Riyaaz Qawwali performs one of the oldest qawwalis, ”Man Kunto Maula.” Attributed to being written by Khusro to praise Imam Ali, the song is considered a manqabat , which is loosely translated as “characteristics” from the Arabic.
The Beloved sometimes wants to do us a great favor: Hold us upside down and shake all the nonsense out.
Living Tassawuf with Cemalnur Sargut
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
One of the people we’ll be interviewing while in Turkey is Cemalnur Sargut. She is one of Turkey’s deepest and most inspiring spiritual teachers, who is leading a resurgence in the study and practice of Sufism, the mystical manifestation of Islam. She’s a magnetic personality who leads the Turkish Women’s Cultural Association in Istanbul, which reaches millions of people “who would like to apply solutions to today’s problems in the Sufi view that knowledge is a state to be practiced and worship is a journey toward love.”
When we’re researching and evaluating a guest for the show, we’ll often listen to recordings of her speaking. We try to gauge not only what kind of talker she might be — the tone, fluidity, and style of her voice — but also her willingness to bring herself into the conversation and tell stories to illustrate what she’s talking about.
Cemalnur Sargut has been a bit more difficult to surmise. Her native tongue is Turkish, so there’s not much audio or video out there of her speaking in English. But, in this audio above, she gives a lecture (which feels more like a dharma talk) to a California audience at the Baraka Institute in October 2009. She speaks passable English before switching back to Turkish with the aid of a translator.
I think there’s enough here to take the risk. It’s the depth of the content that is worth exploring. She shares her experiences about her love for her teacher, her reflections on the nature of the spiritual journey, and her recommendations for how to live a spiritually balanced life. Within the context of Turkey, this should be a dynamic conversation.
Now, how we equip our host with the proper preparation materials for a one-hour interview?
Lessons from Hindu Sufi Guru Irina Tweedie
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"I hoped to get instruction in Yoga, expected wonderful teachings, but what the teacher did was mainly to force me to face the darkness within myself and it almost killed me…. I was beaten down in every sense until I had to come to terms with that in me which I kept rejecting all my life."
—Irina Tweedie, from Daughter of Fire: A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master
I hadn’t ever heard of Ms. Tweedie before happening upon this quote from Parabola, but her spiritual memoir looks like a compelling read. And if you’d like to hear more of the late Sufi teacher, here’s a poignant interview from Thinking Allowed. She talks about the mind as “the greatest obstacle” to spiritual clarity and that an inherent tension exists between knowledge and the mystical path in which “the less you understand, the better.”
Rumi’s Continuing Emergence in Our Culture
by Krista Tippett, host
A young man from Islamabad, Pakistan expresses himself through photography and the poetry of Rumi. (photo: "Spirit" by Esâm Khattak)
We’ve created a memorable hour of listening that’s fresh and lush with the sounds and the texture of the great Sufi poet, Rumi.
There is no formula for our shows, no template. Each begins with the raw material of a conversation, and we shape its pace and sound and elements around that. I think great productions emerge when the whole feel of the experience seems at one with the words being spoken, taking the listener more deeply into the passion and intent of the voice being heard. Creating this show around the life and words of Rumi has felt a little like having magic to work with.
I take away many gems of idea and image from my conversation with one of Rumi’s delightful 21st-century interpreters and successors, Fatemeh Keshavarz. Rumi saw human life and love as the closest we come to tasting and touching transcendence, and he approached all experience with his whole mind, heart, and body.
Keshavarz describes Rumi’s “whirling” around a column as he recited poetry — a habit that inspired the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Sufi Order — as a way to “stay centered while moving.” He believed that, as searching and restlessness propel us to keep learning, plowing the ground beneath our feet, they are themselves a form of arrival. In Rumi’s way of seeing life, perplexity is a blessed state, sometimes a necessary state. This idea has special resonance, perhaps, in the 21st century when so many basic definitions and institutions of previous generations seem to be up for grabs.
But Rumi’s recent “discovery” in the West also holds no little irony. I found this best expressed in my research by a British journalist, William Dalrymple. “It seems almost unbelievable in the world of 9/11, Bin Laden and the Clash of Civilizations,” he wrote, “but the best-selling poet in the U.S. in the 1990s was not Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, nor Shakespeare or Dante. … Instead, remarkably it was a classically trained Muslim cleric who taught Sharia law in a madrasa in what is now Turkey.” Yet as Rumi has been translated and popularized in the modern West, the religious sensibility behind his beautiful, best-selling words has often been lost.
Fatemah Keshavarz is adamant on this point: Rumi was steeped in Islam. He represents and speaks to “an adventurous and cosmopolitan Islam.” The generous, cross-cultural appeal of his words reflects ideas at the core of Islam that are muted by the extremists and headlines of our time. But to the extent that Rumi would deny or subvert those, he does so through his grounding in Islamic tradition, and his profound love for it.
Keshavarz, who was born in Iran — the center of the vast civilization that spawned Rumi and where he remains to this day a household name — takes special solace in Rumi’s insistence that we can create worlds and possibilities by way of language itself.
Where that part of the world is now concerned, Keshavarz says, U.S. political culture has adopted a language of fear. Rumi champions and models a language of hope. This is not tepid and naive but full-blooded view of human reality, fully aware of the double-edged sword of the passions and pulls of real human experience. In this, Rumi speaks to those of us on both sides of a real or imagined “clash of civilizations.”
