Sufism in America

Sufism in America 




Immigrant teachers, travel books and translated poetry spread Sufi thought and ritual.


The whirl stops and the white skirts of the dervishes, which had flared like parasols, settle in their normal pattern. The mesmerizing dance, driven by boundless spiritual energy, has ended with the fourth salaam, or invocation to peace. The audience heaves a sigh, as the spell is broken for a moment.Then begins a soulful chant: "Unto God belong the East and West, and wheresoever ye turn, ye are faced with Him. He is All-embracing, All-knowing."

This Sufi ceremony, or encounter with the divine, did not occur in Turkey or Afghanistan, but in Houston, Texas. A friend and I were the only two non-white, non-American folk in the audience. Together, all of us were on a journey to a special place in the soul.




The dance and the ritual is known as Sema, an old Sufi practice associated with the 13th-century Persian poet Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, who was born in Balkh, Afghanistan. Each detail of dress and every gesture is loaded with significance. The tall cap on the dancer's head symbolizes a tomb under which the ego is buried.

Sema is the pilgrim's progress toward perfection and the realization of the ultimate truth. It is considered an ascent to the higher self through absolute, unconditional love. Returning from this inward travel, an individual feels he has become the beloved of the entire creation, acceptable to and adored by all. The Sufi who attains such perfection believes he has risen above denominational squabbles, racial ill will, lust for worldly gain and parochial pettiness.

After the dance ended, I was curious as to how the United States had become the home for such a spiritual quest. I had grown up in India with the image of an America peopled by Christians and Jews only, although people of other faiths, from Native Americans to Chinese workers and other immigrants, had lived there for centuries. The picture started to change further in the early 20th century as more faiths from the East, including Islam, began to influence daily life and attitudes in the United States.

The first Muslim immigrants, from 1878 to 1924, were laborers from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Those who stayed concentrated in enclaves in the states of Iowa, North Dakota, Indiana and in the cities of Detroit and Pittsburgh. The Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 halted the immigration of Muslims until the immigration reforms of 1952 and 1965. In the 1960s many Asian immigrants reached the United States in pursuit of the "Great American Dream." There was a spiritual flowering as many gurus, Sufis and missionaries came in.

The new assumptions, attitudes and beliefs they brought generated debate. Sufism began to attract serious attention and found a niche in American society, although it actually had begun to make its presence felt from the early 1900s as an undercurrent in American aesthetics and spiritual life. Bohemians of Los Angeles such as John Cowper Powys had acquired reputations as connoisseurs of Sufism. Also, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and Hazrat Inayat Khan from India presented Sufism in an idiom that modern American society could grasp easily. By the end of the 1960s, San Francisco was home to a large number of Sufis, representing different spiritual orders.

Idris Shah's stories, reflecting the Sufi way of life, became popular on college campuses. American writers such as J.D. Salinger and Doris Lessing embraced it. Author Frank Herbert turned to Sufi spiritual melodies in his writings and movie star James Coburn, a member of a Sufi order, brought the culture to Hollywood.
The poems of Rumi, who lived from 1207-1273, had been known in academic circles through one English translation. But they became enormously popular after Tennessee-born poet Coleman Barks started translating them into modern English free verse. As Rumi's thought was being disseminated, his circles of devotees and the tradition of "turning" (or whirling dancing) also brought a new cultural perspective to the American "melting pot," although most Sufis in America are from the white majority.

Suleyman Scott Hofmann of Seattle in Washington State is vice president of the Mevlevi Order of America and a semazen or turner, who says, "What is attractive to me about Sufism is that at its core is love. It is taught face-to-face, hand to hand, heart to heart. Because of the language barrier, the Mevlevi teachings have initially come to America in a very pure form," he says, "expressed by example, gesture….Ultimately, it is not an intellectual exercise, though every personal resource is used."

In the 1970s, Hofmann first saw "someone stand up in the dervish garb and turn in the center of a circle of people. Something inside said, 'I don't know what that is, but I recognize it in myself.' I just had to know what was behind it." Suleyman Hayati Dede, leader of the Mevlevi Order in Konka, Turkey, came to Canada in 1976, and sent his son, Jelaluddin Loras on a one-way ticket a couple of years later, to begin teaching the ceremony and the Sufi way. But Hofmann was in a different part of the country trying, with like-minded searchers, to learn to turn by studying pictures of whirling dervishes from a book.


