false claims. So this rule is a filter for that tendency, to help us refine our words and our actions.

Now, the reason it doesn’t say, ‘Don’t lie’—which you might expect to see in rules that are described as ‘iron’—is that there are times when we need to be, shall we say, ‘judicious with the truth’ or ‘facts’, times when we need to be selective about what we say, careful in how we say it, or careful with someone’s feelings.

Imagine someone is expecting feedback on a performance you witnessed, and maybe it was awful. Now, following the rule, “Make no false claims,” you obviously don’t want to lie, saying, ‘Oh, you were wonderful!’ But it may be possible to say, consulting your own conscience, ‘I really appreciated what you did tonight.’ And by that, you might be referring to the guts it took to get up there and perform in the first place. You have to decide what is going to be most helpful or constructive, balancing it with good consideration.

That’s being skillful with your words, even when the pull from within is to lie to spare their feelings. It’s remaining in the tension between truth and being considerate, or truth and being responsible. Sometimes we are confided in and made responsible for secrets, which are not ours to divulge, or given information that’s not wise to share. Then what do you do? It requires some skillfulness.

This is why I’m making this point about actually looking at the words that are used here—“Make no false claims.” You have to think about the context in which you are speaking. You have to ask yourself, ‘What does it mean to claim?’ You have to think about the nature of what is false. It’s a contemplation as much as anything.


2. Speak not against others in their absence.

Now this one is difficult: “Speak not against others in their absence.” I’m not surprised you didn’t get through forty days of it.

ERICA: I took it to mean, ‘Don’t even speak about someone when they’re not there.’

NETANEL: Well, it does use the word “against.” That’s the first qualifier.

We have to consider whether or not what we are saying is really “against” the person. How are we speaking? In an attacking manner or an informative manner? With certainty or humble unknowing? Is it against the individual or their actions? Are we distinguishing between the two things?

Supposing we have overcome the temptation to speak against the actual person, we may legitimately be able to speak against their actions, though it would still be preferable to do so in their presence. That is harder of course.

The second qualifier, “in their absence,” suggests—if we are to be very literal, staying close to the actual wording—that you can indeed speak “against” another person, but it must be in their presence, where at least they can defend themselves.

Often there really is something that needs to be talked about. We live in a world of responsibilities, at home and at work, and maybe there is a negative or inappropriate behavior that needs to be discussed in confidence prior to being addressed with the person. What are you going to do then? You can’t just keep quiet in such situations. And in some cases, it may even be premature, or God forbid, unsafe to discuss the situation with the person directly.

You can actually speak skillfully about your perceptions in regard to the actions of another person, and do so with an attitude of humble unknowing, without speaking “against” them. For instance, you might say: “I need to speak to you about so-and-so. I observed this thing, and maybe I don’t know what the circumstances are, but it looked like this to me (or I experienced it this way), and I’m concerned. Maybe they have reasons, but I feel like it needs to be addressed.”

You see, this is less against the person, and more about our perceptions of their actions. It’s not, “So-and-so is an awful person; you need to fire them!”

The Rules are really about refining how we do the things we need to do; it puts those things in a crucible of refinement. We’ve got opinions; we’ve got feelings about the people with whom we’re in contact; but we don’t want to make them ‘bad.’ Try not to identify them with their actions. We don’t want to be against the person. As a person, they deserve love and to be happy. Really, they deserve all that you would want for yourself. However, the action, or at least our perception of it, can be opposed.

We have to judge actions. We live by those judgments. We have to make decisions based on those judgments. And yet in doing so, we need not be, and ideally aren’t, “against others.”

As much as possible, speak to people directly; do them that courtesy. It’s much harder, but it’s also better and more mature in most cases.

As you look closely at these rules, and consider them in context, more and more you’ll see how they support and qualify one another in a helpful way.


3. Do not take advantage of a person’s ignorance.

This is a good one: “Do not take advantage of a person’s ignorance.” Consider how that applies to various situations in life, to business deals, etc.

ERICA: Or relationships.

