I saw my first whirling dervish last Thursday when I attended a performance by the acclaimed Yuval Ron Ensemble in St. Paul. The event was entitled "Turning Heart," and was billed as “an evening of Sufi devotional music, poetry, teaching stories and whirling.” It was all that and more. And it was wonderful!
Conditions weren't the best for taking photographs but I managed to snap a few that I think are good enough to share.
Yuval Ron (pictured above at left) is an award-winning composer, educator and peace activist. He's also one of the leading presenters of Sufi music in the USA.
When I arrived early for the performance at the Friends Meeting House in St. Paul last Thursday, I discovered I was the first to arrive. Despite being clearly in preparation mode for the evening's performance, Yuval took the time to greet me warmly and make me feel very welcome.
He is quite a renowned musician, having toured extensively, performed for the Dalai Lama's Seeds of Compassion educational initiative, and collaborated with Turkish Sufi master musician Omar Faruk Tekbilek to produce the album One Truth - A Window into the Divine Passion and Poetry of Sufism. He also worked on the Oscar-winning short film, West Bank Story.
Yuval is the musical director and oud player for the Yuval Ron Ensemble, which includes Arabic, Jewish and Christian artists committed to blending their talents and uniting the sacred musical traditions of Judaism, Sufism and the Armenian Christian Church into what many experience as a truly spiritual and inspiring musical celebration.
What I find particularly inspiring is that the Yuval Ron Ensemble is actively involved in creating "musical bridges" between people of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths – often by performing concerts in strife-torn areas of the Middle East.
Left: Sukhawat Ali Khan, master Qawaali singer from Pakistan, was a special guest of the Yuval Ron Ensemble when it performed in St. Paul last week.
Following is what Wikipedia says about Sufi music.
Sufi music is a genre of music inspire by Sufism, its philosophy, and most importantly by the works of Sufi poets, like Rumi, Hafez, Faiz, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah and even Kabir.
Qawwali is the most well known form of Sufi music, common in India and Pakistan. However, music is also central to the whirling dervishes and the ceremony of , who use a slow, sedate form of music featuring the Turkish flute, the ney. The West African gnawa is another form, and Sufis from Indonesia to Afghanistan to Morocco have made music central to their practices.
Sufi love songs are often performed as ghazals and Kafi, a solo genre accompanied by percussion and harmonium, using a repertoire of songs of Sufi poets.
Above: Last week's performance by the Yuval Ron Ensemble featured Dervish Aziz of the Mevlevi Order.
Aziz Abbatiello is a whirling dervish upholding the traditions of the Mevlevi [or Mawlawi] Order of Sufis who follow the great 13th-century Islamic poet and mystic Jellaleddin Rumi. He grew up on the West Coast of the United States where his parents were among the first to take up Sufism from teachers who came there from India and the Middle East. At the age of seventeen, Aziz began to study fervently the Sufi practices under the guidance of his father so that he could join the ceremonies with his family. Now he spends much of his time in Turkey studying and practicing with sheikhs in Istanbul and Konya – a holy city for the whirling dervishes. The rest of his time he spends in San Francisco involved in woodworking and carpentry, while he continues his prayers and remembrance of Allah.
Following (with added links) is how religion scholar Karen Armstrong describes Sufism in her book Islam: A Short History.
Sufism was probably a reaction against the growth of jurisprudence, which seemed to some Muslims to be reducing Islam to a set of purely exterior rules. Sufis wanted to reproduce within themselves that state of mind that made it possible for Muhammad to receive the revelations of the Quran. It was this interior islam that was the true foundation of the law, rather than the usul al-fiqh of the jurists. Where establishment Islam was becoming less tolerant, seeing the Quran as the only valid scripture and Muhammad's religion as the one true faith, Sufis went back to the spirit of the Quran in their appreciation of other religious traditions. Some, for example, where especially devoted to Jesus, whom they saw as the ideal Sufi since he had preached a gospel of love. Others maintained that even a pagan who prostrated himself before a stone was worshipping the Truth (al-haqq) that existed at the heart of all things. Where the ulama and the jurists were increasingly coming to regard revelation as finished and complete, the Sufis, like the Shiis, were constantly open to the possibility of new truths, which could be found anywhere, even in other religious traditions. Where the Quran described a God of strict justice, Sufis, such as the great woman ascetic Rabiah (d. 801), spoke of a God of love.
Yes, I'm definitely a Sufi at heart!
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Sufi Way
In the Garden of Spirituality – Doris Lessing
A Living Twenty-First Century Tradition
Clarity, Hope, and Courage
It Happens All the Time in Heaven
Images: Michael J. Bayly.