Netanel Miles-Yépez

The Chain of Transmission

The Men and Women of Chishti and Inayati Sufism[1]

Netanel Miles-Yépez

The prophets Elias and Khadir at the fountain of life, late 15th century. Timurid period.  Herat, Afghanistan.

The prophets Elias and Khadir at the fountain of life, late 15th century. Timurid period.  Herat, Afghanistan.

The silsila or ‘chain’ of transmission of a lineage is of central importance to the Sufi path. It is understood to be a conduit of the baraka or spiritual blessing of any genuine Sufi school. It links the murids of an order with the combined spiritual power of their mystical forebears, and with the unseen transformative forces that transpire behind the outward manifestation of this chain or pedigree.

The silsila is recited on various occasions, most often before group zikr. It is also an important part of the practice known as tasawwur-i murshid, in which one works one’s way backward through the lineage, connecting with each name or link in the chain, establishing a relationship with each as a spiritual ancestor. In this way, it is likewise connected with Sufi initiation, bay’ah, during which it is also sometimes recited. The Arabic word bay’ah refers to a covenant sealed by ‘taking hand’ with another, as the initiate takes the right hand of the Sufi master, a hand that took the hand of the master before, down through the centuries in an unbroken chain. In so doing, the new murid may come to realize that this is the hand that took the actual hand of another master—whose name, though now famous or even legendary—was nevertheless a real person on the path. This gives the murid confidence in what is possible for a human being to achieve.


The Chishti-Nizami-Kalimi Lineage

The silsila of Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan (1882–1927) is that of the Chishti-Nizami-Kalimi lineage, which he inherited from his master, Sayyid Abu Hashim Madani (d. ca.1907), each of the three names—Chishti-Nizami-Kalimi—marking a milepost within the lineage, or signaling an important emphasis often associated with a person or a place.

Chishti Sufis derive their name from Chisht, a small town in eastern Khurasan (now Afghanistan) near Herat. Sometime in the 10th-century, Khwaja Abu Ishaq Shami (d. 940) was directed by his master, ‘Ulu Dinwari in Baghdad, to travel to the far outpost of Chisht, where he initiated a disciple, Khwaja Abu Ahmad Abdal Chishti (d. 966), beginning a succession of masters associated with that humble town.[2] The story told in the lineage of this first Chishti initiation is an interesting one.

Having traveled to Chisht at the direction of his master, Khwaja Abu Ishaq is first befriended by Ukht Farusnafa, the ‘sister of Farusnafa,’ who we might call the mother of the Chishtis. A saintly woman of the royal family, the two soon developed a deep spiritual connection.

One day, Khwaja Abu Ishaq confided to his friend, Ukht Farusnafa, that her brother, Emir Farusnafa and his wife would soon have a child. The child he saw would grow up to be a great Sufi; but only if she helped to raise him, imbuing him with her own spiritual blessing. Otherwise, the dissolute ways of his father, the prince, and the temptations of wealth and power, would influence him to evil.

Ukht Farusnafa did as she was asked and became a second mother to her nephew and brother’s heir, instilling him with virtues his father did not possess. Over time, he grew into a noble young prince.

One day, while he was out on horseback with a hunting party, he became separated from the others and his horse soon happened upon a circle of ten Sufis engaged in zikr. So struck was he by the sight of these holy beings, and the power radiating from their remembrance of God, that he immediately dismounted and prostrated before them, asking to be admitted to the circle. The leader, Khwaja Abu Ishaq, smiled and initiated Abu Ahmad Abdal Chishti, the nephew of his spiritual sister and his long awaited successor.[3]

The Central Asian character of the early Chishti lineage is suggested by use of the title khwaja for a number of the early masters of the lineage. Unlike the more familiar titles, shaykh or pir (meaning, ‘elder’) used in other regions, the title khwaja (‘master of wisdom’) was preferred in Khurasan.[4] Thus, even Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti, who brought the Chishti lineage into India, where it took on its distinctive character, was called Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din, as were the four masters who followed him.

Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din (d. 1236) was the disciple of Khwaja ‘Usman Harvani (d. 1210), with whom he traveled and served for twenty years, before setting his sights on India late in his life.[5] A story of Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din’s preaching in India (sometimes told of his master, Khwaja ‘Usman Harvani, who did not travel to India) is both entertaining and instructive:

Once in India, Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din quickly attracted thousands of followers, all good Muslims who seemed to be loyal and devoted disciples. But one day, as he was looking out over the masses of them, he suddenly felt he had had enough of all the pomp and said in a voice just loud enough for others to hear, “I think I’ve changed my mind.”

Someone who heard him asked, “Master, about what have you changed your mind?”

“Perhaps,” he said, “the Hindus are right, after all . . . I think I must serve the goddess Kali now and make obeisance to her.”

The disciple gasped and word quickly spread through the crowd, “The master has become a Hindu and intends to serve the black goddess, Kali!”

Immediately, scores of disciples abandoned him, while others waited to see what he would do next.

Seeing that some disciples still remained, Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din turned in the direction of the local Kali mandir (temple) and started to walk.

Seeing this, the remaining disciples deserted him, saying: “How can children of Allah, the formless God, worship the goddess Kali? It is against his own teachings!”

But as he was walking toward the Kali mandir, Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din noticed that there was actually one disciple who still remained with him, and he smiled secretly. He was glad to be rid of the others, but if this one had gone, it would have been a real loss. Nevertheless, he continued on toward the temple, thinking about the fickleness of human nature and how quickly the others had departed. He began to pray to as he walked, saying—“God! God! What are human beings that you should notice them, when they fail to recognize you in every face before them? You are all and everything!” And with these words, he fell into ecstasy, falling prostrate on the very the steps of Kali’s temple, facing the statue of Kali!

After he came to, he realized that it must have appeared as if he had made obeisance to Kali, and he said to his only remaining disciple, who was then kneeling beside him and mopping his forehead—“Why do you stay when all the others have left? They’re all good Muslims, and there are many learned scholars among them; perhaps you too should go before you are polluted by contact with me.”

But the disciple replied, “Mawla—master—it was you who taught us that nothing exists except God. If that is true, then Kali is not Kali, and this temple and all of its images are nothing other than divinity. So what does it matter whether you bow to the East or West, to the earth or the heavens? If nothing exists but God, then there is nothing before whom to bow except God, even if one seems to be bowing before Kali.”

