The Paradox of “Universal Sufism” by Pir Zia Inayat Khan

A note: I have been reposting alot of materials from earlier blogs of mine, hence all the Sufi materials. I practice both paths, so both Universal Sufism and Shingon Buddhism ( also zazen & Hua-yen)  are the basis of my spirituality. Eventually, it will all balance out. Your understanding is appreciated. -James Myoe/Jamil


The Paradox of “Universal Sufism”

by Pir Zia Inayat Khan


The word ‘tension’ often tends to have a rather negative valance, but actually, I use that word in a very positive sense, because I feel that all of my energy comes from a kind of tension. I feel there are poles of experience, and somehow in the encounter between those poles, there is a dynamism that is much more meaningful than is found in any static experience of one or the other pole. Somehow, the path unfolds as a kind of a spiraling dance rather than a straight line, being pulled in one direction and the other, and out of that, whirling, and in that whirling a flow of energy is created that allows one to ascend.

In fact, I believe the Message in which we participate is one that is deeply expressive of paradox, and to me, that is its deepest beauty, something I would never wish to forsake. But this paradox can be challenging. We find ourselves in the throes of dilemmas, and there is no comfort zone to fall back upon, no easy answers. We cannot erect boundaries within which to secure our identity. We expose ourselves to this paradox and in doing so, we may find ourselves thrown between these poles. Our effort is always to bring those poles out of discord and into accord, out of cacophony and into symphony. So, as I address this topic, it may be that my words will not come easily or appear to follow a linear progression. They may instead take a more spiraling kind of form, a weaving more akin to the symbol of the curl of the beloved. But my hope is that out of these articulations of my own perspective, having approached these questions for many years, that there will be something of value for you. As always, always, the caveat is one Murshid himself offered which is, “I offer you my words and you must choose from them those which agree with you and which you can assimilate, and the others, simply leave them aside.”

Those whose experience of Sufism is particular to the Sufism that is taught and experienced within the Sufi Order community will have an understanding of Sufism that is not specifically tailored to the practice of the Islamic religion. Whereas, those who have experienced a number of Sufi tariqas will realize that most of the Orders that are practicing throughout the world, and also indeed in this country, have traditions specifically oriented through the symbols of the Islamic tradition.

Azar Kayvan was a great universalist Mazdean sage. I see him in many ways as a beautiful predecessor to the work of Hazrat Inayat Khan, in offering an ecumenical approach to mysticism. He was by birth a Zoroastrian, but his teaching interwove the traditions of Islam, of Hinduism, and of Zoroastrianism and indeed Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. He taught in India and his disciples were of all faiths, Hindu Brahmans, Jewish Rabbis, a Portuguese Christian, many Zoroastrians, and also Muslims – and he never ever suggested changing faith to any of his followers. He felt that each faith was a channel of Divine grace, and it was his work only to bring each of his students into the full light of his or her own tradition through the awakening of ‘aql, intellect and qalb, heart. He was respected by all religious communities, and was often selected to resolve an interreligious dispute. These kinds of disputes are always flaring up, and if not addressed in the most lucid and harmonious way, tend to become inflamed, and can lead to wars. In the writings of his son, Kay Khusraw Isfandiar is a beautiful record of how he responded. Once there was a dispute between the Shia community sect within Islam, and the Sunni sect. They were arguing about the precedence between their various figureheads, the khalifas, the khalifs. Azar Kayvan’s response was one of great subtlety. He succeeded in showing to each party the value of the perspective of each. In another example, Christians and Muslims were debating whether Christ was alive or dead. The Christian was saying that Christ was alive, and the Muslim was saying that Christ was dead. Azar Kayvan asked the Muslim, “If you were a traveler who had lost your way, and you came to a fork in the road, and before you there was a corpse and there was a living man, to whom would you address your request for directions?” The Muslim answered, “Well, the living man.” So, Azar Kayvan said, “For you then Christ must be living.”

