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For the Sufis the experience of the sacred can happen anywhere, at any time. Given the conjunction of spacetime in contemporary physics, this statement in Alireza Nurbakhsh’s discourse may be reassuring. The sacred is available, but it is also (and not just etymologically) “set apart”—not intrinsically, but because people usually do not perceive it, or do not know that they are in it. What all the authors in this issue of Sufi find is that it takes at least one of the five physical senses of the human body, in combination with a consciousness devoted to service to others, to detect and create sacred space.

Kim Lisson’s interview with Nyoongar Aboriginal Elders reveals the need to feel with the whole body and a whole history of stories and connections. Then perception shows the routes that lead to a person’s experience of a specific sacredness in specific places. The locations where this issue’s articles happen: Istanbul, England, Pakistan, Japan, Australia, New York, Oregon, the place of poetry, and the mother of them all, the space of the heart—are already sacred space. As Mark Nepo says, though, frequently we need another person or community to remind us of all this. When the going gets tough, the tough ask for help. Friends, teachers, ancestors, saints living and dead, will answer the call. Then we can remember to stop, look, listen, touch, smell, and taste Nature, the sacred space we already inhabit. How can that happen? According to 2014 United Nations figures, more than half (54%) of the people on Earth are stuck in cities. But our authors remind us that under the cities is pure planet, and anyone who has been to town knows that tiny leaves push up through cracks in the man-made. Like it or not, with then senses alive as we can feel them, it’s time to hit the road, or we won’t find the sacred space we can’t get away from anyway: “I set out on the journey to see my beloved; the wind carrying her scent reached me first and I passed out.” We took our first breath of sacred space before we knew it.

—The Editors of SUFI




A Discourse

by Alireza Nurbakhsh


To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
—William Blake



In sacred or mystical experiences, we escape our mundane existence by coming face-to-face with something much greater than ourselves. The religious traditions, by and large, dictate where and when one should have such experiences, namely, in sacred spaces such as churches, mosques, synagogues, Buddhist temples or Hindu ashrams and while engaged in contemplation of the divine or in prayer. Each religious tradition prescribes what is sacred and in doing so creates an acceptable pattern of what constitutes a sacred experience. An Anglican Christian, for example, may experience the sacred at Westminster Abbey upon seeing the icon of Christ and relive the experience of Jesus’ sacrifice for one’s sin. But to a Japanese tourist the space will have no more than a historical or artistic significance. There are, I believe, three main features common to all mystical experience. The first is that we feel we are in the presence of something greater than ourselves, be it God, nature or even an encounter with another human being. The second is that such an experience is usually outside the realm of the ordinary. The experience becomes increasingly ineffable; we find it hard to describe it in language without the risk of sounding absurd. The third and the most significant aspect of the mystical experience is its transformative nature.

In the Sufi tradition, Ruzbehan Baqli Shirazi (1128-1209) is an example of someone whose very intense experience of divine love made love the central theme in Persian Sufism and thus affected many generations of Sufis in Iran. He describes an erotic experience similar to St. Teresa’s in his book Abhar al-Asheqin  (“Jasmine of the Lovers”). Ruzbehan first describes his journey in the sacred angelic realm; upon returning to then world he experiences an intense love of God and the pain of separation from Him. God then manifests Himself to Ruzbehan as a beautiful Chinese woman and tells him to look at Her as if he were looking at another human being.

The cost of banishing the sacred from our world is to live in a world devoid of mystical experience. If today we come across someone whose experience is similar to Teresa of Avila or Ruzbehan Baqli most of us do not have a framework to relate to this person; we would doubt his or her sanity. But a world devoid of mystical experience is a world devoid of the true personal transformations by which human beings become less egocentric and more caring towards others.

The experience is not an end in itself; one who undergoes such an experience is not engaged in a voluntary or self-serving exercise. The encounter with the sacred has always been a transformative force in all traditions. The result of such a transformation is a desire to reach out to others in order to help and love. Those who experience the sacred become more inclusive and loving especially to those who have been marginalized in society.





by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

With simple and powerful imagery, the man the Sufis call the Greatest Shaykh speaks of a space that knows no boundaries or divisions, but belongs to love. For the mystic, for the lover, everywhere is a place of devotion, a place of meeting our Beloved. This world—with its myriad forms, light and darkness, sadness and joy—is a sacred space, a place where love reveals its secrets, where divine oneness comes to meet us. All around us is an unending revelation, the wind whispering the secrets of love, messages from our heart’s Beloved. The Divine calls to us in so many ways, a hummingbird drinking nectar in my garden, a fox sneaking between city rubbish bins. Walking in a sacred manner, each foot touching the earth like a kiss, we can feel this place of meeting, this belonging.

