Wednesday, December 20, 2006

An Affair of the Heart: Sufi Presences in Montréal

By Sharon Gubbay Helfer - Tolerance.ca -Montréal,Québec,Canada
Monday, December 4, 2006

My first encounter with Sufis and Sufism came in the late 1970s in Boulder, Colorado, then as now a hub for things esoteric. My roommate at the mime school I was attending, a gorgeous free spirit with flowing hair and bare feet, captivated us with stories of the time she had spent following Sufi master Pir Vilayat Khan.

Swept up by her enthusiasm, I added two then-current Sufi bestsellers to my bookshelf, “The Conference of the Birds” and “The Pleasantries of Mullah Nasruddin.”

After I left Boulder the books remained on my shelf, along with a lingering sense of something lovely, enchanting even, but life moved me in other directions. Openness to the spiritual took a back seat to more immediate issues: making a living, marrying, raising a family. This was followed by advanced academic studies in religion – studies that answered many questions but that left the great mysteries – the domain of Sufism and the other mystical traditions – untouched.

A renewed interest recently brought me to explore and write about the contemporary Sufi presence in Montréal, to meet with some of Montreal’s Sufis, to hear about their journeys and experiences … and to touch again the magic of the Sufi way.

Despite my early encounters, I began this exploration knowing next to nothing about Sufism – what it is, where it came from, how it works – not even the fact that Sufism is the mystical heart of Islam. Back in the 1970s, I was not alone in having only the slightest, vaguely exotic impression of Islam. In today’s context, of course, everyone seems to have a conception – often a misconception – of this religion.

One great benefit of spending even a little time getting to know Sufis is that one comes directly into contact with a dimension of Islam that has received little media attention here. I have been intrigued to learn that Sufis are Muslims who are entirely focused on and dedicated to the understanding that the world is created from love, that beauty and truth lie at the core of all religions and that the search for these core truths unites seekers from all faiths.

Another plus for me has been the chance to find out something about the 13th century Persian scholar and mystic Jalal al-din Rumi, whose intense and passionate poetry has made him the best-selling poet in America today. What is more, public awareness will almost certainly continue to grow, since UNESCO has declared 2007 the year of Rumi, in honour of the 800th anniversary of the year of his birth.

It is, then, fitting, that my adventures among Montreal Sufis begin with a visit to the local restaurant named in honour of the great man. * * * There is something enchanting about the evening, sitting outside at Rumi Restaurant, corner Fairmount and Hutchison, in Montreal. A hint of coolness in the air enhances the pleasure of sipping hot tea, fragrant with cardamom, poured in an amber stream into small glasses.

I have come to speak with restaurant owners Hassan and Husayn Friedman about the mystical Sufi path they both have chosen and about their restaurant. From their brightly embroidered black caps to the lively intensity of their search for truth and the people-friendly flair required by the restaurant business, the two are colourful characters, both the slim, red-haired and reserved Hassan and the larger, more muscular chef Husayn, a voluble fountain of Sufi stories.

Although the Friedman brothers chose the name for their restaurant only after rejecting a string of more prosaic options, “Rumi” has turned out to be an inspired choice, opening the way to a golden, warm decor and the exotic Turkish, Persian and Middle-Eastern-based menu as well as to books for the nook at the back, where diners hungry for more than what arrives on their plates can feed their souls on the lore and poetry of Sufism.

The enchantment of the evening borrows from the sensual richness of the aromas that waft out from the kitchen and from the feeling of camaraderie engendered as Hassan and Husayn welcome new and old customers with friendly words and the sometimes wacky humour Sufis are known for. But there is something more. What enchants is the fact that the warmth and camaraderie as well as the delicious flavours being served up are understood by Hassan and Husayn to be but the tiniest expression, “a drop of a drop of a drop,” of the glory of the divine creator, whose direct presence they seek by means of knowledge that is not codified in texts but that is written in the hearts of the enlightened.

(...)

