Western Sufism: The Sufi Movement, The Sufi Order International, and the Sufi Way
Pir-o-Murshid Fazal Inayat Khan
The vast majority of Sufis today, (over 50 million), are primarily Muslim Sufis who live almost everywhere Islam can be found. There may well be over 100 active Sufi orders in the Islamic geographical area with hundreds of smaller orders, dervish groups, Qalandari sub orders or sects. The enormous variety of Sufis in the world and amongst Muslims is a testimony of its rich inner tradition and continually resurging spiritual energy. One can see Sufism as a major continuous fountain of spiritual growth in the world over centuries.
In the West at present there are three main groupings which together form the main body of Western Sufism. All three are succeeding organizations of The Sufi Movement founded originally by Inayat Khan in the 1920's in the West. These three main groupings are: ‘The Sufi Movement’, ‘The Sufi Order International’ and ‘The Sufi Way’ (1). This Western Sufism is non-Islamic as seen from the perspective of orthodox Muslim thought.
Certainly there are other organizations in the West such as Sufism Reoriented, and the various North American dancing dervish groups, etc. I do not consider these groups as part of Western Sufism today, because their Sil Silae (chain of spiritual succession) is not clearly defined and/or they no longer follow a succinct initiatic tradition. Nevertheless, such groups may have much merit and each in their own way certainly make a welcome and positive contribution to the totality of human consciousness on earth as well as to the wider body of Sufism in the world.
There are also active Islamic Sufi orders functioning in the West. Their existence is outside the scope of this article.
If one traces Sufism historically to the ancient Pythagorean orders, it becomes clear that Sufism is a spiritual cultural force throughout civilised history. Interestingly, one can conclude in historical perspective that the cause of Sufism's resurgent, adaptive and changing permanency as a feature of human, spiritual thought and practice, is its ability to decentralise and evolve its body of thought among a great variety of leaders. So it remains continuously in a flux of spiritual searching, responding to the present human condition at any particular time.
I therefore define Sufism as remaining ever the same by always changing.
Western Sufism can also be understood in this manner. At first, there was The Sufi Movement as founded by Inayat Khan himself. Then in the 1950s, the Order emerged out of The Sufi Movement as the founder's son Pir Vilayat began to give a new and somewhat more contemporary vision and interpretation of the teachings and practices left by his father.
It is interesting to note that the differences between The Sufi Movement and the Order are quite comparable with the variations of the Orthodox and Catholic wings of the Christian faith, or the Sunni and Shia divergence in Islam and scores of other divisions, schisms and resurgences which one finds where human beings are deeply committed and involved with purposive and/or idealistic actualisation.
Various different approaches developed over time and this was possibly unavoidable. The historical development of the three Sufi groups is a result of generational differences and the spiritual/cultural focus of people. Once upon a time Inayat Khan, as a young vital man, left his established environment as a reformer to bring Sufism to the West. One has to see this in the context of the existence of the Theosophical Society, The Order of the White Star, the Arcane School, etc., in the West. It was primarily from among these groups that Inayat Khan gained his followers and they helped him to organise, shape and develop his movement and activities. When he died at a relatively young age, his brothers continued to lead this Movement. Many at that time could not accept their succession to his spiritual leadership. While World War II came and went, The Sufi Movement continued on quietly under the spiritual tutelage of the younger brothers of the founder. Much infighting and tension existed in the Movement during this time as well as an emerging long term conflict with Pir Vilayat. Various breakaway groups emerged with each succession.
There was a period during which I was close to my uncle and greatly sympathised, as I do now, with Pir Vilayat's quest to fulfil his father's hope and become the head of The Sufi Movement. Family misunderstandings and natural resistance to change caused disaffection between various Sufi groups at that time. Eventually my uncle Vilayat went ahead and made his own order in the 1950s. Indeed he has fulfilled this calling in that he has risen to become the better known leader of the larger Sufi group at present.
When my great uncle and Murshid, Musharaff Khan passed away in 1967, I was appointed by him as his spiritual successor and so duly elected to head The Sufi Movement in 1968. Soon there emerged opposition from various groups, who felt that I should not take an independent line, but follow scrupulously the words and instructions given by the founder. Many elder Sufis felt great sympathy with this point of view and I began to realise that I did not want to encourage ever increasing conflict. Also I felt a symbolic struggle of people's questions with changes in the world in a larger sense.
