Saints, Teachers, and Seekers in the Indian Tradition
Founder of the Sufi Order in the West
Hazrat Inayat Khan was a Sufi teacher from India who started "The Sufi Order in the West" (now called the Sufi Order International) in the early part of the 20th century. Though his family background was Muslim, he was also steeped in the Sufi notion that all religions have their value and place in human evolution.
Inayat was born into a family of musicians in 1882. His grandfather was a well-known musician respected as a composer, performer, and developer of a musical annotation which combined a group of diverse musical languages into one simplified integrated notation.
The house in which he grew up was a crossroads for visiting poets, composers, mystics, and thinkers. There they met and discussed their views (religious and otherwise) in an environment of openness and mutual understanding. This produced in the young man a sympathy for many different religions, and a strong feeling of the "oneness" of all faiths and creeds.
Inayat would listen to the evening prayers sung in his household with great interest, and was impressed with the spiritual atmosphere produced by the chanting. From a young age, he was interested in going beyond thinking about religious issues. He wanted a direct "link with God".
He developed considerable skill at the Vina (an Indian instrument). At eighteen, he went on a concert tour throughout India intent on reviving some of the older folk songs which were being replaced by more popular melodies. He felt these songs carried a special spiritual quality which was being lost. This brought him some critical acclaim, and he was invited to perform in the courts of Rajas (the rulers of India's princely states who cooperated with the British).
Inayat began to seek spiritual guidance at this point. He had seen the face of a very spiritual bearded man off and on in his dreams for some time. One day in Hyderabad, he had a premonition that something important was about to occur. A short time later, the man he had seen in his dreams entered the room.
Both teacher and disciple were immediately drawn to each other. The teacher was Mohammed Abu Hasana (or Said Abu Hashim Mudan depending on one's source) whose family originally came from Medina, the sacred city of Islam in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed was a member of the Chishti Sufi Order that was introduced into India at the close of the 12th century A.D.
Inayat describes the close relationship the disciple should develop with his or her teacher:
The next thing in the attainment of the inner life is to seek a spiritual guide - someone whom a man can absolutely trust and have every confidence in, someone to whom one can look up to, and one with whom one is in sympathy - a relationship which would culminate in what is called devotion. And if once he has found someone in life that he considers his Guru, his Murshad, his guide, then he should give him all confidence, so that not a thing is kept back. If there is something kept back, then what is given might just as well be taken away, because everything must be done fully, either have confidence or not have confidence, either have trust or not have trust. On the path of perfection, all things must be done fully.Inayat maintained close contact with his teacher for four years. During this time, he experienced a level of realization that made God a reality in his life.
As his master lay dying, the teacher told him: "Go to the Western world my son and unite East and West through the magic of your music". Two years later, in September of 1910, Inayat sailed for America.
Inayat began to teach and discuss his world view with different people who would ask what to call this mode of thought. For a long time, Inayat refused to give it a name fearing it would create barriers between people. He would say only it was ancient wisdom from the one and only source. He emphasized how none of the great spiritual teachers gave a name to their religious views. Finally, knowing that a body of thought needs some identifier to unify it, he told people it was Sufism.
Inayat began to travel and lecture first in the United States and later in Europe. He traveled widely between 1910 and 1920. He decided to do more intensive teaching during the summer in France, and took up residence there near Paris in Suresnes where he could hold his "summer schools".
His teaching strongly emphasized the fundamental oneness of all religions. He was deeply concerned that many of the western religious traditions had lost knowledge of the "science of soul", and the prayer and meditation techniques necessary to develop higher consciousness in mankind.
This Sufi universalism, or interest in and respect for different religions is reflected in a saying by the thirteenth century Andalusian Sufi teacher Ibn 'Arabi. This respected scholar and mystic who authored among other works the classic Sufi retreat manual Journey To The Lord Of Power wrote:
Beware of confining yourself to a particular belief and denying all else, for much good would elude you - indeed, the knowledge of reality would elude you. Be in yourself for all forms of belief, for God is too vast and tremendous to be restricted to one belief rather than another. (Awakening - A Sufi Experience by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, Jeremy P. Tarcher - Putnam, New York, 1999, p. VIII), (Original source: Ibn 'Arabi, Fusus al-Hikam, edited by Abu al-'Ala 'Afifi, 2 parts (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-'Arabi, 1980), 1: 119))
It was at Suresnes that Inayat developed the Universal Worship service that is now associated with the "Sufi Order in the West". The ritual consists of an invocation, a reading from one of the holy books of the world's major religions, and the lighting of a candle for each tradition. A candle is also lit for all those individuals or religious systems (unknown or forgotten) that have inspired mankind. The ritual continues with a discourse, and ends with a blessing. One goal of the Universal Worship service is to show people from different cultures the many common elements they share in their religious traditions, and to create a sense of unity among people from different cultures by teaching them to read each other's scriptures and "pray each other's prayers".
