Universal Sufism


Universal Sufism is a universalistspiritual movement founded by Hazrat Inayat Khan while traveling throughout the West between 1910 and 1926, based on the unity of all people and religions and the presence of spiritual guidance in all people, places and things. Hazrat Inayat Khan was himself an initiate of the Chishti, Naqshbandi, Suhrawardi, and Qadiri Sufi orders, and was instructed to bring Sufism to the West by his own teacher, Hazrat Shaykh al-Mashaykh Muhammad Abu Hashim Madani.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Sufism accessed 3/7/2014)

Discovering Universal Sufism

It was through the Dances of Universal Peace that I discovered Universal Sufism. I discovered the dances in the early 90s. Like so much guidance this came to me in 3s. Although in some ways I grew up with Sufi influences in my background. I was born in Romania that was part of the Ottoman Empire and my dad used to tell Nasrudin stories as anecdotes. When I was teaching adult migrant English I discovered that many of the Russian students were also familiar with these stories. But in more recent years it was through the dances that I made my connection or was it a re-connection?

First of the 3, came the form of Circle Dances as developed in Findhorn and as passed on by Jean Huston at the first Spirit of Learning Forum. This was in the form of a French Shepherd’s Dance that we did in a big oval with some 80 people in the ballroom of the recently renovated Queen Victoria Building. This was a Brahma Kumaris event that was the brainchild of Dawn Griggs, who did her Social Ecology masters on this topic and later published a book called The Spirit of Learning. While in this circle, we were holding imaginary candles with our arms upheld and moving slowly and gracefully to the rhythm of a very mystical piece of French folk music. 

Second of the 3 was at the Bondi Pavilion one winter Sunday afternoon, Karen and I walked past a sign saying ‘Dances of Universal Peace – All Welcome’, in the Seagull Room. We walked in and participated in this magical process with this amazing woman Tomi Greentree. Later she started a regular dance group in Randwick at the School of Arts. I was hooked!

Third came the experience of the dance Haida, a Jewish traditional folk dance, as part of an Alternatives to Violence (AVP) training workshop with Elaine Dyer from New Zealand, where she was involved in both AVP and the Dances of Universal Peace. In the AVP workshops we had activities that were called Light and Livelies that were intended to lighten up the group after examining the potentially gruesome topic of violence. This third experience gave me permission to lead this dance as part of the AVP training, which was primarily a Quaker Outreach Program of non-violence training for prison inmates. I trained as a facilitator of AVP and we also presented trainings in community centres and schools.

My involvement with AVP began when my Quaker friend Jan invited me to a training. He thought I would relate to this drama based form of experiential non-violence training. He was right. I loved it and went on to become a facilitator myself. In those days I was a Buddhist and a member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship that had brought Thich Nhat Hanh to Australia in the International Year of Peace, 1986. We also organised the Sydney part of Joanna Macy’s tour in 1985 when she came to Australia with Pat Fleming to lead workshops on Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age.

As part of the latter workshops, the Council of All Beings was born when John Seed, Joanna, Pat and myself dreamt up a ritual to allow for all beings on the planet to have a voice. I was like the dramatic advisor for the process and helped with how to stage the ritual and how to make the masks.

For me this was all part of a universal theatre that I’d been seeking for many years. It was this universal theatre that I could see in the work of the Polish theatre director, Jerzi Grotowski and the British theatre and film director, Peter Brook. I’d seen Peter Brook’s film version of Marat Sade at least 6 times. It was written by my namesake, Peter Weiss and performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company after spending some 6 months in a mental asylum to study the behaviour of the characters.

Then in 1980 Peter Brook brought his company to Sydney and I booked to see all his productions. The climax was his production of Conference of the Birds, a 13th century Sufi poem by Attar. Just a couple of years earlier I’d been inspired to write a book called the Buddha Nature of Theatre while working in Angus and Robertsons’, a large city bookshop. In trying to understand the meaning of the words Buddha Nature, I met my yoga teacher of several years, John Cooper and my Zen teacher, Robert Aitken Roshi. As it happened my first possible retreat with Aitken Roshi coincided with Brook’s tour and I figured that the Roshi would be back next year but Peter Brook was a one off. Miraculously, on the evening of the performance of the Sufi poem, Aitken Roshi also attended the Seymour Centre theatre. Both my gurus were in the one space. Perhaps this was the Buddha Nature of Theatre as it set my life direction?

