The Oneness of Being: A Review of Caravan of Souls by Zia Inayat-Khan

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.”[1])

●      The practice is the presence of God and realizing the oneness of being.[2]

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,”[3] who wore gold-embroidered shoes as a reminder that “The wealth of this earth is only worth being at my feet.”[4] 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”[5]); 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 has a lifelong interest in spirituality, psychology, and meditation, and lives in Boulder, Colorado.

 

Notes:

1.     https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ramana_Maharshi

2.     Inayat-Khan, Caravan of Souls, 7-9

3.     Ibid., 37

4.     Ibid., 38

5.     Ibid., 145-149

In All Her Darkness

Netanel Miles-Yépez

"Light Shines in the Darkness"  by A.J. Golden (2012-2016)

"Light Shines in the Darkness" by A.J. Golden (2012-2016)

who ever loved the world in all her darkness

or desired that black lamp for her own light

cowards all who give up the chase in the night

or shrink from the struggle with her velvet mantle

 

bed me now in the warm flesh of the earth

in the cave of her sensuous darkness burrowed

to die something flesh sacred material and whole

and emerge into the light to which she gives birth

 

death now to the abstract god of the world-deniers

and their smug apollonian divinity    with all its shadow

dionysians arise and let us explore her molten core

not the faint heavens of these false angels of light

 

* Netanel Miles-Yépez is a poet, artist, and Sufi spiritual teacher residing in Boulder, Colorado.

I Am This Stone

Jason Cabitac

"Two Piece Reclining Figure 5" by Henry Moore.

"Two Piece Reclining Figure 5" by Henry Moore.

I am this stone

that rises from red dust

and gathers the four winds.

 

This stone is a sleeping eye

that awakens to hold, in image,

the burned glow

of distant, internal stars.

Slowly it slouches onward

inch by inch like a hesitant glance —

a stranger in this desert,

alone among barren trees

and unfamiliar sand.

 

The heat of this new day

rotates and spirals down with ease

until I am lifted and pulled up,

arms spread out,

free from the chains of gravity.

And in midair

I see my reflection as a black void —

subtle yet powerful,

humming with capacity and desire

to devour my senses,

this trembling identity.

 

In holy rapture I float and am tamed;

my throat yearns for the waters below.

Slowly I am emptied of all I once called me

and become but a vapor, a whisper of mystery.

 

I am pierced by light and fall

deep into an unseen chasm.

Such strange darkness I now behold.

This becomes that

and all that was and shall be

echoes in unison, the ancient moan.

 

An eternity passes.

I have become longing itself.

O my light, why have you forsaken me?

Am I so shameful, empty, incomplete?

I have taken the sun for granted,

love once lived fully within my heart.

 

Suddenly a sound —

the hiss of a snake.

It crawls nigh from far off,

years and years away.

But surely it comes

to bear this heavy stone

towards Bethlehem

to be born anew

in a profane nativity scene.

 

My heart shudders and I wait.

My poppy mind soars.

 

* Jason Cabitac is a poet, stone sculptor, and student currently living in Boulder, Colorado. 

Canakkale, 1911

Shalach Manot

"Women of the Amorgos island, 1911."

"Women of the Amorgos island, 1911."

