Serving the Guest: A Sufi Cookbook
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The Many Flavors of Sufism
Detail from The Conference of the Birds, Persian, 9th/15th century. Click for complete painting.

Throughout the world Sufism is most commonly identified as the mystical dimension of Islam. Over the centuries diverse Sufis have sought to praise and listen to and serve their Creator according to each one's guidance. Such guidance has come through the Qur'an — the Islamic scriptures — and the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who conveyed those scriptures to the world from the Angel Gabriel. Guidance also comes "hand over hand" through teachers in the physical world, and via prayer, intuition, inspiration and silence, from the "inner teacher." This search is fueled by the fundamental spiritual drive to remember the source of existence — in the words of the 13th century mystic, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, "to return to the root of the root of your own self."

There are and have been hundreds of different Sufi orders or communities throughout the world, and their spiritual practices reflect a great variety of emphases. Some stress adherence to one or another interpretation of Islamic law, the sharia, and others subscribe to a more hidden, inner observance. Some focus on solitary practice and retreat, others on community service. Some employ specific techniques by which one's "annihilation in God" is cultivated, and others are more oriented toward a devotional approach. Some have a very quiet, sober flavor, and others express themselves in a passionate, "drunken" manner.

All Sufi schools engage in dhikr, the spoken, sung or silent repetition of the "names of God" as they appear in the Qur'an. These Arabic names — beginning with Allah — describe the characteristics or "flavors" of divinity, such as rahman, "compassion"; sabur, "patience"; jamal, "beauty". They are invoked both for the sake of praise, and as a means of realizing the manifestation of those qualities in the world. Halvet or retreat, is a practice that involves specified periods of isolation for the purpose of undisturbed prayer and reflection. Another common ingredient of Sufism is that of sohbet, or spiritual conversation. Whether under the guidance of a teacher called a shaikh, or in the company of peers, Sufis will gather regularly for study, discussion, reflection, and often to sing together. This practice deepens both intellectual understanding and the bonds of love and companionship. Very often, this takes place over a generous meal.

Contemporary Moroccan calligraphic panel

In most Sufi schools, such as the Shadhiliyya order of North Africa; the Naqshbandi of Central Asia, the Persian Nimatullahis, Indian Chishtis, Turkish Helvetis, and Qadiris from several dozen countries, a prerequisite to partaking of the teachings is confession of the Islamic statement of faith, the shahadah:

La illaha il'Allah,
Muhammad ar-Rasul'Allah

There is no god but God;
Muhammad is the Prophet of God

The first portion of the shahada, "La illaha il'Allah" — a statement that expresses what in Sufi terms is called "the unity of being" — is an essential element of the dhikr of virtually every Sufi circle.

Adherence to Islam is not required in a number of Western schools with a significant presence in North America and Europe. Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Chishti shaikh who brought Sufism to Europe and North America in the first decades of the twentieth century, emphasized the fundamental unity of religious ideals. He encouraged his students to participate fully in the practice of their chosen religion, and, in particular, to explore the riches of Islam. At the same time he regarded it as crucial to draw attention to the inner essence of Sufi mystical teaching in a manner that would be heard by those to whom he was speaking.

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. Indian, 17th century. Click for larger image

Idries Shah, the well-known Sufi teacher and writer from Afghanistan, presented Sufism in a manner that emphasized psychological and spiritual development rather than religious observance. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Muslim holy man of the Qadiri tradition, welcomed a rainbow of students to sit at his table. And the Russian-born Irina Tweedie, following her studies under a Hindu sahib of the Naqshbandiyya-Mujadiddiya tradition, established diverse circles in England and North America. All of these teachers succeeded in introducing Sufism to Europeans and Americans in a manner that defused much of the prejudice towards Islam that was, and still is, prevalent in western society.

In keeping with Rumi's words — "Come, come, whoever you are…" — the Mevlevi Order has historically welcomed lovers of God of all faiths. This welcome has become particularly abundant in modern times with the introduction of that tradition to the west by teachers such as Bulent Rauf and Shaikh Suleyman Loras.

Indeed, Sufism has found its widest introduction in contemporary western society via Rumi's spontaneous outpourings. Many modern writers and translators have sought to convey the depth and scope of his insight, and the intensity of his love for God and for humanity, to those who do not have the good fortune to be able to read his words in Persian. Coleman Barks' contemporary English renderings, Eva de Vitray Meyerovitch's translations into French, Dr. Annemarie Schimmel's work in German, and the efforts of many others, popular and academic, have made his inspiration accessible to millions.

Rosewater bottle. Click for larger image.

This exposure has whetted the appetite of many people interested in spiritual development, for a more substantial taste of Sufism. One enjoyable way to get such a taste is to view a specific subject through the multifaceted lens of Sufi tradition. The subjects of cooking and eating and sharing food in community have been addressed extensively in Sufi teaching, both literally and metaphorically. These themes offer a delightful framework to begin such an exploration — and, inshallah, will provide a philosophical and symbolic context for the recipes to follow.