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How Jews Helped Introduce America to a Mystical Form of Islam

Some leading American Jewish Sufis of the early 20th century

Shalom Goldman
May 12, 2021
Original photo: Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
American mystic and horticultural scientist Samuel L. Lewis (1896-1971) ‘Sufi Sam’ dervish dances at Precita Park in San Francisco, 1969Original photo: Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Original photo: Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
American mystic and horticultural scientist Samuel L. Lewis (1896-1971) ‘Sufi Sam’ dervish dances at Precita Park in San Francisco, 1969Original photo: Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Students of American culture have often commented on the prominent role Jews played in the leadership of the countercultural movements of the ’60s and ’70s. In particular, Jews played leading roles in establishing “alternative” religious movements such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism. As a participant-observer in some of these movements, I assumed that the impetus behind them was part and parcel of the ’60s mindset, a mindset fueled by political unrest, psychedelics, and the sexual revolution. But to my surprise, and the surprise of other historians of American religious movements, it is now clear that the roots of the “turn toward the East” of American spiritual seekers didn’t start in the sixties, but rather at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

A case in point is the story of American Sufism and the participation of Jews in that mystical form of Islam. When that movement, imported from India, reached American shores in the first decade of the century, it was Inayat Khan, an Indian musician and Sufi master, who first conveyed the teachings to Americans. And it was to two American Jews that he conveyed the leadership of his nascent American form of Sufism.

Inayat Khan (1882-1926), born in India into an aristocratic Muslim family, was a gifted musician and a teacher of Sufism. He was told by his own Sufi teacher to take Sufism to the West. Inayat Khan and two of his brothers arrived in the United States in 1910 and toured as “the Royal Musicians of Hindustan.” They played classical Indian music at the performances of the pioneering modern dancer Ruth St. Denis. Their American sojourn of six months was spent in San Francisco and New York City. In both cities, Inayat Khan gave both musical performances and lectures on Sufi teachings. Eventually, he attracted some 250 students to his “Order of Sufis.” Many of the adepts were previously affiliated with other non-Christian new religious movements, including Theosophy. Among them were many Jews.

Khan’s lectures emphasized the universal aspects of Sufism, rather than its Islamic origins and cultural ties. In Khan’s presentation Sufism was “mystical” or “spiritual,” rather than religious, and as such was not inextricably tied to its origins in Islam. Rather, said Kahn, Sufism was a set of mystical beliefs and rituals that had universal appeal. “Divine wisdom,” Khan taught, “is not limited to a certain people,” and true religion is about “love, harmony, and beauty,” not about doctrines and dogmas. These ideas held great appeal for early-20th-century American audiences, especially among secular Jews.

Sufis, the mystics of Islam, are organized in tariqahs, or brotherhoods. Tariqah means path in Arabic—in this case, a spiritual path. But following that spiritual path, by emulating the prophet Muhammad, is not a solitary endeavor. Rather, it is a group effort. Over the 15 centuries of Islamic history, numerous tariqahs have emerged. Some have persisted for centuries, while others have withered away.

The initial stage of a tariqah is the gathering of a devoted group of students around a shaykh, a teacher of the mystical beliefs and practices of Islam. The historian Albert Hourani noted that the Sufi tariqahs developed during the late 10th and early 11th Christian centuries. The names of these brotherhoods, and their organizational structures, are, as Hourani explains, like families. “Those who followed the same master (shaykh) began to identify themselves as a single spiritual family, moving along the same path. These spiritual families continued over a long period and claimed a lineage which went back to some great master of the spiritual life, after whom the tariqah was named.” To become a member of a tariqah, one has to apply and be accepted.

Inayat Khan’s first American mureed, or initiated disciple, was Ada Martin, a San Francisco native. In 1911 she attended a lecture by Khan. “I have no religion,” she remembered Khan saying. “All places of worship are one to me. I can enter a Buddhist temple, a mosque, a church, or a synagogue in the same spirit. Spirituality is the tuning of the heart.”

From 1912 to 1925, Inayat Khan lived in Europe, where he established many branches of his “Sufic Order.” In 1925, he returned to the United States, but in his absence, many of Inayat Khan American students looked to Ada Martin as their leader. Following Inayat Khan’s instructions, she had taken the Muslim name Rabia, after the name of the eighth-century female Sufi, Rabia al-Adawiya.

This was not Ada Martin’s first name change. Born Ada Ginsburg, into a New York family with a prestigious rabbinical lineage, she became Ada Martin when she married David Martin at age 19. She was 40 when she heard Inayat Khan lecture and was won over by Sufism. When Khan went on an East Coast lecture tour, Martin moved to New York City and served as his amanuensis.

