The trial and the sacrifice
Memorial of Murshida Sharifa Goodenough
Elise Schamhart et Michel Guillaume
It is clear that Murshida Sharifa came out of this period a changed person. Her mantle of the ascetic, of apparent indifference, now manifested human warmth, and her sympathy filtered through. A little phrase of Wazir's quoted above - which one could easily read over - is significant in its simplicity: "A few days later I received an invitation to come and see her. The only recollection I have of this visit was her loving and extremely sensitive glance." Up to that point who in the Sufi Movement who had met Murshida Sharifa spoke of her feeling and her affection? No doubt these sentiments existed in her, but they remained distant, inaccessible to others because of the extent to which she concentrated on her Murshid and on her work for the Sufi Movement, and the extent to which her meditation was focussed on the depth of the Being.
She had changed; she was now open to the outer world. But one may reflect that, because the objective of her evolution had not yet been fully attained, a last and hard climb awaited her.
"The only way to live in the midst of inharmonious influences is to strengthen the will power and endure all things, yet keeping fineness of character and nobility of manner, together with an everlasting heart full of love." (Inayat Khan, Bowl of Saki - thought for 13 September))
One sometimes wonders why nearly all spiritual beings
have to suffer so much hereon earth. One sometimes imagines that their
spirituality should enable them to become almost insensitive to pain, or
to rise above pain by taking refuge in the world within. (There are some
examples of this, but they are limited and momentary.) In order to
justify the trials endured by those who follow the path of Truth, some
say that their suffering is "the will of God" - which leads others to
say that in this case God must be a torturer, or else that He is
powerless to protect those who serve and love Him. But Hazrat Inayat
Khan sees it differently: "God", says he, "wishes for man that which man
desires for himself". So the question is: what does a soul desire the
most? The answer is not always the one expected by our superficial
The universe (to which our sub-lunar world belongs), has its physical and psychic laws. Hazrat Inayat tells us that these are part of its automatic functioning. One of the laws of the animal world of our terrestrial life is that that which is perceived as strange to the group is eliminated. One could feel indignant at the view that the expression "animal kingdom" is seen to include to us humans. But how often do we react as animals rather than as human beings? And the most surprising thing is that we are quite unaware of doing so.
Our human society, like the animal world, has generally tried to reduce to silence those individuals who were too much out of tune with the average (be it in the case of spirituality or of saintliness). Furthermore, our human ego takes offence, is jealous of anyone who seems to it to be too superior; it seems to our ego that such a being puts it in the shade. Often, in addition, spiritual personalities may raise their voice in order to shake up conformity and to awaken conformist souls who are asleep in the comfort of their own good conscience. Without mentioning Christ, how many Christian saints, and in Islam, how many Sufis, had this harsh experience? However, this is only the outer aspect of things.
There is another reason for these trials, which has to do with the necessity of the witnessing of the Spirit, without which, according to the evangelical wisdom, our humanity "would lose its salt". The work of a spiritual being is to bear witness, to remind man by his own example, his own vocation, of the very real call of the Spirit. Without this vocation all civilization would degenerate and die out. So, if the spiritual beings remain in retreat, unknown and silent, they will no doubt reach a very high state, but where would the echo of this be? How would it benefit society? Even outside religion there exists a spiritual functioning of which our current world seems to be terrifyingly unconscious.
To do their work, those who live the divine life must
leave their retreat and pay the price for doing so.
Thus, to be able to help others towards inner joy, Murshida Sharifa had to pass through this painful trial.
If we have dealt with the foregoing at length, it is
because a drama, whatever it be, has causes which lie much deeper than
the apparent "responsibility" of this or that protagonist.
Responsibility, the notion of fault or virtue, is linked to the free
will which we experience in an immediate, pragmatic way, valid for
individual and practical life. As soon as one looks at things from
higher up, there is only the immense field of cause and effect,
interlinked and stretching out to infinity.
The prologue is an imbroglio.
This is where the imbroglio starts. For when Pir-o-Murshid died in 1927 he had not designated a successor.
