Super Subcultures

Where White Manhattanites Become Mystical Muslims

On the tony Upper West Side, a congregation of mostly white New Yorkers find their spiritual calling in a branch of Islam that couldn’t be further from the violent extremism that dominates our newscasts.

Where White Manhattanites Become Mystical Muslims

I’m in a ground-floor apartment with about twenty other people on a Thursday night. The room’s decor is, for the most part, unremarkable, though there is a machine connected to the faucet announcing in the world’s most annoying voice the PH level of each glass of water a person pours. There’s also a small laminated sign in the bathroom documenting how to perform hand washing — or wudu — before prayer — salat. Having attempted the task, the collar of my shirt is wet and my feet are squelchy in their thick wool socks. There is a dog bed on the floor, quite atypical for an Islamic house of worship — the vast majority of Muslims view dogs as unclean. Several people have sworn to me that the dog bed is “the comfiest seat in the house.” I’m not sure why I’m here. I expected to be hidden near the margins of any action, taking notes about ritual and being ignored. Instead, I’m taking part in my first religious service in years.

Abdul Latif speaks to the Beloveds during Thursday night healing group.
Abdul Latif speaks to the Beloveds during Thursday night healing group.

“Hi.” I said to the circle of Sufi Muslims, members of the Shadhilliyya tariqa order — a tiny sect of mystics. “I’m John. I’m an anthropologist.”

I’m engaging in a tradition that dates back to Ali, the nephew of the Prophet Mohammed, a poet, mystic and warrior whose life and untimely death continues to inform the esoteric side of Islam. We are moving onto the portion of the ceremony outlined on our schedule as “Then say Allaaah (1 hour).” This is a key part of the dhikr — “remembrance” — ritual. Earlier, there was the profession of faith and al-wird — “the oasis” — a series of chants invoking the long line of prophets and holy men recognized by Islam, including Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Ali. On either side of me are men I’m instructed to hold hands with for the ceremony. Our palms hover inches from each other’s with the familiar American male reluctance to touch until the last possible moment. There is a lot of hand sweat going on here. The women on the other side of the circle have comfortably grasped hands for the last two minutes.

There is a tiny gap between the male side and the female side of the circle, the effect of a new rule passed from the tariqa’s leader in Jordan prohibiting mixed-gender hand holding during dhikr unless it is in the context of a marriage. This change is quite surprising to the majority of the group, which practices none of the traditional gender separation rules enforced in Islamic mosques around the world. The one married couple in attendance — a fashionable pair in their late twenties, he of Ashkenazi Jewish and she of Turkish Sunni heritage — sheepishly refuse to move together and hold hands, even as the rest of the circle coaxes them on. The fallout from this alteration in protocol is felt most at the gender borders, those who only have one hand held. One of these, a middle-aged white woman wearing a blue baseball cap over her grey ponytail in lieu of a hijab, explains after the ceremony ends just how sad this policy alteration made her feel. “I’ve had the worst week, and I really needed my hand held,” she says, close to tears. “We never had any of this separation stuff before, and we know this isn’t what we all got into this for.”

"Noora," who lives in Brooklyn, has been part of The Beloveds for a decade.
“Noora,” who lives in Brooklyn, has been part of The Beloveds for a decade.

I’m on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood well outside my housing price range and known for respectability and quiet intellectualism. People come here for the museums and the elegantly understated four-star restaurants, and to live out Sex in the City-esque dreams of an orderly Manhattan. It is here, on a tree-lined street full of named apartment buildings and red-cap wearing doormen that the Shadhiliyya Sufi tariqa meet each week. Even among all this respectability and comfort, the specter of international violence looms. My first dhikir was immediately after militants massacred 145 schoolchildren in Pakistan; my second was the week of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It was not a peaceful winter.

Like many acts of terrorism, these recent events were accompanied by howls from pundits for “moderate Muslims” to denounce the actions of their co-religionists. No doubt, the members, or as they call themselves, “Beloveds,” of the Shadhiliyya tariqa would be ideal candidates for a “moderate Muslim” foil to the actions of radicals halfway around the globe. The Beloveds that I met were almost all politically progressive, friendly to outsiders, Western-educated and culturally American, with the majority being white converts from Judeo-Christian backgrounds. They are the type of people who would arouse no suspicion on the subway, nor have any fear from the police. With the exception of one Egyptian woman, the only native Arabic speaker I met, none of the Beloveds would ever be read as “Muslim,” instead remaining invisible in the privilege of normalcy.

