An Interview with Kabir in Tempo [Time Magazine of Indonesia]

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Ramadan 2001

First of all, would you describe what the Threshold Society is? How many people are the member of this community? Who are they – Are they professional people, students, etc? Are they mostly adults or young people? Are they from all over the world or only from North America?

The Threshold Society is a school for spiritual development in the Mevlevi Sufi tradition. The aim of the Threshold Society in the broadest sense is to provide an education in the principles of spiritual realization. As such, it is open to all people interested in its work, no matter what their beliefs or religious affiliation. Nevertheless, its spiritual foundations are the spiritual principles revealed in the Qur’an, especially as these have been understood by the great Sufis like Bahauddin Naqshband, Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, and, most importantly for us, Jalaluddin Rumi.

At a time when humanity is reaching a point of cultural convergence, ecological crisis, and rapid social change, we wish to promote the truth of Divine love and knowledge through direct, personal experience. In order to accomplish this purpose the times we live in call us to express and share the essential principles of spiritual development, to recognize and develop a true partnership of man and woman, to recognize the unity and interdependence of all human beings and all life, and to aid in the practical realization of living in harmony with our fellow beings and the natural world.

Another way to state our objective is that we wish to develop a contemporary expression of the classical Sufi Path, establish a workable format in which individuals and groups can mature within this tradition and experience the joys of Sufism, and, finally, to make a tangible contribution to our culture through service, art, music, and literature.

The Threshold Society has hundreds of active members and hundreds of thousands around the world who have been touched by its programs and publications. Until three years ago, Threshold Books was one of the leading publishers of Sufism in the West, but we decided we could be more effective by licensing our titles to some major publishers and focusing our efforts on teaching and writing.

Could you describe the brotherhood in the Threshold Society and compare this with the individualistic society in the US?

Human beings, including Americans, have a need for community, especially a community where spiritual values are shared. Unfortunately, modern life has contributed to the breakdown of many forms of community, so in the modern world that is taking shape, community becomes more of a personal, conscious choice. Islamic Sufi values are very important for establishing affection among people and refining behavior. Adab is especially emphasized in the Mevlevi tradition. An important part of a spiritual education is developing people’s capacity for relationship and the community of lovers of God is the school where this capacity is developed.

Would you like to tell an anecdotal story describing the influence of Threshold society in the US?

Threshold has sponsored four tours of the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey through North America. We did not initiate this; it came by popular demand, which we responded to. The Mevlevi Order has a beautiful ceremony, called Sema, which is both an expression of worship (ibada) and at the same time includes a beautiful tradition of spiritual music and ceremony, ending in Quranic recitation. When we toured the major cities of North America, this ceremony was one of the most popular cultural events of the season. We offered this ceremony in Symphony Halls and Universities, but as a “ceremony” not a “performance.” Many reviewers of this event praised the spirituality and the sense of profound stillness they felt after the event.

Of course we also have Americans trained in the Sema. Once we were invited to an inter-faith event at Washington’s National Cathedral, the same place where our Presidents have worshipped. We actually had 2000 mostly non-Muslim people chanting and/or listening to la illaha il Allah as some American Mevlevi dervishes whirled in the aisles. One of the Bishops of Washington said that his idea of spirituality had expanded that night!

The Mevlevi Order traces back to the poet Rumi. Why did you choose this tariqa personally? I mean are you an introspective type of person, or are you concerned with artistic exspression, or any other reasons? And why are some Americans attracted to Rumi? (By the way if you have any data about how many copies of book about Rumi sold out in US?) Would you like to explain this sociologically? What is characteristic of the Mevlevi Order compared with other tariqas such as Naqshabandiyah?

Rumi is a universal human being, a wide open door for humanity. Hundreds of thousands of people are reading his words in inspiring translations. He has the remedy for the wounds of Western culture, and for the human condition itself. The central Truth that Rumi communicates in every thing that he ever wrote or spoke is the Abundant Mercy, Generosity, and Beauty of God.

The spiritual approach of the Mevlevi Order is more artistic and creative than legalistic. In other words, we attract people through God’s Beauty and Subtlety. When people fall in love with God, they inevitably develop in knowledge and morals, as well. But we concentrate on the transformation of the nafs and the state (hal) of being thankful and conscious of God.

Under Kabir’s direction, The Mevlevi Order is working to apply traditional Sufi principles to the conditions of contemporary life. Is Mevlevi Order open to people from all faiths? What does this tariqa teach to the people? Wisdom, salat, sema? How do you teach people from all faiths about Sufism and Islam witout being Moslem before? Is sema, salat and dhikr are universal?