Nevertheless, in 1925 he had conferred on Murshida
Sharifa the function of "Sufi Silsila", which means that he saw
in her a link in the transmission of "baraka", the divine influx,
the divine grace which flows from master to master since the prophet
Mohamed (and some say since Abraham), in order to reach the disciples,
to help them in their progress and to bless their lives. But Murshida
Sharifa never expected that she herself would succeed Pir-o-Murshid.
What had been conferred on her was the responsibility of transmitting
the spiritual current of "baraka" to him who would be capable of
taking charge of the Sufi Movement. As evidence of this function, Pir-o-Murshid
had given Murshida Sharifa a seal which indicated the function and was
engraved with her name.
During the years following the death of Murshid there
were numerous difficulties around the succession of this Representative
General, the Pir-o-Murshid of the Movement. It was only in June (or
July) 1929, more than two years after Murshid's death, that Khalif
Maheboob Khan, brother of Murshid, was established by Murshida Sharifa,
under the title of Shaikh-ul-Mashaikh, in the function of Representative
General and head of the Sufi Movement. She did this in her capacity as "Silsila
Sufian" (see Chapter VII below), which function Pîr-o-Murshid
conferred on her in 1925, at the same time giving her the seal engraved
with her name. (This seal is reproduced on the cover of this memoir.)
And from the same source we find this further
indication, in Murshida's hand:
Murshid Dussaq (Emilien Talewar). Appointed Secretary General of the Sufi Movement in Geneva by Inayat Khan in 1922, then Khalif in 1924. He was also National Representative for Switzerland. He became a Murshid some years after this.
In fact “this autumn", as the typescript goes
on, " a great split had come in the Movement, several very important
mureeds – National Representatives appointed by Murshid himself – were
put or went out of the Movement." It was clear to Murshida how
disastrous it would be for the growth and unity of the Movement if the
tendency continued, to put aside everybody that could not give devotion
in the way that was expected of him.
“I know how Murshida tried to keep harmony", Feizi
continues. "However, she felt it as her great responsibility to do
whatever she could to keep things going in Murshid’s spirit – which she
knew so well. This was also the reason why she could not and did not
give out of her hands the sacred trust given to her by Murshid to handle
and keep all his manuscripts - (i.e. the typescripts of his
teachings concerning esoteric matters that were not yet duplicated).
The Shaikh-ul-Mashaikh being an artist, it was not at all in his nature
to do this kind of work. Besides, during Murshid’s lifetime he was
occupied with his music and had no prominent part in the Movement. If he
really had understood the heavy load of this responsibility, he would
not have taken it as a personal offence that Murshida did not give him
the free disposal of the manuscripts, even though the way in which she
did stick to them was rather rigid”.
The consequence was a type of execution. It took
place in 1934.
In 1925 Murshid had given his trusted co-worker a sealed letter, to be opened only after his death. For one reason or another (she moved house several times between 1927 and 1934, the letter could have been mislaid among the many documents which she had under her care, or destroyed along with various papers she was said to have burned), Murshida forgot about the existence of this letter, even after the death of Murshid.
An assembly of leaders of the Movement took place in
Geneva in October 1934. Towards the end of this assembly, Murshida wrote
But, reports Feizi: "Thursday evening however I waited in vain, it was only the next evening she came home. And how! Even before she had put off hat and coat, she sat down and told me what had happened in this ‘one more meeting’. She told me how a letter given into her care by Murshid had been lost, how this letter was supposed to contain his last will, and how they suspected her to have embezzled it. It was one of the members of the meeting who by a slip of the tongue, suddenly said it. At first, Murshida did not understand what he meant, until he said, with great emphasis; 'But you were HIS secretary, you know'. Then she understood of what she was suspected, though at the moment she could not remember anything of this letter, the existence of which, as she said 'had passed into oblivion'. But that night, putting her mind on Murshid, the recollection of it came to her in a flash, and also the manner he gave it to her, sealed, without any explanation. She said also that she never opened this letter and that during – most probably – a removal from the Salle Centrale, Geneva, this envelope had disappeared.