Feeling that unity and harmony was my real aim rather than strife and intolerance, I resigned as exoteric head of The Sufi Movement in 1982 (the hundred year anniversary of the founder) and installed a Collective Consultative Council of the leadership of that Movement, in which the various interested and conflicting parties could together give advice under the chairmanship of my uncle. The original structure of The Sufi Movement was based on a hierarchical fusion of esoteric and exoteric Leadership. The actual present leader of the Movement, whom I nominated, is Dr. H. J. Witteveen.
I also founded the new Way which I consider as an esoteric continuation of ‘The Sufi Order’ (2), because I continue my spiritual mandate as successor to my teacher in my Sil Silae.
In the Council's deliberations I took the initiative to request Pir Vilayat to develop a plan for greater unity of the various factions under his stewardship. Eventually in December, 1985 and May, 1986 it became evident that such a move cannot come about. Therefore I see as the present option to proceed with a steady separate evolution of my own Sil Silae (initiatic branch) because of the sincerity and earnestness with which I have always practised my spiritual vision.
While one can recognise these developments as strongly interlinked with family and personal conflicts, it is not in my opinion the only or primary cause. Rather, those personal tensions are the symbolic focus for tendencies in the human collective. Each generation of Sufi leaders emerges from the past finding its own hue and style in the present (and in the future).
Many people have asked me and discussed among themselves what the differences between the present organisations actually are. This is a subject for much debate and possible disagreement. I wish to give my view of these differences and hence the reason for this article.
The Movement today concentrates on spiritual growth and realisation through the application of the words, practices and instructions of Hazrat Inayat Khan himself as he gave these during his lifetime in the West between 1910 and 1926.
The Order, through the deeply personal and inspiring leadership of Pir Vilayat, is a contemporary esoteric school which appeals to the spiritual community of today and especially to the North American ethic, which is egalitarian and characterised by the hope and vision of the new and dominant ‘nation identity’ of its youthful and vigorous population. The Movement is far more European in character, thus valuing spiritual tradition, cultural appreciation, low profile, subtle depth and conflict reduction, as evident in the contemporary West European culture in general.
The Way began to emerge from The Sufi Movement in the early 1970s and can be seen as culturally and philosophically positioned to the "left" of the Order which is clearly the larger and ‘middle of the road’ Sufi organisation. In this way of speaking, the Movement would be identified as being on the ‘right’ of the Order.
By left, middle of the road and right I am not in any way indicating a political orientation. It is a simplified way of indicating a greater or lesser degree of reform orientation. In my opinion all three groups are very sincere in the endeavour to follow the original teachings of Inayat Khan and their differences are the natural result of a variation in focus of the integration of these original teachings. For me, the original teachings can be interpreted widely and I shall return to this further on.
The cultural base of the Way reflects modern Western thought, including high technology as well as Eastern classical mysticism, the significance of a balance of faith and intelligence, the use of both love and will is emphasised, etc.
As the Way emerges presently, it appears to be more radical than the two other groups and to adhere to a philosophical and spiritual approach which includes substantial cross-fertilisation with the ideas and methodology of Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology, classical Islamic Sufism and many other teachings. While the Movement and the Order speak the language as used in the past and present spiritual community in the free western world in general, the Way speaks a modern transformational language. We search for a reconnection with our ancient, oriental roots within the context of our future-oriented transformational language.
The Way does not view itself as an appointed vehicle for spreading the right approach or the greater truth nor even the ‘real message’. It sees itself simply as a vehicle of Sufic continuity with emphasis on the future and on the potential of becoming at any one instant. Becoming, (re-becoming), is understood as a mystical state of consciousness of the self. This is possible by transformation of the present being. Having become brings about self- realisation and a new self-concept. Re-becoming is an ongoing process. Self-realisation as approached by the Way is reached through the ‘way of mastery’, i.e. through effort and competition as well as love and renunciation. And by discovering further than whatever one has accepted as dependable and good at any one particular time. Thus this present description of the Way may change, even its name may change.
