Hazrat Inayat Khan

The Story of Sufism

The Foundations of Traditional and Universalist Sufism [1]

Netanel Miles-Yépez

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Once, long ago, tea was unknown outside of China. But slowly, word of its reputation as a ‘celestial’ or ‘heavenly drink’ made its way down the Silk Road and into the various kingdoms which it connected.

In one of these kingdoms, a kingdom called Inja—‘here’—the king had heard rumors of the celestial drink, and being curious to know if such a thing actually existed, decided to send ambassadors to the Emperor of China, seeking permission to taste this thing called ‘tea’ for themselves.

Thus, the ambassadors of Inja made the long journey up the Silk Road into China where, finally reaching the gates of the Emperor’s palace, they were admitted and granted an audience with the Emperor himself.

“Your Radiant Highness, Son of Heaven,” they said ceremonially, standing before the emperor, “we have been sent by the King of Inja to request the honor of tasting the celestial drink known as ‘tea.’”

The Emperor of China was silent. He would not deign to speak to the ambassadors of the insignificant kingdom of Inja, but merely gestured to his ministers, who showed the ambassadors into another splendid chamber set with tables, where they were served the celestial drink, tea.

Sitting at the low tables, tasting the tea for themselves, the ambassadors said to one another—“It’s wonderful! Both stimulating and relaxing at the same time! It truly is the celestial drink!”

Pleased with themselves and their success, the ambassadors of Inja began the long journey back home. Only now, they decided to take their time and see a little of China, stopping various places to see the sights and staying in different roadhouses to sample the local cuisine. But in so doing, they soon discovered something profoundly disturbing to them . . . Everyone was drinking tea, both peasants and royalty alike!

On returning to Inja and the court of the king, the latter asked them, “Were you successful in your mission?”

“Yes,” said the ambassadors, tentatively, “but . . .”

“But what?” said the king.

“Well, we did make it to the palace of the Emperor of China, and we were served something wonderful that was called, ‘tea’ . . . but we suspect that they may have played a joke on us, or decided not to serve us the real tea. For we later discovered that this same drink was offered all over China, and served to both peasants and royalty alike!”

In another country along the Silk Road known as Anja—‘there’—was a great philosopher, indeed, the greatest philosopher of the region, whose primary interest was tea. He thought constantly of tea, speculating about it and collecting information from travelers in his notebooks. Some said it was a leaf, some said a liquid. Some said it was a drink, greenish in color, some said golden. Some said it was sweet, while others said bitter. In time, this philosopher complied the world’s greatest collection of information about tea, and had written the authoritative treatise on the subject, becoming the most renowned authority in the whole region . . . but he had never tasted it!

Elsewhere, in a land called Mazhab—‘sectarianism’—they had actually managed to procure a single bag of tea! And one day a year, they would attach this little sachet containing dried tea leaves by four strings to two great staves, which four large and grim-faced men rested on their shoulders, carrying it with ritual solemnity through the streets of the capital. On that day, all the city’s inhabitants would leave work and come out of their homes to witness the holy procession. And when the sacred bag of tea passed before them, all would bow down and prostrate in fear and trembling.

And this is the way it was for a long time, until one year, on the day of the holy procession, a visitor to the capital remained standing while all the city’s inhabitants prostrated themselves before the sacred bag of tea. Laughing out loud, he said, “No-o-o-o, you idiots! You have to pour boiling water on it!”

An audible gasp went through the crowd. The grim-faced priests carrying the tea bag turned to look at the man in both horror and anger. Then, with a look and an angry gesture, they ordered the religious police to arrest the heretic, this enemy of religion who had suggested the destruction of the holy tea! The police immediately seized the man and executed him in the most horrible ways, hanging and dismembering him.

Fortunately for us, before this sad incident, the man had confided the secret of tea to a few friends in the city, and had bequeathed to them the tea he had brought with him on his journey. But having seen what happened to their friend, they now knew not to make the same mistake of talking about infusing the tea with boiling water, or of drinking it openly. Instead, they gathered in secret to do so, and if anyone happened to ask them what it was they were drinking, they would answer simply, “Just a little medicine.”

In this way, they grew in wisdom, until one day, the wisest among them said this . . . “The one who tastes, knows; the one who tastes not, knows not. Stop talking about the ‘celestial drink,’ but serve it at your banquets. Those who like it will ask for more; those who do not are not fitted to be tea-drinkers. Close the shop of argument and open the tea-house of experience.”

Thus, this circle of secret tea-drinkers became the first merchants of tea. Being already merchants of fabrics and jewels, traveling tradesmen of all sorts, they took their tea with them wherever they traveled along the Silk Road. And wherever they might stop, they would take out a little tea and brew it, offering to share it with whoever might be near. This was the beginning of the chaikhanas, the tea-houses that then popped-up all over Central Asia, spreading the true use and reputation of tea far and wide.[2]


Traditional Definitions of Sufism

For over a thousand years, Sufis have routinely learned and recited various definitions of Sufism as a kind of spiritual practice, as a way of continually ‘course-correcting’ and guiding themselves back to the ideals of Sufism. Thus, they have often asked themselves the question, ‘What is Sufism?’ This ancient story or parable of tea is one answer.

