Inayat Khan: On Sufism
Sufism originated from the ancient school of Egyptian mysteries,
a school which existed even before Abraham, the father of three
great religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Those who know
Sufism from superficial writings, and, sometimes, from translations
of the Arabic or Persian literature, are apt to think that Sufism is
the mystical side of Islam. In reality, it is not true. Sufism
existed before Mohammed, before Jesus Christ, before Abraham.
It is true that the mystics in the world of Islam are called
Sufis, but that does not mean that "Sufi" means the mystics of
Islam. For instance, the green color is the national color of the
Irish, but that does not mean that everybody who dresses in green is
from Ireland. The green color existed even before people inhabited
Background on Sufism
What is meant by the word Sufi? The word Sufi is derived from the
Arabic word Safa, or Saf, which means, literally, pure, i.e. pure
from distinctions and differences. In Greek the word means wise.
Sufism cannot be called deism, for the Sufi does not consider God as
an entity separate from oneself. Neither can it be called pantheism,
because the Sufi not only sees the immanence of God in nature, but
also realizes God’s Essence in the infinite, naming God Allah, the
Formless, the Colorless. The Sufi is neither a believer in the
unrealized God nor an unbeliever in the idealized Deity, and thus
one is distinguished from godly and ungodly alike. The Sufi is not
an atheist, for the Sufi denies neither God nor God’s Messengers.
To the question, "Are you a Christian?", "Are you a Muslim?",
"Are you a Jew?", the Sufi’s answer would be "yes" rather than "no",
for the Sufi opposes no religion but sympathizes with all. In fact
Sufism cannot be called a religion, for it does not impose either
belief or principle upon anyone, considering that each individual
soul has its own principles best suited for it, and a belief which
changes with each grade of evolution. Sufism is not an intellectual
philosophy, because it does not depend merely upon cold reasoning,
but develops a devotional tendency in one. Sufism cannot be called
occultism, for the Sufi does not give any importance to the
investigation of phenomena; seeing the brevity of life, a Sufi deems
that a worthless pursuit: the Sufi’s aim is God alone.
The Origin of Sufism
The germ of Sufism is said to have existed from the beginning of
the human creation, for wisdom is the heritage of all; therefore no
one person can be said to be its propounder. It has been revealed
more clearly and spread more widely from time to time as the world
Sufism as a brother/sisterhood may be traced back as far as the
period of Daniel. We find among the Zoroastrians, Hatim, the best
known Sufi of his time. The chosen ones of God, the salt of the
earth, who responded without hesitation to the call of Abraham,
Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, were Sufis, and were not only simple
followers of a religion but had insight into divine knowledge. They
recognized God’s every messenger and united with them all. Before
the time of Mohammed they were called Ekuanul Safa, Brothers of
Purity, but after his coming they were named by him Sahabi Safa,
Knights of Purity. The world has called them Zoroastrian, Christian,
Jewish, or Islamic mystics, and the followers of each religion have
claimed them as their own. For instance, a Christian would claim
that Saint Paul was a Christian and a Muslim that Shams Tabriz was a
Muslim. In reality Christ was not a Christian nor was Mohammed a
Muslim, they were Sufis.
Relation to Other Religions
Although Sufism is the essence of all religions and its influence
is upon all, yet it can more justly be called the esoteric side of
Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But it is not a
purely Zoroastrian esotericism devoid of Jewish influence, nor is it
a solely Jewish mysticism free from the influence of Christianity,
nor is it entirely Christian wisdom untouched by the morals of
Islam. Therefore it is justifiable to call it the true spirit of all
religions, even of those as foreign to it as Vedanta and Buddhism.
We see Zoroaster in the Sufi in one’s purity, one’s love for light
and one’s worship of God in the sublimity of nature. We see Moses in
the Sufi in one’s constant communion with God. We see Christ in the
Sufi in one’s charity and self-renunciation. The true meaning of the
sacrament is seen in the daily life of the Sufi, who readily shares
one’s all with another. The life of a true Sufi is an open Bible for
anyone to read. We see Mohammed in the humanity of the Sufi, in
one’s strength in facing the struggle of life and bearing with
equanimity its responsibilities.
The Sufi Movement
Sufism was intellectually born in Arabia, devotionally reared in
Persia, and spiritually completed in India. For the last forty years
the direct and indirect influence of the East has prepared the
ground in the West for the seed of the Sufi message. Every event has
its time, and it has been ordained by the Supreme Will that East and
West shall now unite in the bond of love and wisdom which neither
politics nor commerce can bring about, but only the call of God, the
Lord of both East and West.
Sufism - The Spirit of All Religions
The word Sufi, or Saf, implies purity, which contains two qualities.
That is pure which is unmixed with any element other than its own,
or in other words, that is pure which existed in its own element
unalloyed and unstained. And secondly, that is pure which is most
adaptable. Pure water, for instance, is water without the mixture of
anything else, and the test of its purity is that it can adapt
itself to whatever is mixed with it. If it is mixed with a red
powder it becomes red, if with a green powder, green.
