Samuel Leonard Lewis was born on October 18, 1896, to Jacob Lewis, a working class Jew from San Francisco who began at Levi Strauss as an elevator operator and ultimately became a senior executive of the company. His mother was the former Harriet Rosenthal. He once said, “My parents never forgave me for being conceived out of wedlock.” He was an unusual child, a child prodigy; his mother often claimed to have had a dream of the Prophet Samuel before the child’s birth and therefore gave him that name. But these unusual qualities did not endear him to his family. His father never could accept the otherworldly tendencies of his oldest son. He was angered time and again that Samuel was not interested in business, competition and material success.
This introverted and deeply studious young man, with his memories of previous lives and his mystical inclinations, graduated from San Francisco’s top high school, Lowell, with the highest grades in its history to that point. But his well-to-do family refused to send him to college. This family rejection and conflict was one of the crosses he had to bear until the end of his life. He achieved reconciliation with his father shortly before his death, and the small trust fund which his father then left him allowed him to take up college at a late date in his life (the 1940s). He continued to take college courses until his death in 1971; his passion for knowledge was inexhaustible.
He told his students on several occasions that it was his own family rejection which made him naturally sympathetic to the young people who came to him with similar problems in the last few years of his life. It was one of the ways God prepared him to be of help to others, he later came to believe. Through rejection after rejection in life he developed great patience and perseverance, until at the end of his life the flow of time and evolution began to catch up with him, especially in the persons of the youth of the late sixties. He repeated again and again the phrase of Christ: “The stone which is rejected is become the cornerstone.” He said that this was the ko-an for his life.
While he had “intimations of immortality” from early childhood and reported reading about psychic research at age 13, his mystical training was set into motion a few years later. In 1915, at the age of 18, he went to the Palace of Education at the World’s fair which was held in San Francisco. There he became acquainted with Theosophy, which teaches “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 ones only by sages and the illumined.” He felt in the depth of his being that this was true, and believed he had found the Way. He continued to read all the world’s scriptures voraciously. He was still living at home, something of a recluse. However, the teachings of the Theosophists proved to be only intellectual and he renewed his search.
In November 1919, he saw a display of books while walking on Sutter Street. He was unaware of how, but soon he was upstairs facing a little dark-haired lady. She was Jewish. “You can explain the Kabbalah?” he asked. “Yes and all religions.” “What is Sufism?” “Sufism is the essence of all religions. It has been brought to the West by Hazrat Inayat Khan.” The woman was Murshida Rabia A. Martin, Inayat Khan’s senior disciple, and his first appointed Murshida.
Shortly after this, Samuel formally began his study of Zen, meeting the Zen teacher Reverend M.T. Kirby, and then Nyogen Senzaki, a disciple of the Rinzai Abbot Shaku Soyen. With these developments, his study of religion took a much deeper turn.
In June of 1923, he had a vision of the arrival of Hazrat Inayat Khan and an experience of mystical mergence with him. The next day at noon, the summer solstice, he was summoned to meet the Pir-o-Murshid. Samuel walked into the room, only to see a tremendous light. “Come, don’t be afraid,” said the Murshid. He took initiation, and was loyal to his teacher through thick and thin for the rest of his life: “Inayat Khan was the first person to ever touch my heart.” Thereafter, he introduced Rinzai Zen master Nyogen Senzaki and Hazrat Inayat Khan, who, according to Senzaki’s account, “entered Samadhi together.”
Samuel began to write poetry and numerous essays on religious themes. His being was beginning to ferment. His behavior patterns became stranger and even more difficult for his family to understand; his health began to deteriorate. In 1925, he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. By his own report he went into the wilderness to die. This was on land in Fairfax, California, owned by Murshida Martin, dedicated to the Sufi work and called Kaaba Allah. He was guided to make a khilvat or spiritual retreat. In the midst of it, the legendary Khwaja Khizr appeared and offered him the gift of music or poetry. He chose poetry. Khizr appeared again the next night. And then all the Prophets of God appeared in vision; Elijah presents him with a robe, and Mohammed appears to him as the Seal of the Prophets. For the next 45 years until his death he never questioned the validity of these experiences.
He remained silent about them until Hazrat Inayat Khan’s return to America in 1926, when he sought an interview and told the Sufi master of his experiences. Inayat Khan summoned him to return for five more interviews and gave him tremendous responsibilities for the Sufi work. He made him “Protector of the Message.” During the course of these interviews, Inayat Khan yelled at him that he had not as many trustworthy disciples as he had fingers on one hand. This yell literally knocked Sam over, and he later said that it was at this moment that he received the full transmission of Baraka (love-blessing-magnetism) from his teacher. It was to be, he later declared, the strength for his whole life.
Hazrat Inayat Khan read Samuel’s early efforts at spiritual commentary, and told him that he should be a leader in the Brotherhood work, particularly in efforts to build a bridge of communication between the mystics and the intellectuals. Inayat Khan had Samuel and Paul Reps take a special pledge to protect and be loyal to Rabia Martin. Hazrat Inayat Khan died the following year, and the Sufi Movement, which he had established, became divided by politics.