Thus, we might look more closely at it and consider what it is trying to say.

First, we have the curious king of ‘here’—Inja—who wants to know if there really is such a thing as ‘tea,’ which might stand for Sufism or mystical experience. But, being a rather ordinary or unremarkable sort of king, he doesn’t go out in search of it himself, but sends ambassadors or emissaries in his stead. The emissaries actually taste the tea for themselves, but are convinced that it can’t be the ‘real thing,’ because people of all classes and stations drink it. In other words, they are elitists who cannot accept that mystical experience is something available to everyone.

Then we have the great philosopher of ‘there’—Anja—who is the world’s greatest authority on ‘tea,’ though he has never tasted it. Thus, his is only head-knowledge, as opposed to the more substantive experiential knowledge. He is like the academic scholars of Sufism who can describe all of its characteristics based on the reports and writings of others, but who have never tasted the heart-broken love and obliterating passion it offers.

Elsewhere, in the land of ‘sectarianism’—Mazhab—they actually worship the ‘tea,’ but in a dry form. This is religion without spiritualty, without the infusion of spirit, the one thing necessary to bring it to life, allowing people to benefit from it. The priests of religion celebrate and defend the ‘dry form’ of religion, often forgetting that the purpose of religion is not merely to preserve the religion itself, but to aid one in transformation. In so doing, they become worshippers of religion instead of God. Thus, Sufis have been known to say . . .

“A Sufi’s religion is God.”[3]

Obviously, this is a Sufi critique of religion, a way of suggesting to the orthodox—‘You have become worshippers of Islam,’ or ‘Christianity’ or ‘Judaism,’ as the case may be, ‘and have forgotten God in your observance of religion. Whereas, God is our religion!’ That is to say, the direct experience of God is a Sufi’s religion. Indeed, it was in the context of such a critique—in rebellion against conventional religion—that historical Sufism was born.

Sufis often say that ‘Sufism has always existed,’ being the deep impulse of the heart that seeks wholeness in divinity or the sacred found in every religious tradition. Thus, Muzaffer Ozak, the famous 20th-century Jerrahi sheikh, says—“A river passes through many countries and each claims it for its own. But there is only one river.”[4] In every land, that river is called by a different name in a different language, but there is only one river, flowing back into one source.

Nevertheless, there is also a clear historical phenomenon with specific characteristics which we call ‘Sufism’ that has a definite context and origin in the Middle East. Personally, I like to explain this context through a parallel exploration of the possible etymological origins of the word, ‘Sufi.’

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Among the most commonly suggested origins is the Arabic word, ṣuffah, ‘bench,’ which is itself a reference to the ahl aṣ-ṣuffah, ‘people of the bench,’ or ashab as-suffah, ‘companions of the bench.’ Now these people were, in the time of the prophet Muhammad, alayhi as-salām, a supposedly impoverished group of companions of the Prophet who never seemed to leave the bench outside the masjid, or mosque, in Medina. They were probably looked upon by many in Medina as lazy and indolent; but it is said that they were actually so God-intoxicated that all they wanted to do was remain in prayer close to the mosque. They could never do enough practice, never talk enough about God, so they never left the precincts of the mosque! Thus, these “people of the bench,” according to some, are considered the first Sufis.

However, another legend says that Sufis, at first, were actually a nameless, wandering band of mystics, who roamed the world in search of the qutub, the ‘axis’ or ‘pole’ of spirituality in any given age. Thus, in the time of the prophet Muhammad, they were magnetically drawn to Medina, the city of the Prophet, where they recognized him as the qutub and embraced Islam. Thus, the originally nameless form of Sufism took on an Arabic character and name, and became associated with Islam, though it never lost its essentially universalist spiritual outlook. Some even say that this group of wandering seekers, arriving in Medina without any other material aim or intention, became the ‘people of the bench.’

Later, this recognition of the nameless origins of Sufism led one great Sufi master to admonish his fellow Sufis with this famous statement . . .

“Once, Sufism was a reality without a name;

now it is but a name without a reality.”[5]

Another explanation of the origin of the word ‘Sufi’ is the Arabic safā, ‘pure,’ from which we get, tasawwuff. In English, we speak of the tradition of Sufism, but that’s merely an Anglicized form of the Arabic word, tasawwuf, meaning ‘purification,’ a process or path of continual purification, purifying oneself from the more spiritually deadening effects of the ego.

Nevertheless, historically and linguistically, scholars tend to agree that the most likely origin of the word, ‘Sufi,’ is the Arabic word sūf, ‘wool,’ a reference to the simple woolen cloaks worn by early Muslim ascetics in the 8th and 9th-century in the Middle East.

