The Inayati Order, formerly Sufiorder International, was founded by the Indian Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan in the USA and Europe at the beginnings of the 20th century (inayatiorder.org). What draws me especially to this order is its openness. Because of its Indian roots it has incorporated elements from Yoga and Buddhism, especially in breathing and meditation practices. Hazrat Inayat Khan, despite being a muslim, emphasized the equality of all confessions, and he created the ritual of the Universal Worship, which includes all major religions.
What is Sufism?
The term 'Sufi' normally is connected with Arabic suf, 'wool'. This is interpreted as a hint to the woolen clothes of many mystics, as sign for a simple life which is free from attachment to worldly things. But wool also can be seen as symbol for the prima materia, the raw material from which all life is formed and which has to be transformed (see for example Muhammad ibn Umail in his treatise Hall ar-Rumuz, 'Clearing of Enigmas').
Other authors try to connect the term with Arabic safa, 'purity'.
Many practices in Sufism aim to develop our capability to love and to open the heart chakra. We have to find and to unfold our true nature, and to realize our potentials in every day life. An important step on this path is the transformation of the nafs, literally meaning 'soul' or 'breath'. But in this context it is often translated as 'ego'. We have to refine and to unfold this ego, to overcome narrow-minded egoism and to understand life deeply, until we are able to love ourselves, the others and the whole world unconditionally. Then our nafs, which began as ego, becomes absolute soul.
Generally Sufism is seen as the mystic branch of Islam. But mysticism is the opposite of dogma. Mysticism means inner experience and the quest for truth and to learn to know oneself. It means to ask unorthodox and inconvenient questions. Therefore Sufis are unwanted or even persecuted in several Islamic countries.
Ever since Sufis were very open and tolerant. Already in the 12th century Sufimasters like Shihabuddin Suhrawardi held the view that there is a universal wisdom, a transcendent unity underlying the revelations of the different religions.
But I want to add, that also in Sufism there unfortunately exist some few groups with narrow and intolerant ideas. The Jewish mystic Friedrich Weinreb once said, that amongst spiritual oriented people we can find as many good and bad ones as in any other group of humans. And I think we should keep this in mind. This also helps us to stay humble, not feeling ourselves better than others. According to Hazrat Inayat Khan EVERY path leads to the ultimate goal. But it has more depth and beauty, and might be more effective, to go this path with an open heart.
Hazrat Inayat Khan and the role of women
Hazrat Inayat Khan (HIK) incorporates the Sufi tradition of openness and tolerance to a high degree. About a hundred years ago he introduced two fundamental innovations, writes Andrew Rawlinson (you find his article here). He separated Islam from Sufism, and he gave women - Western women - important positions in the Order. According to Rawlinson, these innovations made the Sufi Movement, how this order originally was called, a very Western organisation.
HIK's first mureed (disciple) was Rabia Martin, whom he met in 1910, immediately after his arrival in the USA. Two years later he appointed her as Murshida, which is the highest position under the Pir or leader of the Order. Also in Europe he only appointed women as Murshidas (Lucy Sharifa Goodenough, Sophia Saintsbury Green, Fazal Mai Egeling; read more about their life here).
But after his death on 5 february 1927 these women stayed disregarded as successors. Murshida Martin, who had been told in a letter from HIK that she would have to 'attend to my affairs in the West' after his death, came to Geneva expecting to become the leader of the Order, says Rawlinson. But she was refused, and HIK'S brother Maheboob Khan took over this position.
After this Martin went her own ways. One of her mureeds, Samuel Lewis, who was initiated personally by HIK in 1923, later founded the Ruhaniat Order.
Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan
It seems to have been the strategy of HIK to appoint several 'Protecters of the Message'. But it was his elder son Vilayat whom he wanted as his sucessor. When also Vilayat was denied as leader of the Sufi Movement, he founded the Sufi Order International.
Therefore we have three main branches in the Inayati-lineage. In 2006 the conflicts between Sufi Order and Ruhaniat were officially settled, and also the relationship to the Sufi Movement relaxed. Now all three main branches of the Inayati lineage, which developed different foci in the course of time, inseminate each other in a beautiful way.
It is a pity that this didn't happen earlier, because Pir Vilayat suffered a lot because of these quarrels. But perhaps this contributed to his development as one of the most unusual and impressive spiritual teachers. He never claimed to be perfect or inerrable. He was direct, authentic, humble. His view of the world was open. He cultivated contacts to like-minded spiritual personalities from different religions and was very eager to explore connections between science and mysticism. And like his father he was beaming with love for his fellow humans. You find more details in this profile of Pir Vilayat.