Its Meaning in the Sufi Way Today

The most common definition of the word “initiation” derives from its Latin root: initiare, “to begin.” In the context of spirituality, however, the word “initiation” extends this sense of beginning into two overlapping fields of meaning: one is initiation as a commitment to a relationship, and the other is initiation as an opening into spiritual realization.

The first — commitment — is the sense of the word initiation that includes the profound moment of committing oneself to a life of the spirit, and perhaps even further to a committed relationship with a spiritual guide or body of teachings. The second — opening — is the more experiential sense of the word

initiation that points to the initiatory moment as a living, sacred occurrence that may happen at any time, and though timeless in itself, may be continuous through time.


When we look at the many traditions of religious and mystical training throughout the world we can see there is most often a ceremony marking an individual’s entry into that particular community of spirit. Christians observe baptism and confirmation; Jews the bar mitzvah; Muslims the shahadah; Buddhists taking refuge; Tibetan Buddhists initiations and empowerments, etc. These ceremonies may serve as an individual’s entry into a tradition of teachings, the recognition of a bond between initiate and teacher, or as a means of transmission to the initiate of the lineage’s wisdom and blessing.

Initiation has always served an intimate function within sufism. A person wishing to receive teachings and guidance in one of the many sufi orders or paths is admitted to an order through a brief ceremony known as “taking hand.” Taking hand refers to the moment during the initiation ceremony when the student takes the hand of his or her initiator and symbolically receives the blessing of the lineage and a welcome into its stream.

The Sufi Way is a particular order of western sufism — sometimes referred to as “universal sufism” — that was established in the West 100 years ago by the Indian mystic Sufi Inayat Khan. While sufism is largely known as the mystical school of the religion of Islam, Inayat Khan explicitly founded his universal sufism as not exclusively Islamic. Adherents of all religions, as well as those with no religious affiliation, may find themselves at home in the several non-sectarian branches of universal sufism that have emerged since Inayat Khan’s time. Indeed, as Inayat Khan and many others have pointed out, the inclusive stream of teaching and guidance represented by the name “sufism” can be found existing prior to, as well as parallel to, the religion of Islam.

Sufi Inayat Khan’s View of Initiation

Inayat Khan described initiation as the taking of a step forward with “hope and courage” in a direction one does not know. He understood it as a willingness to let go of habits of self-identification — to be able to live freshly, without preconceptions, open to the moment.

In many ways Inayat Khan equated the path of initiation with being alive: “It is life itself,” he said, “it is the living. Those who live the life of initiation live and make others who come in contact with them alive.”

It is instructive to consider the unity of these two recognitions: that life itself is initiation, and it is embraced by stepping into the unknown. Here we may be able to appreciate how our basic experience of livingness is the essence of initiation. Initiation is the freshness of this moment lived without drawing conclusions about it. We can sense how the whole universe — all of existence — initiates itself in this living, eternal moment. God begins now, always.

This is the reason Inayat Khan, when considering the “aim” of initiation, simply said, “The aim is to find God within yourself. To dive deep within yourself that you may be able to touch the unity of the Whole Being.”

“Diving deep within yourself” is essentially a process of what Inayat Khan called “self-effacement.” “The result brought about by initiation is self-effacement,” he said, “and it is self-effacement which is needed in order to arrive at true wisdom.” What does he mean here? Self-effacement is both the incremental and sudden process of seeing through and letting go of the self-concept, the sense that “I” exist as a separate subject in a world of separate objects. Self-effacement is a recognition that there never was an “I,” simply the projection of one. Much of the training in all mystical traditions is focused on facilitating this central recognition of non-self — not intellectually but in the core of our experience.

There are two additional threads in the rich tapestry Inayat Khan has woven on the subject of initiation. One is the primacy of friendship in the sufi view of initiation, and the other is the role of sincerity. Both of these threads weave together the two aspects of initiation mentioned earlier — a spiritual commitment and a continuous spiritual opening.

