By Ali Eteraz
Were Islam a buffet, I’d be the guy that shows up in the morning and stays late, picking and tasting every item, simultaneously stuffed and starving, simultaneously gluttonous and bulimic. From madrassas in rural Pakistan to traditional elders in the country’s urban bungalows; from cramped immigrant mosques in Brooklyn to the technocratic Islam at elite East Coast universities; from someone veiling his spiritual malaise with romanticized visions of Islamic supremacism to someone who douses his hypocrisies in liberal Islamic reform — I have, to put it mildly, lived a lot of Islams. I am done with dabbling now; or maybe I am just taking a break; either way, it has allowed me to tell some fun stories about the religion. One of those that I did not get an opportunity to relate in my book is about my experiences with the sorts of Sufis that I’ve come across in America.
Sufism, generally referred to as the mystical or “inner” dimension of Islam, which tends to put a focus on one’s individual relation to God through guidance from a spiritual elder, has been around almost since the beginning of the religion. It is worldwide. During the course of the 20th Century, Sufism made its way to America. Now it exists in orthodox and heterodox ways, in “drunk” and “sober” ways, in universalist and exclusivist ways, and even in the form of a female whirling dervish that dances to Turkish electronica.
There is, for example, a Sufi mosque with a glittering white dome located just outside of Philadelphia, affiliated with a Sufi order named after Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. He came this country in the 1970’s after decades of mystical leadership in Sri Lanka. His work of simple living is now carried out by his followers. It is said that the writer, Coleman Barks, who is famous for his translations of the mystic, Rumi, began his project when Bawa Muhaiyaddeen appeared to him in a dream. When I lived in Philly I went to this mosque a few times. Once it was to serve as an extra in an experimental silent film by a student director. She needed to film inside a Muslim prayer area with a lot of equipment and was afraid of asking the more orthodox mosques in case they didn’t approve of her storyline or all the non-Muslims she was bringing along.
Another Sufi landmark is in Manhattan, just next to White Horse Tavern, the pub where Dylan Thomas drank. The mosque, which houses the American followers of a Persian order, is located inside a small brown building with a calligraphic sign. When I was deeply unhappy practicing law I went to one of the gatherings here and sat around in the sitting area, eventually having a long heart-to-heart with the rector of the place. A number of people of various ethnicities — both men and women — came inside during that time and went to an inner room where they engaged in their spiritual practices. I wanted to join them but was told that before I could I would have to have a meeting with the order’s spiritual leader, who was not in New York at the time.
I also went to a gathering of a conservative Sufi order called the Naqshbandi. They met on Friday nights in an old apartment building near Lincoln Tunnel. Men and women were both present but sat on opposite sides of the room. The men wore green turbans and the women covered their hair. There was an older saint with a long beard who sat in the middle and once the lights were dimmed, led a series of prayers recited in a rhythmic way. I had gone in just to observe but by the end I was swaying my head and participating. The guy that had invited me was someone I used to have a lot of religious arguments with. Afterwards we became friendly.
Going around the country I have met all sorts of American Sufis. When I was in college a former hippie once came to lecture some of us and talked about the purification of the heart and how to avoid all the “new-age” Sufis. I also maintain correspondence with a Sufi from the Shia tradition. He is unique because unlike most of the placid and restrained mystics I’ve met, he tends to lose his temper very quickly. I have almost met a number of individuals that have made a close study of Ibn Arabi, a Spanish mystic whose ideas about the unity of creation evoke Neruda and Whitman.
To me, the most interesting thing about Sufism is its paradoxical place in my life. Somehow, for all of my stuttering, stammering, rationalizing, sometimes authentic, mostly sinful, always perplexed approach to faith, it has been these austere Sufis, with their stentorian obeisance to a higher principle, their complete surrender to the authority of a saintly figure, their often pre-modern outlook, who have been most inclined to embrace me without asking questions. They retain a view towards chaos of the world that is not merely hopeful, but outright cheerful, a smile stretched eternally onto the face of the faith. For all of us melancholics and obsessives and loners and miscreants, with our spiritual gastroenteritis and Nietzschean dyspepsia, the existence of the Sufis is thoroughly soothing, even if we never join their orders or learn their prayers.
As for the electronica loving whirling dervish, I am still trying to meet her.
Ali Eteraz, author of “Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan“, was born in Pakistan and has lived in the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the United States. A graduate of Emory University and Temple Law School, he was selected for the Outstanding Scholar’s Program at the United States Department of Justice and later worked in corporate litigation in Manhattan. His blog in the Islamosphere received nearly two million views as well as a Brass Crescent award for originality.