As founder and spiritual leader of the Way, I see the significance that The Sufi Movement has as its symbolic leader the ‘father’ (grandfather), the Order has the ‘son’ (father) and the Way has the ‘grandson’ (son). Three generations of spiritual leaders all of one family and yet somehow following the same spiritual inspiration in different and divergent ways. The spiritual leadership of Inayat Khan obviously links these in some archetypal way and obviously various meaningful interpretations of this can be made, as indeed I also make myself. My own father, Hidayat Inayat-Khan, brother of Pir Vilayat, is an active leader in the Consultative Council of the Movement and its vice-president. I also deeply value him as loyal advisor and protector of the Sufi Tradition of his father.
I also see that the existence of these three groupings in a wider sense represents a triad of Sufic essence - purity, expansion and freedom; and that all three groupings have each in their own way something valuable to bring to those who wish to partake of them. Naturally there may be more rigid interpretations by various devotees in these groupings, who could be of the opinion that their own particular group is the only real, true Sufi group and the only original tradition of Sufi Inayat Khan. I hope that my leadership has succeeded in inspiring my adherents with the self-identity that we do not wish to be the best Sufi group nor the only real Sufi teaching. I feel we should simply aim to be who we are and to actualise Sufism today in a natural way. It may well be that the Movement is purer or that the Order carries more spiritual expansion. Or it may not be! To judge such things is not a valuable realisation to me. If we ‘compete’ as three Sufi groupings it seems to me only worthwhile to strive towards guiding and developing our different initiates in the best way we can, to help them to a realisation of their greatest potential, freedom and independence.
In this guiding and developing one can see great diversity between the three groups. The Movement adheres to a stricter selection of esoteric practices, which are built up around a core of practices derived from the Chistia Muslim Sufis of Southern India as they practised these forms of meditations in the late 1800s. ‘New’ practices are allowed only in the sense of building up further from this original core or meditative style and further refinement or changes cannot be easily assimilated. Devotion and faith in the original teachings is very deep. Most mantric meditations are primarily in foreign words (Urdu or Arabic or Sanskrit) and so one sees a succinct focus on an esoteric tradition and rituals which Inayat Khan gave his disciples in the 1920s. The Order, with the creative leadership of Pir Vilayat, incorporates this same body of meditative practices and rituals, but includes greater freedom and variety of methodology and execution as well as allows ‘new’ or changed or adapted rituals to be included in its repertoire. The use of English and other languages and cross-fertilisation with Bhakti, Hatha Yoga as well as meditations from a wide variety of other sources, has been introduced. Most of these were not in use or even known in The Sufi Movement before World War II. Since my resignation, the Movement's collective leadership seems to have begun to try to find a way out of this dilemma of change versus continuity.
I have not had much exposure to the current methods used by the Order. There may well be aspects to its spiritual practices I have not mentioned. When I lived at Fazal Manzil (3) in Suresnes, France, as a young man, my uncle included many mental exercises and symbolic conceptualisation in his practices. I have been given to understand by mutual friends that this is still the case presently. Contemporary psychology would characterise such practises as ‘mental concentrations’ in my view.
The Way does not consider any one particular technique or methodology of meditation or ritual experience as obligatorily included nor excluded in its assortment of practices. It expands its usage of spiritual exercises by including aspects of modern psychology etc. in the widest sense, as well as all traditional methods used anywhere, to bring about transformational effervescence in consciousness found among Sufis and sages of all ages. For instance, we would include competitive games, classical zikrs as well as trance states through guided imagery as valid means of reaching higher states of consciousness. In general, we would not advocate that being spiritual necessitates meditation or any other practice. Of course it does not exclude these either. But we see meditation as a state of being which can naturally occur at any time and is not to the exclusion of the reality of living in the world. We see any kind of higher consciousness as having a biological basis in the human being and particularly in the functioning of the non-dominant cerebral hemisphere.
When I was guiding The Sufi Movement, the initiates were primarily concentrating on relatively long unstructured silences and regular repetitive chants or phrases or breathing exercises. I presently often use musical meditations to bring about such states and also accept that mental concentrations bring forth (evoke) valuable thought evolution. The ability to enter into ecstasy or ecstatic states of trance is also promoted.