Then Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din embraced him, and the two departed together. This disciple became his successor, the famous ecstatic, Khwaja Qutb ad-Din.[6]

Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din was called Gharib Nawaz, the ‘sultan of the poor,’ and today, his dargah or burial shrine in Ajmer is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in all of India, where thousands of the poor are fed. And yet, it is not Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din’s name that is referenced in the trilogy of lineage markers—Chishti-Nizami-Kalimi—but that of Khwaja Nizam ad-Din Awliyya (d. 1325), under whom the new Indian form of Chishti Sufism reaches its apogee.

Khwaja Nizam ad-Din, called Mahbub-i Ilahi, ‘beloved of God,’ presided over a court like an ascetic king. Each day, he had hundreds of visitors who left donations, which he would then distribute entirely to the poor before retiring at night. Though a wonderful story is also told of a day when he had nothing to give.

Khwaja Nizam ad-Din’s most beloved disciple was the poet, Amir Khusraw, who served in the court of the Sultan. Once it happened that Amir Khusraw was returning to Delhi after doing some business elsewhere, and stopped to rest at a caravanserai, or inn, where he met a man who had just come from Delhi. The man was a farmer who had gone to Delhi after a drought had left him and his family impoverished, hoping that the great saint of Delhi, Khwaja Nizam ad-Din, would help him. Khwaja Nizam ad-Din always gave whatever he had, but it happened that on that day, no donations had been received, so nothing could be given. But Nizam ad-Din could not bear to turn the farmer away empty-handed, so he gave the barefoot farmer his own sandals, which he had received from his master, Baba Farid. The farmer, who had hoped for money or food, accepted the sandals with a quiet disappointment.

Later, when the farmer encountered Amir Khusraw and recounted these events, the poet’s eyes lit up and he exclaimed, “Do you mean to say that you are in possession of the holy sandals of Khwaja Nizam ad-Din?”

The farmer produced the sandals, and Amir Khusraw immediately produced a chest of gold, and offered to trade. The farmer was beside himself with happiness, and so was Amir Khusraw.

A few days later, Amir Khusraw arrived in Delhi, bearing Khwaja Nizam ad-Din’s sandals on his head.

Khwaja Nizam ad-Din asked, “How much did you pay for those sandals?”

“All that I possess,” he replied.

And Khwaja Nizam ad-Din said with a smile, “You bought them cheaply!”[7]

Khwaja Nizam ad-Din was the twentieth master in the lineage after the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. In the thirtieth generation came Shah Kalim Allah Jahanabadi (1650-1729), a grandson of the architect of the Taj Mahal and Lal Qila, who himself would become one of the great architects of the lineage, initiating a “renaissance” in Chishti Sufism.[8]

A resident of Delhi, Shah Kalim Allah’s home near Lal Qila, the famous ‘Red Fort,’ became the principle seat of the Chishti lineage in the Mughal Period. A gifted intellectual and leader, he sought “to reunify the many regional Chishti centers and emphasize the core teachings of the original Chishti lineage.”[9]

One aspect of this reunification and revival was achieved through his writings, such as his classic work, Kashkul-i Kalimi, ‘The Alms-bowl of Kalim Allah,’ in which he gathered and collected teachings on meditation and contemplation from numerous Sufi masters for the benefit of his students and future Sufis of the Chishti lineage.[10]

But Shah Kalim Allah also seems to have been unusually broad-minded; for unlike many Sufi masters, he initiated both men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.[11] And despite his abiding commitment to the Chishti lineage (to which he gave primary allegiance), he actually carried the transmission of all four of the early schools of Sufism—Chishti, Naqshbandi, Qadiri, and Suhrawardi—and thus, the Kalimi lineage which stems from him, has sometimes been called the lineage of “Four-School Sufism.”[12]

The four schools had begun their unification with the Chishti-Nizami master, Shaykh Mahmud Rajan (d. 1495), who also carried the Suhrawardi transmission, and was continued by Shaykh Hasan Muhammad (d. 1575), who carried the Qadiri transmission, until finally being unified by Shah Kalim Allah, as a carrier of the Naqshbandi transmission.[13] Thus, it was a characteristic of masters within the Kalimi lineage to emphasize training in the teachings and practices of all four schools.

Shah Kalim Allah himself had directed his successor, Shaykh Nizam ad-Din Awrangabadi (d. 1730), to emphasize the teaching of whichever school might best suit those to whom he was guiding; for he recognized that the needs of the seeker are paramount, and each must be given the particular nourishment they require.[14]

Almost two hundred years later, Hazrat Inayat Khan would confirm this emphasis of the Kalimi lineage, writing in his Confessions of the training he had received from his own master, Sayyid Abu Hashim Madani:

I studied the Qur’an, Hadith, and the literature of the Persian mystics. […] After receiving instruction in the five different grades of Sufism, the physical, intellectual, mental, moral, and spiritual, I went through a course of training in the four schools: the Chishti, Naqshbandi, Qadiri, and Suhrawardi.[15]

The Four-School Sufism of Shah Kalim Allah, and his open attitude toward the initiation of women and non-Muslims, would in time become foundational aspects of Hazrat Inayat Khan’s universalist Sufism.


The Women of the Chishti Lineage

The thirty-seven names and lives that comprise the traditional Chishti-Nizami-Kalimi silsila, or chain of transmission—beginning with the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and ending with Hazrat Inayat Khan—span almost 1,400 years of spiritual blessing. Some of the names, like Hasan of Basra (d. 728), Ibrahim ibn Adham (d. 779) and Mu‘in ad-Din Chshti (d. 1236), are famous among all Sufis, their sayings and deeds recorded in classic texts and remembered throughout the Sufi world. Some, like Qutb ad-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki (d. 1235), Farid ad-Din Ganj-i Shakar (d. 1265), Nizam ad-Din Awliyya (d. 1325), and Nasir ad-Din Chiragh-i Delhi (d. 1356), are more famous within the Chishti lineage. And some names are so obscure, even within the lineage, that we know almost nothing verifiable about them.

Sadly, we know even less about the many women who have influenced the lineage. And yet, we live in a time that demands a more balanced perspective. If the silsila is meant to connect us with the flow of blessing in our tradition, and to inspire confidence in it, we must see ourselves represented in it, women as well as men.

