By James Peacock
In the late 19th century, the Chicago World’s Fair was held as a celebration of the technological achievements of the West, which enabled it to dominate the globe. Nearby, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held, which resulted in the largest gathering in history of the representatives of the world religions. The event provided a unique opportunity for non-Christians to share their religions with the West, and resulted in memorable appearances by individuals such as Swami Vivekananda, representing Hinduism, Anagarika Dharmapala, representing Theravada Buddhism, and Soyen Shaku, representing Zen Buddhism. The enthusiastic response they received opened the door to a steady stream of representatives of Asian spirituality to the West. In 1910, Hazrat Inayat Khan, from India, would join them, bringing Sufism to the West, and reshaping it into a universalist philosophy and practice.
Caravan of Souls: An Introduction to the Sufi Path of Hazrat Inayat Khan, compiled and edited by his grandson Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, is a collection of short essays, most written by Inayat Khan, with contributions by Pir Zia and students of both teachers. The essays cover a wide range of topics: the guiding philosophy of Universal Sufism, the history of its founding and its founder, personal practices, group rituals, and organizational structure. Most of the essays are only 1-2 pages long, providing just enough information for an introduction, and the whole work provides a very readable overview of the people, practices, and history of Universal Sufism.
Sufism has a history dating back to early Arabian Islam, forming a sect that emphasized renunciation, contemplation, and love of the divine, and stood in opposition to the political power and literalism that came to characterize the growing religion of Islam. In time, the universal and mystical dimensions of Sufism resulted in persecution, and it went underground, even as its popularity grew. As Islam spread east, Sufism was further shaped by Persian and Indian culture, as Sufis freely interacted with members of different cultures and religions. It became a permanent part of the cultural and religious landscape of southern and central Asia. In 1882, Inayat Khan was born into a colorful, heterogeneous environment that included Islamic, Hindu, and Parsi influences. He grew up to become a famous musician and met his teacher, who initiated him into Sufism, and in 1910, sent him to the West with a mission to unite East and West with his music and spiritual teachings.
The first section of the book, “The Message,” is a summary of the guiding philosophy of Universal Sufism, and is an exemplar of universalist spirituality, reminding me of the Perennial Philosophy. Reading this section, I encountered ideas that were very familiar from readings in Vedanta, Zen, HaBaD Hasidism, and Christian mysticism. Every time I encounter these ideas, they seem to serve as a confirmation of the validity of the Perennial Philosophy, that such profound thoughts and experiences have been available to people from very different cultures and times. Of course, we have to be careful about finding patterns where they don’t actually exist, but the evidence in favor of a perennial philosophy/psychology/spirituality just seems to be growing. After all, we may come from different backgrounds, but we are all human beings, and the ideas of the Perennial Philosophy—that the world's religions have different exoteric dimensions (theology, beliefs, practices, etc.), but their esoteric/inner/contemplative dimensions form processes of transformation that eventually converge on the same non-dual point—seem to be rooted in our common human nature. “The Message” is my favorite part of the book, describing the following principles:
● Humanity is one family, one body.
● Sufism transcends religious differences and can be practiced by anyone.
● It emphasizes wisdom, and love for God.and humanity.
● Sufism is a process of purification, of returning to the natural state.
● The aim is self-realization - realization of one’s true nature.
● All scriptures are sacred, each a different interpretation of the one scripture of life, humanity, and nature.
● A Sufi worships beauty and is guided by his own conscience.
● Love is God, truth is the ultimate goal, and the result is happiness and peace (reminding me of a quote from Ramana Maharshi, “the true Self is imperishable; therefore, when a man finds it, he finds a happiness which does not come to an end.”)
● The practice is the presence of God and realizing the oneness of being.
The next section, “Ten Sufi Thoughts,” takes the themes from the previous section and treats each of them in greater detail, while continuing the universalist theme and emphasizing the theme of unity or oneness: God is the Only Being, in all forms and beyond all forms, a description of panentheism; One Guiding Spirit, with different names (Shiva, Buddha, Muhammad, etc.); nature as the source of all scriptures (Vedas, Bible, Qur’an, etc.); and so on, to the One Truth, that knowing oneself is knowing God; and the One Path, the annihilation of the false ego. The use of so many names and terms from diverse sources is evidence of Inayat Khan’s inclusive, comprehensive vision.
