What is a Sufi Silsila

The meaning of the Silsila

"The Silsila is like a stream of energy,
which has been kept in motion over the centuries. "
Hazrat Inayat Khan


I do not pretend to have a thorough knowledge of the Silsilum, but I have made a thorough study of the essence of this tradition and the tradition itself in order to better understand it. My feeling is that it is very helpful to know who we were, to know who we are and where we are going. That doesn't mean, of course, that we just develop some kind of nostalgia for a golden age and recreate that lost golden age, as I believe some are doing. But we can learn from our past. If we look back a few centuries, maybe we can discover a cause for what we are doing now. That can either make what we are doing now more meaningful, or it can just tell us that the time for it is over.

When we look at the list of our Silsila, it may evoke both positive and negative sensations. The positive feelings concern what Hazrat Inayat Khan himself mentions in "A Sufi Message of Spiritual Liberty" (1). He says the Silsila is like a stream of energy that has been kept in motion over the centuries; a current to which many lamps have been connected, and by connecting ourselves to this current, we receive all the power of this energy, to which we would not have access in isolation. For many of us, the awareness that we are attached to this stream is a source of great strength and vitality.

There are some negative sensations too, I think. If you look at this list, you see, on the one hand, a single listing of persons in authority. It seems to be completely hierarchical and elitist. I would like to say that it is very important to understand that this is actually part of the Silsila, not the Silsila itself. You know, the word 'silsila' means chain, and figuratively a chain of tradition, a chain of hearts to heart.

In my opinion, however, the term 'shajara' is more helpful. I've actually seen such diagrams showing the whole tree, all the branching. In Islam there is the succession of the caliphs, the exoteric succession, the theocratic succession of the prophet by the caliphs and then various dynasties of kings who established their sovereignty by the succession of the prophet. Within these dynasties there was always the model of linear succession; one after the other.

In esoteric khilafa, in spiritual succession, one has always considered the possibility and likelihood of several successors, a branch at each point. So if you look at this Silsila here, you have to take into account that each of these representatives, in addition to a larger number of murids, also had a certain number of representatives, each of which had a branch. All of these branches are interwoven. It is also called the khângân, the Chishti family. So it is actually not a linear succession, but a larger family.

In the case of our order, Hazrat Inayat Khan had many khalifas. Each Khalifa represents the lineage and has their own Silsila. This has implications for our relationship with other Sufi groups descended from Hazrat Inayat Khan. They also have their Silsila through Hazrat Inayat Khan, and our Silsila is not at odds with theirs. This also applies to this generation; my father has so many representatives and one representative is a khalifa. The word representative is actually the best possible translation of the word khalifa. The word khalifa itself, of course, goes back to the Qur'an. Man, insan, is the khalifatu llah fi-l-ard, the representative of God on earth.

The second negative aspect concerns a very important point: in fact, the Silsila is a list exclusively for men. Even if you look at the other lines that are intertwined with this one, you can always find lists of men. As I said before, the study of classical Sufism leads us to new perspectives for our work and also to a greater appreciation of our own contribution and for the further development that our thinking today represents. Sometimes the Sufis were ahead of the thinking of their time and culture. In general, the culture in which their thinking developed was one in which women had no public duty. In many cases, traditional Sufis have only affirmed conventional thinking. In other cases, however, Sufis have left conventions behind and dared to innovate. Unfortunately, however, where the tradition of institutional Sufism is concerned, they have compromised and adhered to the terms of the culture in which they moved and lived. And back then it was culturally impossible for women to participate in social life if that meant meeting men who were not part of their relatives.

It was a strictly regulated society, and that was not only the case in the medieval Muslim world, but also in the medieval European world. Medieval patriarchy in East and West was not only a feature of Islam at the time. We take our own society for granted, as if it has always been like that, and forget that this is a very recent development. Rather than glossing over things, I will openly admit that the tradition in Sufism was that men were given the role of Khalifa but women were not. We have to keep this in mind in our picture of the past. But I don't think that means that we should therefore disregard the men who took on this role. Wherever possible, however, we should remember great women, and if you look carefully you will find something meaningful. I will try to take this into account in my lectures.

The Silsila diagram also seems to raise a question that is often asked: whether Sufism preceded Islam or is an evolution of Islam. Let's start with Hazrat Inayat Khan's own words. For example, he says in "The Sufi Message of Spiritual Liberty" that there have been Sufis at all times and in all places. Of course, when one asks the question of whether one can be a Sufi without being a Muslim, that in turn begs the further question: what is a Muslim? In the Qur'an it is said that Hazrat Musa (alaihi s-salam), Moses, sallama, practiced Islam. The Qur'an recognizes prophets down to Adam, the first man. According to the Qur'an, Islam goes back to the beginning of mankind, just as the possibility of being a Muslim and surrendering to God goes back to that time. In fact, the name for what we now call Islam is Din-i Muhammadi. So if one asks whether one has to be a Muslim to be a Sufi, then perhaps it is better to ask the question whether one has to be a follower of Dîn-i Muhammadî. Well, let's put it this way: the Muslim category is a much wider category. In the history of the Chishtiyya it is found that the first Sufi was Seth (alaihi s-salam), the son of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve represent the very first human archetype that had not yet branched out into different identities. In the next generation the children assumed different roles; one became a farmer, one rancher, and each took on a different profession in the world. Seth became a mystic and practiced meditation, and Adam and Eve's other children came to him for advice and he initiated them. So in the Chishtiyya there is a very clear tradition that Sufism has very old roots.


(1) ibid., Sufism.
Here Hazrat Inayat Khan also gives an indication of why the Sufis only became generally known as such after the Prophet Muhammad: "Just as the Sufis received spiritual instruction from all the prophets and masters, they also received it from the Prophet Muhammad. The openness of Muhammad's essential teachings paved the way for them to emerge in the world. "

Pir Zia Inayat Khan (translation from English by Zumurrud Butta)


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Pir Zia Inayat Khan on Sufism