Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam and, as such, one of its main aims is the purification of the heart, which facilitates an inward search for the divine and the experience of spiritual union. For a mystic, this union does not happen through the intellect or the following of orthodoxy. It is felt first-hand in body and soul. The Sufi path is often likened to a love affair whereby the seeker is the lover and God the Beloved.
Hence, the merging with the Divine that Sufis desire and sometimes attain is difficult to describe with words because such an experience belongs to a realm that transcends language, logic, and the limits of the material world. For this reason, Sufis use poetry, music, dance, meditation, and clever anecdotes to teach profound truths. These methods are meant to reach the heart —the center of feelings and emotions— directly, bypassing the intellect because the rational mind is often an obstacle in this quest.
Recognizing that Sufism is a universal path of love, mystics and saints from all traditions have understood that the world’s greatest problem is a hunger of the heart, not of the body. Indeed, everywhere on Earth, regardless of their station in life, people are suffering, feeling lonely, and starving for love. Shams of Tabriz, one of the greatest mystics of all times and Rumi’s spiritual teacher, advised that we should make our hearts, and not our minds, our primary guides in life.
The world’s greatest problem is a hunger of the heart, not of the body.
Spiritual masters believe that only God’s love can satisfy the hunger of the heart. There is no other solution. Giving God’s love to humanity is the greatest challenge and in order to spread this love throughout the earth, we must have pure hearts. Sufis have many techniques for polishing the heart. These are forms of meditation, including the well-known whirling practiced by dervishes. Most of these techniques involve the remembrance of God and the chanting of God’s divine names.
Sufis believe that the connection between the Creator and His creation is the deepest love that exists, which is known as unconditional love. When we lack this connection to Love, we chase all the wrong things. We develop an all-consuming obsession for more: more possessions, more wealth, more prestige, more entertainment, more mind-numbing substances, in sum, more ego-driven materialistic and mental consumption and forms of escapism.
Yet, obtaining the objects of our desire never satisfies our hunger. And we end up living in a perpetual hamster wheel, desperately trying to fill our emptiness only to end up unhappier, lonelier, unfulfilled, and even more disconnected from our true self, our essence. This feeling of separation ironically makes us chase even harder, to our detriment. Nothing fills that void but Love.
Shams of Tabriz said that a life without love is a waste: “Don’t ask yourself what kind of love you should seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern or Western. Divisions only lead to more divisions. Love has no labels, no definitions. It is what it is, pure and simple. Love is the water of life. And a lover is a soul of fire.”[i]
The foundations of Sufism are around 1400 years old. There are hundreds of Sufi orders and each one of them uses different methods and exercises, but all have the same goal of attaining unity: unity with our true essence, with others, and with God, who is closer to us than our jugular vein (Quran 50:16).
The Sufi wanderer lives in the inner world of the heart.
It is important to note that Sufism is not a monastic path. Islam does not encourage monasticism. The Sufi wanderer lives in the inner world of the heart while functioning responsibly in society. Avoiding worldly pursuits and responsibilities in the name of religion or spirituality is highly discouraged as it is often another form of escapism.
Because Sufism is embedded in deeply traditional and patriarchal structures, it is rare for women to have the opportunity to learn Sufi whirling, and even more infrequent for them to be able to perform it in public.
My beloved teacher, Rana Gorgani, has been teaching this ritual to thousands of students from all backgrounds, ages, and genders for well over a decade. What began for her as a deeply personal practice has become her life mission. And the world benefits immensely from her devotion to teaching Sâma, or spiritual listening, as Sufi dance is also called.
Thanks to Rana and other teachers, many Western men, and women, such as myself, have had the opportunity to learn this life-changing practice and to share it with others, many of whom would have never dreamed it possible to learn.
One can see performances of whirling dervishes in various countries, and of course in Turkey. But it is readily apparent that the public ritual of whirling is reserved for men. However, this is a contradiction with some of the most important tenets of Sufism, such as the equality of all people, and the fact that the soul has no gender.
[The Perfect Man and the Paradox of Perfection in Sufism]
[Meet the American Who Became a Moroccan Sufi Mystic (Part 1 of 2)]
[The Fes Festival of Sufi Culture: Beyond Mysticism]
In my opinion, Rana’s work is that of a true Sufi. What I mean by this is that everybody who is willing to learn, and has the discipline and strength to undergo her strict and demanding training, is welcome to learn the Sâma from her, a whirling dance that is profound and life-altering for it is essentially a journey into oneself.
This journey can be extremely difficult and inwardly antagonistic. We may experience or see our inner demons, those parts of ourselves that we don’t like, are painful, or want to hide. But that is an important aspect of the practice, to observe those parts, to allow them to be, and to realize that as they arise, they also pass, giving way to the next feeling or the next state. The same way life goes through different seasons and all things that are born necessarily must die. We learn to accept all aspects of life without the need to judge anything as “good” or “bad.”
The practice of Sâma allows a deep experiential comprehension of truths.
The practice of Sâma allows a deep experiential comprehension of truths that often remain inaccessible, understood only superficially and marginally at the intellectual level. It allows us to connect with the deepest, innermost aspects of our nature. In a sense, whirling allows connection to our own divinity and is a powerful form of meditation and prayer, a prayer that involves one’s entire being.
Whether the whirler is a man or woman does not matter in Sâma. When we perform the Sufi dance, Rana explained in a candid interview she gave recently to France 24, we are not dancing from our femininity or from our masculinity, but from our soul. (Find her fascinating interview starting at minute 6:55 of this video)
Rana teaches that Sufi Dance is a ritual we do with our bodies to access the innermost chambers of our souls. By turning – always to the left to the side of the heart – we are engaging in a prayer as we would do in a mosque, a church, or a synagogue. The difference, however, is significant: we do not need anything outside ourselves to perform Sâma. For God is not contained in any place of worship, but is with us and in us at all times, knowing everything that is in our hearts, what we disclose and what we hide.
“Neither My earth nor My heavens can contain Me but the soft peaceful heart of My believing servant can.”[ii]
It is believed that whirling liberates the soul from the prison of the body.
Whirling is ultimately a dance of liberation. It is believed that whirling liberates the soul from the prison of the body, something that can only happen permanently with death. By spinning, we enter into a trance and experience both freedom and connection: connection with our own souls and therefore, with God, and freedom from our minds and physical bodies. Our spirit soars while we whirl.
On a physical level, whirling balances our energetic systems and heals the parts of our body that need healing. It releases energy blocks. Whirling allows pure energy to dissolve blockages and lets it flow as it should. In physics, it is said that the shape of energy is a spiral.
All things in the universe, including human beings, find whirling natural: the planets, the galaxies, and our own bodies are all spirals of energy rotating on an axis. Because of this, whirling aligns us and unites us with everything else in existence. As Rana Gorgani beautifully said: “The borders disappear, the East and the West merge to form the circle within which the Self, the Others, and Love are only ONE.”
[i] Shafak, Elif. The Forty Rules of Love. United States: Viking Penguin, 2010, p. 350.
[ii] Hadeeth Qudsi in Ihya ‘Uloom Al-Deen of Imam Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Al-Ghazali Vol. 3.