NETANEL: Yes. Do not take advantage of somebody else, simply because they happen to be ignorant about something you know. This may imply some responsibility with regard to informing them in, or of, a situation, and giving them an opportunity to also take advantage of that knowledge to make an informed decision. But the basic thrust is clear—don’t use their ignorance for your own benefit.


4. Do not boast of your good deeds.

This is pretty simple. “Do not boast of your good deeds.” If they’re good, the reward is the effect. You’ve heard the saying, “Virtue is its own reward.” Leave it at that. No need to boast about it; you’ll only diminish the good of the deed.

JENNA: What about a resume? [Smiling.]

NETANEL: Boast of your good deeds! [Laughter.]

A resume is a means to an end, merely showing your qualifications to get a job; it’s not a celebration of one’s ego.

PHIL: It also seems like ‘boasting’ is about intention; not all sharing about good deeds with other people is boasting.


PHIL: So recording achievements on a resume isn’t inherently boastful.

NETANEL: If it’s an actual accomplishment, it’s a fact. Unless there is an underlying intention to boast, it’s just a fact.

I was once listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, the great linguistics theorist and political analyst, and he said something like—“I don’t believe in false modesty. I have some intellectual gifts. I have some gifts for analysis, and here are the results of that analysis.” I didn’t feel like he was boasting. Indeed, it would have been a “false claim” if one of the most intellectually gifted individuals in our society said that he didn’t have some intellectual gifts. I think we can tell the difference between boasting and not boasting; and not boasting doesn’t mean false humility.

Humility is the good sense to know your limitations and to be more aware of them than somebody else. My teacher, Reb Zalman, used to say, “Nobody knows better than you what kind of a faker you really are.” Nobody will ever know more than you about how much you lie, and what your real problems are. Even though some people appear oblivious, deep down they still know; they are just hiding it from themselves.

But the rule does not say anything about gifts or accomplishments; it says, “Do not boast of your good deeds.” Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, outlined various levels of charity. On the upper levels were such things as, not letting the recipient know your identity, not being aware that you are even giving, and making the recipient a giver. Not letting the recipient know that you are giving is yielding the credit for the good deed, and consequently not putting the recipient in the position of having to feel beholden to you. Not being aware that you are even giving is still better, as it says in the Book of Matthew, “Let not the right hand know what the left hand is doing.” Basically, it’s a level of consciousness where it is no longer obvious to the giver that they are doing anything special. Perhaps they are even grateful to be doing it. There is nothing to boast about, because they aren’t even aware of doing anything; it’s just a natural act that bypasses the ego.


5. Do not claim that which belongs to another.

The next rule is: “Do not claim that which belongs to another.” Don’t take credit when it belongs to someone else, and don’t claim the belongings of someone else, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual. You can’t claim another person’s body, and you can’t claim their rights. We make claims on one another in relationship; that’s reciprocity, but it’s not as if they belong to you. Even in love, the other has to have their freedom and autonomy.

Just as, “Make no false claims” is not quite the same as, “Don’t lie,” “Do not claim that which belongs to another” is not quite the same as saying, “Don’t steal.” The latter doesn’t have the same sophistication; there is more discernment here.

Think of the man in the Sufi initiation story who plucked the fruit that was just about to drop from the tree. He sees that it is ripe and heavy; it’s just about to drop from the branch hanging over the orchard fence; it’s certainly going to drop to the ground and rot. So he plucks it and takes it to his wife as a gift. And she asks him, “Did you buy that, or did somebody give that to you?”

“No, it was about to fall,” he says.

“But it hadn’t fallen,” she says, disappointed.

There’s a sense of higher responsibility among Sufis. Again, nobody’s going to be perfect, but the responsibility factor gets higher on the spiritual path.

DANIEL: Did Hazrat Inayat Khan compose these in English?

NETANEL: Yes, most of the works we have from him were composed in English, or produced by his students using talks he gave in English.


6. Do not reproach others, making them firm in their faults.

I like this one: “Do not reproach others, making them firm in their faults.” Many people get stuck on this rule, thinking that they can’t ever “reproach others.” But sometimes we need to do just that; we have to say something.

