On a Friday in May with the sun making a big last minute show of itself in the late afternoon, I met with Sheikha Fariha, the spiritual guide to the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order, at the Dergah al-Farah in lower Manhattan for over an hour of casual spiritual discourse.
By the time we had arrived the Friday prayers had already finished and the masjid had a sense of quieting down to it. The main hall was empty and enormous with vast Persian rugs overlapping one another from wall to wall. By the time we conducted the interview I had spent only a handful of nights at this location singing the makams of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order. Most of my experiences with the Order took place in Boulder, Col., five years ago, when I first began my studies in Sufism and Islam. It had been roughly a year since my last visit, but in typical fashion Sheikha Fariha embraced me warmly and welcomed me into her Sufi Order’s sacred space.
Even when no one is present the Dergah al-Farah feels occupied. So much has happened at this Tribeca establishment that rarely do you feel alone. It is as if the mystic play lingers long after everyone has left. So many experiences of love and remembrance—singing, chanting, laughing, crying—all have taken place weekly behind a simple green door making very little of itself known to the outside world. Even still, the place pulsates.
Inconspicuousness can be a hallmark of many Sufi Orders. So prominent is the lore of Sufis existing right under your nose without you knowing it that it is hard for me to think of Sufism without thinking of the kind of mysticism you find only in the back of corner stores.
My own Sufi group in Boulder met on the second floor of an extensive warehouse complex at the very edge of the city limits, wedged between a “gentleman’s club” and a Mexican restaurant with only the Rocky Mountains in our shadow. Another Sufi Order came into my vision during that same time while traveling in upstate New York, when a group of friends and I stopped at what we were told was the best pizza parlor in town. The owner was supposed to be a really nice man who “will probably sit at your table and speak with you while you eat.” While waiting for our food I happened to notice a few booklets on Sufi practices scattered on the shelves, only to find out that the man making my pizza was the sheikh of the Qadiri Rifai Sufi Order.
Inebriated on God’s love on the one hand, yet hidden from the world on the other, Sufis are known for whirling on the fine line of being both “in the world, but not of it.” So it is appropriate for the Dergah al-Farah to make home, which it has for over twenty years, in downtown Manhattan surrounded by bars and high-end restaurants. Thousands of people pass by its doors every evening. Most probably do not even notice; are too hungry to bother. At this place of Sufi gatherings, however, a very different kind of customer service is provided. Here, the only meal is God. The only wine: Allah.
BOB DOTO: What is Sufism?
SHEIKHA FARIHA: Sufism is a way to know yourself, to know God, and to know yourself as part of God. This knowledge is imparted heart to heart. It comes by one’s own longing and intention, and by dedicating oneself to a guide and a community. The community is very important, because the Sufi path is mainly about the Other. The Sufi community that forms around a guide is called the mystic body. People can transform very quickly in the presence of the mystic body.
Sufism is, in some sense, beyond religion. It is the fruit of the sacred path. Jesus said that he was the vine upon which the fruit grows. What does that mean? The vine is the life giving bond between the Source and the seeker. The guide is the vine connecting the soul to its own true self. In our tradition the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the original vine, including all his inheritors, and of course all the founders from every sacred tradition. The spirit of Jesus, peace be upon him, is intimately part of this vine, as his teachings are those of the inner path. Every true mystic Sheikh and Pir is this vine, and the dervish seeker comes to connect with it. At that point, the light of this mystic vine, which in this tradition we call the Nur Muhammad, begins circulating through the dervish and this one becomes the fruit. When the dervishes are ripe, really ripe, they are consumed by God. And when they are consumed by God they are ready to become themselves a vine.
So just as a fruit on the vine, when ripened is consumed by a person, so too the dervish, when ripened, is consumed by God.
SF: Exactly. So the goal of every Sufi order is to create more fruit and more vines. It’s not to keep people in an infantile state, at all. It’s to produce and bring about mature human beings, mature mystics.
When speaking of Sufism I almost always hear it referred to as “the Sufi path.” How would you describe this path?
