by Chris Clemens
We originally began this project by wanting to visit physical places of religiosity across New York that made us curious or had a particularly interesting history to them. Though it wasn’t our intention, it wasn’t long before the people at each site quickly became just as much of the story and brought an entirely new aspect to the histories we were learning. Part of our interest has always been an immense fascination with the process by which all humans prescribe a sacred status to a geographical place, so meeting people and hearing about how their church or temple or synagogue or shrine is sacred to them is really interesting. The story of our visit to the Sufi Order of Rochester is one of those that really encompasses the idea that a sacred space doesn’t have to exist within a specific type of physical structure or have architectural criteria that determines how spiritual it might be, but that the people who spend their time within the physical structure and their practices are what make it sacred. Though the carriage house at 494 East Ave. was originally built to store buggies and tack, it now has been transformed into a place of fellowship and worship for the Sufi Order of Rochester.
Sufism is probably one of the most confusing religions I have read about, and that’s because, depending on who you ask, it isn’t even really considered a religion. Sufism is believed by some to be a branch of Islam, but others contend that Sufism is a philosophy that predates Islam, and celebrates its roots with Zoroastrianism, the oldest recorded religion on the planet. Though much of its history can be traced through lineages to the Prophet Muhammad, many of the tenets and practices in Sufism appear in other religious systems as well. Some Muslims believe that Sufism is the mystical portion of Islam without the laws and specific worship practices, but others feel it’s entirely different and that anyone can be a Sufi and still adhere to any other religion. In fact, while we were sitting at dinner that evening and being told the backstory of Sufi Order International, it was mentioned that even an Atheist could be a Sufi, provided that they could accept the fact that God was mentioned so much during worship and practice.
It was around the turn of the 20th century that Hazrat Inayat Khan was told by his teacher (Sufis avoid using the word Guru) that he should leave the East, and migrate to the West, using his love of music to bring the cultures of the often divided Middle East and the United States together. The first of any Sufi to migrate to the West, Khan dedicated himself to planetary consciousness and spiritual alignment among all humans and believed that the message of Sufism would catapult the next wave of spiritual evolution in the world. In 1915, he founded the Sufi Order International; a move that was the result of some disagreements among believers he left back home in the East. With S.O.I. an official entity in the West, his followers sprang to action by offering seminars, classes, outreach and by teaching the West about an ancient, mystic way of life. Headquarters for the order are in New York state, and while there are other branches of the order in the state, Rochester is by far the most stable and prominent. While there are only about thirty Sufis who regularly interact and commune, there is a smaller, core group who have been practicing and worshipping together since the 1980’s. Though they have been successful in meeting in whatever spot they could find available, it was only last year that the group came to inhabit their current home in the old carriage house and quickly set out to making it theirs.
A friend I and were attending a Sufi Order International event that occurs one Saturday a month called “Eat, Pray, Dance” and while I am perfectly comfortable with only one of the three, we approached the evening with an open mind, though fairly unsuspecting of what we were in for. Just inside the door, we took our shoes off, placed them with everyone else’s and stepped through into the main room, which had long tables set for dining and two smaller tables with a large spread of food. I have to admit, knowing that environmental health and eco-awareness play such an important role in Sufi beliefs, I expected the parking lot to be full of Priuses and the table to be a spread of vegan-friendly, soy, gluten-free type things that you get at the local vegetarian co-op. While there was plenty of those things, I was surprised to find that a meat dish was on the table. Though I will eat anything if I’m a guest (except when mayonnaise has touched it), I was more surprised to learn that not everyone was a vegetarian. It didn’t take long for the twelve or so people in the room to recognize that there were a couple of out of place newcomers that were looking around taking it all in.
In less time than it took for me to write that last sentence, we were already chatting with a group and introducing ourselves to people that had been expecting us and already knew I wrote a blog. While we got everyone’s name that we talked to, some people introduced themselves as their birth name as well as their Sufi name. There are a couple ways to ‘be a Sufi’ but the most involved and dedicated of those ways is by being initiated. Someone who wants to be initiated may find another Sufi whom they seem to connect with, and that person acts as a bit of a mentor to walk through the process. Once the initiation is complete, they are able to receive a Sufi name. While I sometimes have a hard enough time remembering names, it quickly became that much more difficult to keep track of two for each person we met! After a few minutes of people mingling and chatting, everyone began circling the food table and getting ready to eat. The event we were at was a bit of a potluck dinner where each person brought something to contribute and then all sit family style at tables. We sat with a few new friends, one of which was Rev. Wadud who originally extended the invitation for us to join. The group seemed just as interested in the concept of this blog as we were about the concepts of Sufism, so dinner was a volley of everyone asking and answering questions about religion. After most people were done eating and seemingly without any particular prompt or by the minute schedule to keep, people began taking down the dinner tables and arranging chairs in semi-circles that faced the Sufi altar.
