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In the Hearts of God's Children By Nichola Shrady

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Posted 16 December 2003 - 20:48

In the Hearts of God's Children By Nichola Shrady

In the Hearts of God's Children

"The ancient verse of a mystic poet pulls this aouthor onto a contemporary pilgrimage"

THE SUMMONS, I FOUND, WAS IRPESISTIBLE, FALLING AS IT did on a spirit and a mind made weary by the insistent claims of the orthodox, impervious defenders of the "true" faith and a cata- logue of prophesies I had encountered on a host of pilgrimages. I had none of the fire worshiper, perhaps a bit of the pagan, and everything of the mortal who has violated his vows a hundred times, and more.
And so I journeyed to ancient Anatolia, where those tolerant words were dictated in exemplary and erudite Persian nearly eight centuries ago. The author was born Jelaluddin Balkhi; he would later earn the tide of Mevlana, "Our Master," but most readers sim- ply know him as Rurni, the founder of the Sufi order of whirling dervishes known as the Mevlani. It was to his tomb in Konya, Turkey, that I went to pay homage, not as I would have to that of a prophet or a savior, but with all the reverence due to the Sufi whose mystical poetry and message of love is a paradigm of the spiritual heights of which humankind is capable.
In fact, Rumi didn't want a venerated tomb. "Look not for my grave in the earth, but in the hearts of my devoted seers," he said before his death. His followers, evidently, thought otherwise. When Rumi died on December 17, 1273, his funeral procession along the streets of Konya attracted a multitude. In a gesture telling. of the mystic's ecumenical ap- peal, his coffin was alternately borne by his Muslim dervish disciples, Christians, Zoroas- trians, and pantheists. He was buried alongside his father, Bahauddin Walad, also a the- ologian and mystic, in the gar- dens of the Seljuk sultanate. The sultan Velad was his son.
A mausoleum was built above the tombs of Rumi and his father, and it was here that the members of the Mevlani order came to pray, dance, play music, and pore over the Mevlana's words. Soon an- nexes were added, a mosque, and a monastic center, or tekke, for the dervishes. In time, the Mevlani complex became one of the most dynamic spiritual centers of the Ottoman Empire and a font of Sufism. The brightest young men and women knocked at the door of the tekke, seeking admis- sion to the dervish order. Sultans and travelers, emirs and philoso- phers, the poor and the enlightened bowed before Rumi's tomb, and the Mevlani dervishes danced their whirling dance of prayer.
I stood in the courtyard of the Mevlana Mausoleum, blinded by the light reflecting ofE white marble and limestone. There were roses blooming in neat parterres, fountains filling reflecting pools, and Muslim pilgrims snapping pictures of domes, minarets, and Ottoman portals. Above the threshold that led to the mausoleum, a Persian inscription in gold relief was carved into the lintel:

The "tolerant words" the author refers to are Rumi's: Come again, come again, whoever you may be, come again, even though you may be a pagan or a fire worshiper. Our Center is not one of despair. Come again, even if you may have violated your vows a hundred times,
come again.

This station is the Mecca of all dervishes.
What is lacking in them is here completed. Whoever came here unfulfilled, Was here made whole.
A Mecca for the mystics. I was glad to hear it, especially since, as a non-Mushm, I had been barred from making the haj (pil- grimage) to the Ka'ba shrine at Mecca, arguably the world's most emblematic pilgrimage. Still, there was something sad about the inscription as well. There were no dervishes about, the tekke had been turned into a museum, and when the sema dance of the dervishes was performed once a year on the anniversary of Rurm's death, the dancers were no longer dervishes whirling in ecstatic prayer, but government employees engaging in a well-scripted pantomime under the guise of folklore. The 700-year history of monastic discipline and mystical rites of the Mevlam order came to an abrupt end in 1925 when Kemal Atatijrk, father of the mod- ern Turkish Republic, which emerged from the crumbling foun- dations of the Ottoman Empire, decreed the mystic orders banned and their tekkes closed. Since then, the Mevlani Center has been a museum and a monument, but a thoroughly lifeless one, and I found no more tragic or telling an image than that of a wax dummy Mevlam dervish, clad in his brown cloak and high, tube- shaped hat, set up as a display in one of the former monastic cells.
When the cry of the muezzin called the faithful to their mid- day prayers from the nearby Selimiye Mosque, Muslim pilgrims and tourists poured out of the mausoleum. I left my shoes with a stooped guard and made my way to Rumi's tomb in stocking feet and alone. I passed through a small domed chamber that had once been used as a Qur'anic reading room. The walls were crowded with inscriptions and calligraphic panels of rare beauty. In a display case were a series of heart-shaped leaves decorated with passages from the Qur'an rendered in gold. I continued on through silver doors and entered the central hall of the mausoleum. The room stretched beneath three massive domes, and velvet- and silk- draped sarcophagi lay in rows on raised dais to the left and right.
Here were the tombs of Rumi's most devoted followers and descendants and, according to tradition, those of the Horasanian dervishes who accompanied Rumi, his father, and family on their flight from Balkh in Persia and the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan. A panel bore an in- scription by Rumi: "Appear as you are or be as you appear."
When I reached the cor- ner in which Rurni's tomb lay, I found a young woman crying, but when she saw me approach, she covered her face with her scarf and fled, sobbing as she went. Behind a low gate of silver latticework rose the marble sarcophagus of Rumi and that of his son, Sultan Velad, draped in a black silk shroud embroi- dered with Qur'anic verses. The tomb of Rumi's father stood at the foot of those of his sons. Atop the sarcopha- gus were the stone renditions of the Mevlana's tubular headdress (symbolizing the tombstone of the ego) wrapped in the turban of the order. Above soared a pyra- midal dome. The walls were decorated in a dizzyiijg com- position of tiles and carved reliefs with floral motifs, pas- sages from the Qur'an, and the words of Rumi. Every- where there were candelabra of gold and silver, precious oil lamps, and crystal chandeliers, all donated by admirers of the Mevlana who wished to give back to Rumi some of the light which he had instilled in them.
I wandered through the rooms that had once served as the Mevlani's dance hall and mosque and gazed at illuminated manu- scripts and Mameluk vases, ivory and mother-of-pearl lecterns, and priceless carpets. One display case was devoted to the Mevlana's clothes and contained, in addition to his turban and nightcap, some silk and cotton gowns and cloaks of an elegance that would make any contemporary fashion designer flush with envy. In a gallery exhibiting countless Qur'ans, each more beautiful than the last, I watched two gentlemen praying around a display case. When they moved on, I stepped over to see what it was they were venerating. Beneath the glass was a mother-of-pearl reliquary chest; the plaque read: "Muhammad's Beard."
When I emerged from the mausoleum, the courtyard was bathed in a warm, autumnal light and a young couple was drink- ing from the fountain whose water is said to bestow blessings on newlyweds. They were very proper and formal with one another, no groping or silly chatter, but they were clearly very much in love. I could see it in their eyes. The Mevlana was right, I thought-his legacy didn't lie in a tomb, but in the hearts of God's children.
For days, I divided my time between a shoddy hotel and the mausoleum courtyard, where I spent hours sitting on a stone bench and reveling in the mystical writings of Rumi. His output was immense. The six-volume Mathnawi, Rumi's most celebrated work, consists of 5,618 couplets and took a full forty-three years to complete. There are volumes of odes and quatrains, letters and .sermons, and a collection of discourses with the enigmatic tide of In It "at Is In It. I stuck mostly to the Mathnatvi and The Diwan of Shams of Tabriz, a work Rurni dedicated to the mysterious dervish who changed the Mevlana's life, inspired him to write his greatest mystical poetry, and was subsequently murdered by some of Rumi's disciples in an act of fatal jealousy.

I am seated on a shaded bench near the entrance of the tomb, waiting for it to open. The path leading to the entrance is lined with shining white tiles and a fountain bubbles beside me creating a state of near-tran- quility. A hollow sound resonates from behind the locked doors, they swing open to expose a ticket stand and a guard. I wait, not wanting to be the first per- son to rush in, and as I wait a lone figure hobbles slowly past me and toward the guard.
The figure is an old man wearing a tired salwar kameez under a beat-up navy-blue blazer. He stops in front of the guard and touches his forehead, bowing slightly. The guard points to the ticket stand. The old man tilts his head to the left and then to his feet which are spilling out of broken shoes. The guard tuts, shakes his head, and waves the old man through. They have not exchanged a single word.
-Joseph Gelfer, "Rumi's Tomb"

The scope of Rumi's field, I discovered, was virtually limitless. He could treat the mundane and the esoteric with equal subtlety and imbued all of his writing with a wisdom illuminated by the Sufi's notion of love and the continuous quest for union with the divine. Here is Rumi on "Quietness":
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side. Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall. Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color. Do it now.
You're covered with thick cloud. Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign that you've died.
Your old life was a frantic running from silence.
The speechless full moon comes out now.

