Following a Ramadan night filled with worship, meditation, and Divine Love, Al-Sharif Nassef recounts the rituals of the Islamic mystics of the Naqshabandi Order of Sufism in Cairo.
As the gold glow of sunset began to creep over Cairo’s hazy skyline, my friend Hussein thrust his foot on the gas pedal in an attempt to reduce our inevitable lateness to the iftar dinner where we would break our fast. It was the 27th night of Ramadan, Laylat-ul-Qadr (Night of Power), which in Islam is traditionally the holiest night of the year. On Laylat-ul-Qadr, Muslims believe that God revealed the first verses of the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) on this night over fourteen hundred years ago.
Habiba, Hussein’s fiancé, who invited me to the gathering, told me in the car that my experience at this iftar would be different from what I was used to. She said the iftar was hosted by a respected member of Egypt’s Naqshabandi Order of Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. This particular gathering would not just be a “dinner party”; it would be a holy night filled with prayer, song, meditation, and Sufi rituals that would bring one closer to God. Habiba, herself a Sufi, explained that the essence of Sufism lay in embracing al-Tariqah, in other words, the spiritual path towards closeness with God.
“Our Tariqah,” Habiba said, “brings us spiritual closeness and peace through a sincere love for God. By praying and rejecting our inner carnal souls, we attempt to transcend to a level of divine purity.” Noting the confused look on my face she reassured me, “Sufism is incredibly layered and deep — you have to walk the path to really understand. Maybe you’ll get it a bit more after tonight.”
I gazed out the window at the Giza Pyramids in the near-distance as we took the highway exit to the farm-filled Cairo suburb of Mariyoteyyah. Both slightly anxious and intrigued, I couldn’t wait to take my first steps on this so-called path.
We arrived at a magnificent Mediterranean style villa as sunset prayers had already begun. As we strolled into the beautiful garden between the villa and its private mosque, we were immediately offered dates and hibiscus juice to break our fasts, following a tradition of the last Prophet. For a few moments, we stood awkwardly at the entrance of the mosque, embarrassed to barge into the prayer late. A kind-faced Sufi lady sporting a red patterned headdress approached us saying: “Are you waiting for an invitation to go inside? There are no invitations here — everyone is invited,” and beckoned us inside to join the rest of the Sufis in prayer.
After the prayer, I followed the congregation outside where a feast awaited us. A shawarma station and piles of freshly grilled beef and lamb kebabs were accompanied by a table lined with lentil soup, salads, pita bread, rice, and spinach-kale-rabbit stew. Everyone grabbed heaping portions — once, twice, and even three times — and sat comfortably on the grass, eating, laughing, and conversing.
I looked around at the crowd of Sufis and couldn’t help but notice how happy and colorful everyone looked. Male Sufis donned long flowing robes of pink, blue, green, purple, or red, and wore turbans made from colorful pointed hats with white or colored scarves wrapped around them. Some were clean-shaven; some had soul patches or short stubble-beards, while the older Sufi ‘master’ and veterans of the order boasted magnificent, long, well-groomed beards that I couldn’t help but envy. Younger males wore chic western jeans with button downs or flannels and colored skullcaps—similar to, but larger than Jewish yamichuhs to show respect to God by covering their heads.
The women wore colorful headscarves or long ornamented headdresses. Even though they dressed modestly with loose-fitting clothing and veils, I thought almost every one of them looked beautiful; a manifestation of the Islamic concept of internalized beauty.
As we finished our epic meals and sipped our last cups of tea and Turkish coffee, the call to Salat al-Isha (night prayer) rang out. I followed everyone back into the mosque, and found a spot near the front. Worshipers formed straight lines behind the imam (leader), who was a German-born Sufi master who converted to Islam after travelling the world on the “soul-searching” journey, and later taught English at the American University of Cairo.
Closer to the Divine
As is customary, he recited verses from the Qur’an aloud, but his recitation technique was unlike anything I had ever heard before. As opposed to a slow nasal sound, he recited in a fast song-like melody that had a brilliant lightness to it. After about ten minutes of Salat al-Isha, he led the congregation through a series of non-mandatory prayers that Muslims perform during Ramadan, called Salat al-Tarawih, where we performed rounds of prayer passionately for over an hour.