The altar in Rochester is quite simple, and from what I’ve gathered online, that’s similar to other orders as well. Candles representing six major religions, then one for the Sufi religion and then one that represents all known and unknown religions makes a semi-circle encompassing an icon of the Sufi symbol: a heart with a moon and star with wings. While each initiated Reverend takes turns leading services, this particular evening was led by our new friend Rev. Wadud. The invocation was recited together, “Toward the One, the perfection of Love, Harmony and Beauty, the only being, united with all the illuminated souls who form the embodiment of the Master, the Spirit of Guidance.” Reflecting the Sufi belief that there is only one true God and that all religions just use different names and stories and interpretations of that same God. The invocation began the theme for the entire evening’s service to inspire each person in attendance to wonder if there indeed really was one absolute truth. Some ideas to ponder were offered, and then scripture readings from the Hindu ‘Svetasvatara Upanishad‘, the Buddhist ‘Lankavatara Sutra‘, the Zoroastrian ‘Zend Avesta‘, Native American Dakota Tradition, the Tao Te Ching representing the Divine Feminine, Deuteronomy 6.4 and Midrash, Pesikta Kahana from the Jewish faith, 1 Corinthians from the Bible to represent Christianity, Qur’an reading 23.91-92 for Islam, and then a reading from Inayat Khan’s (the founder of the Sufi Order International) writings to represent all religions known and even unknown were each read aloud to help inspire the meditation about whether or not there exists only one absolute truth.
A few more readings were gone over, and a chance for anyone who wanted to share a thought if they were so moved was offered. Though the service clearly had a leader, portions of it seemed similar to a peer-mediated group where at certain junctures everyone appeared to be equal in their ability to offer spiritual insight, and the leader in some ways acted almost as a moderator, inspiring the group to be involved. A few people offered their own insights about their ideas on the one truth, including one person who shared that during meditation, he envisioned the many lights of the candles on the altar coming together as one light. It became clearer and clearer to me that the ideas of Sufism were entirely about unity and the understanding that all sentient beings are joined by the same spiritual force, regardless of how you choose to refer to that force. The idea that different religions exist is merely a perspective, culture and nationality a function only of setting people apart by those distinctions, the differences experienced among people are just that: experiences only. The reality for Sufis is that the celebration of a connected oneness among all and the human connection to the spirit of the Earth is what encompasses their beliefs.
The weather that evening was bringing with it one of the last troublesome snowstorms of 2014, and at the close of the service a few people decided to leave after the first 2/3 of “Eat, Pray, Dance”. The rest of the crew cleared the chairs and transformed the multipurpose space for the third time that night. Rev. Wadud strapped on an acoustic guitar and others seemed to instinctively huddle around. While I have experienced a number of different things while visiting places, I have never, ever agreed to dancing. Ever.
Before they went any further with the third portion of the evening, another Reverend motioned for me to approach her and she handed me a hand drum. Immediately realizing that the third portion of the evening was about to be destroyed by my inability to keep any semblance of rhythm or time, I immediately took solace in knowing that my friend would be the one dancing. The Reverend who handed me the drum also led the group with instructions for the lyrics and the choreography, most of which took place in a circle surrounding myself and Rev. Wadud. While I know that members of the Sufi Order International will be reading this, I can’t really leave out the fact that my friend and I were connecting on our own separate level in the room, shooting knowing glances at one another that read, “What did we get ourselves into with this one??”
Through three songs that each sang verses in honor of a different faith, the group danced in more and more difficult choreography until the final song had each member of the circle rotating from person to person pairing up in motions of spiritual uplifting. As an onlooker from the center of the group, by the last song I noticed something weird had happened. The group of people that began somewhat unsure of what the next move would be seemed to not focus so much on executing each step and hand movement perfectly, but rather to try and have as much fun as they could with it. The dancing was definitely more of a joyous celebration of the moment than a choreographed production. In fact, in some ways it felt similar to a Grateful Dead concert in that everyone was part of the group and each part played an important role in the coming together of the celebration.
After the third song chairs were brought back for the fourth and final room set up of the night. Wadud kept his guitar and my hand drum thankfully was passed on to a much more adept keeper of time. A couple more songs were sung and a few closing announcements were made. The entire group stood and joined close together in a circle with arms around one another and while a closing thought was offered, a few others seemed to join in and share their thanks for being there that evening. After separating, everyone mingled a bit more and chatted with one another, but the brewing Spring snow and ice that was building outside seemed to be steering all of us to get to our homes before the worst of it set in.
While the entire evening took us further out of our comfort zone than the majority of any other place we’ve visited, every single person that we met that evening was incredibly friendly, welcoming and genuine. Everyone there was fully engaged with everyone else. Though we may not be perfectly at home with prayer and dancing and singing aloud, neither one of us ever felt out of place. Because of the feeling of connectedness in the group and the comfort level that each of the Sufis seemed to have with one another, my friend and I seemed to be treated as if we had always been part of the family. One of the things we noted to each other afterward was the difference during the evening in ourselves and being engaged. There are numerous other faith services we’ve attended where it’s sometimes easy to allow your mind to drift and lose focus on what’s being shared. The entire evening at the Sufis “Eat, Pray, Dance” almost required attention, and it nearly was impossible to drift off and think about what groceries I’d need to get the next day or how I had to stop and get gas on the way home. That engagement was obvious to both of us not only because of our own experiences in paying attention, but because everyone in the room seemed to always be engaged as well. The earlier insight that had been shared about all of the candle flames coming together as one seemed to be a metaphor for what went on for the entire evening, all of the different people in the room seemed to move and act as one for the whole celebration, and it was an incredible honor and learning experience to be part of. Sufi Order International, many thanks!!
The Sufis have a great website with a calendar of events and LOTS more reading about the ideas of the religion you should go checkout here. They’re also on Facebook and even have been tweeting, go follow them!! They often events that aren’t necessarily considered services, so if you’re looking to get your foot in the door without having to use them for dancing, you may want to checkout their monthly Rumi Cafe, where they set up the room like a coffee shop and have different events each time like poetry reading or a musician.
*This post originally appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens