Nov 25 | The Beauty of what you Love

Last night I made my way over to the place where, once a month, a small group of faithful people gather to hold Unity Zhikr.

A zhikr is a devotional act in Islam in which short phrases or prayers are repeated silently or aloud. In Sufism, the ceremony often involves song, dance, and other liturgical elements which vary according to the lineage or order.

I had heard about Unity Zhikr through Seemi Ghazi, whom I met formally at a Clergy Day on Islam in November 2017 – hands-down the most inspiring and wonderful Clergy Day I had ever been to until then. I had come expecting a lecture, perhaps a panel discussion. What we received was one of the most beautiful and intimate encounters with Islam I could have imagined. Seemi told us the story of the birth of her daughter, a performance piece rich with Islamic symbolism and meaning, enhanced by song and sura and, at one point, the beating of a drum. After that, she taught us how to pray salaat, answered some of our questions, and invited us to participate in a sama, which is a form of zhikr practiced by Sufis.

I had been a part of a sama before at VST several years ago, and it was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I had ever had. Seemi had been present at that sama, as well as Raqib, whom I had seen whirl once before at a UBC event. Raqib is a rather fascinating individual: an older white man with a slight, almost delicate frame, and an incredible air of peace surrounding him. He doesn’t seem to speak much, and every movement appears incredibly deliberate.

Photo by Shannon Lithgow

In that first sama, there had been three whirlers, who danced in the middle of two circles of people which also turned in a round dance. I was in the inner circle, our hands joined and going up and down as we chanted, “Bismillah, bismillah” (in the name of God) over and over until I was almost in a trance. My best memory of that was Seemi, who had her young son with her. She held him in her arms as she whirled, and I remember the look of utter delight on his face as she spun.

This second sama, made up almost entirely of clergy, was smaller, and we did not move. We held hands and stood where we were. I can’t remember exactly what we sang, but I think it was simply “Allah.” Raqib stood in the centre, dressed in traditional garb: a tall brown hat (called the kûlah) and a white gown (the tenure), which at first is covered with a black cloak (the hırka). All of these articles symbolize death: the hat, a tombstone, the robe, the grave, and the white gown death itself. This garb is common to the Turkish Mevlevi order, the famous whirling dervishes.

Raqib eventually shed the black cloak and began to turn as he played the drum and Seemi sang, her voice soaring over our chant. Whirlers turn on the left foot, while the right steps around it. There’s something utterly hypnotic about it. I could watch a whirler for hours. I was most intrigued by the first dance I had seen Raqib do, which he did without a drum. The whirler begins with their arms crossed over their chest, and eventually lifts them, right palm up and left palm down. This, as I understand, is a posture indicating the relationship between heaven and earth.

I felt transported after this second sama. I thought, “How can I get more of this in my life?”

I went and thanked Raqib, who received my hands and bowed to me without saying anything. Then I spoke to Seemi, who enfolded me in her arms as I thanked her. She passed on the information about Unity Zhikr, which she had to do personally as they are cautious about being too public.

I arrived uncertain of what to expect. There were only three people there when I arrived. A space had been cleared in the middle of the room and a woman swept the floor while two older men sat outside the space in chairs.

The woman came to me and said they would start soon. We talked a little bit, and her face lit up when I told her how I had come to be there. I thought she looked familiar and suddenly remembered that I had seen her whirling at Christ Church Cathedral during an event of remembrance for those who had died in the fentanyl crisis. I had been moved by this act of prayer, and astonished that she appeared to do it for at least half an hour, probably longer.

More people began to arrive, including Raqib, and eventually someone brought in a boombox and put in a CD with flute and chant. The woman came and taught me how to whirl, explaining that they preferred to teach through action and without words.

“If you get dizzy or nauseous,” she said, “bring your head down lower than your body. Just bow, like this. It will help.”

I was a bit nervous; I was never that kid who loved spinning until they fell. My last experience of spinning around was probably at Camp Artaban doing staff “initiation,” where I had put my forehead on the end of a baseball bat and spun until I felt like I was going to fall, and then threw it down and snapped, “I’m not doing this,” to my boss.

