Photo by Thomas Maltby
By Heidi Noroozy
Until a few years ago, what I knew about Sufism could be summed up in two words: whirling dervishes. You’ve seen them, those Turkish men spinning to the rhythm of music and song, arms outstretched, white skirts floating about their legs. They seem to be in a trance, an ecstasy of communion with the divine. I knew about Sufi poets such as Rumi and Hafez, whose verses are filled with images of wine and intoxication. But I never understood what either the twirling or poetic imagery really meant.
Then, on a visit to Paveh, a village in Iran’s western Zagros Mountains, I met my very first dervishes. As soft afternoon sunlight fell through the windows of a house perched high on a hill, I sat across a vast Persian carpet from a row of women who wore white chadors and had taken seats on the floor along the far wall. Soon they were swaying gently from side to side to the rhythm of a daf, a round drum held in the palms and played by tapping with the fingers of both hands. With the image of Turkey’s whirling dervishes so firmly planted in my mind, it had never occurred to me that Sufis could also be female.
Sufism is the mystical side of Islam. Its adherents are called sufis or dervishes, and they seek divine truth and love through direct encounters with God. Their name is said to come from the Arabic word for wool, a reference to the garments that early Sufis wore, and is sometimes also associated with the Greek word, “sophia,” meaning “wisdom.”
According to the Sufi path, religious knowledge must be learned through a teacher and cannot come from books or purely intellectual learning. This belief has led to the formation of orders, centered around a spiritual leader (sheikh or murshida, if the leader is a woman) who teaches and guides his (or her) followers.
The whirling dervishes are more properly called the Mevlevi Order, and they trace their roots back to the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi. According to legend, Rumi was walking through the marketplace when he heard the goldsmiths praising God in rhythm with the pounding of their hammers. The sound filled Rumi with such joy that he stretched out his arms and began whirling with delight.
|Hafez tomb in Shiraz|
I don’t know if this story is true, or if it arose after the fact as a way to explain the practice of whirling, but it has the ring of truth to it. Spreading your arms and spinning does indeed create a sense of pure joy. My three-year-old niece does it all the time when she can’t contain her happiness.
Sufi spiritual practice is known as dhikr (remembrance), which involves ceremonial activities that can take many forms: chanting, music, dancing, meditating (muraqaba), ecstasy, and trance. The whirling dance of the Mevlevi Order is a form of dhikr called sama (listening), which includes the music of sacred instruments (drums, bells, and flute), singing, and poetry recitation. But not all Sufi orders use music in their practice, and some—such as the Naghshbandis, a Sunni-based order that traces its lineage directly to the Prophet Mohammed—perform their dhikr rituals in silence.
Women have been part of Sufism since the very beginning. Mohammed’s daughter, Fatimeh, received revelations of the divine and is believed to be Islam’s first mystic, although the term, Sufi, had not yet been coined. A century later, Rabia al Adawiyya (717—801), was the first Sufi mystic to describe the relationship with the divine in terms of love by referring to God as “the Beloved.” She introduced the notion that a Sufi’s journey is not to seek entry into paradise after death but to experience divine love in the here and now.
I don’t know what the Sufi women in Paveh were chanting. Maybe the name of Allah, maybe poetry verses. But what the words meant is entirely beside the point. I felt the peace and calm that filled the room and held me captivated for an hour. Perhaps longer. The time hardly matters, since I lost track of it after the first few minutes.
Every day for a week, the Sufis returned to the house where I was staying. The woman who lived there, a member of my husband’s extended family, had recently returned from a trip to Mecca, and the female dervishes wanted to celebrate the happy event with her. After the ceremony, one of the younger women passed around a tray with tiny cups of water supposedly from the holy Zamzam Well in Mecca. (I didn’t sample it.)
|Touba Mosque of the Mouride|
Sufi Order in Senegal
Photo by Jean Claude Perez
Later, someone gave me a string of prayer beads, another souvenir from Islam’s holiest city. I’m not religious and haven’t a clue how to use the beads, but I hang them from a lamp next to my computer. Periodically, I look at them and perform my own kind of dhikr: remembrance of the afternoon I spent in the presence of divine love.
Sufism is sometimes mistakenly described as an Islamic sect, perhaps because of the way the dervishes are organized into orders focused on a spiritual leader. In fact, Sufis come from all branches of Islam—Sunni as well as Shia—and live all over the world. They are men and women from all walks of life whose only difference from other Muslims is their mystical approach to spiritual practice.