By Abigail Roberts | Contributor
Have you ever seen photos or heard stories of twirling men with tall white hats and whirling white skirts? Sufism, a spiritual dimension of Islam, has faced discrimination, neglect and disparagement from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Although to the onlooker Sufi worship services may look like purely a performance, for the participant it is a spiritual act. A Sufi's primary pursuit is worshiping Allah.
Unfortunately, confusion of Sufism, even among Muslims, is common. Last week in Cairo, Egypt, I had the opportunity to meet Muhammad Antai, an Egyptian Sufi dancer.
"There are many of us in Egypt, we represent many. . . . Being Sufi goes beyond an identity for me," Antai said.
The Islamic State and Islamic fundamentalists target Sufis because they believe it crosses the boundaries of traditional Islam. In November 2017 militants stormed a Sufi mosque on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing at least 305 people. In February 2017, militants aligned with the Islamic State attacked worshipers at the tomb of a Sufi philosopher in a remote part of southern Pakistan, killing more than 80 people.
These attacks bear some of the hallmarks of previous assaults on Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, an American Sufi cleric of Egyptian descent in an interview for the New York Times said, "It is Islam, but we focus on meditation, on chanting sessions, which enable the Muslim to have his or her heart open. The myths people have about Sufis are analogous to the myths people have about Muslims."
I also had the privilege to watch Antai perform with his Sufi tariqa (order, translated as "the way").
A Sufi's pursuit of God can come in many forms and stages. One example is the act of whirling. In an act of mediation, known as sema, dervishes reach a contemplative state by spinning in circles for long periods of time.
Antai has been learning this style of worship from his father since the age of 16. In Egypt, Sufi dancers spin clockwise, often with one or two hands extended toward heaven. Their goal is to reach total relaxation and mental pause where their only focus is on God. Accompanied by the playing pipes, beating of drums and melodic poems dancers appear to be in a trance, spinning for minutes, sometimes hours, on end.
"We turn for hours and my mind focuses solely on my creator. . . . You feel like, within Islam, it links you with God," Antai said.
Sufi practices appear intriguing and mysterious, yet in reality, their primary desire is closeness with God. Those who have the privilege to attend a Sufi worship service or gathering will not leave unchanged.