Dance of Ecstasy: Bridging the Secular, Sacred, and Profane

by Humera Afridi

Amjad sabriI arrived in Istanbul on the morning of July 3, fast on the heels of death.

Amjad Sabri, an eminent Pakistani qawwal—a Sufi devotional musician in the tradition of world-renowned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and son of the famous singer Ghulam Fareed Sabri of the Sabri Brothers—had been shot dead in his car in Karachi ten days earlier by the Pakistani Taliban. He’d been praising the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his noble family a little too much for the Taliban’s liking. And so they had their way with him. In a nation inured to violence, Sabri’s death, nevertheless, struck at the communal soul of Pakistan. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the messy confusion of Pakistan’s conflicted national and cultural identity, inflected with the scourge of Wahabism—a tyrannical interpretation of orthodox Islam imported from Saudi Arabia—temporarily dissipated.

Thousands of Pakistanis came out on the streets, united in grief, to protest Sabri’s death. Sabri was a child of Pakistan’s own soil. He belonged to a venerable, centuries-old musical dynasty. His spiritual attunement and the muscular faculty of his voice transported people to ecstasy, raising mere mortals above the denseness of an earthly, mired existence, above differences of class and wealth into a celebration of the Divine. Sabri’s music was a glorification. And it belonged to a distinct tradition of South Asian music, a legacy irrefutably inherent in the DNA of Pakistan, twinned to the devotional practice of Islam and its syncretic cultural roots in the region. Invoking a transcendent joy, Sabri’s qawwali created a milieu of harmony—completely antithetical to the Taliban’s backward, beclouded ideology of hate which thrives on sowing seeds of discord.

On June 28, six days after Sabri’s murder, a triple suicide bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, killed 42 and plunged Turkey—and the world—into shock and mourning. I arrived in Istanbul four days later, and in my mind the two tragedies, Sabri’s death and this latest devastation in Istanbul—and what they both symbolized—became intertwined into a single loss: that of a particular vibrational note, indeed, that of musical harmony. It seemed we were witnessing the slow disintegration of the last bastion of a modernist, secular state in the Islamic world. Of all cities, Istanbul, to me, is the most plausible custodian and embodiment of the kind of “perfect music” of which the Indian musician and mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan, whose teachings bridge East and West, spoke of so cogently.

“The word ‘spiritual’ does not apply to goodness, or to wonder-working, the power of producing miracles, or to great intellectual power,” he said. “The whole of life, in all its aspects, is one single music; and the real spiritual attainment is to tune one’s self to the harmony of this perfect music.”

Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, offers an example of how close we can come to that ideal of attuning to harmony despite myriad differences. Perhaps, it has to do with the influence of the Sufis. Indeed, much is owed, too, to Kemalist secularism for this achievement. Istanbul is uniquely secular and spiritual; it is of the East and the West; liberal and conservative; exoteric and esoteric and all shades and gradations in between. Istanbul has one foot in Asia and the other in Europe. When the failed coup attempt took place on July 15, three weeks and some days after the airport bombing, it was the Bosphorus Bridge, linking Europe and Asia, that the dissenters blocked—an action rife with symbolism.

In the days between the airport bombing and the attempted coup, other than a quiet wariness which hung in the air, there had been no discernible hint of what was yet to come. When I arrived in the last days of Ramadan, I was intent on immersing myself in the sacred rituals of the city, determined not to be deterred by fear. Istanbul offers the rare opportunity to swim from the sacred to the secular and back in seamless strokes. With unaffected nonchalance, the city bespeaks a wholistic attitude, accepting both realms, as belonging to one and the same ‘ocean,’ a way of being that I find utterly freeing.

Every year, I visit Turkey in pursuit of this “perfect music,” a harmony that embraces me on its streets and in its mosques, churches and museums, unlike any other place, other than an imaginary Pakistan that no longer exists, a Pakistan that belonged to my parents’ generation where you could be both secular and devotional and one didn’t cancel out the other, and where spiritual devotion didn’t happen on the basis of denigrating and negating other faith traditions.