SF: Well, the path is one’s life. In a particular way, tariqat, the mystic path of Sufism, is a journey thru the seven levels of the self, to the Essence of God. This journey takes place thru the grace of the silsilla, the golden conduit of the hearts of saints transmitting the light of Muhammad and the light of all the Prophets, peace be upon them all. The journey is a process of purification, an emptying of self from all but God. Great personal endeavor and courage are also required, because essentially we are giving ourselves up, surrendering, willing to let the limited self die to the illusion of its own separate existence. And then, we can see that we are already home, already in Allah, and that it is simply a journeying within Allah that has taken place. The path of purification comes to an end, but the journeying within Allah, from Allah to Allah, is endless.
If everything is Allah, what makes a spiritual path different than, say, a mundane path?
SF: The spiritual guide. You need that touchstone. That’s what’s going to make that transformation, and begin the process of alchemy in yourself. That spiritual guide is part of the conduit to the Source.
In the beginning of the path there’s a great separation for our self between our spiritual life and our “other” life. In fact at times there’s a desire to give up this other life as it seems to be in such disharmony with our spiritual life. But then gradually we realize this is one life, one fabric. It is you who have changed. Then our life changes into goodness.
But, if we are forever in Allah, why do we feel that we need to even take on a path in order to change our lives?
SF: That’s an interesting question, and something we can only attribute to Divine Will. In other traditions this might be called Divine Play. In Sufism it’s called the drama of Divine Love. Somehow the hiding and the finding, the longing and the union is part of this love. As Allah says in the holy hadith [the recorded teachings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad], “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known.” So it is really Allah manifesting His own hiddeness, Her own mystery. And then when this hiddeness comes forth there is this falling in love with one’s own being. But, part of that play of love is the idea that aspects of creation are veiled. Ibn Arabi has said that the only creature in creation that is veiled is the human being. All animals, all creation, see and know God directly.
Similarly, in the Qur’an it is said that “Even the bird on a wing knows its prayer.”
SF: Oh yes, of course. All creation is in praise of the Source, although not like a separate being praising a separate being. It is God praising God. It is just that the human form, which is said to be the crown of creation—the inheritor of all the Divine qualities and names—is also said to be the one who is veiled.
It’s a paradox.
SF: It is a paradox. It goes completely against what reason would say. But that is the Divine desire, which longs to be hidden in its greatest manifestation, the human being, to experience the joy of being found. As the mystics say, separation exists to taste the joy of union.
When we begin to see with the eyes of love we see that this is all the play of love. Everything is path. Everything is goal. God’s mercy and love are endless, God’s Reality is endless, so the journey is endless. Life is the journey of love, love in love to Itself. The seeker falls in love, then follows, then truly sees, then becomes love, becomes real. This takes the seeker thru all the seven levels to the station of Nur alla’Nur, the light of Allah within the light of Allah….
However, it doesn’t seem as if a person actually goes from one level to the next, washing his or her hands of the previous level.
SF: Well you never actually leave the first level. In a way your cells are on that first level of survival, and yet cells and bodies can be transformed into light. So we don’t leave, rather we transform and we expand. As humans we have the ability to encompass all creation, and that is why we are said to be the crown of creation.
As separate from other animals?
SF: Yes, while animals have a very exalted place, it is said that humans have more completeness. There are many Sufi stories that point to the divine presence and intelligence in animals. Bayazid Bestami, a great Sufi saint, was walking to prayer and sees a dog also walking down the path. He steps out of the way so as not to loose his ablution (in those days it was believed by some legal schools that touching dogs meant that you lost your ritual purity). The dog spoke to him and said, “Why are you moving away from me? It just so happened that God put me in a dog’s body and you in a human body. It could have been just the opposite!” After that Bayazid Bestami had great reverence for dogs.
