We sat in a circle in the large hall, some thirty of us, brought there by curiosity and following the gentle guidance of the American sheikha and her two assistants, dark-haired young women with a somewhat exotic Middle Eastern look. Then, still guided by this exotic trio, we began to sway from side to side, while they chanted something in another language that we took to mean “God is great,” perhaps accompanied by a litany of divine names. Next, they rose, we rose, and without speaking a word they showed us a simple dance step that we then did, clumsily at first and then deftly, while they continued to chant. Then, always guided by our mentors, we began to move in a circle, hand in hand, repeatedly turning our head to the left and then to the right, while the three of them stood in the center of the circle, still chanting fervently. We were told that any of us, if so inclined, could join them in the center of the circle, but none of us, new to the ceremony, was so presumptuous.
So it went for I don’t know how long; we were totally immersed in the moment, unaware of the passage of time. When at last the dance was ended, and we returned to the ordinary world of time and schedules and obligations, it was a dismaying comedown. Yet throughout the occasion I knew that, with the best intentions, we were play-acting, while the three of them were totally and passionately involved. They had shown us what true commitment was.
So ended, back in the mid-1990s, my first and only nibble at the feast of Sufism, my brief immersion in its flood of joy. Richard Pierce, the founder and guiding light of the Whole Foods Project, which back in that time of AIDS advocated a nutritional approach to health and healing, was in the habit of following his biweekly vegan meals at a church on West 73rd Street with a demonstration of some kind of alternative approach to mental and physical wellbeing. On this occasion he had invited Sheikha Fariha al-Jerrahi, the head of a Sufi order in TriBeCa in Lower Manhattan, to come and let us participate in a genuine Sufi act of worship. No, I didn’t become a Sufi, but the experience taught me that there is more to Sufism than the whirling dervishes of legend; it was a memorable occasion and I still recall it vividly.
The 1990s in New York were still experiencing a kind of spillover from the New Age explorations of the 1960s and later, as people – some people – groped toward new forms of spiritual development and worship. Zen converts meditated; a friend of mine went deep into Transcendental Meditation; young Hare Krishnas, orange-robed with shaven heads, beat their drums and chanted in public; pseudo-ascetics fasted and hoped for visions; and I attended a wedding where a with-it Catholic priest deformalized the ceremony to the point of clapping his hands gently while a dancer pranced and whirled about, spraying incense in the air. At loose spiritual ends, we were all trying to hitchhike to paradise, and Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, was one of many vehicles that we hoped might get us there.
My own stab at paradise had come years before by means of peyote buttons imported – quite legally, back then – from the Rio Grande valley, nibbling whose bitter flesh, sweetened by me with fistfuls of raisins, had indeed induced visions whose Technicolor marvels had immersed me – for a while – in a state of quiet exaltation and joy. By the 1990s I had long since given peyote up, not because it was now illegal, but because the experience had a certain artificial quality and in time became repetitious. I wanted no more aching eyeballs and artificial paradises; I wanted to experience miracles in the “real” world (whatever that is), in the wonders of nature and the ecstasies of music and art and poetry. From then on it was no to cacti, yes to warblers and wilderness and slime molds, and to Van Gogh and Rimbaud and Richard Strauss.
But some of my friends took the Sufi route. One – I’ll call him Ben – communed with Sheikha Fariha and her followers and acquired a Sufi name, and then felt drawn to another Sufi sheikh, a charismatic visitor from Illinois, who gave him a different Sufi name. This was one Sufi name – and teacher -- too many, for Ben sensed a certain rivalry between the two. Aware of an unspoken tension, he finally asked the sheikha what the problem was. She replied that the sheikh’s luring away some of her students was an offense against adab, or “etiquette,” the courtesy and respect that students owe to their sheikh, to each other, to other sheiks, and to everyone. “If I invite you as a guest into my home,” she said, “I share my home and my meals with you, but not my spouse” – a rather perceptive and discreet response, in my opinion. The visiting sheikh had violated this principle, though his take was different: “The rose can’t help it,” he insisted, “if its scent draws the lovers.”
Ben was so taken with this rose’s scent that he, along with several friends, followed him to Illinois and joined his community. In Sufism Ben had found an intensely emotional, poetic, and musical path – mystical, as opposed to legalistic and doctrinal – that appealed to him immensely, and his relationship with the sheikh was close. In this Sufi community the sheikh had absolute authority. When one of his followers showed up in a shiny new truck that he was obviously proud of, the sheikh ordered him to exchange it with the decrepit old vehicle that another of his followers possessed. This surprised and angered the man with the truck, but he stifled his anger and obeyed. Then, after a month, having made his point about not being possessed by things, the sheikh had the two exchange vehicles again, so that the truck owner got back his shiny truck.