These pious Muslims were generally called nussāk (sing. nāsik) or ‘ascetics, and wore rough woolen garments, rejecting the decadent luxuries of the increasing wealthy Islamic empire which, as they saw it, had lost its way. Their lifestyle was a protest and rebellion against the lax morality of the time. In just two hundred years, the originally poor and pious Muslim community of high ideals had become rich, bloated with wealth acquired through conquest, and extremely decadent. Thus, these early ascetic Muslims were trying to reestablish the ideals of Islam based on the best models available to them. In this case, on the example of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers (Abbas and Ammas) who lived in desert caves across the Middle East, and who were often known for wearing coarse woolen garments, an ascetic practice in that hot, dry climate.

Indeed, stories of this cross-fertilization are preserved in the Sufi tradition, especially in an episode from the life of the great Sufi master, Ibrahim ibn Adham, a king who gave up his kingdom to pursue God, who tells of a deep transmission of inner wisdom (ma'rifa) he received from a Christian ascetic.

According to the story, Ibrahim Adham once visited a Christian ascetic called Father Simeon in his desert cave in the mountains. He asked him, “How long have you been here, father?”

“Seventy years,” Father Simeon answered.

“What food do you eat?” asked Ibrahim Adham.

“Why do you ask, my son?”

“I just want to know.”

Father Simeon answered, “One chick pea a day.”

Amazed, Ibrahim Adham said, “What moves your heart so much that you can live off so little?”

“Well, I’ll tell you. Once a year,” Father Simeon answered, “the people of the village below come up to celebrate my work here, adorning my cave and honoring me. And when I’m weary of this life, I think of that, and I can go on.

“Now, I ask you, what work of an hour would you endure for the whole glory of eternity?”

“Hearing this,” Ibrahim Adham tells us, “ma'rifa,” the inner wisdom or experiential knowledge, “descended on me.”

For me, this is an amazing story, connecting the three great esoteric Abrahamic lineages. Just as the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Christianity were already the heirs of the Essenes, a Jewish mystical ascetic sect along the Dead Sea[6] and the probable authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, so too were the Sufis the heirs of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

These early Muslim ascetics, nussāk, were even known to say that they followed the way of the Prophet Isa, or Jesus, who wore wool instead of the more comfortable cotton. In saying this, they were not proclaiming themselves converts to Christianity—they were still good Muslims—but recognizing that Jesus was a prophet in Islam whose model was closely aligned with their values. After all, they were rebelling against a corrupt Islamic government, and with the fact that Islam had become mixed-up with politics. The Prophet Muhammad, of course, was considered the best possible ruler, a true philosopher or prophet-king, but things had quickly degenerated after his passing. Aware of the problems of this model, these early proto-Sufis saw Jesus as a prophet who wasn’t involved in politics or governance, leading an exemplary spiritual life. Thus, it likewise became a longstanding value among many Sufis not to become too deeply involved with powerbrokers or politics, nor to court or seek the influence of the powerful elite, whether those with great wealth or great political power.

Within the larger ascetic protest movement of the 8th-century—roughly 200 years after the birth of Islam—was a fringe group called the Sūfiyya, ‘the wool wearers,’ which was likely a pejorative term originally used by their detractors to make fun of them.[7] Nevertheless, the name stuck, and was eventually claimed by this group of spiritual idealists. Indeed, one early master, accepting the more realistic derivation from sūf, ‘wool,’ and combing it with the ideal of safā, ‘purity,’ famously said . . .

“The Sufi is the one who wears wool on top of purity.”[8]

Likewise following the model of Jesus, these early Sufis emphasized Jesus’ teachings on love, though, they did not need Christianity to show them the path to love of God. It was also there before them in the Qur’an (5:54) . . .

“God loves them, and they love God.”

Thus, some Sufis even came to say . . .

“Sufism is the religion of Love.”[9]

It was not long before the early ascetic tradition of Sufism was transformed into a tradition oriented to the ideal and experience of divine love. This is perhaps owing to the influence of one individual more than any other, a woman and a former slave named Rābi‘a al-Adawiyya or Rābi‘a al-Basri (ca. 717-801).

Orphaned at an early age, Rābi‘a was sold into slavery, but her owner, seeing that she spoke with God, became afraid and freed her. After that, she began to wander, never leaving her devotions. She is said to have been a beautiful woman, but never married, devoting herself entirely to God. She is known to have said . . .

“I love You with two loves,

one that that is unworthy of You,

and one that is lost in You.”

And on another occasion . . .

“If I worship You for fear of hell, then send me there.

If I worship you out of a desire for heaven, then bar the gates.

But if I worship You for Your own sake,

then do not deny me the vision of Your eternal beauty.”

The most enduring image of Rābi‘a al-Adawiyya for me is the description of her walking through the streets of Basra carrying a fiery torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. Some Sufis who saw her asked, “Lady Rābi‘a, what are you going to do with these?”

She answered, “I’m going to set fire to paradise (Janna) and douse the flames of hell (Jahannam), so that both will cease to inspire desire and fear, that these veils may fall from their eyes, and the lover’s purpose may become clear.”

Through her influence on many others, Sufism came to be oriented toward pure love and ecstatic experiences of union with the divine. Soon, practices developed around the remembrance of the divine Beloved, such as dhikr Allāh, the mantric remembrance or recitation of the name of God. Sufism also developed practices of courting ecstasy with music and dance and the recitation of love poetry. Such sessions which put one in a state of ecstasy (wajd) were called samā‘ or ‘hearing.’ In these ecstatic states, it was said that the self (nafs) was annihilated (fanā) in the experience of union with God.