"She wrote a letter to the Headquarters (12 October 1934) explaining all these points and giving precisions about some others. And she concluded: 'It is a matter of infinite regret to me that there has been this oblivion on my part, with resultant troubles in the Sufi Movement. And I am extremely sorry that the Shaikh-ul-Mashaikh Maheboob Khan has had to go through difficulties and to suffer in consequence'.
“Shortly after the accusation", writes Feizi
again, "the Shaikh–ul-Mashaikh said he did not believe she did it on
purpose and would stop the rumour going around. Murshida then hoped so
very much – thinking the distrust had gone – that a better understanding
and co-operation would be possible. How much she was disappointed in
this! … Once she said to somebody ‘Apart from being a Murshida, I would
not have been worthy to be a mureed, if I had done such a thing’. For
the loss of the letter she felt very guilty and she, with her reserved
nature and self-control, even wept before others”.
We are not alone in calling the said accusation
futile. In his obituary of Murshida Goodenough - which we will find
further on - Mr de Cruzat Zanetti, who was ex officio present at all the
assemblies, wrote as follows: "The serenity with which she attended
these meetings was a lesson. Sometimes she would be under attacks which
were ridiculous in content and unforgivably vulgar in form. At such
times she showed what degree of perfection a disciplined intelligence
and a self-controlled spirit may attain".
Shanavaz van Spengler – disciple of Murshid Inayat Khan, to whom he was unfailingly loyal. He was generous but obstinate and with a caustic tongue, which caused several breaks with his friends, who, like he himself, suffered from this.
It is not the intention to put anyone on trial here; besides Murshida herself would never have tolerated an attack on those who spoke ill of her. Nevertheless it is important for the very honour of the Sufi message of Hazrat Inayat Khan that the memory of Murshida Sharifa be totally cleared and that her name may be honoured by those who follow, and will follow this message in the future.
We do not wish to accuse anyone, nor do we wish to
show any condescension in our remarks. Who has never committed an error
of judgment about someone else, who has always, in all circumstances,
conducted himself in the best possible way? Passion is an evil which can
blind anyone at a given time, and sometimes at the worst possible time.
Yes, in the life of Murshida Sharifa there certainly
was a fatality, a destiny which had elements of tragedy. But there was
also a strong sense of her free spirit and especially of her powerful
will. Thinking only of fate, one could have said that this had made of
her, whose health was already diminished, a pitiful target for the
malevolence of those around her, who did not understand her, who did not
tolerate her exclusive and unsociable nature. Besides, she had become,
through the difficult circumstances of- the loss of the letter, a victim
of atonement. But looking at it this way would mean not seeing how, in
spite of this destiny, and in face of the disgrace and the opposition
which surrounded her and which sought to prevent her from working for
what was her sole purpose, the unfailing ideal and the uncommon strength
of will of Murshida Sharifa prevailed. And so we see once more how
contrary circumstances permit a great soul to give in full measure.
"Another aspect in man is creative, in which he shows the sign of being the representative of the Creator, in which he shows that he is not only linked with God, but part of God; his innermost self is God”.
The Smiling Forehead - collection of lectures of Hazrat Inayat Khan on various subjects.
During all the years that Murshida lived through this trial, which became worse and worse, that is from 1929 to 1937, she never stopped, not even for a moment, to spread her Murshid's teachings. She did not cease her public speaking. And as for the help she brought to Murshid's individual mureeds, to those who felt disoriented by the departure of the Teacher and who did not find elsewhere the purity of spirit they saw in her alone, it is necessary to hear them speak, as we did, to realise what she meant to them.
We must bear in mind at the same time - let us repeat
- that this woman was regarded as suspect, that her reputation - at
least in the eyes of some - was tarnished. She was vilified by covert
words, defamation was her lot; and one sought to keep away from her
those who wished to see her or listen to her. An objective fact will
help understand better the type of difficulties this opposition caused
her. One dared not, during the Summer Schools, prevent her from speaking
in the meeting hall in Suresnes, but a man placed himself at the
entrance and approached those who came with the confidential information
that the speaker was someone "who was not in the right line and had a
harmful influence". Many went away. A certain number of people
nevertheless wanted to see for themselves, and they generally stayed.
