HAZRAT INAYAT KHAN was born in Baroda on the 5th July 1882. His father, Mashaikh Rahmat Khan, came from the Panjab, where he was born in 1843 as a descendant of an ancient family of Sufi saints, zamindars (feudal landowners), poets, and musicians.
Inayat’s mother, Khatija Bi, was the daughter of Sholay Khan Maulabakhsh, known all over India as one of the greatest musicians and poets of his time. Born in 1833 at Bhiwani, in the state which is now called Uttar Pradesh, Maulabakhsh travelled widely throughout India, and after a prolonged stay at the court of the Maharaja of Mysore, who invested him with princely rank, he settled down in the state of Baroda, which was ruled at that time by the very progressive Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwar, who did so much to raise it to one of the most modem and advanced states in India.
Maulabakhsh took his son-in-law into his household, his Khandan. This closely-knit family unit grew in importance as the time went by and played a considerable part in the development of cultural, especially musical, life in Baroda. The prominent position of the Maulabakhshi Khandan brought its members outside the narrower Muslim circle and in close contact with leading Brahmin and Parsi families, a circumstance which strongly influenced Inayat Khan’s intellectual growth and way of thinking.
All written and oral accounts agree that even as a child Inayat had a striking personality, and that various traits seemed to foretell the subsequent course of his development. Extremely lively and bright, his intelligence readily absorbed whatever sufficiently interested him, and he was continually inquiring about God, the nature of things, and points of morality and behavior. And being a scion of the Maulabakhshi Khandan it is not surprising that already at an early age he showed a remarkable proficiency in music. When nine years old he sang a famous Sanskrit hymn at a court ceremony, which brought him reward from the Maharaja and a scholarship. At fourteen he published his first book on music, called Balasan Gitmala and written in Hindustani. He started teaching music with so much success that before he was twenty he was made a full professor at Gayanshala, the academy of music founded by his grandfather in 1886, now the Baroda University Faculty of Music.
It was, in a way, his musical achievements which helped to awaken and widen Inayat Khan’s spiritual interest; this interest was closely linked to his love for beauty in art and music, for in his world cultural and spiritual pursuit went hand in hand. Meher Bakhsh, his cousin, writes in his hitherto unpublished biography: “His parents wondered at times what could be the matter with the child. Very often, in the midst of great activity or excitement among his relatives and friends, Inayat would be very quiet, and he would seem above all things around him.” More and more, as he grew up, his search for truth became conscious and consistent.
But before he would find the true purpose of his life, Inayat Khan had still to pass some difficult and sad years. In 1896 Maulabakhsh died, leaving above all in Inayat’s life a void which none could fill. Then the sudden death in 1900 of his ten years younger brother Karamat Khan made a deep impression on him, and two years later he lost his mother to whom he was devoted. It was after this last bereavement that Inayat Khan, then aged twenty, started on his first independent journey, leading him to Madras and Mysore, where he won renown in the same places where his grandfather had reaped fame and success. He returned to Baroda for about one year, during which he published an anthology of his poems in different Indian languages under the title Sayaji Garbavali; but soon it became clear that another scene was needed for his development and his activities. Steeped as he was in the Maulabakhshi music and musical concepts, he felt the urge to carry them to Hyderabad, the principal remaining centre of Moghul tradition and culture at the time. It is probable, however, that he was also aware of the great spiritual experiences that awaited him there.
The first six months were spent in musical activity and in making acquaintances and friends; Inayat Khan also wrote at that time his final book on music, the Minqar-i Musiqar, by which he made his grandfather’s musical system available to Urdu readers. He was then introduced at the court of the Nizam, H.E.H. Mahbub Ali Khan, who was very mystically inclined himself and who sensed at once that the musical talent shown by this young man was but an outer garb covering some wonderful secret. When by his questions he sought to fathom it Inayat Khan gave the impressive reply which Meher Bakhsh mentions in his biography. “Huzur,” said Inayat, “as sound is the highest source of manifestation it is mysterious in itself; and whoever has the knowledge of sound, he indeed knows the secret of the universe. My music is my thought, and my thought is my emotion. The deeper I dive into the ocean of feeling, the more beautiful are the pearls I bring forth in the form of melodies. Thus my music creates feeling within me before others feel it. My music is my religion, and therefore wordly success will never be a fit price for it; my sole object is to achieve perfection …. What I have brought you is not only music merely to entertain, but the appeal of harmony which unites souls in God.” The musician had already grown into the Sufi Pir, and yet he had still to find his Murshid; his esoteric training was yet to begin!
Although Inayat Khan had by now received much recognition throughout the whole of India, his attention and interest were more and more drawn towards the spiritual life, towards the mysticism so intimately connected with his music. He found a great friend and guide in Maulana Hashimi, a well-known scholar, who taught him Persian and Arabic literature and, being a mystic himself, recognized in Inayat what other friends of his were at a loss to understand. As Meher Bakhsh says, “Hashimi knew that something was being prepared in Inayat for the years that were in store for him which was beyond words or imagination.”