Among the most famous of the early ecstatic Sufi masters was Mansūr al-Hallāj (ca. 858-March 26th, 922), who is known for crying-out publically in a moment of ecstasy, An al-Haqq, “I am the Truth”[10] . . . and then being executed as a heretic for it.[11] Of course, to the literal-minded, he seemed to be saying that he was God, that his individual ego had subsumed God, when actually he was saying quite the opposite, that his individual ego had been obliterated by God!

Does his story sound familiar?

Clearly, al-Hallaj is the man from our story, the one visiting the land of sectarianism who laughs and cries out, “No, you idiots! You have to pour boiling water on it!”

Thus, the tea of the parable represents Sufism as a path emphasizing experience, specifically, the experience of ‘tasting God,’ or the sacred.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

Image from the Peck Shahnamah. 16th century, Shiraz. Princeton University Library.

But the Parable of Tea is also a cautionary tale, describing a shift in the history of Sufism. Having seen what happened to al-Hallāj, and the general backlash against Sufism, many Sufis decided to go underground, practicing dhikr (‘remembrance’) or ‘drinking their tea’ in secret.[12] Thus, the admonition . . .

The one who tastes, knows; the one who tastes not, knows not. Stop talking about the ‘celestial drink,’ but serve it at your banquets. Those who like it will ask for more; those who do not are not fitted to be tea-drinkers. Close the shop of argument and open the tea-house of experience.

This reminds me of Murshid Samuel Lewis’ wonderful paraphrase of Muhammad Ghazzali’s (d.1111) suggestion . . .

“Sufism is a school of experience, not of dogmas.”[13]

Sufism is not interested in trying to convince others to believe through argument, and does not have a specific set of beliefs to prescribe. It has specific teachings, of course, and a definite perspective oriented to divine love, but no dogmas about what you must believe. The idea of Sufism is to seek experience, your own experience. Beliefs should not be merely ‘imported,’ but formed from personal experience. In Sufism, you discover your own God or “God-ideal,” as Hazrat Inayat Khan puts it.[14] The tradition is merely suggesting, ‘Take these things in and try them out for yourself; discover your own relationship to the sacred.’ The Sufi way is to share, not to impose, as the story illustrates . . .

Thus, this circle of secret tea-drinkers became the first merchants of tea. Being already merchants of fabrics and jewels, traveling tradesmen of all sorts, they took their tea with them wherever they traveled along the Silk Road. And wherever they might stop, they would take out a little tea and brew it, offering to share it with whoever might be near. This was the beginning of the chaikhanas, the tea-houses that then popped-up all over Central Asia, spreading the true use and reputation of tea far and wide.

The chaikhanas or tea-houses, of course, refer to the many Sufi turuq or ‘orders’ (and their khaneghas) that soon arose, including the four great orders, the Chishti, Naqshbandi, Suhrawardi, and Qadiri.


The Evolution of Universalist Sufism

The Chishti lineage, which originally formed in Central Asia, eventually made its way into India with the great Sufi master, Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti (1141-1236), where it developed into a unique lineage incorporating Yogic practices and a specific musical lineage called, Qawwali.

In 1910, a master in this lineage, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), a great classical Indian musician, in whom was also united the four great Sufi lineages, was charged by his master to bring Sufism into the West. In his master’s words . . .

Fare forth into the world, my child, and harmonize the East and the West with the harmony of your music. Spread the wisdom of Sufism abroad, for to this end art thou gifted by Allah, the most merciful and compassionate.[15]

Coming to the West, ostensibly as a musician, Inayat Khan gave concerts which were sometimes followed by lectures on Sufism. In San Francisco, in 1911, he met his first Western student, a Jewish woman named Ada Martin (1871-1947), who became the first American Sufi murid (‘seeker’), and also the first American murshida, or acknowledged spiritual teacher of Sufism.

But in taking a Western murid, it soon became clear to Inayat Khan that it was not necessarily his mission to spread Islam along with Sufism in the West. The people he was teaching were already Jews and Christians, whose religion was to be protected. Thus, he began to introduce them to Sufism without Islam, as an esoteric path and set of teachings that might catalyze or ‘turn on’ what was dormant in their existing religious practice. In other words, he would teach them to “pour boiling water on it,” to infuse it with Sufi spirituality.

Thus was born Universalist Sufism, and also the Inayati lineage (as a new emphasis in the lineage is often marked by the addition of a name to it, often the name of the innovator). And in time, Inayat Khan would propose yet another definition of Sufism, saying . . .

“If anybody asks you, ‘What is Sufism?’ . . . you may answer:

‘Sufism is the religion of the heart,

the religion in which the most important thing

is to seek God in the heart of humanity.’”[16]

Now, some have asked, ‘Is this still Sufism?’ To this, I believe we can answer a clear, ‘Yes.’ Inayati or Universalist Sufism maintains the traditional Sufi orientation to love and the heart, the commitment to personal spiritual experience through practice—through dhikr (remembrance) and muraqaba (meditation)—and continues the great, 1,400 year-old unbroken lineage, passed from Sufi master to Sufi master. Moreover, Inayati Sufism is still completely in-line with and following the almost 800 year-old mandate of Khwaja Mu‘in ad-Din Chishti to all Chishti Sufis . . .