For many women, the silsila is no longer inspiring. A long list of exclusively male names, however great and holy, is not necessarily meaningful to the many gifted women who often make up the majority of universalist Sufi circles today. The message, whether intentional or merely the inertial effect of historical patriarchy, is one of exclusion. “Where are the women?” we hear; which is another way of saying, “Where do I fit in this tradition?”

One answer is that women have always been present in Sufism, which is true. Accounts of women saints are found throughout Sufi literature; indeed, many of them are found in the writings of one the greatest Sufi masters, Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), as he describes the great women Sufis with whom he learned in Andalusia.[16] Likewise, in the 17th-century, the famous Sufi Mughal prince, Dara Shikuh (1615-1659), included a section on “wise, virtuous, perfected, and united” women in his Safinat al-Awliya’, ‘ship of saints.’[17] And few Sufis are more acclaimed than Rabi‘a al-Adawiyya of Basra, who is credited by most as changing the emphasis of Sufism toward divine love.[18]

But even the great Rabi‘a of Basra is not included in any Sufi silsila, and her example, though profound, is but one shining exception among hundreds of male saints. So where are the women, we ask again? The answer is uncomfortably obvious—silent and silenced by patriarchal culture, buried in the footnotes of history. The vast majority of women throughout Sufi history have not had the same opportunity for spiritual pursuits as men, and even when they did, they were often illiterate and their sayings rarely recorded by their male counterparts. Those who were literate, usually belonging to the most privileged classes, existed in another type of cage, like Princess Jahanara, the sister of Dara Shikuh, who was not allowed by precedent or prejudice to inherit the lineage of her male teacher, even though he wished it.[19]

With few exceptions, that was simply the reality. But there is nothing to say that we need to be satisfied with that reality. In recent years, many have begun the work of reclaiming the legacy of Sufi women, in general.[20] For the women of the Chishti lineage, we can do the same; though it is difficult work, and often the results yield less of a picture of these women than we might desire. And yet it must be done.

It requires a deep knowledge of the Chishti literature, and an ability to access the historical sources. Today, the foremost expert in the history of the silsila, and the sources of information regarding it, is our own beloved companion on the path, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan—Sarafil Bawa. In two separate works, he has given us the gift of an otherwise unobtainable portrait of the Chishti lineage in the English language: a scholarly treatment in “The ‘Silsila-i Sufian’: From Khwaja Mu‘in al-Din Chishti to Sayyid Abu Hashim Madani,” found in the edited volume, A Pearl in Wine: Essays on the Life, Music and Sufism of Hazrat Inayat Khan; and a less formal oral presentation of Chishti lore, edited by us both, in Tree of Lights: The Chishti Lineage of Hazrat Inayat Khan.[21]

Through these works, the wisdom of generations of Sufis in the Chishti-Nizami-Kalimi silsila has become accessible to English speaking Sufis, and we begin to see the faces of women connected with the silsila peeking through the latticework of history, some playing prominent roles in the shaping of the lineage.

Sometimes, we do not know their names. The are simply—Ukht Farusnafa, ‘sister of Farusnafa,’ who we have already called the “mother of the Chishtis”; Umm Abu Muhammad, the ‘mother of Abu Muhammad,’ who received his first teachings in Sufism from her, “a woman of extraordinary insight and wisdom”;[22] Zawja Bakhtiyar Kaki, ‘wife of the One Who is Fortunate in Bread,’ who is connected with a miracle;[23] or Ukht Chiragh-i Dehli, the ‘sister of the Lamp of Dehli,’ the sister and mother of Chishti masters.[24]

But many names are known—names like, Bibi Safiya, Bibi Amat al-Ghani, Sayyid Begum, or Muhtarima Pot Begum Sahiba. The words bibi, muhtarima, and sahiba are titles of respect, generally meaning, ‘lady.’ And begum is a married woman of high rank. Though, in many cases, we know little more of them than their relationship to one of the lineage masters, or for instance, that Shaykh ‘Ilm ad-Diin’s mother, Bibi Safiya, was a granddaughter of a Sufi saint called “The Ocean-Drinker,” and was herself “A soulful woman possessed of unique powers of insight.”[25]

In another class are those who, whether their names are known or not, play a significant part in a story or anecdote in the lineage, or are themselves Sufis of note. These include—Bibi Hafiza Jamal, the daughter of Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din, who had memorized the entire Qur’an, and who was so gifted spiritually, that her father actually made her one of his successors;[26] Bibi Zulaykha, the saintly mother of Khwaja Nizam ad-Din, of whom it is said, “Every month when the Shaykh saw the new moon, he offered felicitation to his mother by placing his head at her feet,” and whenever he had a problem after her death, went to pray at her grave;[27] and Bibi Fatimah Sam, a great Sufi saint of Dehli.

The latter was revered by both Khwaja Farid ad-Din and Khwaja Nizam ad-Din. When discussing the place of women saints in Sufism, and talking about Bibi Fatimah Sam, Khwaja Nizam ad-Din said, “When a wild lion comes into the city from the forest, who asks whether it is male or female?”[28] He even told stories of her on more than one occasion and quoted verses attributed to her:

For love you search, while still for life you strain.

For both you search, but both you can’t attain.[29]

Ultimately, love leaves no room for the self, says Bibi Fatimah Sam.

And then there are the great ladies of Islam and Sufism who are connected with the Chishti lineage—Khadijah al-Kubra, ‘A’ishah Umm al-Mu‘min, and Umm Salama, the wives of the Prophet Muhammad; Fatimah az-Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet; Rabi’a al-Basri, who changed the course of Sufism; and Shahzadi Jahanara Begum Sahiba (1614-1681), the daughter of the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan.

Though a disciple of a Qadiri master, Mulla Shah, Princess Jahanara later had a profound mystical experience while on pilgrimage at the burial shrine of Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti (on whom she wrote a biography), ‘taking hand’ with the sainted Chishti master in the inner world some four centuries after his death.[30] She is buried near the dargah of Khwaja Nizam ad-Din, and upon her simple marble marker is written:

He is the Living, the Sustaining.

Let no one cover my grave except with greenery,

For this grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor.

The annihilated faqir Lady Jahanara,

Disciple of the Lords of Chisht,

Daughter of Shahjahan the Warrior

(may God illuminate his proof).[31]


The Integrated Shajara Sharif ‘Inayati

As we have seen, the silsila traces initiatic ancestry from one master to another, rather than the full flow of baraka or spiritual blessing from all of the figures, male and female, that have influenced its direction and development. If we would see something of this greater influence, we must look to the shajara of the lineage.