Since it seems we are saying that there is Divine intelligence in all creation, I’m wondering if you could talk about the Islamic proclamation, la illaha il Allah, and how it is translated into English. The translation itself has traveled a path. At first there is the translation of the phrase as “There is no god but Allah.” It then moves into “There is no god but God.” And finally, “There is nothing but God.”
SF: It depends on where we are on the path that will determine how we understand and translate the phrase. Sheikh Nur, Lex Hixon, wrote a wonderful gnostic text on La ilaha ilallah in Atom From the Sun of Knowledge, where he explored some of the infinite mystical depths of that form of praise. On the deepest level it means that we have no separate existence, that God alone exists, and that we are God’s manifestation. In the normal usage of “There is no god but Allah” it might sound like the devotee is making an exclusive claim for Allah over other understandings of God.
As if Allah is a separate deity apart from all others.
SF: Exactly. The deeper meanings are all different perceptions of the oneness of reality, tawhid. Ultimate Reality is all that exists, manifesting in infinitely different forms. The person who has merged into Realiity is the one who can truly convey that state. A master like Sheikh Muzaffer had become that state, and when you were with him you would taste that state and experience the alchemical cooking of love. It is in relation to a guide that we transform. In the beginning we see unity in the guide and feel it when we are in the guide’s presence. This is called Ilm al Yakin, knowledge of unity.
Then there’s a deeper level where we actually perceive it in our self. This is called Ayn al Yaqin, seeing the unity directly. Then there is the third level which is to be it. This is called Haqq al Yaqin, being the truth. Sheikh Muzzafer would compare the process to hearing about a city, then setting out and seeing the city, followed by the third level, which is to be inside the city. The path from separation to union is going from a sense of no God—extreme separation—to a state of complete immersion in God while retaining a level of individual consciousness, which is subsistence in God, baqa bi’llah. This state is even more advanced than fana fillah, extinction in God. For the Sufis, permanently loosing your own individual consciousness in God is not a desirable state. The highest level in Sufism is where a person sees his or herself as God’s existence yet also retains the level of servanthood. This was the way of the Prophets.
It seems that once you start walking this path the way we talk about levels and stages starts to break down.
SF: Yes, and there again, you ask yourself, “Where am I on this path?” It’s humbling! [laughter] “Have I moved at all? Or have I gone backwards?” [laughter] “Maybe I’m in that place of just not knowing.” Any sense of identifying with a level will certainly be tested. So it’s better not to look at those things so much. The main thing is to continue turning to Allah and submitting our limited self to Allah’s mercy and love. This way we can hope to attain transparency and unity with the Divine life.
I’d like to know about your personal path. It would be helpful for people to hear why and how you oriented yourself towards Sufism.
SF: I was born into a French Catholic family in Texas, where religion was not suffocating. There was an interesting balance. There was the church and the beauty and love represented by the mass and community, but there was also the freedom and open space of Texas. I did not need to rebel against anything because I was given so much space. Maybe so much space that I was rather looking for a good hand to hold onto. [laughter]
It was only when I moved to New York at around age thirteen that the struggle began. I wasn’t prepared for the experience of the city. I went to a girl’s school with uniforms, and I felt like a wild colt put into a stable. At the end of my senior year I came down with tuberculosis, which gave me the opportunity to stay in bed and read. Milton’s Paradise Lost and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain were the most significant for me and the latter pointed to a spiritual journey that must be undertaken. At the same time I met a student from India who introduced me to Indian mystics, and from there I started exploring and exploring. My thirst kept increasing, and I thought of going to India as so many did. Eventually, it seemed a long time, Sheikh Muzaffer came into my life.
And how did that come about?
SF: It happened first through the Whirling Dervishes who came to New York City and performed at Circle in the Square. My parents saw them there. My father, the good Parisian Catholic, fell in love with them and always had the intention of bringing them back to this country. When my father passed away my mother made a vow to bring the Whirling Dervishes back to the United States. I was a part of that process and went with her to Istanbul. During that time she was referred to Tosun Bayrak as a person who could direct her in how to receive an entire group of Whirling Dervishes in Houston, Texas. I was there that day in New York when Tosun Baba came. After he and my mother finished conversing I took him downstairs to the door, and he, very much in passing, mentioned his Sheikh, but in such a way… “Oh my Sheikh…” Something about the way he said it…immediately Sheikh Muzaffer’s fragrance was present and I started having a very strong feeling for him. He was the one I was waiting for.
