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An Introductory Ethnography of the Sufi Movement in Canada
Dana Wylie
Music Department | the University of Alberta
Published 2013.04.22

The Personal, the Practical, the Local, and the Global
An Introductory Ethnography of the Sufi Movement in Canada

In its complex and pluralistic history, Sufism has been articulated in an ever-evolving variety of cultural forms, has related to Islamic orthodoxy at countless points on a spectrum from antagonism to complementarity and cooperation, and has expressed mystical philosophy through both asceticism and hedonism, depending on individuals, groups, time-periods, contexts, and functions. While at certain points, mystics have attempted to “classify the scattered ideas of their ancestors, thereby rationalizing their own experiences”, the idea of a monolithic Islamic mysticism is a nineteenth century orientalist construct. (Malik 2006, 3) Islamic Sufism's constant changeability and adaptability, and its existence as a belief and practice over such a large part of the Middle-East, Africa, and South- and Central-Asia, make it rather elusive when it comes to the issue of definition, especially with regard to its physical and musical expressions.

Discussion of Sufism's Western manifestations is considerably more problematic. In light of the infallible constructs of “East” and “West” fashioned by several hundred years of imperialism and colonialism, Sufism's transmission and adaptation to European and North American culture was and is a departure that is invariably defined and evaluated in opposition to an essential “traditional” Sufism.

As Oluf Schönbeck puts it:

“Ironically, Sufism, which for 200 years of Western scholarship and up until the 1960s
was seen as a conglomerate of Greek philosophy, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and
Jainism has now become essentialized to the degree that it is seen as the most central
quality or the only recurring element in different forms of Western Sufism, Islamic
Sufism, Quasi-Islamic Sufism and Non-Islamic Sufism.” (2009, 183)

As a result, Western Sufi organizations have been either classified according to their connection (or lack thereof) to orders in Muslim countries, or to their level of adherence (or lack thereof) to Islam generally. Marcia Hermansen's “horticultural” classification system of Sufism in America contains three categories: orders made up of immigrants from Muslim countries with minimal adaptation to their American context are “transplants”; orders that have shown adaptation but still identify with an Islamic source are “hybrids”; and orders in which Islamic identification has been de-emphasized are “perennials”. (2006, 28-29) Alan Godlas has suggested a categorization system that is more direct in its language and simply includes “Islamic Sufi orders in the West”, “Quasi-Islamic Sufi organizations and orders” and “Non-Islamic Sufi organizations and schools in the West”. (Schönbeck 2009, 179)

Scholarship on Western Sufism has not moved far beyond the development of these classification systems and some very generalized comparisons between Islamic Sufism and Non-Islamic Sufism (often referred to as neo-Sufism). (Dressler 2009, 3) One problem with this state of affairs is that it seems somewhat pointless and unhelpful to point out ways in which Sufism differs between the West and the East in light of the widely varied forms of Sufism that exist even in the East. For example, Olav Hammer has stated that “Sufism on the shelf of New Age bookstores in New York or Paris differs from Sufism as practised in the suburbs of Cairo or Istanbul.” (2004, 129) This is, of course, completely true (if a bit obvious), but seems to imply that Sufism as practised in the suburbs of Cairo does not differ from that practised in the suburbs of Istanbul, and this is surely not true.

The main problem with the highly generalized work that has characterized the study of Western Sufism thus far was brought to light for me in my introductory ethnographic work with the Sufi Movement In Canada (SMIC). Though, at this point, my research into and contact with the organization has not gone beyond a few telephone conversations with members and a thorough perusal of its website and literary output, it has already been made clear to me that several of the generalizations that have been made regarding the beliefs and practices of “perennial” or “universal” sufi organizations are inaccurate, or at very least, inadequate.

Further, it seems as if it will be very difficult for those in the discipline of Islamic Studies to undertake the ethnographic work that is “of crucial importance for a broader picture.” (Dressler 2009, 3) I believe this to be the case in light of Markus Dressler's view that Sufism's relationship to Islam must be reckoned with in the study of Western Sufism (2009, 2), and that Western converts to Sufism “will need to resolve tensions that arise from creating new hybrid forms of Western spirituality or to convert fully to Islam.” (2009, 5). From the point of view of Islamic or Religious Studies, this is a salient point. However, in the ethnographic study of any Inayati Sufi organization (of which the SMIC is one), it becomes very difficult to problematize the issue of Islam because it is an absolute non-issue for the members of these organizations, who subscribe to founder Inayat Khan's notion of the “Unity of Religious Ideals”, a belief that all religions are the same in essence and that Sufism is the expression of this essence.

