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Three Windows on Prophecy

An omnibus review of Song of the Prophets: The Unity of Religious Ideals by Hazrat Inayat Khan (Omega Publications, 2009), The Avatars: A Futurist Fantasy by A.E. (Coracle Press, 2007), and The Book from the Sky by Robert Kelly (North Atlantic Books, 2008)

Every prophet is a mystic, but not every mystic is a prophet. The mystic ascends the cosmic mountain and descends with a secret. The prophet too ascends and descends the mountain. But what the prophet brings down is not a secret; it is a message.


The Qur’an affirms that God has sent prophets to all people (10:47) and calls for an impartial acceptance of them all (2:136). On this basis, Sufis have historically adopted a positive view of the prophetic sources of the religions they encountered. For instance, an 18th-century Indian Naqshbandi shaykh wrote: “The Holy Qur’an says that there are some prophets about whom information has been imparted to you, while there are others about whom you have not been furnished any particular. Therefore, when the Holy Qur’an has preferred to remain silent about many, it is incumbent on us to adopt a liberal attitude with regard to the prophets of India.”1

Although the history of Sufism affords many examples of noteworthy liberality, generally Sufis have not expressed their ecumenism in comprehensive, systematic terms. There are, however, significant exceptions. In the pre-modern period, one might cite Dara Shikuh, the Mughal crown prince who initiated a groundbreaking intellectual dialogue between Sufism and Vedanta.2 In the modern period, Sufi ecumenism found a clear and cogent voice in Hazrat Inayat Khan—most notably in his Song of the Prophets.3

Many of the lectures that make up Song of the Prophets were originally delivered as sermons for a service known as Universal Worship, an interfaith ritual created by Hazrat and some of his leading followers in London in the aftermath of the First World War. The service involves prayers, the lighting of candles on an altar, and the reading of scriptures from each of the world’s great religious traditions.

Europe emerged from the Great War in a mood of profound self-criticism, its intelligentsia riveted by the idea of a crisis of civilization. A whole generation of young men had perished in the trenches, and with them seemed to die the infallible authority of rational progress and its major manifestations: materialist science, militant nationalism and imperialism. 

The moment was ripe for messianism, and indeed many of Hazrat’s leading followers were self-described messianists. They expected Hazrat to reveal himself as the prophet of a new religion. This he would not do. And yet, like them, he believed that a large-scale shift in consciousness, a “wave of illumination,” was imminent.

The shift that Hazrat envisioned was a move from religious exclusivism to a planetary perspective of the sacred. Hazrat asserts that what is needed in the present epoch is not a new religion, but “the religion.”  The religion is the sum of all religions. In the way that notes combine to form music or organs to form a body, the various religions of the world are parts of a single whole, the universal wisdom that belongs to all of humanity.

The first section of Song of the Prophets articulates Hazrat’s universal vision of religion. A brief but illuminating chapter is devoted to the various aspects of prayer: thanksgiving, repentance, supplication, invocation, and communion. The second section of the book concerns the God-Ideal, the divine image configured in the worshipper’s heart. Although this image is a product of the believer’s imagination, imagination proves to be a powerful and penetrating faculty of perception when the full force of the awakening heart is behind it. The third section deals with the Spiritual Hierarchy and includes several chapters describing the inner state of the soul of the prophet. The fourth and final section consists of sketches of the lives and teachings of Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Abraham, Moses, Zarathustra, Jesus, and Muhammad.


The Qur’an refers to Muhammad as “the seal of the prophets” (33:40). Most Muslims understand this to mean that there will be no prophets after him. The Sufis grant this, yet maintain that prophetic inspiration nonetheless continues, only under different designations. Ibn al-‘Arabi asserts that while legislative prophecy is finished, “general” prophecy survives. Rumi contends that, “the intrinsic meaning of prophetic inspiration is present even though it may not be called by that name.”4

As a Sufi, Hazrat was averse to talk of new prophets and new religions. Not all of his mystically minded contemporaries shared his reservations however. While Hazrat was giving the lectures compiled in Song of the Prophets, Annie Besant, the president of the Theosophical Society, was preparing Jiddu Krishnamurti to become the prophet of the age, the “World-Teacher.”

In 1929 Krishnamurti formally renounced the assignment that had been imposed on him. Thus ended Theosophy’s messianic dream. Or did it? In 1933, the year of Besant’s death, the Irish poet and Theosophist A.E. (George Russell) published a remarkable novel entitled The Avatars: A Futurist Fantasy. The novel concerns the advent of two prophetic figures (Avatars) and the whorl of spiritual speculation that follows in their wake.

The difference between Besant’s messianism and A.E.’s is a difference between prose and poetry, or between doctrine and myth. A.E.’s Avatars have no institutional backing. Wild and free, their footsteps hardly seem to touch the ground.

The book’s protagonists are a group of “spiritual anarchists, pagan poets and vagabond idealists” who have fled the city and formed a loose-knit utopia in the hills. (Hakim Bey’s idea of the TAZ, or temporary autonomous zone, comes to mind.) The substance of the novel is made up of the esoteric musings of these good-natured bohemians.  