As we discussed earlier with, “Speak not against others in their absence,” if you do have to speak against someone, you should do it in their presence. There are times when it is necessary to confront others, or even to reproach them. Sometimes they are even our friends.

The critical feature of this rule is the comma. “Do not reproach others”—comma—“making them firm in their faults.” The rule is not, “Do not reproach others—period.” What follows the comma is the whole point of the rule; what we want to avoid is—“making them firm in their faults.”

If we were to put it another way, we might say, ‘Do not reproach others in a way that backs them into a corner, or makes them defend their ego even more.’ We see this all the time, even in ourselves: Someone starts to criticize you, or give you some feedback in a critical way, and you immediately retreat into a defensive position; you begin to defend yourself, even when it is about something you might not want to defend if you were calmer, or if it had been addressed in a different way.

There are also times when our friends need to reproach us, and they are the people who are most likely to follow the rule. They care about the friendship, and don’t want to lose it, and thus are more careful about how they confront you. That’s not always the case, but often it is. Some friends fight, and some never reproach you, even when they should. Many friends do a lot of ‘yea-saying’ to whatever you’re feeling, or whatever you’re griping about. They say, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re right,’ whether you’re right or not. It’s not always so great for us.

The best friends support us when we’re down, but also take us to task when we’re off course. The bravest of them, and those who are capable of it, might say—‘Hey, that wasn’t so cool,’ or, ‘What’s goin’ on? It felt like you were a little rough on so-and-so. Are you okay?’ Can you see what a difference that might make? If the situation is addressed with genuine love and care, it is less likely to make someone “firm in their faults.”

Always be careful not to back someone into a corner. This is a rule that applies to most situations in life. Whenever you need to confront someone, be sure to give them an ‘out,’ a little escape route; even if it means you have to be a little less direct; the reaction is generally better. They may even take the ‘escape route,’ but it’s likely that some part of them heard you, which is often demonstrated by the very fact of them taking the out.

DANIEL: Earlier, you were talking about not conflating a person’s actions with the person. I feel like that applies here. You can tell somebody something bothered you, or candidly say, ‘I think this is wrong,’ or ‘This is a mistake,’ without saying, ‘You’re a mistaken person,’ or ‘You’re a wrong person.’ It’s about how we hold people, not holding them in their distorted forms.

NETANEL: Yes, we address the distortion as an action.

DANIEL: It is holding people in their more essential self, not merely in their mistakenness. That’s just one layer, and not necessarily who they really are. We all make mistakes.

NETANEL: As Gandhi would say, “We shouldn’t kill them for flaws we all share.”

All of this is about skillfulness. Reproach the action, not the person. When you reproach the person, you begin to make them firm in that fault; you’re identifying them with the faulty action.

DANIEL: There is also “Making them firm in their faults” in our own minds by holding them in a rigidified image.

NETANEL: Yes, we make people firm in their faults in our minds too. We identify them with their actions, and it’s just as big a crime. It doesn’t allow them to grow inside of us. We begin to address them as if they’re not actual living and changing beings.

How often do we address someone inside ourselves, or even to their face, based on who they were, or what they did ten years ago? It’s not likely that they’re that person anymore. Maybe they’re worse; maybe they’re better; or maybe that action we’ve locked in memory was an aberration; or maybe it didn’t even happen; maybe I perceived it wrong.

Leave some room in there. Reserve a measure of judgment, because we have faulty perceptions. We don’t know the Truth—capital T. We know our truth, and not even that, perfectly. Sometimes we have a sense of the facts, but we don’t know the Truth; and the more we know we don’t know the Truth, the more accurately we’ll deal with life.

PHIL: I’d like to build on this. I agree with Daniel’s perspective on not conflating the person with their actions. In a friendship relationship, it’s one thing; but to me, this is very applicable to relationships between a manager and an employee, or a parent and a child, where part of the role is to provide kindness and direction.

How do you do that when there is something negative to address?

When my older son was an infant, I read a book with a metaphor that has stayed with me ever since: an orchestra conductor looks as if they are telling the musicians what to do, but they are actually enabling the musicians to hear the music so that they can play it themselves.