The graphic representation of the silsila is called the shajara sharif, or ‘noble tree.’ The shajara of Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan is the Shajara Sharif ‘Inayati. This tree traces the Chishti-Nizami-Kalimi lineage imparted to him by his master before his passing. The addition of ‘Inayati marks his own contribution as the opener of the way of universalist Sufism.

Although the shajara sharif is usually a simple linear list of the names of the silsila masters, there is no necessity of its being limited to this simple form. In the shajara, we have the possibility of seeing more complexity. The silsila may be fixed in the historical reality of how the lineage was passed from one male master to another, but the shajara can show us the missing women of the lineage, filling out the leaves and branches that would illustrate its full majesty.

Of course, we must acknowledge the fact that, according to historical circumstances beyond our control, or even the control of those who came before us, the silsila was forged and passed on in the form it was, from one male successor to another for nearly 1,400 years. But we can also begin to acknowledge the women who influenced and impacted the lineage through the centuries in our shajara, doing what we can to reclaim their legacy of service and sacrifice, adding their names to the ancestral tree of the lineage.

Thus, a new, integrated Shajara Sharif ‘Inayati has been created to bring the men and women of the lineage together for the first time.

Hazrat Inayat Khan himself said, “I see as clear as daylight that the hour is coming when woman will lead humanity to a higher evolution.”[32] And still more significantly, he granted the rank of murshid to only four disciples in his lifetime, all of them women: Murshida Rabia Martin (1871-1947), Murshida Sharifa Goodenough (1876-1937), Murshida Sophia Saintsbury-Green (1866-1939), and Murshida Fazal Mai Egeling (1861-1939). But for various reasons, none of these women have ever been represented in the shajaras of the many lineages of universalist Sufism. However, today we must acknowledge their place as the mothers of universalist Sufism who preceded and gave their blessing to all the lineage masters who came after them.

For this reason, the integrated Shajara Sharif ‘Inayati gives them their proper place beneath the name of Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, prior to the branching of the universalist Sufi lineage into its many current expressions.




[1] An edited version of a talk given at a Naropa University Sufi Retreat Intensive, January 11th, 2017, and a more developed talk, explicitly proposing a new, integrated Shajara Sharif ‘Inayati at the following year’s Sufi Retreat Intensive, January 9th, 2018.

[2] Carl W. Ernst, and Bruce B. Lawrence. Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002: 19-20.

[3] Zia Inayat-Khan. Tree of Lights: The Chishti Lineage of Hazrat Inayat Khan. Richmond, VA: The Inayati Order, [Forthcoming]: 29-30.

[4] Ernst, Sufi Martyrs of Love, 19.

[5] As reported in the traditional hagiographies. See Ernst, Sufi Martyrs of Love, 149.

[6] See Inayat Khan. The Sufi Message: Volume X: Sufi Mysticism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1990: 64-66.

[7] See Inayat-Khan, Tree of Lights, 57-58.

[8] Ibid., 87. K.A. Nizami. “Chishtiyya.” Encyclopedia of Islam. (Vol. 2). Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960: 55.

[9] Scott Kugle (ed.). Sufi Meditation and Contemplation: Timeless Wisdom from Mughal India. Trs. Scott Kugle and Carl Ernst. New Lebanon, NY: Suluk Press, 2012: 18.

[10] Published in English translation in Kugle, Sufi Meditation and Contemplation, 18.

[11] Ernst, Sufi Martyrs of Love, 142. Kugle, Sufi Meditation and Contemplation. 18.

[12] Ernst, Sufi Martyrs of Love, 142-43.

[13] Ibid., 142-43, 128-29.

[14] Ibid., 28. Kugle, Sufi Meditation and Contemplation, 31-32, and Pir Rasheed-ul-Hasan Kaleemi’s preface, xii.

[15] Inayat Khan’s  “Confessions” in Inayat Khan. The Sufi Message: Volume XII: The Divinity of the Human Soul. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1990: 149. Even the revered modern Chishti master, Pir Rasheed-ul-Hasan Jeeli-ul-Kaleemi (d. 2013), has written that the Kalimi branch of the Chishti lineage combined the four schools of Sufism “into one path, trying to take the best of each.” Kugle, Sufi Meditation and Contemplation, xiv.

[16] Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi. Sufis of Andalusia: The Ruh al-Quds & al-Durrat at-Fakhirah. Tr. R.W. J. Austin. Roxburgh, Great Britain: Beshara Publications, 2002.

[17] Ernst, Sufi Martyrs of Love, 50.

[18] Annmarie Schimmel. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1975: 38.

[19] Annmarie Schimmel. My Soul is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam. New York, NY: Continuum, 1997: 50.

[20] In recent years, many have begun the work of reclaiming the legacy of Sufi women in general. Shaykh Javad Nurbakhsh has given us a work on Sufi Women, Shaykha Camille Helminski has written Women of Sufism: A Hidden Treasure, and Tamam Kahn has written Untold: A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad.

[21] Although the title, Tree of Lights: The Chishti Lineage of Hazrat Inayat Khan, bears resemblance to the title of the nineteenth-century book of Chishti hagiography, Shajarat al-Anvar, which has the same meaning, that book has never been translated and exists only in manuscript. The material in Pir Zia’s small book is original and not a translation of the former work. It was been transcribed from oral talks by Pir Zia (ca. 2000), and was originally edited for a private publication and made available to murids in 2001. Recently, it was re-edited by myself and Pir Zia so that Inayati murids may once more have the benefit of accessing this information and studying their own lineage.

[22] Inayat-Khan, Tree of Lights, 30-31.

[23] See Basira Beardsworth. Chishti Sufis of Dehli in the Lineage of Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan. Private publication, 2013: 11.

[24] Inayat-Khan, Tree of Lights, 69.

[25] Zia Inayat Khan. “The ‘Silsila-i Sufian’: From Khwaja Mu‘in al-Din Chishti to Sayyid Abu Hashim Madani,” A Pearl in Wine: Essays on the Life, Music and Sufism of Hazrat Inayat Khan. Ed. Zia Inayt Khan. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 2001: 292.

[26] Inayat-Khan, Tree of Lights, 6.

[27] K.A. Nizami. “Introduction.” Morals for the Heart: Conversations of Shaykh Nizam ad-din Awliya Recorded by Amir Hasan Sijizi. Nizam ad-Din Awliya. Tr. Bruce B. Lawrence. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1992: 19-20.

