The work and heritage of Murshida Sharifa Goodenough
Memorial of Murshida Sharifa Goodenough
Elise Schamhart et Michel Guillaume
The heritage of Murshida Sharifa is with those who loved and followed her. She herself would not have appreciated us calling these her "disciples": "One is always the disciple of Murshid", she would say. This is certainly true in the world of Unity, but in this life on earth it is she who taught us the essential. And what is this essential? It is that progress on the inner path is not a question of knowledge, nor of "initiations", but depends on the right attitude towards God and towards life. The right attitude makes knowledge and initiations come to life, that is to say makes them fruitful for oneself and for others.
And then Murshida advised and encouraged many mureeds of Pir-o-Murshid who were distraught after his death, and who did not find in the new direction of the Movement the openness, elevation of the spirit, or the spirit of universality which had prevailed before. She always counselled them towards tolerance and harmony.
There was indeed a time when these persons entertained leaving the Movement and starting a new movement with Murshida Sharifa at its head. They were disappointed by the rather narrow direction taken in the teaching of Sufism and by the way Shaikh-ul-Mashaikh handled the new situation. Murshida refused. Elise Schamhart reports hearing Murshida's rather lively retort to one of these disappointed souls, Louis Hoyack: "Yet, he is the Shaikh-ul-Mashaikh!" Whatever and whoever the opposition, Murshida remained wholly loyal. And it is thanks to her efforts that many mureeds and important leaders, among them Sirkar van Stolk, stayed and worked within the Movement and avoided leaving it in spite of their disappointment and their reluctance, of which we were often confidant and witness.
We must also make mention of the little group which gathered around Murshida in Paris. Before her death she left the leadership of this group to an aged mureed, one of the first mureeds of Murshid Inayat Khan in France, Yvonne Detraux. She had the same attitude towards Murshid as Murshida Sharifa herself, and though she had few papers and lectures at her disposal (at the time these had not yet been translated into French), and that she was ignored by the leadership the Movement - which she herself preferred to ignore just as much (what would she have gained from it?) - her inner world, her experience and her human qualities sufficed to maintain the cohesion of the group until her death in 1946. It was she who transmitted the initiation to Michel Guillaume when he was 20 years old, at the same time giving him the irreplaceably precious and quiet example of true spirituality, lived in everyday life. Among the other mureeds in Paris who gathered around Yvonne Detraux, were Yvonne Guillaume, mother of Michel and mureed initiated by Murshid, also Marie-Madeleine Frère, artist and decorator Cohen-Cortis, the poet Olga Chayès, Jeanne Guérineau (who took down Murshida's lectures in French in Paris and in Suresnes), Mr Stubert and Mrs Buchmannn, and a few others - in total a dozen people. But it was especially when she saw them individually that she "rekindled the light", and many of us needed this, the more so during the dark period of our Occupation (during the 2nd world war).
We have dwelt on the personality of Yvonne Detraux not only out of personal devotion, but because spirituality which is lived does not need splendour, nor great theoretical knowledge, nor brilliant use of words to do its work. The purity of a personality, its calm integrity, the soundness of its words, acts and even gestures, transmit infinitely better the essence and the inner light, than eloquence and explanations, be they learned, of spiritual matters. Yvonne Detraux, with her modesty and her innate discretion, brought more to her friends than many others with a reputation for spirituality, or who openly claimed to be spiritual.
What still remains of the heritage of Murshida Sharifa? There remains a spirit and an example which we have tried to bring to life in the course of this Memorial. A spirit which lives and will continue to live in all the souls who seek to take inspiration from it, and who will keep alive in their spirit the image of Murshida Sharifa, an image through which will appear the Light radiated by her Master. And this image will also set an example which will serve as a point of reference for thought, thinking, feeling and action. As Olga Chayés said so beautifully: "... her goodness, her sympathy and her light remain an intangible element which I take care not to desecrate by any act with which she would not agree.”
How did Murshida Sharifa teach?
Like everyone else she taught in words, both in public and in private. We will shortly speak of her words spoken in public. Her private words were characterised by the discreetness of her character. From what we remember, and from comments we heard from others, she would not say directly: "Instead of acting as you are, rather do this". Yvonne Guillaume tells that one day: "in the course of a lecture, she illustrated certain imperfections, and certain favourable ways of seeing things and of behaving, with what appeared to be imaginary examples. At that moment she cast a quick glance towards one person, a glance which clearly meant 'here you are, this is for you', and the person would understand." Or Murshida might just make a remark, but never a reproach, and even less an accusation.
She taught even more by her conduct, by way she listened to the words of others, and one would know if she approved or did not approve, if she encouraged one in the right direction or advised one to reflect more on the attitude to take.
But above all she taught in silence. For she was one of those rare beings for whom silence is more eloquent, communicates more of the essence, that all spoken words. Michel Guillaume's account near the beginning of this Memorial of his interview with Murshida is a good example of this.
We cannot do better than to repeat what Murshid said of her in 1925:
“All those of us who know something of the history of the Sufi Movement know– if not as well as myself – the most valuable service rendered to the Cause by Murshida Goodenough in recording all the teachings without altering a jot or title. They will value most of all afterwards the Message as it is preserved by Murshida in its original form."
