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Spirituality in Action: A Discussion on Noor Inayat Khan, Sufism, and Resistance

“Noorunnissa means light among women. Noor was a light, not just amongst women, but amongst humanity.” -Arthur J. Magida

On December 1, ICJS Muslim Scholar Zeyneb Sayilgan joined Arthur J. Magida in a webinar discussion about his latest book, Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-occupied Paris. Magida is an award-winning journalist, a former professor at Georgetown University and the University of Baltimore, and an author of numerous books dealing with religion and spirituality.

This conversation focused on the life of Noor Inayat Khan, a young Muslim Sufi woman who served as a British spy in the French Resistance, and who was subsequently executed at the Dachau concentration camp for her actions. The daughter of Hazrat Inayat Khan—who Magida describes as ”an essential spiritual teacher of the twentieth century”—Noor was an example of embodied faith that still speaks to us today.

As a spy in Britain’s top-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the early 1940s, Noor was stationed in occupied France where she organized cells, invigorated the Resistance, and shepherded Allied pilots to safety—all while constantly on the run from the Gestapo. As a committed and practicing Sufi, one of Noor’s greatest challenges as a spy was her inability to lie, a challenge that makes her struggle all the more impressive. And yet, as a spy without the main tool of the trade, Noor outlasted her fellow operatives before being captured in October 1943.

Sufism, considered Islamic mysticism, is characterized by a deep commitment to asceticism and spirituality. Sufis are guided by the Prophet Muhammad, who is viewed as the living example of Quranic teachings. . Known for bringing Sufism from India to Europe, Noor’s father Inayat taught his children that “true spirituality is being of service to those next to you.” This sense of devotion to a greater cause—which reminded Magida of the  Hebrew notion of tikkun olam (literally, to repair the world)—instilled in the young Noor a lifelong commitment to collective wellbeing and fighting injustices wherever they arose.

Noor’s religious devotion and altruism—the internalized spirituality of Sufism that she learned at an early age—continued to shine. Guided by her disciplined faith and courageous selflessness, Noor embodied spirituality in action. Even as she was held and tortured as a prisoner of war, she followed the Chivalric Rules composed by her father to the tee: “Do not neglect those who depend upon you;” “Make no false claims;” “Do not spare yourself in the work which you must accomplish.”

Noor attempted self-liberation numerous times before being transported to Dachau. As Magida recounts, “She tried to escape a few hours [after her capture in October ’43]. About six weeks later, she tried to escape again. This is from a Gestapo prison literally in the center of Paris. This time, the Germans sent her to a brutal prison. They’d had their fill of Noor in Paris. For 10 months, she was chained foot-to-foot, wrist-to-wrist in solitary and almost starved.” 

When asked, during the question-and- answer period, how his study into the life of Noor Inayat Khan changed him personally, Magida told of his inspiration to live with forgiveness, acceptance, and the hope of being a better person, as modeled by Noor 

“I’m deeply indebted to Noor and, yes, I have finished the book, but I have not finished with Noor. Nor do I believe she has finished with me,” Magida said.