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  Gender Issues in The Sufi Message...

          ... Rising Beyond the Words

In contemporary English, we have become sensitized to gender connotations for words such as "man" or "men". Therefore, gender issues often arise nowadays when reading books and papers which were written long ago, during an era in which language was used differently.

For example, Longfellow's popular carol entitled I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, contains the line "peace on earth, good will to men", and Phillips Brooks' O Little Town of Bethlehem uses the phrase "peace to men on earth".... neither of which are intended to imply gender.

I apologize for the challenges which this issue may cause, and offer the following thoughts to help clarify Inayat Khan's usage of such terms:

Why didn't Inayat Khan use gender-inclusive language?

Inayat Khan, a native of India who taught in the West in the years 1910 through 1926, was using the formal English of the day, in which it was considered proper to use "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun, and to use "man" to indicate all of mankind in general. As such, there is no gender implied, and his references are made in the neutral sense, without any regard whatsoever to sex.

Even today, our English dictionaries still define "he" as "anyone (without reference to sex) " and define "man" as "a member of the species Homo sapiens or all the members of this species collectively, without regard to sex". Therefore, the key here is to understand the context and the author's intention, as is the case with all homonyms.

Did Inayat Khan respect women?

Inayat Khan held women in the highest esteem. In fact, most of his students (to whom these words were spoken) were women, and of those students to whom he granted the highest level of initiation, all of them were women.

In his personal notebooks, Inayat Khan wrote lines such as the following:

In man We have designed Our image;
   In woman We have finished it.

Woman, whom destiny has made to be man's superior,
    by trying to become his equal, falls beneath his estimation.

Through the loving heart of woman manifests Thy divine grace.

And in his autobiography he wrote:

There is no line of work or study which woman in the West does not undertake and does not accomplish as well as man. Even in social and political activities, in religion, in spiritual ideas, she indeed excels man. The charitable organizations existing in different parts of the West, are mostly supported by the women, and I see as clear as daylight that the hour is coming when woman will lead humanity to a higher evolution.

Clearly, Inayat Khan had high respect for women.

Were Inayat Khan's lectures aimed primarily at men?

No, the majority of Inayat Khan's students were women, so if his presentation to his audience was biased toward any specific gender, it would have been in favor of the women in his audience.

Here is a photo of the Summer School class of 1922, which as you can see, was almost entirely women:

summer school 1922

How could he use "he" to refer to women?

That was the proper formal usage of his time. At that time, it was customary and proper to use terms such as "he" and "man" as being non-gender-specific.

Inayat Khan used the terms which were formally proper in his time, and he surely meant no disrespect for any person.

Why aren't these quotes and papers re-written in a gender-neutral form?

Doing so is rather impractical. There are many thousands of pages of lectures, teachings and class notes which all use this same style of speaking, so it would be a huge undertaking to attempt to change them all. Furthermore, there are thousands of copies of these books and papers already in circulation, which of course cannot be changed.

Additionally, although the neuter usage of "he" and "man" may be annoying to contemporary readers, such usage remains (according to the dictionary) grammatically correct.

Gender Issues:

The Sufi path is one of rising rise above the concerns of the limited self, and in doing so, rising above words of limitation and separation such as I, me, mine, he and she in order to arrive at the goal of conscious union with All, progressing from the individual to the universal. To make progress, one must diligently strive to keep one's eyes on the highest of goals, and overlook (look beyond) anything which seems to separate us from the unity of our divine spiritual inheritance, the divine spark within.

How can one explain spiritual progress? What is it? What is it like? Spiritual progress is the changing of the point of view.

           from The Sufi Message, Volume X, by Inayat Khan

As an example of gender issues, here is a quote from Inayat Khan which also offers a very powerful lesson about being open to learn:

A man filled with earthly knowledge - and what he calls learning is often only the knowledge of names and forms - has no capacity for the knowledge of truth or God. It is the innocent and pure soul who has a capacity for learning. When a person comes to take a lesson on any subject, and he brings his own knowledge with him, the teacher has little to teach him, for the doors of his heart are not open. His heart that should be empty in order to receive knowledge is occupied by the knowledge that he already had acquired.

           from The Sufi Message, Volume VIII, by Inayat Khan

If the words such as man, he and him in this lesson are narrowly interpreted as merely describing a person of male gender, then the meaning of this great lesson is missed. When Inayat Khan uses words such as  man, he and him  in these teachings, he is clearly referring to mankind, the human being in general. 

In this simple example, the earnest student may encounter three separate issues:

1)  understanding the intended meaning of the teacher's words,
2)  overcoming the defenses of the self-centered ego (which attempts to preserve its own viewpoint),
3)  overcoming one's own emotional issues (which may be stimulated by certain words or expressions).

For some readers, words involving gender may present a difficult and emotionally charged issue. Indeed, some have even proposed that, rather than striving to understand what the teacher means, the words of the teacher should be changed. However, changing the teacher's words may not be the best solution... it may be much more useful to learn to rise above the difficulty on the wings of tolerance and understanding.

Discovering the Meaning:

Communication can be a challenging art, often plagued by misunderstanding, personal preferences and emotional issues. In many cases, the root of the difficulty is that each person has their own personal understanding of what a specific word means. Therefore, in order to understand what another person means when using a certain word, we must strive to understand what that word means to the other person. That is, if one does not share the other person's understanding of how a word is being used, then each person will have a different view of what has been said; a situation which often results in disharmony and misunderstanding.

