Observing the Sufi

Wed, 2011-04-20 16:42 -- univcomm
April 20, 2011

by Dr. Carl Caldwell, vice president for academic affairs and dean emeritus at Anderson University

As I learned about the history and practice of Islam, I came to understand that Sufism is one of its many expressions. The word Sufi comes from the Arabic word for wool, and derived from the simple clothing that Sufis wore. Sufis gathered around charismatic leaders who aspired to lead them in a path toward mystical union with God. Each of these groups was called a tariqa, derived from the Arabic word for path.

In my time of full-time teaching at Manchester College, many years ago, one of my colleagues observed and was allowed to record and photograph a Sufi service in Cairo, Egypt. He then prepared a module of slides and cassette tape narrative illustrating that service. Ever since watching and listening to his materials, which I used regularly when teaching about religion in the Middle East, I have been fascinated with the Sufis. Their conscious decision to gather regularly, and then be led through a well-ordered liturgy of chants and body motions so as to work themselves into religious ecstasy seemed then and still seems to run so counter to the prevailing secular, rational culture. The most famous of Turkish Sufis who do this today are the so-called whirling dervishes whose graceful circular motions are an esthetic wonder. There are many other groups from India to North Africa. But the point is, I have been interested in Sufis.

While living in Sulaimani in the fall of 2010, I met a young Iranian fellow who was (and still is) living in Sulaimani to set up a new business. He indicated that he was a participant in a Sufi group in Iran, and that he had sought out and participates in one of the oldest Sufi brotherhoods, the Qadiriya Tariqa, that happens to have an active group in Sulaimani.

When I asked my young friend if he thought that the local Sufis would permit him to bring a visitor, he indicated that it would be O.K. So on Thursday, December 9, he and I went to the compound of Sheikh Muhammad al-Kasnazani, of the Kasnazani branch of the Qadiriya Tariqa. Sheikh Muhammad claims to be the 33rd in a line of religious leaders who trace their origin to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th c. CE, and he is highly revered by the adherents to this branch of Sufism. He was not there on the night we attended, but when he is in town he lives in a large house in the middle of the compound where he receives visitors. The number of persons in the compound expands dramatically when he is there.

On the night of our visit, we were stopped at the gate, and before my friend could escort me into the compound, the guards had to call to someone in the compound to ask for special permission for me to be admitted. They asked me to give up my camera, and they took ID pictures of both of us before we were allowed in. From the entry gate of the compound, we walked up a narrow road on either side of which were low, flat-roof, khaki colored stucco buildings, all looking fairly drab in the dark. As we walked along this lane, we were met by a man who invited us into a small room with a group of men, two of whom spoke decent English. They were curious about me. Why did I want to come there? Did I just want to see them do strange things? (Context for this question: this group is known for doing painful things to their bodies, e.g., cutting themselves without apparent bleeding or later damage, so as to prove their connection with the divine.) I answered that I simply wanted to observe a Sufi service so I could better understand this part of Islam. I had no interest in seeing anyone hurt himself. Seeing them would help me to interpret more accurately the nature of the religion. While the questions were not adversarial, I had a sense that in the past they have had to deal with people who came more to exploit than to understand.

After a few minutes of conversation, they said that the dhikr, the organized service, was about to start. As we approached the room where the service was being held, I could hear a steady drumbeat, and once in the room could see a group of four drummers holding different size drums and standing at one end of a group of about 50 to 60 men ranged in a rectangular formation consistent with the shape of the room. The walls of the room were covered in shiny white tiles, while on the floor was a rather thin, well worn inexpensive rug. On one wall were hanging a number of framed pictures and holy writings, one of which was the list written in elaborate calligraphy of the 33 sheikhs of this tariqa. In one corner of the room, and outside the circle of men, sat 5 or 6 women who did not participate, that I could see. I asked that my friend and I stand off to the side and outside the group, as I did not want my presence to be disruptive to their service. A few of the participants took a glance at me, but for the most part it appeared that they were too deeply involved in the actions of the dhikr to care about me. In the group were men of all ages and all economic status, if clothes can be said to help infer status. There were even some young boys ranging in age from under 5 years of age to perhaps early teens.

As we entered the room, the men were standing in place and swaying their bodies first to the left, then to the right, all in unison and in pace with the drum beats. After several minutes of this cadence, the beat changed and the men held their bodies more still, but moved their heads in a kind of left-right, semi-circular motion. I wanted desperately to look, but feared this would be intrusive, so I mostly just looked at the floor and glanced periodically at the group. A leader walked about in the open space of the circle and indicated to the drummers the moment to change the beat that appeared to signal the change of motions. The next step in the service saw the men drop to their knees and lean forward, so that their foreheads almost touched the floor. This is one of the postures taken in a normal Islamic prayer ritual. After doing this for several minutes the men raised themselves up so that they could sit on the floor on bended knees. At some point the signal was given that the formal service was over and a number of men left. This part of the service lasted for perhaps 20 minutes.

For the last part of the service, the remaining persons stayed on their knees and participated with one of the group leaders in group singing. The leader would sing what sounded like the verse of a song and the group came in on what sounded like a chorus. It was all really very lovely. While singing, several of the men closed their eyes, tilted their heads toward the ceiling, and held their arms outstretched with hands open and upturned. No one had any prayer books or hymn books; all of the words came from memory. After perhaps 10 minutes of singing, the music stopped, the service ended, and the men went out into the dark night. It was hard to know where they were going: outside the compound, or inside the compound.

After the service, my friend and I stayed on for a while to talk with the same men who greeted us on our way in. They were curious to know what I thought, and I told them that it was all very meaningful to me to observe. I expressed my gratitude for their allowing me to visit. They, in turn, indicated that I would be welcome anytime I wanted to come back. It was all very friendly, something I am not surprised about. Hospitality to strangers who come in peace is one of the gifts of vast majority of people in this region.

As I reflect on this experience, I am reminded that Sufism brought to Islam an aspect that appeals to the emotional side of the human experience. My recollections of this experience lead me to believe that the participants sincerely wanted this experience, perhaps even yearned for it. It would be difficult for me to know. How can one ever know the motivation in the soul of the participant of any religious ceremony? How does a child of the Enlightenment ever fully understand or participate in such a mystical experience?

— Dr. Carl Caldwell is vice president for academic affairs and dean emeritus at Anderson University. After retiring from his position at Anderson University in 2009, Carl and his wife, Carolyn, taught at The American University of Iraq - Sulaimani, in Sulaimani, Iraq, for the 2009-2010 academic year. He returned to that university for an additional semester in the fall term of the 2010-2011 academic year.

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