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Spreading the message of love

SUFISM is best known for its hypnotic chanting, hymn-singing and ritualistic dancing, but the sect is also focused on spreading a message of love and peace to all who cross its path.

The Sufis are an all-embracing people happy to welcome others into their humble and simple lives, but their shyness can often be misinterpreted as coldness - an assumption that would do them a gross disservice.

My first meeting with one of Bahrain's most renowned Sufi clerics, Shaikh Rashid Al Muraykhi, took place at his majlis in Muharraq.

We were supposed to meet at a mosque but, acting as our guide, Centre for Cultural Diversity director Dr Muhammad Al Zekri revealed this was no random decision.

"It is a message to you," Dr Al Zekri explained.

"Everything Shaikh Rashid does has a meaning behind it, it is all done for a reason.

"Exactly what does it mean? Well, you will have to work it out for yourself."

Shaikh Rashid's majlis is buried deep inside Muharraq's many side streets.

Upon entering, we are greeted by a room filled with books adorned in delicate gold writing, while pictures of clerics from across the globe cover the walls.

"They are my shaikhs, my teachers," said Shaikh Rashid.

"I started learning from them when I was 12 - there are shaikhs pictured here from Bahrain, Cyprus, Pakistan, Dubai, Morocco and even Iraq!"

Sufis in Bahrain traditionally follow a branch of the religion known as Qadiriya, but Shaikh Rashid's teachers taught him an alternative approach known as Naqshbandiya - so he teaches a mix of the two, known as Qadiriya-Naqshbandiya.

"Sufis must accept everyone regardless of their background and they should share notions of love and peace with everyone," he said.

"They should be normal, live a simple life and avoid complex social relationships - everybody should be seen as equal.

"We welcome everyone (into our religion) because we are all people and almighty God, in the Quran, tells us to honour all humans - and if God honours every person, who am I not to?"

Bahrain was home to thousands of Sufis before 1970, but Dr Al Zekri estimated the figure was now in the hundreds.

The expansion of other Islamic sects in the region may be partly responsible for the decline of Sufism, but Shaikh Rashid refuses to blame anybody for the humble following that the religion now commands here.

"The past was good for all religions and sects as everybody was religious, but we as Sufis are trained to adjust. So we can be Sufis in a high-technology building or in a very simple area," he explained.

"In the not too distant past, Bahrain was a Sufi centre representing the religion in the Gulf - but things have changed lately.

"But if you have polluted land and earth, you can't expect to grow plants on it.

"Perhaps a few pockets will still grow here and there, but with all these violent attitudes and an aggressive and materialistic style of living, it is really no surprise."

Shaikh Rashid explained that Sufism had been part of Bahrain's culture for more than 1,000 years, revealing he was able to track his Bahrain lineage back six generations.

However, over the years the Sufis' colourful attire has barely changed - with clerics like Shaikh Rashid able to sport a multitude of different headpieces (he claims to have more than 30) and colourful thobes.

Beliefs

"We have different clothes for different occasions - these are only for summer," he adds, pointing at his green thobe.

One of the most endearing features of the Sufis is their willingness to accept other cultures and beliefs, a characteristic that is missing far too often in the modern world.

For example, Shaikh Rashid said he had no objection to the sale of liquor and pork in Bahrain, despite them being deemed un-Islamic.

He said Sufis believed every person had a right to choose what to consume.

"It is not just in our religion, of course, that these things are forbidden," he said.

"But what we are now seeing is a sign of late modernity in our culture, which deems the consumption of these goods normal.

"In our religion non-Muslims are allowed to follow their own food habits, so it is not a problem to see these people consuming liquor or pork - the question arises when it spills into Islamic society.

"From a religious and textual point of view, it is forbidden. But, sometimes, a person may go through a period of exploration, so a Muslim may choose to eat or drink these things, but I hope that eventually he will realise that the text is correct and will stop."

Shaikh Rashid changed the topic of discussion to the Sufi's style of worship - the singing of hymns (sometimes repeating a line thousands of times during one song) while swaying or dancing which, although not quite as spectacular as the Whirling Dervishes in Turkey, is impressive nonetheless.

"Our dancing should be seen as a point of attraction and it serves as an invitation to all those who come and watch us," Shaikh Rashid said.

"If someone sees us singing, they may get excited and are more likely to approach us - it acts as a buffer-zone that has succeeded in attracting the right sort of people for hundreds of years.

"If I was a very uptight and reserved shaikh, you would feel nervous and that would not encourage you to see me again, but if I'm friendly you will want to come back to hear our singing and talk with us."

Shaikh Rashid revealed that the style of worship that he and his fellow Sufis have adopted originated more than 1,000 years ago, when Prophet Mohammed migrated from Mecca to Medina.

"It (the singing) is very symbolic, the Prophet almost comes alive in our thoughts and makes us very happy," he said.

"The singing also incites positive values such as love and peace, as well as absolving one's sins, so it also has a therapeutic value to one's soul - as well as the joy and happiness that you gain from singing as a community."

Bahrain's Sufis have been firm advocates of peace for many years, taking part in rallies with Christian and Islamic religious leaders on several

occasions.

However, even Shaikh Rashid's usually laid-back demeanour darkens slightly as the topic turns to religious conflicts and Israeli atrocities in Gaza.

"I cannot believe that such evil acts are acceptable in any religion or that any religious text advocates killing," he stated.

"Nothing in the Quran, or as far as I'm aware no religious text, justifies these acts and it saddens me that this is still happening.

"It is time for people in mosques, churches, synagogues or any religious temple to spread the message of love and peace before it is too late."

As the meeting draws to a close, Shaikh Rashid rises and asks: "Do you need anything else?"

This time, Dr Al Zekri points to his heart, implying that the question is more symbolic than literal.

"He is asking if your heart desires anything else; are you and your heart ready to learn more?" Dr Al Zekri explained later.

It is a question I am still pondering, but one thing is for certain: if Bahrain's Sufis continue to decline in numbers, their message of peace could be confined to the history books. In a time of war, violence and isolation, can Bahrain really afford that? danm@gdn.com.bh



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