What the spring equinox means to Rufai Sufis

For people all over the world, the spring equinox is symbolic of renewal, rejuvenation and revitalization. For a group of Sufis in Kosovo, it is the mark of something much more. It is at this time that members of the Rufai branch of Sufism – Islamic mysticism – hold an annual ritual ceremony wherein they celebrate the birth of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and a revered figure in Islam. The ceremony also commemorates the celebration of the Persian New Year, Nowruz. The uniqueness of this ceremony is exemplified by music, chanting and dancing, fused with the clashing of cymbals and incantations of prayers in the languages of Arabic, Turkish and Albanian.

Photo Credit: Faisal Anwar

Photo Credit: Faisal Anwar

As men chant and sway in conjunction with one another, Sheikh Adrihusein Shehu, who presides over the practice today in Kosovo, removes an iron needle known as a zarf from the mihrab – the enclosed prayer space – behind him, blesses it with his lips, and inserts it slowly into the cheek of those taking partaking in the ritual.

The practice is said to be painless. Shehu’s eldest son, Sejjid Xhemal, expresses that “it is a good feeling, I feel spiritually stronger.” He also emphasized that those partaking are neither intoxicated nor in a trance, but that they are conscious of their practice.

During a tradition Nowruz ritual, a member of the Sufi sect pierces himself with a zarf - an iron skewer. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

During a tradition Nowruz ritual, a member of the Sufi sect pierces himself with a zarf – an iron skewer. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

The practice is rooted in an ancient tradition founded by a spiritual leader Pir Sejjid Amhed Er Rufai, whose practice is upheld until this day. “Our founder Pir Sejjid Ahmed Er Rufai made a miracle in his time to show others that God exists, and now we do this for tradition,” Xhemal said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Friar Ivo, a celebrated Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action and Catholic Franciscan interfaith worker in Bosnia, praised Sufism by stating that Sufi spirituality and practice is “very dedicated to peace and cooperation,” and that practitioners “are open to other religious experiences.” Friar Ivo expressed that despite Sufism having different branches, as a whole it should be should be celebrated.

In Kosovo, a relatively young country still recovering from political turmoil, Sheikh Shehu preaches a profound message of peace, tolerance and understanding, calling on his followers to look past incidental differences and to look towards transcendental commonalities.

“We all have faith, but in form we are different … one goes to church, one to synagogue, one to the mosque. But we are all going because of belief in God. We must turn toward love, who gives you the right to hate?” said Shehu in the interview with Al Jazeera.

Prior to the start of the Nowruz ritual. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

Prior to the start of the Nowruz ritual. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

In a world where we too often find the prevalence of darkness and hate, Shehu and his followers offer a radical and compelling message:
One of illumination and love.