Of Snakes & Sufis

Folks like to throw around a roughed up Rumi quote now and again. It seems to be the general consensus that it’s classier to quote Rumi than to pull out some Tony Robbins to salute the day.  It feels good when you wake up to softly murmur:

“The wind is pouring wine! Love

used to hide inside images. No More!”

…even if that’s not Rumi, but rather Coleman Barks playing the part of Rumi.

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi (Rumi) was Muslim theologian and jurist and as such his writing, when translated directly, has quite a different feel to it.  Barks’ Rumi is fleshy, thick and sensual, translated more accurately Rumi isn’t so forgiving to Western mores:

“Oh people! Beware of these ephemeral things!

Rise up, travel to the celestial world! The spirit has attained to perfection within your frame, yet you talk about your perishing body. Jesus sits before you, but out of stupidity your heart decides to serve his ass’s hooves! Oh pure spirits!

How long will you dwell in these piles of dust like rubbish and the people of hell? The trumpet of good fortune was blown some time ago: Oh you who were born of the living, lift your heads from this dust!“

Jalal al-Din Rumi, trans. William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love

The Mawlawī Sufi Order that carries on the tradition of Rumi is only one branch of Sufism. Their public performances are highly choreographed and beautiful to watch, with clean white garments and tall cylindrical head wear, they are perfect pictures of harmony and balance.  Exactly what the Western world, attuned to Barks’ translations, would like to see from the lineage of the Poet of Divine Love.

The current Order is also only a remnant of the original lineage, which had the honor of being tied by marriage to the Caliphate during the Ottoman Empire. In 1925 the Mawlawī Order was banned by the Turkish government at the time, and when it was openly reinstated in 1954 became a popular tourist attraction.

With the lineage’s ties to the aristocratic line, and their openness to public performance,  it’s no surprise that their rituals are such beautifully arranged presentations. Other Sufi Orders, such as those found in Kurdistan are not as often shown to the West. Their rites, which involve self inflicted wounds and ecstatic trance, do not fit as well with an image of orderliness that is easily commodified.

It would surprise many that these rites bear a striking resemblance to a tradition that is often maligned in the United States, the snake handling Holiness congregations of Appalachia:

It should be noted that Sufi Orders such as those found in Kurdistan also face a similar misunderstanding in the Muslim world. The Mawlawī Order, for all of it’s harmony, was banned by a fundamentalist orthodoxy, and those Orders that follow  more physically extreme devotions are faced with a greater threat of persecution.

What ties the Holiness congregations and the Kurdish Sufis together is the conditions from which they emerge. Living in harsh economic environments, in often extreme poverty, the people have very little hope outside of their devotion.

From a place of privilege their devotions may seem shocking, however at the edges of civilization the Wine of ecstatic transcendence provides a relationship to the Divine that gives them relief from the daily hardships they face.

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink:

Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.

Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.

Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.

Proverbs 31:4-7

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