Friendship, in this context, refers first of all to the relationship between the initiate and the teacher. Here friendship is not necessarily the typical friendship of two companions in everyday life, but has a deeper sense of a trust and an intimacy that is beyond the personal. As Inayat Khan described it:

People make a great many mysteries out of the name initiation, but the simple explanation is trust on the part of the pupil and confidence on the part of the initiator. I heard from my murshid, my initiator, something I will never forget: “This friendship, this relationship which is brought about by initiation between two persons is something which cannot be broken, it is something which cannot be separated, it is something which cannot be compared with anything else in the world; it belongs to eternity.”

It was in this same spirit that my own teacher, Murshid Fazal Inayat-Khan, Sufi Inayat Khan’s grandson, said:

...there is one thing that has always been sacred, and that is initiation. Why? Because initiation is a sort of union, a sort of bond, a sort of transmittal of love between two people which is real. At least to me, having analyzed the realities as much as I can from my limited point of view, I have found that it is real.

I believe the friendship and love they both are referring to is experienced so profoundly because it is fundamentally a recognition — a seeing — of the other as one’s self. That is, the initiatory recognition is a recognition that there is only One Being, not two or many, but One. Even to call it “One” is not completely accurate, since the idea of counting, of number, is irrelevant to the recognition of the spontaneous presence of This that we are.

When the “One” is seen, there is no one and no “One,” just the seeing. This seeing is the essence of the friendship between initiate and guide. It is like a tuning of vibration between them, a tuning that continues to be refined over the years of encounter and training they share.

There is also another way in which the ideal of spiritual friendship is present in sufic initiation. This is the sense in which being initiated “as a sufi” signifies the opening of the initiate’s heart not only to the teacher and to the essence of the teachings, but to all initiates in the order, and beyond to the initiates in all sufi orders everywhere in the world, and beyond that to all of humanity. It is a beautiful ideal, this poetry of sufi friendship. I have experienced it in sufi gatherings in many countries and situations in which I was a complete stranger. The simple fact of my presence in a sufi gathering, even if I did not know the language or the customs, has always been received with expressions of welcome and friendship.

The deeper ideal of being a friend to humanity beyond the boundaries of one’s social, ethnic, religious, or national identity, is at the heart of sufi realization as it seeks to express itself in the world, although it is not always achieved. Throughout his life Sufi Inayat Khan emphasized this ideal above all others. In its relation to initiation he said, “On the path of initiation two things are necessary: contemplation and living the life the sufi ought to live.” Contemplation in this context means the realization of Truth — touching “the unity of the Whole Being” in such a way that “everything one does in life becomes a contemplation.” As for the life a sufi ought to live:

The life the sufi ought to live may be explained in a few words. There are many things in the life of a sufi, but the greatest is to have a tendency to friendship which is expressed in the form of tolerance and forgiveness, and in the form of service and trust. In whatever form one may express that central theme, the constant desire is to prove one’s love to humanity and to be the friend of all.    

The final point I would like to mention here that is at the heart of Inayat Khan’s view of initiation is sincerity. We may not think much about this particularly virtue — it may seem old fashioned to our ears, or if we speak of someone being sincere we might even think they are a little self-preoccupied or wooden. But the word can be refreshed when we think of its opposite: insincerity. If we were to engage in an initiation ceremony insincerely, or were insincere in our involvement with someone — a friend or teacher — or with the essence of a teaching, we can easily sense how our insincerity would drain away any possible benefit or blessing from this connection. As Inayat Khan pointed out:

There is one law which applies to everything in life: sincerity, which is the only thing that is asked by a teacher of a pupil, for truth is not the portion of the insincere.

To summarize — and this is only a partial accounting — in Inayat Khan’s view initiation holds within it many living functions:

•  it expresses the taking of a step forward into the unknown;

•  it signifies opening into the freshness of life in this moment;

•  its aim is finding God within oneself;

•  its method is self-effacement;

•  it empowers spiritual friendship between teacher and student, among all
   Sufis everywhere, and with all of humanity;

•  its essence is sincerity.