Although Rumi was firnily rooted in the Islamic faith (his fam- ily descended from Abu Bakr, Muhammad's companion), he, like other Sufi mystics, was always striving toward a communion with God that clearly superseded the doctrines and dogmas of organized religion. To me, Rumi's message of tolerance and his ecumenical spirit in matters of faith seemed prophetic and, at the same time, thoroughly contemporary. Creeds, theology, debate, and exegesis in- terested him little; it was the innerjourney that counted:
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East or the West, not out of the ocean or up from the ground, not - natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all. I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any origin story@ My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know, first, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human beings.

Or this:
Cross and Christians, end to end, I examined. He was not on the Cross. I went to the Hindu temple, to the ancient pagoda. In neither was there any sign. To the heights of Herat I went, and Kandahar. I looked. He was not on
height or lowland. Resolutely, I went to the top of the Mountain of Kaf. There only was the place of the'Anqa
bird. I went to the Kaaba. He was not there. I asked of his state from Ibn Sina: he was beyond the limits of the philosopher Avicenna ... I looked into my own heart. In that his place I saw him. He was in no other place.
I was beginning to wonder if all my incessant wandering of the pilgrimage trails had been in vain.
As I was sipping tea one morning in a rather bleak cafe, I was approached by a young stranger.
"You have been spending a great deal of time at the Mevlana's tomb," he announced without introduction.
I nodded.
"And what have you found there?" "A very lovely museum."
"But you are not here to visit museums." "Not exactly-,,
He handed me a piece of paper with an address. "You will come this evening after prayers," he stated roundly. "Do not be late. Come alone."
And with that he turned and walked out before I could so much as ask to what I had been so graciously invited and by whom.
I lurked in front of the house at the appointed hour. It was very dark and cold. I felt, I must admit, a tinge of fear. I thought of turn- ing back. And then a man appeared from the shadows.
"Why do you not enter when you know we await you?" "I wasn't sure I had the right house," I said by way of an excuse. He motioned to me to follow him, and we walked into a dimly lit courtyard. In front of a door of a small house, there were dozens of shoes in neat rows. We took off ours silently and went in. We entered a room where perhaps fifty men, young and old, were en- gaged in prayer, bowing toward Mecca. I took a place in the last row at the back of the room.
I wasn't quite sure what to do. I thought I would be a mere observer, but an old man at my side pulled me down to my knees. I found myself bowing my head to the ground and mumbling something vaguely Arabic sounding, following along as best I could. The room was very hot and close and smelled of men. I recognized one of the guards from the museum and a pharmacist who had sold me aspirin. Some of the men were well dressed and distinguished looking, others appeared more humble. When the prayers were over, I was approached by the young man who had invited me.
"Welcome, brother," he said, embracing me. "Good of you to ask me," I said, still not sure exactly where I was.
"Come. I will introduce you to the sheik." I knelt before a wizened man with sparkling eyes. He offered me his hand to kiss. I obliged. He spoke in Turkish to my myste- rious escort.
"He wants to know why you have come to Konya." "To find Rumi," I answered. My response was translated for the sheik, and he nodded and said something else, smiling. "He says that you have come to the right place."
Again, I thought of the Mevlana's words: "Look not for my grave in the earth but in the hearts of my devoted seers."
We sat in a wide circle. A place was made for me beside the sheik. Tea was served and lochum sweets. Everyone seemed to be watching me. I smiled unconvincingly. Into the room walked a young dervish dressed in his black cloak, white skirt (his ego's shroud), and his high, felt headdress (his ego's tombstone); behind him filed musicians bearing flutes, drums, and a sort of large tam- bourine. I was, I suddenly realized, about to witness a clandestine Sema ceremony.
We began with a prayer, the Nat-i-sherif in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. Then a drum sounded, followed by a high-pitched whining from a reed flute, which, my escort whispered, represented "the Divine Breath." The dervish dancer then rose, bowed to the assem- bled, prostrated himself be- fore the sheik, and kissed his hand repeatedly. The music began to pick up pace and a chant rose up from the cir- cle, "Allah hu Akbar" ("God is Great"). Ever so slowly the dervish began to whirl. He lowered his arms from his shoulders to his waist and raised them again out- stretched. His right palm was turned heavenward to re- ceive God's beneficence, his left palm to the ground, giv- ing his divine gift to hu- mankind. His skirt seemed to take flight and undulated like a wave as he whirled. His eyes went blank, his head tilted, and he seemed lost in ecstatic union.

