Sufism – difficulties with definition
In one of the last interviews conducted before his death, one of the greatest contemporary sufi masters, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh (1926 – 2008), stresses that when a meditative practice becomes defined with words, it stops being sufism. A sufi practice rejects dogmatism, labelling and patterns, a specific view on things is not valued in this path. Instead, an individual set of practices assigned to a disciple (murid) by his teacher (murshid/sheik/pir) is suggested. The main theme is abandoning one’s conditionings that attach us to a more or less subtle suffering. That is why some authors classify sufism as a peculiar branch/type of a widely understood yoga, next to classic, postclassical yoga, buddism etc.
Two sufi traditions
When you look at who defines themselves as a sufi or their practice as sufism, you will notice a clear division into two – practically opposing – traditions.
One of them is sufism based on muslim religion. Its teachers are often islamic theologicians or scholars of Islam. They see the beginning of sufism with the time of prophet Mahomet’s activity (6/7 a.d.) and as you can imagine the tradition/doctrine of abandoning dogmatism does not play the key part here. Thus it is not of special interest to me and neither does it present the background of Inayat Khan’s activity.
The other tradition, the one that has gained my trust, is the (yogic/meditative) mistical tradition developed in the Middle East (and later spread throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, including the Indian subcontinent). Followers of that tradition place the origin of sufism in the times of the Old Testament prophet Abraham, i.e. about 3000 BC. That tradition has not been followed by dogmatic theologicians but by mistics and dervishes. Inayat Khan, when referring to that tradition, used the term “universal sufism” to describe his teachings. Famous sufis of that tradition have been on numerous occasions accused of being unfaithful to Islam, and some of them have been executed, like Mansur Al-Hallaj, for example.
A lot of sufis of that tradition are outstanding poets, among others Rumi, Shams e-Tabriz, Rabia of Basra, Hafiz. Most of them are extraordinary individuals, leading excentric lives and teaching, sporadically one could find ascetics among them (the most famous sufi ascetic is at the same time one of the few mistics-women: Rabia of Basra).
Hazrat Inayat Khan
Hazrat Inayat Khan was born in Baroda in India in 1882, to a family of musicians. His grandfather was Maula Bakhsh, an outstanding musisian, called an “Indian Bethoveen”, founder of the Musical Academy in Baroda. It was in his house that Inayat Khan grew up, meeting people of various denominations, mainly muslims, hindu brahmins or worshippers of Zoroastrianism. Inayat Khan, as well as his grandfather and father (Rahmat Khan), showed a great musical talent, owing to which he became a full professor of the Musical Academy at the age of 20. The news about his beautiful voice and exquisite vine playing spread over the whole of India very quickly and that is why he used to be invited to play at princes’ courts.
However, despite being appreciated for his artistic achievements, young Inayat Khan does not feel accomplished. He pilgrimages throughout India. He visits, among others, a tomb of a sufi saint Moineddin Chisti. The atmosphere of the place encouraged him to search further. It became especially evident when in 1902 his beloved mother died and he was needed to fill an empty space of some kind. More and more often one could find him among yogis and dervishes. He turned to many teachers asking them to accept him as a disciple but they sent him away saying they couldn’t help him. Eventually, in 1904 Inayat Khan met his murshid (teacher), namely, Hazrat Shaykh al- Masha’ikh Muhammad Abu Hashim Madani. Hashim Madani initiated him to the Chisti sufi order, as well as to 3 other sufi paths (tariqas). Inayat Khan learnt from him for 4 years till the Shaykh’s death. Before the Shaykh died he had blessed Inayat and bade him to go to the West to harmonise it with the East, spreading the sufi wisdom.
The death of the teacher (1908) coincides with the death of the father (1910). That is why Inayat Khan decides to make the teacher’s wish come true and to go to the USA. He goes together with his brother Maheboob Khan and cousin Mohamed Ali Khan. A year later Inayat’s youngest brother – Musharaff Moulamia Khan – joins them. Although Inayat Khan got surprised by the complete lack of life rhythm and a nervous rush in the West, he quickly adjusted to the new reality, and at the same time more and more disciples began following his teachings in America, England, France, Holland and other countries. He was leading a family life as well: he got married to an American Ora Ray Baker (a.k.a. Pirani Ameena Begum), with whom he had four children. As a place of residence they have chosen Suresnes near Paris. That is where annual Summer Schools took place, to which murids (disciples) from all over the world came to have an opportunity of being taught by Inayat Khan. Apart from those Hazrat Inayat Khan intensely travelled with lectures. In 1927, exhausted by the intense lifestyle, he died prematurely in India.
