Tag Archive | "Persian"

Sufi Mysticism on the rise in New York City

by Rebecca Sanchez- Iranian Beat Reporter

The first sounds are those of a Persian flute. A voice joins in, with a somber tone, reciting poetry. The sound builds as Sakina, an older woman dressed all in white except for a green veil draped over her head, takes the center of the room. She spreads her arms and slowly begins to spin her body in a counter-clockwise motion. Her gaze is set on her left thumb; her feet remain close together. She is whirling.

Whirling is a ceremonial form of physical meditation performed in the mystical dimension of Islam called Sufism, and its presence in New York City has swelled in recent years. From what meet-up groups call “Sufi Healing Circles,” to whirling workshops and musical poetry gatherings, Sufi events can now be attended on almost any night of the week in a number of venues: college campuses, mosques, community centers, and private apartments. There are even forums which send members weekly notifications of gatherings in various locations.

AP Archive– Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011, Sufi Muslim dervishes wear camel fur hats as they stand on the stage as part of a Sema ceremony. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

But the growing popularity of Sufism in Western pop culture is engendering controversy about whether the Eastern tradition becomes diluted by its newfound Western influence. Many Sufis are taking on what some see as more performative and less authentically spiritual personas.

On Sunday, September 30th, Sakina taught a whirling workshop at the Dergah al-Farah, a Sufi center at 245 West Broadway, in Tribeca. Sakina, who only uses one name, is a dervish from an order called Shaykha Fariha al-Jerraho. The room where she danced was long and narrow with Persian rugs resting over wooden floors, and the music lightly decorative, quietly filling the room. There were only four participants, but Sakina said the quantity was inconsequential because it would be an important experience for each one of them.

“You come into this place because you have a need, you have a wish,” Sakina said in a hushed voice. “You have what we call a ‘call.’”

None of the participants were Sufis; all were newcomers to the experience looking to explore the meditative tradition in hopes of finding a sense of peace, silence, or focus. According to Sakina, a Spanish-born Flamenco instructor turned Sufi mystic, Sufism is for anyone looking to reconnect with their heart.

“I don’t say one word about a specific path,” she said.  “I completely avoid that, to really embrace every practice. From the more indigenous religions to the more traditional.”

Another woman with one name, Isa, agreed.  Isa, a member of the Light Guidance Center for Sufi Studies, and of the Sufi Order of the West in New Lebanon, N.Y., explained in an interview that interfaith, and interethnic elements are inherent in Sufi culture.

She said this was the intention of Inayat Khan, a Sufi master who brought the faith to Europe in the early part of the 20th Century.

“The Sufis are all about ‘when in Rome’ so when Inayat Khan came to Europe he created prayers and services in European languages and traditions that Christians and Jews would feel comfortable reciting and attending,” Isa said.

However, Amir Vahab, a composer and vocalist of Sufi and folk music, said in an interview that Sufis must be careful about how the practice is integrated into pop culture. He is concerned that the popularization has led to a reduction of this ancient Eastern tradition, because, in his view, it is not being studied, understood, and practiced properly. There are still many “real” Sufis, but popularity has brought many imposters looking to make what they can of the growing trend as well.

“I’m just waiting for downtown shoe boutiques to come out with Sufi heels and McDonald’s to make Sufi burgers,” he joked.

In many cases, Vahab explained, the manner in which the tradition is transformed, and often diluted, is problematic for two main reasons: (1) the practitioner is too concerned with the performance of the assumed Sufi identity — that is, the need to look like a Sufi, and (2) there is a danger of misunderstanding of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, whose work plays a central role in Sufism.

The scene from Sakina’s whirling workshop is now a common one in New York City, admired among wanderers of all walks—faithless and faithful. But Vahab observes that, in many cases, new practitioners like Sakina are too caught up with wearing white woolen clothes, hats, or special shoes, changing their Western names to Eastern ones, in an effort to stand out and seem more authentic.

“A lot of this showmanship is to make themselves more convincing, so they even change their names to Islamic names, “ he said with a laugh. “A true Sufi doesn’t care what your name is. A true Sufi cares about your soul—who lives in that body.”

Vahab, who could not be picked out of a crowd as a Sufi wore a clean t-shirt, jeans, and white cotton socks between his feet and the Persian rug beneath them. True Sufis do exist in New York City, he said, but you wouldn’t know them from their dress. They don’t need to be packaged in any specific way—like the hundreds of fortune tellers in New York City who play the role of the fortune teller better than they actually practice it.

As for the poetry of Rumi, there are so many flaws in many of the translations that they are better considered interpretations, Vahab said. According to Vahab and many academics, the reason for the inaccuracies is a lack of mastery and understanding of the necessary realms of the Persian language, history, and the Qur’an itself.

Literature and poetry are both central elements in Iranian tradition and culture. It is in Sufism that these elements converge with religion and identity, so one cannot be understood without the other.

“By diluting Sufi mysticism in this way,” Vahab insisted “we are reducing it to the earthly world.”

Most recently, Vahab’s ensemble performed for the Iranian Students Association at Columbia University. The event, called  “A Rumi Night of Poetry,” was held on Friday, October 5th.  Such performances, Vahab says these performances are an effort to open people’s hearts, although he does not think it helps to reestablish this tradition in its rightful form. Salomeh Salari, president of the association, said that Vahab is a frequent visitor contributing to the association’s mission, which is to promote Iranian culture and bring awareness of traditions to the community.

“We strive to bridge cultural gaps with each of our events, reaching out to any and all guests who are interested,” Salari said.

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