It was through Ada Martin that another young American Jew, Samuel Lewis of San Francisco, met Inayat Khan and also became a Sufi. Born into a wealthy San Francisco Jewish family in 1896, Samuel Lewis was raised with the expectation that he would enter the family business. His father, Jacob Lewis, was an executive at the Levi Strauss clothing company; his mother was a scion of the Rothschild banking family. Brought up in a wealthy and socially conservative milieu, the young Samuel rejected its values and sought a more meaningful and spiritual life. In his early 20s, Lewis investigated and then rejected Theosophy. Many years later Lewis recounted what he learned as a young man from Theosophy:

All religions are right. They differ on the outside when taken exoterically, they agree on the inside if taken esoterically. All religions are from God. There are seven planes of existence, the lower ones experienced in life after life, the higher, the ones only by sages, and the illumined.

Lewis then turned to the study of the traditions that had nurtured and influenced the Theosophists—Mahayana Buddhism and mystical Islam. His first guide to Sufi ideas and practices was Ada Martin. In a 1927 poem titled “A Psalm of Prophecy,” Lewis noted Ada’s Jewish ancestry.

Shout it from the hill tops!
Proclaim it on the mountains!
Re-echo it in the Valleys!
For a woman will rise, a woman will rise and go forth,
Forth from her native city
to bear the Message of God to all lands.
A woman is to bear it that all may hear.
Here cometh the daughter of Zion, of the Israelites;
Out of the West doth she come,
For in these days will the sun rise in the West
and all men seeing believe.

Lewis recalled that Martin taught him what she described as the essence of three religious traditions: “The mysticism of the Old Testament, the esoteric study of comparative religion, the Sufi discipline.” He went on to say that Martin taught him “disciplined, encouraged investigation into the mysticisms of all faiths.”

Of her own spiritual struggles, Ada Martin wrote:

In my 28th year, a deep grief came to me—and for four years. I suffered much—and the problem compelled me to search deeper for the questions I asked of God—for the reasons demanded an explanation, and this storm and tumult of a problem was too sad for words—I was led into spiritual teachings and freed myself from pain and heart sorrow—and tested these principles and universal laws—and stayed here in this form. After certain realizations came in the secret place of my own heart—I gave all to Allah and studied, served, prayed ever—to realize His laws—love, mercy, and justice. This period of my life I call the reconciliation and spiritual regeneration, all praises to Allah.

At his second meeting with Inayat Khan, Lewis reports that Khan said that he “intended that Murshida (Ada) Martin be his successor.” Sam Lewis’ job, said Inayat Khan, was “to stand by her and protect her.”

Though Lewis considered Ada Martin his first teacher and did try to protect her, their differing opinions on the leadership of the Sufi movement led to their eventual parting of ways. When Martin died in 1947, Lewis then found new teachers, both among the Sufis and among teachers of other esoteric religious systems.

Lewis, who had spurned his father’s attempts to draw him into a career in business, didn’t attend college after high school. Instead, he moved into one of the first of California’s spiritual communes. In the late 1940s, Lewis enrolled in San Francisco City College and completed an associate degree in horticulture and agriculture. In the early 1950s, he worked as a horticulturist for the California State Highway Department.

A few years after taking that civil service job, Lewis received an allowance from the family trust. It was this money, distributed on his father’s death in 1954, that enabled him to leave his job and to lead the life of a “spiritual seeker” long before that term (or the phenomenon) entered the American popular vocabulary. It was this relative economic independence that enabled Lewis to travel to India, Pakistan, Egypt, and other countries in the late 1950s and in the 1960s.

In each of these countries, Lewis sought out the leaders of the Sufi brotherhoods and presented himself as an American Sufi. And it was early in those travels that he took the Muslim name Ahmed Murad Chisti. Whether Lewis underwent formal conversion to Islam remains unknown. Perhaps he didn’t think that such a formality was necessary.

In 1956, Lewis, now financially independent because of his father’s legacy, set out on another set of pilgrimages. He traveled to Japan, Thailand, Burma, India, and Pakistan. In each country, he sought out religious leaders and experts in agronomy. On his return from this second set of pilgrimages Lewis, in a letter to a friend, articulated his vision for the future:

To bring nations of the world together by eating, praying ,and dancing is a program. I have other facets to my program: to help feed multitudes. I am working all the time at it. It has placed me under both strain and joy.