Limitations of the Idea of Initiation

In spite of the refreshing realities represented by the idea of initiation, it can also crystallize into something dense and unhelpful. Perhaps this is a tendency of all spiritual realities as they are necessarily expressed as concepts and translated into the structure of social organizations — from whole religions to mystical inner schools. In the case of initiation we can see this distortion happening in several ways:

•  The establishment of in-groups. Initiation into a group is one way of ensuring that the group maintains its identity through time. This of course has benefit for the group’s cohesiveness — the Catholic Church, for example, would lose much of its coherency if there were no catechism and ceremony marking an individual’s entrance into its fold. And yet just this desire for coherency can create polarization and separation — a “them” and an “us” — when in fact the original meaning of the word catholic is “all-embracing.”  

The same could be said for sufi orders — a sufi, after all, is simply a human being, not a “Sufi.” There is actually no such thing as a “Sufi,” and the essence of sufism recognizes this. In fact, there is also no such thing as “Sufism.” Despite what you may read in some accounts, there are no dogmas, doctrines, or essential beliefs involved in sufism. There is no “ism” at all. Sufism is simply an openness of heart. If there is too much emphasis on an initiation ceremony as an entrance into a special membership, this can have the effect of enclosing the openness of heart within an in-group identity. This can lead to the dream of a group ego, an identification of us versus them even though at its heart the point of the initiation is to free us from that distinction.

•  A related danger of initiation is transference. Of course, there is a temporary utility in an individual transferring his or her ideal of spiritual authority and nurturing presence onto the figure of a teacher and the sense of a venerable lineage. Through this kind of spiritual transference we may open to perceiving a reality vastly greater than thoughts can conceive.

But transference in this realm also carries a potential for limiting spiritual realization rather than opening it. We see countless examples of this in the guru-worship and adulation of spiritual figures throughout history. The individual may become weak, passive, dependent, and subservient in the presence of the teacher. He or she can be caught up in the dynamics of wanting to please and be accepted, both by the teacher and the spiritual community. The initiate may begin to “lean into” the imagined safety and identity of the teacher and the community’s self-assurance, creating the conditions for spiritual inauthenticity and sentimentality, as well as cultism.

•  Finally, there is the risk in initiatic organizations of what has been called spiritual materialism.

In many traditions — sufi, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, etc.—there have developed recognized hierarchies of spiritual maturity and authority, often signified by “levels of initiation” or the bestowal of various honorific titles. On the positive side, acknowledging these naturally occurring levels of maturity can facilitate people helping each other along the path. On the downside, people can become attached to attaining “higher” initiations, and jealous of those with more authority or status. The whole sense of initiation as self-effacement and spiritual friendship can become distorted by the illusion of power.

Initiation in the Sufi Way Today

In light of these limitations of the outer forms of initiation — as well as initiation’s profound and continuous function as a spiritual reality — I would like to clarify its expression within the Sufi Way at the present time.

The Sufi Way emphasizes one initiatic condition and that is the mureed — the committed one. One never stops being a mureed, and in actuality one never “advances” beyond this natural commitment. In some sufi orders there is a detailed description of a student’s path of advancement through a system of spiritual levels. My experience is that this kind of description runs the risk of setting up in our minds a sense of distance between the initiate and the “destination” of realization. There is no distance.

On this point I often hear the question: what about the gradations of spiritual maturity and realization that occur during the course of spiritual growth? Why are these gradations not recognized in the Sufi Way? The answer is not complex: different levels of spiritual maturity obviously occur. However, in almost all cases I feel it is not helpful to label them. As mentioned earlier, labeling people’s degree of spiritual realization within a group can easily lead to inflation or jealousy, or to other dynamics of spiritual materialism. Spiritual maturity is its own proof. In any case, it is best to leave these things unspoken. The point is not to emphasize the hierarchy of difference, even though on a functional level it is evident. The point is to continuously invite individuals to open to their natural birthright, and to create a group context in which this is kindly and clearly available.