However, to call the Beloveds “moderate” or to focus on their westernization is to miss the real meat of what makes them tick. Their beliefs are unquestionably unusual, both compared to my own wishy-washy agnosticism and to the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

If we lived in a different political climate, I might just call them extreme.

A female member of the Beloveds says she tried many different spiritual paths before finding herself with Sufism.
A female member of the Beloveds says she tried many different spiritual paths before finding herself with Sufism.

The difference between sufis and other Islamic sects was explained to me by the group’s leader, Abdul Latif. Like most of the Shadhiliyya, Abdul Latif uses an assumed Arabic name among members of the tariqa. Like most of the people interviewed for this piece, Abdul Latif requested that he be cited only by his Arabic name in order to protect his privacy. Abdul Latif is a wildly avuncular Irish ex-Catholic building super in his mid fifties with a history of religious seeking. Comparing Islam to a tree, Abdul Latif says that much of the world, and many of his co-religionists, fixate on the bark — the laws, the practices, and the rules. All of this, he deems “outer shariah.” Sufis, he explains, view the bark of the tree in context with its pulp, or the “inner shariah,” which is love and submission to the will of God. It is the pulp of the tree that supports the bark; it is love and devotion which supports Shariah. This focus on balance rather than doctrine has not always endeared the Shadhiliyya to other sects. Abdul Latif tells me a story of attending a more conservative mosque and being told by a concerned worshipper “Brother, you pray too much.”

After explaining the new hand-holding rules, Abdul Latif exhorts us to “spend time” on the “l” noise and to “really breathe” the “ha.” Earlier, he explained the holiness of those sounds, drawing on other faiths to demonstrate the innate power of the syllables, saying that they are near-universal symbols of power. “Om” he tells us, is truly “Ahhhhhm.” Next to me, the Beloveds murmur other holy names, extending them to find the divine syllables. “Shi-vah,” “Budd-ha,” “Yah-Weh;” The Beloveds are nothing if not religiously cosmopolitan. Case in point, the man next to me, a mid-thirties office worker with a prayer bead bracelet, will later discuss the holy places of the world. His list includes not only Mecca and Jerusalem, but also India and Macchu Pichu, where he will be attending a yoga retreat soon.

At a signal from Abdul Latif each solar plexus in the room inhales powerfully and we begin to chant in unison: “Allah, Allah, Allah.” With each repetition, the word loses meaning. It is no longer a signifier, but instead two resonances linked by a minute inhalation. The room sounds like an ancient beast breathing or a train pulling into a station.

Abdul Latif marches counterclockwise inside the circle like a gear within a watch. He is dressed in a long striped robe and wearing a prayer cap, in contrast to the rest of the group’s unremarkable sartorial choices. His loud voice and pace sets the tone of the chant, which veers from staccato to sonorous in a pattern that I can’t figure out. He varies the noise level as well, playing our voices like an organ. Within several minutes of the hour we have scheduled for chanting “Allah,” I see a few worshippers sink into trances, rocking back and forth and swaying to the drone of their own voices. I close my eyes and try to focus on our communal sound, a tide of noise that seems to gather around Abdul Latif, making him seem bigger. I am, at this point, very afraid I too might drop into a trance, which I feel would not be professional.

After the chant ends, we discuss how it made us feel. The Beloveds are energized and connected, even with the circle being broken. The woman whose hand went unheld is alternately tearful and smiling, relating that her hand wasn’t empty for long, that God helped complete the circle. She felt something bumping her during the dhikr, a presence she refers to as her “unborn daughter” — a person she was never able to meet, but always wanted to know. This presence, she tells us, clasped her hand when no one else did, allowing her to give in to the chant and “travel” with the group. More importantly, she says, the presence made her feel loved.