At first the sheikh encouraged a lively discussion, and even argument, about spiritual matters, but over the four years Ben communed with him the sheikh became more conservative and autocratic; the rose grew thorns. Tolerant initially regarding gay people, he later began ordering marriages between LGBTQ followers and heterosexuals, at which point Ben, disillusioned, left the community. Angry, the sheikh told Ben that Ben would die if he left. Ben still had friends in the community, and from them he learned that, after his departure, the sheikh told his followers that Ben was an example of the worst that can happen to a man. For all his holiness, the sheikh obviously nourished an untamed ego. But Ben’s time there wasn’t wasted; he told me later that he learned a great deal from that experience, and even more from separating himself from the sheikh.
As for Sheikha Fariha, Ben later asked her to preside over his same-sex wedding in Massachusetts, and she did, taking him, his partner, and their hundred guests into a deep spiritual appreciation of the moment. He hasn’t seen her since but remembers her as a gentle, warm, humorous teacher who emphasizes love, compassion, and forgiveness.
I myself didn’t become a Sufi, but I did become a devotee of a Sufi poet, Rumi. Reading him in translation, I’m sure I miss a lot, but much of the content still comes through, and I can see why, in a secular but spiritual-hungry age, he has become literary hot stuff and, that rarity in the U.S., a best-selling poet. Here is an excerpt from a volume that a friend gave me.
Close your mouth against food.
Taste the lover’s mouth in yours.
You moan, “She left me.” “He left me.”
Twenty more will come.
Be empty of worrying.
Think of who created thought!
Why do you stay in prison
When the door is so wide open?
Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
Live in silence.
Flow down and down in always
Widening rings of being.
And another excerpt:
Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy
Absentminded. Someone sober
Will worry about things going badly.
Let the lover be.
There is much about love and lovers in Rumi, as well as wine and music and God. And who was he? A thirteenth-century sheikh, religious scholar, and Sufi mystic born in a part of Afghanistan that was then part of the Persian empire, but who lived most of his life in Konya in what today is Turkey, which means that, though he wrote mostly in Persian, he is claimed by Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey all three. The deciding event of his life came in 1244 when, at the age of 37 and a family man, he met Shams of Tabriz, a wandering dervish with whom he formed a passionate friendship in which they were drunk with God and drunk with each other. Was this relationship sexual as well? Opinion today is divided, but the tone of his poems celebrating Shams is certainly that of a lover. So jealous of Shams did Rumi’s students become, that they may have murdered Shams, who in any event suddenly disappeared. Rumi searched in vain for Shams, then became convinced that Shams was writing his, Rumi’s, poems and so lived on through Rumi.
Sufism exists in many forms and imposes certain obligations like prayer five times a day and fasting at Ramadan, but for Westerners seeking some kind of spiritual path it is just plain sexy. And Rumi has worked a similar miracle by making poetry – and worshipful poetry at that – enticingly sexy.
And today? A recent article in the New York Times makes it clear that Sufism is alive and well in New York. In a small apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan a group of ten “beloveds” are greeted by their sheikh in an Arabic seasoned with a thick New York accent, and then join hands, form a circle, and for 30 minutes with eyes shut chant the 99 sacred names of Allah. Another Sufi order founded by a Senegalese sheikh meets in West Harlem, still another in a brownstone in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and a third in a church on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan.
And on West Broadway in TriBeCa, Sheikha Fariha in a flowing white gown receives visitors (minus their shoes) in a prayer hall with the Prophet Muhammad’s name in Arabic calligraphy adorning the walls, prayer rugs on the floor, books scattered about, and Turkish tea and dates on a table. Her voice then drifts across the hall summoning the faithful to prayer, and her followers, wearing white caps very much like those of surgeons, begin a service of chanting, swaying, and prayer, with one member tapping lightly on a Persian drum; on occasion they even whirl. Tolerance and equality are emphasized; there is no dress code, and LGBT members are welcome. That this order’s sheikh is a woman is highly unusual, but in liberal New York the rule of a charismatic sheikha attracts followers, especially women.
Yes, even in this time of Islamic terrorism and the resulting suspicion of Islam in America, many New Yorkers – described by some critics as “spiritual vagabonds” flitting from one tradition to another -- are drawn to this path on the fringe of mainstream Islam, pleased by its liberalism and convinced that true Islam abhors the terrorism committed by fanatics in its name.
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My poems: For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down. To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here. For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.
My books: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here. As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: Scavenging, an old New York tradition, and how I got a roach-infested bookcase and scads of other goodies. And after that, the Golden Age of Profanity and why I don’t swear in Indiana.
© 2016 Clifford Browder