Love all, and hate none.

Mere talk of peace will get you nothing.

Mere talk of God and religion will not take you far.

Bring out all of the latent powers of your being,

And reveal the full magnificence

Of your immortal self.[17]

Be charged with peace and joy,

And scatter them wherever you are,

And wherever you go.

Be a blazing fire of truth,

A beautiful blossom of love,

And a soothing balm of peace.

With your spiritual light,

Dispel the darkness of ignorance;

Dissolve the clouds of discord and war,

And spread goodwill, peace, and harmony among the people.

Never seek any help, charity, or favors

From anybody except God.

Never go to the courts of kings,

Nor refuse to bless and help the needy and the poor,

The widow or the orphan, if they come to your door.

This is your mission, to serve the people. . . .

Carry it out dutifully and courageously,

So that I, as your Pir-o-Murshid,

May not be ashamed of

Any shortcomings on your part

Before the Almighty God

And our holy predecessors

In the Sufi silsila

On the Day of Judgment.[18]




[1] An edited version of a talk originally given in Portland, Oregon on July 7th, 2016 at Lewis & Clark College for the Season of the Rose, the annual summer school of the Inayati Order.

[2] A parable attributed to Khwaja Yusuf Hamadani by Idries Shah. A less elaborate version of the story is given in Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967: 88-90). After originally reading this story in Shah, I went on to tell it for many years, often as way of introducing Sufism. After some years, I needed to consult the original to confirm a detail, only to discover that I had greatly embroidered the story. However, I was pleased to note that I had preserved all of the essentials, as well as the most important details and phrases.

[3] A traditional Sufi saying.

[4] Muzaffer Ozak. Love is the Wine: Talks of a Sufi Master in America. Ed. Ragip Frager. Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1987: 1.

[5] Abu’l-Hasan Bushanji, 8th/9th-century.

[6] Greek, Essaioi, a corruption of the Aramaic, Hasya, or Hebrew, Hasidim.

[7] Eventually, by the 9th-century, the name “Sufi” came to apply to all the nussāk. In Khurasan and Transoxania (Central Asia), they were also called hakim (pl. hukamā’) also ‘ārif (pl. ‘ārifūn), fakir, and darwiish.

[8] Al-Rudhabari, 9th-century.

[9] A traditional Sufi saying.

[10] Such ecstatic outbursts are called, shathiyat (sing. shath).

[11] This is the classic story of Mansūr al-Hallāj’s martyrdom. The historical truth is more complex. It seems that he inspired a movement of moral and political reform in Baghdad, which made him powerful enemies. He was then forced to flee Baghdad. He was later arrested and imprisoned for nine years and finally condemned as being part of an insurgent group who wished to destroy the Ka’ba. He had said, “Circle the ka’ba of the heart seven times,” and some also reported that he said cities should build local ka’bas for people to circumambulate. For these things, he was denounced. But as-Shafi’i, the greatest Muslim jurist of the time, refused to condemn him, saying that mystic inspiration was beyond his jurisdiction. Nevertheless, he was condemned by the government. The queen-mother interceded and the order was revoked, but the vizier continued conniving until al-Hallāj was finally condemned, tortured, hanged, decapitated in Baghdad. His last words were said to be, “The only thing that matters is to be absorbed in Unity.”

[12] This story or parable is attributed to the Khwajagan, who are said to have been critical of al-Hallāj, considering his public shath an example of spiritual imprudence. They were advocates of quiet work out of the public eye.

[13] Actually, this is my own paraphrase of Murshid Samuel Lewis’ paraphrase of al-Ghazzali, “Sufism consists of experiences not premises.” (Sufi Vision and Initiation, 19, from The Lotus and the Universe). It seems to be based on a whole passage in al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal of Muhammad al-Ghazzali. One sentence (in Watt's translation) reads: “It became clear to me, however, that what is most distinctive of mysticism is something which cannot be apprehended by study, but only by immediate experience (dhawq—literally, 'tasting'), by ecstasy and by a moral change." (The Faith and Practice of Al-Ghazali, 54-55).

[14] The Unity of Religious Ideals, Part II, “The God-Ideal.”

[15] The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan: Volume 12: The Vision of God and Man. Geneva: International Headquarters of the Sufi Movement, 1982: 150.

[16] Religious Gathekas, #1.

[17] This reminds me of the Bektashi saying reported by Murat Yagan in I Come from Behind Calf Mountain (Putney, VT: Threshhold Books, 1984: 155): Sufism is the “process of awakening and developing latent human powers under Divine Grace and guidance.”

[18] Adapted from the version given in Hakim Moinuddin Chishti’s The Book of Sufi Healing. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1991: 9.