[28] Paraphrase of Nizam ad-Din Awliya, Morals for the Heart, 103.

[29] Ibid., 354.

[30] Carl E. Ernst (ed.). Teachings of Sufism. Boston, MA; Shambhala Publications, 1999: 194-99.

[31] Ernst, Teachings of Sufism, 194-95.

[32] Inayat Khan. Biography of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan. London: East-West Publications, 1979: 243.

The Story of Sufism

The Foundations of Traditional and Universalist Sufism [1]

Netanel Miles-Yépez

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Once, long ago, tea was unknown outside of China. But slowly, word of its reputation as a ‘celestial’ or ‘heavenly drink’ made its way down the Silk Road and into the various kingdoms which it connected.

In one of these kingdoms, a kingdom called Inja—‘here’—the king had heard rumors of the celestial drink, and being curious to know if such a thing actually existed, decided to send ambassadors to the Emperor of China, seeking permission to taste this thing called ‘tea’ for themselves.

Thus, the ambassadors of Inja made the long journey up the Silk Road into China where, finally reaching the gates of the Emperor’s palace, they were admitted and granted an audience with the Emperor himself.

“Your Radiant Highness, Son of Heaven,” they said ceremonially, standing before the emperor, “we have been sent by the King of Inja to request the honor of tasting the celestial drink known as ‘tea.’”

The Emperor of China was silent. He would not deign to speak to the ambassadors of the insignificant kingdom of Inja, but merely gestured to his ministers, who showed the ambassadors into another splendid chamber set with tables, where they were served the celestial drink, tea.

Sitting at the low tables, tasting the tea for themselves, the ambassadors said to one another—“It’s wonderful! Both stimulating and relaxing at the same time! It truly is the celestial drink!”

Pleased with themselves and their success, the ambassadors of Inja began the long journey back home. Only now, they decided to take their time and see a little of China, stopping various places to see the sights and staying in different roadhouses to sample the local cuisine. But in so doing, they soon discovered something profoundly disturbing to them . . . Everyone was drinking tea, both peasants and royalty alike!

On returning to Inja and the court of the king, the latter asked them, “Were you successful in your mission?”

“Yes,” said the ambassadors, tentatively, “but . . .”

“But what?” said the king.

“Well, we did make it to the palace of the Emperor of China, and we were served something wonderful that was called, ‘tea’ . . . but we suspect that they may have played a joke on us, or decided not to serve us the real tea. For we later discovered that this same drink was offered all over China, and served to both peasants and royalty alike!”

In another country along the Silk Road known as Anja—‘there’—was a great philosopher, indeed, the greatest philosopher of the region, whose primary interest was tea. He thought constantly of tea, speculating about it and collecting information from travelers in his notebooks. Some said it was a leaf, some said a liquid. Some said it was a drink, greenish in color, some said golden. Some said it was sweet, while others said bitter. In time, this philosopher complied the world’s greatest collection of information about tea, and had written the authoritative treatise on the subject, becoming the most renowned authority in the whole region . . . but he had never tasted it!

Elsewhere, in a land called Mazhab—‘sectarianism’—they had actually managed to procure a single bag of tea! And one day a year, they would attach this little sachet containing dried tea leaves by four strings to two great staves, which four large and grim-faced men rested on their shoulders, carrying it with ritual solemnity through the streets of the capital. On that day, all the city’s inhabitants would leave work and come out of their homes to witness the holy procession. And when the sacred bag of tea passed before them, all would bow down and prostrate in fear and trembling.

And this is the way it was for a long time, until one year, on the day of the holy procession, a visitor to the capital remained standing while all the city’s inhabitants prostrated themselves before the sacred bag of tea. Laughing out loud, he said, “No-o-o-o, you idiots! You have to pour boiling water on it!”

An audible gasp went through the crowd. The grim-faced priests carrying the tea bag turned to look at the man in both horror and anger. Then, with a look and an angry gesture, they ordered the religious police to arrest the heretic, this enemy of religion who had suggested the destruction of the holy tea! The police immediately seized the man and executed him in the most horrible ways, hanging and dismembering him.

Fortunately for us, before this sad incident, the man had confided the secret of tea to a few friends in the city, and had bequeathed to them the tea he had brought with him on his journey. But having seen what happened to their friend, they now knew not to make the same mistake of talking about infusing the tea with boiling water, or of drinking it openly. Instead, they gathered in secret to do so, and if anyone happened to ask them what it was they were drinking, they would answer simply, “Just a little medicine.”

In this way, they grew in wisdom, until one day, the wisest among them said this . . . “The one who tastes, knows; the one who tastes not, knows not. Stop talking about the ‘celestial drink,’ but serve it at your banquets. Those who like it will ask for more; those who do not are not fitted to be tea-drinkers. Close the shop of argument and open the tea-house of experience.”

Thus, this circle of secret tea-drinkers became the first merchants of tea. Being already merchants of fabrics and jewels, traveling tradesmen of all sorts, they took their tea with them wherever they traveled along the Silk Road. And wherever they might stop, they would take out a little tea and brew it, offering to share it with whoever might be near. This was the beginning of the chaikhanas, the tea-houses that then popped-up all over Central Asia, spreading the true use and reputation of tea far and wide.[2]


Traditional Definitions of Sufism

For over a thousand years, Sufis have routinely learned and recited various definitions of Sufism as a kind of spiritual practice, as a way of continually ‘course-correcting’ and guiding themselves back to the ideals of Sufism. Thus, they have often asked themselves the question, ‘What is Sufism?’ This ancient story or parable of tea is one answer.

Thus, we might look more closely at it and consider what it is trying to say.

First, we have the curious king of ‘here’—Inja—who wants to know if there really is such a thing as ‘tea,’ which might stand for Sufism or mystical experience. But, being a rather ordinary or unremarkable sort of king, he doesn’t go out in search of it himself, but sends ambassadors or emissaries in his stead. The emissaries actually taste the tea for themselves, but are convinced that it can’t be the ‘real thing,’ because people of all classes and stations drink it. In other words, they are elitists who cannot accept that mystical experience is something available to everyone.

Then we have the great philosopher of ‘there’—Anja—who is the world’s greatest authority on ‘tea,’ though he has never tasted it. Thus, his is only head-knowledge, as opposed to the more substantive experiential knowledge. He is like the academic scholars of Sufism who can describe all of its characteristics based on the reports and writings of others, but who have never tasted the heart-broken love and obliterating passion it offers.

