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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.