For this reason, it seems appropriate that this work fall to the realm of ethnomusicology, and I think it no coincidence that the only detailed ethnography of a universal (perennial) Sufi order that has been undertaken thus far was by Daniel Atesh Sonneborn, an ethnomusicologist. (Sonneborn, 1995) I am not suggesting that the issue of Islam should be disregarded completely when considering universal Sufism – it becomes increasingly relevant as immigration from Muslim countries grows - but simply that the practices (and the methods and beliefs behind the practices) of Inayati Sufis must be considered in the context of Inayat Khan's teachings. Further, they must be analyzed on their own terms, relating to the function, efficacy, and validity they hold for the practitioners themselves. A clear understanding of how universal Sufi practices develop can only be gleaned in a framework free from notions of authenticity and from prefixes such as “pseudo-” and “quasi-”. This consideration provides perhaps the only benefit of the limitations of my research thus far (though I am aware of the drawbacks). I have not been able to witness the practices of the SMIC first-hand, and therefore, my understanding of said practices exists exclusively through the points of view of the practitioners themselves.

Regula Qureshi has considered the role of globalization in shaping the local practices of Sufi orders in a transnational setting. (2003) This framework is a very useful one through which to study the development of the SMIC's practices. The organization's very existence was based on a desire to establish and express a local identity, and yet the “spiritual kinship” that has “long served to create and maintain living ties that extend across territorial and temporal distances” (2003, 63) is very much alive here. Issues of globalization are particularly salient in considering the practices of universal Sufi organizations because Inayat Khan's movement was a global one from the outset, and functioned from very early in its history within a formally organization structure; this is one way in which it truly does differ from Islamic Sufism. This means that any local adaptation or expression within this will project its expression back into the larger organizational framework. As I will illustrate, this is particularly true in the case of the SMIC.

My first encounter with the SMIC was through their website, which contains a plethora of information and resources, including general background on Sufism as defined by Hazrat Inayat Khan (the founder of the Sufi Order of The West, now called the International Sufi Movement), lectures written by Hidayat Inayat Khan (youngest son of Inayat Khan and current head of the International Sufi Movement), membership information, lists of books and websites related to the movement and other Inayati organizations, and a page advertising upcoming events. Two particular things piqued my curiosity, however. Firstly, a paragraph on the home page states the following: “Lake O'Hara Sufi Camp ran each year in the high Canadian Rocky Mountains from 1980 to 2002 and it would not be an exaggeration to say that The Sufi Movement In Canada was born from the extraordinary work accomplished in those 23 years.” (Sufi Movement in Canada 2009) This made me wonder exactly what the “work” was - what was it that needed to be accomplished? Why did it take so many years? Secondly, an extensive “Resources” page contains detailed instructions on several types of breathing practices, diagrams of prayer movements, a downloadable instructional book on the Singing Zikar of Inayat Khan, and most intriguingly to a music scholar, a directory of twenty-one wazifas (sung repetitions of the various names of Allah), each with an accompanying musical score (solo melody and four-part chorale) and sound recording. There is also a page dedicated to “chromatic zikar”, a vocal exercise in which the standard melody of Inayat Khan's Singing Zikar is transposed up and then down the scale by step.

It was obvious to me that a lot of work and care had gone into providing these resources, but I wondered why recordings and scores were necessary for Sufi practice, not to mention vocal exercises that seemed reminiscent of the sort that a child prepares for his Royal Conservatory examinations. It was difficult to imagine them being used to any sort of spiritual end.