Elsewhere, in the land of ‘sectarianism’—Mazhab—they actually worship the ‘tea,’ but in a dry form. This is religion without spiritualty, without the infusion of spirit, the one thing necessary to bring it to life, allowing people to benefit from it. The priests of religion celebrate and defend the ‘dry form’ of religion, often forgetting that the purpose of religion is not merely to preserve the religion itself, but to aid one in transformation. In so doing, they become worshippers of religion instead of God. Thus, Sufis have been known to say . . .

“A Sufi’s religion is God.”[3]

Obviously, this is a Sufi critique of religion, a way of suggesting to the orthodox—‘You have become worshippers of Islam,’ or ‘Christianity’ or ‘Judaism,’ as the case may be, ‘and have forgotten God in your observance of religion. Whereas, God is our religion!’ That is to say, the direct experience of God is a Sufi’s religion. Indeed, it was in the context of such a critique—in rebellion against conventional religion—that historical Sufism was born.

Sufis often say that ‘Sufism has always existed,’ being the deep impulse of the heart that seeks wholeness in divinity or the sacred found in every religious tradition. Thus, Muzaffer Ozak, the famous 20th-century Jerrahi sheikh, says—“A river passes through many countries and each claims it for its own. But there is only one river.”[4] In every land, that river is called by a different name in a different language, but there is only one river, flowing back into one source.

Nevertheless, there is also a clear historical phenomenon with specific characteristics which we call ‘Sufism’ that has a definite context and origin in the Middle East. Personally, I like to explain this context through a parallel exploration of the possible etymological origins of the word, ‘Sufi.’

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Among the most commonly suggested origins is the Arabic word, ṣuffah, ‘bench,’ which is itself a reference to the ahl aṣ-ṣuffah, ‘people of the bench,’ or ashab as-suffah, ‘companions of the bench.’ Now these people were, in the time of the prophet Muhammad, alayhi as-salām, a supposedly impoverished group of companions of the Prophet who never seemed to leave the bench outside the masjid, or mosque, in Medina. They were probably looked upon by many in Medina as lazy and indolent; but it is said that they were actually so God-intoxicated that all they wanted to do was remain in prayer close to the mosque. They could never do enough practice, never talk enough about God, so they never left the precincts of the mosque! Thus, these “people of the bench,” according to some, are considered the first Sufis.

However, another legend says that Sufis, at first, were actually a nameless, wandering band of mystics, who roamed the world in search of the qutub, the ‘axis’ or ‘pole’ of spirituality in any given age. Thus, in the time of the prophet Muhammad, they were magnetically drawn to Medina, the city of the Prophet, where they recognized him as the qutub and embraced Islam. Thus, the originally nameless form of Sufism took on an Arabic character and name, and became associated with Islam, though it never lost its essentially universalist spiritual outlook. Some even say that this group of wandering seekers, arriving in Medina without any other material aim or intention, became the ‘people of the bench.’

Later, this recognition of the nameless origins of Sufism led one great Sufi master to admonish his fellow Sufis with this famous statement . . .

“Once, Sufism was a reality without a name;

now it is but a name without a reality.”[5]

Another explanation of the origin of the word ‘Sufi’ is the Arabic safā, ‘pure,’ from which we get, tasawwuff. In English, we speak of the tradition of Sufism, but that’s merely an Anglicized form of the Arabic word, tasawwuf, meaning ‘purification,’ a process or path of continual purification, purifying oneself from the more spiritually deadening effects of the ego.

Nevertheless, historically and linguistically, scholars tend to agree that the most likely origin of the word, ‘Sufi,’ is the Arabic word sūf, ‘wool,’ a reference to the simple woolen cloaks worn by early Muslim ascetics in the 8th and 9th-century in the Middle East.

These pious Muslims were generally called nussāk (sing. nāsik) or ‘ascetics, and wore rough woolen garments, rejecting the decadent luxuries of the increasing wealthy Islamic empire which, as they saw it, had lost its way. Their lifestyle was a protest and rebellion against the lax morality of the time. In just two hundred years, the originally poor and pious Muslim community of high ideals had become rich, bloated with wealth acquired through conquest, and extremely decadent. Thus, these early ascetic Muslims were trying to reestablish the ideals of Islam based on the best models available to them. In this case, on the example of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers (Abbas and Ammas) who lived in desert caves across the Middle East, and who were often known for wearing coarse woolen garments, an ascetic practice in that hot, dry climate.

Indeed, stories of this cross-fertilization are preserved in the Sufi tradition, especially in an episode from the life of the great Sufi master, Ibrahim ibn Adham, a king who gave up his kingdom to pursue God, who tells of a deep transmission of inner wisdom (ma'rifa) he received from a Christian ascetic.

According to the story, Ibrahim Adham once visited a Christian ascetic called Father Simeon in his desert cave in the mountains. He asked him, “How long have you been here, father?”

“Seventy years,” Father Simeon answered.

“What food do you eat?” asked Ibrahim Adham.

“Why do you ask, my son?”

“I just want to know.”

Father Simeon answered, “One chick pea a day.”

Amazed, Ibrahim Adham said, “What moves your heart so much that you can live off so little?”

“Well, I’ll tell you. Once a year,” Father Simeon answered, “the people of the village below come up to celebrate my work here, adorning my cave and honoring me. And when I’m weary of this life, I think of that, and I can go on.

“Now, I ask you, what work of an hour would you endure for the whole glory of eternity?”

“Hearing this,” Ibrahim Adham tells us, “ma'rifa,” the inner wisdom or experiential knowledge, “descended on me.”

For me, this is an amazing story, connecting the three great esoteric Abrahamic lineages. Just as the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Christianity were already the heirs of the Essenes, a Jewish mystical ascetic sect along the Dead Sea[6] and the probable authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, so too were the Sufis the heirs of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

These early Muslim ascetics, nussāk, were even known to say that they followed the way of the Prophet Isa, or Jesus, who wore wool instead of the more comfortable cotton. In saying this, they were not proclaiming themselves converts to Christianity—they were still good Muslims—but recognizing that Jesus was a prophet in Islam whose model was closely aligned with their values. After all, they were rebelling against a corrupt Islamic government, and with the fact that Islam had become mixed-up with politics. The Prophet Muhammad, of course, was considered the best possible ruler, a true philosopher or prophet-king, but things had quickly degenerated after his passing. Aware of the problems of this model, these early proto-Sufis saw Jesus as a prophet who wasn’t involved in politics or governance, leading an exemplary spiritual life. Thus, it likewise became a longstanding value among many Sufis not to become too deeply involved with powerbrokers or politics, nor to court or seek the influence of the powerful elite, whether those with great wealth or great political power.

