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Monday, February 14, 2011

Getting Closer to God

Islam is grossly misunderstood in the west. In The United States where freedom of religion is one of the cornerstones of our country – not to mention one of the freedoms many of us cherish the most - one gets a sense that those religious freedoms were not intended for Islam. Besides, Muslims are different from us. Their God is named Allah*, very unlike our God. Sometimes I wonder if freedom of religion actually means freedom to choose your preferred version of Christianity.

Sudan is 70% Muslim with most of its adherents Sunni, so it is best to know a thing or two about Islamic culture if you’re going to be out and about. I have more than a slight aversion to the term ‘culturally competent**’, but I try my best to keep any major guffaws to a minimum. Besides, Sudan does not have a friendly relationship with the USA, our government’s long history of foreign policy precedes this little micro adventure of ours and we’ve certainly felt the effects. As diplomatic as Glenn is, he hasn’t been able to iron out the wrinkles we’ve created in this part of the world, yet.

Without getting too off course on policy issues there is a breakfast dish here called Bush. It is a thin gruel of bean water; no beans, they were too precious after Bush cut relief to Sudan in response to Sudan’s backing of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war, just bean water and a slab of onion, which pretty much sums it all up. And financially Sudan is cut off from the world: no visa, not ATM’s that are not Sudanese owned, so our credit/debit cards no workie here in Sudan. Just two little strangle holds the western world imposes when you choose not to play ‘their’ game. Ok, back to Islam.

So when we heard about Omdurman’s Sufi dervishes we had to check it out. How many of you hear whirling dervish and conger up an image of the Warner Brother’s Tasmanian devil spinning up a dust cloud? Surely I am not the only one. As famous as the dervishes are, I didn’t know a thing about them - apart from my comic imagination - until we joined them one night in a ritualized chant of la illaha illallah (there is but one God).

Sufi’s are a separate order of Islam who abide by the sharia (Islamic law prescribed in the Koran) but they differ from Orthodox Muslims in their belief that the path to Allah is through more mystical means, like trance and meditation, not ritualized prayer. Sufis often garner skepticism from mainstream Muslims but their long and varied history in Sudan is a testament to the relaxed traditions of Sudanese Islam. And you would be hard pressed to encounter a population of people more welcoming and gracious than the Sudanese.

On Friday Glenn and I hopped in a cab and headed out for a night of chanting, whirling and spectating as the dervishes shortened the gap between them and God. Here are our photos of the weekly ritual. And despite being a woman wedged in between all of the men I was singled out by a beautiful Sufi chant leader who took it on himself to lead me in my own personal path to God. There was an indescribable tangible quality to the evening and I could almost grab hold of the love that radiated out from the dancers. For one night we were all Sufi and love ruled.

The rest of the photos are here.

Sending my love to you,

*Allah is God in Arabic.

**Do you actually think that one can become culturally competent in a culture that is not your own? Think about it.

 Is it possible to bone up on another culture in say a few weeks? a few months? I don’t think so. Cultures are so rich and diverse because you grew up learning all of the intricacies over a lifetime. They can’t be explained away in a book of etiquette.  So you see the rub. You can certainly become sensitive to other cultures extending a basic knowledge as an offering of respect, but to become competent without living in an environment seems like a nice way for westerners to strive to ‘understand’.

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