One of the most surprising and unusual site visits while on my Religious Worlds of New York City summer program was the visit to the Dergah al-Farah Sufi Mosque. I really do not have the words (or pictures) to describe this night but I will do my best!
First off, we had no idea we had even “arrived” at our location until our group leader announced that we were here. Everyone kept asking “Where?” and then he pointed to the most unassuming green storefront. I don’t know if they are low-key because of recent attacks or if that is just their normal operations. Anyways this door that you see below was like the rabbit-hole in Alice in Wonderland (the whole night felt like a LSD trip too!).
Unfortunately I do not have any pictures beyond this point; they asked us to preserve the sacredness of the space and the night and we all dutifully listened.
This was the first time that the Religious Worlds program was going to a Zhikr Service so no one was quiet sure what to expect. Our program leader told us it could be a long night but that we could pop out when needed. They actually ended the service short by a FEW HOURS for us and we still left at 10:30 pm. Woah.
Read more: Religious Worlds of New York Site Visits
Introductions & Q&A
The fist part of the night was an informal question and answer session with a few of the mosque’s leaders and practitioners. I can’t remember the questions but it really helped me to understand Sufism’s place within Islam and some of the similarities and differences between their practices and other “more mainstream” Islamic rituals.
From where I was sitting, I had a good vantage point of the front door so I could watch people streaming in and going upstairs to prepare for the rest of the evening. The most striking thing to me were the type of people coming in. I totally had to check my stereotypes of what kind of New Yorker would spend their Thursday night gyrating at a Sufi Mosque. This one guy especially threw me off because he looked like a typical Key West fishing charter captain (with his Colombia fishing shirt to match). And not only was he there tonight but he had been coming to the mosque for 20 YEARS. Goes to show you never know what are on people’s hearts!
After about an hour, we took a break upstairs for some tea, dried dates and conversation. This was an opportunity to have more one-on-one time with some members and also talk to each other about surprises we had so far. The tea was sweet and strong, which was going to be necessary if I was going to survive the night. I was determined to stay as long as I could but a few others and I made a plan to leave by 11 pm at the latest if the service was still in full swing.
Chanting & Whirling
We were told that the next part of the night was going to be the “real service.” We were invited to participate as much as our personal religious consciousness would allow and thankfully they translated all the Arabic first so that we knew what we were saying. I decided to participate fully, except for this one chant about Muhammad as the ultimate prophet since I felt it wouldn’t really be right for me.
As we were chanting, I tried to mimic the body swaying of the female lead (who had a break taking voice and rhythm). Once I started to sway in tune it all started falling together into a trance-like state. I cannot even count the hours or minutes of anything we did that evening!
At one point two people, a man and a woman, got up and started to whirl (picture above for reference). The incredible thing (and I do not know if this was planned) was that he was in all white and she in all black. As they started to rotate around the center and then around each other, they blurred into a human ying-yang. It was an incredible view of opposing forces in tandem: light v. dark, male v. female, old v. young.
Once they started to whirl, the rest of the group got up to dance in a circle around them. We were chanting, jumping, swaying, and moving in this heart-beat union. And then it all suddenly stopped. I felt like I woke up from a dream. The leaders told us thank you for participating and we were on our way, back on the cold and noisy New York streets onto a world that had no idea what was behind that small green storefront.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Religious Worlds institute. For detailed information about the institute, see http://religiousworldsnyc.org