As we conclude this show, I hear Rumi as a perfect voice for the spiritual longing and energy of our time. With his vigorous and challenging language of the heart, he reminds us that we need poetry as much as we need science, alongside our politics and within our diplomacy. We need passionate searching words, not just logical decisive words, to tell the whole truth about what it means to be human, and about the past, present, and future of our world.
Here is one passage of many I’ve seen quoted of Rumi, which I’ll now hear with new layers of relevance:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
There are many English translations of Rumi’s poetry available today. But, the craft of translating is a delicate art, one that calls for sensitivity and understanding of the Sufi master and his culture. The Rumi Collection, edited by Kabir Helminski, serves as a good introduction that includes translations by Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, as well as Helminski himself — a Shaikh, or master, of the Mevlevi Order — and others.
We’ve also provided a page of translations by Fatemeh Keshavarz on our website. Not only can you read the text of each poem, but you can listen to it in Persian or English too.
Those Wild Fes Sufi Nights Are Calling
by Hussein Rashid, guest contributor
Some people had Elvis. Others had The Beatles. My dream concert is the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. With a rotating list of performers, it does not matter who was there, but the idea of the festival is what counts.
Over ten years ago, I bought a CD called B’ismillah (“In the Name of God”), a two-CD set from a Fes concert. In that moment, I knew the power of music. The organizers started the festival 16 years ago to bridge the rift amongst civilizations after the first Gulf War and they sought to use music as a common language. The concerts continue to bring in a variety of musical traditions from around the world to show what all people have in common.
My review at Religion Dispatches explains the mechanics of this year’s festival. However, one highlight that I was totally unprepared for was Sufi Nights. After the formal concerts during the afternoon and evening, there was an area set up for local Sufi groups to perform.
Sufism is a broad label for a wide variety of mystical traditions in the Muslim faith. Sufi groups tend to reflect their local cultures, bridging the Arabicized scholarly religious tradition with the local, living Islam of the different communities Muslims belong to. Some of these Sufi groups rely heavily on music.
In the United States, we have been exposed to Sufis and Sufi music for a long time. Jalaluddin Rumi is one of the best-selling poets in the U.S. and is founder of the Sufi group known as the “whirling dervishes.” Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones introduced the Master Musicians of Jajouka to new audiences. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a musician from Pakistan known for qawwali singing, a type of devotional music in South Asia that was incorporated into films like Dead Man Walking.
Because Sufi groups are deeply embedded in the cultures in which they emerge, the free Sufi Nights concerts attracted large numbers of Fasians, in addition to the international crowd who had come for the festival. Each night the performers would be welcomed, personally, by the local community. They were part of the life of the city. They were neighbors and co-workers, cousins and clients.
There was an immediate intimacy between the audience and the performers because of their local character. It was incredibly easy to be swept into that feeling. The small theater area helped to highlight that feeling of intimacy. One night, my camera battery had run down, and I didn’t have any extras. I allowed myself to enter that world. Coming from a South Asian cultural context, I have to say that the ritual did not taste right on my tongue, but that didn’t mean that I did not relish every moment of it.
The invocations and formulas the Sufi groups used were known to all the locals. They participated with the people on stage, not just “singing lyrics” but entering the ritual themselves.
A Sufi group from Ouazzane, Ahl Touat Dar Dmana, performs with Driss Abou Sabr Zerhouni.
Young children entered the ecstatic states of coming nearer to God, moving their bodies and calling out the names of God. The adults took a little longer, but they too participated in the rituals, entering those moments of nearness to the Divine. Tears ran down people’s faces as they approached the ineffable, and smiles lit the ground as though reflecting the divine light they were seeing. It was being in a timeless, placeless space that continued for an eternity and ended in an instant.
Except, you realize that the performance ended, but the moment did not. The songs are popular ones. Young men continued singing after concerts were over.
You would go into the old city, where the stores were, and hear these songs played in shops alongside the latest Shakira tune. The difference between the sacred and the profane is much more porous in these contexts. Here, popular does not mean a-religious, and religious does not mean private. No one was forced to believe or practice anything; stores would remain open during prayer time, sisters would walk down the street, one in hijab and the other not. As a result, people lived and expressed their faith at every moment.
The great secret of the Fes Festival are the Sufi Nights. It is the bridge that the organizers so desperately want to build. You cannot be unaffected by the experience. If you have an open mind, it helps you to see the world a little differently. It’s the one part they do not put on CD; nor should they. I am too young for Elvis, too young for The Beatles. I did get my Fes Festival and I am looking forwarded to going again.
Hussein Rashid is a native New Yorker and proud Muslim. Currently an instructor at the Center for Spiritual Inquiry at Park Avenue Christian Church and based at Hofstra University, he is deeply committed to interfaith work and is passionate about teaching. He believes we need to start talking more intelligently about Islam specifically, and religion generally.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication for the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Day 9 - Feruze Faison: “The Sweetest Sip of Water”
Revealing Ramadan: 30 Days, 30 Voices [mp3, 3:24]
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Feruze Faison, our ninth voice in this special series, grew up in Istanbul and now lives and teaches elementary school in New York. After an early marriage in the U.S., she met her current partner, a woman with whom she’s raising three children. Her relationship is a source of estrangement between her and other family members. The Sufism of her native Turkey influences her personal faith and her memories of Ramadan.
Check back on this blog each day or on our Facebook page to hear a new voice in our “Revealing Ramadan” series. If you’re the on demand type or simply need a more automated form of listening, we’ve produced a special podcast feed that’s available now. Oh, and a special show too!