So, he was able to most beautifully address these questions without taking sides in sectarian disputes. Azar Kayvan’s khanqah was visited by mystics of all creeds. He taught his dervishes, his students, that when anyone should come, what you must do is not give your teaching, but listen to their teaching. Ask what is their teaching, and, when they present their teaching, you must express your admiration, and in that way bring them into your heart. He says, “That is what we are called upon to do here.” In that way, his community was far ahead of its time. I can think of very few parallels to that kind of ecumenical work in the pre-modern period. That is what we have been called upon to do. We were called upon to participate with those who visit us, and to express our appreciation.

Now, of course, there is the danger of hypocrisy and dissimulation if one simply, chameleon like, imitates those around oneself. But, I think the danger of this is really overrated. I think what is gained by doing this – if this same reception is accorded not merely to one group, but to all who come in full sincerity with a tradition, and if we can maintain our own receptivity to this level – is that we can participate with each in his or her own faith. In this way our own faith will be immeasurably enhanced. I realize that those of us who have a way of our own that is comfortable, may feel, and particularly if the context is not provided, if understanding what is the nature of this sharing is lacking, there may always be the concern that one is somehow being co-opted. I want to validate that concern, and I want to share with you my sense that there is a need for watchfulness. I want to share with you my agreement that we need to be vigilant. We have also something to represent, although it is in many respects transparent and open, like water that may take on the color of the vessel into which it is poured, but itself is transparent, that is our ideal. But to shift metaphors, we need to be watchful that, beyond merely being poured into a vessel, we are not also taking on some coloration that may be poured into our translucent water.

It is, I think, common knowledge that the openness of heart we represent is just that, an open heart, an opening to all who might come. Perhaps there have been times when that has been seen as an opportunity. We both represent a Sufi tariqa and also stand for a universal vision embracing the totality of revelations. In this paradoxical situation, our rootedness in a tariqa combined with our openness can be seen as an invitation to be inducted into a kind of structure of tariqa. We have a deep relationship with the Islamic tradition through our Sufi heritage, while at the same time, we have maintained an openness whereby our participation in the Islamic tradition is never subjected to compulsion of any kind. In fact, we are encouraged to participate in the forms of worship and the symbolic universes in which we find our true home, and that may be different for each of us. We are encouraged to do that and belong still to this tariqa, which has historically grown out of an Islamic context. This puts us in a position of ambiguity with relation to the religion of Islam – openness without, in many cases, participation at least on the level of shariat.

Many of those who represent the practice of Islam as grounded in the shariat might consider this an incomplete practice, and they may see us as lacking in something which they would wish to provide us. This intention can take many forms. Some of these forms can be extremely beautiful and can in fact be sources of great edification for us. We can indeed, learn very much from these traditions that have maintained over the decades and over the centuries practices which, because of their rootedness in this integrated vision and because of their consistency over the ages, have a tremendous power. These have from time to time been offered to us. Some of us may feel a strong desire to accept that gift, and to respect the intention by which it is given, and to participate in it. At the same time, I think all of us who participate in this universal aspect of the message feel also a conscience, a pledge we have made to a universal vision for the future. Our vision is always reminding us – as much strength and power and focus we find in a particular tradition – that we want to leave ourselves open.

I do not mean to imply that a tradition which has its basis, or one basis, in the participation in a revealed law is de facto closed and cannot also share in our universal ideals. It is such a subtle dilemma that I have to approach it from many different angles. I know my grandfather, Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid, deeply respected traditional worship where ever he found it, for instance at the Vatican, where he was deeply moved by the magnetism created in the ritual. He was also inspired by the call of the future -new ideals arising out of a new social situation and its call to heaven, the deep sigh that is arising in the world today and is finding an answer. Some of those traditional forms may not feel consonant always with the responses that are being elicited by the needs of society today. But somehow, neither are they to be jettisoned. Somehow the vision that is struggling to emerge has to struggle through the traditional roots; it cannot sacrifice the history of revelation. As Hazrat Inayat Khan says, “There cannot be a new religion, there can only be ‘the’ religion. ‘The’ religion has come again and again over the ages, but ‘the’ religion becomes ‘a’ religion when it is restricted to only one of those channels.”

