by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Before I met Hayat Nur Artiran, I had only had a raw understanding of what female selfhood may look like, a notion I have been attempting to refine in my writings over many years. Here, at the Mevlevi Sufi lodge in Istanbul, I received a lifetime’s worth of illumination about the power of the spirit in the company of Nur Hanim, beloved Sufi Hodja and the President of the Sefik Can International Mevlana Education and Culture Foundation. A researcher, author and spiritual leader on the Sufi path known as the Mevlevi order (based on the teachings of Maulana Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi Rumi, known in the West simply as the poet Rumi), Nur Hanim’s accomplishments shine a light on an ethos that has transformed hearts for nearly a millennium. More instrumental than personal achievement in this case, is the Sufi substance and finesse that Nur Hanim has nurtured in the running of this Mevlevi lodge. Spending a day here, on my most recent visit to Istanbul, I came to experience what I had thought possible, based on my Muslim faith, but had never witnessed before: men and women coexisting, learning, working and serving in harmony, a place where one forgets the ceaseless tensions between genders, generations, ethnicity, or those caused by differences in religious beliefs or the self-worshipping individualism that has become the insignia of modernity.
Within moments of entering the leafy, fragrant porch, the dervishes made us feel at home, offering us fur slippers for indoor use, bringing us tea. Selcuk bey, who introduced himself as Nur Hanim’s student, served as an excellent interpreter and host, along with the other dervishes—all well-spoken, educated women and men whose refinement and graceful attentiveness are a manifestation of their Sufi discipline based on “heech.” The legendary richness and depth of Maulana Rumi’s work is summed up in the conceptof “heech” (or “nothingness”), the art of attaining closeness to God via the annihilation of the ego which includes not only the base self but also the (often) self-serving intellect. Maulana seeks to become all praise: “My turban and gown and (even) my head– all three together were valued at a penny, or something (less). Have you not heard my name in the world? I am nobody, I’m nobody, I’m nobody.”
As Nur Hanim addressed us, her knowledge, modesty and warmth were immediately apparent. Besides sharing some gracious comments about the gift of signed copies of my books, she kissed each book as she browsed it, in the Mevlevi Sufi fashion. Inanimate objects, especially gifts, carry life too, and all life is necessarily part of the Divine, the “Ahad,” the “One,” therefore must be honored. The four guests, apart from myself, were of Algerian, American, and Moroccan backgrounds. Nur Hanim engaged in a discussion about our various experiences and shed some light on the prophetic tradition of cultivating and trusting the younger generation in leadership roles. The conversation was followed by a break during which we were invited to tour the lodge or “dargah.”
The windchimes, the clinking of the elegant Ottoman tea glasses, the geometric Islamic art, and Nur Hanim’s voice and words in the gazebo— all left a sense of gentle, subtle beauty and depth reinforced by the panoramic views of the woodland sloping down to meet the sea. All the dergah’s rooms and terraced gardens are beautiful but the mosque on the top floor is a rare experience, an entry inside a dream: a small room with more windows than walls, white curtains joyously bellowing in the breeze and sunshine, kissing the skies, exquisite prayer rugs and lanterns, cushions along the windows where the worshipper may read, recite or meditate. Quiet moments of prayer here were good preparation for the Sema ceremony that followed.
Sema includes what Mevlevi Sufism may most commonly be known by— the whirling dervish; it is widely misunderstood and even mis-conveyed by some as a cultural performance. It is actually a form of “zikr” or remembrance of God, a means to reinvigorate connectedness with Him by reciting phrases from the Qur’an, singing poems in praise of the prophet (PBUH), and offering other kinds of devotional songs to which the dervishes may whirl. Every part of the Sema ritual symbolizes a value from Maulana Rumi’s mystic interpretation of Islam. Here, at the Sefik Can lodge, I saw, for the first time, female dervishes participating in the singing, playing of instruments and whirling. The female dervishes wear the same outfit, with the headscarf replacing the cap (the sikke); the Muslim code prescribing added privacy for women is the reason that the whirling of female dervishes is a rare sight. Nur Hodja presiding over the Sema and joining in the whirling at the end– was a powerful, merciful moment to witness. There was not a dry eye in the audience throughout the devotionals, especially in response to the references to Ashura in songs which memorialize the martyrdom of the Prophets’ family, vivifying the sentiment which forms an essential part of the month we were in– Muharram.
Later, I reflected on Nur Hanim’s words about Muslim women reclaiming the leadership roles that are sanctioned in Islam but dismissed in Muslim societies, also on how lightly she wears her own learning. I recalled the meticulously maintained lodge and gardens, and the meal, tea, sherbet and dessert prepared and served by the dervishes—men and women— with loving care, in accordance with our preferences, each offering complete with fine aesthetic details, each exchange courteous, kind and genuine. Imagining the disciplined hard work behind it all, as the dervishes busied themselves with serving dinner in the garden, the sema came to mind:
The dervish raises one hand to the heavens and points the other down as a symbol of connecting simultaneously with the celestial and the terrestrial, whirling the body with the head tilted at an angle, as a planet— a posture that recalls the Quranic verse about the planets rotating in fixed orbits.
It occurred to me that bridging the celestial and terrestrial, being in confluence with universal time, is very much a feminine thing. The menial chores that I complain about— as many of us women writers do— are contemplative opportunities, with infinite possibilities of gaining insights, problem-solving, expressing love and creating beauty. In the west, we call repetitive menial work “soul-crushing;” in the Mevlevi context, it is quite the opposite: the soul has no room to flourish without devoted service, the Divine cannot truly be accessed without passing through the sacredness of the ordinary. Can this hard work allow the intellect and the spirit to become more dynamic and generative? Yes, if the culture at large has an appreciation for its transformative power, if it recognizes it as the torque that may actually turn the world on its axis:
Before the dervish turns on the cosmic axis, she has washed the tea glasses
Before the dervish turns on the cosmic axis, she has polished the marble floor, lit candles on each step of the 4-story dargah, combed her child’s hair and fed all the animals in the garden
Before the dervish turns on the cosmic axis, she has chopped parsley and walnuts for garnish, dipped hot peppers in oil, collected wild flowers in small bowls, and placed them before each of us, listening closely
Sema literally means “to listen” which signifies the core value of Mevlevi Sufism. One of God’s 99 names is As-Sami, “the Supreme Listener.” Deep, attentive listening is at the heart of this practice because it clears the channels of the Divine by honoring each voice as it enfolds the sound of the spirit of which there is truly only One. All beautiful sounds converge into praise for the One. The face of the dervish, male or female, is the face of one who excels in the art of listening and responding to the hidden signs of God’s boundless love.
Before the dervish turns on the cosmic axis, she has opened all the windows.