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Pir Zia Khan

PBS Interview - November 2002

Pir Zia Khan is the grandson of Hazrat Inayat Khan. He is the son and successor of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan and president of the Sufi Order International of North America. In addition to the interfaith mystical training he has received from his father, Pir Zia has studied Buddhism under the auspices of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Sufism in the classical Indian tradition of the Chishtiyya.

On the meaning of Sufism:
The word "Sufism" is a rather unfortunate translation, because the suffix "ism" would seem to imply a fixed ideology. Sufism in its essence transcends ideology. The English word "Sufism" is a translation of the Arabic word that means literally "becoming a Sufi."

 The question then arises, if Sufism is "becoming a Sufi," what is one becoming? What is a Sufi? This was a question that was often asked when the word "Sufi" came into currency many centuries ago, and the Sufis themselves answered this in many different ways. Sometimes it was said a Sufi is "one who breathes well." Another said that the Sufi is "the son or daughter of the moment." And another said that a Sufi is "the one who is like an infant in the bosom of God."

All of these definitions draw our attention to an inner spiritual posture -- not an outer identity, not an ideology, but a presence, and this is what Sufism teaches.

On the relation between Sufism and Islam:
Islam itself can be distinguished between name-brand Islam and generic Islam. The Qur'an Sharif itself refers to a multiplicity of prophets. It says, "We have sent a prophet to every community." And in the hadith literature -- that is to say, in the transmission of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him -- there is reference to 124,000 messengers. These were all messengers of a single divine message, and that divine message is Islam in the generic sense, the essential religion within all existing religious forms, including the form that we call "Islam," which is really the Muhammadan version of Islam. That is name-brand Islam.

Sufism has a deep, essential connection with both generic Islam, with universal religiosity, which is the common dimension of the depth of human experience, which can be found in the depths of all world religions, and which can be traced back to the earliest prophets. And Sufism as a historical phenomenon also has a special connection with the dispensation of the Islamic religion, which is one form out of many of the "res'allah," of the message.

On bringing Sufism to the West:
My grandfather, Irim Mushid Hazrat Inayat Khan, was the first to teach Sufism in the western world. He studied under his own mushid [teacher], Sayyid Abu Hashim Madani. And at the very end of his life, Sayyid Madani looked into his eyes and said, "Go forth into the world and spread the wisdom of Sufism. Unite East and West within the awareness of the unity of being."

In 1910, my grandfather set sail with his brothers from Bombay and arrived in the United States. In the first years, he said he was learning, rather than teaching. He did not merely want to project a foreign teaching upon the people of this land but, on the contrary, he wanted to know most deeply the needs of these people, the callings, the aspiration -- to understand the psyche of the western world.

He married a western woman, and he gradually unfolded his teaching in response to the needs that he perceived in the western people. A number of disciples were attracted to him, and eventually he created an organization he called the Sufi Order in the West, which represented the lineage of Sufism he had inherited and perpetuated. [It] represented the message of the brotherhood of humanity, the kinship of all human beings within the greater family of humanity -- the realization that all nations and religions are organs of a single body, and that body is the body of humanity; only when all organs are functioning in harmony will the health of humanity reach its ideal form.

Pir-o-Mushid said that each religion has sounded a note, but as the globe has unified in a single civilization, there is an opportunity for all of the notes to sound together, that we may hear the symphony of the message that transcends any single note and represents the fullness of the human experience over the millennia.

On teaching Sufism:
The transmission of the esoteric school of Sufism is passed on from heart to heart, from teacher to student, and can only be fully received through the profound connection that exists between two human hearts that are deeply attuned. When my grandfather first took initiation with his mushid, his mushid called him to attend him at his home, and my grandfather used to visit him every day. For months, they would sit together and his mushid would speak about the most ordinary things -- local events, the weather, and so on. It was only after many months that his teacher began to speak about esoteric subjects using the terminology of the Sufis. When my grandfather heard this, his curiosity was piqued, and he took out his notepad. And seeing this, his mushid just as quickly changed the subject back to mundane topics.

My grandfather always said he learned that the teaching must be dictated upon the tablet of the heart; it cannot be received in the mind. It must be assimilated in the most profound dimension of one's being, and this takes place through the attunement with the teacher. And the teacher has become attuned to his predecessor, who has been attuned to his predecessor over the generations, over the centuries, going back to the Prophet Muhammad -- peace be upon him -- and through the Prophet Muhammad to the previous prophets -- to Isa le Isalam, Jesus Christ, and to the Prophet Moses -- peace be upon him -- and the Prophet Abraham. And the prophets for all of the religions form a single hierarchy representing the divine message, which is transmitted and funneled through the channels of the esoteric orders through the embodiment of the mushid, the teacher, and in that way reaches the aspirant.

On Sufi orders:
 According to the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, there are as many ways to God as there are breaths. And within Sufism there are a diversity of approaches to ritual, to meditative practice. These are lineages of teaching that have developed from the transmissions of teacher to student. Many teachers have more than one student, and many of those students receive the full transmission and become teachers themselves. The lineage branches out like a tree. Each branch you could describe as an order that has certain common characteristics -- certain forms of recitation, of ritual invocation of God in common. And yet, they all share the basic, fundamental values that are the essence of Sufism.

On distinctive Sufi practices:
The essential practice in Sufism is "zikr," which means remembrance -- remembrance of God, remembrance of the source and goal of all being, remembrance of our true home. This remembrance is practiced ritually in the invocation of divine names, and especially in the recitation, "La ilaha illa-llah," "There is no deity but the one God." This recitation reminds us that all of our subjective conceptions regarding ourselves, regarding the nature of the universe are relative. The one reality includes, but transcends and outstrips, all such relative conceptions. That is what we call Allah, the one reality, the true Being, the Absolute.

