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

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

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)

Comments

  1. My religion now is Love alone

    From the poems of Al-Maarri
    By Al-Ma’arri,

    Tread lightly, for a thousand hearts unseen

    Might now be breathing in this misty green;

    Here are the herbs that once were pretty cheeks,

    Here the remains of those that once have been.

    Afearing whom I trust I gain my end,

    But trusting, without fear, my friend;

    Much better is the Doubt that gives me peace,

    Than all the Faiths which in hell-fire may end.

    Among us some are great and some are small,

    Albeit in wickedness, we’re masters all;

    Or, if my fellow men are like myself,

    The human race shall always rise and fall.

    The air of sin I breathe without restraint;

    With selfishness my few good deeds I taint;

    I come as I was molded and I go,

    But near the vacant shrine of Truth I faint.

    A church, a temple, or a Kaba Stone,

    Koran or Bible or a martyr’s bone —

    All these and more my heart can tolerate

    Since my religion now is Love alone.

    — from the poems of Al-Maarri

    Al-Ma’arri (973–1058) was a blind Arab philosopher and poet, and a controversialist who raised the ire of Muslims for his rationalist positions concerning religion. He rejected the claim that Islam or any other religion — including Christianity and Judaism — possessed the truths they claimed and accused the prophets of being liars. In 2013, during the Syrian conflict, the al-Nursa Front, a branch of al-Qaeda, beheaded a statue of Al Ma’arri either because of his atheism or because it was claimed he was related to the Assad family.

  2. Trust the Angelenos to embrace anything that’s mystical, to escape the smog and traffic in that large city!

  3. The love of God is intoxicating and healing! Daniel, may Allah always guide you.

  4. Nice article. One thing I noticed though that I felt was a little misleading was the part on the rejection of tasawuf by some Muslims. The rejection of tasawuf most often comes from “Sufis” who abandon sharia which as we both know is something a Sufi and their students don’t do. In fact with genuine sufis a non-sufi Muslim generally wouldn’t even realize that they were in a Sufi gathering until the wirds and dhikr start. The usual complaint is when they see “sufis” who abandon the sharia by free mixing genders, women not wearing hijab being accepted at a gathering, haraam integration of certain instruments, and other examples. That’s often where the rejection comes from so in some ways “we” self-inflict our own wounds.

  5. The use of the Hindu-Buddhist word “mantra” in a Muslim context is jarring, as it means “an invocation to a God or Gods.

  6. and where the rejection of Sufi by many, in particular the Sunni, in Pakistan leading to bombings and other despicable acts.

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