It was in Hashimi’s house that Inayat Khan met his Murshid, by whose help he was to reach the fulfilment of his stay in Hyderabad. Syed Mohammad Hashim Madani was like Maulana Hashimi and many other leading Hyderabadi Muslims of Arabic descent, but he was a Pir of the specifically Indian Chishtiyya order of Sufis. For four years, until his Murshid’s death in 1908, Inayat Khan remained in Hyderabad as his enraptured disciple, apart from occasional visits to Baroda. Some of the poems he composed and sang in honor of his Murshid have been preserved.
Years later Hazrat Inayat was to devote many of his most beautiful teachings to the relationship between Murshid and Mureed, and these reflect his recollection of the profound joy and exaltation he himself had found in this relationship. The great process of the spiritual life, that of Fana and Baqa, which are the Sufi terms for annihilation and resurrection, of losing the ego and discovering the essence of being, was now becoming a reality to Inayat Khan.
Inayat Khan’s remaining years in India were again marked by extensive travels, during which he went to Ceylon, and from there to Rangoon. He and his brothers then went to Calcutta where, apart from a short visit to Baroda rendered necessary by his father’s death, they stayed until their departure for the West. This period was the culmination of his life in India; his music and his mysticism were jointly maturing to a rare perfection. But soon his life took another decisive turn; the Western world was to be the scene of his future work.
Thus we return to the time so vividly described by Hazrat Inayat in the passage quoted above. Going from one extreme to another, Inayat travelled from feudal India straight to the modern world of the United States. He was accompanied by his five year younger brother Maheboob Khan and his cousin and life-long companion Mohammad Ali Khan, both of whom had given up their promising musical careers in order to remain close to Inayat Khan, whom they considered not only as their brother but as their master on the spiritual path. Later they were joined by their younger brother Musharaff Khan, six months after they had arrived in the United States.
In 1912 Inayat Khan and his brothers left the New World and travelled extensively through Europe, where they were well received, especially in France and Russia. On their return from the latter country they first settled in France, but left for London in 1914 where they were to remain until 1920.
During the initial period of his stay in the West, Hazrat Inayat Khan’s main occupation was, according to his memoirs, to study the psychology and the general conditions there. With his brothers he gave concerts of Indian music, on which he also gave many lectures. Apart from a livelihood, this provided him with an opportunity of developing the spiritual side of his subject and thus the esoteric teachings of Sufi mysticism.
In the course of time he initiated a number of Mureeds here and there, but it was in England that the first systematic forms were given to the extending activities. By then Sufis were scattered throughout several widely separated countries, and Inayat Khan felt that in order to weld them closer together he should use his enforced long stay at one place during the war period to develop a more regular pattern. Thus the Sufi Order came into being as an organized entity, comprising a Khankah or headquarters and National Societies for the different countries. Its activities consisted in the training of the Mureeds, the Sufi initiates, while concerts and other public activities took place and lectures about Sufism as an universal ideal were given as well as courses for candidates.
In 1912 Hazrat Inayat Khan had married Miss Ora Ray Baker, later Amina Begum, who bore him four children. In 1920 the family moved to France. Though it was his intention to settle eventually in Geneva, where he wished to establish the headquarters of the expanding Sufi Movement, his family preferred to remain living near Paris rather than moving to Switzerland. Consequently the Sufi Headquarters were organized at Geneva, from whence all Sufi affairs are conducted, while Inayat Khan’s private residence remained at Suresnes, on the outskirts of Paris.
As his fame and obligations increased, the extent and frequency of Inayat Khan’s travels throughout Europe and the United States grew in proportion; it was only during the summer months that he could return to his residence for any length of time. At first this was intended to be a period of retirement and quiet meditation, but soon the fact of his being available and comparatively free drew to his home a number of Mureeds. Hazrat Inayat Khan lectured to them, instructed them individually, and was at all times ready for everyone seeking his help or the comfort of his presence. Thus out of original retirement grew the Summer School, soon the busiest and most popular of Sufi activities, and the focal point of Hazrat Inayat’s Sufi teaching. The greater part of his later discourses were delivered at the Summer School held regularly from 1921 to 1926, the first year at Wissous, near Paris, then in 1922 at Katwijk, Holland, and subsequently at Suresnes.
This period marks the culmination of his activities. The concentration and unsparing intensity with which he developed his work in different fields seemed unlimited. It was not in the least exceptional for him to lecture, on different subjects, three times a day; in addition every free moment was devoted to receiving, advising, and helping Mureeds individually, and to directing the Sufi organizations and their varied activities.
After the closing of what was to be the last Summer School under his guidance, Hazrat Inayat Khan left for India in October 1926, accompanied only by his secretary, and arrived at Delhi in the first days of November. His fame had already preceded him, and he was continually urged to lecture and to give instruction. Early in 1927 he went once more to Ajmer, to revisit there the most celebrated of Indian Sufi shrines, the tomb of Khwaja Mu‘inuddin Chishti, and again he experienced a deep joy in the marvellous serenity and the sacred Sama music of this holy place. It was the fatal cold he contracted on this journey which caused his death on the 5th February 1927 at Tilak Lodge, Delhi, where he was staying.
Excerpted from The Sufi Message and the Sufi Movement, 1964. Copyright the International Sufi Movement.