Within the larger ascetic protest movement of the 8th-century—roughly 200 years after the birth of Islam—was a fringe group called the Sūfiyya, ‘the wool wearers,’ which was likely a pejorative term originally used by their detractors to make fun of them.[7] Nevertheless, the name stuck, and was eventually claimed by this group of spiritual idealists. Indeed, one early master, accepting the more realistic derivation from sūf, ‘wool,’ and combing it with the ideal of safā, ‘purity,’ famously said . . .

“The Sufi is the one who wears wool on top of purity.”[8]

Likewise following the model of Jesus, these early Sufis emphasized Jesus’ teachings on love, though, they did not need Christianity to show them the path to love of God. It was also there before them in the Qur’an (5:54) . . .

“God loves them, and they love God.”

Thus, some Sufis even came to say . . .

“Sufism is the religion of Love.”[9]

It was not long before the early ascetic tradition of Sufism was transformed into a tradition oriented to the ideal and experience of divine love. This is perhaps owing to the influence of one individual more than any other, a woman and a former slave named Rābi‘a al-Adawiyya or Rābi‘a al-Basri (ca. 717-801).

Orphaned at an early age, Rābi‘a was sold into slavery, but her owner, seeing that she spoke with God, became afraid and freed her. After that, she began to wander, never leaving her devotions. She is said to have been a beautiful woman, but never married, devoting herself entirely to God. She is known to have said . . .

“I love You with two loves,

one that that is unworthy of You,

and one that is lost in You.”

And on another occasion . . .

“If I worship You for fear of hell, then send me there.

If I worship you out of a desire for heaven, then bar the gates.

But if I worship You for Your own sake,

then do not deny me the vision of Your eternal beauty.”

The most enduring image of Rābi‘a al-Adawiyya for me is the description of her walking through the streets of Basra carrying a fiery torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. Some Sufis who saw her asked, “Lady Rābi‘a, what are you going to do with these?”

She answered, “I’m going to set fire to paradise (Janna) and douse the flames of hell (Jahannam), so that both will cease to inspire desire and fear, that these veils may fall from their eyes, and the lover’s purpose may become clear.”

Through her influence on many others, Sufism came to be oriented toward pure love and ecstatic experiences of union with the divine. Soon, practices developed around the remembrance of the divine Beloved, such as dhikr Allāh, the mantric remembrance or recitation of the name of God. Sufism also developed practices of courting ecstasy with music and dance and the recitation of love poetry. Such sessions which put one in a state of ecstasy (wajd) were called samā‘ or ‘hearing.’ In these ecstatic states, it was said that the self (nafs) was annihilated (fanā) in the experience of union with God.

Among the most famous of the early ecstatic Sufi masters was Mansūr al-Hallāj (ca. 858-March 26th, 922), who is known for crying-out publically in a moment of ecstasy, An al-Haqq, “I am the Truth”[10] . . . and then being executed as a heretic for it.[11] Of course, to the literal-minded, he seemed to be saying that he was God, that his individual ego had subsumed God, when actually he was saying quite the opposite, that his individual ego had been obliterated by God!

Does his story sound familiar?

Clearly, al-Hallaj is the man from our story, the one visiting the land of sectarianism who laughs and cries out, “No, you idiots! You have to pour boiling water on it!”

Thus, the tea of the parable represents Sufism as a path emphasizing experience, specifically, the experience of ‘tasting God,’ or the sacred.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

But the Parable of Tea is also a cautionary tale, describing a shift in the history of Sufism. Having seen what happened to al-Hallāj, and the general backlash against Sufism, many Sufis decided to go underground, practicing dhikr (‘remembrance’) or ‘drinking their tea’ in secret.[12] Thus, the admonition . . .

The one who tastes, knows; the one who tastes not, knows not. Stop talking about the ‘celestial drink,’ but serve it at your banquets. Those who like it will ask for more; those who do not are not fitted to be tea-drinkers. Close the shop of argument and open the tea-house of experience.

This reminds me of Murshid Samuel Lewis’ wonderful paraphrase of Muhammad Ghazzali’s (d.1111) suggestion . . .

“Sufism is a school of experience, not of dogmas.”[13]

Sufism is not interested in trying to convince others to believe through argument, and does not have a specific set of beliefs to prescribe. It has specific teachings, of course, and a definite perspective oriented to divine love, but no dogmas about what you must believe. The idea of Sufism is to seek experience, your own experience. Beliefs should not be merely ‘imported,’ but formed from personal experience. In Sufism, you discover your own God or “God-ideal,” as Hazrat Inayat Khan puts it.[14] The tradition is merely suggesting, ‘Take these things in and try them out for yourself; discover your own relationship to the sacred.’ The Sufi way is to share, not to impose, as the story illustrates . . .

Thus, this circle of secret tea-drinkers became the first merchants of tea. Being already merchants of fabrics and jewels, traveling tradesmen of all sorts, they took their tea with them wherever they traveled along the Silk Road. And wherever they might stop, they would take out a little tea and brew it, offering to share it with whoever might be near. This was the beginning of the chaikhanas, the tea-houses that then popped-up all over Central Asia, spreading the true use and reputation of tea far and wide.

The chaikhanas or tea-houses, of course, refer to the many Sufi turuq or ‘orders’ (and their khaneghas) that soon arose, including the four great orders, the Chishti, Naqshbandi, Suhrawardi, and Qadiri.


The Evolution of Universalist Sufism

The Chishti lineage, which originally formed in Central Asia, eventually made its way into India with the great Sufi master, Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti (1141-1236), where it developed into a unique lineage incorporating Yogic practices and a specific musical lineage called, Qawwali.

In 1910, a master in this lineage, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), a great classical Indian musician, in whom was also united the four great Sufi lineages, was charged by his master to bring Sufism into the West. In his master’s words . . .

