Interview with Camille Helminski by Ibrahim Nehme, originally published on a Dance Mag
Camille Helminski was the first woman to translate a substantial portion of the Qur’an into English. She has been a follower / practitioner of the Mevlevi order of Sufism for forty years, during which time she has authored and translated many books on the Sufi tradition into English. In the following conversation she talks about her journey, Sufi dervishes, and the way of the heart.
You’ve been practicing Sufism for 40 years, have written books and have translated many volumes of Sufi literature. What was it that first got you into the Sufi practice?
Ah, it is always amazing to try and trace back the threads that weave together this life of ours, isn’t it? Where should I begin? I grew up in Florida with a father who was a botanical artist and had a really deep sense of the beauty of creation within a Christian context. But there was always this feeling of thirsting to know the source of being, more deeply. It led to studying various religions along the way. In college I spent time in Zen practice, for instance, and then I encountered the poetry of Rumi. For me, it was really through Sufism when the doorway of the heart opened.
How was it to come across Sufism in the United States?
This encounter with Rumi’s poetry was happening back in the 70s in the United States. There wasn’t really much available at that time, in terms of translations. We found some pieces that drew our hearts to know more and we began to study Rumi’s work with a wonderful woman. She was half Persian, half American, a Baha’i translator; a lovely woman named Marziah Gail. It was a wonderful adventure, meeting her in our little town in New Hampshire, when we were just beginning to dive into Mevlana’s [Jalaluddin Rumi’s] poetry. It was the universe of Rumi’s comprehension, his sense of beauty and intimacy with the Divine, that really opened our hearts to discover more.
I’ve been going through some of your books and was struck by how much you also reference Zen Buddhism and other Eastern religious philosophies in your writings on Sufism.
Well yes, Truth is Truth and it finds its expression through the human vehicle, different languages and ways. Zen Buddhism was a beautiful grounding. There was also a school I attended early on, which explored some Sufi teachings from a Christian background with a mixture of Central Asian wisdom as well. The Sufi practice of Presence resonates beautifully with Buddhist mindfulness. This interweaving has gone on for centuries in Central Asia, between Buddhists and Sufis.
The whirling is at the heart of the Sufi practice, wouldn’t you agree?
Well, it is in some orders. Especially, the order that developed around the example of Rumi. Other orders have also put whirling into practice in one form or another. It is essential to understanding life in the sense that everything in this world is turning: the planets in their orbits, the cells in our bodies, atomic structures, sunflowers… Whirling comes naturally. We see children spontaneously emulating that whirling movement.
I actually wanted to ask you about how Sufi whirling mirrors the spiral of life! Do you practice whirling yourself?
For many years, whirling has been an essential part of my practice and also something that I’ve taught within our extended community. I am recovering from hip replacement surgery at the moment, so I am practicing whirling inwardly, you might say, rather than the physical manifestation of it.
How does one become a dervish?
Interesting question. It really is a matter of the heart and of yearning. If one feels drawn to this path, the way opens up little by little. The word “dervish” means “threshold”— one who stands at the threshold of the Seen and the Unseen. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will come. For us, it was meeting someone within the tradition, our Sheikh Suleyman Hayati Dede, that really made the difference. We just immediately recognized his pure heart and fell in love with him; he was sort of the grandfather figure that we had always wanted but never knew. We felt drawn to the Sufi path in a deeper way through his presence.