On my first night in Istanbul, I attended an iftar at a hotel overlooking the Bosphorous whose waters appeared pewter in the light of sunset. An all-female troupe of musicians performed soul-stirring classical folk songs. I breathed in the air of this cosmopolitan city and admired the alternating blue and red neon lights of the Bosphorous Bridge, connecting the European side of Istanbul to the Anatolian. Later that same evening, I hailed a cab and headed to a conservative neighborhood to visit the 15th century mosque of Eyup Sultan, just outside the city walls by the Golden Horn. A space of spiritual intensity, it brims with pilgrims from all across the world who pay homage at the tomb of Prophet Muhammad’s close companion, Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari, who died here during the First Arab Siege of Constantinople. The mosque and the courtyard emanate an atmosphere that reminds me of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Here you can find bottles of Zamazam water and visitors in a heightened state of prayerful intent.

In the crowded courtyard, I sought a spot beneath the canopy of an immense tree to lay my prayer mat, savoring each time I prostrated, the cool touch of the ancient stone ground to my forehead. Beneath the open sky, surrounded by devotees and the sound of the mellifluos recitations over the loudspeaker, an overwhelming sense of community flooded over me, a heady feeling of belonging, that transcended language and culture. That night after Taravih prayers, I lingered at an outdoor table at Mado café, sipping Turkish tea, imbibing the festive atmosphere heralding the imminent arrival of Eid-ul-Fitr.

The following evening, I ventured out again, this time to the neighborhood of Karagumruk in Fatih district to join the devotional prayer services of the Halveti Jerrahi Sufi Order. The hotel’s bell captain hailed a cab for me and when I told him my destination, he looked at me in alarm.

“Madam Fatih is very dangerous.”

Around me, couples in haute designer wear were climbing into their chauffeur-driven, shiny limousines.

Another doorman, tall, mustachioed came forward.

“Fatih? Come on, it’s not so dangerous!”

The bell captain frowned. “That’s because you live there, that’s why it’s okay for you.”

Smirks and stifled laughter. It all ended in good humor, but the staff were genuinely surprised, stabbed with concern that a hotel guest was venturing out to the ultra-conservative district of Istanbul.

On each visit to Istanbul, one of the first things I do is visit the Pir Nureddin Jerrahi Sufi lodge in Karagumruk, Fatih, to pay my respects at the tombs of the seventeenth century Pir, his mother, and the lineage of teachers who have followed. Buried there among them is blessed Shaykh Muzaffer Ozak, a prolific author and the owner of a shop specializing in rare and antique books in Istanbul’s famous book market, who died in 1985. Close to the end of his life, he visited America, fell in love with the universalist spirit of the American people he met and founded branches there of the Halveti Jerrahi Order. It is this sacred link, via the branch in New York City, that brings me to Karagumruk. Unlike New York, the devotional ceremonies are segregated: women upstairs, men downstairs. But the rituals are the same and I feel comfortable here despite the language barrier. The first time I visited in 2010, I recall a board on the gate describing the lodge as a folkloric center. That sign no longer exists, presumably signaling an openness and acceptance by the current government. Unnamed-1

It was the eve of Bayram, or Eid, and special prayers were held late into the night. I returned again, a little after dawn, the following morning for Eid ul Fitr prayers. Once again, I came alone, in a cab and felt perfectly safe. And yet—in an apartment building here in this very neighborhood the three suicide bombers of the airport attack supposedly resided, walking and breathing on these very streets.

On the third day of Eid, I traveled to Konya, to visit the tomb of Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi and the mosque of Shams-i-Tabriz. Konya, a city perhaps more conservative than Istanbul, is replete with tourists and pilgrims alike, welcoming all with gracious acceptance, manifesting a similar, utterly natural acceptance of both the secular and the sacred. Mawlana Rumi’s resting place has been converted into a museum which means devotees spend no more than a few hurried moments before his tomb as watchful guards keep the line of visitors moving in an orderly fashion. Nevertheless, here, too—especially here— one can surrender to the feeling of devotion, without fear of condemnation or criticism.

