Note on the Sufi Silsila
Memorial of Murshida Sharifa Goodenough
Elise Schamhart et Michel Guillaume
In the course of this Memorial there have been several mentions of the "Sufi Silsila". The cover page carries these words and shows the image of the seal which is its symbol. What does this "Sufi Silsila" signify, and how does it affect the function and the fate of Murshida Sharifa Goodenough?
In 1925 Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan gave Murshida Sharifa the responsibility for transmitting to Sufis who were to come after him, the "mystical link" which connected him with all the Masters which preceded him on earth, so that the spirit of Sufism would not be extinguished nor tarnished, but would continue. To concretise this act he had a seal made which was engraved with her name and which showed this function.
The meaning of "Silsila" ("Chain" in English) is at the same time very important for the understanding of Sufism, and very subtle it its meaning. It was not even always well understood within the Sufi Movement. (Someone - who should have known better - said long ago that Murshid conferred this title to his co-worker "to reward her", in this way confusing this function with a sort of medallion or decoration!) This gives further reason to expand this subject somewhat.
So what is the "Silsila" in the idea of a Sufi? Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan tells us that it is about the "entire flow of spiritual life which manifests through all the illuminated souls who form the Spirit of Guidance". In other words these illuminated souls, these Guides on the spiritual path, form a steady chain - the Silsila - and they are the vehicles for the current of divine illumination. As for the flow of the divine current of illumination itself, in Arabic this is called the "Baraka". It is in this way that the Muslims who have some understanding of this speak of the Baraka of the Prophet.
One can also find more scholarly definitions. Here is one, written by John A. Subhan, in "Sufism, its saints and shrines":
"The teachings given in the Sufi Orders are said to be transmitted by means of a more or less continuous chain of succession which has its origin in the Founder. Such a chain is called 'Silsila' (plural 'Salâsil')."
The merit of this type of definition is that it may be understood by all. But it does not touch the essence of the subject. Still, it is interesting to examine such a definition more closely. In the first sentence it mentions: "the teachings given in the Sufi Orders". Which teachings are meant here? In certain Sufi Orders a distinction is made between on the one hand the "Silsila el weird", that is the transmission of the practices, prayers, meditations, etc by the Sheikh who is the instructor responsible for a group, to the members of this group. And on the other hand there is the "Silsila el Baraka". This leads to another question: who can transmit to another the Baraka, the current of life and of spiritual illumination coming from the spheres on high?
We embark here on a subject which is very sacred and at the same time very subtle, which words can hardly evoke. Let us first say that a human being, suitably prepared, may become an instrument, a canal, of this subtle and penetrating current from the divine spheres. This current illuminates and spiritualises such a person. It may happen that this current illuminates just one disciple, without this disciple being able to transmit it to others. But it also happens that the current comes to chosen beings with greater purity and intensity of radiance, so that they are able to share it with the heart of one or more disciples, and so to illuminate them in turn. These are the blessed ones who form the chain of the Masters, the Silsila.
But we are speaking here not only of the Silsila, but also of the Sufi Silsila. What does this mean? Should there be a specific Baraka for Sufism, which differs from that of initiated Christians, Jews or Hindus? One can only reply to this question in both the negative and the positive. Negative, because the flow of illumination which has its origin in the divine can only be one single flow: it is self-evident that there are not two Gods, nor as many Gods as there are religions and initiatic schools! And positive, because something in this flow is specific to each of these religions and these schools. It is necessary to explain who and how.
To help us understand these nuances, let us look again at the definition of John A. Subhan. He mentions "a succession which has its origin in the Founder". This notion of Founder will help us understand. But because words are inadequate and an abstract language is not the best when one enters into these subtle questions, we permit ourselves to fall back onto analogies.
