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Seeking Sufism

About 3 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims practice Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, with the group’s 39 million members divided into numerous tariqas, or Sufi orders. What nearly all Sufis have in common is a devotion to three main tenets: dedication to Allah, divine love and experience of the self as God.

In May 2006, Dr. Rahima Wade, a representative in the Sufi Order International, opened Sacred Space Community Meditation Center in Iowa City, Iowa. Wade converted to Sufism nearly 29 years ago, and has taught Sufism and meditation for over 15 years.

Q: How is Sufism related to Islam?

A: Most of Sufism has come out of the Middle East. For most Sufi paths you need to be a Muslim — but that is not true for all Sufi paths. Sufism is often thought of as the mystical branch of Islam.

Q: Could you tell me a little about mysticism?

A: The idea behind mysticism is that there is no separation between the self and God, Allah, the Ultimate Unity — or whatever one wants to call it. Typically in [traditional] Islam, you have the spiritual seeker and some type of [intermediary] spiritual teacher — a sheikh or murshid. That teacher [functions as an] intermediary between the seeker and the Prophet Mohammad - peace be upon him - and Mohammad is then the intermediary between the teachers and God.

Q: So Sufism doesn’t have that hierarchy?

A: There is at least one small Naqshbandi order — but not plain Naqshbandi — that actually has a hierarchy to get to God. But generally not.

Q: What are the different paths or orders?

A: As with Christianity — where you have Catholicism and Episcopalians and Methodists — in Sufism, we have much of the same thing, or what we call Sufi orders or tariqas.

Q: Which order are you in?

A: The order I’m in is called Chishti, a very musically oriented order. If you’ve heard of Sufi dancing— that dancing is associated with my order. [Note: The Chishti Order is known for its emphasis on love, tolerance, and openness. The Order traces its origins through various saints to Muhammad.]

Q: How are the orders different?

A: Well, the Naqshbandi path, for instance, is very inner-oriented – they don’t do their spiritual practices out loud at all. That order is very focused on dream work. And then you have the Mevlevi Sufis – the people who do the turning — the whirling dervishes. And there are many, many others, each focusing on some form of expression.

Q: Would you say that these forms of expression help the seeker to know oneself as God?

A: Kind of. The way I would say it is that whatever the practice is, it allows one to know oneself as God – to know oneself as part of that unity. But, if I say, ‘I am God,’ I’m not saying that I am all of God. The belief is la ilaha il Allah, and it translates essentially as ‘there is nothing but God’ [Note: the exact translation is “There is nothing to worship except Allah,” or “God is everything” depending on the text]. So, if there is nothing but God, you’re God and I’m God and the plant is God and everything is God. Sufis practice something called dhikr or zikr, which literally is the practice of the awareness of God — that God is all things. That is probably the one unifying concept in all of Sufism that I know of.

Q: Similar to the transcendentalists in recent Western history?

A: Yeah!

Q: How do Sufis discover God through various forms of expression?

A: The order that I am in uses music. For instance, my teacher was an accomplished musician before he was a Sufi teacher. For him, the music was something that he practiced over and over again and it was something he completely loved. And since God is love — so everything is God –when you’re doing something over and over again that you love – whether it be whirling or singing or writing or dreaming or whatever it is – that is the moment you can recognize the divine energy as one with the self.

Q: Can you describe your mystical process?

A: Again, this is my own process and it’s different for each seeker. I focus on wazaif, or recitations or mantras of the names of God – singing the phrases, thinking the phrases on the breath, meditating on the essence of the phrases and just being empty and allowing the essence to resonate within myself.

Q: Do you think we are moving toward mysticism and spirituality, or a more secular world-view?

A: In my opinion I don’t think [America] ever had any spiritual basis to begin with. When I walk around I always think that people don’t see the world in the same way — with the same mystical connection as me — and it makes it hard — especially in Iowa. It’s not like when you’re in India or areas of the Middle East — where the sense of the oneness of nature and humanity and the life force of the universe is deep within the fabric of society.