The Life And Death Of A Spiritual Spy
Noor Inayat Khan, a young Sufi woman who became a British secret agent in WWII, is the subject of a haunting new book.
A little-known chapter of World War II history is revealed here on the role women played in the cause of freedom.
Journalist and author Arthur Magida’s true account of a spiritual and soft-spoken young Sufi woman who risked -- and ultimately gave -- her life to spy on the Nazis from behind enemy lines is more than a gripping biography. It’s a tribute to courage, selflessness and faith, one whose lessons resonate across the decades. It’s especially relevant today when heroism for a righteous cause is all too rare.
Magida, a friend and longtime colleague of mine at the Baltimore Jewish Times, first learned of Noor Inayat Khan by chance in 2012. As someone interested in both mysticism and World War II heroism, he spent the next six years immersed in her story.
During that time, through his remarkably extensive research here and in Europe, scores of interviews and many hours spent reading Noor’s personal writings, he was inspired by her “dignity and determination,” he told me. “I’m both sad and elated to have gotten to know her in ways that have changed my life.”
The result was Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris (W.W. Norton and Co.), and after reading this riveting account, I understood why Magida was transformed by this gentle soul whose devotion to help repair the world never wavered. Recently published in paperback, it is part true spy thriller and part exploration of how a devoted Sufi pacifist volunteered to join a secret British unit trained in espionage and sabotage, playing a significant role in the Allies’ surprise landing at Normandy.
‘Dangers To Overcome’
Noor was born in 1914 to an American mother and Indian Muslim father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was the major influence on her life. He was a poet, philosopher, musician and revered Sufi mystic whose teachings, which he brought to the West, focused on the universality of religions and the oneness of God.
Noor grew up in London and France, destined for the refined life of an artist. She studied composition for harp and piano at the Paris Conservatory and child psychology at the Sorbonne. As a young woman, she published stories for children in magazines and wrote a book of Buddhist-inspired children’s tales.
But the Nazi invasion of Europe changed her life. She was a devout disciple of her father, who preached harmony, nonviolence and brotherly love. But Noor absorbed as well his commitment to bravery and responsibility.
“I asked for strength, and God gave me difficulties to make me strong,” her father had written. “I asked for courage, and God gave me dangers to overcome.”
Another lesson from her father, who died when she was 13, was “not to neglect those who depend on you,” Magida explained, “and that duty is as sacred as religion.”
It was that sense of obligation that motivated Noor to serve in the war effort, but to do so without taking up arms. She reasoned that training to master the keys and codes of the radio telegraph -- sending vital messages of Nazi activity back to the British -- would allow her to remain true to her father as both a loyal Sufi and daughter, putting spirituality into action.
Indeed, her work literally and uncannily followed her father’s teaching that “the person who is in tune with the universe becomes like a radio receiver, through which the voice of the universe is transmitted.”
In Noor’s case, she transmitted messages to help silence the most powerful voice of evil in the universe.
Having fled to England from France when war broke out, she volunteered for the Strategic Operations Executive (SOE), a secret British World War II group that trained and placed agents behind enemy lines to aid local resistance movements and report back on enemy activity.
After months of intense training, Noor, operating under the code name Madeleine, became the only Sufi agent of the SOE and the first female radio operator to be flown from England to Nazi-occupied France.
Constantly on the move, she managed to evade the Germans for four months, during which she played a key role in diverting tens of thousands of German soldiers from Normandy prior to the allies’ surprise attack on D-Day.
Though Noor was offered an opportunity to return to England, she refused and chose to stay in France and continue her dangerous work. (Many SOE agents in France were either killed or captured during the war.)
Tragically, she was betrayed by a French woman, arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis. After two unsuccessful attempts to escape, she was sent to Dachau where, on Sept. 13, 1944, along with three other female British agents, she was tortured, shot and cremated.
She was 30 years old.
Magida said that writing about Noor’s death -- he describes four differing accounts of the details of her last days -- was particularly painful. “Though her story is tragic,” he said, “I attempted to focus on her courage, her stamina and the transcendental lessons of her life.”
Of paramount importance to her was “do not spare yourself from the work you must accomplish,” he noted. As a result of Noor’s influence, he said he tries to be more thankful. “And I tell myself that if she could forgive the woman who betrayed her, I can be more forgiving in my life.”
In a Yom Kippur talk he delivered at a Washington synagogue this year, Magida spoke of the parallels between the Sufi teachings that inspired Noor and traditional Jewish texts and values, including an emphasis on humility, empathy and discipline. Noor’s belief that “duty is as sacred as religion” echoes Abraham Joshua Heschel’s statement that “either we are a minister of the sacred or a slave to evil,” Magida noted.
Noor’s heroism did not go unnoticed.
A year after the war, France awarded her the Croix de Guerre Gold Star, its highest civilian award, noting that “nothing, neither her nationality nor the tradition of her family, obliged her to take her position in the war. She chose it.”
England followed suit in 1949, when Noor’s brother and sister received on her behalf the George Cross, the country’s highest medal for bravery.
Perhaps most meaningful, an annual Sufi memorial service for Noor was instituted in 2015 at the chapel of the Carmelite convent a few hundred feet from the crematorium at Dachau. Sister Irmengard, the mother superior, has said that she considers Noor a saint.
Magida attended the service when he was working on his book, and he was invited to speak at this year’s program, which was canceled due to Covid. He hopes to be present next year and to recite Kaddish -- a Jew honoring a Sufi at a Catholic convent. He told me that in his remarks, he plans to cite a Chasidic saying: “If you want to find sparks, sift through the ashes.”
“I know there are sparks there,” Magida said quietly. “I’ve been uplifted by Noor’s presence in my life and she will be with me for many years.”