A First Meeting with the Shadalia Sufi Path
By Carla Price
July 26, 2000
As I have previously reported, I had attended a very enjoyable Sufi meeting in New York. I did not seek another opportunity to attend - not even when their true leader, Adnan, came to New York. Eventually, a new, and different Sufi opportunity came my way. My dance friend invited me to a local Long Island dhziker - a Sufi prayer session.
After she invited me, my friend became nervous.
"Are you sure you want to go? Do you know what a dhziker is?" my friend badgered me repeatedly. I assured her that I was well aware that I would be attending a Sufi religious service, and that it was my desire to go.
The memory of my last participation in a Sufi meeting remained in my mind as a pleasant interlude in my life. Because I had tasted Sufism on a one-time basis, it had not liberated my dancing or affected me in any meaningful way. I understood from reading that some people decide immediately that they cannot return to Sufi meetings, whereas others attend for long periods of time before they develop a sense of attachment to their group or to the practice.
"You won't be offended if our leader whispers 'Allah' into your ear?" my friend asked me, urgently.
"No, I won't be offended," I promised her.
"This is a ....a very 'orthodox' group, for lack of a better word," she told me. "I hope you won't be uncomfortable. The leader will be wearing a white robe. I am going to speak to our leader about you, and explain that you are not a Sufi."
Later she said, "Our leader said that it is perfectly all right for you to attend."
On the night of the meeting, I wore loose Turkish pants and drove myself to the modest house in a nearby neighborhood at the appointed hour. I was determined to regard this as nothing more than "a night out." I entered through an unlocked door, and immediately saw a sign that read, "SHOES AND COATS HERE." I decided to ignore the sign, and followed the arrows up the stairs to a room where I saw people.
When I entered the meeting room, a woman wearing a white fez turned to me and said, "Welcome. I am Yasmeen." I smiled at her vacantly, because my attention was drawn to the group leader, who was regarding me from across the room. Robed entirely in black, with a veil over her hair, she sat with her back to an open window. Her name, I'd been told, was Rabia - a name taken from a long-ago Sufi poetess and prophet from India. To my surprise, Rabia rose to meet me. She flashed me what could only be interpreted as a look of recognition, as though she had been expecting me.
Rabia put both arms around me and hugged me. This, too, was a surprise, and not an entirely welcome one. I am not, by nature, a physically demonstrative individual. She kissed me lightly on both cheeks and held me again in her arms. As I am not used to physical contact with new people, I was uncomfortable, and probably failed to hide my consternation. Rabia told me that I could leave my shoes in the hall, and she also pointed to an empty place where I could sit on the floor. There was a floor mat and a pile of large pillows to support my back. I was also presented with some literature.
Most of the others in the room were seated in chairs. I realized that I was seated next to my friend, who had also chosen to sit on the floor. With her head veiled, I had failed to recognize her. She almost seemed to be a new person.
As they sect does give out literature, which includes the address and telephone number of the house where they meet, I felt that they would not mind my reporting about them.
Darkness was falling, but I could still see the faces of the people in the room. They were regular people. Except for the fezzes and the veils, they were ordinary, normal looking people. I probably could have encountered them in any house of worship in the United States.
Rabia presented a brief introduction to Sufism, as a courtesy to the new members. Later, I learned that only two other people were newcomers. She promised to explain every part of the dhziker. She asked us to give our names, adding, "We will do this twice." One by one, we went around the circle, each stating a Christian and a Sufi name.
I was aware that my friend had an Indian Sufi name, and I was surprised that she did not offer it to the group. Therefore, I also gave only my Christian name, but withheld my Turkish family name. Later, I regretted that I did not give both names, because my Turkish name was more appropriate to the Sufi atmosphere.
A man named Daoud, also Bob, presented a prayer in Arabic, the Fatiha. He also placed a doumbek (drum) in the middle of the floor. There was a cup in a gold holder, set on a pillow. As the sun set, I realized that several candles had been lit. I felt very welcome, although uncomfortable.
Rabia explained that Sufism is a way of life, a way of overcoming the gap, or separation, between man and God, that had occurred after our births. The Sufis are lovers of God, and each Sufi path is a way to re-unite with God.
