By Priyadarshini Sen
March 30, 2017
The rhythmic chanting of 15 “beloveds,” as
they call themselves, ripples across a prayer room in a family home in the San
They stand in a circle with their hands
clasped and eyes shut, swaying gently. Their mantra grows louder as one of them
weeps, and others seem immersed in a trance.
One of the beloveds, Daniel Amin Colman,
owner of the home, chants along with the group of Sufi converts as they invoke
the 99 sacred names of God with barely contained ardor. Colman says Islam is
like the bark of a tree and Sufism its sap or inner essence.
The Sufi form of Islamic worship is
becoming increasingly popular in Los Angeles; say those who practice it and
scholars who study it.
One group of Sufi believers, of the
Shadhili order — founded in Morocco by Abu Hasan Ali ash-Shadhili in the
seventh century — alone has grown to more than 500 members in Los Angeles. It
started with only 10 members a decade ago.
Adherents say they are drawn to Sufism for
its intense spiritualism. An “intoxicated state of love and union with God” is
how it’s described by Colman, who embraced this mystical path eight years ago.
Tamsin Murray, a New Mexico-based teacher
who conducts Sufism workshops in Los Angeles, says the number of Sufi
conferences and experiential sessions has grown considerably in California over
the last 10 years.
She says she and many others have turned to
the teachings of Adnan Sarhan, director of the Sufi Foundation of America.
Sarhan passes on the techniques of the Shattari order of of Sufism — founded in
the 15th century — using movement, whirling and meditation to reach states of
“People want to get a real taste of
spiritual connection through experience and movement, without dogma or form,”
Sufi retreat centres, schools of spiritual
learning, devotional music (Qawwali), poetry and literature have
attracted increasingly larger followings, says Carl Ernst, a professor of
Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina.
And Sufi poetry and literature have a
growing fan base, “especially the work of 13th-century mystical poet Jalal ad
Din Rumi,” says Ernst. Rumi is one of the best-selling poets in the U.S.
Raised in a Buddhist family with a father
who was formerly Jewish and a mother who was Greek Orthodox, Colman says he
encountered Sufism while on a spiritual quest.
Attending a California workshop led by a
Sufi sheikh, or master, from Jerusalem in 2009, Colman found the Sufi approach
to prayer enchanting.
“The sacred phrases that we chanted in
Arabic were so powerful that they transformed my inner state. For years, I was
looking for this kind of peace in my spiritual seeking,” says Colman, who
converted to Islam and has gone on the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
Sufism is grounded in the Five Pillars of
Islam — the obligations of all Muslims — which include praying five times a
day, fasting during Ramadan and going on hajj when possible. But many Muslims
reject Sufism as outside of mainstream Islam and Sufis are persecuted in some
In Pakistan, the group known as the Islamic
State blew up a Sufi shrine in February, killing 35 people. In Bangladesh on
March 13, unidentified militants shot and hacked to death a Sufi leader, the
latest in a string of murders of moderate religious leaders and atheists.
Sufism emerged shortly after the birth of
Islam in the seventh-century Middle East. It is rooted in the ascetics who
rejected worldliness in early Islamic practice and meditated on the words of
Sufis believe love — as opposed to a fear
of hell or desire for heaven — should inspire religious devotion, an idea
taught by Rabiah al-Adawiyah, a woman who lived in Basra, in present-day Iraq,
and died in 801.
By the 12th century, Sufis were organized
into orders called Tariqas and established outposts far beyond Sufism’s
Middle Eastern birthplace.
Alan Godlas, associate professor of
religion at the University of Georgia, relates rising interest in Sufism to
increasing dissatisfaction with mainstream religious teaching in the U.S. In
the past decade, the number of Americans who identify with a Christian
tradition has declined steeply, studies have shown.
“Mainstream religions assert that this life
is meant to prepare for salvation in the next world. But Sufism offers the hope
of experiencing oneness with God in this life itself,” he says.
Alia Halim, a Sufi who grew up in an Irish family
in Los Angeles, discovered mystical Islam at the University of Spiritual
Healing and Sufism in Napa Valley. There, she says, she saw for the first time
the possibility of having a real connection with God and converted in 2002.
“I felt it would be the only way to purify
my heart and stay within the realm of the soul,” says Halim, who took an Arabic
name upon her conversion.
Priyadarshini Sen is a graduate student at USC’s Annenberg School for
Communication and Journalism. This story was written for Professor Diane
Winston’s course on reporting on religion and international relations