Fare forth into the world, my child, and harmonize the East and the West with the harmony of your music. Spread the wisdom of Sufism abroad, for to this end art thou gifted by Allah, the most merciful and compassionate.[15]

Coming to the West, ostensibly as a musician, Inayat Khan gave concerts which were sometimes followed by lectures on Sufism. In San Francisco, in 1911, he met his first Western student, a Jewish woman named Ada Martin (1871-1947), who became the first American Sufi murid (‘seeker’), and also the first American murshida, or acknowledged spiritual teacher of Sufism.

But in taking a Western murid, it soon became clear to Inayat Khan that it was not necessarily his mission to spread Islam along with Sufism in the West. The people he was teaching were already Jews and Christians, whose religion was to be protected. Thus, he began to introduce them to Sufism without Islam, as an esoteric path and set of teachings that might catalyze or ‘turn on’ what was dormant in their existing religious practice. In other words, he would teach them to “pour boiling water on it,” to infuse it with Sufi spirituality.

Thus was born Universalist Sufism, and also the Inayati lineage (as a new emphasis in the lineage is often marked by the addition of a name to it, often the name of the innovator). And in time, Inayat Khan would propose yet another definition of Sufism, saying . . .

“If anybody asks you, ‘What is Sufism?’ . . . you may answer:

‘Sufism is the religion of the heart,

the religion in which the most important thing

is to seek God in the heart of humanity.’”[16]

Now, some have asked, ‘Is this still Sufism?’ To this, I believe we can answer a clear, ‘Yes.’ Inayati or Universalist Sufism maintains the traditional Sufi orientation to love and the heart, the commitment to personal spiritual experience through practice—through dhikr (remembrance) and muraqaba (meditation)—and continues the great, 1,400 year-old unbroken lineage, passed from Sufi master to Sufi master. Moreover, Inayati Sufism is still completely in-line with and following the almost 800 year-old mandate of Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti to all Chishti Sufis . . .

Love all, and hate none.

Mere talk of peace will get you nothing.

Mere talk of God and religion will not take you far.

Bring out all of the latent powers of your being,

And reveal the full magnificence

Of your immortal self.[17]

Be charged with peace and joy,

And scatter them wherever you are,

And wherever you go.

Be a blazing fire of truth,

A beautiful blossom of love,

And a soothing balm of peace.

With your spiritual light,

Dispel the darkness of ignorance;

Dissolve the clouds of discord and war,

And spread goodwill, peace, and harmony among the people.

Never seek any help, charity, or favors

From anybody except God.

Never go to the courts of kings,

Nor refuse to bless and help the needy and the poor,

The widow or the orphan, if they come to your door.

This is your mission, to serve the people. . . .

Carry it out dutifully and courageously,

So that I, as your Pir-o-Murshid,

May not be ashamed of

Any shortcomings on your part

Before the Almighty God

And our holy predecessors

In the Sufi silsila

On the Day of Judgment.[18]




[1] An edited version of a talk originally given in Portland, Oregon on July 7th, 2016 at Lewis & Clark College for the Season of the Rose, the annual summer school of the Inayati Order.

[2] A parable attributed to Khwaja Yusuf Hamadani by Idries Shah. A less elaborate version of the story is given in Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967: 88-90). After originally reading this story in Shah, I went on to tell it for many years, often as way of introducing Sufism. After some years, I needed to consult the original to confirm a detail, only to discover that I had greatly embroidered the story. However, I was pleased to note that I had preserved all of the essentials, as well as the most important details and phrases.

[3] A traditional Sufi saying.

[4] Muzaffer Ozak. Love is the Wine: Talks of a Sufi Master in America. Ed. Ragip Frager. Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1987: 1.

[5] Abu’l-Hasan Bushanji, 8th/9th-century.

[6] Greek, Essaioi, a corruption of the Aramaic, Hasya, or Hebrew, Hasidim.

[7] Eventually, by the 9th-century, the name “Sufi” came to apply to all the nussāk. In Khurasan and Transoxania (Central Asia), they were also called hakim (pl. hukamā’) also ‘ārif (pl. ‘ārifūn), fakir, and darwiish.

[8] Al-Rudhabari, 9th-century.

[9] A traditional Sufi saying.

[10] Such ecstatic outbursts are called, shathiyat (sing. shath).

[11] This is the classic story of Mansūr al-Hallāj’s martyrdom. The historical truth is more complex. It seems that he inspired a movement of moral and political reform in Baghdad, which made him powerful enemies. He was then forced to flee Baghdad. He was later arrested and imprisoned for nine years and finally condemned as being part of an insurgent group who wished to destroy the Ka’ba. He had said, “Circle the ka’ba of the heart seven times,” and some also reported that he said cities should build local ka’bas for people to circumambulate. For these things, he was denounced. But as-Shafi’i, the greatest Muslim jurist of the time, refused to condemn him, saying that mystic inspiration was beyond his jurisdiction. Nevertheless, he was condemned by the government. The queen-mother interceded and the order was revoked, but the vizier continued conniving until al-Hallāj was finally condemned, tortured, hanged, decapitated in Baghdad. His last words were said to be, “The only thing that matters is to be absorbed in Unity.”

[12] This story or parable is attributed to the Khwajagan, who are said to have been critical of al-Hallāj, considering his public shath an example of spiritual imprudence. They were advocates of quiet work out of the public eye.

[13] Actually, this is my own paraphrase of Murshid Samuel Lewis’ paraphrase of al-Ghazzali, “Sufism consists of experiences not premises.” (Sufi Vision and Initiation, 19, from The Lotus and the Universe). It seems to be based on a whole passage in al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal of Muhammad al-Ghazzali. One sentence (in Watt's translation) reads: “It became clear to me, however, that what is most distinctive of mysticism is something which cannot be apprehended by study, but only by immediate experience (dhawq—literally, 'tasting'), by ecstasy and by a moral change." (The Faith and Practice of Al-Ghazali, 54-55).

[14] The Unity of Religious Ideals, Part II, “The God-Ideal.”

[15] The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan: Volume 12: The Vision of God and Man. Geneva: International Headquarters of the Sufi Movement, 1982: 150.

[16] Religious Gathekas, #1.

[17] This reminds me of the Bektashi saying reported by Murat Yagan in I Come from Behind Calf Mountain (Putney, VT: Threshhold Books, 1984: 155): Sufism is the “process of awakening and developing latent human powers under Divine Grace and guidance.”

[18] Adapted from the version given in Hakim Moinuddin Chishti’s The Book of Sufi Healing. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1991: 9.