For me, that comes up in relationship to this rule. I find that that perspective is super helpful as a manager and as a parent, for example, because it relates to not identifying the other person with their actions, but instead working with the other person to discern the truth together; and out of that discernment, comes the person’s own reflection around what they did or didn’t do.

NETANEL: Yes, and the metaphor also suggests not identifying yourself as the one who knows. You’re participating in learning the truth, and so this goes along with saying—’It seems to me, this could be happening. I don’t know, but it appears that way.’ It’s humble in its unknowing. Then you learn from them what may actually be happening, or at least, their contribution to the truth. You both make contributions to the truth; so I think that’s a great metaphor.


7. Do not spare yourself in the work which you must accomplish.

“Do not spare yourself in the work which you must accomplish.”

The word “must” is used. These are things that are clearly yours to do. It is there in the moment to be done, and nobody else is gonna’ do it. It’s there for you. In those cases, don’t “spare yourself,” don’t back off. Step forward and do it.

There are things to be done all the time, and often we put them off. This has a lot to do with identifying what you’re work is . Once you know what it is in a given moment, go right into it. Don’t put it off.

I always try to do the hardest work first. Likewise, I often eat the thing I like least on my plate first. [Laughter.] You’ll often see, if you’re watching my plate, that what’s left at the end, is probably the thing that I want most. I try to take this same attitude to work—do the hard thing first; go right at it; start chipping away at it. The rule is not really saying, ‘Do the hardest thing first,’ but that philosophy has helped me in my approach to this rule.

DANIEL: It’s also not ‘half-assing,’ not doing things half-way. Because you can do the work, and you can still cut corners while doing it. Maybe those fine, detail-oriented things that take forever are super tedious, but it’s gonna’ make things a little bit better. You know you should do them, but it’s just so easy to say, “Oh, it’s good enough.” So it’s also not sparing yourself in the hardest part of hard work.

NETANEL: When I was a kid, I used to get called out for ‘half-assing’ things all the time, just doing things half-way. [Laughter.] I’d be so lazy about the way I did the dishes. They were never quite finished. The process just went on and on, and my mother or my older brother would talk about how I did a ‘half-ass job of it.’ It really bugged me, but it was true, and the reflection had an impact. Later on, I became an exceptionally hard worker. Whether it was as a groundskeeper, or as an editor, or even as a painter, I became known for how hard I worked.

The painting is an interesting case. I had a lot of natural gifts as an artist, but being naturally gifted does not make you a great painter; it doesn’t even come close. Artistic ability in the graphic arts is a very common gift. Tons of people have some measure of graphic artistic ability, and even being remarkably gifted doesn’t make you great. Great painters are great because they work hard. Great composers work hard. They work hard on top of the gift.

For years, I did a lot of poor paintings because I was lazy, just resting on my natural abilities. They just weren’t good. And there came a point where I gave up painting for a while. The paintings were getting worse and worse for a number of reasons. One was that I had built my whole ego identity on my abilities as an artist. From childhood on, people had been congratulating me on it, and I’d built a fragile ego on that one fact. But the truth was, I had terrible self-esteem, and as I got older, the more I leaned into my identity as an artist, the worse the art became, until finally, I just gave it up; for several years, I didn’t paint.

Then an image began to form in my mind that I knew I had to paint. It was demanding to be painted. I could see it in my mind, and I knew it would take all the latent abilities in me to bring it forward. I had never done such a painting. It was a large Shiva Nataraja, and the face turned out to be the hardest part. The painting was largely complete and looked fantastic, but I wasn’t quite happy with the face. It was merely good. People loved it; they loved the painting that was there, but I looked at it, and I just knew it wasn’t great. So I took a cloth and I wiped the face right off!

That’s a terrible moment, because now the painting is ruined, and you may never even get it back to ‘good.’ But I stuck with it, working the problem over and over, until it was what I wanted. After that, and a few other tough lessons, I ceased to be lazy with painting. Either it is what I want it to be, more or less, or it’s getting thrown away or put aside until I can get it there. That became a fierce quality in me. It takes courage to not spare yourself in that way.


