The Way of the Soul
Inspired by Rumi’s poetry, deep curiosity, and a wish to learn more about Islam, Kate Green Tripp, a Santa Cruz-based editor and yoga teacher, traveled to Turkey.
I had no reason to go. If one needs a reason, that is.
It was an unnamed compulsion that drew me to Turkey, or more specifically, to studying Islamic mysticism on a ten-day journey across Turkey. Perhaps I was subconsciously urged by the dogeared Rumi anthology that sat on my bedside table for years. I have no idea.
But when I stumbled upon Illuminated Tours, which leads trips to Morocco and Turkey and describes itself as “for people who are seriously dedicated to experiencing the richness of a Muslim culture, and want to learn by immersing themselves in the history, literature, religions, art, spirituality, and politics of a place,” I felt immediately called.
Illuminated Tours is the brainchild of Omid Safi, Ph.D. Dr. Safi is the director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He studies, writes, and lectures widely about Sufism (the mystical branch of the Islamic tradition), contemporary Islam, and liberationist theology. An aspiring Sufi himself, Safi is particularly passionate about the language, lore, and lasting wisdom of Rumi. His most recent book is centered around Rumi’s multivolume masterpiece, the Masnavi.
Though I don’t consider myself religious, I certainly gravitate toward layered and insightful spiritual lessons. I grew up attending Presbyterian church in a liberal Quaker town and paid closest attention through little girl ears to the sermons that talked about kindness and grace. As the years passed, I remained hungry for a sense of belonging to a bigger existence, beyond the tiny self. That appetite led to yoga and meditation, where I first encountered, and continue to pursue, both Hindu and Buddhist teachings.
But at no time had I been exposed to the deeper spiritual roots of Islam. I had a perfunctory, if any, understanding of what it meant to be Muslim. I knew the story of Muhammed and had always been intrigued by the idea of prayer five times a day. I had read enough of Rumi to want to read more, finding his narration of the human experience both mesmerizing and timeless. But I knew nothing of the spiritual thread that wove Rumi to Islam and Sufism, a centuries-old tradition of expressing divine love through art and music.
Hearing the Ezan
On my first day in Istanbul, a combination of jet lag and instinct prompted me to follow the lilt of the early morning ezan—the call to prayer—echoing from the nearby mosque in the central Eminonu district.
I soon learned, however, that a tourist’s curiosity does not count as faith and that my allotted visiting hours were different. Over the course of the next ten days, I visited countless mosques and learned the protocols—no, don’t visit at prayer time; yes, always cover your hair and remove your shoes; no, ablutions aren’t necessary for non-Muslims; yes, you can meditate in lieu of prayer; and yes, a visiting woman can sit alongside men.
Allah translated literally means “the God”—yet interestingly, God has 99 names in Islam. Why? “There has to be some way of accounting for the multiplicity of creation,” explains Safi. Makes sense. After all, if everything is God’s will (as Muslims believe), then it must be a very multi-dimensional divine that can simultaneously create beauty, ignite love, and prompt loss and tragedy.
In its purest form, Islam appears as a religion of mindfully articulated rituals and moral codes that ground one’s experience of being alive. To be a practicing Muslim is to live in concert with guidelines that echo a reverence for God alongside respect and care for one another—and specifically those who suffer. As renowned religious scholar Huston Smith writes: “Of all the non-Western religions, Islam stands closest to the West—closest geographically, and also closest ideologically; for religiously it stands in the Abrahamic family of religions, while philosophically it builds on the Greeks. Yet despite this mental and spatial proximity, Islam is the most difficult religion for the West to understand.”
Not only do many in the West fail to understand Islam, but for many, thoughts get easily stuck in two limiting categories where stereotypes prevail: gender and violence. Safi is no stranger to such misconceptions. Called upon frequently as an authority on Islam, he tires of conversations about extremism and head scarves that he says entirely miss the point of the tradition.
I asked him if he could replace prevailing current misconceptions about Islam with what he believes is most important for the world to know and understand, what would he point to? He doesn’t pause a beat in his answer: the fact that Islam is a love and justice tradition with the mystical tradition of Sufism, Rumi’s lineage, at its heart.