“Shirts! Shirts!”
The boy was standing in front of the mosque just down the street from his family’s house. Would you call it a street? It was dirt, it was never paved or stone, but as the men came out of the mosque, the boy sang out in a clear voice, “Buy a Shirt!”
He had said to his mother, “Zip, zip, you make them so fast, why not make them to sell? One seam here, one seam there, I’ll sell them for you. I’ll go in front of the mosque, and when the men come out I’ll make some money, and bring it home to you.”
It was the Ottoman Empire in 1911, in a port across from Europe—on the Asian side of the Strait of Dardanelles. They were living in a magnificent nowhere-land, with melons in the attic, beehives for honey on the windowsill, his grandfather’s vineyards full of grapes, but with nothing much a man could do. Study the Torah—the Hebrew Bible—it was the most important thing. The men studied with the boy’s father on Shabbat. But it was not enough. His father had the shop, with kerosene lamps and the dishes and glasses that came in huge wooden crates from Austria, but how many dishes could you sell in Canakkale? His father sat in the shop and read the newspaper. He knew how to read, so he relayed the news to everyone. What was the news? What did it have to do with them? Slowly, week by week the newspapers came from Istanbul and raised the same questions day after day. The lid was coming off, you could watch it jitter and settle and jitter again, or you could think about it.
The boy’s mother was up at five every morning, sitting at the sewing machine. She sang as she worked, a steady breathing of thought and cloth strategy, her right hand on the wheel. She was like his father standing to pray, but she was seated with a firm hold on the earth, her foot on the treadle. Praying was breathing between here and God, and sewing was breathing between cloth and God, with a voice in Spanish words. The boy sat by her side, the cloth moved into creation while she sang. “Ken me va kerer a mi, ken me va kerer a mi? Who is going to love me? Knowing that I love you, my love for you is the death of me.” But if cloth could become shirts, sung and sewn into creation, that you could wear on your back, then nowhere could become somewhere and a man could grow up through life like the turning of the events in the Joseph story, until the powerful man wept to see his brothers, and they all wept finally and knew even a boy thrown into a pit could grow up to be a vizier.
A boy could grow to be a man, might grow tall.
First the men took off their shoes, lining them up in pairs. Then with their clay libriks they poured water on their faces and their uplifted forearms, the sky overhead bright as a blue pillow of light, the breezes cool. Inside they prayed on the tiled floors. They did want the shirts, the men as they came out of the mosque. How could you say no, they were cheap. Everyone needed a shirt at this price. Anyone would buy them, and it was the boy’s idea. He had been proven right. Once as a boy you’ve been proven right, thinking for the family, you can keep going, jumping up in the favor of your mother’s eyes, and your own eyes.

***


He was the oldest now. His oldest brother had been sent off to Jaffa to study the new science—agriculture. It was a scholarship from the Alliance Israelite Universelle. The very name of the school was like the bright wild shake of a tambourine to the mother and father, and to the five hundred Jewish families of the town. The boy himself went to the Alliance school in Canakkale. It was different from the ancient Talmud Torah with the children huddled around tables, taught by poor old shrunken men in raggedy beards. At the Alliance, Monsieur Toledano, the director who had studied in Paris, stood up tall and wore a top hat. The boy’s mother had insisted the next brother go along with the eldest to Jaffa, although it tore her heart out to let the two of them go. But the Alliance was right that they had to save themselves from being ground into the earth and had to find the sea of emancipation. The sea was big, the world was wide, although the town was tiny, clustered, and safe like a breeze-blessed paradise at the center of the world. The town was at the Narrows of the Dardanelles, the same straits that were a birth canal for Europe, with the snow cold waters rushing down from the Black Sea through the Bosphorus through the Sea of Marmara to here where the ships of the world went by. His mother’s rich brothers sometimes sat at the tables by the water (she didn’t have the money or, with six children, the time to sit there), drinking tea, watching the ships of the world pass by with their colorful flags. You could see Europe right across the Straits, it was right there.

***


The boy knew the smell of kashkaval because when he worked at the grocery that year, the owner asked him to carry a whole half wheel of it across town. It was heavy for him, so to brace himself he carried it high on his chest, but his nose could not move away and the cheese was so pungent it stank. That smell he knew well (and eventually he would eat kashkaval years later). What the boy never knew was about Ovid’s Leander, thousands of years before, swimming across the same straits in the terrible rushing current every night from Abydos on the Asian shore a short walk from Canakkale, to his goddess Hero across the water holding a light up in her tower. And he never knew about a limping rich English poet jokingly trying the same swim in the dark of night about a hundred years before the boy set up his gymnasium of branches and rope in a little garden. The boy did not know either about the nearby city of Troy, a half day’s walk away, being attacked by the Achaeans across this same water—the Dardanelles, the Hellespont—and all the tales sung and then written down about those wars, jealousies, wrenching deaths and armor. What the boy knew was that among the Jews of Canakkale, the men sang the Hebrew prayers every day, praising the same Ashem the Jews had sung to after Ur, in Egypt, in the desert, in Jerusalem, on the Iberian Peninsula, and here where they were welcomed to settle and sent ships for, in the Ottoman Empire.

* Shalach Manot is the pen name of a writer who lives in a New York City apartment looking out on a brick wall. Manot’s credits include fellowships from the Mellon Foundation and City University of New York; short stories, essays, and an NPR play about the Spanish Jews; and the new book, His Hundred Years, A Tale (2016), from which "Canakkale, 1911" was taken.