The answer to these questions lies in the particular circumstances in which the SMIC came into existence. The original members (many of whom are still involved with the movement today) became interested in the Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan in the 1970s, and many first came into contact with orders in California, where Sufism was flourishing (along with myriad other spiritual practices) in the wake of 1960s hippie counterculture. Hazrat Inayat Khan's oldest son, Vilayat Inayat Khan, had branched off from his father's organization in 1956, founding the Sufi Order International. (Jironet 2009, 118) Since he was based in the United States, his timing in this was fortunate – his Sufi Order is still the most wide-spread and well-known universal Sufi organization in North America today.
Samuel Lewis, who had been one of Inayat Khan's original murids (disciples), also had his own organization (The Sufi Ruhaniat International) and had started the Dances of Universal Peace, a “group spiritual practice, which integrates breath, movement, and music”, which was based in San Francisco but also spread quickly in the 1960s and 1970s and thrives to this day. (Sonneborn 2000, 1042) A centre was started to perform the Dances of Universal Peace in Edmonton in 1978, and it was members of this group who decided to found a Western Canadian Sufi retreat at Lake O' Hara. They had been encouraged in this by Shamcher Beorse, another murid of Hazrat Inayat Khan who had a deep personal connection with a few of the Edmonton Sufis (though he lived in Washington state), and seemed to see potential in their group to transcend the politics that had caused fracturing in American organizations.

As my correspondent David Murray put it:

He was the inspiration for it. And he was quite an amazing man...He was a good friend of Hidayat. He knew everybody, he knew Pir Vilayat, who was the older brother of Hidayat. He knew all of the Sufis in all of the groups, and was basically not part of the politics that had caused these divisions and separations...He ultimately suggested to Hidayat, “You really need to come to Canada. The Canadians are fabulous.”...I think he sensed that the Sufi Movement in Europe would benefit from a North American influence.”

Hidayat Inayat Khan had just taken over the leadership of the International Sufi Movement at that time, with some reluctance. He was already in his sixties at this time, and had lived his adult life as a professional musician – he had been a teacher and a symphony player, and had studied composition under Nadia Boulanger at L'Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris.As a composer, he had considered it his life's duty to blend the Indian Ragas he had learned from his father with the harmonic structures of Western Art Music. Unlike his brother Vilayat, he never envisioned himself taking over as head of the Movement at any point. Hazrat Inayat Khan had been succeeded by his three brothers after his death, and Hidayat's son Fazal had taken over after the last brother, Musharaff Khan, died in 1967. (Jironet 2009, 225) When Hidayat did become more involved in the early 1980s, it seemed to be from fear that the Movement that was the legacy of his cherished father and family was in danger of withering away. David Murray put it to me that people used to say at that time that “there was no order in the Order and no movement in the Movement.”

If this statement explains Hidayat's motivation in becoming involved with the group of Canadians, it also explains the Canadians' impetus to found their own organization and to look to Europe for inspiration in this. The American Sufi Order was characterized by numerous leaders with strong and charismatic personalities and their own practices that had developed in the generation that had passed since they had studied under Inayat Khan himself. The interest in the Canadians in founding their own organization was based on a desire both to assert their independence from the overwhelming influence of the American organizations and to engage directly with Inayat Khan's message rather than through the formidable personalities of other leaders. For them, Hidayat represented a strong connection to that message. While the members of the SMIC see Hidayat as their spiritual guide or Pir O Murshid, the process he embarked upon with them starting in 1982 was and is a truly and uniquely collaborative one.

It was Gary Sill who ended up working most closely with Hidayat in the development of the Singing Zikar and the wazifas that are now available on the Movement's website. As a trained musician, he had a immediate kinship with Hidayat, and also had the means to help him bring to fruition his envisioned contribution to the future of the Movement. He wanted to re-introduce the melody his father had composed for the Singing Zikar to the practices of the movement, and Gary described to me the challenges he faced in this:

“In those days, Hidayat did quite a lot of travelling, and he would be in South America, San Francisco, he was all over the world, trying to get people to do the Zikar, and you know, he is a terrible singer! (laughs) I think he would admit that. And he couldn't play his violin, so he would try to play it on the piano, and he's not a very good piano player either. (laughs) And then he had this idea. He made a recording of himself playing piano onto a cassette, and then made copies of that and sent it around, and that really was...that's when I stepped in and said, you know, “This is pretty grim, at the very least I can play it myself.”