For it is thanks to Murshida Sharifa that most of the invaluable texts which comprise the work of Hazrat Inayat Khan have been preserved and later printed, for his disciples and for the general public.
At this point we need to correct another inaccuracy. It was said, and one still hears this rumour today in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that she had "altered" the words of her Master, and that it had later been necessary to restore them to the original . The reality differs. One fact illustrates this perfectly. A first edition of the texts of lectures such as they had been spoken by Murshid and held in safe-keeping by Murshida had appeared in English, edited by Kluwer in the Netherlands. The English-speaking public protested. These readers said it was not good English, not very readable, it "did not pass". One will understand better by referring to the passage from the eulogy of M. de Cruzat-Zanetti which I repeat here:
"This exalted sentiment of loyalty once gave me the occasion to observe during a meeting, with admiration, her only direct, crushing attack, but always remaining within the limits imposed by her so admirable intelligence and her perfect manners. I myself was the victim of this attack. She believed that I had taken liberties with 'the sacred word'. ..."
And then this, from the same person:
"I discreetly suggested to her once that she alone would be able to provide the interpretation and to find the desired expression to that which must have struck everyone as having the appearance of a shapeless pile of notes and transcriptions. Her immediate retort: 'Each sentence, each word left by the Murshid is perfect in form'. By this answer she gave a magnificent example of her loyalty. Nonetheless, I stand by my opinion."
In response to these criticisms from the public, Mr van Pallandt, assisted by an English person, later revised the texts, which now comprise a part of the collection called "The Volumes", edited by Barrie and Rockliff.
Later however, a committee of several persons sought to return to the authentic words. The shorthand transcripts and the transcripts in the handwriting of Murshida Sharifa were re-examined. Some new "Volumes" resulted from this work.
was not good English - we give a typical example:
Her personal contribution
Under the general heading "The Voice of Inayat" Murshida Sharifa published three small volumes: "Akibat, Life after Death" - August 1918, "Love, Human and Divine" - February 1919, and "The Phenomenon of the Soul" - April 1919. The contents of these volumes appear to have been precisely memorised from lectures giving by the Master, as she herself explains:
"While under the spiritual guidance of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, the bearer of the Sufi Message to the Western World, it has been my great privilege to hear from his voice things of the essential truth taught by all the great teachers of the world. Recognising the value of his lectures, and considering of how great importance they would be during this time of the world's spiritual awakening, I have tried to put on paper a record of them, which I have named 'Voice of Inayat Series', with the hope that they will be helpful to those who tread this path."
There is also, written and corrected by her, a collection of 45 texts or lectures, named "The Ocean Within". (We quoted from this in Chapter II). This collection comprises her memories of Murshid, teachings on the inner path, and remarks on the works of Jelal-uddin-Rumi, Dante and Shakespeare, always from a mystical perspective. The whole still awaits publication in English and a translation into French.
Lastly there is the much more voluminous work of the accounts of Murshida's lectures in French, taken down as best she could by Miss Guerineau and completed with the help of other listeners to these lectures, notably Yvonne Guillaume, and Vilayat Khan for some of them. These lectures were transcribed, tidied up and published many years later by Michel Guillaume. A first collection was offered to the public by the publisher "La Colombe" in 1962, under the heading "Soufisme d'Occident" (Sufism of the West). (We found this title unfortunate, making it sound as if there are two Sufisms, one for the East and one for the West, glaring at each other, in the way that East and West often do. Sufism is universal or it is not at all.) The other lectures by Murshida Sharifa fill nine "Notebooks" which are currently available in photocopies, but of which extracts may be found on website (http://www.soufi-inayat-khan.org). These Notebooks are named: Lectures, The Way of Beauty, Spirit and Matter, The Ideal Path, Nature and the Nature of man, The Word, The Language of Poetry, The Music of Life, The Book of Practical Wisdom, and Lectures for Mureeds. More lectures remain to be revised and published.
To give a detailed catalogue of this material in this Memorial would not be of great interest. On the other hand, the character of the teachings given by Murshida Sharifa deserves close study. She deals with most of the principal subjects developed by Hazrat Inayat Khan, by lighting them up in a more practical, more familiar way. She most often indicates the way in which we can apply them to the detail and circumstance of our own lives. However, her work in no way constitutes a popularisation. Her words retain the same light, I would even say "charisma", as those of her Master. And if the flavour is slightly different, the food she brings us has the same nourishing force, and the benefit we derive from it is complementary.
One may say that what characterises both the life and the work of Murshida Sharifa Goodenough, is the way it complements the life and work of Hazrat Inayat Khan. By her life she demonstrated that Sufism can be lived and followed to the end of its quest by a westerner who was not subject to religious confession and obedience, thus showing the spiritual universality and the freedom of the Sufi Message of her Master. By her own teaching she indicates how best we can to apply to ourselves "the lesson of life", the lesson of harmony, preached and offered by her Master Hazrat Inayat Khan to all the souls who are today exposed to and will tomorrow continue to be exposed to the degeneration and disorder in our modern world.