Inayat said that he traveled a great deal not only to introduce people to the teachings but also to "tune the inner spheres of a country" to a "higher pitch of vibration". His disciple Sirkan Von Stolk talks about these vibrations during his meditation with Inayat:
At those moments he attuned and raised my consciousness to such a high degree that I could hardly stand it. The rate of vibration- that is the only way I can describe it - was so fantastic that it was almost too powerful for me, and I longed to return to the limited security of my own personality where I could I go on living at my own rhythm! (Memories of a Sufi Sage, Hazrat Inayat Khan by Sikar Van Stok with Daphne Dunlop, East-West Publications Fonds B.V., The Hague, 1967, p.40)
Inayat was also concerned that people who did esoteric practices and had deeper spiritual experience find ways to harmonize with the larger religious community and society of which they were a part. He wrote that a person deeply involved in the spiritual life could go to church, mosque, or temple and act in harmony with their fellow religious seekers though their paths might inwardly be very different. Thus, the Sufi at the Mosque, the householder sadhu at the Hindu temple, or the saintly person at the church would fit in with the larger community. Inayat recommended the such people carry out their responsibilities and practice the group's rituals as an ordinary member of their religious congregation. Such an approach conveys respect and admiration for religious people regardless of how they choose to practice their tradition.
In later life, Inayat went through a three stage set of realizations which had such a profound effect on him as to make him "almost unrecognizable" to those who knew him. Inayat claimed that while his consciousness was far removed from the body, he was obliged to pass through the different states of awareness that all human beings pass through in their development. The experience was analogous to Dante's experience of hell, purgatory, and heaven which concludes in the Beatific Vision of God.
Part of this initiation consisted of an experience of Hell. Hell is a place that the living visit in dreams, and the dead experience when their consciousness lives on to reap the results of their negative actions in life. Inayat's view was that hell in the afterlife is comparable to dreaming but much more intense.
The next vision was an experience of purgatory where souls suffer in an effort to move beyond their attachments and limitations. This act of purification requires a great effort of will.
The third vision was a stage of bliss where the human element was purified and purged to the point of illumination. Von Stalk describes Inayat as "cosmic" and as a being "now given up to service as a superb channel for the divine" following this final experience.
Inayat had been a tireless teacher, writer, and lecturer traveling and lecturing almost continuously for seventeen years. He had established his school in France, and a dedicated group of disciples. But, his difficult schedule had weakened him over the years. He left for India to see his homeland for the first time in seventeen years. He hoped to rest and meditate but was asked to lecture and graciously consented as was common. He died in New Delhi in 1927 of influenza.
Hazrat Inayat Kahn is probably the best known teacher of Sufism in America and Europe in the 20th century. His legacy of Sufi universalism or what one author terms "nonIslamic Sufism" is seen primarily in the three areas of the Sufi Order International organization, Omega Institute, and the Dances of Universal Peace.
Inayat's son Vilayet Khan, who died in 2004, had continued to spread the message of Sufism in the west. He also traveled and taught extensively and wrote several books. He was a co-founder of the Omega Institute, a large "new age" teaching institute in Rhinebeck New York begun in 1977. The center for the Sufi Order International is the Abode of the Message located since 1975 on an old Shaker community farm in New York State near Albany.
Pir Zia Khan, the grandson of Inayat Khan, is the current leader of the Sufi Order International of North America. He studied Buddhism with the Dalai Lama as well as the classical Indian Sufism of the Chishtiya Order. He recently published a book titled Holy Mysteries of the Five Elements.
The Dances of Universal Peace developed by Samuel Lewis in conjunction with the Sufi Order and the modern dance teacher Ruth St. Denis are known throughout the world as a spiritual practice mixing meditation, song, and dance. Sufi Sam, as Lewis was known, was deeply influenced by his study with two people. One was Hazrat Inayat Khan of the Sufi Order, and the other was Ruth St. Denis, who was a teacher of Martha Graham and a feminist pioneer in the modern dance movement in America and Europe.
Lewis' and St. Dennis' idea of melding peace into the arts through dance drew on such diverse influences as Jalaleddin Rumi's whirling dervishes, modern dance, early American Shaker circle dances, square dancing, and Zen walking meditation (or kinhin) for patterns of movement. They combined the dance movements with spiritual prayers, chants, scriptures, mantras, and poetry from all the world's religions. Sam and Ruth also incorporated the Muslim concept of Zikir or "rememberence" of the divine name by emphasizing the repetition of simple spiritual phrases. They set these phrases to music and added the simple dance steps. Many of the early chants came directly from the sacred Muslim phrases used in Zikr.
The emphasis was on "meditation in movement" and on "participation, not presentation". The original dances, which numbered about fifty, have grown over the years to more than 500 in number. Lewis said he wanted to teach the hippies of San Francisco to dance. There was a cultural renaissance in San Francisco's music and art scene in the late sixtys and Lewis thought some of that enthusiasm could be channeled into spiritual practice through dance. He said he created the dances to show young people how to deepen their spirituality and as a way to help them find bliss (or get high) without the use of drugs.
The essential nonsectarian message of the Sufi Order International is still expressed in the Universal Worship service which honors all the world's major religions by reading passages from their holy books.
Books by and about Hazrat Inayat Khan:
The Inner Life and the purpose of Life by Hazrat Inayat Khan
Creating the Person: A Practical Guide to the Development of Self by Hazrat Inayat Khan
The Soul's Journey by Hazrat Inayat Khan
Memories of a Sufi Sage HAZRAT INAYAT KHAN by Sirkan Von Stolk and Daphne Dunlop, East-West Publications Fonds B.V., 1975
More information on the Dances of Universal Peace can be found at
the web site:
The Dances of Universal Peace
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