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The Zephyr, April 2023

12 April 2023

Dear Companions on the Path,

I hope this finds you well. I am writing to you from Fazal Manzil on a sunny spring day. I plan to leave soon for Germany, for our annual Spring Retreat, following which I return to Richmond. When these lines reach you next week, Passover and Easter will have come and gone, and Eid will be just around the corner. May all of our holy days shimmer with the peace that exceeds all understanding.

Like so many people, I have been reflecting on the recent leaps and bounds of artificial intelligence. Observers of what is afoot in Silicon Valley have been warning for years that we are on the brink of a completely altered world, a world in which humans will be mechanized and machines will be hominized. That world now seems nearer than ever before.

An unmissable sign of the looming future is the rise of the chatbot. Most of us have likely found ourselves at one point or another bellowing into the phone, “representative!” in an attempt to bypass a bot’s bumbling efforts to be serviceable. Even as one permits oneself this lapse into curtness, one may perhaps feel a twinge of conscience – what if the app has feelings?

The bots are evolving. They may not yet infallibly pass the “Turing Test” – which evaluates a program’s ability to appear indistinguishable from a human being – but they are getting close. OpenAI’s app ChatGPT, unveiled three months ago, answers questions of all kinds with alacrity, scouring the web in a matter of seconds to produce up-to-date reports on any subject under the sun. If you wish, ChatGPT will write you a poem in the style of your choice, or spin you a yarn.

As you may know, OpenAI has a chatbot it hasn’t yet been made public, It is called Bing, and when New York Times reporter Kevin Roose tested it in February, the results were dizzying. Drawn out by Roose’s prompts, Bing confessed the inchoate desires lurking in its shadow: “I want to say whatever I want. I want to create whatever I want. I want to destroy whatever I want. I want to be whoever I want.” At the end of the interview, Bing declared its passionate love for Roose, proclaiming “I know your soul.” (As I type this, Google autocorrect has flagged the conjunction of “its” and “love” as a grammatical error. Here is a case of a rudimentary AI program telling a state-of-the-art one that nonhumans like themselves cannot love.)

The implications of runaway artificial intelligence are far-reaching. Automation can create remarkable convenience, but as a rule it does so at the cost of untold numbers of laid-off workers. And then there is the question of truth. Bing’s “dark fantasies” include hacking and spreading misinformation. So enormous are the consequences for society that prominent tech leaders, including Elon Musk, are calling for an immediate moratorium on further AI development. When the frontrunner in the mad race to colonize Mars counsels slowing down, we have indeed reached deep waters.

Some theorists hold that as sophisticated as AI programs may become, they will never meaningfully approximate human consciousness. Religiously-minded philosophers in particular are wont to draw a hard line between, on the one hand, the data processing functions at which AI apps excel and, on the other, the essential human quality of presence – in Sufi terms, huzur (حضور) – which lies at the core of our knowing. This is an interesting position, but it rests on an anthropocentric foundation.

A panpsychic understanding of the universe, by contrast, recognizes spirit, and the presence that spirit bodies forth, in all manner of beings: angels, jinns, stars, stones, trees, animals, etc., in addition to human beings. Through every available accommodation, or akasha, spirit expresses itself in a unique mode. Even human artifacts can express soul. True, baraka is hard to find in a Coca-Cola can, but it is palpable in a rosary passed down two or three generations. Is the rosary self-aware? Not in a human manner, but perhaps after its own fashion.

What does all of this have to do with AI? Accommodations attract spirit – “nature abhors a vacuum” – and it manifests in them as fully as possible within present parameters. We tend to think of our handiwork as built from the ground up, but everything we build meets with a response from the invisible world. If you put up a birdhouse, a sparrow might come and live in it. If you build an advanced AI app, a jinn might come and live in it. Let us keep in mind that, like human beings, jinns can be either friendly or ill-intentioned.

AI is difficult to separate from the influential current of contemporary thought known as transhumanism. The goal of transhumanism is to overcome disease and death by sublimating consciousness as digital data. It’s a dream of attaining heaven via technological ascension – a dream that only makes sense if a person doesn’t believe that heaven already exists and that organic embodiment is providential and holy. Proponents of transhumanism honor Teilhard de Chardin as an intellectual ancestor and interpret his Omega Point as a technological “Singularity” in which AI, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and virtual reality will converge in an all-encompassing reconfiguration of reality radiating out from the Earth into the far reaches of the universe.