8. Render your services faithfully to all who require them.

“Render your services faithfully”—with fidelity—“to all who require them.” It doesn’t say, ‘just anybody that asks you anything.’ In the moment you are asked, it is likely you will know whether the person is depending on you or not; and if you know that, they may have a claim on you; it may be required. If you can help, and it seems necessary in the moment, then as it says in the previous rule, “Do not spare yourself in the work which you must accomplish,”

On the other hand, this rule is not asking you to become involved in what is sometimes called, ‘idiot compassion.’ You have finite time, finite resources, and you have to make smart decisions for yourself. This rule is talking about when you know what you should do, and you’re not inclined to do it. It’s asking the hard thing in a critical moment of responsibility to another.


9. Do not seek profit by putting someone else in straits.

This one is similar to “Do not take advantage of a person’s ignorance.” It is “Do not seek profit by putting someone else in straits.” Do not take advantage of someone, or profit by putting them in a bad position, “in straits,” in a tight place. Try not to put somebody in a tight position; it’s just not a good way to profit.

Behind this rule is knowing that when you succeed in life, there’s a little less resource for somebody else. Think about giving back. If I have worldly success, it is then incumbent upon me to give back from my full cup. You’ve heard me talk about this as noblesse oblige, the ‘obligation of the noble.’ If you ‘have,’ you have it to give. Your position exists in order to help somebody else, so you should certainly not seek to profit or seek to gain that position by putting someone else in straits.

In this case, the rule is suggesting that one give up the opportunity if it means hurting someone else. It doesn’t mean look for every tiny way in which you might be hurting someone somewhere somehow, and thus never seek profit. It doesn’t mean, ‘Don’t try to get the job’ because someone else won’t get it. Get the job, but then remember that it does mean that someone else didn’t get that job. We have obligations in the world to those people. But this rule is really saying, ‘just don’t put people in a bad position so that you can profit; it’s better to just give up the opportunity.


10. Harm no one for your own benefit.

And finally: “Harm no one for your own benefit,” which is in many ways, the same as the previous rule, but now the consequences are more severe; here it’s harm. “Harm no one for your own benefit.” You have to think about the nature of harm. How is it harming them?

The difference between “Do not seek profit by putting someone else in straits” and “Harm no one for your own benefit” may also be specific. The sense of “profit” may not be general. It may actually be talking about how we make money, or how we earn a living. Then, moving from the specific rule to the more general rule, we don’t want to “benefit” in any way from harming someone, and certainly not by intentionally harming, as the rule suggests.

So these are the Iron Rules, the firm rules, and they get more and more refined as we move to the Copper, Silver, and Golden rules. In fact, many of the rules in the other lists are just more refined versions of the same things; as they progress, the rules call for evermore subtlety and responsibility in terms of your intentions and motivations.


Comments and Questions

DANIEL: I know this is one of your favorites, and it’s the only one I know by heart— “Meet your shortcomings with a sword of self-respect.”

NETANEL: Yes, from the Silver Rules. It owns that we have shortcomings, but it’s noting we don’t have to be indulgent about them. If you have self-respect, and you’re aware of your shortcomings, then try to head them off with that self-respect. Out of respect for yourself, just ‘don’t go there.’

YASHA: What’s the last rule, the ‘most golden’ of the Golden Rules?

NETANEL: I don’t know if it’s the ‘most golden’ [smiles], but it is, “Do not neglect those who depend on you.”

ERICA: I love it.

DANIEL: I’m curious if the different Rules [Iron, Copper, Silver, Gold] parallel one another; if they were actually conceived so that the first Iron rule is connected intimately with the first Copper rule, and so on.

NETANEL: There are certainly rules that are connected and refined from Iron to Gold, but not in any clearly structured way that I know of.


An edited transcript of an Inayati-Maimuni sohbet in Boulder, Colorado, February 1st, 2018. Edited by Netanel Miles-Yépez and Daniel Battigalli-Ansell. Transcribed by Erica Shamah Leitz.