This One Being is remembered through acts of recitation -- repeated recitation with movement, with coordination of breath, sometimes with visualization, using this chant, "La ilaha illa-llah," as well as variants and other divine invocations.

In the first stage, one is reciting the name of God with one's tongue, but the mind may be elsewhere. The heart may not be attuned. At the second stage, if one perseveres, one may reach the stage when the recitation continues with the tongue and the mind begins to concentrate, and the heart, too, gradually becomes attuned. At the third stage, there is perfect symmetry. The tongue is reciting. The mind is concentrated. The heart is attuned. The practice is unified. In the fourth stage, one discontinues the practice with the tongue. One reenters the routines of life, but the heart continues the zikr [remembrance].

It's most important to have a direct relationship with a guide, because the path of each of us is distinct to us. We begin with our own conditioning, which is different for each one of us, and that is the place from which we embark on the path. The issues that arise as we walk the path are not extraneous to the path. These are the very substance of the path. The path does not exist outside oneself. It exists within. And along the way, all of the resistances, all of the fears, all of the feelings of inadequacy, all of the desires -- these are not extraneous to the path. These are the very substance of the work. How we work with what is coming through the self -- that is the substance of the spiritual path.

There is common ground between psychotherapy and spiritual work. If there is a difference, it is that the spiritual work of Sufism includes a transcendent, transpersonal dimension. And, of course, one must recognize that there are those working within psychotherapy that acknowledge and work with the transpersonal dimensions -- transpersonal psychotherapy. And there particularly, there is tremendous commonality.

On religion, philosophy, and meditation:
Sufism is fundamentally experiential. It is not based on intellectual premises. It is based on direct, personal experience. And so we seek not to discover the truth through book learning but, rather, through reading the manuscript of our own selves and thereby having a direct personal experience. Any faith based merely on speculation will be subject to doubt when the speculation upon which it is based is cast into question. But there is an essential conviction that comes with immediate inner experience, when mystical experience is of such a degree that it is more tangible than the outer world, which is the source of our consensus reality. When that realization is experienced, one arrives at a level of faith that goes beyond the faith of conventional religion -- having been brought up a certain way and, therefore, one believes certain articles of faith.

This is a belief based upon personal experience, and in meditation one has such an experience. One is able to access dimensions of one's being that transcend the physical. And in this way, one recognizes the eternity of a certain mode of one's being, and thus one is no longer in a situation to question or debate whether there is life after death, whether there is a higher intelligence.

 In our conventional, routine way of living, we access only a very small margin of the totality of our being. We live on the very surface of life. Through meditation, we have access to deeper levels -- deeper levels within our own physical organism, the electromagnetic field, the aura, and deeper levels of our own psyche -- levels of consciousness that transcend our individuated, egocentric identity.

When we, through meditation, access these dimensions and have a firsthand, direct, immediate experience of presence, then we have a knowledge that is not based on ideology. It is not based on book learning. It is not based on acculturation.

The fundamental mode of knowing in Sufism is called "knowledge by presence." All other knowledge is knowledge by correspondence, which refers to conceptual knowledge. But conceptual knowledge itself must be grounded in a fundamental, epistemological act, and that is knowledge through presence -- the knowledge of immediacy, of direct experience, the unification of witness and witnessed. This is what is experienced essentially in the depths of meditation. This gives one a faith that is unshatterable.

On Sufi lineage:
In our order we have hundreds of representatives. There are centers in every state in this country, and each representative is fully authorized and empowered to represent the Sufi message. And yet, I have a special responsibility as the one who sits on the prayer carpet of the predecessor. My responsibility is to coordinate the whole and to maintain the ultimate integrity of the essential transmission.

On Sufism and other religions:
My grandfather presented the Sufi message as an essential awareness that could be discovered in the essence of all of the major world religions. It is the common thread of mystical realization that units all prophetic dispensations.

This has been acknowledged in the history of Sufism. The prince Dara Shaku, who was the heir apparent of his father Shah Jahan, the great mogul king, wrote a book called Maj Hamu Al Bahrain, which means "the merging of the two oceans" -- one ocean being Islam, the other being Hinduism. He made a cross-study and comparison and concluded that, in essence, the common realization was the unity of being. They had different terminologies, different systems of practice, but there was an essential unity.

I believe that essential unity can be discovered in all religious traditions. It is the common thread of the depth of human experience on this planet which is universal, absolutely universal. It transcends all of the differences of acculturation, of ideology. There is something essential about the human condition in its fullness, and at the essence of the human condition is a relationship with the divine.

The Sufi message calls upon us to cultivate that relationship through whatever outer form, in the framework of whichever religion. Each religion is a providential dispensation that can serve to accommodate an inner opening toward the truth.

In this era in which we live, there has been a global awakening. The world is coming together in ways that have never been possible. There seems to be the prospect, the danger, on the one hand, of a unification on the level of homogeneity, if not uniformity. On the other hand, there seems to be the prospect of a unity within diversity, a recognition of the providential nature of the diversity of religious forms, but awakening to the essential unity that pervades and underlies them.

That is the essential goal of the Sufi message in our time -- to unite the segments of humanity, which are like organs of a single body that has become dismembered and that must reunite through the guidance of the heart to function as a single body for the sake of the health of all of the different parts. That is the message that must be heard in this era.