Inayati Dhikr II

By Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez 

Session III: Practice: Inayati Dhikr II (October 2nd, 2014)

(Edited and Abridged Session Notes from "Inayati Sufi Study and Practice," Naropa University, Fall Semester 2014)

Pir Vilayat Inayat-Khan, the son of Hazrat Inayat Khan, used to talk about traditional Sufi practices as “building a temple for the Divine Presence.” Likewise, he said that the Inayati form of dhikr, or ‘remembrance’ practice, is like “circumambulating the temple.”[1] This is a good way of looking at dhikr and other Sufi practices. In general, these practices help us to make a sacred temple out of this body, sacralizing what we have allowed to become profane, or at least which we have forgotten is inherently holy. So, in some sense, our practices are done to re-claim and re-dedicate the body as a temple of the Divine Presence that dwells within it. The particular form of the Inayati dhikr thenwith its spiraling movementsis like circumambulating that sacred ‘temple’ where God dwells in the heart.

Now, Sufi dhikr can be practiced in two basic forms: dhikr jahri (vocal remembrance) and dhikr khafi (silent remembrance). Previously, we learned and practiced the Inayati dhikr in its audible form, jahri, performing the four movements of the dhikr and pronouncing the words of the shahadaLa ’ilaha illa llah hu, which may be translated, ‘There is no god; nevertheless, God Is.’ But we are now going to do it in its silent or khafi form (also known as dhikr-i-qalbi, ‘remembrance of the heart’). We’ll perform the same four movements, but this time, we’ll remember the words in our hearts alone, and accompany the movements with a specific four-part breathing pattern (inhaling and exhaling through the nostrils): 1. Exhalation; 2. Inhalation; 3. Inhalation; 4. Retention.

All together, the dhikr khafi practice goes like this:

1. La ’ilaha, ‘There is no god.’ Begin by pointing your chin at your left shoulder. Then, exhale strongly through your nostrils as you allow your head to loll, drifting down and across your chest toward your right shoulder, continuing to arc upward until your face is exposed to the heavens. As your head makes this 270-degree arc, you mentally ‘pronounce,’ Lailaha.

2. Illa, ‘nevertheless.’ Inhaling, allow your head to fall forward and your chin to drop straight onto your chest, as you mentally pronounce,illa, ‘nevertheless.’

3. Llah, ‘God.’ Inhaling deeper still, lift your chin off your chest and gently throw your head back, so that you are again facing the heavens. While making this movement, you mentally pronounce, llah, ‘God.’

4. Hu, ‘he,’ or ‘the one who is.’ Now, holding your breath as long as is comfortable for you, allow your head to drift gently down and to the left, settling over you heart, as you mentally pronounce, Hu.

So follow me now in doing these four movements in silence, pronouncing the words inwardly with deep intention, and following the aforementioned breathing pattern.

La ’ilaha illa llah hu (10x slowly, silently)

You see, there are two ‘temples’ that are created and ‘circumambulated’ in this practice. One of your own body, and a greater one formed by all of us in practicing togetherthe Divine Presence dwelling in the space between us. Going around and around, we wrap the temple in the energy of the practice, charging and building the field of energy and saturating the space with sacred intention, re-dedicating the temple of the body, and dedicating another greater temple formed by our communion with each other.

Now, if you are doing the practice using very deep inhalations and exhalations through the nostrils, it is enough to do it just three times (as Hazrat Inayat Khan suggests). Believe me, it’s enough. Try it and you’ll see. It is perfect for restoring yourself quickly, returning and reorienting your awareness to the Beloved whenever necessary. But, in doing this practice, make sure that you hold the breath long enough in the retention phase to challenge your comfort zone a little. Not too much. You don’t want to pass out or cause yourself to panic. That’s not the purpose. Be sensible. Just make sure you aren’t leaving the retention phase too quickly. If possible, stay with it long enough to experience your heartbeat in it.

Remember, every aspect of the dhikr is a part of a larger process, and yet a prayer in itself. So begin your dhikr by making your movements beautiful, for they are themselves a choreographed prayer to God. Just doing them mindfully, in an aesthetically pleasing way, is already a sign of your remembrance and a pure offering of the spirit.

Then, once you have established yourself in the movements of prayer, you can add the ‘liturgy’ to them—La ’ilaha illa llah hu. And this is even better, because there are now good words of remembrance upon your lips and entering the atmosphere.

But it is not long before you discover that the words can easily be said while your mind and attention are wandering off far into the distance. So, to a simple recitation of the words, we need to add the ingredient of awareness—attention to the words as we are pronouncing them, even holding tight to them, if need be.

