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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.

Riots in England Point to Discrimination: News Roundup

In the news this week: England’s riots uncover racial tensions, a Pew report finds a global increase in religious discrimination, Whole Foods defends their stance on Ramadan, and more.

England is currently recovering from violent riots that tore through parts of the country and claimed the lives of three young Muslim men. Members of the majority Muslim community where the men lived are decrying the lack of a police presence. The men were run over by rioters while protecting a humble row of shops and red brick mosque (St. Petersburg Times). A father of one of the victims called for prayer and a candlelight vigil rather than revenge (Malaysia Sun). Many are wondering whether the fatal attack points to a larger issue of racial tensions and discrimination. 

Fox News reports:
Worshippers are under attack in more countries as governments crack down on religion, and social hostilities grow, according to a new report. The report, by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, looked at statistics and government data spanning from 2006 to 2009, and uses such criteria as government crackdowns on religion and social hostility, including religious-motivated bias, beatings and murder, to determine which countries were the least tolerant to religion.

According to the report, Christians and Muslims experienced negative government laws and social harassment in nearly the same number of countries, with many of those countries overlapping. Japan was named the most religiously tolerant country with Brazil coming in a close second. 

Whole Foods is accused of downplaying Ramadan-geared products in the face of pressure from right-wing bloggers. In years past, such items were accompanied by small signs, but this year one internal email said the company should not risk the negative attention (Houston Press). Whole Foods responded by saying that the email was sent by one manager in one region and in no reflects the attitude or opinion of the organization (CNN).

While we’re on the topic of Ramadan, President Obama hosted an Iftar dinner this week to celebrate Ramadan. The Iftar is the dinner that breaks the holiday’s daily fast. The dinner became an annual White House tradition under President Bill Clinton and was continued by President George W. Bush. The White House says invited guests include religious and grass-roots leaders in the Muslim-American community as well as leaders of other faiths and elected officials (Washington Post). The President spoke of the positive contributions and sacrifices of American Muslims, particularly in relation to the 9/11 attacks.

“Muslim Americans were first responders,” Obama said, recounting events of September 11, “the former police cadet who raced to the scene to help and then was lost when the towers collapsed around him; the EMTs who evacuated so many to safety; the nurse who tended to so many victims; the naval officer at the Pentagon who rushed into the flames and pulled the injured to safety.” (CNN)

In other news: