“You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in a drop.”
- Rumi (Sufi poet 13th century)
Sufis were more than just wandering ascetics and mystics. Sufism is religion that based on Islam. Someone who practices this religion is known as a Sufi (pronounced “soo fee”). Traditionally, these Sufis belong to turuqs, which act mostly as schools and places of worship. However, after the democratic transition in the 20th century these places of worship were banned by the government. Today many different sects, or groups, of Sufism exist across the world today. Some of these sects even trace descendants back to Muhammad.
In the 8th century Bagdad, after the death of Muhammad, there was group of scholars who called themselves “Sufis.” During this time, an early Islamic empire known as the Umayyad was expanding rapidly across the Arabian peninsula. What made these scholars so unique was that they relied on the Koran and the vocabulary of the Hadith (which describes the life of Muhammad) to describe the kind of religious experiences that they were having. As opposed to many other Islamic scholars of the time, the Sufis focused on describing an internal experience and they took a different approach to understanding their faith.
One of the main goals of Sufism is to “let go” of the holds of our own selfishness. Sufis practiced replacing that void with union with the divine. For example, “die before you die” is a popular Sufi expression that describes this process of letting go. Sufis were also able to give a more metaphorical reading rather than literal meaning of the Koran. Beneath the texts, the Sufis read and wrote about their internal inspiration and new meaning under the literal text. Increasingly, the Sufis became associated with miracles and miraculous events.
One of the more popular expressions of this idea is seen through the whirling dervishes. During the ceremony Sufi dancers chant, meditate, walk in a circle and then whirl continuously for long periods of time. While the Sufi dancer whirl one hand face upwards and the other down to denote how spirituality
As the dancer whirls the spin towards the left, pivoting around the heart his rotation, the dance becomes more meditational. The Sufis' dress includes: a conical hat, black cloak and white robe. When removing the black cloak it symbolizes a separation into the more spiritual, internal realm. When the dervishes begin circling, some dervishes keep their cloak on. The master sits and he marks the line between the two spiritual realms. Periodically, the dancers stop, cross their arms and chant in unison. This movement is said to represent unity with God.
Overall, I will say that I’ve never seen something like it, and I was perplexed by it. I left with more questions than answers, but I can’t say that that’s necessarily a bad thing either.
Major Sufi Orders within the Ottoman World included:
- · Mevlelvi
- · Bektashi
- · Nagshabandi
- · Qadiri
- · Rafai
- · Khalwati