In fact, it is rare that one is a dervish on one’s own. Usually one is a part of a dervish community. Yet, we have a wonderful story about a beautiful man named Uways Qarani, and we often sing a song about him that everybody loves. Uways was someone who lived at the time of Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) and really yearned to meet him, but he lived in Yemen. Sometimes the Prophet would say “I catch the fragrance coming from Yemen.” Uways could not journey because his elderly mother was ill and he was taking care of her. After some time, when his mother was a bit better, he was able to make the trip, but it turned out the Prophet was not there, so they never actually met. It is an amazing story! Before the Prophet passed away, he told his community about Uways and asked that they watch for him. Eventually, a caravan from Yemen came. They asked if there was someone named Uways with them. “Do you know the saint Uways?” they asked. “Oh, we don’t have any saints by that name,” they replied, “We only have a fellow named Uways who takes care of the goats and the camels.” They approached Uways and asked him what his name was; he just said “Servant of God.” He was someone who caught the fragrance of the Prophet without ever meeting him and without living within his community. He polished his heart with his own yearning, you might say. Sometimes, when someone is on their own, rather than part of a circle, and finds that deep inspiration and connection inwardly, he or she may be referred to as an “Uwaysi.”
I am curious about the connections with Central Asian wisdom. They say that shamans go through a lot of pain and actually become shamans when they succeed in transcending and transmuting their own pain. Do you think the same could be said of Sufi dervishes?
This human life is intertwined with pain, you know, it is part of making the journey. No matter who we are, we all experience pain on many levels. The birth process certainly can be painful, just coming into this world. So, surely, pain is woven into whatever path we may be on. How we relate to it may vary. The capacity we have to be with pain and to begin to recognize that pain as the calling card of God is a deep mystery. Whirling is a beautiful practice that can help bring balance in this regard. There is great joy with it and yet it can be physically and mentally challenging. As we develop our practice in this meditative way, we can begin to carry this perspective of balance and connection into our daily life and to recognize Oneness everywhere.
What strikes me about whirling in particular is that it encompasses contradictions. There is this balancing and the unbalancing, the grounding and the rising, the individual experience but also the collective experience. Is it necessary to go through this experience of duality in order to achieve transcendence?
Well, I might not have framed it that particular way. Whether it is duality or triplicity or quadricity, this world is a world of multiplicity. And yet, it is an expression of unity. As you say, there is balance and unbalance. When you are whirling, you are standing on the left leg and moving the right leg around in a circle. The right side is encompassing, the left side is rootedness through the heart. The right hand is open to receive, the left hand is bestowing to the earth. There is the recognition that this process is continually happening, receiving and bestowing, and we are chanting “Allah” with every step.
When one is whirling, there is a purifying of the heart, and a vortex being created that allows the possibility for divine inspiration of healing and renewal to enter and spread. The dervish whirls with the right hand uplifted as though the rain of grace is falling into the palm of his or her hand, extending through the heart, and dripping through the left fingertips into this world. It is understood very much as an act of service.
When one is whirling, one is resting one’s vision to the left, slightly above the left hand that is making that gesture of bestowing, while our true vision is really inward. Imagine seeing the world whirling by, but you are not focusing on all that multiplicity. Instead, you are focused on the oneness and the unity that is being expressed.
Could transcendent states be expressed in language? Is it possible to translate into words this profound experience?
Yes, you know, one can consider the “Qur’an” to be such an expression. Muhammad himself was experiencing this deep transcendent connection as the words were pouring through his heart. Other prophets have come before, many we don’t know by name, and they spoke to their communities from this transcendent awareness. Many have done their best to express that comprehension that comes to their awareness when profound orientation towards the Divine occurs; however language is most often only an approximation, an indication, an invitation.
When talking about transcendent experiences, some people often speak of escaping the body…
In our tradition, it is not experienced or looked at as an escape, but rather, as a service. It is about activating hyper-consciousness rather than going into trance or escaping.
You could say it is transcending the personal ego, but the important thing is to have a deep awareness of the whole. It is important not to lose sight of the collective, the unity, with all the multiplicity. This is why it is the path of the heart, and it is offered as a service of love.
Is it in some way an expanded state of consciousness?
One might say it is an expanded state of consciousness and also a very focused one. In the ceremony, one is aware of one’s own movement, the space between the skirts of each dervish, the choreographed movement of the whole group, the position of the sheikh and through him, one’s connection with Mevlana Rumi, with Muhammad, with Allah. There is no loss of consciousness but rather a hyperconsciousness of the whole space and the breath and the rootedness in each moment, with each turn, chanting the name of Allah.