"Of course, we didn't accomplish it," Hofmann says, "but we were yearning to join in this beautiful ceremony that we were reading about." Eventually he met Loras and learned "there was a method, a step one, and step two and step three."

In America, "there was absolutely nothing that stopped me from searching, discovering anything I could about this," says Hofmann, "except the limitations of not knowing the language, not knowing the customs, not being able to read the literature in its original form, and not having living teachers available to study with. Those are a lot of 'nots.' " But no matter where one is, even in countries where the practice of Sufism is banned or restricted, Hofmann says, "there is no restriction to opening oneself to the essence of this teaching…because it's an inward journey."
The largest share of credit for popularizing Sufism in the West goes to Hazrat Inayat Khan, who brought musical, universalist Sufism from India to the United States in 1910. Although he began as a master of the Chishti Order, in America he trained people in the Naqshbandi, Qadiri and Suharwardi orders as well. He told his disciples to follow the order that suited them, because all led to the same truth. After his death in India in 1927, the movement he led became Sufi Order International, headquartered in New York.

Among Khan's principal disciples was Samuel L. Lewis, who had been born into a Jewish family and became known as Sufi Ahmad Murad Chishti after Khan certified him in 1926 as a Sufi master, credited with the ability to initiate newcomers into Sufi discipline and train them to perfection. Lewis established a convent in San Francisco, where people from different religious denominations gathered. He died in 1971 at 75.

Another prominent disciple of Inayat Khan's teachings is Shabda Kahn, director of the Chishti Sabri School of Music in California, which aims to spread the Sufi message of love through concerts. "Sufism is not about theories or the intellect so much as an experiential, body-based spirituality with many practices, using movement, the voice and music," says Kahn, a frequent traveler to India. In 2001, Kahn became the leader of Sufi Ruhianat International, which Lewis had started in San Francisco.


Sufism has attracted women in America in substantial numbers. One of the significant characteristics of the Mevlevi Order is its particular emphasis on introducing Sufism to the West with newer dimensions, including allowing women to participate in the mystic assemblies, says Maile Rietow, secretary of the order and wife of Loras, the leader or postneshin. "The Sema that we do in America is exactly the same as it is done in Turkey with the exception that we allow men and women to turn together," Rietow says. "This was also the case historically in Turkey, but not for several hundred years have men and women turned together publicly there. The original permission for women to turn in America was given by Postneshin Jelaluddin's father, Suleyman Hayati Dede."

Speaking from her home on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Rietow says she feels that Sufism "brings the sweet voices of the mysticism of Islam to the Western mind and heart, filling the emptiness there with love and gratitude." She adds, "As with all true paths, it offers a way out of the pain and confusion of separation brought on by materialism."

The dialogue between faiths that Sufism has initiated in multicultural America is the need of the hour, says Jay Kinney, editor of Gnosis, a journal of the Western inner traditions. Says Kinney, "If Sufism embodies the true essence of Islam, as many contend, then grasping what is attractive about Sufism may help us Westerners gain a more complete picture of Islam than the mass media usually provide."

-Laurinda Keys Long contributed to this article.


The Sema , symbolizing universal values of love and service, is performed only by the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, one branch of the vast Sufi tradition of Islam. The ritual dance consists of several stages with different meanings:
  • Naat-I-Sherif, a eulogy to the "Messenger of Islam" and all prophets before him.
  • A drumbeat symbolizing the divine command "Be" for the creation of the universe.
  • A Taksim, an improvisation on the reed flute, expressing the divine breath, which gives life to everything.
  • The Sultan Veled procession, accompanied by peshrev music; a circular, anticlockwise procession three times around the turning space.
  • During the Sema there are four selams, or musical movements, each with a distinct rhythm. At the beginning, during and close of each selam, the song praises God.
  • A recitation from the Quran.
  • The salute. The dervish demonstrates the number "1" in his appearance-arms humbly crossed-and by this, the unity of God.
  • A prayer for the peace of the souls of all the prophets and believers.

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