On September 25, 2016, the New York Times carried a story by Adela Suliman entitled “Sufi Sect of Islam Draws ‘Spiritual Vagabonds’ in New York.” It deals with the apparent spread of a number of Sufi centers in several parts of New York City, mostly attended by American converts to this form of mystical Islam. The reporter clearly invested time and effort researching for this article. It begins with a detailed description of what goes on in one of these centers, on West 72nd Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A group of devotees (called “beloveds”) meets in the three-bedroom apartment of the leader, known as Abdul Latif (he used to be called John Healy and was raised in Yorkville on the Upper East Side). He greeted the arrivals in Arabic, with a thick New York accent. They sit on the floor until the ritual begins. Then they stand in a circle, holding hands, chanting, and swaying in the distinctive Sufi movement known as zikr—a rhythmic dance intended to lead to a trance-like state of closeness to God. It is known as the favored practice of the Sufi order of Whirling Dervishes, who take it to the point of frenzy. The American “beloved” appear to be somewhat more sedate, but after thirty minutes of zikr they are perspiring and emotionally exhausted. (One curious analogue to this Sufi practice in American religion is the ecstatic dance of the Shakers, an offshoot of the Quakers who came to America from England in the late 18th century under the leadership of a remarkable woman called Mother Ann Lee. Among other peculiar features, the Shakers worshipped in a ritual dance of barely controlled frenzy, during which they sang “Shake, shake, Daniel. Shake the devil, right out of me!”) There are Sufi centers in Brooklyn and Tribeca and elsewhere, with diverse racial and class demographics. (Sorry, no Shakers in New York City. This American curiosity disappeared long ago, because the sect practiced celibacy and survived only by adopting other people’s children, until meddlesome state authorities questioned whether a Shaker settlement provided a desirable environment for raising children.)
The NYT reporter writes without the superior attitude often exhibited by outsiders writing about religious exotica. She reports comments of this sort by others, such as an author who puts the label of “spiritual vagabonds” on the American Sufis. I like Suliman’s attitude of respect and objectivity, often missing in reporting on unconventional religion (I don’t know anything about her own religious background). But I must admit that there is a temptation to satirize. I can imagine what Woody Allen could do with a film about Sufi mystics on the Upper West Side, the proverbial location of secular Jewish intellectuals. I’m reminded of the famous 1970 essay by Tom Wolfe in New York Magazine: “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s”, about a party by Leonard Bernstein in honor of the Black Panthers. (A sequel: “Sufi Chic”? Or even—trust American pluralism—“Shaker chic”?)
Mysticism can be most succinctly defined as religion that looks inward for the divine. The religious traditions rooted in the South Asian subcontinent, notably Hinduism and Buddhism, have had a relatively easy relation with mysticism. The monotheistic traditions rooted in the Middle East, notably Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have had a more difficult time. Their prototypical figure is the prophet proclaiming God’s message, not the yogi sitting in the lotus position looking into the depths within. Of course these are great simplifications. Over centuries every religion develops very diverse forms. Yet the simplifications can be helpful in drawing attention to continuing central themes in every tradition. There have been Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics. But the guardians of monotheistic orthodoxy have always had a problem with mystics: Rabbis were suspicious of the Kabbalah, Christian mystics ran into trouble with church authorities. It was no different with mystics in the Muslim context.
There are always gradations in the closeness to God which all mystics seek. In the most radical case this means unity with God, which clashes directly with the pervasive “Abrahamic” sense of immense distance between the Creator and his creation. A phrase characteristic of the most sophisticated expression of the Indian religious spirit is the Sanskrit phrase tat tvam asi first found in the scriptures of the Upanishads and then developed in Vedanta philosophy—“you are that,” meaning the unity between the Atman, the deepest level of the individual soul, and the Brahman, the divine essence of the universe. Such unity immediately suggests blasphemy from the perspective of monotheism. So it was with Sufism from the beginning. One of the early Sufis, Mansur al-Hallaj (858–922), ran in ecstasy through the streets of Basra (in modern Iraq) shouting ”I am al-Hagg”, which means in Arabic “I am the truth”—perhaps a bit much, but there is more—al-Hagg is one of the names of God in the Quran. So what Hallaj was really shouting was “I am God”—a clear case of blasphemy, for which Hallaj was duly tried and executed. Many Sufi saints making the same assertion are persecuted today, and their tombs destroyed by conservative Islamic authorities.
But there is also a long line of Sufis and scholars sympathetic to them who tried to build bridges between Sufi experience and Muslim orthodoxy. The most important of these was Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111). Originally Persian, he taught Islamic doctrine and law in Baghdad. There is a curious story about the big turning point in his life. He increasingly felt that what he was teaching was antiseptic theory, removed from reality and lived experience: He started to stammer when he was supposed to lecture, eventually lost the ability to speak at all. This strange psychosomatic illness forced him to give up his teaching position. He went into the desert and lived there as a hermit for several years. He received instruction from some Sufi teachers, probably began to practice a form of zikr. His speech came back and he resumed teaching in Baghdad. He published his most famous work, The Reconstruction of the Divine Sciences, which accomplished the integration of Sufi insights into Islamic doctrine.
Arguably the most profound Sufi writer and the most popular today is Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–73). He is best known for his poems, written in classical Persian. Originally from what is now Afghanistan, he eventually settled in Konya (in modern Turkey). There he founded the order of the Whirling Dervishes, which still exists today. Many ordinary Westerners have been drawn to Rumi’s poems. But one of his most influential academic promoters was the German scholar Annemarie Schimmel (1922–2003), who taught at Harvard for many years. In addition to her scholarly writing, she translated many of Rumi’s poems. I once heard her tell how she discovered Rumi: It was during World War II, when she was in her twenties. She was waiting in a railroad station, when an air raid warning was announced. She started reading a translation of Rumi’s poems that someone had given her. Then the bombs started to fall all over the area. She was terrified. She kept reading—and suddenly she had a feeling of great tranquility, of ultimate safety. This deep connection with Rumi stayed with her for the rest of her life.
Spiritual vagabonds? As there were in the late Roman Empire, when the Apostle Paul carried the message of a Jewish Messiah across vast areas of the Mediterranean world. The NYT story mentions a woman born as an Italian-American in Brooklyn, presumably Catholic, who became a Sufi after experimenting with Wicca and Buddhism. She is also a lesbian activist. She is convinced that “the true message of Islam is peace, tolerance, and compassion,” which she understands (not too inaccurately) as the message of Sufism. She led a service to honor the victims of the attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando. If you mix religious freedom with religious pluralism, as I have tried to demonstrate in my work for the past few years, you get a situation in which faith of any sort can no longer be taken for granted, and thus a situation in which there is always a penumbra of uncertainty about any affirmation of faith. The subtitle of a book by the French sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger is The Pilgrim and the Convert (1999). If we are not converted to some version of fundamentalism, we are all pilgrims/vagabonds. If this is understood, even satire will be tinged with respect and empathy.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, regarded as a saintly person even before her recent elevation to sainthood by Pope Francis, has admitted to a lifelong struggle with doubt. This is why the author of a book about her called her “a saint for our time.” Perhaps Jalaluddin Rumi could be called a mystic for our time: “I called out to you in the morning and again at night. You did not answer. Again and again I called out to you, and you did not answer. Then, many years later, I heard your voice: In my silence I spoke to you.”