“From a genuine master,” says Husayn, otherwise known as Todd Friedman, “it is beyond what you imagine because it is a living experience, because they have reached that ocean of truth and love. They look at you; they don’t see your imperfections. They do, but they don’t look to them. They see the manifestation, they see in your light what name the Divine Presence created you with.
With permission, they may guide you to that Reality. They have the key to unlock your treasures. The key to each person’s heart is in the hands of someone on Earth. What you feel in their presence is a kind of love…

If you took all the love of mothers, all the love of fathers, all the love of brothers and sisters, all the love of lovers, it is not going to be one drop of a drop of what you feel from those Enlightened ones because you have a secret connection of your soul with them …”

Husayn’s description of “a kind of love” and of something “not to be described, … not from the five senses” would be confirmed by several of the other Sufis I spoke with. Shaykh Omar at the Naqshbandi Centre, psychiatrist Joel Ibrahim Kreps and sociologist Karim Ben Driss all cited some such experience as the reason why they became Sufis in the first place.

Another of Husayn’s explanations, which would return on several occasions and that seems important to an understanding of Sufism, has to do with a necessary balance between the two kinds of knowledge, the knowledge of the heart and knowledge of the law that can be studied and practiced. The latter is deemed necessary as a discipline to tame the ego, which is metaphorically pictured as a powerful and spirited steed.

“You need a discipline on the physicality, you need to tame the physicality, to be able to master it; and then you need Reality, the knowledge of heart, to bring you into that state of faith, belief and then to enlightenment. They call it the two wings. They are complementary.” The two wings, the law and the deep truths of Reality, are both needed.

My new Sufi friends explain to me at different times that problems come to Islam, as to any religion, when the balance is lost, as for example if adherence to the details of Islamic law become all-important and the Reality of love is lost. My conversation with Husayn ranges over a number of other topics but finally he announces, “Now we have to feed you! This is the important thing!” The dinner is a wonderful Rumi meal, perfumed with spices and enhanced by the 300 angels that surely accompany every bite.

We are joined by a number of other friends and companions, thus increasing the pleasure of sharing food and hearing about the adventures of different people, including their travels to spend time with Sufi masters in Michigan and Cyprus, what they learned and how they learned.

My evening at the Naqshbandi Centre Having tasted and savoured the food at Restaurant Rumi, my next step has to be to “taste” the experience of a Sufi prayer gathering. So it is that I find my way to the Naqshbandi Sufi Centre, first to explore the premises and see how things are set up, and then to experience a Thursday-evening prayer service.

About a half mile east of Rumi Restaurant on Fairmount Street in Montreal, is the Naqshbandi Sufi Centre. Although it is plain and unprepossessing from the outside, the interior is laid out with all the essentials of a traditional mosque as well as specific Sufi elements. Shaykh Omar, the soft-spoken, Mali-born son of a French mother and Malian father shows me around the long, rectangular space.
At the far end of the room is the mihrab, or prayer niche that indicates the qibla or direction of prayer (east, towards Mecca). The floor is carpeted throughout with overlain Persian rugs and at the end opposite the mihrab there are cushions around three sides. This is where, when I come to participate in the ritual of dhikr, I sit, together with the other women, while the men place themselves in the front half of the room.

On one wall above the cushions, cheerful children’s drawings are pinned up. These are a bright memento of the most recent visit of Shaykh Hisham from Michigan. The rest of the wall space around the room is filled with framed artwork, most of it calligraphy spelling out names and attributes of God and of the Prophet Muhammad.

The written names are understood to emanate some quality of the namesake and so to bless the space. The calligraphic variety is wonderful: swooping, graceful lines of text created in India, Ottoman work recognizable by the presence of green circles, pieces from Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Indonesia, and sculpted wood from Malaysia. There are many styles in all kinds of media: embroidery on velvet, engraving on copper or silver. Exquisite handiwork, such as an entire Koran copied out in miniature, hangs beside a sacred name stamped on plastic and made in China.