Such is the nature of the Sufi. In the first place the Sufis
purify themselves by keeping the vision of God always before them,
not allowing the stains of earthly differences and distinctions to
be mirrored upon their heart. Neither good nor bad society, nor
intercourse with people of high or low class, nor faith or belief
can ever interfere with one’s purity.
The Sufi shows universal kinship in one’s adaptability. Among
Christians one is a Christian, among Jews one is a Jew, among
Muslims, a Muslim, among Hindus, a Hindu, for a Sufi is with all and
thus all are with the Sufi. Sufis allow everyone to join with them
in the brother/sisterhood, and in the same way allow themselves to
join in any other. The Sufi never questions, "What is your creed,
nation, or religion?" Neither does a Sufi ask, "What are your
teachings or principles?" If you call a Sufi brother or sister, one
answers as brother or sister.
The Sufi has no fixed principles, because what is sweet may be
beneficial to one and harmful to another, and it is thus with all
principles, good or bad, kind or cruel. If you require of soldiers
that they should be merciful during a battle they will at once be
defeated. This shows that each person has one’s own principles for
each action and situation.
Sufism - Beyond Religion
Modern writers have often made mistakes by writing of Sufism as a
Persian philosophy or the esoteric side of Islam. Some have
erroneously believed it to be a borrowed influence of Vedanta or
Buddhism upon Islam. Some Oriental writers have patriotically called
it an outcome of Islam in order to secure the credit for their own
religion, while some Occidental writers have attempted to win it for
In fact, according to the sacred history which the Sufis have
inherited from one another, it is clear that Sufism has never been
owned by any race or religion for differences and distinctions are
the very delusions from which Sufis purify themselves. It might
appear that Sufism must have been formed of the different elements
of various religions which are prominent today, but it is not so,
for Sufism itself is the essence of all the religions as well as the
spirit of Islam.
Sufism reveals all the shades and colors which represent the
various religions of the world, having no particular color itself.
All prophets, saints, sages, and mystics are practically owned by
their followers, as Christ by the Christians and Moses by the Jews.
Yet Christ was not a Christian nor Moses a Jew, all being Sufis,
pure from earthly distinctions. The Beloved Ones of God are even as
God, impervious to religious dogmas and principles.
Sufism is not a religion nor a philosophy, it is neither deism
nor atheism, nor is it a moral, nor a special kind of mysticism,
being free from the usual religious sectarianism. If ever it could
be called a religion, it would only be as a religion of love,
harmony, and beauty. If it be called a philosophy it is beyond that
because a Sufi, through the study of metaphysics, escapes the
selfishness produced by philosophy and kindles the fire of devotion
with one’s eyes open to reason and logic. The Sufi prays to Allah
every moment in one’s life, invoking God’s Name and realizing at the
same time that the self is no other than God. For to a Sufi God is
not a personal being but a mighty healer to awaken the soul from its
delusion of earthly individuality, and a guide to lead it to
self-realization, the only aim in life.
The Sufi, by learning the greatest of all morals, which is love,
arrives at the stage of self-denial, wherein one liberates oneself
from all earthly morals. Mysticism has several aspects but the Sufi
strives towards the path of truth, its ultimate goal. The truth of
the Sufi is the one truth which is common to all religions and
philosophies, and in the realization of which one finds one’s
salvation, or Najat. Sufism, being the first brother/sisterhood of
purity, has been known under different names, such as that of the
Brothers of Purity, the Knights of Purity, the Brotherhood of the
Cave, on which initiative several other institutions have
established kinships under different names.
Sufism: Wisdom Of All Faiths
The word Sufi comes from a Persian word meaning wisdom. From the
original root many derivations can be traced; among them the Greek
word Sophia is one of the most interesting.
Wisdom is the ultimate power. In wisdom is rooted religion, which
connotes law and inspiration. But the point of view of the wise
differs from that of the simple followers of a religion. The wise,
whatever their faith, have always been able to meet each other
beyond those boundaries of external forms and conventions, which are
natural and necessary to human life, but which none the less
People of the same thought and point of view are drawn to each
other with a tendency to form an exclusive circle. A minority is apt
to fence itself off from the crowd. So it has been with the mystics.
Mystical ideas are unintelligible to the generality of people. The
mystics have, therefore, usually imparted their ideas to a chosen
few only, to those whom they could trust, who were ready for
initiation and discipleship. Thus great Sufis have appeared at
different times and have founded schools of thought. Their
expression of wisdom has differed to suit their environments, but
their understanding of life has been one and the same. The same herb
planted in various atmospheric conditions will vary in form
accordingly, but will retain its characteristics.
The European historian sometimes traces the history of Sufism by
noticing the actual occurrence of this word and by referring only to
those schools which have definitely wished to be known by this name.
Some European scholars find the origin of this philosophy in the
teaching Of Islam, others connect it with Buddhism. Others do not
reject as incredible the Semitic tradition that Sufism’s foundation
is to be attributed to the teachings of Abraham. But the greater
number consider that it arose contemporary to the teaching of
Zoroaster. Every age of the world has seen awakened souls, and as it
is impossible to limit wisdom to any one period or place, so it is
impossible to date the origin of Sufism.