Lewis’ travels to the Far East were featured in a May 1957 article in the Marin County, California, newspaper, The San Rafael Independent Journal. Under the attention-grabbing headline, “Leaves as a Gardener, Comes Back a Dervish,” Lewis was described as a local gardener and horticulturist. The article goes on to say that:

Lewis avers that he is the first American ever admitted to the dervish orders, contending this was done as a result of his intense study of the orient together with his religious experience. The Chishti order, he explains is one using music, while the Naqshibandi can be described as “one having symbolic significance.”
And now, this horticulturist and dervish from India is again devoting part of his time to gardening, while he also prepares to lecture on his experiences.

In the 1960s, Sam Lewis, then known to his Sufi followers as Ahmed Murad Chisti, and to the California public as “Sufi Sam,” collaborated with Inayat Khan’s son, Pir Vilayat Khan, to create Sufi communities in the United States. As his group of disciples grew, Lewis noted that many of them were of Jewish origin, too.

With the emergence of the counterculture in the mid-1960s, Sam Lewis was well-situated, both geographically and ideologically, to influence it. Young people in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood joined the Dances of Universal Peace that Lewis and his young disciples put on in the neighborhood streets. His informal talks about religious experience drew many listeners. And Lewis’ message that all religions were aiming at the development of a higher consciousness found wide appeal among the young.

In 1967, at age 71, Lewis had a heart attack and was hospitalized for a few weeks. As he related to his disciples, “In the hospital, God came to me and said, ‘I make you spiritual teacher for the hippies.’”

I was living in California in early 1968 and witnessed the Dances of Universal Peace, some of which were held in Haight-Ashbury and others in Golden Gate Park. These were not really performances, but rather invitations to participate in the dances. When I joined in, I was reminded of the Hasidic dancing I participated in only a few years earlier in the courts of Brooklyn’s rebbes, but with one enormous difference: Among Hasidim, boys dance separately from girls, and the two genders are forbidden from dancing together, while in San Francisco the dancing was decidedly “mixed.”

In an Aug. 31, 1970, letter to his students, Lewis expressed his wish to facilitate Muslim-Jewish encounters. The Arab-Israeli conflict, he implied, was making such encounters difficult, if not impossible. He wrote, “My disciples and friends have already successfully programmed joint Israeli-Arab dinners. We have even been successful in getting young Jewish people to recite the kalama and Arabs to recite the shema. As I do not believe in any ethnocentric religion, and as I absolutely believe in theocentrism (and I think Moses did, too), I see no reason why we cannot put into practice, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’”

And in that same season, Lewis recorded this encounter in his diary: “Some time ago, a young man thought he would see a battle royale by introducing me to the Hasidic Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. We took one look at each other and there was a love-embrace.”

Soon Lewis and his students were invited to San Francisco’s House of Love and Prayer, founded by Shlomo Carlebach, the “singing rabbi.” For a synagogue, it was decidedly unconventional and countercultural. And unlike most conventional Jewish congregations of that period, the House encouraged encounters with the other emerging religious groups we now think of as “New Religions.” In early 1968, I visited the House on occasion, especially when Rabbi Carlebach was visiting from New York City. It was to this vibrant congregation that students of “Sufi Sam” were invited, welcomed, and embraced.

In a memoir, Samuel Lewis’ disciple Wali Ali Meyer wrote:

Lewis and Shlomo got together, I think it was probably at Sam’s home. And Sam said to Shlomo, “I have to tell you, I stole something from you!”
And Shlomo said, “What?”
He said, “This idea of using dance to bring all these people together in love and peace in our age!”
And Shlomo says, “Well, I stole it from the Ba’al Shem Tov!”

Meyer went on to say that “So as a force for love and peace, Shlomo deserves the credit for seeing … I mean he was the first one to get people up from just listening to lectures and doing various practices, to have to move their body and pray and make a body-prayer together, and sing and dance. I remember going over to the House of Love and Prayer with Sam and some disciples. There was a tremendous joy in the atmosphere.”

Lewis, following Inayat Khan’s teachings, succeeded in creating an American Sufism that was more universalist and inclusive than classical Sufism of Muslim tradition. This Sufism flourished in the second half of the 20th century and persists today. In the West, the movement is divided between those who emphasize the Islamic origins of Sufism and those who present Sufism as independent of Islam. To this attempted separation of Sufism and Islam, there were many vocal opponents among more traditional Muslim communities.

In 1971, as the result of a fall in his home, Sam Lewis died. The organization he founded to continue his work, Sufi Ruhaniat International, has flourished under the young leadership that he mentored in the 1960s and early ’70s. Some of its leaders, and many of the movement’s members, are Jews—and Sufis.

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.