Others cry in the circle, and there are murmurs of “Allahu akbar” — God is Greater — but no one seems surprised. Just moments earlier, Abdul Latif told us: “When we pray, miracles happen.” The Shadhiliyya pray a lot, and it is no wonder that they seem to expect miracles.

Abdul Latif’s story is a prime example of the trajectory taken by many of the group’s members, and of the ever deepening relationship with the divine, which the Sufis call “their walk.”

“Growing up Catholic,” Abdul Latif says, “I was always unsatisfied with the rules, the structure. I wanted to know God better.” A self-described rebel, he drifted through different religious traditions, discovering Sufism late in life during a time of turmoil, via the guidance of one Muhammad Sa’id al-Jamal ar-Rafa’i ash-Shadul, the shaykh, or spiritual leader, of the Shadhiliyya. In deference to his name’s length, he generally is referred to as “Sidi,” an Arabic honorific roughly analogous to “Mister.”

The Beloveds kneeling in prayer.
The Beloveds kneeling in prayer.

“It was during my divorce, and I heard about this thing called Sufism,” Abdul Latif says. “I had no idea it was Islamic or whatever. It was in 2005, and they weren’t really talking about that then. I went to a meeting — a big event at a farm in Pennsylvania — and I saw Sidi and I felt, like, my soul calling out to be near to this man. As soon as I heard his name, it was like a light bulb going off in my head. I sensed his holiness instantly.” Sidi, according to Abdul Latif, “brought us through love into shariah.”

Several weeks later, I attend the last dhikr before Christmas. It’s a small and intimate ceremony with only eight people in attendance. Abdul Latif’s living room has a small Christmas tree in a corner. Christmas, it seems, is hard to give up, and as the ritual progresses, the holiday naturally pops into discussion.

Various holiday grumbles are invoked. Some of the worshippers complain about tourists, others about family dramas, and everyone admits to feeling run-down and drained. A few minutes into the meeting, however, it becomes clear that there is something really bothering Aisha, the group’s youngest member at twenty-eight. She sits next to Abdul Latif on the dog’s bed, hugging her knees.

“Where is the world going?” she asks. “How can there be so much hate?”

Abdul Latif nods and takes a deep breath. He gives the impression that he’s wrestled with the question of religiously-motivated violence and hatred before. “When Allah brings you to it, Allah brings you through it,” he says, as nods return from around the room. “Remember Who you’re dealing with.” He points towards the heavens and fakes a Brooklyn tough guy accent: “‘Ay, I got this.’” He pauses for laughs that don’t really come, and then continues. “I believe it, too. He’s got this. Even this, it’s all in God’s perfection. We must surrender to it and let Allah move us and walk us as He wills. Life isn’t in our hands; it’s not cause and effect. Alhamdulillah — Thank God! Otherwise, we’d be in trouble. No, every second is a new creation from Allah, and another opportunity for us to choose to go towards Him.”

Abdul Latif looks around the room and tells us that this world is an illusion, that we are nothing but spirit. The darkness of the world, the instability, the violence that is committed in God’s name, are all distractions tying us to the world, making us forget our souls and, more importantly, God’s love. To lose ourselves in the tragedy of the world is the same as losing ourselves in its delights, with similar results. To fixate on the here and now is to lose oneself in nafs — a catchall term meaning “ego” and also “the material world” — rather than pursuing a deeper relationship with Allah. “If you want to fix the world,” Abdul Latif counsels us, while acknowledging the impossibility of the task, “you need to pray.”

Abdul Latif later tells us to strive to be “the living Buddha, the living Christ.” He will invoke both Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Martin Luther King in telling us to struggle against our own selves, and to trust in God’s will. The cutting edge of human evolution, he concludes, will be when everyone submits to God, turning their back on their nafs in contemplation of the divine. Abdul Latif’s speech ends as the group stands, preparing to recite the central tenets of their faith, the cord that ties all Muslims together, that “there is no god but God,” and “Mohammed is his prophet.”

