I had been contemplating visiting the Sufi Cultural Centre for many months. I had emailed them and gotten an open invite for visiting several months ago, but since they only met together every Saturday night for dhikr (to remember God by calling on His names/attributes), it was difficult to actually end up there, since there were my own family get togethers, weddings, or dinner invitations to commit to. But all along, I knew that I would end up there sooner or later, and for some reason that only God knows, it would be the right time and right experience.
I finally found myself driving to the Sufi Cultural Centre one recent night. Sitting next to me, was Rabia, one of my younger sisters, who had volunteered to share my experience at the centre. On our forty minute car ride to the centre, we discussed how we needed to leave by 11pm at the latest that night because of the needs of our young children at home. Then we mostly talked about heavy subjects: some of the lessons we had learned through our life experiences, the evolution of our relationship with God, and the mysteriousness of life.
At times my thoughts would dive into fears. What if they did not pray salah (compulsory ritual prayers)? What if they did strange rituals? What if they pray to someone else, other than God? What if I feel so out of place there? I really had no idea what to expect. I was both excited and nervous. But in my heart, I kept praying for everything to be positive.
As we stood in front of the door, I turned the door knob to find the door locked. I knocked, and a man opened the door and let us in. He had a kind smile. We told him it was our first time there, and he courteously showed us the women’s seating area. We walked over beautiful rugs surrounded by ornate walls with Quranic calligraphy and geometric patterns. A few men sat along the benches lining the walls as we made our way to the women’s seating. We greeted all the women with salaams, and they embraced us with big smiles. Upon sitting on the couch, my sister and I quietly talked to each other about our first impressions of the centre. We both loved the way the inside was designed. Even the lighting was soft, which made the large hall seem warm and intimate.
I was expecting some sort of dhikr to start soon, but instead, we were told that dinner was ready. A bit in a daze at this new development, I walked in a steady stream with the other women towards a stairwell that led down to the basement level. I had just eaten before coming, and had no idea there would be food. We walked into an open space with two low, long lables set a few feet away from each other. Men were seated on one table, and the women on the other one. I saw down on a couch and had a few friendly conversations with the women at the table. We introdoced ourselves and shared a few stories and good laughs. I felt very much at ease, and even though most of the women were regulars at the centre, they all made my sister and I feel welcome and cared for.
I was just blown away by what I was experiencing. It felt too good to be true. I held my plate, my mind still trying to process the level of hospitality at this centre. A sister offered to serve food on my plate, and without thinking, I held out my plate, as she scooped fresh cooked rice and hot kefta on it. Only after she had placed it did I snap back to reality and wondered how I would finish all that food when I had already eaten before arriving. Nevetheless, I dug in and ate as much as I could, feeling terribly guilty for wasting the rest of it. As I asked God in my heart to forgive me for wasting the food, a man with a gentle face walked over to our table, serving Turkish tea. Gratefully, I grabbed a small, hot glass, and began sipping. I watched some young children play freely with one another, and was happy that no one stopped them from playing. The children seemed totally at ease and at home there.
I had just begun driking my tea, when we were told about the meghrib salah (sunset payers) being held on the main floor. I sipped my tea a few more times and then headed to the kitchen where I handed my cup to a courteous, smiling young lady. Feeling a little embarrassed about wasting my food, I quickly ran up the stairs, and joined in the prayers. My heart felt joyous once again as I realized that the Muslims of the Jerrahi sufi order followed both, the legal and the spiritual aspects of Islam. This is one of the rumors made famous about sufi-inclined Muslims, that they don’t do the required prayers and do the extra worship instead. I have enough knowledge to know that mainstream Islamic Sufism is mainly about teaching/spreading the inner dimensions and spirituality within Islam, rather than some separate sect or new teachings outside of Islam.
After salah, we sat and talked amongst each other for a bit, as we waited for the main teacher, Tevfik Baba, to arrive at the centre. Once he was there, everyone became quiet and turned their attention towards him. I expected to go right into dhikr, but was pleasantly surprised to listen to a spiritually inspirational talk by the teacher.
Tevfik Baba had an aura of kindness around him, and his manner of speaking was exceptionally relaxed and soft. I liked how despite being in the women’s section, the whole space was open, and so we could all clearly see the teacher as he talked.
A fairly large chunk of his talk revolved around the importance of education in Islam. He stressed the need to encourage our children to be well educated, and highlighted both worldly and spiritual education. He added that we need to make it easy for our children to like education and studying, and to make them understand in a gentle manner, how important academic education is for them. His words, “…let’s educate with love, let’s make it sweet and appealing” resonated with me.
His reminders that “true love for Allah is loving His creation” and that “Islam is not for those who love money and worldly pleasures” filled my heart with peace. I actively absorbed all his spiritual advice. And as I listened to him talk, I realized that the whole time, I could have been listening to all this from an imam on a Friday prayers sermon. There was nothing unusual or contradictory to Islam in the speech of Tevfik Baba. The only difference appeared to be that the people at this sufi centre came together for extra worship and inspiring talks on Saturday nights.
My sense of awe and wonder at this beautiful gathering was only heightened when Tevfik Baba’s talk was paused for a few moments as large platters of fresh cut fruits were brought out, one in the women’s section, and one in the men’s, and a gentelman walked around with a tray of Turkish tea for anyone wanting some. I’m not much of a tea drinker, but I love fruits, so grabbed a few pineapple and canteloupe chunks. I felt a bit surprised when one of the men came over to the women’s section to grab some fruit that was no longer at the men’s side. There was no awkwardness from anyone. In fact, I realized how neatly balanced their Islamic etiquettes for men and women interaction had been all along. During dinner, even though the men were at the seperate table, everyone could clearly see one another, and everyone interacted with the utmost respect with each other. This centre had a very different culture than mosques I had been to. It was like a hidden gem.
My thoughts were interrupted by my sister, who pointed to the time and I realized we had to leave soon. But I wanted to catch the first few minutes of dhikr, so we stayed another few minutes as the talk was wrapped up, isha (night) prayers were held, the lights were turned down, candles were lit, and everyone got ready for dhikr.
The men sat in a circle in the middle of the room. The young children, one of them a girl, sat with the men. The women sat in a line on floor stools, our legs folded under. With our arms wrapped around the front of our bodies, I heard everyone start chanting in melodious tunes. Various names of God were called out, and a few times, there were also salutations given to our beloved Prophet Mohammed pbuh.
After a few minutes of dhikr, we realized how late we were running to get back home to the children, and so we quietly got up, walked around, waving to whomever looked our way, and made our way out of the centre.
On our way home, we talked about the beautiful decor and ambiance at the centre, the unbelieveable hospitality and etiquettes of everyone, and how comfortable and welcomed we felt being there. But we also talked about the questions we had. We wanted to know the differences in the various sufi orders, and the meanings and stories behind the various body movements coupled with the chants we witnessed in the few minutes of dhikr. Perhaps, I will go back one day with my questions and wonderings, and share all that with my blog readers. But until then, I am one with my Muslim brothers and sisters from the Jerrahi order.
I would like to take this chance to thank each and every one of them for welcoming us and providing such a high quality spiritual and social experience. May the peace and blessings of Allah swt be on each and every one of you, and all those reading my post.