Sample from the Summer 2007 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine

An Interview with Taj Inayat Khan

Murshida Taj Inayat Khan has a unique vantage point from which to offer her perspective on the teacher-student relationship in the Sufi tradition. As a modern western woman, a student of Sufism, a teacher of Sufism, a spiritual partner to Pir Vilayat Khan, mother of Pir Zia (the current lineage holder) and someone who has integrated the teachings of Sufi wisdom with modern psychology, Taj Inayat shares insights from her journey.

Integral Yoga Magazine: Please explain the nature of the teacher-student relationship in Sufism.

Taj Inayat Khan: Our path, the Sufi Order, is an initiatic path. A student who wishes to travel this way, “takes hand” with a teacher and becomes a mureed. Mureed is one of the names of God in the Islamic tradition and means “the aspirant” or “desirer.” Taking initiation involves following a deep impulse of the heart. Toward what aim is initiation taken? One of our predecessors, 
Al-Ghazali, likens initiation to shooting an arrow at an unseen target. The target ultimately is one’s deepest essence. One can’t know that initially; one can only feel the draw, the tug toward something “more.” The heart’s impulse is to move toward something greater, something beautiful, toward some object of longing. Our being yearns to know the soul that has been buried within, so we can live in our own essential nature. In the Hadith, it recounts God speaking: “…I was a hidden treasure desiring to be known.” In the beginning, we don’t necessarily understand this hunger or dissatisfaction that prompts us toward a strange attractor.

The teacher is like Cupid in this romance, guiding a heart to its beloved. The teacher’s function is to promote the burning and longing in the heart of the mureed, to help awaken a passion for the Unknowable, for the (ultimately) formless Beloved. The teacher guides the mureed through the vicissitudes of this love journey. In a sacred ceremony connecting the mureed and the murshid through the linking of hands, the mureed receives the energetic transmission of baraka (blessing). The term for link from teacher to teacher and from teacher to mureed, is silsila, which in Arabic means “chain.”

For others seeking initiation, this desire doesn‘t necessarily manifest as an opening of the heart but as a hunger. There is a sense of emptiness that prompts the question, “Is this all there is?” The seeker wants more. If you are lucky, you’ll find the teacher or path in which your heart can rest. You’ll feel drawn by the fragrance of the path. Thank goodness there are so many paths for so many temperaments!

IYM: Is this relationship based more in teaching or in transmission?
TIK: It’s both. The teacher vows to support, serve, guide and befriend the mureed. This relationship is considered to be the highest form of love and friendship. Becoming a mureed is different from just studying the teachings of the murshid which are important as mental portals to deeper understanding. It also involves an energetic connection. In the initiation ceremony, the murshid embodies the teachings and lineage by resonating with his or her teacher, with that teacher’s teacher, and so on. Something is transmitted and from that moment on, the mureed is linked with this tradition. There are additional practices and visualizations that deepen and confirm this link.

Hazrat Inayat Khan has some beautiful poems that illuminate the progressive developmental relationships of love a mureed realizes as s/he moves from duality to unity:

When Thou didst sit upon Thy throne, with a crown upon Thy head, I did prostrate myself upon the ground and called Thee my Lord.
When Thou didst stretch out Thy hands in blessing over me, I knelt and called Thee my Master.
When Thou didst raise me from the ground, holding me with Thine arms, I drew closer to Thee and called Thee my Beloved.
But when Thy caressing hands held my head next to Thy glowing heart and Thou didst kiss me, I smiled and called Thee myself.

This poem describes the gradual awakening of the student (lover) to his or her own true essential nature through various aspects of loving relationship. The lover (mureed) ultimately realizes her deepest nature is the Beloved, the undivided self-luminous, eternal Presence she has been seeking through Beloveds of various forms. In this unfoldment, the teacher has the temporary job of holding or exemplifying the vision of the Beloved for the mureed.

IYM: Would you speak more about the journey on which the mureed embarks?

TIK: This is described well in a Sufi story, “The Conference of the Birds” by Faridudin Attar: A group of birds embark on a journey to the palace to meet the king/queen (the Simurge). Many, many birds begin the journey, which takes them through various valleys (each valley represents the challenges in the transformation process). Many drop off along the way, not having the stamina, courage, love and guidance to make it through the valleys. Finally, about forty haggard birds arrive at the palace, completely worn out, with barely a feather left (representing the tattered shreds of ego as we go through the necessary dying process involved in real transformation). These remaining birds are ushered into a chamber in which stands an empty chair. The forty birds then realize the mystical secret: They are the one for whom they have been searching. Notice in this story, it is not a solitary journey of one hero or single soul, but it is a group journey completed while connected with others.

A spiritual teacher helps guide the student toward the chair, or throne of their divine inheritance. The teacher represents divine consciousness and holds a vision of the real potential of the student. I like to view this role as both motherly and fatherly. The motherly part sees the essence of the student and feels and envisions and delights in the potential waiting to emerge. The father function is the one of discipline and guidance, helping provide enough challenge and frustration to support the growth and autonomy. The mureed is not just sitting in the lap of teacher! There needs to be just enough separation so that, when the student inevitably fails, he or she is not ruined, but can learn and grow. The spiritual guide’s function is to provide support for the growth of the student so that the true nature of that student emerges…

Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2007 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.