Love’s fire, ecstatic communion with the Beloved, poems upon poems describing the states of separation and union between lover and Beloved, secreted with mystical insights—this is Rumi’s legacy. And the Mevlavi Sufi Order, named after Rumi, continues the tradition of sama—listening to music in ritual ceremonies of devotional remembrance—and the ecstasy-inducing whirling that he introduced.

Close to midnight, I sat on a bench across from the museum, gazing at its glowing turrets, relishing the sweeping breeze on my skin. The rhythmic beats of a daf drum wafted towards me. Curious, I followed the hypnotic sound. Leaning against the wall of the mosque, right across from Mawlana’s museum, was a group of musicians who had, impromptu, begun to sing and play their daf, ney and string instruments.

A crowd began to gather, forming a circle on the ground, filling the space between the mosque and the museum. The musicians were from Tehran. They sang the words of Rumi’s famous Masnavi poem, voices and instruments building to a crescendo, and I thought, how perfect, how utterly perfect the moment was and how only in Turkey could such a celebration of spirit, and spiritual devotion, flower unencumbered by the stifling policing and righteousness of limited religion. Unnamed-2

And then, mere days later, came the attempted coup.

My eyes opened anew to a city rejoicing despite the bloodshed, amid the shattered glass of windows that exploded with the sonic boom of fighter jets razing the night sky. Taksim Square has been the locus of all-night concerts where supporters of the President dance, wave flags and shout victory slogans. The quiet, suppressed anxiety after the airport bombing appears to have found release in the ecstasy of street marches and demonstrations.

On Thursday, when I went to Karagumruk, to the tekke, for the traditional night of zikr, the streets of the main drag were filled with celebrants, giddy with the victory of democracy, the park was packed with families picnicking well after midnight. The mood in the lodge was somber as the imam read out a list of names of the dead from the neighborhood, who were martyred the night of the coup. Three dervishes from the lodge had been killed— including the President’s election campaign manager and his sixteen year-old son. Theirs had been a high-profile funeral in Fatih, the previous Sunday, attended by both the President and the Prime Minister.

“Don’t you see? Something really wonderful has happened, don’t you see?” an elderly woman at the Sufi lodge said to me. A former New Yorker who moved to Istanbul twenty years ago, she blends in and looks unmistakably Turkish. “Democracy, the power of the people has won! Now a cleaning out is happening. It is the best thing. It’s marvelous what’s happened!”

It was then, in the sound of her high-pitched excitement that my heart plummeted. I understood why my secular Turkish friends don’t venture into the sacred spaces I so cherish. They are wary of the shadows—not just wary, but trapped in hope, and an innocence that has not been entirely eviscerated. Theirs is a present filled with a hopeful future, for a music that can become ever more perfect. The seamless to-ing and fro-ing I’ve savored in Istanbul between spaces that historically divide and separate, is not necessarily a gift the city may continue to bestow. It is too soon to tell which way the pendulum will swing.

Even as I ponder the burgeoning new reality, of the thousands detained, the “witch hunt” in progress, in my heart I return to the memory of the zikr ceremony in the tekke. I peer through the fretwork banister to the main floor below where a dervish whirls. I am lifted up and away through sound and breath in a celebration of unity. What is happening on the streets and what happened on the Bosphorous Bridge is left behind, diminished into something so small it is barely discernible.

The Sufis say music has in it a certain abstraction, the vibrations themselves become an uplifting influence that tunes the heart. I remembered Amjad Sabri, how threatening the influence of his music and poetry were to the Taliban's ieology. Through listening to music the highest states of Divine remembrance can be attained.

“It is the memory of this moment of vision which is celebrated in the dance of the dervishes,” declared Hazrat Inayat Khan.

Indeed, may the dance of the dervishes, and the miraj-al-ashiqi, the ascension of lovers through listening to music, guide the way forward in these days of change.