Esoteric School’s (sufi order’s) practices
The most inportant part of Inayat Khan’s teaching – Universal Sufism (as opposed to the Islamic sufism, see above “two traditions of sufism) – were the practices of the Sufi Order, i.e. the Esoteric (Internal) School. The Sufi Order is an initiating path (tarika/tariqua) of a meditative practice, which means that to be introduced by the teacher to certain practices, one is required to be formally initiated into the lineage, through a ritual where the disciple confirms their willingness to learn from a given teacher and according to a certain lineage.
Inayat Khan’s universal sufism offers a number or various practices which, in a simplified way, can be divided into the following groups:
- Personal contact with the teacher, being around the teacher,
- Studying texts suggested by the teacher,
- Simple physical exercises,
- Invocations, prayers and blessings,
- Breathing-rectifying/purifying exercises (e.g..20 purifying breaths) and breathing-concentrating exercises (called pranayama or kasab),
- Concentration (muraqaba),
- Shagal (exercises connected with working with the senses and emotions)
- Wazifa (meditation practice with mantra recited aloud, sometimes combined with visual concentration or visualisation),
- Fikar/fikr (meditation practice with silent mantra given in the thoughts, synchronised with breathing),
- Sama/sema (practice of silence preceded by meditative music),
- Zikar (also zikr, dhikr; meditative practice where a certain mantra is combined with a torso movement and a selected intention).
Each of these groups of practices is used for a specific purpose. In sufi practice physical exercises are used for releasing the tension, strengthening the body and preparing it for meditation. Prayers are used to create an appropriate state of mind, i.e. raising one’s mind to a certain ideal. Breathing-purifying practices and breathing-concentrating practices are used to clear the body and mind, as well as to prepare for meditation. A similar purpose is served by the muraqaba (concentration) practice, shagal (practices of restraining/withdrawing the senses) and sama (practice of silence after the meditation with music). Wazifa and fikar represent a great variety of meditative practices that are based on mantra. They are supposed to help with the work on specific qualities as each mantra (wazifa) is connected with a given quality. Zikar is a set of practices supposed to be leading to renounce/cast away one’s false conditionings and to understanding one’s true, free from suffering, nature.
Some traditions/lineages, originating from Inayat Khan’s teaching, also suggest walking meditation (walked zikar, walked fikar) as well as meditative dances. The former and the latter technique is a preparatory practice for the proper meditative practice (wazifa, fikar and especially zikar).
Other areas of Inayat Khan’s teaching
Inayat Khan’s teaching wasn’t limited solely to teaching a meditative practice (i.e. to the Esoteric School/sufi order). It also comprised other areas. Basically, in the main stream of Inayat’s linage the teachings entailed the following areas:
- Esoteric School (Sufi Order) – meditation practice, the character of which I have described above.
- Universal Worship – a ritual where individuals get a unified experience within various religions through reading from holy books of different religions on one given subject;
- Healing Order – formed by groups focused on work with conscioussness aimed at healing;
- Mistic symbolism – an area of the practice focused on a deeper understanding of symbols in everyday life, the essence of the practice are 2 rituals: a dance and drama ritual of 5 elements and the Ziraat ritual based on agrarian symbolism;
- Brotherhood/ Sisterhood (Kinship) – an area of sufi teaching where some contents of sufi teaching that are understood and accessible to the non-initiated but could bring some benefits to their everyday lives are shared with non-initiated to the Sufi Order ones.
A little bit beyond the main stream two quite powerful groups of “Universal Peace Dances”, and even a sort of Knight Order (Hazratiyya Order Knights of Purity – Futuwwat-i Safwa-yi Silsila-yi Hazratiyya) that aims at consistent and reflective practicing the principles of good social life (so called Inayat Khan’s iron, bronze, silver and golden principles). I will write about this specific activity in another article some time.