These perspectives on the world are echoes of Sidi’s thoughts. Like most mystics, Sidi’s writing is almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated, full of untranslatable Arabic terms, allusions to the Koran and commands that seem impossible. “Die now,” he writes in He Who Knows Himself Best Knows His Lord, a guide to the different steps of submission to God, exhorting the reader to let go of both hope and fear, and instead submit wholly to the divine plan. Later in the same volume he explains the ultimate goal of al-fana — total annihilation within God: “Your place is from His [Allah’s] face; yet there is no place, only He […] There is no one, only One. Only He exists.”

Being a Sufi is the “state of the traveling slave,” one who has no will save to serve Allah. Perhaps the best descriptor of this mindset is the word “Sufi” itself, which shares a root with the Arabic word for wool — a constant reminder to the Sufi to be as wool in the wind, shapeless and animated only by God’s will. To be a Sufi is to experience daily the longing to no longer be anything at all and to live with the painful separation between the self and its master.

This desire for oblivion and longing for nothingness is, in Sufi parlance, love. The archetypal relationship between lovers is found in the story of Majnun and Leyla, a sort of Persian Romeo and Juliet in which each of the main characters ends up dying of a broken heart. Among Sufis, the story is not read as a tragedy, but rather, as instructive: it is a guide and reference for a relationship with the divine. Majnun, the name of the boy in the story, means “crazy” or “maddened,” which is taken as the appropriate state for a lover. Those who love God do so at the expense of all reason and common sense. They leave themselves behind in the ultimate act of submission and sacrifice. When one speaks to the Shadhiliyyas, there’s always a sort of upper-casing of the word “love.” It’s a repeated motif, to be sure, but never used lightly. Among the Beloveds, love is an emotion scoured of any triteness, dangerous and intoxicating.

After a day of fasting for Ramadan, the Beloveds join for a feast of pizza, Seamless orders and fruit.
After a day of fasting for Ramadan, the Beloveds join for a feast of pizza, Seamless orders and fruit.

The goal for the Shadhiliyyas is to be conduits for God’s boundless love for humans. Within all of humanity, they can see the sparks of divinity, and for that, they extend their love to everyone. They conceptualize themselves as constantly overflowing cups, receiving and distributing the love of the divine to everyone they meet, while forever being filled by God. “It’s a little like when you get a new girlfriend, and all of a sudden, you’re irresistible to all the women who never gave you the time of day before,” Abdul Latif says, rather seriously. “Love attracts love.”

Among the Shadhiliyya, love does not only exist as a relationship, even a maddeningly intense one. In their philosophy, love — or even a lack thereof — can be clinical. This was explained to me by Nura, a neat and cheerful Russian émigré in her late thirties who graciously demonstrated Sufi healing rituals on me. At the time, I didn’t really have any actual complaints, save a general winter malaise, but was eager to see how the rituals worked. Nura assured me that my lack of illness wouldn’t be a problem, as her methods also could me become more focused and productive. “Besides,” she says cheerfully, “you’d be surprised what is wrong with you when you start looking.”

Like Abdul Latif, Nura is a seeker; she drifted into Sufism from Kabbalah based on advice from her acupuncturist. She asserts the two mystic traditions are largely the same, but she identifies more with Sufism’s deeper focus on healing. In her experience, Sufism just spoke to her heart more. A part-time student at the University of Spiritual Healing and Sufism in California, her time with me counted as homework, practice for her eventual certification as a Sufi healer.

According to Nura, the root of many illnesses is a result of a disconnect from God’s love. As she tells me, the Sufi methodology pioneered at the university can, and routinely does, cure all sorts of diseases, including terminal cancer, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses by “shining God’s light and love into [the patients’] hearts.” These diseases, she is quick to inform me, are but symptoms of a far greater malady, that of a wall between the patient and God’s love. It is the healer’s job to help bring these walls down and bridge the gap, allowing healing to happen. “After all,” Nura says, “Humans can’t heal. Only God can heal. I’m just a channel.” Despite her modesty, there is no doubt the role of a healer is deeply important to the Shadhiliyya, who view healing as a natural outgrowth of their fixation with love. Prayer and healing are constant themes in interpersonal communication between the Beloveds, who seem to be often passing along blessings and good health to each other. These ceremonies are not only face-to-face. Many are conducted over the phone or Skype, as distance is irrelevant to God.