It is not dancing and it is not performing, although there are elements of both. More than all these things, this is a transfigura- tion of the human body into a vessel of prayer. It is the transfor- mation of the physicality of all of us into the beauty of the spirit.
And there is something utterly compelling about the whirling. Although there are per- haps fourteen or fifteen dancers, all of them have a slightly differ- ent tilt, one hand raised up to God, the other hand pointed down, bringing God to earth. On their faces, pure unadulter- ated rapture as if they have en- tered a trance, forgotten their bodies, and become pure spirit.
Joanne Ellison, "Sailing to Byzantium"

A small boy stood up from the circle, followed the same se- quence of salutations, and began to whirl as well. He couldn't have been more than eight or nine years old. The chanting grew louder and more feverish, and the circle swayed and jerked in unison. Others joined the dancing. The chant then shifted to "Al-lah, Al- lah, Al-lah... " Men beat their hearts and wailed. The music reached a crescendo. I grew delirious. And then the dancers suddenly whirled to a stop, the music ceased, and everyone murmured "Hu," which is all the names of God in one.
There was a brief intermission and then the prayers, music, dancing, and chanting started up again. Four times we chanted and the dancers whirled, and each time the ceremony grew more fren- zied until eyes rolled, sweat poured down ecstatic faces, and the chanting became hoarse. If Rurm chose the Sema as a vehicle de- signed to bring the seeker into contact with the mystical current, I thought, by the look of it, it worked.
We ended with a reading from the Qur'an: "Unto God belong the East and the West, and wherever you turn, there is God's coun- tenance. He is Ail-Embracing, All-Knowing." Then we prayed for the peace of the souls of all prophets and all believers.
There was more tea and sweets and some informal discussion, the center of which, it appeared, was me.
"Why," asked one of the men seated near me who had bellowed above all the rest in his wild chanting, "did you refuse to chant 'Allah'? Are you an unbeliever?"
"I am a believer, but I was unfamiliar with the rite. I remained silent out of respect."
"We revere Jesus as a prophet," said another. "Why can't you Christians accept Muhammad as a prophet?"
"My sacred book, as you know, ends with Christ's resurrection. Muhammad came later; he does not figure in the Bible."
"But God sent Muhammad with a new message because Christians had corrupted Jesus' words. Islam is the more perfect faith. Surely you must see that."
"Very few sacred words have not been corrupted by someone. The extent to which Christianity has corrupted the words of Jesus is open to debate. Still, I believe in the Christian message which, in the final analysis, is a message of love, not unlike that of the Mevlana."
"But the Mevlana was a Muslim!" someone shouted. I was beginning to feel just a bit intimidated. It was more or less fifty faithfi-il against one infidel. I looked to the Mevlana for defense.
"'When will you cease to worship and to love the pitcher? When will you begin to look for the water?... I said, quoting Run-ii. There was no reply, but the sheik was smiling and nodding his head. "We all seek God's salvation," I continued. "If on judgment Day a good and pious Muslim and an equally good and pious Christian stand before God, would it be in the nature of the Ahnighty to reject the Christian?"
More nodding of heads. The sheik pronounced the gathering over. We stood up and the modern-day Mevlam formed a line to bid the Christian good night. I kissed fifty men on both cheeks and the sheik on his hand.
"You must come to see us again, young Christian," he said. "We will study the Qur'an."
"And the Bible '" I insisted, "and St. John of the Cross, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Emerson."
I walked back to my hotel in the dark, past the street sweepers and the last merchants closing up shop. When I got to my room, I drew the shades and began to whirl, but after a few brief turns I became hopelessly dizzy, lost my balance, and hit my head on a lamp. I settled into bed and turned to Rumi:

One went to the door of the Beloved and knocked. A voice asked, "Who is there?" He answered, "It is L"
The voice said. "There is no room for Me and Thee." The door was shut.
After a year of solitude and deprivation he returned and knocked.
A voice from within asked, "Who is there?" The man said, "It is Thee."
The door was opened for him.

I had been knocking, I realized, until my knuckles were raw and swollen. It was Rumi who showed me that I had been knocking from inside and that all along the door had been open. Nicholas Shrady was born and raised in Connecticut, and received a philoso- phy degreefrom Georgetown University. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, Travel & Leisure, Town & Country, and Forbes. This story was excerptedfrom his book, Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail.

In the Hearts of God's Children By Nichola Shrady

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