I feel the same kind of creative tension in the whole mission of my grandfather, Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan. As you know, he was not someone who arose out of this post-modern eclectic milieu in which we find ourselves today. Actually, his whole training and education was as a traditional believer. He was not even trained in an English school in colonial India. He was trained in a traditional Madrassa education. His training in Sufism similarly was a very traditional one, not in touch with developments in the West, not in touch with social developments, not in touch with technological developments. Yet, somehow, his mission was – even historically speaking, let alone on the Divine level – you might say, provoked by this post-modernity. At that time – the heyday of modernity really – the world in which he lived was a change from all that had come before. Modernity presented itself as an overturning of tradition and was closely tied with the colonial project. Perhaps you know that colonialism had a profound impact on the life of Hazrat Inayat Khan. It seems, from the sources, although they are elliptical, that his Murshid’s Murshid had actually been executed by British soldiers at the time of the so called mutiny in Delhi when the Raj was established. So, his murshid gave him the command, “Go forth into the world my child and unite East and West through your music and the wisdom of Sufism, for in that you are uniquely blessed.”

Where did this East and West come from? That came from this profound break with tradition that had occurred in the western world and to which we are the heirs. This break with tradition has, from a certain perspective, enabled an appreciation of all traditions, if its implications are pursued in the light of the spirit of guidance rather than through a kind of dark materialism which too often predominates. East and West had already, in Hazrat Inayat’s time, become symbols of science – the West – versus mysticism – the East. Materialism, was represented by the West, spirituality, the East. Of course, mysticism and spirituality in the colonial discourse were devalued as a kind of quaint orientalism, something very foreign and even seductive, sometimes alluring, but ultimately inferior to the light of rationalism. In Hazrat Inayat Khan’s own time, India was coming under the direction of the colonial industrialists who were bringing science, and the way of commerce – capitalism.

The West had established its dominance in rational knowledge, in science, and in commerce. How could the East answer? The East could not rise to the challenge of rationalism or commerce, although, over the decades, that has been the intention. Westernization is underway and capitalist values are percolating throughout the East. I was presented with the beautiful photos of the ceremony that occurred when my father passed on to me his mantle, and I found there were dervishes, there were western dervishes, ethnic garb of all kinds, and then in the background was a Pepsi Cola sign. This to me was an important symbol.

So, we all are the children of this spirit of modernity. Hazrat Inayat Khan, in a sense, came as an answer, the answer of the East to the West. If one studies his teachings, particularly the context of the development of his teaching, chronologically, reads the newspapers in which he gave interviews, a picture unfolds of his development in the West. It becomes clear that he came very much as a representative of the high classical tradition of Indian music. The East, as I say, was devalued, and all of its cultural traditions were devalued. The time in which we live has seen a wonderful reversal of that attitude. Now there is a booming trade in world music for instance. At that time, most of the people who came to his concerts came simply for the curiosity. Very few people could really find anything much to appreciate in it. We know this, because there are records of the responses of those who attended his concerts and often they would reply with statements like, “Well, that was all very interesting. Of course, to our ears it sounds very funny you’ll understand. But, of course, it’s always good to broaden one’s horizons.”