Sufism and the Inner Life

An Interview with Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez

Gayan Macher and Netanel Miles-Yépez in dialogue. Photo by Hilary Benas 2015. Used by permission of the Inayati Order.

Gayan Macher and Netanel Miles-Yépez in dialogue. Photo by Hilary Benas 2015. Used by permission of the Inayati Order.

The following questions were formulated by Gayan Macher, a senior teacher in the Inayati Order, in preparation for a public dialogue on “The Inner Life in Inayati Sufism” that took place at the Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, New York, in June of 2015. Here, Pir Netanel gives his own very personal answers to each of these questions. — Ed.


The Spiritual Path

QUESTION: What draws you to the spiritual path?


NETANEL: I think it’s a question about wholeness that draws me to the spiritual path. I’m always asking myself—Am I whole? How can I become whole? We all know there are limits, that we have limitations with which we have to learn to live, but where are they, really? Where are our real limits? And have we tested them sufficiently?

In my own life, I have always been plagued by debilitating fears and anxieties that limited my freedom and caused me problems. But these limitations also bothered me, until finally, I reached a point where I hated the limitations more than I feared the things that made me afraid and anxious in the first place. I wondered what lay beyond the limits I’d set for myself with these fears. How much more of the circle of my life could I fill-out if I stopped reacting to my fears?

In a sense, wholeness is the ultimate reality for me. What in Jungian terms might be called the Self. Wholeness is what I’m seeking, not ‘enlightenment.’ That’s become the ultimate ego-trap. I like what Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan had to say on the subject—“Enlightenment is a receding wave.” As we walk out into the ocean of consciousness, the wave of enlightenment is always moving on, out beyond us. In that sense, there is only ‘enlighten-ing,’ not ‘enlighten-ment.’ Enlightenment is something static, but enlightening is something occurring continuously on the path to wholeness.


QUESTION:And how is that process going so far?

NETANEL: Well, from one perspective—looking at the kind of difficulties we all go through—I might say, “Not very well.” But, from another perspective—looking at where I was twenty years ago—I see that there has clearly been some kind of progress. There are different versions of me along that timeline that were seriously affected by fears and limitations that don’t affect me so much now. Maybe that’s just growing up, or maturation.


QUESTION: What do you most admire in a human being? What qualities and ways of being?

NETANEL: I admire courage, kindness, sincerity, humility, and hard work in a person.


QUESTION: Does one need to be on a formal spiritual path to become that kind of person? 

NETANEL: No . . . People make a thousand decisions every day that either cultivate those qualities or divorce them from them; and they make them for a thousand different reasons. They don’t necessarily do it because they’re on a formal spiritual path, unless we call the desire to cultivate those qualities a “formal spiritual path.” The desire, the decision, and the action are what is important. They’re the basic ingredients found in all the formal spiritual paths. What the latter offer are an enhanced set of tools for cultivating those qualities, and for navigating the difficulties that arise in life.


QUESTION: There are many authentic spiritual paths and realized teachers available to us in the world today. Are they all basically the same?

NETANEL: I want to play devil’s advocate for a moment and ask—Are there really so many realized teachers available to us today? What do we really know about “authentic spiritual paths” and “realized teachers”? I’m not even sure I know what that means. I’m not sure we can afford to believe that as a starting point. All we can do is watch and learn, apply and test.

I hope I’m on an authentic path, but I can’t sell you on its authenticity; I can only try to be authentic in it. That’s the best any of us can do. If I am in any measure ‘authentic’ in practicing it, and its benefits seem apparent to someone else, then that might be enough to convince them to give it a try. But does that make it authentic? For all they know, maybe I’m just a good fake. The only authenticity we can really be responsible for is our own, and even that is not necessarily ‘authenticity.’ We can try to be sincere, and that’s it. We are authentic only to the degree that we are sincere, and that authenticity only relates to the sincerity itself, not necessarily to what is being done sincerely.

As to “realized,” we have to ask—What have they realized? If, as a so-called ‘spiritual teacher,’ I am supposed to be ‘a realized being’ in the way that phrase is usually bandied-about, then I have to say, I’m not. Not as some sort of permanent identity, or paragon of idealized virtues, transcending the vicissitudes of life in the world. I’m not that; nor do I find that desirable. Have I realized ‘something’? Sure. But so has everyone else. The question is—Have I realized something you want to know, and can I convey that information to you? Or rather, can I be helpful in helping you to realize it yourself? That is the functional definition of a spiritual teacher. There is no need to make an idol of the person. Indeed, we must not make an idol out of them if we would obtain any benefit from the spiritual path.

Given all this, I don’t think we can know whether all authentic spiritual paths and realized teachers are the same, any more than we can say they are authentic or realized.


QUESTION: What would you say distinguishes the path of Sufism as brought by Hazrat Inayat Khan from other paths then?

NETANEL: What distinguishes the path of Sufism brought by Hazrat Inayat Khan? Being the “religion of the heart,” as he puts it, it is in touch with both the individual heart of the human being and the Heart at the center of All Being, allowing for the uniqueness of individual experience and the Divine Pulse reverberating through and encompassing Everything.