As Shaykh Omar explains, the most costly things are placed here beside the simplest in order to convey a message: Often our society accords value to things that have no true merit and makes monetary-worth-based divisions between things that can live very well together, as they do on these walls. As proof, says Omar, God chose to manifest the human spirit, that which proceeds from His light, in a body of dust.

The vibrant variety in the calligraphy that lines the walls of the Naqshbandi community centre is reflected in the varied ethnic origins of the men, women and a few children who are there for the traditional Sufi dhikr prayer service the night I attend.

Dhikr is designed to open the heart and awareness to the ever-present divine reality and the evening is memorable, filled with warmth and spiritual intensity. Sincerely interested outsiders are welcome and I am touched by the beautiful smiles with which I am greeted, from the radiant woman who sits on the floor beside me, a teacher from Sudan robed in a warm yellow sari, and from the other men and women present.

The participants that evening constitute a veritable rainbow of origins, dress, and skin colours both local and from North Africa, Mali and Iraq, with religious roots, in addition to Islam, in Francophone Catholic Québec and Anglo-Protestant Canada; as well, there are two Montreal Jews whose forbears were from Eastern Europe – Rumi restaurant owners Hassan and Husayn – and one young man whose origins, like my own, lie in the Baghdadi Jewish community.

Curious about the different religious backgrounds represented, I ask Shaykh Omar about the Naqshbandi relationship to traditional Islamic practice. He explains that the people who come to the centre are at different stages along the path of commitment to Sufism. Acceptance of Islam is not a prerequisite. However, traditional Sufism requires that the pursuit of esoteric knowledge be balanced by the discipline of adherence to Islamic law and practice since, as Shaykh Omar put it, echoing what Husayn had told me at the restaurant, “You need two wings to fly.”

1 comment:

irving said...

A sweet and enchanting story, especially the part about Sufis being know for wacky humor :)haha I only know one Sufi like that, and she lives in Switzerland and loves chocolate :)

Ya Haqq!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

An Affair of the Heart: Sufi Presences in Montréal
By Sharon Gubbay Helfer - Tolerance.ca -Montréal,Québec,Canada
Monday, December 4, 2006

My first encounter with Sufis and Sufism came in the late 1970s in Boulder, Colorado, then as now a hub for things esoteric. My roommate at the mime school I was attending, a gorgeous free spirit with flowing hair and bare feet, captivated us with stories of the time she had spent following Sufi master Pir Vilayat Khan.

Swept up by her enthusiasm, I added two then-current Sufi bestsellers to my bookshelf, “The Conference of the Birds” and “The Pleasantries of Mullah Nasruddin.”

After I left Boulder the books remained on my shelf, along with a lingering sense of something lovely, enchanting even, but life moved me in other directions. Openness to the spiritual took a back seat to more immediate issues: making a living, marrying, raising a family. This was followed by advanced academic studies in religion – studies that answered many questions but that left the great mysteries – the domain of Sufism and the other mystical traditions – untouched.

A renewed interest recently brought me to explore and write about the contemporary Sufi presence in Montréal, to meet with some of Montreal’s Sufis, to hear about their journeys and experiences … and to touch again the magic of the Sufi way.

Despite my early encounters, I began this exploration knowing next to nothing about Sufism – what it is, where it came from, how it works – not even the fact that Sufism is the mystical heart of Islam. Back in the 1970s, I was not alone in having only the slightest, vaguely exotic impression of Islam. In today’s context, of course, everyone seems to have a conception – often a misconception – of this religion.

One great benefit of spending even a little time getting to know Sufis is that one comes directly into contact with a dimension of Islam that has received little media attention here. I have been intrigued to learn that Sufis are Muslims who are entirely focused on and dedicated to the understanding that the world is created from love, that beauty and truth lie at the core of all religions and that the search for these core truths unites seekers from all faiths.