And then came Sheikh Nur… I am really a disciple. I have the title Sheikh, which is more of a practical thing, and in America it’s good for people to learn a certain degree of respect, but [takes a sip of her tea] the reality is that I am just their disciple. After Sheikh Muzaffer’s passing I became Sheikh Nur’s disciple. Even though I had received the taj, the crown of the Order, from Effendi in 1980 alongside Nur, it was clear to me that I would serve Nur.
Did you meet Sheikh Nur at the same time you met Sheikh Muzaffer?
SF: Yes. Effendi was like a gigantic magnet and drew so many people from so many different backgrounds and paths together. It was amazing. He drew people who were within Islam, people who had never heard of Islam, people who were just traveling through. He attracted longing hearts.
How long had you been with Sheikh Muzaffer before you took the title of Sheikha?
SF: Well I never took it on until Sheikh Nur passed in 1994, when others thought it was a good idea, and I assumed a part of Sheikh Nur’s role, in tending the tariqat as it were.
How was that for you?
SF: It was…unusual. You know, I had never expected Sheikh Nur to die. Even though he was becoming frail before my eyes I couldn’t believe he was going to pass. I so much believed in his mission. I saw Effendi bringing this great mystical tradition to the West, and Nur seemed to be the perfect vessel thru which this tradition could continue flowering. And he was, but it happened more quickly than any of us anticipated. Nur acted as the diamond thru which the light of the Jerrahi Sufi tradition radiated. His writings and his spiritual transmissions given to his disciples are the foundation for the next great wave in the West. It shows you that we do not know how things will come about even if we have an intuition that they will.
When Nur passed into the realm of beauty I took on the role of guiding the community. This was indicated by dervish dreams, which point to the next guide. There was a lot of pressure coming from the side of Istanbul to draw everything back and put it under the wing of Turkey. But, as Sheikh Muzaffer had said, “I did not come to the West to meet my own national group.” He was way beyond that. He came for the human heart, and he came to offer the path of love to the American people whom he loved. After Effendi, Nur took his “sword of Alexander” [laughter] and cut out any remaining cultural aspects of tariqat. He continued offering the transmission of wisdom and love that Effendi had brought, gathering the souls to journey back to the Source in the caravan of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Sheikh Nur was always clear that the tariqat stands on love of Holy Qur’an and love for the Prophet and the tradition of the Prophets.
The name of the Order during Effendi’s lifetime was Halveti Jerrahi. After Effendi’s passing into the realm of beauty, Nur put Ashki, love, in the title, as this was one of Effendi’s names. He called it the Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order. Then when Nur passed we included his name “Nur” in the title, because his presence has marked this tariqat tremendously. So now in the Americas it carries the names of both Sheikh Nur and Sheikh Muzaffer. Their meeting in the West was like the meeting of Shems and Mevlana Rumi, giving rise to something radically new in the field of Sufism.
It seems really difficult to define where the culture ends and the tradition begins, because these traditions begin in culture. How does one separate the two?
SF: You can only do that through inspiration and guidance. If you start doing it mentally it’s already off. What one can do is deepen. Once firmly rooted in the tradition you are guided to do what is true. And we have the depth of the sacred tradition as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that we can endlessly deepen into.
But of course we have our own cultural blinders. Who knows? Perhaps in two hundred years people will have to shake the American culture off from this tradition.…
Originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Parabola.
Bob Doto is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Brooklyn, NY. He can be found playing in the mysterious post-punk group SPRCSS, teaching writing and religion courses at 3rd Ward, or penning articles on esoteric such-and-such.
Categories: Guest Posts, Islam, MAJOR RELIGIONS, Manhattan