When our legs became sore from the cycles of prostration-to-standing-to-prostration again, the imam sat down cross-legged on one of the many ornate Persian rugs laid across the floor and we followed suit. He recited a du'a (a short supplication) asking God for guidance and wellbeing, while many of the congregation closed their eyes and uttered prayers and wishes in an attempt to reach the Divine.
The lights of the prayer hall were suddenly dimmed and the imam began chanting: “Allah, Allah, Allah, Allah…”. Then, “He is the Truth, He is the Truth…” then “He is the Light, He is the Light…” or “He is the real One, He is the real One…” or “God is great, God is great.”
As the imam chanted, the entire hall joined in. Most in the room were rocking side-to-side or front to back to the beat of the chant; all were immersed in a feeling of divine elation. The imam recited prayers melodically in between chants, and at the end of a series of chants, the group would burst into a song that thanked God for blessing their fates through the divine path (al-Tariqah) — then chanting resumed again.
This form of worship is called dhikr, literally meaning the remembrance of God. Through repeated invocation of the name of God and sharp focus on the Being, Sufis bring their souls closer to the Divine.
Perhaps another hour went by (time was an afterthought at this point) before this round of chanting stopped. Then the Sufis stood up and everyone hugged and kissed one another with greetings of peace. They formed a mixed circle of both men and women and everyone held hands. One of the congregants situated next to the leading master unveiled a large round daff, a traditional hand drum, and began to play a beat. Chanting resumed to the tempo of the drum. One man began to sing. His voice, etched with a sincere tone of longing for God, perfectly complimented the chanting. Another Sufi with an incredible voice would periodically burst out into short stanzas of song to form a harmony or add an extra layer of vocal syncopation. They sang about the Love of God.
The master took his position in the center of the circle, and led the chants again — but this time with the stuff of ferocity: “Hu, Hu, Hu!” he would bellow, each time bowing down slightly then thrusting his arms upward toward his chest while the group followed suit, as if to affirm God's existence within their hearts and souls. This movement, paired with the drum, chanting, heavy breaths, and soulful song made for a sort of spiritual concert, or sema, as I later learned.
"I Was at Peace With Myself"
Having gone on for perhaps 30 minutes, the sema ritual culminated with a profound sense of Divine presence. Words do not do justice, but the energy I experienced with the congregation that holy night was nothing short of spiritual ecstasy.
After the fervor reached a celebratory apex, a final du'a was recited. The members of the group went around and gave salam (peace) to one another with an embrace, and then took to the floor to rest. What proceeded was a short period of silent individual meditation and embrace of God’s Love—with each of us internally channeling the sense of Divine vibes around us into our souls, while making prayers for the wellbeing of family, society, and humanity. When each had sufficiently satisfied their soulful urges, the group funneled out one by one.
Stepping back outside into the gorgeous garden was surreal. I was at peace with myself and with the world around me: a physical lightness in my heart and a natural high over my mind. I had only a taste of what the spiritual path had to offer, but if anything was certain I knew that it was a path worth trekking.
As we were leaving, Habiba was anxious to see how I had taken to the experience. “Do you see what I mean about experiencing it?” she asked. I responded simply with an ear-to-ear smile and a nod, and we sped away from that spiritual oasis back to the concrete jungle of Cairo.
For me, venturing with Sufis opened my eyes to a spectrum of Islam distinct from the religiously conservative current in Egyptian society today. The Naqshabandi Sufis I spoke with, who themselves were practicing and very dedicated to their religion, emphasize the internal aspect of religion — that is, self-improvement and love of God, over the external, legalistic shade of religion that ventures into politics and religious enforcement. This experience showed me how intimate one could be with his or her religion and God without needing to implement his interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence on society, simply to prove himself as “Islamic.”
In Egyptian Muslim society, I find that the “soul” versus “law” dichotomy of religious focus is indicative of the split between Egyptian Muslims who disagree over what extent the Egyptian government should be “Islamized.”
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.