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.

News Roundup: Religion, Violence, and Norway, Plus Other Stories

In the news this week: the role of religion in the Norway tragedy, the Park51 developer hopes for peace, Belgium enacts a veil ban, Herman Cain issues an apology, and the San Francisco circumcision ban is stymied, for now.

The recent atrocity in Norway includes a wide range of complex religious sub-stories. Anders Breviek admitted to murdering over 90 people in order to display his opposition to the immigration of Muslims and the Norwegian government’s moderate policies (NY Times). Breivik also self-identifies as a Christian in his writing, but many are arguing that he is nothing of the sort (NY Times). If he had been Muslim with similar opinions, would anyone in the western world debate his true religiosity? Unrelated to Breviek’s beliefs and identity, many assumed that Islamic militants were responsible for the murders before any suspect had been identified. Now many in the Muslim community are wondering why members of their religion are immediately implicated in any terrorist activity (LA Times). 
The Huffington Post recently ran a story on the Park51 project and its developer, Sharif el-Gamal. Gamal is quietly maintaining that the project is a community center and welcoming place for people of all faiths or none, but he is concerned about what might happen in the media and community in the weeks leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He believes there is a possibility of negative national attention similar to what took place last summer. Prepare New York, of which Tanenbaum is a founding member, is creating resources and promoting events that build an environment of respect around the 10th anniversary.
Belgium is the second European Union country to enact a law banning veils. According to the BBC, Belgium's law bans any clothing that obscures the identity of the wearer in places like parks and on the street. The law was passed almost unanimously with only two law makers abstaining. Two women are challenging the law in the country’s constitutional court.
Herman Cain, presidential hopeful, released a statement apologizing for his negative statements about Muslims after meeting with four Muslim leaders recently. Cain had said that communities should have the right to ban Islamic mosques (to block the influence of sharia law) and that he would not want a Muslim in his administration. He recognized that these positions were unconstitutional and that Muslims have the right to practice freely in the United States (USA Today).
And here is an update on the California circumcision ban from the Jewish Daily Forward:
A San Francisco Superior Court judge tentatively ruled that an initiative banning circumcisions for anyone under 18 be removed from the November ballot.  The July 27 ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed last month, which argued that state law bars municipalities from banning legitimate medical practices.  In her ruling, the Bay Area newspaper j. reported, Judge Loretta Giorgi argued that the proposed ballot initiative is “expressly pre-empted” by state law because the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that “circumcision is a widely practiced medical procedure.”