One ceremony, many readings – Inayat Khan’s ʿurs and its participants

Jan Scholz and Max Stille

This article deals with the ʿurs ceremony of Inayat Khan, the founder of the spiritual movement of Universal Sufism, which was held in February 2010 in Nizamuddin, Delhi, and focuses on the ceremony’s reception by its participants. With reference to the literary scholar, Wolfgang Iser, who treated the question of indeterminacy in literary texts, the article proposes that the transcultural interactions taking place during this ceremony are based on the ceremony’s high levels of semantic indeterminacy. It argues that, in a process under certain aspects resembling the act of reading literary texts, this indeterminacy is ‘normalised’ by the ceremony’s participants, each of whom ‘pins down’ the ceremony’s ‘meaning’ according to his or her own horizon of expectation. This thesis will be developed on the basis of an analysis of the ritual’s structure. Indeterminacy is particularly high in the case of Inayat Khan’s ʿurs where due to the nature of Universal Sufism and global travel opportunities, participants from different backgrounds join the ceremony. While this indeterminacy on the one hand allows different participants to link to the ceremony, it also seems to be constitutive for the experience of this ritual.

The paper highlights different aspects of this process throughout the ceremony at the shrines of Niẓām ad-Dīn and Inayat Khan, while different parts of the ceremony will be depicted with the aid of videos recorded by the article’s authors as well as by members of Universal Sufism who participated in the ceremony.


‘Eastern’ spirituality in the West has been a major locus of cultural entanglements for more than a century. Transcultural movements propagating such spirituality are often linked to the migration of Asian spiritual teachers to the West. This is also the case for the organisations which connect themselves to Universal Sufism, a movement introduced to the USA in 1910 by the Indian-born Inayat Khan.2

As 2010 marked the centennial year of this transcultural transfer, Inayat Khan’s ʿurs3 which is celebrated annually on February 5th gained particular significance in this year. The members of different associated organisations were invited to participate in a five day programme at Inayat Khan’s dargāh (shrine) located in Nizamuddin, Delhi. About forty Sufis gathered, coming mainly from North America and Europe. As will be explained in more detail below, the ceremony involves unusual rituals for both the context of Nizamuddin (the rituals brought in by the Universal Sufis and which are not found in local Chishtī practice) and for the Universal Sufis, as, to quote Celia Genn, the ʿurs introduces into Universal Sufism “a number of traditional South Asian Sufi practices which Inayat Khan had not transplanted or made a part of his teaching in the West.”4

As the ceremony serves as an encounter for different practices of worship, this article focuses upon the combination of different rituals, stemming from different locations and backgrounds with the aim of questioning the composition of the ʿurs ceremony.5 It is proposed that the ceremony’s structure, which includes ritual elements the pilgrims of Universal Sufism are familiar with, but also elements which they only get to know when participating in the ʿurs pilgrimage, is – because of this circumstance – fundamentally marked by indeterminacy.

It seems that such indeterminacy and polyvalency – resulting from the (un)familiarity with single elements – creates an inclusivist basis which allows different participants to ‘link’ to the ceremony. In approaching this issue, we describe the ceremony as a ‘text’ which is ‘read’ by its different participants. ‘Text’ and ‘reading’ are thus understood in a metaphorical sense: reading does not refer to a process in which narration of a plot (and everything that goes with it) is understood but to the participation in a ceremony in terms of its perception and reception. It is then a translinguistic (semiotic)6 use of the term ‘text’ which is made here. As a text, the ceremony consists of different interwoven and interdependent elements which can with semiotics be understood as signs. These elements have to be set in relation to each other in a process which is, in this respect, similar to the relation-building accomplished when reading.7

First, a short historical introduction to the movement of Universal Sufism will be given to illuminate aspects that might be important for understanding the ceremony’s context of Nizamuddin in New Delhi. Second, the transfer of aspects of aesthetic response theory for the interpretation of the ceremony’s structure will be outlined. In the following, the article will focus on the ceremony on occasion of the ʿurs of Inayat Khan at the dargāhs (shrines) of Niẓām ad-Dīn and Inayat Khan on February 5th, 2010.

1. This article, written in 2010, is the revised version of a lecture given at the workshop “Changing Popular Visual Cultures of Muslim Shrines: Transcultural Flows and Urban Spaces”, which took place in Heidelberg in June 2010. The authors are heavily indebted to Dr. Udo Simon for the invitation, as well as for his suggestions, and to the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes e.V. whose support enabled them to conduct their field research. For further reflections on the ritual in question cf. Scholz, Jan & Stille, Max “The Open Ritual: Indeterminacy in a Modern Sufi Ceremony”, Ines Weinrich (ed.), Performing Religion, Beiruter Texte und Studien (forthcoming).