Another plus for me has been the chance to find out something about the 13th century Persian scholar and mystic Jalal al-din Rumi, whose intense and passionate poetry has made him the best-selling poet in America today. What is more, public awareness will almost certainly continue to grow, since UNESCO has declared 2007 the year of Rumi, in honour of the 800th anniversary of the year of his birth.

It is, then, fitting, that my adventures among Montreal Sufis begin with a visit to the local restaurant named in honour of the great man. * * * There is something enchanting about the evening, sitting outside at Rumi Restaurant, corner Fairmount and Hutchison, in Montreal. A hint of coolness in the air enhances the pleasure of sipping hot tea, fragrant with cardamom, poured in an amber stream into small glasses.

I have come to speak with restaurant owners Hassan and Husayn Friedman about the mystical Sufi path they both have chosen and about their restaurant. From their brightly embroidered black caps to the lively intensity of their search for truth and the people-friendly flair required by the restaurant business, the two are colourful characters, both the slim, red-haired and reserved Hassan and the larger, more muscular chef Husayn, a voluble fountain of Sufi stories.

Although the Friedman brothers chose the name for their restaurant only after rejecting a string of more prosaic options, “Rumi” has turned out to be an inspired choice, opening the way to a golden, warm decor and the exotic Turkish, Persian and Middle-Eastern-based menu as well as to books for the nook at the back, where diners hungry for more than what arrives on their plates can feed their souls on the lore and poetry of Sufism.

The enchantment of the evening borrows from the sensual richness of the aromas that waft out from the kitchen and from the feeling of camaraderie engendered as Hassan and Husayn welcome new and old customers with friendly words and the sometimes wacky humour Sufis are known for. But there is something more. What enchants is the fact that the warmth and camaraderie as well as the delicious flavours being served up are understood by Hassan and Husayn to be but the tiniest expression, “a drop of a drop of a drop,” of the glory of the divine creator, whose direct presence they seek by means of knowledge that is not codified in texts but that is written in the hearts of the enlightened.

(...)

“From a genuine master,” says Husayn, otherwise known as Todd Friedman, “it is beyond what you imagine because it is a living experience, because they have reached that ocean of truth and love. They look at you; they don’t see your imperfections. They do, but they don’t look to them. They see the manifestation, they see in your light what name the Divine Presence created you with.
With permission, they may guide you to that Reality. They have the key to unlock your treasures. The key to each person’s heart is in the hands of someone on Earth. What you feel in their presence is a kind of love…

If you took all the love of mothers, all the love of fathers, all the love of brothers and sisters, all the love of lovers, it is not going to be one drop of a drop of what you feel from those Enlightened ones because you have a secret connection of your soul with them …”

Husayn’s description of “a kind of love” and of something “not to be described, … not from the five senses” would be confirmed by several of the other Sufis I spoke with. Shaykh Omar at the Naqshbandi Centre, psychiatrist Joel Ibrahim Kreps and sociologist Karim Ben Driss all cited some such experience as the reason why they became Sufis in the first place.

Another of Husayn’s explanations, which would return on several occasions and that seems important to an understanding of Sufism, has to do with a necessary balance between the two kinds of knowledge, the knowledge of the heart and knowledge of the law that can be studied and practiced. The latter is deemed necessary as a discipline to tame the ego, which is metaphorically pictured as a powerful and spirited steed.

“You need a discipline on the physicality, you need to tame the physicality, to be able to master it; and then you need Reality, the knowledge of heart, to bring you into that state of faith, belief and then to enlightenment. They call it the two wings. They are complementary.” The two wings, the law and the deep truths of Reality, are both needed.

My new Sufi friends explain to me at different times that problems come to Islam, as to any religion, when the balance is lost, as for example if adherence to the details of Islamic law become all-important and the Reality of love is lost. My conversation with Husayn ranges over a number of other topics but finally he announces, “Now we have to feed you! This is the important thing!” The dinner is a wonderful Rumi meal, perfumed with spices and enhanced by the 300 angels that surely accompany every bite.