Whereas now, I think, our cultural ear has developed so that it can actually hear the melodies of a raga in the way that perhaps our grandparents could not. Hazrat Inayat Khan himself, I think, rose to that intra-cultural challenge. It was a question not only of East versus West, or America versus India, but also this whole new development of modernity versus traditional mysticism. Out of that encounter I believe something extremely significant arose. We find that Hazrat Inayat Khan initially was extremely intent on presenting himself as an ambassador of all that was honorable in eastern culture. He often found himself – confronted with stereotypes of the East – responding with generalizations of his own, which often prioritized East over West, trying to invert that imbalance. In this common generalization whereby the West was associated with rationalism and the East with obscurantism, he valorized mysticism in order to revalorize the position of the East. For instance, there was a time when someone who had attended his talk thanked him and then said very politely, “Now that you have had an opportunity to experience our Christian culture, we’re hoping that you will take that Christianity back with you to the East.” Hazrat Inayat Khan’s response was, “Madam, but it is already come from the East.” This kind of exchange sometimes almost took the form of a kind of rivalry – East versus West, Christianity versus eastern traditions.

Hazrat Inayat Khan never wished to challenge the authenticity of Christianity and its deep value. Even when the name of the prophet Mohammed, whose remembrance he was in the practice of doing daily, would be met with extremely hostile responses, Hazrat Inayat Khan was always extremely patient and never took the posture of a missionary. In fact, he said, “My work was more difficult, because I was not a missionary. It would have made things simpler if I could have been a missionary. I would have had a very clear group of supporters. I could tell for instance, my Indian friends and compatriots back home, ‘Well, I’ve gone to the West to spread Islam.'”

I can tell you from my own experience, when I visit India everyone wants to know, “Are you spreading Islam there? How many converts are being made there?” There is always that eagerness and he would have had a lot of support to draw upon if he had done that. In fact, in that time as in this time, there are always wealthy patrons who are hoping to see their particular cause forwarded. Hazrat Inayat Khan says, “I have no such patron. I have no special group whose cause I am championing. That’s what made it so difficult. Those who are responding to my call never had any container in which to find this sense of security, or the tremendous support that a traditional religion has, that reservoir of good will to draw upon.” He was, in a sense, starting fresh, but as he did so, it was never with the intention of replacing anything that had come before, undermining anything else. It was always toward the purpose of unity.

As his style developed, and I believe as his own inner attunement and indeed his own inspiration developed, we find that his own work changed in its complexion. If one looks at the original constitution of the Sufi Order, it is based on the model of a khanqah, and each room of the khanqah is described. One room is called the masjid, the room for worship, the other is described as the kutub-khana, the library where the Sufi classics are shelved, and so on and so forth. And all of the terms are directly taken from the khanqah experience he had in India. Gradually, as his work unfolded, it became less and less a khanqah, a Sufi tariqa, and it took the role of a most broad outreach to humanity, which could not be fit into a khanqah. Of course, it contained within itself the accommodation for a khanqah, and for a Christian church, and indeed for a hospice of any faith. In fact, in his description of the Sufi Order, which one finds in the book The Unity of Religious Ideals, he says that this Order has been founded and it has members from all religions. Each of these religions is a group within it, that takes the Order’s teachings, applies the Order’s teachings, and receives the Order’s guidance while still practicing the group’s own religion.

His own understanding and presentation of Sufism became more and more inclusive, and in fact, he spoke more and more not of Sufism, but of the Sufi Message, and in fact, more and more of simply the Message. His final act, before returning to India, whence he was to pass on from this Earth, was to found the Universel temple which he envisioned as the temple for the spirituality of the future. It would be an accommodation for the spirituality of the future in which all forms of adoration will find a place, in which all will pray to God in their own languages, in their own forms of worship, side by side. In articulating his vision of the Universel, he said, “Each revelation with its tradition has struck a note, but there is the symphony.” He saw that this world in which we live has entered a new phase. This is completely unprecedented. There is no precedent to the communication that we have across the globe. There is no precedent to the kinship that is emerging, the sense of our community as the community of the planet. This is not the community of the nation state, not the community of religion, not the community of the tribe, not the community of the family, but the community of humanity. Our intercommunication is perhaps the light to the shade, to the darkness, of the colonial experience. This world has been brought together. We have become inseparably linked, and we are becoming familiar with each other with such increasing rapidity that within a single generation the boundaries that exist between us will become as naught.

