Sufism, the mystical practice of Islam, takes root in the City of Angels

LOS ANGELES (RNS) Islam is like the bark of a tree and Sufism its sap or inner essence, says a Southern California Sufi.

Sufism devotees meditate at Daniel Amin Colman’s family home in the San Fernando Valley on Feb. 18, 2017. RNS photo by Priyadarshini Sen

LOS ANGELES (RNS) The rhythmic chanting of 15 “beloveds,” as they call themselves, ripples across a prayer room in a family home in the San Fernando Valley.

They stand in a circle with their hands clasped and eyes shut, swaying gently. Their mantra grows louder as one of them weeps, and others seem immersed in a trance.

One of the beloveds, Daniel Amin Colman, owner of the home, chants along with the group of Sufi converts as they invoke the 99 sacred names of God with barely contained ardor. Colman says Islam is like the bark of a tree and Sufism its sap or inner essence.

The Sufi form of Islamic worship is becoming increasingly popular in Los Angeles, say those who practice it and scholars who study it.

One group of Sufi believers, of the Shadhili order —  founded in Morocco by Abu Hasan Ali ash-Shadhili in the seventh century — alone has grown to more than 500 members in Los Angeles. It started with only 10 members a decade ago.

Adherents say they are drawn to Sufism for its intense spiritualism. An “intoxicated state of love and union with God” is how it’s described by Colman, who embraced this mystical path eight years ago.

Tamsin Murray, a New Mexico-based teacher who conducts Sufism workshops in Los Angeles, says the number of Sufi conferences and experiential sessions has grown considerably in California over the last 10 years.

She says she and many others have turned to the teachings of Adnan Sarhan, director of the Sufi Foundation of America. Sarhan passes on the techniques of the Shattari order of of Sufism — founded in the 15th century — using movement, whirling and meditation to reach states of heightened concentration.

“People want to get a real taste of spiritual connection through experience and movement, without dogma or form,” Murray says.

Sufi retreat centers, schools of spiritual learning, devotional music (qawwali), poetry and literature have attracted increasingly larger followings, says Carl Ernst, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina.

And Sufi poetry and literature have a growing fan base, “especially the work of 13th-century mystical poet Jalal ad Din Rumi,” says Ernst. Rumi is one of the best-selling poets in the U.S.

Raised in a Buddhist family with a father who was formerly Jewish and a mother who was Greek Orthodox, Colman says he encountered Sufism while on a spiritual quest.

Attending a California workshop led by a Sufi sheikh, or master, from Jerusalem in 2009, Colman found the Sufi approach to prayer enchanting.

“The sacred phrases that we chanted in Arabic were so powerful that they transformed my inner state. For years, I was looking for this kind of peace in my spiritual seeking,” says Colman, who converted to Islam and has gone on the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

Sufism is grounded in the Five Pillars of Islam — the obligations of all Muslims — which include praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan and going on hajj when possible. But many Muslims reject Sufism as outside of mainstream Islam, and Sufis are persecuted in some countries.

In Pakistan, the group known as the Islamic State blew up a Sufi shrine in February, killing 35 people. In Bangladesh on March 13, unidentified militants shot and hacked to death a Sufi leader, the latest in a string of murders of moderate religious leaders and atheists.

Sufism emerged shortly after the birth of Islam in the seventh-century Middle East. It is rooted in the ascetics who rejected worldliness in early Islamic practice and meditated on the words of the Quran.

Sufis believe love — as opposed to a fear of hell or desire for heaven — should inspire religious devotion, an idea taught by Rabiah al-Adawiyah, a woman who lived in Basra, in present-day Iraq, and died in 801.

By the 12th century, Sufis were organized into orders called tariqas and established outposts far beyond Sufism’s Middle Eastern birthplace.

Alan Godlas, associate professor of religion at the University of Georgia, relates rising interest in Sufism to increasing dissatisfaction with mainstream religious teaching in the U.S. In the past decade, the number of Americans who identify with a Christian tradition has declined steeply, studies have shown.

“Mainstream religions assert that this life is meant to prepare for salvation in the next world. But Sufism offers the hope of experiencing oneness with God in this life itself,” he says.

Alia Halim, a Sufi who grew up in an Irish family in Los Angeles, discovered mystical Islam at the University of Spiritual Healing and Sufism in Napa Valley. There, she says, she saw for the first time the possibility of having a real connection with God and converted in 2002.

“I felt it would be the only way to purify my heart and stay within the realm of the soul,” says Halim, who took an Arabic name upon her conversion.

(Priyadarshini Sen is a graduate student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. This story was written for professor Diane Winston’s course on reporting on religion and international relations)

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