A few years later in 1985, I was to direct an opening piece for a Youth Theatre conference in the Seymour Centre and by the mid 90s I would become involved in Universal Sufism through the Dances of Universal Peace, which for me is a form of a universal theatre. After all as sacred circle folk dances they could be regarded as direct descendants of the dithyrambs in honour of the Greek God of Theatre and wilderness, Dionysus (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dithyramb).

On the other hand, the fact that Peter Brook had been influenced by the Sufi poet Attar and was a follower of Gurdjieff and also made a film of Gurdjieff’s autobiographical book, called ‘Meetings with Remarkable Men’, may have offered a hint of my future direction. In those days I was embarking on my Zen and Yoga paths, little did I know that the time would come when I would call Sufism a form of Middle Eastern Zen. Gurdjieff himself had studied with the Sarmoung Brotherhood an esoteric Sufi group in Central Asia that goes right back to ancient Mesopotamia. Later he brought those teachings to the West around the same time as Hazrat Inayat Khan brought his Sufi teachings. Indeed they were both teaching in Paris around the same time in the early 20th century.

A more recent insight I had was that my desire to pursue a Universal Sufi path may have come from my growing up in a diversity of cultures, which I needed to keep separate as there were significant conflicts between some of these cultures. Negotiating these cultural differences led to my developing skills as an actor as well as deepening my understanding of the psychology of different cultures. When I was young I grew up in a home that was a mix of Romanian, Hungarian, Jewish, Austrian and at times even Australian culture and their corresponding language. Each culture had different sets of expectations of behaviour, which as a child I had to learn in order to survive. Then when school and later university began to play a bigger part in my life, I had to learn the Anglo-Protestant culture as well as the Irish Catholic culture as these were the dominant cultures in Australia at the time.

Also the expectation of being an actor in Australia in the 50s and 60s was still to play characters from the British Isles, so I had to learn the various accents for English, Welsh, Scots and Irish people as well as those from North America. This passion for drama and acting was also part of the sales work I did at various times as a boy and as a young man. However underneath this diversity of roles and cultures and languages there was also the Australian ecology, which was deeply embedded in Aboriginal culture.

A further influence on me was that I felt I had to keep the Jewish culture under wraps in the Christian dominated world of Australia to prevent me being a victim of anti-Semitism. My parents were Holocaust survivors so I was very conscious of the destructive nature of anti-Semitism in Europe, as much as I was conscious of the destructive nature of war, having been born just at the end of WWII. Now my acting roles made me aware of how underneath all these diverse cultural roles people were just that ‘people’. It brought our humanness into sharp focus and made me aware that underneath the diversity there was also universality. So the kind of theatre I wanted to create was one that promoted peace and was universal. This led me to a search for a universal theatre of peace, which I now realise, is exactly what the Dance of Universal Peace are.

And, one source of inspiration for the dances created by Samuel Lewis in the late 60s was his experience of visiting a Sufi Shrine in Fatehpur Sikri ‘a city and a municipal board in Agra district in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. The city was founded in 1569 by the Mughal emperor Akbar, and served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585.’[1] As part of this city built out of red sandstone, there is a beautiful jewel built out of white marble. It is the shrine of Selim Chisti, a Sufi master who advised the Emperor Akbar well and was granted a place of honour next to the mosque. Today the city is abandoned as it ran out of water after 30 years, however the shrine is still there and very much alive as a pilgrimage site for this great Sufi master of peace. Indeed the peace is palpable there as Karen and I found when we went there. It was one of the most peaceful places in a built environment on the planet.

It was while he was visiting this magical place that enshrined us in its peaceful vibration, that the Murshid Samuel Lewis was inspired to create the Dances of Universal Peace. So the dances were the direct result of this Sufi vibration. The master’s name means ‘Selim’ peace and the Chisti lineage he represented is one that is renowned for its use of poetry and music as art of its practices of celebrating the divine presence.