This new cultural configuration has its own demands, and spirituality in every generation has answered the demands of the age. That’s why the revelations have differed. There have been different laws given, there are different attunements, different colorations. But now, when all of this diversity is coming more and more into contact, somehow a unity is forming, and shining out from the diversity, somehow there is the sense that something new may happen, that all these notes that have been struck may come together as a symphony. This is the promise of the message that illuminated Hazrat Inayat Khan’s life and work. And that is the message we have the sacred trust to carry on. Among Hazrat Inayat Khan’s final words were, “My work I have placed into your hands.” What he has done is awesome, awe inspiring.

I had a most beautiful communion with Sheikh Dieye of Senegal. He is a Muslim of the most rigorous absorption in his tradition. His fluency with the Qur’an, with the prayers, is the hallmark not only of the greatness of these traditional cultures in which so much can be inculcated, but also of a great being who can absorb so much from his tradition. He is not only a superb representative of Islam, but also a superb representative of the message in our time. He said to me, “God gave your grandfather a mission of tremendous scope, but he gave him very few years.” He said, “Your grandfather planted the seed, and that seed is now entrusted to us.” Sheikh Dieye said that, “When I was younger I used to think little of the indigenous traditions of Africa, the animism. I thought that these were misguided beliefs, but now I see their Divine wisdom.” Then he spoke of his visit to India. And he said, he had always recognized the Torah and the Gospels as divine revelations, because the Qur’an itself confirms this. But he says, “Then I went to India, and I read the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. All that I saw was truth.” Then he said something very striking, “The one who does not recognize the truth of the Upanishads is a kafir (an unbeliever).”

I find the same universality in, for instance, the Rif’ai Sheikh Sharif Baba, that same dedication, as well as in many others.

When I reach a certain level of trust with someone, I don’t shy away from sharing what I see as the vision of Hazrat Inayat Khan. That may involve a kind of exposure that is different from what may occur in more formal settings, or when we take the role of host to other tariqas. In those cases we want to behave according to our heritage as a tariqa. That is the adab. But, when we meet on this very deep level, then I find that I almost feel there may be some pretense if I do not share also that most universal level of our work.

I want to say that Hazrat Inayat Khan’s work is the work of a tariqa, but it is also the work of universal spirituality. In the West, there is a history of animosity toward Islam and the beauty that is in Islam is not easy to reveal here. That is indeed part of the truth that I carry. But, as I say this, I also want to say more. I do not want to say that our universal dimension is a compromise with the West. I do not want to say that Islam cannot be accepted here for historical reasons, and so we offer the universal aspect of Islam. I don’t want to give that partial truth. Our work is to bring together all of the religions and to awaken the spirituality that exists in all traditions, and ultimately transcends all traditions. When I said this, to Sheikh Dieye, he understood, and he said, “Yes, there are some who will present Sufism as an entree into Islam for the reason that Islam is difficult to assimilate, but can be assimilated through Sufism.” I repeat, he is someone who fully embodies the best of Islamic spirituality. He said, “But there is also this work. There are those whose destiny lies within something else, lies within their own faith, and our work is with them. It is not something other. It’s not to bring them over to our tradition. There is a grander vision that is unfolding.”

I feel there is something deeply beautiful in this symmetry. Our universality, if it is to be universal, must indeed embrace the traditions, because otherwise what is universality? This is not a one-sided gesture. When we embrace the tradition of Islam in this way, the tradition of Islam embraces us in a most beautiful way and opens itself toward that point of Omega that represents the future of spirituality toward which we are all working to build the temple of the Universel. Again, I invite you to take that which is palatable and leave the rest.

[From: Heart&Wings – summer-fall edition 2000]


~ by James Myoe on December 24, 2007.

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