2. The correct transliteration of the movement’s founder is ʿInāyat Khān. For all names and terms of Universal Sufism, the standard English writing as used by the group itself has been preferred (Inayat Khan in this case).

We use “Universal Sufism” as an umbrella term for the many disparate groups which claim the legacy of Inayat Khan. These include, but are not limited to, the four hosting organisations of the ʿurs 2010: the International Sufi Movement, the Sufi Order International, the Sufi Ruhaniat International, and the International Sufi Way. The organisations’ differences will not be dealt with in this article, but it has to be kept in mind that they are of course reflected in the character of the ʿurs, particularly in the program on the days following the ʿurs day as this might change according to the focus of the respective hosting organisation.

The most comprehensive overview over the history and development of these movements is the PhD thesis of the current leader of the Sufi Order, Inayat Khan’s grandson Zia Inayat-Khan from Duke University: Zia Inayat-Khan, A Hybrid Sufi Order at the Crossroads of Modernity: The Sufi Movement and Sufi Order of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, Chicago, 2006. Other important publications include Carl W. Ernst, Bruce B. Lawrence, Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond, New York [et al.]: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, pp. 140—143; Celia Genn, From Chishtiyya Diaspora to Transnational Sufi Movement, paper presented on the 16th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, 2006, available on [last accessed on November 3rd, 2010]; ead., “The Development of a Modern Western Sufism”, Martin van Bruinessen, Julia Day Howell (eds.), Sufism and the ‘Modern’ in Islam, Library of Modern Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 67, London: Tauris, 2007, pp. 257—278; Marcia Hermansen, “What’s American about American Sufi Movements?”, David Westerlund (ed.), Sufism in Europe and North America, London, New York: Routledge, Curzon, 2004, pp. 36—63; Hülya Küçük, “A Brief History of Western Sufism”, Asian Journal of Social Science, vol. 36, 2008, pp. 292–320, pp. 301—304.

3. Literally ‘wedding’, i.e. spiritual union of the founder with God, i.e. his death anniversary.

4. Genn (2006), op. cit., p. 7.

5. By 'ceremony' we understand the combination of different rituals. It is the description used by the Universal Sufis themselves. It will be employed throughout this paper, despite the fact that it is a somewhat problematic analytical category.

6. For Kristeva’s understanding of the translinguistic procedure which can partly be applied to ritual as well, see Julia Kristeva, “Le mot, le dialogue et le roman”, Séméiôtiké: Recherches pour une sémanalyse, Paris: Seuil, 1978, pp. 82—112, p. 84 f. As for the literary text, we can also note for the ritual (at least in our case) expanding Kristeva (additions in brackets): “le mot (le texte [le rituel]) est un croisement de mots (de textes [de rituels]) où on lit au moins un autre mot (texte) [rituel].”

7. For the comparison of ritual and text cf. Lévi-Strauss’ reflections on myth and ritual and further studies such as Frits Staal, “The Meaninglessness of Ritual”, Numen 26, 1979, pp. 2—22; Hans H. Penner, “Language, Ritual and Meaning”, Numen 32, 1985, pp. 1—16; Axel Michaels, “‘Le rituel pour le rituel’ oder wie sinnlos sind Rituale?”, Corina Caduff, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka (eds.), Rituale heute, Berlin: Reimer, 1999, pp. 23—47; id., “‘How do you do?’: Vorüberlegungen zu einer Grammatik der Rituale”, Heinrich M. Schmidinger, Clemens Sedmak (eds.), Der Mensch – ein „animal symbolicum“?, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2007, pp. 239—258; id., “The Grammar of Rituals”, Grammars and Morphologies of Ritual Practices in Asia, id. (ed.), Ritual Dynamics and the Science of Ritual, vol. 1, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010, pp. 7–28; and Karl-Heinz Kohl, “Die Syntax von Ritualen”, Liturgie, Ritual, Frömmigkeit und die Dynamik symbolischer Ordnungen, Helwig Schmidt-Glintze (ed.), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2006, pp. 103—126. Interesting to this article are also Dietrich Harth’s general reflections on ritual, text and discourse since Harth mentions Eco and the aspect of the openness of art, cf. Dietrich Harth, “Rituale, Texte, Diskurse: Eine formtheoretische Betrachtung”, Burckhard Dücker, Hubert Roeder (eds.), Text und Ritual: Kulturwissenschaftliche Essays und Analysen von Sesostris bis Dada, Hermeia, vol 8, Heidelberg: Synchron, 2005, pp. 19—48, p. 26.

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