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March 21, 2007

St. Patrick's Day, With a Twist

Patricia A. Kelly

On March 17, instead of setting out wearing my green foam leprechaun hat along with the other Kellys, I found myself at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, the oldest congregation in our nation's capital, watching the Whirling Dervishes of Rumi. Sufi Muslim mystics came from Turkey to perform their deeply spiritual ritual dance, called "Sema."

Wearing garments that symbolize the grave and the shroud, they whirl to the left, around their hearts, toward truth and perfection. They "die" to themselves and emerge from the ritual stronger and wiser, ready to love and be of service to all the world regardless of class, religion or nationality.

On this historic occasion, they whirled in front of the Ten Commandments, written in Hebrew, before an audience of hundreds of Muslims and Jews, and at least one jaded, skeptical, not officially very religious Irish woman.

The event, part the congregation's Amram Scholar Series, was sponsored by the Rumi Forum, a Washington Sufi Muslim group, along with the congregation. Founded in 1999, the Rumi Forum is dedicated to inter-religious and inter-cultural understanding, and to world peace.

Sufism, also spelled Sufiism, is defined in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as the mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. In other words, Sufism is to fundamentalist, law-oriented Islam as a great poem is to a dictionary, or a ballet to a piece of sheet music.

The Sufis say that they hold to the core teachings of Islam. They say that we are all "standing under the same Light," and that there are as many legitimate paths to God as there are people. They say that Mohammad was much like Gandhi, although he did, reluctantly, create some rules of war in response to the pleas of his followers after they were persecuted and driven out of their homes repeatedly.

A major inspiration for Sufism was the great Turkish philosopher and poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, who lived from 1207 to 1273. He advocated tolerance, positive thinking, goodness and charity through love for mankind. Although I had never heard of him before encountering the Rumi Forum, he is so renowned that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared 2007, the year of his 800th birthday, the year of the Mevlana, which is his title. It's a fine idea, I think, in this time of such intolerance and hatred in the world.

I first encountered the Rumi Forum last summer, before a friend joined them on a trip to Turkey, one of their outreach programs for inter-cultural understanding. I was fortunate to accompany them on their December trip. So I spent nine days getting to know, and being adopted by Ali, Jenna, Rose, Vedat, Osman and Zafaer as they guided my group of mostly religious freedom professionals and pastors throughout Turkey.

In their company, we traveled to eight cities, saw Atatürk's tomb, bed and medicine cabinet(!), sultans' palaces, the Jewish Museum of Istanbul, the famous Grand Bazaar, the 8-story underground city carved out of volcanic stone by hiding Christians, and later used by hiding Muslims. We saw the ancient city of Ephesus and the home of the Virgin Mary after the death of Jesus. We saw the world famous Hajia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, one of the world's oldest Christian churches, and the renowned Blue Mosque.

We were treated to incredible meals and amazing hospitality by people throughout Turkey, members of this unofficial group of comrades in peace, students of a more recent follower of Rumi, Fatoullah Gulen, and associates of the Rumi Forum. This informal group has built hospitals and schools throughout the world. They believe that cherishing their children, and raising them to expect and achieve the best, will make the world a better place.

We travelers, sophisticated and not easily fooled, all agreed that these were loving, committed, truthful people. By the end of the journey, we all felt like family, and we had learned so much.

The rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, M. Bruce Lustig, in opening and closing the Dervish ceremony, told an old Hebrew story about how, when two people meet face to face, God appears in the space between them. As I watched him hug Ali, and watched the Jews and Muslims sit side by side, sharing punch and cookies afterward, I could only believe that his story applied.

Ali and company will be coming to Frederick to participate in the Season of Nonviolence. Enter into the dialogue at Unity Church on Ninth Street on March 31 from 7:30 to 9 P.M. See for yourself. Or, as Rumi would say, "Come, come..., whoever you are...Ours is the portal of hope, come as you are."

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