Within the Sufi Way as it is presently structured there are two exceptions to this non-labeling policy. These two exceptions are the roles of Murshid or Murshida (guide or teacher), and Pir (the head of the order). While these two roles were traditionally known as the two “highest” initiations, I think it is more accurate to simply see them as positions of responsibility. They signify a kind of servanthood rather than an elevated state. The teachers and the head of the order exist to serve initiates and non-initiates in their awakening, and if appropriate, to help them serve others.

Indeed, this is the whole purpose of the Sufi Way. The Sufi Way does not aspire to create a spiritual club with a large membership. As I have said many times, we are simply a training ground. We set up our tents in a place and share with those who gather there the beauty of the moment. Then we pack up our tents and move on. Many people join the caravan for a time and then go their own ways. Others may stay longer, even for their whole lives, finding ways in which they can serve these intimate encampments. All are welcome, and those who feel called to serve in this way share exquisite times of friendship, realization, and adventure.

The ideal of leadership in the Sufi Way is that it can arise spontaneously from anyone as it is needed, in complement to the established leadership of the Pir, the teachers, and others who have taken on roles of service with the Way.

In terms of initiation, all Murshids and Murshidas in the order have the power to initiate. The Pir appoints the Murshids and Murshidas, as well as his or her successor as Pir.  

It used to be the case that engagement with the advanced work of the inner school of the Sufi Way was limited to initiates. However, in recent years, with the advent of the Open Path trainings and retreats, and the Open Path style of individual guidance, this has changed. The Open Path work is the inner school of the Sufi Way, and as such it has opened our tent to everyone who comes in a spirit of sincerity. No formal initiation is required to participate in Open Path programs. When a person wishes to receive initiation, he or she simply asks for it.

To ask for initiation is not a casual thing. By asking for initiation, one acknowledges to oneself — and to others, but most importantly to oneself — the centrality of spiritual realization in one’s life. Asking for initiation means you intend to stand before the whole universe to say in all sincerity I commit my life to awakening. This commitment is central to the short ceremony of initiation, which is usually attended only by the initiate and the Murshid.  

The ceremony of initiation also symbolizes the initiate’s entrance into a bond of trust, openness, and readiness in relation to the order, the teachings, and the teacher. This bond transcends the personal dimension of the initiate’s life. Through the sincerity of the initiate and the trust established between initiate and guide, the blessing of realization may occur.

It is not that the teacher “transmits” realization to the student — it is not that mechanical. It is more that there develops a field of confidence between them, and in that field the student trusts the teacher’s guidance, and the teacher’s assurance that it is all right to let go — to open the door of the cage of self-identification. While the resultant upwelling of recognition and relief may be experienced as a “transmission” from the teacher, it is actually the initiate’s simple awakening to the natural state of all being, a state that cannot be transmitted because it is already here.

Ultimately, the transmission of realization, the initiatory moment, is grace. It comes, whenever it comes, by grace, unplanned and free. In a way we can understand grace as the fruitfulness of initiation — the blessing of its openness and commitment.

Initiates in the Sufi Way are also welcome to engage in the activities and practices of the Training Ground. These include contact with the Pir and other guides through in-person interviews and telephone work, and the giving of individual practices and chillas.  


To conclude it may be best to recall Inayat Khan’s words: initiation is the process of “taking a step forward with hope and courage in a direction one does not know.” Initiation means living freshly, spontaneously, with an open heart and mind. Initiation is always in the moment. It signifies the bright unfolding of life, free of self-preoccupation and self-pity.

We who find this particular caravan, who help to put up its tents, and who share in the training and beauty that happen here, consider ourselves most fortunate. Together we enter the initiatory condition of welcoming and blessing. This is another way initiation is described in the Sufi Way — as a welcome and a blessing. On the one hand initiation welcomes us to enter a stream of spiritual blessing that flows through history. On the other hand it gives us the opportunity to bless by welcoming each moment.