The Singing Zikar of Inayat Khan is a four-part progression which lasts for forty-five minutes, and shares with other zikr practices that its ultimate goal is a loss of one's self, often described as “annihilation in the divine.” (Sonneborn 2000, 1043) For the SMIC (perhaps due in part to the influence of Hidayat's Western musical training), maintenance of rhythm, tempo and pitch is considered to be of the utmost importance to its successful execution. In the first years of the Lake O' Hara retreat, Gary played the Zikar on the piano, but he found it very difficult to maintain a constant tempo for the entirety of the practice. He also found that once the practitioners began singing, they drowned out the sound of the piano and the collective pitch began to drop. It was very easy for the entire exercise to fall apart.

Gary had access to some early synthesizers with sequencers at the time, and this seemed to be a viable solution – since tempo and pitch maintenance were the priority, electronically produced musical accompaniment was actually preferable to live musicians (in the absence of virtuosos). It was even preferable to making recordings using live instruments, since the repetitive aspect of the practice was so conducive to the use of tape loops. Based on his memories of Sufi gatherings in California at which one musician would struggle to lead a group of forty or more people, Gary now feels that “the recording was probably inevitable.” However, due to the limitations of the technology of the time, namely the synthetic (and synthetic-sounding) imitations of acoustic instruments, it took much trial and error to produce recordings that both worked for the practice and satisfied Hidayat's stringent aesthetic requirements.

Once they had a recording they were happy with, it became the standard accompaniment for Zikar in the Canadian movement. What is notable here is the air of experimentation and collaboration. Everyone at the retreat was involved with process of trial and error necessary for the creation of the recording. Furthermore, the practice has continued to evolve and the members I spoke to seem to prize efficacy over any other consideration. As long as a practice method (or accompaniment recording) works, they keep using it. An openness to development and evolution also seems to be the norm. Sometime after the Zikar recordings were produced, Hidayat and Gary developed and introduced “chromatic zikar” to develop the singing voices of the members, feeling that they would benefit more from the practice if their voices were strong and confident. Originally, the exercise moved chromatically up an entire octave, but when members attested that they found the highest parts too straining, the range was decreased.

Then, beginning in the mid-1990s, Hidayat decided to compose melodies for the wazifas (that had previously been chanted on one note) so that they could be practiced in a group setting, whereas previously they had been assigned to students for private practice. This was a rigorous ten-year collaborative process for Hidayat and Gary as they negotiated between Hidayat's wishes in terms of instrumentation and harmony, the limitations of Gary's technology to produce the desired sounds, and the musical skill (or lack thereof) of the practitioners. The result of these years of work is the aforementioned recordings available on the website, which are now used by branches of the International Sufi Movement all over the world, and are even starting to be taken up by some other Inayati orders.

There are a few obvious preconceptions about universal Sufism that can be called into question by the development of the SMIC and its practices, namely those claiming the primacy of individuality (versus social involvement in Islamic Sufism) and of personal experience (versus proper practice). (Hammer 2004, 139) My correspondents do believe that the spiritual needs of the individual members are very important, and that every individual is wildly different – they are Westerners, after all, and their dedication to Sufism in no way indicates a desire to abandon, or even transcend, their “Western-ness”. However, this does not preclude the primacy of community in any way, especially considering the collective effort and collaboration that went into the development of the practices. Certainly, the social network of the SMIC is both marginal and geographically diverse, but remarkably these facts do not hinder its functionality as a community. Similarly, while “experience” is certainly the impetus for performing the practices, it is clear that the SMIC has given a great deal of priority to proper execution of said practices. They have gone to great lengths to develop them such that they facilitate - considering the personal, temporal and geographic particularities of the members of the organization - the loss of one's self in the divine. Since the time of Rumi (at least), Sufis have negotiated the equal potential of ecstatic meditative practice to either provide release from the nafs or lower-self, or to reinforce the pride and passion of the lower-self. (Asani 1986, 47) The Canadian Sufis also expressed a mindfulness of this consideration to me (though they express it in Western secular terms), and they placed great emphasis on this point in the development of their practices.

I would like to reiterate that I believe that the compare/contrast approach, the general focus on differences, is an unhelpful way to undertake study of Western Sufism. I admit that as a novice scholar of this material, I am rather confounded by the fact that despite the general consensus that Sufism is a “highly contested subject” that is “deployed in relation to lineages and personalities with a distinctly local sacrality,” (Ernst 2005, 22) Western Sufisms, and universal Sufisms in particular, are subject to appraisal against a non-existent monolithic Islamic Sufism.