We bowed to each other and started slow, our arms crossed over our chests. My steps were still separate, with the right foot stepping around the left and the ball of the left never really leaving the floor. Then we raised our arms: palm up, palm down. I managed to do it longer than I thought I would, and had a cool feeling imagining myself as a tree rooted deeply in the floor, but I did eventually get dizzy and had to stop.

The woman stopped with me and we bowed deeply to one another. She gazed into my eyes with a small smile, and I did the same. It felt intimate.

She gave me a few more tips, and we started again, bowing to one another, and then beginning to turn. This time there were more people and they joined us – women and men. Raqib picked up his drum and came to walk between us as we whirled. I raised my arms and focused on my thumb: specifically, on the little white “moon” of my thumbnail.

I felt myself become lost in the music. Raqib chanted along with it, sometimes walking around me in a circle, sometimes walking in a bigger circle around the rest of us. In my peripheral vision I saw the others turning much faster and moving their arms up and down. I tried doing this once but decided quickly I was still too green: the movement of my “still point” made my feet unsteady. I did, though, manage to turn faster until I was moving almost continuously, my steps no longer separate. The music settled into my bones as everything around me disappeared except for that rising moon on my thumbnail.

I think I whirled for nearly ten continuous minutes, and not once did I fall or get nauseous or overly dizzy.

I’m still in a bit of shock that I did that.

Finally, we stopped, and a few of us came to stand in a circle, holding hands. Raqib stood to my left. His hand was warm and pleasantly leathery. We prayed briefly, Raqib mentioning an awareness of the presence of someone they knew. I later discovered that this person had been a part of the community and had recently died.

After that, we laid out a big carpet and came to sit in a circle at its edges. Some folks sat in chairs, but most of us sat on cushions on the floor. We were given songbooks, and for a little while we sang songs out of the book. Most of them were suras, passages of the Qur’an. There was no music; I had to fumble along as best I could in beautiful Eastern modes and rhythms with which I was quite unfamiliar. It was wonderful to sit next to Raqib, who had a beautiful, resonant voice. On my other side was a man who appeared to be South Asian, whose voice was light and sweet.

After these songs, there was a time for the community to share their memories of this person who had died. It was very moving. Finally, we began our zhikr, which opened with a poem read by one of the men. I’m not sure who wrote it but it sounded like something Rumi would write.

I didn’t know what to expect, and this portion of the evening ended up being just as wonderful as the whirling. The lights were dimmed, and for the next hour or so we chanted. Each chant blended into the next one, and they rose and fell like the tide, with solo voices sometimes rising overhead like Seemi’s had in the earlier sama.

I found myself captivated but also somehow at home. My body began to sway with the music and this did not feel artificial or self-conscious. I had been nursing a terrible cough all week, and so for much of the zhikr I opted to be ministered to by their voices, but at one point I finally surrendered to my body’s need to sing.

We were chanting the “La ilaha illallah” (“There is no god but God”), traditionally said to be the inspiration for the sama ceremony when Rumi heard it being spoken by goldsmiths beating the gold in the marketplace and responded with joy by whirling. I let my voice join, whispering at first, then singing, allowing it to build until I was singing in the octave above everyone else, hearing the voices start to rise along with mine, thinking briefly, “Oh crap, they can all hear me” before the thought was subsumed by the sacred emptiness in me. Rarely had I felt so filled. I could have done it for hours.

Finally, the ceremony ended with another poem, and then we tidied up and had tea and snacks.

I had some good conversations with folks, most of whom at first assumed I was one of Seemi’s students. The snacks were good too!

Part of what drew me to this practice was the need to get in better contact with my physicality. For all the rhapsodic language of my sermons about incarnation, I’m really not very good at being incarnate myself! I tend to prefer to reside in my head, and adore contemplative practices as well as just sitting for hours on end. I don’t like exercise at all and often approach it the way other people go to the dentist. There is no kind of physical activity I really enjoy; only ones I dislike less than others (swimming being one of them). This tendency is one of the reasons why I like Anglicanism and its “pew acrobatics” and gestures: it reminds me that worship must be done with the whole body, not just the mind or the heart. This practice of whirling, I thought, would be another simple way to become more in tune with my body, to incorporate it into acts of worship in more explicit ways.

I can’t wait to go back. I think I’d like to connect with Seemi again to talk more about this beautiful tradition.

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