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The Heart of a Sufi. ed Milburn, Venema and Sharp. 2010 Arch Ventures Press.
This book is largely a collection of people's personal experiences of the Sufi teacher Fazal Inayat-Khan who lived from 1942-1990 and who inspired so many people in so many different ways. The foreword by Ruth Paris describes it as, "a prism of reflections…..to create a conduit for his thinking and affect to reach further and more deeply into the world. "
My personal connection to him was not primarily as a Sufi but as a psychotherapy client . I visited the Khankah in Surrey, where he conducted much of his work in the UK, several times and experienced first hand some of his radical methods. Like the contributors of this book, I feel a huge gratitude to this remarkable man.
In the introduction Ashen Venema one of the editors says
Heart of a Sufi is neither a biography of Fazal nor an analysis of his work. it is a spontaneous response by his friends to a scent of truth that lingers wherever they turn, and the seed of longing for the ontowards he placed in the hearts of all he met - Fazal was a mystic whose very presence shocked one awake.
And from the very first story/recollection we are given a glimpse of this where the writer describes as a young seven year old boy being taught by Fazal how to throw petrol onto a fire, how not to step back but face the fire, a metaphor he has carried forward for the rest of his life.
The approximately fifty stories in this book are divided into eleven headings
Fearlessness, experience, humour
Chillas, focus, metaphor, mirroring
Mystery, creativity, alchemy passion
Symbology, leadership, genius
Potential, Initiation, presence
Love, worshipper, warrior, release
I include all the headings because this gives a flavour of the book. Most of the recollections are from the 70's, and we are offered a snapshot of the times when experimentation was in the air, not just at the Khankah, his centre in Hampshire. How would a man like Fazal have coped with an increasingly risk adverse society, a man who took risks himself and encouraged others to do so? One of the ways he did this was by suggesting chillas, tasks given to stretch people past their fears. Or as Ashen defines chilla when she writes of having to tune the strings of a tampura in front of forty people, a chill is not something one would normally dream of doing.
Stories include listening spellbound to his lectures, receiving a mantra - I especially liked the one nothing matters, everything matters , music, celebration all contributing the the great sense of community he was able to create with people of all ages and walks of life. And the thread running through them all was wake up, come home to God.
Although I enjoyed the book, I have some criticisms, namely that I would have liked more biography of the man directly rather than picking up bits and pieces through the recollections. There is a short piece later in the book by Peter Hawkins, but I think this could have come earlier and been fleshed out more. As it stands the book seems more relevant for those that had contact with him and not so much for those who never met him. I think the editors could have reached out more if they wanted a bigger audience. However, the book is a reminder to all of us to wake up to our potential, and I for one am glad to have re-read it.
by robin shohet
The Sufi in You, The Sufi in Me
For a couple of years, I took classical guitar lessons. Once a week, I arrived at my teacher’s house, obediently left my shoes on his front porch, and sat with James in chairs arranged in the middle of an empty room, Feng shui, he said, facing south into a single music stand, while in another room, unseen, his partner exercised on a mini trampoline. James was fond of what he called Sufi sayings, and used them to convey guitar techniques. In our first lesson, James asked me what I was after. I had already been playing the guitar for years, a kind of folk jazz free-lick fingerstyle, but I wanted to learn something about music theory, better learn the fretboard, and better read notes.
“Playing classical guitar,” James said, “is not about musical theory. And once you get the notes, you don’t think about them, any more than you think about individual letters when you read a text. The theory is in the work, placed by the composer. What the guitarist does is technique.”
James frowned at my guitar. I had a better guitar at home, I told him, but a steel string folk guitar, unsuitable for classical playing. And I had a three quarter size nylon string acoustic, but it didn’t hold tune. “Get rid of all those guitars,” James said, “and get a good instrument, the best you can possibly afford. You play an instrument to make sound.”