Moreover, the Message of Sufism as brought by Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan provides a spiritual umbrella under which all might come and find shelter.


QUESTION: Do you think there is anything unique, or significantly different about Sufism and the spiritual path today, than say, three or four hundred years ago in Afghanistan or Turkey? Different challenges? Possibilities? Approach to training? What feels enduring about the tradition or the path, and what elements may be evolving in relation to the times and culture?

NETANEL: I’d be a fool to say it was the same, but neither would I be entirely right in saying it is different. The philosopher, Gerald Heard (quoting Ernst Haeckel) would say, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” For him, this meant that the psycho-spiritual development of the individual (ontogeny) reflects the evolution of culture (phylogeny), and vice versa. That is to say, there is a developmental capacity or potential within us that is mirrored in the development of human society and culture as a whole. Or, just as we grow up as individuals, so too does humanity over a longer timeline.

Without going into the whole presentation of this idea, I’ll just say that, in terms of developmental capacity, Sufis today are largely the same as those of the past. We have the same basic physical and psychological needs, as well as spiritual potentials. At the same time, more of that potential seems to have been actuated for us as a species through the millennia, and accompanied by the means of accumulating knowledge. As we have accumulated knowledge, or history you might say, our external lives have changed drastically, at least in many parts of the world. And those changes mean that we have to approach many things somewhat differently than we did in the past, including Sufism.

Today, we live in a time-contracted world, flooded with an overwhelming amount of information, demanding a somewhat different approach to spiritual practice, a refining and adaptation of ‘tools’ to meet the needs of this time. It is also necessary to “increase the yield” of those tools—as my murshid put it—so that we can use them more effectively in a shorter amount of time. We must also adapt the presentation of the Sufi Message to make it more accessible to where people are now. Is Sufism itself different? Not in essence, I think; but certainly in form. Form evolves over time. There are clear differences in the form of Sufism in various periods, from its early ascetic phase to the medieval flowering of the Sufi orders to our own day. Nevertheless, the orientation to the heart and remembrance remain.

I would also say that ‘relationship’ is crucial to this paradigm, exploring spirituality in the context of our relationships. Almost none of the traditions have really dealt with relationships in any significant way, always seeing spiritual development in individual or group terms. But development vis-a-vis another person is an integral part of this paradigm.


Suffering on the Spiritual Path

QUESTION: Talk to us about personal sadness. As you ripen spiritually, does sadness go away? Does the nature of your sadness change? Is it realistic to expect that the spiritual path would result in happiness?

NETANEL: Well, if sadness is supposed to go away as a result of ‘spiritual ripening,’ then I suppose I haven’t ripened to any appreciable degree. Sadness is simply a part of the human experience. A spirituality without it is, in some sense, inhuman. 

Does the experience of sadness change? I don’t know. I think it feels the same. But maybe the conclusions we draw from it change. There is no need to reject it or call it ‘bad.’ It may feel unbearable, but it is not something that one should be ashamed of or reject. Sadness is a testimony to our humanity, and how keenly we feel. It is an aspect of our relationship to love. It has to be known in the context of love.

In the Hasidic tradition, the ‘broken heart’ is understood as something valuable, precious. Only a heart that knows pain can be sensitive to another’s pain. The story is told of the holy Apter Rav, Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, who was once asked why his prayers always worked when those of others didn’t. He said: “When someone comes to me with their pain, with their problems, it makes a small hole in my heart. And now, after so many years, when I pray, I simply lift up my heart before God, this sad heart full of holes, and God cannot but feel pity and respond.”

Now this, by all accounts, was a great spiritual master. Was he happy? How can we know? I don’t know why the spiritual path should necessarily result in happiness. We certainly desire it; but is it a necessary outcome of the spiritual path? That may depend on what we mean by the word. If it is an endless sunny day, untouched by grief or sadness, then likely not. But if it something that can hold the complex co-existence of both sadness and gratitude, then I think perhaps that is something the spiritual path can help us to achieve. Again, I would tend to think in terms of wholeness rather than happiness.


QUESTION: Does suffering in the world, and in your personal life, affect your faith in the loving God, the God of perfection? If not, how does that work for you? Is there a place inside that we can reach beyond denial, despair, or spiritual platitude?

NETANEL: In my life? Without a doubt. Suffering has certainly affected my faith . . . caused a crisis of faith. I’ve hated God, felt poison in my veins about the so-called God of love who would send “his only begotten son”—as it says in the Gospels—to be crucified on the cross. Suffering has burned away all the spiritual platitudes I used to repeat about “a larger vision of God’s justice.” What do we know about God’s justice and the greater meaning of events? It may exist, and probably does, but what do we really know about it? The scale of it is just too big for our limited vision. From where we stand in our suffering, God is not just . . . God is cruel. In spiritual hindsight, we make meaning out of events, and often bypass the truly difficult reality of our painful unknowing and limited vision.

There was once a Hasidic master who sat unseen, late at night, in a dark corner of an inn on the Day of Atonement and watched as the innkeeper sat down at a table and took out a ledger. The innkeeper opened the ledger and said, “God, these are all my offences for the year . . .” and he went on to list them one-by-one. Then, unexpectedly, he took out a second ledger and said, “But these are all your offences against us . . .” and he listed all the bad things that had happened to him and the community that same year. In the end, he closed both ledgers and said, “Perhaps, God, we should call it even?”