What is missed in the creation of a monolithic universal Sufism in opposition to a monolithic Islamic Sufism, and which is brought to light through examination of the SMIC practices, is the localness that is constituted and expressed. Sonneborn said of the Sami Mahal in California that, “for its participants, the experience of Sufism is an American experience, part and parcel of the culture, and not an imported exoticism.” (1995, 21) This inevitable localization is present in the SMIC as well. Several aspects make it particularly interesting, however, when examined through the lens of localization's symbiotic relationship with globalization: the fact that the spiritual kinships which tie the members to Inayat Khan are held over great geographic distances (whether with the late Shamcher Beorse in Washington or with Hidayat Inayat Khan, who lives in Holland), that the membership itself is spread over such a wide geographic area, that the involvement of Hidayat brings a distinctly European presence to the proceedings, and that he himself has dedicated his personal and professional life to the embodiment and expression of a synthesis of Eastern and Western musics and philosophies.

The musical tools developed by the SMIC must also be considered in the context of the push and pull of the local and the global. I refer to them as musical tools because the recordings used by the group are not designed to be musical products unto themselves, but are meant to be the motor that gets the practice moving (at the desired pitch and tempo) and keeps it on track. As Gary Sill related to me, the music “tends to disappear during the experience of the practice.” In a way, the recordings are pieces of purely functional music, and yet there is a great deal of care put into their aesthetic content, in order that each one supports the meaning and intention of the practice. Since these recordings are now used in every branch of the International Sufi Movement, and may soon be used by other orders, the live musical moments that are engaged in through use of them will vary from group to group, and from gathering to gathering. Thus, the practice has been globally standardized through use of the recordings. Yet, the practices, experiences and expressions that are facilitated by them will always be individual and local.

My intention in approaching the SMIC's practices by raising questions about the nuances of localized expression in a global framework is to focus on what I believe to be unique about this organization in the context of the larger picture of Western Sufism. Much more work needs to be done in exploring these questions, and there are a great many more that need to be raised. In all of the focus on difference, one major parallel between universal Sufism and Islamic Sufism has been missed, a parallel that is beautifully demonstrated by the work of the Sufi Movement In Canada – they are both defined by their very evasion of definition due to the constancy of negotiation, contestation, transformation and adaptation. This is what these Sufisms share beyond the name, and it is the change itself that must be engaged with.


Asani, Ari. 1986. “Music and dance in the work of Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi.” Islamic Culture 60/2: 41-55.

Dressler, Markus, Ron Geaves and Gritt Klinkhammer. 2009. “Introduction.” In Sufis in Western Society: Global networking and locality, edited by Markus Dressler, Ron Geaves and Gritt Klinkhammer, 1-12.

Ernst, Carl. 2005. “Situating Sufism and Yoga.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 15: 15-43.

Hammer, Olav. 2004. “Sufism for Westerners.” In Sufism in Europe and North America, edited by David Westerlund, 127-143. New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

Hermansen, Marcia. 2006. “Literary Productions of Western Sufi Movements.” In Sufism in the West, edited by Jamal Malik and John Hinnells, 1- 27. New York: Routledge.

Jironet, Karin. 2009. Sufi Mysticism into the West: Life and Leadership of hazrat Inayat Khan's Brothers 1927-1967. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters.

Malik, Jamal. 2006. “Introduction.” In Sufism in the West, edited by Jamal Malik and John Hinnells, 1-27. New York: Routledge.

Schönbeck, Oluf. 2009. “Sufism in the USA: Creolisation, hybridisation, syncretisation?” In Sufism Today: Heritage and Tradition in the Global Community, edited by Catharina Raudvere and Leif Stenberg, 177-188. London: I.B. Taurus.

Sonneborn, Danel Atesh. 1995. “Music and Meaning in American Sufism: the Ritual of Dhikr at Sami Mahal, A Chishtiyya Derived Sufi Center.” PhD Diss., UCLA.

Sonneborn, Danel Atesh. 2000. “Snapshot: Sufi Music and Dance.” In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 3: The United States and Canada, edited by Ellen Koskoff, 1042-1046. New York: Routledge.

The Sufi Movement In Canada. Sufi Movement In Canada website;; 2009.

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