Pir-o-Murshid once spoke some enlightening yet mysterious words when he said that the first string instrument, the lyre, was modelled on the human heart. Did he say this because the shape of the lyre even vaguely resembles the shape of a heart? But this is not the case at all! In fact, the comparison relates to music. It is because each string of the lyre vibrates differently, just as the human heart vibrates differently with each nuance of sentiment which moves it. And just as one might compose a certain melody on the strings of a well-tuned lyre, so the divine Musician can play His score on a heart which is attentive to His music.
Pir-o-Murshid also spoke in a more definitive way: "He who knows the mystery of vibrations in reality knows all things." In other words, all things, in all planes of existence, are intimately composed of vibrations. If this holds for the audible sounds of the universe, it is also holds for the spiritual world. Thus, each of the great Masters of the inner path, hearing the celestial music of the baraka, transmits this in the key of their own heart. This is why that which one sometimes senses in for example a Christian monastery, may be as soothing, as uplifting, as inspiring and wonderful, and yet different, from that which one may perceive in the presence of a real Sufi Pir, a person who has become the instrument which emanates and interprets the music of his own Order, for the nuance differs from one Sufi Order to another. In other words, the inner music which is the background of an Order, which determines its way of working with souls, guiding them, is specific to that Order. Nothing is interchangeable in the world of the Spirit - this would risk disturbing the Music of the Creator.
And then there is the Music of the Message, such as Hazrat Inayat Khan interpreted it, and which he has so to speak caused to resound in the air of our time. If this music continues and expands, it is thanks to the souls who hear it and who will hear it in the future. This Music of the Message owes a great deal to the music of the Order. In fact, the music of the Order is its background, a little like an ongoing bass note, a note which suits the age of humanity in which we find ourselves today.
This is how we may understand the importance Murshid gave to the transmission of the Silsila, which we have compared here to music. He needed a pure channel for this function, and he considered that Murshida Sharifa was perhaps the purest of heart among his disciples.
One question remains: how is it that all initiated mureeds do not hear the music of their Order, nor its tone? Their soul hears it, it is that which drew them to this Order, or to this Master. Their heart, once purified, will hear the music.
Pîr – In Sufism, an illuminated being capable of transmitting spiritual light to a disciple, and to counsel and guide him in his outer and inner life. The characteristics of a Pir are described in the invocation to the Pir in the Vadan.
It is perhaps useful, at this point, to dispel a doubt. No woman's name appears among all the Sufi chains of succession . Choosing a woman would surely have shocked certain male members of Muslim origin among Murshid's entourage. To see Murshida Goodenough appointed to this function was not in their tradition! But Murshid himself broke very quickly with the idea that spirituality could only be transmitted by men. He had appointed four Murshidas and not one Murshid to help him in the spiritual work. Furthermore, he had appointed another woman, Miss Sophia Saintsbury-Green, to head up the religious activities, well before any woman had been called to a pastoral function in the Christian Reformed Church!
This leads to another idea, sometimes spoken and often implicit, that feminine spirituality is different from that of men. This is a strange illusion. In the domain of spirituality there can be no difference between the sexes. During the conscious return of a soul to its Source - another definition of spirituality - the first thing this soul searches for, to which it reaches out with all its force, is divine Unity, and not human duality. Whether male or female, the idea of one sex or the other quickly disappears from the sphere of the soul's consciousness, and it comes to understand that the difference between the sexes exists only in life on earth.
Some good souls will ask (sometimes perhaps with a
touch of anguish): "So, in the hereafter will we never meet anyone of
the opposite sex?" One may reply that to live in the hereafter, even in
a very pleasant hereafter, is not necessarily the same as consciously
searching for the divine there.
Murshida Sophia Saintsbury-Green – With a background in Theosophy, she was very quickly attracted to Sufism and became a mureed of Pir-o-Murshid. She was gifted in literature and gave numerous lectures on the teaching of the Master. She wrote two books: "Memories of Hazrat Inayat Khan" and "Wings of the World". It is thanks to her that in 1921 the Universal Worship was instituted and spread. She was the first to be appointed responsible for this activity (Seraja)..