In 1930, three years after his passing, Hazrat Inayat Khan appeared to Samuel in vision and exerted pressure upon his crown center. From then on Samuel received communications from Inayat. He wrote lesson paper after paper for the Sufi mureeds. He wrote numerous commentaries on the esoteric teachings of the Pir-o-Murshid which he continued to write until his death, often rewriting them three or four times. The 1930s and 1940s are a fertile period for his, particularly the prophetic types of materials which were all that survived a fire at Kaaba Allah in 1949.
During the 1930’s, Samuel also spent time in Los Angeles with Luther Whiteman, collaborating on the book Glory Roads, a classic study of Utopian movements in the state of California, and conducting what they called “propaganda analysis.” He had become more involved with social issues. He lived for a time at the bohemian community called the Dunes in Oceano. He was still a celibate, “not by choice but by fate”; he rarely even touched a woman and never men.
Mostly, he lived at Kaaba Allah, and he stayed there throughout the depression years. He had no salary; his work was as a gardener and groundskeeper. He lived off the land. Murshida Martin appointed him as her Khalif (representative) and he bore much of the responsibility for running the Sufi Khankah for many years. Murshida Martin used Samuel as her foil for making her claim to succession, and had him write numerous letters to Sufi Movement headquarters in Europe. Even on her deathbed many years later, she refused to release him from his pledge.
As the years went on, and her organizational ends were not realized, their differences increased. He was being taken through inner initiations all the time and his outer behavior patterns reflected this inner intoxication. There was no one around to be his teacher. He took the spiritual name Murad, meaning one who receives by Grace.
The outbreak of World War II found him working as a historical consultant and secretary for Army Intelligence (G2). His immediate superior Colonel Edward Landsdale told him to burn all his diaries of this period. “This was easy because nobody believed me anyway,” he said later. He was fighting the war in the inner planes, and his diaries chronicled this.
After the war years, Murshida Martin appointed Mrs. Ivy Duce as her successor, a person no one in the Sufi organization knew, and bypassed Samuel who had been her chief representative for years. Mrs. Duce decided to turn everything over to the teacher Meher Baba, and the movement so organized came to be known as Sufism Reoriented. Samuel tried to accept this out of loyalty; he went to the center in South Carolina where he gardened and lived as a beachcomber.
Finally after two years trying to maintain this loyalty he was given a vision of the grand mosque of the heavens where Jesus sweeps the floors, Mohammed takes up the shoes, and a certain person went around demanding and demanding from others. That vision allowed him to leave his organizational affiliation. He collected one box of his multitudinous writings from the office and left Kaaba Allah for the last time. It burned down the next day. He was wrongfully accused of causing the fire and found himself disgraced, penniless, and broken. The sacred writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan were withheld from him.
Around this time he received a vision from Jesus Christ of how to bring peace in Palestine. He went to school, took odd jobs, had some very small allowance from his family, did many spiritual practices, wrote copiously, worked with orphaned children, took up horseback riding, folk dancing, ornamental horticulture, and worked with road crews planting shrubs and flowers.
In 1956, Samuel made his first trip to Asia and was accepted everywhere. He was recognized by spiritual teachers of all schools. After this, he took up many world projects. In 1961, he made his second trip abroad. He studied and taught Sufism in the East. Among other recognitions, he was made a Murshid in the Chisti Order of Sufis, the parent school of Hazrat Inayat Khan. He actively worked distributing different kinds of seeds around the world and developing solutions to world food problems. In 1963, he returned to the United States.
In 1966, he began to attract a few young disciples. The following year he landed flat on his back in the hospital where according to his repeated report, God came to him and appointed him “Spiritual Leader of the Hippies.” This was something he did not expect, but soon young people began to flock to his door.
He found the family he never had. At the end of his life he was hugging and kissing men and women all the time. He originated the Dances of Universal Peace and dedicated them to the Temple of Understanding which was committed, as was Hazrat Inayat Khan, to providing a house of prayer for all peoples. These dances, which take sacred phrases from all the world’s religions, have since spread worldwide. He originated the work of the Sufi Choir and instituted spiritual instruction through music. He credited his “fairy godmother” Ruth St. Denis with his ability to draw Dance forms out of the cosmos and for his inspiration to teach through the Walk.
In 1968, he joined forces with Pir Vilayat Khan, the eldest son of his first teacher, and there followed a great flowering of the Sufi work in the United States. Murshid Sufi Ahmed Murad Chisti, as Samuel is now known, appointed his own spiritual successor, Moineddin Jablonski, from among his disciples, named several Sheikhs and Khalifs. In December 1970, a fall down the stairs of his San Francisco home gave him a brain concussion, and after two and a half weeks in the hospital he died on January 15, 1971. His work is carried on and spread by his energetic and devoted disciples.
“For years,” Samuel said about himself, “I followed a Gandhian attitude, always yielding, and got nothing for it. When once I was able to be firm and take the path of the master, everything came my way.” The events of the last years of Murshid Sam’s life were so full they deserve a chronicle all their own. This brief biographical sketch focuses on less-known periods of his early life. At the end, all the seeds of his earlier efforts and experiences came to fruition. Not knowing how to face all this abundance, he received the Divine instruction: “Harvest what you can, and leave the rest to Me.”
—Murshid Wali Ali Meyer