Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Schoolwork: Essay on Sufism and Pir Inayat Khan

EDIT: woops forgot a song! The No More Heroes 2 soundtrack is so freaking incredible.

Hi folks! It's essay time! Coming up on mid-semester, which means my teachers threw essays at us. Well, joke's on them, cuz essays mean blog content!
Today's feature comes from my Religion class, Islam In America. For the major part of the semester, we've discussed the pressures upon Islam through America' history leading up to the 20th Century. This piece focuses on Pir Inayat Khan, the founder of the Sufi Order of the West. Here's the prompt.
For this essay, I'd like you to analyze one of the following documents: Omar ibn Said's autobiography, T.H. Gallaudet's piece about Abdul Rahman, the selection from Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb's Islam in America, or Pir Inayat Khan's "America." Your analysis should answer the following questions:
* What does the document tell us about the beliefs and/or practices of this American Muslim? About the reception of Islam among his peers, owners, listeners, or associates?
* What do you know from other sources (lectures, GhaneaBassiri) that can help us understand the document better?
* How does this document advance our knowledge of Islam in U.S. History?
As usual, this is my essay, made available so I can potentially recieve feedback and to help others learn what I'm learning myself. I'm no expert, so seriously, none of the would-be paper thieves out there should use or even cite this. Still, I think I learned a lot to be able to write the essay, and hopefully you learn something too!
And if you know something about the subject, let me know if I got something right/wrong, or if you have interesting insights or thoughts about it! Same with folks who know things about writing essays! And I do love hearing when just other regular folks get some education out of my work. Anyway, here it is, enjoy!

Max / Ego

Word Count: 1233

            In 1910, Pir Inayat Khan came to America with high hopes for the opportunities the country could bring him. Unlike many immigrants of the time, he came not for the chance at economic success, but for the chance to spread the message of his religion. Khan was a muslim from British India, but he wasn't a member of one of the major sects of Islam; instead, Khan was a Sufi. The Sufis are a small subdivision of the Islamic world, operating in different ways to the larger Sunni and Shi'ite populations. The most noticeable distinction is the emphasis Sufism places upon the mystical nature of many things in the world. (Dowland 2/28) Within the religion, Khan was a Pir (a title meaning “master”), and to the secular world he was a musician. When he was in America, he used his music as the medium through which he could spread the Message of Sufism. (Curtis 46-47) Among the most fascinating things that can be gleaned from Khan's writings is way that Sufism was much more inclusive of other religions than, for example, Christianity or the majority of Islamic practices. As a relatively small and secretive sect of Islam, not much is known of Sufism in America at the turn of the 20th century. and Khan's “America” gives us insight into the inclusive nature of Sufism, its compatibility (or lack thereof) with the American culture of the time, and Khan's own experiences with trying to transplant Sufism into a very different culture.

            The word “inclusive,” in this context, means that Sufism, or at least Khan's take on the religion, allows for Sufis to recognize and find moral or spiritual truths even within other cultures. This shouldn't be mistaken as thinking that they believe that other religions are also correct; Sufis are still muslims, and this means that they also believe in the same pillars of Islam that guide Sunnis and Shi'ites. Sufis still consider Sufism to be the best religion, but they recognize that other cultures and other religions have concepts and ideas in parallel with their's that can be linked together with Sufism. In many ways, this practice of investigation and inclusion finds many connections with the theosophical movement that was moving through much of America at the time. The other thing that made Khan's approach to spreading Sufism different from the way other religions were expanding was that he was accepting of others embracing other cultures, although it did disappoint him that they had not seen his true way. Two particular anecdotes from “America” support this idea.

            The first is the case of Miss Ruth St. Denis, with whom he toured and shared the culture of India (and with whom he spread the Message, through his music). A while later, he visits her to find that she has replaced all inkling of Indian culture in her life with Japanese instead. She says “I am trying to forget it, though I find it difficult to forget...I do not wish to think of India any longer.” (Curtis 50) At the revelation that St. Denis had abandoned her connection to Indian culture, one would not be surprised if Khan had felt snubbed, used, or insulted, especially since the culture he had shared with her was steeped heavily in his own religion. However, he does not react with disdain, but with admiration: he finds spiritual truth in the idea that by focusing her concentration completely upon a single culture, she could immerse herself in the spirit of that culture, and he found, through her change, what he considered inventive and universal spiritual truths. He didn't reject her for turning away, but accepted her and found wisdom in the experience.

            The other case is an even more direct manipulation of him and his religion. Having taken on several students, one eventually revealed that they were actually there at the command of a society collecting teachings of various secret orders, and that he'd never been a believer. He'd wasted Khan's time, and used him for information. However, Khan again surprises by reacting not with anger, but with sadness – not for the loss of the pupil, but for the student's misguided attempt to “steal something which can never be stolen,” because without sincerely pursuing the Truth, one can never understand it. (Curtis 51) The student had stolen words, but unless he truly believed neither him nor his order would really grasp the Truth belying them. Khan again accepted the change of heart to find truths in it.

            Khan did find that many aspects of American culture impeded his ability to spread the Message. One that he was likely not expecting to encounter when he arrived in America was the way they viewed his music. Throughout India, music has long been a medium through which one could spread a message and extoll one's beliefs. Khan himself did this, and his music was the most powerful method he had to spread Sufism. Unfortunately, he found the American approach to music far different: “for the public...our music became merely entertainment.” Others didn't know to try to take his music as teachings, and this placed a great limit on his ability to share the Sufi message. Additionally, Khan found that his mission often had to recede into the background as he played music just so he could make ends meet. He compares the different ways music was viewed in India and in America, saying that at home his music was thought of as “science and art,” whereas in America it was treated as a monetary pursuit. Another barrier to bringing Sufism to America was that the overbearing prejudice against blacks spilled over into contempt against him because of his relatively dark skin. He criticizes Americans' racism, and, somewhat hypocritically, dismisses their “scientific” reasoning behind their racism, following up by defending his people's own ostracizing of their untouchable class on similarly shaky scientific grounds. (Curtis 52)

            “America” is the tale of Khan's attempt to transplant a very specific class of Islam from an Eastern culture to the culture of America. He was able to find audience in the growing Hindu population, spurred to growth by the presentation of Swami Vivekananda at the World's Parliament of Religions almost twenty years earlier. (Dowland 2/28) In one story, he relates that he was invited to speak about music at a Hindu temple – surely, the Swamis knew that music was for many Indians a way of communicating a spiritual message, and for them to invite him to basically speak about the Message is an indicator of the difference between the way Eastern religions interact together and the way Western ones do. This opportunity even ended up with him finding his first pupil in the way of Sufism. (Curtis 50) Khan was among the very first to try to bring Sufism to the Western world, and through his text “America,” we get a glimpse into the way the country first reacted to the ideas of this small and secretive religion. Without his writing, the history of Sufism in America would likely be much less understood.

Works Cited:

1.     Curtis, Edward E. The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States. 1st Ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Print.

2.     Dowland, Seth. "Islam in America." Pacific Lutheran University. Washington, Tacoma. . Lecture. (note: this is my professor's in-class lectures, and is uncheckable by you unfortunately)
End Recording,


  1. Hazrat Inayat Khan inspired at least 7 orders of Sufis for whom being a Muslim is not required. Universal Sufism.

    1. Huh. The texts we were reading for the class made no mention of that, although the material on Khan was quite brief. Still, thanks for letting me know - doing some reading on that now, and it's fascinating!