Dilatato Corde 1:2
July – December, 2011


Speaking about the love of God to more than 1000 Sufis is not a common experience for any Christian, and even less so for a priest. However, this is what happened to me September 21-23, 2011.

The invitation came from Sheikh Hussein, the leader of a Sufi brotherhood (in Arabic tariqa) based in Busayliyya, a village in Upper Egypt north of Edfu, a town that is well-known because it contains one of the best preserved temples in Egypt. The occasion was the commemoration of the founder of the tariqa, Sheikh al-Bayyumi, who died in 1938, and after whom this Sufi brotherhood is called al-Bayyumiyya. Festivals of this kind are common near shrines containing the relics of “Muslims saints.” These saints are especially venerated by people who live in rural areas. The practice is opposed by those teachers of Islam who are attached to a literalistic reading of the basic religious texts of Islam, and especially by adherents of movements of the so-called political Islam. 

What led to the invitation was the study and writing on Sufism I have been engaged in for years, especially the publication of an anthology of Sufi texts entitled Spiritual Manifestations of Islam. This book has met and continues to meet with widespread acceptance at all levels. I compiled this work with the help of my student—and, now that he has obtained a PhD in Sufism, my colleague—Ahmed Hasan Anwar. Thanks to this book, many doors have been opened to me for dialogue with Muslims at meetings and conferences. Thanks to my publications, I have gained a certain renown as a competent scholar of Islamic Sufism in many Muslim circles.

The main event of the celebration to which Ahmed Hsan Anwar and I were invited took place on Thursday night, September 22. All the Sufi brotherhoods of Upper Egypt had also been invited, and it was estimated that about 2000 people attended—at any rate, there were certainly more than 1000 present that evening. The celebration began about an hour before midnight and lasted well into the early morning hours (fajr). A famous local Sufi singer, Amin al-Dishnawi, sang without stop and in full voice for five hours, while the people in the square danced with growing exuberance until the point of trance, which they call ecstasy, i.e. meeting with God.     

We were asked to speak at the beginning of the ceremony in order to make clear the true meaning of Sufism to these simple people, who live it at a highly emotional level. At the same time, we wanted to counter the denunciations of those legalists who insist on a strict “literalistic” reading of the sacred texts of Islam.

In my lecture I underlined some important aspects of Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. The first is the primacy of spirituality over rituality. It is not enough to perform exterior ceremonies without a deep conversion of heart. This is a common and basic teaching of Sufism, as well as of any genuine spirituality. There are many important Sufi texts on this topic, and one needs to be familiar with them in order to help guide people on their spiritual path. I also spoke about our love of God and God’s love for us, a love that is open to all humankind and, indeed, to the whole universe. Referring to a number of Sufi texts, I showed that the greatest Sufis consider such love to be the apex of the spiritual life. Once again, a good knowledge of Sufi literature is required if people are to understand and accept this way of regarding Sufism. The topic of love in particular must have touched the hearts of that “popular” audience. Many of the responses I received afterwards, beginning with those of our host, Sheikh Hussein, indicated how much the people were moved by the topic of love.

In his lecture, my student-colleague Ahmed elucidated some questions concerning the origin of Sufism and the meaning of the name “Sufi,” its position in Islamic tradition, and other points. His conclusion was that, contrary to what is often repeated in many settings, Islamic and other, Sufism is not a marginal movement in Islamic history, but an integral part of it. To eliminate Sufism would mean depriving Islamic history of many of its most important contributions to the fields of literature, art, poetry, etc. Sufis have always been a source of inspiration in art, and of reasoned reflection in all areas of study. Moreover, Sufi brotherhoods have always had an important educative role within every level of the Islamic community. Among Sufis one can find many important teachers in the humanities and religious studies, as well as great thinkers, such as Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), called the “Greatest Sufi Master” and one of the world’s most widely read authors.

A surprising follow-up to the celebration in Busayliyya came when we went to Aswan. As we were walking through the market (suq), we were approached by a man carrying a child and holding the hand of another. At first, we thought him to be one of the usual beggars. Instead, he started thanking us for the words we spoke in the Sufi festival he had attended. He then introduced himself as the sheikh of the nearby mosque, not far from our Catholic church and invited us to come his mosque. The following evening, without fail, we were there. He placed me on the preacher’s chair and for over two hours we spoke about the importance of Sufism, about the spiritual life and love, and about other similar topics.

I am no so naïve as to think that one lecture is enough to change peoples’ hearts and their behavior. However, I do think the fact that the people I spoke to accepted such a message from a Christian priest and indicated that they would like to continue such meetings is a positive sign. I am deeply convinced that spirituality is, without doubt, one of the most important aspects of dialogue among religions, and with Islam in particular.

“The wind blows where it chooses . . . So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). It is best to let it blow. . . We are instruments of the Spirit’s activity, and we pray that this Spirit will penetrate the hearts of all people and raise up in them the life of God’s Kingdom, a life founded on the command to love God and one’s neighbor.

In sha’ Allah

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