(Obviously, I am simplifying greatly what she said.) The Sufis call God "Allah," and pray directly to Allah.
Sufis meet in groups and are lead by a teacher. Each Sufi path has its own leaders, past and present, and the leader is known as a sheikh. The sheikh of this group resides in Israel, on the Mount of Olives, but would be in the United States soon. They were excited about their forthcoming meeting with him.
As the service began, we were next provided with a set of thikr beads, each inscribed with one of the ninety-nine attributes of God, and we repeated two Arabic phrases, one hundred times. These words sounded like "AL HAKK, AL-HAH."
Rabia instructed one of the veiled women to lead the Al Hakk. "I ask Rahdia, the Teacher, to lead the Al Hakkah," she said. Rahdia, who was wearing a long Indian kaftan, led the prayer. As the group members prayed, they bobbed their heads from left to right, rhythmically. As they continued, many of them seemed to do this with complete abandon - something that I found difficult to even watch. When we had reached one hundred repetitions, Rahdia the Teacher said firmly, "One hundred." The chanting came to an abrupt end.
There was also the passing of the cup. I expected the cup to be filled with wine, and I was puzzled at how the wine was lasting so long. Each person seemed to drink deeply - not just a little sip, as in liturgy. When my turn came, the cup was empty. I pretended to drink, but I was relieved to find the cup empty, because I felt guilty about making a communion with Allah. Later I learned that the cup had been empty all along, and that is their custom.
Occasionally, I looked out the open window into the darkening night, thinking how incredible it was that such an unusual religious group was meeting in such an ordinary neighborhood. The trees, the houses, and the cars outside all looked the same. But inside, in this room, we were very different.
Duoad led another prayer, this time, beating on the doumbek. We were asked to stand and form a circle, with the right hand up and the left hand palm up. The position of our hands was apparently very important, because Rabia went around the circle, adjusting the hands of those who had not done it correctly. Rabia warned us: "If you feel yourself becoming lightheaded, ground yourself. Plant both feet equally distant and firmly on the ground. But if you must leave the circle, make sure that you join the hands of the two people on either side of you."
The prayer began, with a sharp intake of breath, followed by the repetition of a syllable, and then the sharp release of the breath. Both Rabia and Rahdia the Teacher were at the center of the circle, and they stopped at each person, placing a hand about one inch from our hearts, although never touching us. Rabia whispered "ALLAH" in our ears. It was not long before I did indeed feel lightheaded. I could not go on with the prayer, because it was wrong for me. As instructed, I joined together the hands of my two partners, and I sat down on my pillows. I was disturbed at the emotional elation everyone else seemed to be experiencing.
When the circle prayer ended, Rabia again lectured and instructed. She was clearly a very learned individual, who had a deep and comprehensive knowledge of the Shadalia path of Sufism. She mentioned that she was a former Catholic, but that the Shadalia path fulfilled her need to strive toward union with God.
I wondered inwardly if I really desired to strive toward union with God, or if I was content with my separation from God.
Rabia concluded by inviting us back "in two weeks time." She added, "for those who choose not to return, it is our hope that you will take tonight's joy and happiness and disperse it through the world." She invited questions and answered all of them. I asked several questions and foolishly stated, "I know about Sufism only through reading." She said to me, "In Sufism, we never say, 'I know.' We say, 'It is said.'"
After the ending of the dhziker, the women, including Rabia, removed their headscarves, and the two men removed their fezzes. Some light chatting followed, but no more serious questions were posed. Rabia seemed delighted that I had read at least one book about Sufism. I was provided with a new book, about the Shadalia path, and invited to return. The social part of the meeting continued, but I departed.
The Sufi meeting left a profound impression upon me. I realized that I must write about my experience, but I did not know whether or not I would return, or when. It seemed to me that reading the new book would help me to decide. My main question remains: can a Christian or a Jew practice Sufism?
I apologize in advance for not describing the tenets of Sufism in more detail. I do not feel qualified. However, I invite all readers to comment on this article, and I look forward to reading about what you think.
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08-03-2011 08:35 AM #1
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