But as Ibn ‘Arabi writes, the heart itself is the truest space, where the two worlds meet, where the wayfarer can hear the bells of the caravan. For the mystic—the one whose heart has been broken on love’s altar—because their heart belongs to their Beloved, it is a space where all are welcome. “Heaven and earth cannot contain me, but the heart of my devoted servant can.” The heart is a space that goes beyond the stars, even as it contains the tears of a child, the sigh of a lover. It is a place where we are truly found, and where our Beloved is always present.





by Mark Nepo


Each of us walks about in a cloud of affections: our love, our pain, our desires, our history. Then, we need help from each other to outwait the cloud, so we can regain our direct experience of life. We need to break the trance of what we want or wish for or regret. The task is not to replay what we go through, but to integrate what enters our heart. Not to linger in what might have been or what has fallen short, but to make the most of what’s before us. The challenge is to feel what’s real while it’s real.

But when we can sort what we’re hearing and outwait the cloud of our affections, we land in the beautiful if gritty terrain of where we are. Now caring for each other can restore us. Once grounded enough to truly care, then I can love you. And the depth of that love dissolves images of life being “over there.” Then, my singular sense of self starts to let others in, so that when you’re in pain, I’m in pain. And when you’re overflowing with wonder, I’m saturated with that wonder. This is how life grows and joins, a pain at a time, a wonder at a time—despite our clouds of affection, our webs of fear and worry, and our fear of missing out. This is the greater prayer of being: how we take form and grow where we are, only to be dissolved into a greater union with the life around us.





Building Our Space in a Shifting Universe

by Fatemeh Keshavarz


Hafez starts simple, builds brick by brick (word by word, if you like) and adds subjective layers along the way. This enables him to move between the inner and the outer worlds often and with ease. In the process, he constructs bridges and doors that connect the two in a rather matter-of-fact way:

My heart forgets the green landscape when it sees the moon of your face aglow.
For like a cypress, it [my heart] is bound to earth, and like a tulip’s red heart, it is filled with sorrow.

To make sure that we have noticed the co-existence of the inner and outer geographies, here reflected in the beloved’s beauty and the heart’s sorrow, he highlights the tension between the two, the deep interconnection that sometimes reveals itself in a confrontational manner:

The inner world of hermits does not owe anything to the physical world.
We do not bow, not even before the prayer niche of an arched eyebrow.

A claim easily refuted by its own central image—an arched eyebrow—not to mention the first verse: the earthbound heart forgetting its captivity with a glance at the beloved’s moon-like face. Then, we are outside again:

Look at the violet! It compares itself to her dark perfumed curls.
A simple servant and such extraordinary designs!
Come to the garden and see that next to the rose’s thrown
Tulip stands like a royal attendant holding a goblet of wine.

Although somewhat ambiguous, the parallel between the beautiful verses that our poet is giving us, his conversations with the divine, and the wine that revives the “inner faculties,” are unmistakable. Besides, in lyrically expressed true love, the longing never ends. He longs for the conversations and we long for hearing them. We will never truly know if he is the wine-seller who knows the divine mystery or not, but we take charge of our own journey as we read them.





by John L. Caughey


In the 1970s, the Sufi teacher, Syed Mumtaz Hussain Shah, Shah Jii, and his small band of followers spent most of their time at their mountain shrine in the Margalla Hills of Pakistan high above the Indus Plain. In this sacred space, the meditation place of the Sufi Saint Buri Imam (1617-1705), they pursued their mystical practices and received the pilgrims who came up to worship and to seek help or guidance.

One sunny day when many pilgrims, men, women, and children were visiting the mountain shrine, Shah Jii was sitting at his place in the shallow cave and receiving visitors. Some presented problems such as financial, health, and spiritual concerns. But some of the pilgrims came with invitations. One sunny day, a young pilgrim, a teenage girl in a colorful shalvar kameez, approached Shah Jii. She placed a dish of sweets down before him and smilingly said, “Shah Jii! My mother conveys her respects (salam) and says that now that the urs rituals are over you must come to visit our home.” Shah Jii reached out and gently and lovingly embraced her. Addressing her as if she were kin he said, “Daughter! I feel your sincerity. I will come whenever my murshid wishes that it be so.” This request stayed in Shah Jii’s mind both as a memory and as an anticipation, a future plan to make a visit to this family at their nearby home. This internal anticipation became another part of the array of current responsibilities he felt to his extended spiritual family including worldly followers (dunnia kii murriid) like this daughter and her mother who were living in the world, i.e., away from the shrine in the local villages and the city of Rawalpindi. As he indicated in this conversation however, he expected to be called to make this particular visit by his murshid , one of his no longer living teachers or the spirit of a saint. That is, he would only make this trip in reality when he received guidance from his murshid  through a spiritual intuition, an inclination or indication, or a waking dream. This mix of creative imagination and face-to-face relations with teachers, companions, and students was a pervasive and important aspect of this Sufi social world.





by Matt Hanson


Multigenerational solidarity is at the heart of this oldest Jerrahi lodge in America, nestled deeply into the Mid-Atlantic countryside. A man in a white dervish cap is a common sight, next to a covered woman. Illumined under the front door lamp astride neatly hewn shrubs, children skip about the festive outdoor lighting. Leafy vines decorate the lodge sheltered in lush green trees all radiating the primary color of Islam. Inside, the decorative tiled walls are styled in the Iznik craft from the Aegean region of Turkey unmistakable in its floral viridescent patterns, commingling arboreal motifs with kernels of symbolic resonance. Calligraphic signatures, particularly of the letter waw to symbolize the sacred oath to Allah, are designed within intricate weavings of ultramarine hues reminiscent of the Turquoise Coast.