You differentiate between transcendence and states of trance, where transcendence is a state of rising in one’s awareness, whereas trance is more hypnotic. Can’t one rise in awareness in a state of trance?
Maybe. There may be moments in certain practices in different faith traditions. One may find that process in Indonesia, for example, where there may be chanting circles of slightly different kinds, where the trance state is found to be a useful medium for going beyond the self and having that experience, and then returning and integrating. The whirling is a slightly different approach, in that one is continually aware of one’s consciousness being integrated more and more into the Whole.
Is it true that some Sufi practices are permissive of alcohol and drugs?
Most Sufi orders follow the practice of Prophet Muhammad and, as such, they recognize the heart’s connection and consciousness, inwardly with spirit. They would not want to jeopardize that purity or have their awareness distorted with alcohol and drugs. You might find some Sufi orders that include some kind of substance in their practice, but it is pretty rare. Shams Tabrizi, Rumi’s mentor, spoke about this. Recognizing the Beloved was All-Encompassing; there was no need for an altered state. His dedication was perpetual; he did not want or need to be distracted by anything else.
To use the language of Sufi poets, that pure simplicity of relationship between the Lover and the Beloved, between the Worshipper and the Divine, needs to be experienced in full appreciation. Nothing is more important than that connection and the clarity of heart that allows that opening.
Why do the dervishes turn counterclockwise?
Interesting, right? There are some different understandings as to why we turn counterclockwise. One of them is that turning left is turning towards the heart. Another one is that, if we think about the depiction of time on a clock, then when we are whirling, in a sense turning beyond time, so we go counterclockwise.
Your book Women of Sufism: A Hidden Treasure, Stories and Writings of Mystic Poets, Scholars, and Saints has helped to increase awareness of the integral contribution of women to the spiritual path of Islam. How did this book come about?
I wanted to be able to share something of the feminine story of the journey. Of course women have very much been part of the Sufi tradition since the beginning, but this reality has not been fully documented or referred to along the way. Eighteen years of gathering material developed into this resource. Spending time with this book is a good way to fill in the gaps of mainstream history and include the female Sufis and the female circles of devotion in the story.
Is there a lot of stigma around the issue?
These days, things have changed and are much more open. Historically, there were some Sufi orders that only allowed male participation and others that were for women only, or they were separated in practice. In our order, the Mevlevi, and also in the Bektashi order, there has been integration since the beginning.
There is so much turmoil going on in the world these days and it feels as though a lot of hearts are in so much pain. How can one repair a broken heart?
Moment by moment, heart by heart; by being present with one another. What hearts yearn for the most is to have a moment of recognition. We each have that capacity to be there for another and to offer that moment. The more we can be awake to each other, to all of creation, the more we can remedy the pain of this world.
My final question: I was really moved by your Book of Nature; a lot of people say we are now in a crisis of consciousness in the sense that we are incapable of recognizing our own true nature within us and in everyone and everything around us. Do you think that connecting back to nature could be the way of opening our hearts and shifting our consciousness?
Surely, it is essential. In the Quran, we are very much encouraged to see the beauties and intricacies of nature in so many ways, whether it’s the stars or the bees or the ants or the trees. It is amazing, this creation, and the Qur’an is always compelling us towards wonder, towards witnessing the Power and Beauty. Pause to look at any aspect of creation, you will find it is just overwhelming — you will start to see the incredible patterning of everything.
We need to encourage this love and wonder towards nature and keep the connection alive, especially for our children. We need to be guardians of nature, because each species is a gift and we still have a lot to learn.
Sheikha Camille, thank you so much.
Of course, it has been beautiful to connect and may your endeavors blossom beautifully.
Originally published on a Dance Mag