The next section traces the history of Sufi lineages from the Prophet Muhammad all the way down to Inayat Khan, who was initiated into all four of the traditional Sufi schools. It is interesting that the universalist theme is so prominent throughout the book, that there are almost no references to Islam, and no details at all about Islamic theology and practice. Except for the Arabic names and terms, one might forget that there was any connection at all. There is a short biography of Inayat’s murshid, or teacher, who is described as “an ascetic within, but a man of the world without,” who wore gold-embroidered shoes as a reminder that “The wealth of this earth is only worth being at my feet.” The biography of Inayat Khan himself describes his early life in a multi-religious environment, his achievements in music, his growing interest in spirituality, and the deaths of his parents and a brother, which had a significant effect on him, and which seems to be a common theme in the biographies of mystics (Buddha, Dogen, etc.). It also describes him meeting his murshid, his mission to bring Sufism to the West, his marriage, the growth of his movement, and his eventual return to India, where he died in 1927.
There are fascinating stories about Inayat Khan, exemplifying his role as intermediary between the visible and invisible worlds, such as his changing appearances in response to tragedies; suddenly walking out on the sand dunes of Holland and establishing the Mount of Blessings, while reminding his disciples of the prophet Elijah; initiation by a whirlwind in a forest; and an encounter with police that ended with him blessing them. There are also stories about the brothers who accompanied him to the West; the four women, and the only students, he authorized to teach, yet another sign of his inclusiveness and modern thinking; his daughter, who died while serving as a spy for the allies during WWII; and his son, Vilayat Khan, who eventually created his own organization, integrated Sufism with Buddhism, yoga, and biology, and whose death was noted even by the Dalai Lama.
The next two sections were extremely interesting to me. “The Path” describes the process and stages of transformation that the Sufi experiences over time, beginning with the initiation (bayat), through which the individual becomes a mureed, one committed to the murshid. The article, “Shaikh, Rasul, and Allah,” reminded me of the Hindu notion of Guru, Self, and God/Brahman, who are ultimately one. The process of practice, concentration, contemplation, meditation, and realization, resulting in the forgetting of one’s limited self and experiencing everything as God, have their parallels in yoga and Buddhism. By coincidence, on my desk is a bookmark that I picked up when Swami Asokananda, from Swami Satchidananda’s lineage of universalist Vedanta/yoga, gave a talk in Boulder. The quote on it ends with “this leads to purity of mind and that pure mind can experience that the individual is not doing anything; it is the Divine Consciousness that moves everything.” There are the five stages of knowing God, beginning with idealization and self-realization, and ending in perfection and annihilation in non-duality; the understanding that our true nature is that which cannot die; and the Light of Guidance, which is the reflection of God, is within us.
The section entitled “Methods and Practices” was interesting because anyone with a background in yoga will recognize its influence and integration into this lineage of Sufism. Sufism itself emphasizes the bhakti, or devotional, path of practice. Practices for controlling the body and mind, for purification and annihilation are popular themes in Indian spirituality. Inayat Khan describes the classic sitting postures, including the lotus posture; the two currents in the body and the breath connected to it; kundalini; and the subtle centers (chakras) of the body. In a discussion of the five planes, he mentions Vedanta and Christianity, and he recommends breathing exercises to work with prana. The remaining sections of the book include sayings which embody the universal, non-dual, devotional, service-oriented perspective of Sufism (“The closer one approaches reality, the nearer one comes to unity,” “What limits God? His name,” “The best way to love is to serve”); songs and music; the structure of worship and healing services; and organizational issues.
I was hoping that this book would provide a good overview of Universal Sufism, but it really exceeded my expectations in all regards. It was extremely readable, providing relevant details in short, focused articles. The Sufi path it describes is also extremely relatable to me, as it embodies values that I have encountered elsewhere and have adopted myself - universalism, non-dualism, pragmatism, inclusiveness, tolerance, and supreme optimism. I highly recommend it to anyone who shares those values, and I’m happy to add Caravan of Souls to my library.
* James Peacock is a graduate of Naropa University's MA in Religious Studies program, focusing on Contemplative Religions and Sanskrit. He has a lifelong interest in spirituality, psychology, and meditation, and lives in Boulder, Colorado.
2. Inayat-Khan, Caravan of Souls, 7-9
3. Ibid., 37
4. Ibid., 38
5. Ibid., 145-149