February 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
“Like two lovers who have become lost in a winter blizzard, and find a cozy, empty hut, in the forest, I now huddle everywhere with a Friend. God and I have built an immense fire Together. We keep each other happy and warm,” wrote the elegant Persian poet Hafiz, translated in The Subject Tonight is Love.
In September 2010 I travelled with my friends Husayn and Elizabeth and their new-born baby, the adorable cherubic Daoud from Montreal to Fenton Michigan for one of the holiest nights of the Islamic calendar, the last evening of Ramadan.
After two days of driving, we arrived at a picturesque farm tucked away in an unlikely suburban Middle-America neighbourhood. Unlikely, that is, for the kind of ecstatic mystical Sufi devotion that was about to unfold. I spent a week with the Sufi community, eating and praying and living alongside the devotees who had pilgrimed from across the continent. Over the course of that week I got to witness an Islamic spiritual community that holds itself to the highest levels of compassion, inclusion, humility, and an earnest striving for truth and knowledge of the divine. The community seemed to me a modern-day embodiment of a spiritual yearning for what Ibn ‘Arabi called the Taste of God or dhawq.
As fate would have it, one of the holiest days of the Islamic lunar cycle arrived on Sept. 11th, the 9th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre. The group seemed to me to use this opportunity to deepen their compassion in the world, to close an ever-more-polarizing situation in which Islam and “the West” are pitted against one another.
The sermons given by the group’s Sheikh encouraged humility, kindness, and a life devoted to spiritual truth and awakening.
Below is an article I wrote for the online prublication qantara.de which has yet to come into print. I hope you enjoy it.
Todd Friedmannn, 35, is barreling down the highway on a 1000-km drive from Montreal, Canada, to Michigan, USA, where he will join his spiritual community for one of the holiest days of the year.
It’s the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but Friedmann, who was born and raised Jewish, is driving the long distance for Eid ul-Fitr, the last night of Ramadan. He became a Sufi Muslim over ten years ago and on the 12-hour car ride the depth of his devotion is palpable.
He now goes by the name Husayn and is dressed in loose cotton clothing which emulates the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammed, but his long ruddy beard and appearance also give him the look of an Orthodox rabbi.
When asked about the perplexing mosaic of his religious heritage, Friedmann quickly cites the Islamic mystic and philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi who famously wrote “I follow the religion of love.”
“I was brought up with the stories of the prophets of Israel: Moses, Noah, Solomon, and David. We studied the Torah,” says Friedmann, who was educated in a private Hebrew school. “But I didn’t have to leave the stories of the prophets behind when I became a Muslim. The Prophet Muhammed came for all people, for all nations, for all times.
Friedmann’s journey began as it did for most Western converts to Sufi Islam: in an earnest search for spiritual fulfillment and meaning in what they see as an increasingly materialistic and empty Western culture.
“As I got older I started to notice something very wrong was happening on the earth. My grandfather lived through the Holocaust and told me about it. I needed to know: What is this life about? When I discovered the Montreal Naqshbandi Sufi Centre, there was a certainty that was stamped on my heart. Now there is nothing that can take that away.”
Friedmann is driving to the headquarters of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order of America where over the next week dozens of devout Sufis, about 30% of whom are Western converts to Islam, from a myriad of ethnic and religious backgrounds will converge from all over North America.
Devotees have come seeking spiritual renewal, transcendence from the trappings of the ego, and to bask in the spiritual presence of Shaykh Hisham Kabbani. Kabbani is a globally revered Sufi teacher and official deputy of Shaykh Nazim Al-Haqqani, the leader of the Order who is widely regarded as a saint and said to trace his lineage back to the 13th century mystic and poet Jalaluddin Rumi.
Naqshabandi is one of the major spiritual Orders of Sufi Islam in the world today and “it’s the most popular Sufi tradition in Indonesia, the Subcontinent, Africa and the Middle East,” says Lisa Alexandrin, a professor of Islamic studies in the department of religion at the University of Manitoba.
“The Naqshbandi teachings emphasize the importance of the relationship between master and disciple: Sufi shaykh and student,” adds Alexandrin, echoing the appeal to many Western Sufi practitioners who say through their encounters with Shaykh Nazim and Shaykh Hisham they saw living examples of the teachings of the Prophet. Devotees see Islam as a religion of love, peace, tolerance, humility and respect, and strive to attain these ideals through the guidance and teachings of their Shykhs. There is also an emphasis on “universal spirituality”, inclusive of different faith traditions.
“The goal of spirituality is not to have labels,” says Friedman. “It’s to go back to divine presence.”
In 1991 Kabbani was appointed by Nazim to establish a presence in North America and since then 23 Centres have opened across the region.
The Michigan Centre is a modest farm tucked off a suburban country lane. One cannot imagine a less likely landscape for the kind of ecstatic and colourful Sufi worship that unfolds here, including chanting, prayers, meditation, and trance-like devotional whirling.
“It always amazes me how doctrines and devotional practices established by a set of Sufi masters in the 14-15th Centuries can continue to maintain such a powerful presence in the contemporary world,” says Alexandrin. The Naqshbandi Order dates back nearly 1500 years and traces its spiritual lineage to the Prophet Muhammad through Abu Bakr, the first Caliph and one of the Prophet’s closest companions.
“We are not a da`wah [conversion] machine or missionaries,” says Kabbani, who is also an author, renowned scholar of Islamic history and a spiritual teacher to an estimated 2 million Muslims across the globe.
“We believe everyone has a certain time that comes in their life when God’s manifestation on their heart becomes strong and they will listen to that message and yearn to understand it. Then they begin to give more and more attention to their spiritual needs. Therefore, we don’t say “converting” or “reverting,” we say when the call [to spirituality] comes, they will pick up the phone.”
Despite the order’s emphasis on inner spirituality, this Sufi community maintains traditional Islamic values grounded in Sharia law: Men and women are segregated for prayer and most women chose to wear headscarves.
Friedmann stops for a cappuccino at a chain café in Fenton surrounded by American “big box” stores like Walmart and Target. He is a colourful anomaly in the mainstream landscape of the American Mid-West.
At the counter he is approached by a man wearing a Harley Davidson T-Shirt, who asks him sarcastically if he is a part of the local “renaissance parade”, before muttering angrily “American’s should dress like Americans.”
“We’re taking [criticism] from all sides,” says Elizabeth Bootman, Friedman’s wife, who embraced Islam when she was just out of high school. She was educated at the University of Berkley and grew up in the famously liberal Bay Area of San Francisco as a secular American. She now veils her hair and wears modest clothing. But walking the spiritual path as an American Muslim convert is not an easy road:
Fundamentalist Muslim groups have criticized the Sufi community, seeing it as divergent from traditional Islam, an accusation Sufi Muslims adamantly refute; and they are often confronted with the anti-Muslim sentiments of the post 9-11 world.
Despite the challenges, Bootman’s faith doesn’t waver:
“If you’re wondering why on earth a Western person from a liberal country would decide to become Muslim you have to understand the history and wisdom of what Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, brought to earth and how powerful, liberal and emancipating that message was.
“So many people are interested in spirituality in the West, especially the side of it that is contemplative and introspective and peaceful. This is what we were looking for when we came to this Order and this is what we have found.