You see, in the Hasidic tradition, we can also make demands of God, and must, because the truth is, God owes us as much as we owe.

We need to be careful about washing over our pain with convenient spiritual explanations and talk that makes us feel good, but that isn’t necessarily substantiated in a way that builds a solid spiritual foundation. You see, it’s not that I really had an idea of a personal God anymore when I began to suffer. That was long since gone. But there were vestiges of unexamined beliefs and ideas that exploded under the intense heat of suffering in my life, leaving something more painful, though also more real. I knew then the terribly sublime vision that Krishna showed to Arjuna of the Totality of Being, in all its beauty and ugliness, and I both loved and hated it. And somehow, afterward, though I loved ‘God’ less, I loved God in people more.


Spiritual Practice

QUESTION: Let’s say that one person meditates consistently for thirty years, while another prays diligently for thirty years. What kind of person does each become? How are they different? Are both orientations included in this path, and given the same emphasis?

NETANEL: I don’t think we know that they will be different at all. It depends on the individual, their natural tendencies, and where they started. But if we are trying to take the ‘all things being equal’ stance, then we might speculate in the following way. Prayer, being an expressive activity, is generally considered “positive” in Hazrat Inayat Khan’s terms, while meditation, being generally inward, might be considered a “negative” method. (I’m not talking about positive and negative in terms of value judgments, such as good and bad, but in descriptive terms, such as when we talk about positive and negative space.) Prayer, as extemporaneous activity, or even recitation, is expressive, and can be seen as ‘clearing the pipes.’ We are expressive beings. A murid once asked me, “What does God need our prayer for?” That is to say, if God is worthy of the name, then there is no need for us to say anything in the first place, right? But the answer to the question is simple: God may not need our prayer, but we need to pray! Because we are expressive beings, we express outward.

Meditation, on the other hand, is a means of attuning consciousness. It also allows us to discern an authentic voice amid the cacophony of voices within us, a voice that is truly ours, that represents our deepest self or Self.

I would say that we need both—the positive and expressive activity of prayer, and the negative, interior activity of meditation—to live a fully realized spiritual life, like two poles between which we must run back and forth. But that is just my opinion.

Extemporaneous prayer has not been as emphasized in Inayati Sufism, though I would recommend it as good for the soul, and I cannot think of a single reason why it should not be emphasized here. After all, it was practiced by the great Sufi saint, Rabi‘a al-Adawiyya, and many other Sufis through the centuries. In the Hasidic tradition, we see a profound example of its use in the teachings of Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav, who calls it hitbodedut. It is also strongly emphasized in Protestant Christianity.


QUESTION: Sometimes ideas are taught that I don’t necessarily connect with or understand. I want to be real about my spirituality. I don’t want to pretend that I feel a connection to these things when I don’t. For example, tuning-in to angelic beings. I’m not sure I know what that means. If I don’t experience these things, how do I relate to them? Is there a way to make them more real? 

NETANEL: We either have to make them more real, or move on from talking about them altogether. If we take the example of angelic beings, we have to get to the heart of the esoteric teachings around them, and find a way to apply those teachings in our actual lives. For instance, the word, malak, in Arabic, means ‘messenger.’ The angel is a messenger, the carrier of a message. But the esoteric teachings also tell us that the angel is itself the message, birthed in a given moment by our actions, emotions, or thoughts, carrying our deep intentions to other planes of reality, where a response is crafted, which is itself an angelic messenger-message. If we understand the implications of this teaching, then we might look differently at our less noble actions, emotions, and thoughts, considering the angelic-messages with which we are seeding the womb of the universe, and considering what kind of child will come from them.

Otherwise, talk of angels usually seems to me, as my murshid put it—elaborating on Fritz Perl’s categories of “chicken shit” (inconsequential talk), “bull shit” (lies and exaggeration), and “elephant shit” (grandiose talk and intellectual bypassing)—just so much “angel shit,” airy-fairy spiritual talk without substance or meaning.


QUESTION: What does it mean to be a ‘friend of God’? How does one become God’s friend?

NETANEL: That’s about qurb (proximity) or uns (intimacy) in Sufism. It is to be so close to God, to have such an intimate relationship, that God is like one’s closest, most reliable and intimate Friend or Companion.

It is also one of the root metaphors of Sufism, using specific relationship language to define a particular quality of relationship cultivated on the Sufi path. For instance, one could address God as Father, Mother, King, or even Boss, and get into the mode of those specific relationships and their qualities. But Sufism tends to cultivate a relationship with God as Friend or Beloved, emphasizing intimacy and love.


QUESTION: If someone were coming to you sincerely about embarking on the spiritual path, what tips from your own hard won experience would you give them about how to make their way? 

NETANEL: Watch your integrity. Pay attention to that. Take responsibility for your own path, and don’t place responsibility for it on anyone else, no matter how “realized” you think they might be.