Historical Roots

Sufi Roots

by Sharif Graham

The organization known as the Sufi Order International (now the Inayati Order) was founded by Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan in the early twentieth century. Born July 5, 1882, he was a great Indian musician who was sent by his own Murshid (a Sufi teacher) to the West with the commission to unite East and West in “harmony.” He left India in 1910, first touring the United States and then Europe, settling in England during the First World War. Inayat Khan officially registered the Sufi Order in London in 1915, although he always indicated the founding year as 1910. After the War, he moved his family to France and relocated the headquarters of the organization to Geneva. He traveled widely in the 1920’s, including two extensive tours of the United States in 1923 and 1926. Every summer, he held a three month Summer School at his home in Suresnes, near Paris. In October of 1923, he gave the name Sufi Movement to the overall organization, within which the Sufi Order continued as the esoteric school. Returning to India for the first time late in 1926, Inayat Khan unexpectedly passed away on February 5, 1927 at only forty-four years of age.

After his passing, the organization he founded fragmented into several independent groups in Europe and America. Inayat Khan’s eldest son, Vilayat, who was only ten years old at the time of his passing, experienced problems with the leadership of the Sufi Movement, and in 1958 revived the Sufi Order as incorporated by his father in 1915. In the late 1960’s this organization became active in the United States, where it grew to more than a hundred centers around the country. In the 1980’s there was a striking growth in the organization in Europe, where a summer meditation camp in Switzerland now draws from all over the Continent.

However, the roots of the Sufi Order go back well before 1910. Hazard Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan himself studied with a teacher in the Chishti lineage, the pre-eminent Sufi group in India, which traces back to the thirteenth century. At that time, Moinud-Din Chishti, a remarkable wandering teacher, came to India and powerfully established the mystical approach of Sufism on the sub-continent. Sufism is usually seen as “the mysticism of Islam,” and it did indeed develop and flower in the context of Islamic civilization, particularly from the ninth century on. However, Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, along with many earlier Sufi teachers, insisted that Sufism had its roots much farther back in history, tracing it at least as far as the ancient Greek and Egyptian mystery schools. He also identified Sufism with wisdom, and pointed out that wisdom is not exclusive to any particular community. Mysticism, he maintained, is “pure of distinctions and differences.”

In the context of Islam, Sufis trace their heritage back to the Prophet Mohammed himself, particularly through Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in law, who is seen as the transmitter of the deeply spiritual side of the religion, too fine to be given in the public revelation. A whole chain of transmission is kept, connecting present-day practitioners to spiritual ancestors. The Chishti Order, one of the four major organizations in the Sufi lineage (there are hundreds of minor orders), traces itself through the central Asian town of Chisht, where a crucial figure in the transmission, Khwaja Abu Ishak, resided. But perhaps transmission is a misleading word in this case, since each Pir-o-Murshid not only passed on what he received from his predecessors, but dynamically reinterpreted it for his time.

In the case of Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, that reinterpretation, geared specifically to the Western seekers, involved setting aside any specific affiliation with the religion of Islam and opening the training to persons of all religious backgrounds. In his teaching in the West, he clearly stated that Sufism did not require anyone to subscribe to any dogma, creed, or specific teachings. Rather, the Sufi training is designed to intensify and make real the spiritual experience of any seeker, whatever her or his beliefs or religious affiliation.

When Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan was giving his teachings, no other authentic Sufi teachers had been in the West. Subsequently, many other Sufi teachers have come from the East. Some have exhibited a broad outlook similar to Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan’s; others have presented a traditional view, insisting on the Islamic context. There has been some objection to the use of the name Sufi Order*, as though there were no other Sufi Orders when it was first so named. In response to this, the name Sufi Order of the West has sometimes been used, or Sufi Order International, with the sub-headings of “An Interfaith Approach to Spiritual Growth” or “Founded in 1910 by Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan.”

The Sufi Order, The Sufi Movement, Sufi Contact, and The Sufi Ruhaniat International (S.I.R.S.) all draw upon the teachings of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan for their inspiration. A feeling of mutual respect now exists among the various organizations, which Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan has likened to the branches that grow from the trunk of the same tree.

*This was written prior to the change of the name of the organization to The Inayati Order.

Photo:  The Dargah (Tomb) of Inayat Khan, Delhi, India (zaynab FitzPatrick)

The Sufi Order of Rochester Center for Sufi Studies, 494 East Avenue, Rochester, NY 14607, the Carriage House behind the AAUW mansion (Carriage House is 492).