Not only have there been illuminated souls at all times, but
there have been times when a wave of illumination has passed over
humanity as a whole. We believe that such a period is at hand. The
calamity through which the world has lately passed, and the problems
of the present difficult situations are due to the existence Of
boundaries; this fact is already clear to many. Sufism takes away
the boundaries which divide different faiths by bringing into full
light the underlying wisdom in which they are all united.
Different Schools of Sufism
Sufism is the old school of quietism; the ancient school of
wisdom which has been the origin of many cults of a mystical and
philosophical nature. As the origin of all the occult and mystical
schools has been the ancient school of Egypt, so Sufism has always
represented that school, and has worked out its destiny in the realm
From this school of Sufism came four schools. The first was the
Nakshiabandia, which worked with symbolism, ritualism and ceremony.
The second was the Kadaria, which taught wisdom in the realm of the
existing religion of the East. The third was the Soharvardia, which
taught the mystery of life by the knowledge of metaphysics and the
practice of self-control. The fourth was the Chistia, which
represented the spiritual idea in the realm Of poetry, music, etc.
From these schools many branches sprang forth in Arabia, Turkey,
Tartary, Russia, Turkestan. Bokhara, Afghanistan, India, Siberia,
and other parts of Asia.
With the different schools the ideal remained the same, but the
method was different. The main ideal of the Sufi school has been to
attain that perfection which Jesus Christ taught in the Bible: "Be
ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect." The method of the
Sufis has always been that of self-effacement, but the effacement of
which self? Not of the real self, but of the false self (on which
one depends, priding oneself on being something) I in order to allow
that real self to manifest in the world of appearances. Thus the
Sufi method works toward the unfoldment of the soul, the self which
is eternal, to which all power and beauty belong.
The Sufi Message
In all periods of the history of the world and in all ancient
traditions one finds traces of a call from above being given to
communities, nations, races and the world at large. In the Koran it
is said, "We have sent our messengers to every part of the earth,
that they may not say they were not warned in time." All traditions
declare that a messenger is given to the world at the time of the
No doubt people have given an unnecessary and excessive
importance to the personality of the messenger rather than to the
message, and this is the very great error that humanity has made in
every age. In taking the messenger instead of recognizing the
message, they regarded the pen that wrote the letter instead of the
contents of the letter. The letter and the writer are important; the
pen is only the instrument. Thus differences came about in religion.
The message has always been given at all periods; when it was more
needed it was given with a loud voice, when it was less needed,
gently. Christ has said, "I am Alpha and Omega." This means that he
is first and last and thus is ever there, not that he is absent
between time. The prophesy of Mohammed was: "Now that all the world
has received the message through a man who is subject to all
limitations and conditions of human life, the message will in the
future be given without the claim."
The Sufi message is destined to reawaken the world and to be a
warning. The power of the inner force is constantly at work and this
promises much for what is now formed as a nucleus composed of a few
mureeds under the name of the Sufi Order to be the servant of the
new era in the path of God and truth.
I wish that my mureeds who feel in their hearts this trust shall
not only receive the sacred message for their own unfoldment but
shall feel the privilege of being a nucleus for the coming spiritual
reconstruction of the world. The more conscious they will be of
this, the more they will feel the responsibility they have in their
life and the duty they must perform. Mureeds can show their devotion
to Murshid and to the cause by doing their very best and be devoting
their thoughts and efforts in action to the rebuilding of the
A Sufi is one who guards one’s knowledge and wisdom and power in
humble guise. A Sufi does not dispute on spiritual subjects with
everyone, for this reason: the spiritual evolution of each one
differs from that of the other, the knowledge of one cannot be the
knowledge of the other, nor is the understanding of one the
understanding of the other. A Sufi does not discuss beliefs, for the
Sufi knows that at every step in spiritual evolution a person’s
belief changes until one arrives at a final belief which words
The Sufi learns not only by the study of books but by the study
of life. The whole of life is like an open book to a Sufi and every
experience is a step forward in one’s spiritual journey. A Sufi
would rather team than teach. A Sufi begins one’s life by discipline
and resignation, realizing that the path that leads to the goal of
freedom is the path of self-control, patience, resignation, and
Freedom is the object of all esoteric schools, but one must not
make the mistake of thinking that one can begin with that which is
the end. To expect liberty in the beginning is to be like the seed
thinking, I must be a tree at once and bear fruit." The fruit is the
outcome and object, the culmination if its existence; so is freedom
the result of the journey. The path of freedom is an ideal, to
understand the real meaning of which is not everyone’s work.
The method of the Sufi consists in this: that the Sufi unites
with one’s innermost being; one’s heart is the shrine of one’s God
and one’s body is God’s temple; the Sufi considers every person not
only as one’s brother and sister but as oneself. At the same time,
the Sufi never claims spirituality or goodness, neither does the
Sufi judge anyone, except oneself in one’s own doings. The Sufi’s
constant attitude towards others is that of love and forgiveness.
The Sufi’s attitude towards God is that one’s innermost being is the
object of one’s worship and the Beloved Whom one loves and admires.
The Sufi’s interest in life is art and beauty, and one’s task the
service of humanity in whatever form possible.