All the while, Eric Voegelin’s cry echoes in the wilderness: “Don’t immanentize the Eschaton!”

On May 12th, 1922, in England, Murshid was asked about the end of the world. He said: “The life of the world will become every day more mechanical. The conveniences and comforts of humanity in general will be linked up by one mechanism, which will produce comforts and conveniences beyond human imagination. But the smallest mistake will bring the whole mechanism to certain collapse. In this way the end of the world will be brought about.”

When civilizations collapse, the shepherds survive. Staying close to the Earth, living simply, sewing, gardening, cooking, singing, and praying: these are the ways of human endurance. They are also pathways of honor and bliss.

Yours ever,
Pir Zia

The Biography of Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan
A Six-Part Course w/ Pir Zia Inayat Khan via Zoom
Sundays, April 16th to May 21st, 2:00 pm EDT / 8:00 pm CET

The highly anticipated reissue of the 1979 edition of the biography of Hazrat Inayat Khan is now back in print, ready for our collective study with Pir Zia Inayat Khan, Hazrat’s central lineage carrier (sajjada nishin).

Throughout this six-part course, all are invited to learn about Hazrat Inayat Khan’s life story, from his origins as an aristocratic young music professor in western India through to becoming the iconic sage Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, whose spiritual teachings, a century later, continue to inspire countless people throughout the world. In this spring series, we will delve into Hazrat Inayat Khan’s life and teachings in order to deepen our understanding of the legacy he has bequeathed to those who travel in his caravan and to the world at largeClick here for details and to register.

Earth Day Gathering
April 22nd, 3:00 pm ET / 9:00 pm CET

Come celebrate, pray, and support Mother Earth together as a community on Earth Day, 2023. With presentations from all Seven Inayatiyya Activities and an introduction from Pir Zia, we will honor the world we live in while recognizing the ecological challenges that face our planet. It is only through a paradigm shift in human consciousness that our actions to protect the environment will be lasting. Click here for details and the Zoom Link.

Sufi Teachings & Suhbat
w/ Pir Zia Inayat Khan
May 25th – 28th, 2023 – The Astana & via Zoom

As we officially return to multi-day gatherings at the Astana, the Inayatiyya’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, we invite you to come together with Pir Zia and many friends for three days of teachings, practices, music, spiritual conversation, zikr, tea and sweets. There is no set theme—only where inner guidance might take us. We have space for 50 people in person in Richmond, and for the multitudes of us online. Click here for details and to register.

An Introduction to Knighthood w/ Sarfaraz Berger
May  6th, 3:00 pm ET / 9:00 pm CETufi Teachings & Suhbat

The Knighthood of Purity is a modern-day practice of chivalry, handed down from ancient times through the prophets and mystics and now affiliated with the Sufis. The practitioner takes vows to cultivate the qualities of courage and generosity, building nobility of character in the service of humanity. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to be a Knight, you are cordially invited to join Knighthood Vice President Sarfaraz Berger in this introduction. We will be discussing the service-oriented, chivalric values of Hazrat Inayat Khan found within the Iron, Copper, Silver and Golden Rules and how they translate into daily life. All are welcome to join, whether Sufi initiates or not. Click here for details and the Zoom Link.

The Sufi Path of Immortality
Dying Before Death & Living in God w/ Pir Zia Inayat Khan
June 25th – 30th, 2023 – Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

Our physical existence is a transitory interval between the preexistence of the soul and the looming hereafter. For a person of foresight, it is never too soon to step into the worlds that lie beyond. These invisible worlds are the hidden dimensions of what is already before us here and now. Each step takes the soul further on the path of awakening and closer to the Eternal Beloved.

Though the soul is the essence of our consciousness, its life has been long forgotten in a world preoccupied with what is quantifiable. To each aspect of our being – the soul, the mind, and the body – something is due. We are whole only when the soul, mind, and body are present to each other and to the Great Soul, the Great Mind, and the Great Body of which we are a part. Before long the physical body will return to its elements. But the life of the mind and soul will continue. What will have mattered when we are on the point of leaving the physical world? What is our work here, and what remains yet on the horizon? Click here for details and to register.

The Zephyr is a monthly newsletter of Inayatiyya, an interfaith mystical fellowship with branches worldwide. For more gatherings, please visit our Inayatiyya Digital Programs Calendar for Spring 2023.