Then James asked to see the fingernails on my right hand, and he took a steel file to them, and then sanded the nails smooth with a fine piece of wet and dry sandpaper. The rest of that first lesson was spent learning how sit and hold the guitar, how to breathe and relax the shoulders and neck, where, James said, I appeared to carry all my stress and tension.
Regarding the care of fingernails, I mentioned to James I was playing on a city co-ed softball team, where I might wreck his fingernail work. “If you are a good softball player,” James said, “you won’t hurt your nails. Fielding a ball is technique.”
James was an excellent guitarist, but he had difficulty performing in public. One day, James informed me he was moving away. He was giving up the guitar and going into typing. He was going to be a typist. He was passing me on to another guitar instructor. I was never sure if his move to typing was true or if he was using a kind of Sufi-like koan to send me a message about my guitar playing ability. In any case, I was not dissuaded; I thought about composing a piece for typewriter and guitar.
“What have you learned in your time with me?” James asked, in our last lesson. “That I want to play the guitar beautifully,” I replied. “You already can play beautifully,” he said, “but you are a poor listener.”
I thought about James, recently, reading through Heart of a Sufi: A Prism of Reflections (Arch Ventures Press, 2010), about Fazal Inayat-Khan (1942-1990), also known as Frank Kevlin, a name Fazal invented in an effort to circumscribe his legacy as grandson to Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was instrumental in broadening awareness of what Fazal apparently preferred to call the “Sufi Way” around the world. The book is a high quality, sewn bound hardback, and includes black and white photographs, and informative appendix matter (contributor profiles, bibliography, glossary, website links). The primary content of the book consists of anecdotal, testimonial, and essay-like pieces contributed by people who knew Fazal as students or followers or were community members, particularly of Four Winds, a kind of commune located near Farnham, UK, and which was Fazal’s home for a time.
The text is, then, an oral history. Twenty-one writers contribute experience with Fazal profiles primarily, it seems, from the 1970’s, a time when interest in communal life and alternate inquiries into how one might live flowered in many countries around the world. The book will be of interest to researchers working on oral histories, religious or spiritual movements, charismatic leaders and followers, or the period in and around the 1970s – as well, because Fazal was a trained psychotherapist, researchers interested in therapy fields as well as the functions of the mind and its potential spiritual energy or in foundations of learning and being and becoming.
What I learned of Sufi from James amounts to about as much as I learned of guitar, which is to say that I am not a good listener. But the Prism of Reflections text is a good read for those interested in experiencing vicariously the era noted for gurus, spiritual quests, alternative life styles and approaches to religious and spiritual questions. The book is not an attempt to convert readers to any kind of Sufi practice. Its purpose seems to be primarily a vehicle to remember and give tribute to an influential teacher while describing his impact on the individual. Little attempt is made to venerate or hold Fazal up as a saint. And indeed, my own general skepticism of movements and teachers was catalyzed by some of the anecdotal evidence presented.
For example, there is this conversation with Fazal related in one of Ashen Venema’s pieces:
“After the Earthing event at Four Winds Fazal invited me to stay on, with a condition,
‘You must at all times do as I say.’
I was speechless, and held his gaze for what seemed an awesome long time. He must be joking, I thought, he can’t be serious. I did not know then that Fazal’s teaching respected doubt, deeply, as the true measure of one’s faith. I struggled for a tactful answer. All of a sudden Fazal smiled and winked an eye. He didn’t have to say a word. I trusted the light of intelligence in his eyes” (49).
Fair enough, but something a bit creepy lingers with that “at all times do as I say,” which he apparently said to others also. And the passage above might leave the reader, as many of the pieces in the rest of the book also might, with a cryptic experience. At the same time (and of course, as several contributors seem to suggest, the anecdotes may say as much or more about the writers than about Fazal), the memoir-style remembrances seem honest and balanced in their critical approach. Ashen goes on to say:
“The Sufi family was and is an enigma, a spicy mix of characters with little in common. We could have come from different galaxies…Groups reveal to us our place in the human family, reflect the warring crowd within our individual psyche, where we struggle towards a dynamic balance and optimal functioning in a complex world. Groups quicken the process of psychological integration – and, ultimately, the freedom to be what we are already” (49-50).