One of the important mental aspects of the Way is the inclusion of doubt as a means of growth and self-realisation. Doubt and faith need to go paired in harmony. Doubt brings about freedom and vitality to conceive further and let go beyond the boundaries of ones present realisation. Doubt in anything as well as in oneself: doubt in the illusionary as well as the apparent real. Faith, on the other hand, one also needs. Faith to amalgamate and approach new boundaries. Faith in oneself, ones illusions and ones reality apperception; God. With faith one attains and realises peace and harmony. With doubt one destroys and gains freedom to move ontowards.
Apart from differences in meditative practices and ideology, there is also a difference regarding the written teachings called the Sufi Message. The Movement conceives the written word of Hazrat Inayat Khan as the spiritual message of the day. The Order also conceives the Sufi Message as such, but possibly interprets the written words more freely and creatively. The Way approaches this somewhat differently and here we see wider divergence.
I am well aware of the highly controversial aspects of our point of view and especially the feelings of ‘devaluation of the prophet and the prophetic message’ which devotees may feel.
The very manner in which divine inspiration is conceived is different in the Way. Origination is not in question at all, but rather what to do with it. The prophetic nature of the Sufi Message and the teachings of Inayat Khan are accepted by all three organisations. In the Way, such ‘inspired’ teaching is seen as a vehicle to convey the very inspiration itself and being in contact with this prophetic meaning.
In my view the new spiritual direction of the present and the future is self-actualisation and individual growth, rather than mass group development as in the past. This is also why I strongly advocate that spiritual leadership in the present context should aim to foster independence and self-sufficiency rather than discipleship in the context of the past. I also highly value the criteria that a spiritual teacher in today’s world lives a normal life in society, rather than be an object of wonderment or adulation as in the past. The future spiritual teacher is the friend; the real friend. The Way teaches that spiritual leadership which does not aim to foster independence and self-sufficiency in the context of society, knowledge and education, is a leadership which brings about sects, groups, cults and other forms of exclusion. This sectarianism is viewed by me as an aspect of the spiritual impulse of the past. I try to avoid it and feel that the spiritual leadership of today must emphasise universality, networking and the actualisation of spiritual consciousness in the world here and now on an individual basis. I view this as the idea of brotherhood and sisterhood in the real sense of today.
So in my opinion all three groups find their base in the same ‘teachings’ and as such form together Western Sufism. Over the next few years the three groups could develop separately and independently or they may merge or federate. Obviously it is confusing for someone trying to find the organisation of Hazrat Inayat Khan to discover that several exist. Indeed very often people discover by chance only one of these three and then after having, joined or rejected that one, they find out that there are one or two others (or more). There is a natural process among humans: tribal identification. One would wish, and obviously I do so, that these tribes may be in harmony with each other. Sometimes this harmony is there and sometimes it is not; that is also the human process. The Way teaches its adherents that there is much good to be experienced everywhere and that God's guidance is in all things. The expansive consciousness goes beyond all existing boundaries of self; even the one of being a Sufi or of being spiritual or becoming anything! I hope that in writing this I may have given you some valuable understanding of how I think of the triadic Western Sufism and especially that if you are an adherent to the Movement or Order, that the Way is not in enmity with your spiritual leadership. We simply are different yet also human and sincere.
March 10, 1987
- For simplification I shall refer to the various groupings as follows:
- The Sufi Movement founded by Hazrat Inayat Khan as The Sufi Movement;
- The Sufi Order International founded by Vilayat Inayat-Khan as the Order;
- The Sufi Way founded by Fazal Inayat~Khan as the Way;
- The present Sufi Movement represented by Dr. H.J. Witteveen as the Movement;
(1) The agglomeration of all the above in a single concept as Western Sufism;
(2) The Sufi Order which was originally founded as an esoteric school as an activity within The Sufi Movement by Hazrat Inayat Khan and having at present one branch in the Movement and one branch in the Way, as ‘The Sufi Order’. There is also such an esoteric school in the Sufi Order International.
(3) Fazal Manzil is the ‘ancestral’ house in which Sufi Inayat Khan lived from 1923 and which I consider as one of my spiritual abodes. Presently my aunt, uncle and father reside there.