We need to distinguish The Threshold Society, which is broader than any Tariqah, and the path of initiation within the Mevlevi Order, which of course involves Islamic practice and a traditional commitment to a shaikh. Yet everything we do is from the spiritual perspective of Islam. Essentially, Islam a relationship between the human being and God, a covenant of peace in submission. Rumi said, “Beliefs are different everywhere, but faith is the same everywhere.” We constantly refer to the Qur’an and hadith; we invite people to salaah and other practices; but we also leave them free to choose. As the Qur’an says, “Let there be no compulsion in the Din.” And the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) said, “Speak to people according to their understanding.”

The essence of our approach is that we emphasize meaning (ma’na) over appearance. To establish Islam and Iman (faith) we must reach people’s souls. In the modern world, people will not accept mere form; they have a yearning that can only be satisfied by a real relationship with God: Indeed in the remembrance of God hearts find rest. We believe we are repeating and, in a way, re-living the experience of the first companions of the Prophet.

Now let me share another story. I was approached by the program director for a major Christian conference which would bring together the program directors of major churches from all over the United States. These are the people who are in control of religious education. I was asked whether I or one of my students would be willing to teach a workshop on Sema.

“How would you feel if I asked a priest to teach us a workshop on saying Mass? Do you see my point? The Sema is a long training in worship, it is not just a quick technique. However, I suggest that you let us teach a workshop on Salaah, the ritual prayer of Islam.” They happily agreed because they actually want to soften people’s attitudes toward Islam!

When we teach this workshop, we will show, first of all, how the Lord’s Prayer, taught by the Prophet Jesus, corresponds line for line in meaning with the Fatiha. Then we will lead them in wudu and the postures of Salaah, but first using the Lords’ Prayer, and “Glory be to God” for the rukuh and sajada. Then when they are comfortable with that, we will introduce the actual Fatiha.

Now, would it be better to try to immediately convert these Christians? Surely, they would quickly show us the way to the door! If, however, we can show them what is the essence of Islam, isn’t this a step in the direction of Tawhid? Most of these people will then begin to see that Islam has a Truth that they can relate to and respect. In the end, each soul has its relationship with God and their religion is His concern. As the Qur’an says: For each one of you

[several communities] We have appointed a Law and a Way of Conduct [while the essence of religion is identical]. If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community, but [He has not done so] that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete in goodness. To God shall you all return and He will tell you [the Truth] about what you have been disputing. [V,48]

I said earlier that people in the contemporary world are attracted to a spirituality that has subtlety and beauty, where the idea of God is not cheapened by rigidity or cliché, and where the idea of God is left some breathing room. Here is how Rumi, in one instance, talks about that God who is Ahad, Samad, Latif, and beyond all comparison:

You are Joy and we are Laughter.

O my God, our intoxicated eyes have blurred our vision.
Our burdens have been made heavy, forgive us.
You are hidden, and yet from East to West
You have filled the world with Your radiance,
Your light is more magnificent than sunrise or sunset,
and You are the inmost ground of consciousness,
revealing the secrets we hold.
You are an explosive force
causing our damned-up rivers to burst forth.
You whose Essence is hidden while Your gifts are visible,
You are like water and we are like millstones.
You are like wind and we are like dust:
The wind is hidden while the dust is plainly seen.
You are the invisible spring, and we are Your lush garden:

You are the spirit of life, and we are like hand and foot:
Spirit causes the hand to close and open.
You are intelligence, we are Your voice:
Your intelligence causes this tongue to speak.
You are joy, and we are laughter,
For we are the result of the blessing of Your joy.
All our movement is really a continual profession of faith,
and bears witness to Your eternal power.
just as the powerful turning of the millstone
professes faith in the river’s existence.
Dust settles upon my head and upon my metaphors
for You are beyond anything we can ever think or say!
Yet this servant can’t stop trying to express Your beauty
in every moment. Let my soul be Your carpet!

(Mathnawi V:3307-3319 Translated by Kabir & Camille Helminski)

Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to share what we love.

Shaikh Kabir Helminski Al Mevlevi

Kabir Helminski is the author of two books on Sufi spirituality: Living Presence and The Knowing Heart as well as numerous translations of Rumi and other Sufi poets. He was the first Muslim to be asked to give the prestigious Wit Lectures on Spirituality at Harvard Divinity School. More information is available on the website of the Threshold Society: apps.menteq.com

2017-01-29T15:58:45-05:00