This is not to imply the Shadhiliyya practice faith healing or reject modern medicine. The distinction is perhaps thin, but one crucial to the Beloveds. They believe in a holistic healing approach, one that features all avenues of medicine, including herbal, Western, Eastern and the Sufi techniques, and all of which they believe support each other. In the case of medical intervention or surgery, credit goes solely to the divine, or, as Nura phrases it: “Who made the surgeon’s hands?” She further explains that “you don’t own anything about you. Your gifts are Allah’s gifts.”

It’s our third and last session of our healing program. Our previous sessions, chant-focused and capped with theoretical discussions, had been quite interesting but not particularly transformative. As always, Nura begins by reciting the opening verse of the Quran (al-fatiha), and then greeting the divine attributes she said were present in me; al-wadud, al-salam, al-latif, al-rahim and al-rahman (Love, Peace, Gentleness, Graciousness and Mercy). Next, she chants al-wird, and asks me to concentrate on my feelings and “breathe into my heart” which I confess I have no idea how to do.

Still, there’s something deeply comforting about being chanted at, especially in a language you only kind of know. Without needing to do the work of understanding the words, the syllables wash over me and help me focus.

For our final session, Nura has decided to introduce a new technique, what she calls “prophetic healing.” For this, she makes the “ok” gesture — her thumb and forefinger in a circle, her three other fingers extended up straight — and passes it over the patient’s body, allowing “God’s love and light to focus like a laser on the problem.” This gesture, she informs me, is common among Sufi mystics, because when looked at with the back of your right hand towards your face, it spells “Allah” in Arabic. Moreover, she says, “this gesture is the same one the Buddha made. Shamans all over the world do this.” Because we are working remotely, Nura is going to be moving her hand over different quadrants of the laptop monitor, as well as focusing the gesture over the image of my right eye, and then left eye. “Right is first because that’s where your angel sits. On the left is Shaitan, trapping you in the world, in your nafs.”

I can’t report that I feel the energy concentrated on any part of my body because I have very few memories from this session. Instead of focusing on what is happening, I am consumed by self-doubt, worried about this-world concerns, and scheming for the future. I’m trapped in my head, within my concerns and fears. At the same time, I notice a deep pain between my shoulder blades; a dull throb that I realize is always there. I expect that I’ve been ignoring it for quite a long time.

Abdul Latif and his dog Shadow in his apartment on the Upper West Side.
Abdul Latif and his dog Shadow in his apartment on the Upper West Side.

As the session closes down, I mention how unpleasant the experience has been for me, and how terrible I feel. Surprisingly, this pleases Nura, who tells me that feeling anything, even pain, suggests that the ritual is working. Her solution is another ten minutes of meditation, which I gratefully accept. Before we start, she tells me to “stop being afraid and to give up hoping.” She’s asking me to, just for a few minutes, surrender. This time, I really try.

The cessation of the ache doesn’t feel like a miracle. Instead, I feel warmth between my shoulder blades, the untangling of tied-up feelings, old aches and grumbles, and the sort of deep existential stress that comes from having to go outside in February. This isn’t an explosion or even a sneeze of relief, but a gradual entrance into a no-drama zone, a soak in a warm tub or memory of the beach. For a few minutes, I sort of feel like I am breathing into my heart, or at least honestly trying. “You felt it,” Nura says as we warm down, in between chatting about Russian novels. “You’re good at this. You have a beautiful heart.” Sufis, I’ve found, give the world’s most earnest compliments.

Neither Nura, Abdul Latif, nor any of the other Sufis I met seemed to me like a “moderate Muslim.” After all, they are slaves to God, the Beloveds of a beautiful annihilation. Buoyed by a rejection of dogma, they pursue an intuitive, emotive and all-encompassing relationship with the divine, a continuation of a history of seeking and inward examination. Call them “extreme,” call them “immoderate,” but their missions — their walks — won’t be co-opted.

They aren’t here for you — even though they love you, really. Instead, they have a different calling, something far more personal and mystic.

“Growing up,” Abdul Latif tells me, just twenty minutes after we first meet, “I always heard about this thing called a soul. But no one ever told me how to use it.” He laughs at the absurdity of it. “Now I know. I know what my soul is for. It’s love.”