When that is accomplished and comfortable, we find that we can also add another layer of conscious content to our attention—a layer of intentionality—a private message encoded in the carrier wave of the words. This might be as simple as a personally meaningful translation of the Arabic, accompanying the four movements and parts of the phrase in Arabic with a private translation: “There is no God; nevertheless, God’s Presence.” For instance, using “There is no God” with La ’ilaha, “nevertheless” with illa, “God’s” with llah, and “Presence” with hu.  This is as if to say, “God’s Presence is right here, in my heart.” It may not be a literal translation, but it is accurate to the intention.

So, again, every aspect of the dhikr is good in itself and an accomplishment of remembrance on its own; but upon each we can also add a layer that increases the impact and significance of the dhikr.

The Inayati-Maimuni Lineage

In the last session, I was asked to say something about my particular lineage, the Inayati-Maimuni lineage. Sufism is said to have existed from time immemorial. Nevertheless, as it is understood from a historical perspective, Sufism likely has its origins in the 7th century, some 1,400 years ago, in the time of the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.

All Sufi lineages have a direct connection to the Prophet Muhammad, for the Prophet is believed to have imparted a special transmission to his closest disciples (among them, his dearest friend and oldest companion, Abu Bakr, and his nephew and some say, closest disciple, Ali ibn Abi Talib) who imparted it to others.

Over time, four great lineages emerged—the Qadiriyya, the Suhrwardiyya, the Naqshbandiyya, and the Chishtiyya. The Chishti lineage of Central Asia eventually made its way into India where it flowered under the leadership of Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti. There it also acquired techniques from the tantric Hatha Yoga tradition, and many of its masters also received the transmission of the other great Sufi lineages. In time, all four of these lineages were unified under Hazrat Inayat Khan, a brilliant practitioner of Indian Classical music and Sufi master.

Early in the 20th-century, his own master, Abu Hashim Madani, sent him to the West, saying, “Fare forth into the world, my child, and harmonize the East and the West with the harmony of thy music. Spread the wisdom of Sufism abroad, for to this end art thou gifted by Allah, the most merciful and compassionate.” So he traveled to the West in 1910, playing music and speaking in the United States, England, France, and Russia. Everywhere he spoke of Sufism, but did not seek to impose Islam on anyone. That was not his task. For him, Sufism represented a universal spiritual impulse. So he gave over the teachings of Sufism for 17 years in the West and asked his students to apply them to whatever tradition they belonged.

He died in 1927. But not before designating his 11 year-old son, Vilayat, as his spiritual heir. In time, after serving in the British Royal Air Force and Navy during World War II, Vilayat began to train seriously to take up his father’s mantle. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970’s, when he was himself in his 50s, that he really hit his stride and found his people.

In the mid-70s, he met and became friends with my own teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a master in the Hasidic tradition of Judaism, and the two friends performed mutual initiations for one another. Reb Zalman, having studied many Sufi works, and feeling drawn to the universalist teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, asked to be initiated into the tradition. Pir Vilayat, feeling that he could not make someone who was already a master in the Hasidic tradition his murid or disciple, responded to his intuition and made Reb Zalman a sheikh. After all, it was in some sense only a matter of translation for someone who was already a master in another tradition. Pir Vilayat, for his part, desired a transmission of the most ancient priestly order of Malkhitzedek (held in the Jewish line of priests or kohanim through their ancestor Abraham, who received it from Malkhitzedek himself). As Reb Zalman was a kohein or ‘priest’ with access to this level of transmission, Pir Vilayat asked Reb Zalman to perform this initiation for him. I know of no other instance in the history of religions where two masters of different religious traditions performed mutual initiations of this sort.

In this way, Reb Zalman became the bearer of two great spiritual traditions and lineages, Hasidism and Sufism. For many years, he kept them separate, continuing to teach mostly Hasidism, though he did act, as he said on many occasions, “as a good uncle” to a few of Pir Vilayat’s and Murshid Samuel Lewis’ senior students through the years. But he did not wish to be a “papa” in Sufism, he said. It was not until I came to learn with him in 1998, while he was the World Wisdom Chair holder here at Naropa, that both traditions and lineages came together. He asked me at a certain point to study the teachings and practices of both Hasidism and Sufism, and he eventually made me his khalif, his ‘deputy’ and heir to his Sufi lineage.

In 2004, Pir Vilayat’s son and successor, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, formally recognized the establishment of a new branch of the Inayati lineage, combining Hasidic and Sufi teachings and practices, which we called the Inayati-Maimuni tariqah, or ‘path.’ When my beloved master, Reb Zalman, died in July of this year, I became the Pir or head of the lineage.


[1] Vilayat Inayat Khan. Awakening: A Sufi Experience. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1999: 166, 176.