We are joined by a number of other friends and companions, thus increasing the pleasure of sharing food and hearing about the adventures of different people, including their travels to spend time with Sufi masters in Michigan and Cyprus, what they learned and how they learned.

My evening at the Naqshbandi Centre Having tasted and savoured the food at Restaurant Rumi, my next step has to be to “taste” the experience of a Sufi prayer gathering. So it is that I find my way to the Naqshbandi Sufi Centre, first to explore the premises and see how things are set up, and then to experience a Thursday-evening prayer service.

About a half mile east of Rumi Restaurant on Fairmount Street in Montreal, is the Naqshbandi Sufi Centre. Although it is plain and unprepossessing from the outside, the interior is laid out with all the essentials of a traditional mosque as well as specific Sufi elements. Shaykh Omar, the soft-spoken, Mali-born son of a French mother and Malian father shows me around the long, rectangular space.
At the far end of the room is the mihrab, or prayer niche that indicates the qibla or direction of prayer (east, towards Mecca). The floor is carpeted throughout with overlain Persian rugs and at the end opposite the mihrab there are cushions around three sides. This is where, when I come to participate in the ritual of dhikr, I sit, together with the other women, while the men place themselves in the front half of the room.

On one wall above the cushions, cheerful children’s drawings are pinned up. These are a bright memento of the most recent visit of Shaykh Hisham from Michigan. The rest of the wall space around the room is filled with framed artwork, most of it calligraphy spelling out names and attributes of God and of the Prophet Muhammad.

The written names are understood to emanate some quality of the namesake and so to bless the space. The calligraphic variety is wonderful: swooping, graceful lines of text created in India, Ottoman work recognizable by the presence of green circles, pieces from Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Indonesia, and sculpted wood from Malaysia. There are many styles in all kinds of media: embroidery on velvet, engraving on copper or silver. Exquisite handiwork, such as an entire Koran copied out in miniature, hangs beside a sacred name stamped on plastic and made in China.

As Shaykh Omar explains, the most costly things are placed here beside the simplest in order to convey a message: Often our society accords value to things that have no true merit and makes monetary-worth-based divisions between things that can live very well together, as they do on these walls. As proof, says Omar, God chose to manifest the human spirit, that which proceeds from His light, in a body of dust.

The vibrant variety in the calligraphy that lines the walls of the Naqshbandi community centre is reflected in the varied ethnic origins of the men, women and a few children who are there for the traditional Sufi dhikr prayer service the night I attend.

Dhikr is designed to open the heart and awareness to the ever-present divine reality and the evening is memorable, filled with warmth and spiritual intensity. Sincerely interested outsiders are welcome and I am touched by the beautiful smiles with which I am greeted, from the radiant woman who sits on the floor beside me, a teacher from Sudan robed in a warm yellow sari, and from the other men and women present.

The participants that evening constitute a veritable rainbow of origins, dress, and skin colours both local and from North Africa, Mali and Iraq, with religious roots, in addition to Islam, in Francophone Catholic Québec and Anglo-Protestant Canada; as well, there are two Montreal Jews whose forbears were from Eastern Europe – Rumi restaurant owners Hassan and Husayn – and one young man whose origins, like my own, lie in the Baghdadi Jewish community.

Curious about the different religious backgrounds represented, I ask Shaykh Omar about the Naqshbandi relationship to traditional Islamic practice. He explains that the people who come to the centre are at different stages along the path of commitment to Sufism. Acceptance of Islam is not a prerequisite. However, traditional Sufism requires that the pursuit of esoteric knowledge be balanced by the discipline of adherence to Islamic law and practice since, as Shaykh Omar put it, echoing what Husayn had told me at the restaurant, “You need two wings to fly.”

1 comment:

irving said...

A sweet and enchanting story, especially the part about Sufis being know for wacky humor :)haha I only know one Sufi like that, and she lives in Switzerland and loves chocolate :)

Ya Haqq!