01-Dance of the Heretics - Sufism an Introduction

On the look-out for the whirling dervishes on the vibrant streets of Istanbul

Dear Reader, 

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Now, as promised last week, let us go skinny dipping - body, mind, and soul in the sacred sea of the Sufi world. 

“You are water, whirling water,
Yet still, water trapped within,
Come, submerge yourself within us,
We who are the flowing stream.”

Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī

Throughout ages, the ascetics who wandered about different parts of the world had different names. Some called them saints others said they were gurus. In the Islamic world, they were called Sufis. As per the majority of the Sufi tariqa today, this mystical school of Islam has a more secular perspective on spirituality. This secular belief system along with the controversial declarations of love made by the founder of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism, the great master Jalaluddin Rumi, made Sufism the edgy heretical practice it is today. From the all-encompassing transcending whirls to the crying melodies of the Nay (Persian flute) - there is nothing ordinary or less than sublime about the whirling meditation practiced by the Sufis of the Mevlevi Order. 

(Here is the playlist that inspired me to write this piece)

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If you look past the scholars and their heated debates about the origin of the Sufi world, you will encounter the hidden treasure of wisdom wrapped in the silent motions of the Sufi dance. The inner lives of the Sufis reflect the universal principle of spirituality. The esoteric and mystical practices of the Sufis, embody these principles. One such practice is the Sama ceremony which is highlighted by the fascinating whirling meditation. In the Sufi worldview, the experience of the world is intricately intertwined with the aesthetics that we are capable of observing. Therefore, it compels us to participate within the realms of the inner mind, which eventually pushes us to find the beauty hidden behind the blindfolds of ego. In this manner, our outer lives become a direct reflection of our inner lives without any pretense. Receptiveness to the overwhelming beauty and the ability to submit to the flow of time enables us to open our minds to the subtle nudges of the universe. To be a Dervish one should know how to master the interplay of reason, form-making, and imagining, along with training the body and mind to yield to the whirls.

The Sufi whirling is a direct translation of motion from the macrocosm into the microcosm. It imitates the ebb and flow of creativity and the expansion of the universe. In the Sufi school of thought, the nature of the world is not circular, which goes repeating itself infinitely. It is rather spiral, it grows and radiates from the center outwards. In the Islamic world, such an understanding of spatial construction found its way from architectural arrangement to basic music order. The spiraling patterns are everywhere. With this understanding, the whirling dance of the dervish  Sema/Sama practice makes a lot more sense. The dance is simply an expression of being in harmony with the movement of the cosmos. 

Now, before we get mesmerized and lost in this whirling constellation of dervishes, let us establish some background about the origin of Sufism and look into some other Sufi principles.

There is a long ongoing debate about the origin of Sufism and its association with Islam. Some say that ‘Sufi' was derived from the Arabic word “suf” (wool), which refers to the garments worn by early Sufis. Others beg to differ as they claim the word Sufi originated from “suffa” (bench), referring to the men who used to live with Prophet Mohammad. Many modern Sufis believe that the roots of Sufism are ancient, originated in the world before the Prophet, and hence non-Islamic. The pre-Islamic origin can be traced back to early Christian mystics of Syria, Egypt, and the ancient Pythagorean orders. Some people also refer to the Zoroastrian school of thought as the origin place of Sufism. 

Sufi Inayat Khan, a renowned Indian Muslim mystic, was the first to recognize these ancient roots and their needful adaptation in the modern world. He took Sufism to the west with a profound knowledge of the universal appeal, and the all-inclusive nature of the Sufi practices. In his analysis of the universal nature of Sufism, he claims that Sufism is as old and dated as the period of Daniel. Inayat khan believed that all those who chose to respond to the call of the divine to serve humanity were Sufis. Therefore, he argues that Jesus was not a Christian, Mohammad was not a Muslim, and buddha was not a Buddhist - they were all Sufis. This ideology justifies that Sufism is an ancient order of philosophy and practices rather than the spiritual off-shoot of a single religion. 

Understanding spirit using the rational mind is like trying to hold water between your palms. The 'one place origin' debate about Sufism is like debating that water has only one name even if there are almost 6500 languages in the world. Sufism is like water. It exists in nature as an inherent part of this universe. Trying to label it or contain it in one paradigm is ridiculously hard. The logic of language loses all meaning when it meets the practices of spirit. Sufism is one such practice. The translations of knowledge are lost when it comes to real spiritual experiences. The mind fades, and only the spirit can withstand these experiences. Rumi was aware of this when he said, and I quote: 

“We are the mirror as well as the face in it.
We are tasting the taste this minute of eternity.
We are pain and what cures pain both.
We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.”

The five key principles of Sufism are:
1. Attain God through the focus on one’s master 
2. Constant remembrance of the divine or Dhikr
3. Shedding of ego
4. Use of music to flex devotion and to bring focus 
5. Knowledge of texts is secondary to direct spiritual experience 

Transcending the veil of ordinary reality and attaining direct communion with God is a path paved with thorny obstacles. Therefore, to become a Sufi, one needs immense courage. A Sufi is someone who can denounce their identity in the pursuit of the lover who awaits them beyond the illusions of forms and conventions. Sufism as a whole is a practice to surrender to this lover (God) who delivers one from their limited worldview and assist towards enlightenment. 

The Sufi way is a constant reminder that once you enable yourself with the innate knowledge of how the universe works and surrender to its subliminal nudges, you are bound to be on an ecstatic inner journey of self-realization. It is both an ambitious and rewarding aspect of spirituality.

In the next chapter, we will learn more about the origin of the Mevlevi Order and the great Sufi poet Rumi. We will decipher the meaning of the Sufi attire and analyze the techniques used by the Sufis to attain these ecstatic states. We will also look deeper into the mental and physical training needed to initiate this intense meditational practice. We will also observe the difference in practices among different Sufis tariqas, the position of women in the Sufi world, and their reputation in the world today. We will also learn more about the controversial nature of Rumi's work. Lastly, we will reflect on the power of whirling meditation and its influence on mental health. 

Read the next chapter of the series here