As attested by adherents, every last tile is sourced directly from Turkey. The people involved literally traveled halfway around the planet to bear the weight of the fired ceramic soil of the country that raised the founder of the order, Hazreti Pîr Muhammad Nureddin al-Jerrahi. In the years between 1678–1720, al-Jerrahi lived in the last imperial Ottoman capital of Istanbul, where he is buried in the original tekke lodge in his name that remains active in the Old City.

It was by a chance encounter with a woman named Munevver Hanim that Tosun Baba confronted his unforeseen attraction to the Jerrahi path, while traveling from Istanbul by train to Konya in the winter of 1968 to experience the whirling dervish ceremony celebrating Rumi. In those days, the spell of Kemalist reform had convinced Tosun Baba that sheikhs and dervishes were lost to the Turkish culture. Little did he know that the second half of his long life would be defined by that happenstance curiosity, leading ultimately to a deep search that formalized when he became a disciple under Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak Efendi, the man who extended the Jerrahi path to America.





Kim Lisson in Conversation with Nyoongar Elders  Richard Walley and Carol Pettersen


What makes a place sacred? And how is the sacred defined? For Aboriginal Australians, sacred spaces are both tangible and intangible—some visible, some intuited; sometimes physical, often metaphysical. Sacredness is intimately bound up with the natural world and people’s relationship to it—in this life and beyond. Sacred sites are places of respect, stewardship, kinship, communion, ritual, healing, and they are far from homogenous. Them Aboriginal population of Australia is made up of many tribes and nations, each with their own sacred places, animal totems and other landmarks in geographic areas known as their “country.” Sacred places are as much a matter of identity and belonging as they are about transcendence.

To understand more about Nyoongar spirituality, and their notion of “sacred space,” writer, consultant and coach Kim Lisson spoke to two Nyoongar Elders: artist Richard Walley and social advocate Carol Pettersen.

Kim Lisson: So, when it comes to sacred space, would you be reasonably confident there are some significant similarities between different Aboriginal communities, or would you say it’s more characterized by its differences?

Richard Walley: Well, on this subject there’s a lot of similarities. Similarities because nature itself is a part of the system, it’s not based purely on the unknown and supernatural. It’s a combination of spirituality and the physical form, both in the forms of people, but more importantly place and plant.

Kim Lisson: And that forms a common connection point for the Nyoongar people, the environment of the south-west of Western Australia as common “country”?

Richard Walley: Exactly. We didn’t have borderlines that divided us, we had borderlines that actually joined us, and we shared common responsibilities. I think that was a fantastic system that operated by sharing responsibilities, caring for country, caring for animals and plants that are in your zone, but also out of your zone, becomes it’s something that links us together as a people.

Carol Pettersen is a Justice of the Peace, cultural advisor and Elder belonging to the Minung-Gnudju people of the Nyoongar Nation in the southwest of Western Australia. She has lived and worked in Albany for most of her life and is well-known throughout the Nyoongar nation as a tireless worker for her people. As a Justice of the Peace, Carol is still actively working in the courts as an advocate for social justice for Nyoongar people, which she has done for over 40 years. She is also very active in helping to bring about social and economic changes for Nyoongar people through land claims and access to mining income. She was a principal adviser to the Premier of Western Australia on women´s issues, a counselor with the Council of Albany, and has served on state and Commonwealth committees on issues such as Indigenous health, welfare, education and training. She retired from the public service in 1998 but continues to work as a volunteer for the Nyoongar community.

Kim Lisson: Carol, what’s your cultural background?

Carol Pettersen: I identify myself as a Minang-Gnudju woman of the Nyoongar nation. We have this dual dialect culture as well as a dual culture background, meaning that although my mother was a tribal woman my father was a white man, and so we’ve grown up with those. two cultures. And there was a big family… Mum and Dad had eighteen children. We know our totem, which is a little bird from our neck of the woods, which is the coastal strip—we were coastal people. An anthropologist described our family as the ‘shell people of the South Coast’. We come from a matriarchal line, we identify with that, and our little totem is a little bird, and it’s the spirit of our grandmother. Women were given little birds (and trees and flowers) as a spiritual totem and the men, the patriarchal line, were given big birds.