Later in the book, though, I came across this, a bit shocked and surprised:
“Principles relating to the customer
Serve our customer
Satisfy our customer
Service and maintain our customer’s products
Delight our customer” (128).
In context, a section on the meaning and strategies of leadership, the principles are not at all jarring – I mention it here to help illustrate the wide spectrum of approaches the contributors took to remembering their experiences with their teacher. Fazal himself seems to have been somewhat isolated or even alienated by his own persona as potentially viewed and distorted by others. As a kind of celebrity, he seemed aware there would be students who would not necessarily benefit from a mentor they filled with their own projections. But in that sense too, the book acknowledges the difficulties inherent in the entire enterprise.
There is great value in this kind of book, a collective memoir remembering a time, place, and person influential in helping shape the direction of individual lives and responsible for the continuity of group efforts that will no doubt be compromised by the vicissitudes of individual needs and desires as principles move through changing environments and meanings and time. The book may serve as an introduction to further studies, as its bibliography and glossary make clear. The book is learned and credible, and will be valuable to specialists and researchers of various topics, but again, its greatest value to the general reader is probably in the diary or memoir like diversity the individual contributors bring. The book is engaging precisely because it’s readable. These are very interesting people, people who have struggled with self and meaning, direction and efforts to contribute to something larger than their individual awareness might project. And many of the anecdotal pieces are down to earth descriptions of the man Fazal and his work and time. Taken as a whole, they create an oral history biography.
And if you find, after reading the book, there does not appear to be a Sufi in you, you can always pick up the guitar.
Heart of a Sufi – Fazal Inayat-Khan: A Prism of Reflections (2010), Arch Ventures Press, Edited by Rahima Milburn, Ashen Venema, and Zohra Sharp.
by Joe Linker
Please note – we are not the main authors but the EDITORS of this book. We collected and arranged the stories and also contributed.
* * *
Ashen Venema met Fazal Inayat-Khan in 1974 after a career in photojournalism, based in Munich. Moving to the UK, she combined motherhood with further academic studies, such as comparative religion, Psychosynthesis, additional therapeutic modules, and a film degree. For many years she facilitated parenting courses, gave transpersonal seminars with Rahima Milburn, and is still designing workshops on themes inspired by science and the creative imagination.
She maintains a psychotherapy practice, is a published poet and has written novels, of which her first,'Course of Mirrors,' will be released by Troubador in spring 2017. A sequel,'Shapers, is completed.
Ashen’s website is: www.courseofmirrors.wordpress.com
Rahima Milburn met Fazal Inayat-Khan during a seminar on the Creative Imagination, where she recognised Fazal as a spiritual teacher. As an accomplished painter, under the name of Elspeth Spottiswood, she sees painting as her most important expression. She also lectures on themes such as transpersonal psychology. She is the mother of five children and has many grandchildren. Until her retirement she combined her work in psychotherapy with writing articles and the editing of a Sufi Journal. Her interests include myth, symbolism, identity, individuation and poetry. Rahima loves Rumi’s poetry and has given readings to prisoners in the UK. She inspires and is well loved for her intellectual and creative abilities.
Zohra Evlynn Sharp is a Scots-born poet, visiting lecturer and creative writing facilitator in the community. She met people inspired by Fazal Inayat-Khan at Four Winds. She works as a writer in residence in settings such as prisons, hospitals, schools. Her poetry CDs include River in the Heart with guest poet Ashen Venema. Plays include Breaking the Silence and Charing Cross Tales - The Prologues, broadcast on Riverside FM, Riverside Studios. She gives poetry performances, and her poems are published in the collection Stones in the Sky and magazines such as Ambit, Feminist Review, The New Shetlander, Spirituality, Sufi. She facilitates a Sufi Gathering in Brighton. Find out more about her here: http://sufigatheringbrighton.wordpress.com/