For me personally I became aware of my attraction to Sufism late in life. Yoga, Buddhism and Shamanism attracted me in my earlier spiritual questing process. The attraction to yoga was to improve the health of my body, while Buddhism in its Zen form was about learning to understand my mind. My interest in Shamanism grew out of my love of nature and my interest in indigenous cultures that struck me to have such a deep understanding of nature in all her cycles, her complexities and her mysteries. Also in the 1980s some drama theorists proposed that the Shaman was the original actor. The theatre group IRAA standing for the ‘Institute of the Anthropology of the Actor’ had been involved in cultural exchanges with Dionysian rituals still practices in southern Italy, with Dervishes in Turkey, with a Mapuche Shaman in Chile, and had incorporated all these influences in their performances. It was through my work with them that I first learnt the Dervish turning in the mid 80s.

However all these pointers to my life path were still too veiled for me to see them consciously, until my first weekend retreat of Dances of Universal Peace in the Blue Mountains. It was then the veil began to lift and I glimpsed something that really took me by surprise when we did a Universal Worship in dance. This was a practice given by Hazrat Inayat Khan in the form of a ritual where we light a candle to all the major religious traditions that he recognized at the time of his coming to the west in the early 20th century. As well we read from a text of each of these traditions on a theme that reveals the underlying unity of all the religious traditions. In the mountains dance retreat we did this by using a dance from each tradition as well as reading about each of these traditions from a book of his teachings written by his students by the title ‘The Unity of Religious Ideals’. When I heard these readings I was very moved and so I asked Shakti who was reading the passages where I could get the book. She directed me to the warden of the Quaker Hall, Hakim, who just happened to be a Sufi Sheikh and who happily gave me a copy of the book. It was that moment when the veil lifted a little more and began to see the great light of the Sufi tradition, which I then chose to pursue in ever more deepening ways over the next few years.

The argument of this wonderful book is that the fundamental all the religious traditions on the planet have the same source. This source has manifested in various forms through various teachers throughout human history. Each teacher framed the teaching in a form that would be accessible to the people of that particular time and place. The fundamental message was that of love, harmony and beauty.

This was reflected recently for me in the very moving Bangarra Dance Theatre production of Patyegarang, which:

tells the story of Patyegarang, the inspirational journey of a potent Indigenous spirit alive in Australia’s past and present.

As the colonial fleet arrived on Eora country in the late 18th Century, Patyegarang befriended the colony’s timekeeper, Lieutenant William Dawes, gifting him her language in an extraordinary display of trust and friendship, which now inspires our imaginations about ‘first contact’.

In Dawes’ notebooks, rediscovered in 1972, are transcripts of this remarkable cultural exchange. Patyegarang’s words are a window into a rich, complex and utterly different perspective on her world, its values and its sacred meanings.

Bangarra liberates Patyegarang from the library shelves, putting spirit into her heart, as a striking visionary and educator.[2]

This production really brought out for me the same teaching – that when we go below our surface differences of culture, language, skin colour, gender or any other differences, we can discover our underlying unity that is the result of us all being members of the human race, sharing the same basic genetic make up with a few minor variations and sharing the same planet Earth. It was very resonant with a teaching that came from an Aboriginal Elder, Uncle Max Dulummunun Harrison. When he was asked about reconciliation, my friend said that his response was that we can’t have reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people because there has never been a relationship to reconcile. However we can all reconcile with the Earth our Mother.

Once again we see that the Universal Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan has so much to teach when he invites us to read the sacred manuscript of nature, which he says is the only book that will enlighten the reader.


[1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatehpur_Sikri accessed 14/7/2014

[2] http://bangarra.com.au/performance/patyegarang accessed 14/7/2014

3 thoughts on “Universal Sufism

    • Thank you Ashraf, for your interest, however we are Universal Sufis in the tradition of Hazrat Inayat Khan and the Murshid Sufi Sam, our practices are very different from the traditional Qawwali music. We are located in Sydney so it may be a long way for you to come to visit.

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