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.




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

3.     Ibid., 37

4.     Ibid., 38

5.     Ibid., 145-149

Saracen Chivalry by Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

By Netanel Miles-Yépez


When I was in my late teens and first learned the tale of Parzival, as told by the venerable Wolfram von Eshenbach, and witnessed in my mind’s eye the initial encounter between this  famous Arthurian knight and his brother, the Saracen knight, Feirefiz, I was fascinated with the idea of such a meeting. I wondered: What code of chivalry must this Saracen know? How is a Muslim knight instructed in the ways of honor? Then, not long ago, I learned that Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, the son of Pir Vilayat Inayat-Khan and head of the Sufi Order, had just published a new book called Saracen Chivalry, and my mind immediately flashed back to that early image of Feirefiz, who accompanies Parzival to the Grail Castle, and I wondered: Was he perhaps a Sufi? To my astonishment, I soon learned that this was precisely the question Pir Zia had answered, giving us the book of counsels on chivalry originally given to the Saracen knight Feirefiz by his mother before he embarked on his journey!

But perhaps a little background is necessary. In the Parzival story, a Christian knight, Gahmuret, goes in search of adventure in the Holy Land and eventually enters the service of the caliph of Baghdad. Later, he wins the love of the “Black Queen of Zazamanc,” Belacane, and marries her. But the desire for adventure is still upon him and he eventually leaves her and returns home, where he marries another woman, Herzeloyde, and has a son named Parzival. Meanwhile, back in Zazamanc, he has also left Queen Belacane with a son, Feirefiz, who will one day go in search of his father.

This is what we know from the Parzival tale of Wolfram von Eshenbach. But Pir Zia tells us that, without his father to raise him, and knowing that Feirefiz would one day want to go in search of his father, Queen Belacane is left to instruct her son in the ways of chivalry, in the knowledge he would need to meet the adventure of life and not be found wanting. Thus, Saracen Chivalry: Counsels on Valor, Generosity and the Mystical Quest, is her testament to her son, the knight Feirefiz, to guide him on his journey through life.

It is a timely book. For today, as much as any other spiritual teaching, we need to talk about chivalry, about a sacred code of honor which can help to orient us through life. Having lost so many certainties, having witnessed the breakdown of so many culturally-determined values, we need to find new values of global import, universal principles that can help us create a new order of Saheba-e-Safa, ‘knights of purity,’ as spoken of by Pir Zia’s grandfather, Hazrat Inayat Khan, who first brought Sufism to the West. Thus I have asked Pir Zia to share a few excerpts of his book, Saracen Chivalry, with us here:

“On Pilgrimage”

To reach Mecca from Zazamanc a pilgrim must cross the Red Sea. She will reach her destination if her ship stays above water. The inner pilgrimage is different. To attain the House of the Merciful you must suffer the calamity of shipwreck. Your boat, your worldly self, must be capsized, broken to splinters, and sucked into the whirlpool. You must drink the ocean down to its briny dregs. You must plunge into the abyss and wash up gasping on the other side.

The other side is the Holy House that every pilgrim seeks, be she Sabian, Jew, Christian, or Moslem. Here all are gathered, and all stand equal before the Lord. Outer distinctions are abolished; the throng is draped in white. Everywhere is heard the cry, “At your service!”

In the House of the Merciful, time slows to a standstill. Past and future are nothing; the present is all. Space rolls up like a scroll. Everything that was, is, and ever shall be—every star and tree and cloud and idea—confesses the evanescence of its form. So confessing, with shattering delicacy it unveils the eternity of its essence. From the first to the last of the centillion and one things, that essence is pure being, the boundless shining forth of the One.

“On the Greater Struggle”

When Adam and Hawwa dwelled in the garden, God the Most High was always before their eyes. Yet they were not dazzled; their hearts were not pierced. Strangers to darkness, they could not know the meaning of light. And so the Creator ordained exile, condemning them to the desolation of banishment that they might one day taste the elation of homecoming. What is to come is better for you than what has gone before. From oneness they fell into manyness, from union into separation. They lost the garden of being and found themselves in the jungle of becoming. 

Knowledge of the world is the fruit that led man into the jungle and love of God is the fruit that ushers him back into the garden. It was Iblis’ duty to proffer the fruit of knowledge and it is the Messenger’s task to extend the fruit of love. Love’s fruit is like no other. At first it is sweet, then bitter, and finally bittersweet. It is poisonous, but also good medicine. The one who eats of it will suffer the agonies of death, but in time she will rise again more living than before. She will die to herself and rise again in the Real.

Eat the fruit of God’s love, my son, and return to his garden. Breathe the weather of the season of the rose. The names of the Most High are seeds. When they quicken in your inner ground, watered by worship and sunned by faith, the garden will spring to life in you. Like a bud, your heart will open, petal by petal, giving forth a ruby light and a heady attar. In your right breast you will then feel a flutter, and—lo!—another blossom, a white flower, more diaphanous than the last, a gossamer bloom of spectral beauty. When you inhale its delicate scent you will know it to be the essence of purity. To the commanding and blaming selves it is a somnolent drug. Let the antagonists sleep, and the tranquil self will awaken. A bud will now open in the middle of your chest. Its light is gold and green. As its petals tear apart, your primal nature will show itself. Summer will arrive in the garden. In your forehead and crown, in your belly and tailbone, in the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet, blossoms will unfurl. Your flesh will become fertile soil, your veins limpid streams. Butterflies will glide on the breeze of your breath. 

When all is in bloom, all a riot of color and fragrance, from the tongue of every flower will come these words, and you will know that you have come home:

O you tranquil self,

Return to your Lord, well-pleased and well-pleasing!

Enter then among my votaries,

Enter then my garden!

“On Justice”

Ambition knows no restraint. It seizes every advantage, caring nothing for honor and less for the protestations of the downfallen on whose backs it blithely treads. The law of self-interest, ruthlessly applied, can speed an egoist an untold distance on the path of power and privilege. Meanwhile the chivalrous youth lags distantly behind, murmuring at each bottleneck in the lane, “After you...”  

But the wicked will not always flourish, nor will the good always languish. As ‘Isa, peace be upon him, has foretold, “The first shall be last and the last first.”

If in this world vice gains glory and virtue earns nothing but hardship, in the next world the tables will be turned. The mightiest tyrant will discover himself a lowly suppliant of God’s forgiveness, while the poorest of his subjects—those, leastways, that were true to the truth—will be laurelled with the fragrant benedictions of paradise.

My son, keep the Day of Judgment always before your mind’s eye. On that day, everything will be made clear and nothing will remain hidden. There will be no room for pretense on the day their tongues and hands and feet bear witness to what they had done. 

Therefore, be patient. Strive continuously for justice, but know that the justice that earth cannot supply, heaven will provide. When someone offends against you, do not take offense. If he has acted unjustly it is he who will be called to account in the Sequel, not you. The injustice he has done is to his own self. So long as you guard your innocence you cannot be harmed. Yes, your worldly affairs may be impeded. You may even be injured bodily—even to the point of death. But if you have kept God’s pleasure, you will have lost nothing that cannot be honorably lost.

The wise Diyujanis* was once informed that a man had sworn to kill him. His only comment was, “It will do him more harm than it will me.”

Do not brood over the wrongs that have been done to you, nor seek the cold solace of revenge. Pray, instead, for the souls who wrong themselves by wronging you. They stand in need of your prayers.

*AKA Diogenes