Little details of Sufism reminded me of bits and pieces from other faiths. I read that the name “Sufi” was derived from the Arabic word “suf,” meaning “wool,” for the simple garments these individuals preferred to fancier options. This made me think of early Protestants who believed opulent attire was inconsistent with true Christianity and insisted on plain, unadorned clothing. In both cases, it was meant as a way to voice concern about the larger society’s preoccupation with wealth, which felt to them like a departure from the core message of faith.

I instantly recognized Sufi worship practices like chanting and visualizations as similar to those in Kabbalah and Buddhism, particularly Tantric methods, and ditto on the insistence that new students must learn from more experienced guides or risk crossing over into dangerous territory. Even significant symbols in Kabbalah and Buddhism like the circle and the ocean made appearances in Sufism. But Sufis also did certain things that struck me as entirely unique. Their chanting might be accompanied by strenuous breathing or thrashing of the head and torso to induce a trance-like state to help separate them from the false reality of the material world. Of course, who hasn’t heard at least some mention of the “Whirling Dervishes,” those one-of-a-kind Sufis who spin around and around to represent the movement of the cosmos?

Somehow, my inclination to find Sufis in Austin with whom I could worship felt appropriate. Maybe it was Austin’s distance from the glitz of Dallas, or its reputation for not quite fitting with the rest of Texas. Both Sufis and Austinites specialize in nonconformity so, in that way at least, the two seem to go hand-in-hand. But perhaps this gets closer to the truth: by exploring Sufism, some part of me felt like I was betraying Fatima. I thought if I did it spur-of-the-moment and in a location I never imagined as relevant, then it might exist outside the narrative. I see now that in the telling it becomes the story and, at every turn, I’ve let down somebody.

It wasn’t hard to locate a Sufi Center in Austin. The website’s pages implied a connection to Islam, invoking Arabic terms and concepts, but nowhere was the relationship overtly stated. It called Sufism “an ancient, practical, and effective school of mysticism based on the teachings of the Prophets.” I had assumed that orthodox Muslims were the ones distancing themselves from Sufis. Now I wondered if the feeling was mutual.

The woman who answered the phone sounded surprisingly ordinary as she confirmed the time I should show up Sunday evening. I would be joining a weekly event called a “Dhikr Circle.” I wasn’t sure what we would do in this circle. “Dhikr” means “to remember” and, among mainstream Muslims, generally refers to a silent reflection or recitation that focuses a person’s thoughts on God. With Sufism, dhikr takes on a greater range of activity. Depending on the order, dhikr may be singing or dancing. It might require feats of stamina and strength. When the Dervishes whirl, that’s dhikr. I searched the Sufi Center’s website to try to determine what kind of dhikr was in store for me.

4 thoughts on “Sufism

  1. I will be interested in your experience with the Sufi practice.

    I had participated in a Sufi group for a couple ‘whirling” sessions years ago. Was surprised to experience an “altered state” from the practice- it really took me away from the daily concerns and the “monkey mind” that otherwise takes my attention from the confident knowledge that I am ‘at-one’ with creation.

    It gave me an insight into the attraction some have for chemically induced distance from the same minutia of the every day. The side effects of the few chemicals I had experienced kept me from walking further down that path, and I have found other practices since that remind me that I am always ‘at-one’.

    Thank you for taking us along on your journey.

    • Hi Val, What a cool description you’ve given of how the whirling changed your perceptions. There’s something very joyful about spinning like kids often do (and maybe a little nausea-inducing, too). But, I agree, ultimately its about coming to that realization of oneness and there are so many ways to reach for it (and it seems to arrive when you aren’t expecting it or doing anything to bring it on too).

  2. I never knew that Austin was a place that was separate from the rest….though that does seem appropriate when considering sufism in that context.
    They seem very similar to elements in the other major religions.

    • Hi Walt! Mostly the separation is in my mind, though Austin definitely is unique. Yes, Sufism reminded me very much of the mystical elements in all the faiths I explored, though not all have them separated out as distinctly. Sometimes you’ll just see little bits and pieces incorporated into the larger worship services or you’ll see them just in the way individuals of a particular denomination worship.

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