For example, Inayat Khan said:

"when there is no scope in the heart, there is no place for love"

The use of the word scope may at first seem odd or puzzling, but when we know that Inayat often used the word scope to describe available room, space, openness, emptiness, breadth or opportunity to function, then the meaning of the phrase becomes clear.

In order to truly learn to understand the message of a great teacher such as Inayat Khan, we must strive to be open, empty and willing to learn what the teacher means. That is, the message of a great teacher is far beyond mere words. The words are not the message; the words only point toward the inner depths of understanding. But, if one is unduly distracted by one's own preferences, one's own ego, or one's own emotional issues related to the words, then the great wisdom of the teacher's message may be missed. The Sufi strives for harmony, tolerance and understanding in every situation.

Rising Above:

The basic steps in resolving our conditioned reactions are: first, becoming aware of the reaction, secondly, deeply and calmly examining the causes of the reaction, and finally, rising above the reaction on the wings of love. Even the most difficult situation becomes tolerable when our hearts are filled with love rather than resistance. Each of us has our own sensitivities, our own wounds, yet it is through situations such as this that we discover an opportunity to trade our old wounds for newfound wisdom.

As a starting point, it may be useful to experiment with substituting a more suitable word whenever a gender distraction arises. For example, substituting she for he, or, in the case of references to God, substituting a gender neutral term such as The One for he. Then, as one becomes less annoyed by what was once so objectionable, one begins to naturally rise above the reaction.

Another useful technique may be to read the troublesome passage twice; once for the head, and once for the heart. That is, on the first reading, allow the mind to raise its objections, and then on the second reading, allow the intended message to flow freely into the heart. I must admit that, even as a male student of these teachings, the gender-related terms often cause me to need to re-read the passage several times until the true meaning, devoid of gender, really sinks in. Yet, rather than being an obstacle, such re-reading often helps to deepen and clarify the message.

Perhaps, if Inayat Khan were alive today, he might use different words to avoid any gender-related issues. But, these are the words that he used, and we now have an opportunity to learn to enjoy and appreciate the message that Inayat has given to us, regardless of our own preferences.

Beyond the clutter of words there is a message, and if we are open enough, tolerant enough, understanding enough, we will be able to discover and enjoy the message beyond mere words.


In speaking about the change of viewpoint which occurs at a certain stage of spiritual evolution, Inayat Khan said:

When one reaches this third stage, the stage of understanding, one begins to understand instead of reacting. Then there is no reaction: understanding comes and suppresses it. It is just like a boat which is anchored; it produces tranquility, stillness, weight in the personality. It does not move with every wind that blows, but stays like a heavy ship on the water, while a light ship moves with every wave that comes. That stability a person reaches in this third stage of unfoldment; he is ready to tolerate, to understand both the wise and the foolish – all.

Is it not amusing to think that the foolish person disagrees more with others than the wise? One would think that he knows more than the wise one. The wise one agrees with both the foolish and the wise; he is ready to understand everybody's point of view. It may not be his idea, his way of looking, but he is capable of looking at things from the point of view of others. It is not one eye that sees fully; to make the vision complete two eyes are needed, and so the wise one can see from two points of view. If we do not keep away our own thoughts and preconceived ideas, if we cannot be passive and desirous of seeing from the point of view of another, we make a great mistake. This third stage gives a tendency to understand every person we meet.

             from The Sufi Message, Volume XIV, by Hazrat Inayat Khan

The role of a spiritual teacher such as Inayat Khan is to help us learn the lessons of life, the lessons of how to be compassionate, loving, understanding human beings who see the wonders of love, harmony and beauty in all of creation, empowered, enlivened and guided by the divine spark within. In order to do this, we must rise above our own personal preferences, rise above our own ego and rise above the differences that divide us. Only then will we be able to rediscover and enjoy the common ground, the common heritage, the inner unity that we all share in this wondrous journey of life.


When viewed in this light, the challenge of overcoming one's own personal preferences and personal opinions offers a wonderful opportunity to learn to control one's own ego and one's own emotions, thereby rising above such limitations. The task may seem daunting, or even unwelcome, but the results will be well worth the effort. Thus, what may at first have seemed to be a problem, blossoms and flowers into a rich and rewarding opportunity.

If this person thinks of his health, then he has many complaints to make about different pains and aches and disagreeable things he feels, and if he thinks of his friends and foes then he has many things to say about them. The Sufi therefore, finds the only way out of the distress of life, the life which will always fail to prove true to one's ideal. He rises above it, taking all things as they come, patiently. He does not mind how he is treated. His principle is to do his best, and in that is his satisfaction. Instead of depending on another person to be kind to him, the Sufi thinks if he were kind to another person, that is sufficient. Every wise man in the long run through life will find in this principle the solution of happiness. For we cannot change the world, but we can change ourselves; and if we made ourselves as we wish others to be to us, it would not be a small achievement in life.

       from Sangatha II, by Hazrat Inayat Khan (unpublished)

Beyond the words, there is a message... and it is really the message that matters. Words come and go, preferences come and go, opinions come and go, but the message lives on and our challenge is to remain focused on the task of discovering the message despite the worldly distractions.



Wishing you love, harmony and beauty,