Entering A.E.’s world is like walking into a Nicholas Roerich painting. Numinous lights gleam through amethyst landscapes, the earth breath visibly rising in “serrations of flame about the sacred mountain.” The animate Earth, “unfallen nature,” is the living ground upon which all action occurs.

In truth, there is little action in this dreamlike novel. The plot is driven largely by rumored sightings of the two Avatars of the title, the queen-like Aoife and the Fairy Fiddler Aodh.  In the end, the book resolves itself into a Socratic dialogue on the meaning of their advent. Did they come to demonstrate freedom, to reveal the music in the nature of things, to teach men and women true companionship? No answer can be definitive, as the Avatars left no gospel behind. “Whatever has been told about them, all that is wonderful, has come from vision or intuition of the onlooker.”

In the preface, A.E. complains, “I have, I fear, delayed too long the writing of this, for as I grow old the moon of fantasy begins to set confusedly with me. The Avatars has not the spiritual gaiety I desired for it.” This self-deprecating appraisal may be part of the reason A.E.’s visionary masterpiece has languished in neglect until now. Coracle Press is to be heartily commended for bringing The Avatars back into the light of day.


In ancient times, the prophet was conceived as an interlocutor with angels. The Ptolemaic universe was populated with multitudinous celestial intelligences, each star the body of an angelic light. For the modern imagination, the night sky harbors a different mystery: not angels, but aliens. As Jung recognized, the flying saucer is the great mythic image of our time.

In The Book from the Sky, the acclaimed poet (and friend of Seven Pillars) Robert Kelly explores the messianic possibilities that might follow from an alien abduction. Young Billy is carried off in a flying saucer and surgically cleaved in two, one half of his divided self restored to Earth and the other educated on a distant planet. Years later the latter half, now known as Brother William, returns as an emissary of the Superior Race, “to save Earth and its people from the overweening Public Dream of the Americans, the unconscious imperial impulse.”

Brother William’s gospel, A Book from the Sky, consists of a series of enigmatic aphorisms after the fashion of Heraclitus’s fragments. Each aphorism begins with the quaint endearment “Darling.” The revelatory source of these sayings is apparently the sky itself. Sky gazing was part of Billy’s off-world Inner Education. In the person of Brother William, he instructs his followers in the practice of “sky licking,” which involves looking at the sky while massaging the roof of the mouth with the tip of the tongue.

Robert Kelly’s novel is funny, tender and wise, as is the space-age gospel it contains. Brother William’s aphorisms reward contemplation. Here is one you might try: 

“Darling, what we give each other comes from nowhere, and the more we give, the more nowhere floods into somewhere. When we have given everything away, the world is complete.”



1 Mohammad Umar, Islam in Northern India During the Eighteenth Century, p. 527.

2 See especially his Majma‘ al-bahrayn, ed. and trans. M. Mahfuz-ul-Haq.

3 First published in 1927 as The Unity of Religious Ideals.

4 Rumi, Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jelaluddin Rumi, trans. Wheeler M. Thackston, Jr., p. 135.

Comments (8)
  • Thank you for the inspiring review of these books.  My sons both like Avatars in other context thus getting these to read and pass on is very tempting.

    — Amina Ashla on September 7, 2009

  • Aren’t all Prophets essentially the Seal of the Prophets.  Didn’t Muhammad say that He as all the Prophets? In a sense, the Prophets are all the same Spirit, no?  And can we not see that this Age is ripe for a Prophet?

    — Jay Bender on October 6, 2009

  • How might the gift of prophecy help us in these troubled times?

    — Jay Bender on October 15, 2009

  • many thanks for reviewing these three fascinating works—and revealing their deeper, mystical connections to one another.

    — orlando on October 19, 2009

  • Dear Jay,

    Prophecy may help in these times by providing unwavering, mutually understandable, guidance. If people hear wisdom, they respond.

    — L.Larrabee on October 21, 2009

  • Wow, that’s great! It’s wonderful that someone made this amazing blog. Please check this another wonderful site that defined “the prophet” for the modern era. This has made his journey unique: a journey that has taken his inspired message to schools and colleges, churches and synagogues, alleyways and prison cells.

    — Abigael on November 17, 2009

  • Wow! This Blog is great. Just like Kim Clement. Kim Clement is an expression that has defined “the prophet” for the modern era. This has made his journey unique; a journey that has taken his inspired message to schools and colleges, churches and synagogues, alleyways and prison cells. Kim’s prophetic gift is a magnet that has drawn a broad audience, as he has whispered to kings and inspired prisoners, his path through life continues to be an exciting adventure.

    — Abigael on November 19, 2009

  • Wow! This Blog is great. Just like Kim Clement. Kim Clement is an expression that has defined “the prophet” for the modern era. This has made his journey unique; a journey that has taken his inspired message to schools and colleges, churches and synagogues, alleyways and prison cells. Kim’s prophetic gift is a magnet that has drawn a broad audience, as he has whispered to kings and inspired prisoners, his path through life continues to be an exciting adventure.

    — Abigael on November 27, 2009

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