Much of Rumi’s poetry is said to have spontaneously erupted from him in longing and love for his dear friend and spiritual companion, Shams al-Din of Tabriz. “For Rumi, poetry, philosophy, and theology are united in the theosophy—divine wisdom—of Sufism,” writes Peter Washington, who has edited Rumi poems. One might call the Sufis artistic, devotional lovers. Uninterested in a mediated relationship with the divine, Sufis prize their direct connection, expressed through art, music, and poetry, with God.
The key tenets of Sufism are tolerance, universal love, and mystical union with God. Not unlike the path of many Buddhist traditions, the progression of a Sufi practice is marked by moving toward being with God by showing and feeling love.
The Mevlevi order of Sufis (whirling dervishes) in Turkey exhibit love of God through meditative dance. This devotional practice of whirling grew out of a practice of Rumi’s—holding onto a pillar in his mosque and circling, or whirling, in a ritual manner that released creativity, devotion, and poetry.
The Root of Self
Key to this oneness with God is the notion of fana, or annihilation of the ego. More modern Sufi traditions speak of escaping the ego in gentler (arguably more feminine) tones, Safi explains. “Over time, with devotion and practice, it might be said that the ego softens, or is cooked.”
Sufis believe that through this process, you are able to step away from who you think you are and allow yourself to be stripped bare and unified with God. This is what Rumi called returning to “the root of the root of your own self.”
Just how inclined are we in this day and age to elect to question who we think we are in favor of celebrating a consciousness that unifies us all? Not very, it seems. I tend to wonder if our scales have tipped so far in favor of exercising individual freedoms that we’ve lost the plot when it comes to building, and collectively occupying, a sense of shared meaning.
I have no doubt that a life lived believing that thinking and achieving is the way to self-discovery has stunted the ability of many to feel their way into being. It is disconcerting to live in a society so endowed with riches and possibility and yet so rife with inequality, anxiety, and depression. It is hard to witness how alienated, lonely, and unsettled many feel. It seems that despite our enlightened “success,” America is a land of hungry souls.
Consider that we spend an average of three to four hours a day on our phones, plus all the hours attached to other screens, in cars, and engaged in commerce. Inevitably, we’re left with less time for existing on a human scale: less time in nature, less time communing and reflecting.
Our lifestyle, and the anxious speed it breeds, lands us nowhere near the root of the root of ourselves.
When I returned home from Turkey, my nine-year-old son was particularly keen to page through photos and hear stories about the trip. “Mom, what was your favorite part?” The answer came easily: the ezan.
Hearing the call to prayer echo from minaret loudspeakers was my favorite part of that very first day and my love for it grew each day—even if the invitation it projected wasn’t for me. The incantation framed the day in such a profound and unifying way, just as I imagine it has for centuries. The ezan struck me as something so profoundly absent from my daily life—a poetic, age-old ritual, an invitation to exit the self and connect with the divine. Each time I heard it, I took it as a penetrating reminder to pause, breathe, and make time for what all the world’s religions are ultimately built upon: reverence for both the divine and one another.
But like many Americans, I lead a life largely lacking in that kind of ritual.
What isn’t lacking in my world is the grip of the ego, or what the Sufis might call forgetfulness. “In the wake of everyday life, we so easily forget who we are: luminous beings,” says Safi. “The pull of the ego drags us to other places and we abandon ourselves.”
One way to counter the pull of the ego might be to think about, or judge it, though I’m fairly certain that goes nowhere fast. To remember our luminous nature takes practice. One might argue, practice worthy of observation five times a day. Without consistency, after all, the drone of the ego can so easily creep back in and take over.
Outside every mosque, in some form, grandiose or simple, is a fountain. In Muslim tradition, the sound of running water symbolizes the heavens. As I understand it, to hear the water is to be reminded of one’s celestial home. The Qu’ran talks about four rivers flowing from the heavens: the river of water, the river of milk, the river of honey, and the river of wine. When all four (each symbolizing a key virtue necessary for life on Earth) are flowing in your heart, you are said to “become” human.
I love that metaphor and I love even more that a basic daily encounter—hearing the sound of water—might prompt recognition of one’s higher self, paired with the knowledge that we are most whole when we are beyond the self altogether.
As I look back on what drew me to Turkey, I realize that perhaps I have no idea because no idea was involved. Perhaps the unnamed compulsion emerged instead from a longing in my ego-weary, ritual-hungry heart.