These included a certain number who subsequently played an important role in the spreading of the Sufi Message of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan. We will come back to this later, but we would like to mention here the principal of these:
There was the oldest son of the Master, Vilayat Khan - who later became Pir Vilayat. Defying the "sanitary cordon" which isolated Murshida Sharifa, he often came to her lectures during the Summer Schools. He was one of the few who tried to be of service to her during her last illness; and he always honoured her memory. There were also a certain number of leading personalities in the Sufi Movement: like Sirkar van Stolk, National Representative for the Netherlands, and Wazir van Essen, who between them later introduced the Sufi message into South Africa, where it flourishes today. There was Shanavaz van Spengler, the philosopher Louis Hoyack and several other Dutch personalities, besides the little group of French mureeds who were close to her for the rest of the year (that is, before and after the Summer Schools).
Vilayat Khan – (1917- 2004) - elder son of Hazrat Inayat Khan. He played an important role in spreading Sufism after the 1939-1945 war. He concentrated mainly on bringing different religions together, and on revivifying the Sufi Order. He worked mostly in France, the United States and Germany. In France, at Fazal Manzil, he started a Meditation School, and wrote several books on Sufism, in English and in German, notably "The light of truth", "Stufen einer Meditation", "Towards the One", and "Samadhi with open eyes". He trained numerous pupils.
Among the few faithful Netherlanders we wish to cite the case of Antoinette Schamhart, because it typifies the effect Murshida Sharifa had on these people. We speak of her knowingly, as she was the mother of Elise Guillaume Schamhart and a second mother - and spiritual mother - to Michel Guillaume. She was also one of the few friends and close confidants of Murshida Sharifa.
Starting already in her youth, Antoinette Schamhart had searched for the truth all her life. Her religion had not been able, or perhaps did not know how, to bring her what she hoped to find. Her spirit tended towards the philosophical aspect of existence, and she had studied many works, esoteric and spiritual, from hermetic doctrines to the accounts of Vivekananda of the different yogas. She had also frequented several groups with spiritualising claims, from spiritualism to Christian Science. She came out of these experiences with her hopes dashed and with an increasing thirst after a truth she sensed existed even though she was unable to find it.
While she was in this state of mind circumstance brought her to Suresnes and there she heard about Sufism. She entered - without enthusiasm -the hall where Murshida Sharifa was to read a lecture of Murshid Inayat Khan on Spirit and Matter. But this was exactly HER question, the question which had been tormenting her for a long time. For the first time she was fully satisfied with the answer she received. Then she realised that the words to which she had been listening, far from being the fruit of simple intellectual cogitations, seemed to echo a deep experience of their author, and that this experience was shared by the reader. Antoinette was deeply impressed, saw Murshida again, and bonded with her for ever.
Antoinette Schamhart-Scholte later conducted the Sufi
centre in Haarlem in the Netherlands with great competence and
Christian Science – philosophical spiritualist movement founded in the United States towards the end of the 19th century by Mrs Baker Eddy. It denied illness and held that all could be healed by mental concentration on positive thoughts. Begum, wife of Murshid, was related to this family.
Murshida Sharifa continued until her death to lecture during Summer Schools in Suresnes and to receive mureeds and interested persons who "forced the barricades" and of whom we have cited some examples. She devoted the rest of her time to speaking about the Sufi message and spreading the teaching of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan among the French public, by giving lectures in Paris and through individual contact. Twice a week at home, or after her lectures in Paris, she met the mureeds, and advised and gave guidance to those who sought this.
Until towards 1932 or 1933 the hierarchy wished her to retain the function of National Representative of the Sufi Movement in France. After this it sought to retire her and install someone else, no doubt deserving, but nearly unknown to the local mureeds, and of course entirely devoted to the hierarchy. These mureeds had to send a petition to Sheikh-ul-Maheboob Khan to ask him to reconsider the nomination he had made. In short, the deaf and saddening opposition to Murshida Sharifa did not diminish.
But Murshida had entirely given herself to the cause of her Master's message, and continued the task with which he had entrusted her, cost what may, through all her health difficulties, her material problems and all sorts of other hazards.