Cycling along Queen Street West.
Reaching Roncesvalles Avenue, which many consider the border between Parkdale and High Park neighbourhoods, the light is red. It’s the first one encountered on this bike ride. Standing at the corner, a Buddhist Monk also waits for the light to change.
Many Tibetans make Parkdale their home. It’s not unusual to see them. Nevertheless, sighting a Buddhist Monk is taken as a good omen of tonight’s intention is to break fast with The Sufis….
One of the first signs this Iftar will be different, is the sign itself in front of the centre.
It’s like a sales pitch, “Hey Muslim, our Islam is easier! Pray Here!”
The Sufi Centre hosts regular Saturday programs beginning at 7 p.m. throughout the year. Everyone is always invited.
Tonight is the first Saturday of Ramadan and I’m right on time.
After making wudu downstairs, I sit comfortably on L shaped cushions against the west wall and watch as their Dhikr (Meditation Chant) Circle begins…
For fifteen minutes or more, different names of Allah from The 99 Names of God-Alone in the Arabic Language echo throughout the prayer hall.
It’s intoxicating. And the night is just beginning.
Moments after the Dhikr Circle ends, the rug is rolled revealing a wood-stained floor.
An announcement is made by the one who was leading the Dhikr Cirle, Tevfik Aydoner. Now it is time for music.
What follows music? Dancing.
Make that Whirling.
While Islam discourages dancing in the way dancing is widely understood and practiced nowadays, for centuries, Whirling Dervishes have held an integral place within the Sufi tradition of Islam.
As the Dervish Whirls, one hand faces upwards, towards Heaven.
His other hand has its palm facing downwards, towards the Earth.
Symbolizing what we receive from Heaven, and what we give back to the Earth.
The whirling has wound down. The music wraps up. Soon will be time to break fast.
Tevfik holds court and shares a number of reminders of why we are here, why we are fasting.
He shares a parable of spirits that were breathed into existence who were asked a question by The Creator.
Having answered incorrectly, they were sent to Hell-Fire for a time then brought back and asked the same question by The Creator.
They answered incorrectly a second time, this time they were sent to Hell-Cold.
At this point, something stirs inside of me. A faint childhood memory…
As a child I recall my Father having a eureka moment once while reading the Qur’an. He was excited about something. He had just interpreted that Hell was not actually Fire, instead it was actually freezing like winter. Yet, my Dad’s interpretation contradicted all common knowledge about Hell. It was supposed to be hot, not cold!
And here in front of me, decades later, Tevfik continues his parable…
After being brought back from Hell-Cold, these spirits were again asked by The Creator the same question. They answered proudly again. Didn’t learn a thing. Nada. Zilch.
He explained that Human Beings have a capacity to adjust to either hot or cold. We get used to environmental situations and we end up not learning, not transforming ourselves.
So, according to Islam, Hell does freeze over ! :-O
Next, the spirits were sent to Hell-Fasting.
Hold up, again!
Hell-Fasting? What the Hell is that?
Tevfik explains that there is something about fasting, that transforms the Human Being. Something unique happens when we voluntarily fast. We become humble. We open our hearts and begin to love our fellow creation.
Those spirits were brought back from Hell-Fasting in front of The Creator. This time when asked that same question, they finally answered correctly, this time with humility. Though they were breathed into existence from God-Alone, they were not God. They had finally learned.
“O you who believe, fasting has been prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for people before you so that you will (learn how to) attain Taqwa”
The Qur’an, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:183
Tevfik explains, expands.
The people before you mentioned in this oft-quoted verse of The Qur’an were those spirits he mentioned in the parable. Like them before us, we are fasting to learn self-restraint, to learn righteousness, to learn love.
He then says with a slight smile,
We are those spirits… Welcome to Planet Earth!
Now that we are here on Planet Earth, what are we here for?
To be open to another’s hurt.
He explains the mission of the Sufi Centre is like a Spiritual Hospital. What does one do when they are hurt or in pain? They go to the Hospital.
Where do they go when they are in spiritually pain?
That’s the purpose of this Sufi Centre.
This is a Spiritual Hospital where people come to get better.
And what is Tevfik’s position here? Imam? Shaikh? Teacher?
He says [ Spiritual Masters are like a ] Spiritual Doctor.
As a doctor in a hospital may help ease your physical pain, his job is to understand and help relieve your spiritual pain.
Time has come to Call the Sunset Prayer and break fast.
After performing the Sunset prayer, lead by Imam Abdulvehab, Tevfik asks everyone to wait and not go downstairs yet. He asks for a quick headcount of everyone, sisters and brothers.
He’s concerned so many are present here tonight, we may have to quikly set up an Iftar table here upstairs in addition to what is already prepared in the basement.
Consensus is there’s space enough for about 70 of us here. We’ll all squeeze downstairs.
And s-q-u-e-e-z-e we did!
An abundance of food, tight accommodation in space.
My Iftar table mates end up being five year old Daoud on the right and his four and half year old friend on the right. I never was able to get his name.
Our conversations while eating also had a Sufi quality.
Daoud asks his friendWhat is the oldest colour in The World ?
My ears perk up as they debate this point in between the numbers of pancakes they are able to down at age four.
Oldest colour in The World?
I was guessing white or black. Purple? Hey, why not?
There is so much food tonight, I am not shy nor alone in filling my plate with seconds then thirds.
Then this happens…
Even after the eating, there is chanting. Dhikrullah. Remembrance of Allah. Praising and thanks to God-Alone.
It all brings one into a environment of Taqwa. It’s not lip service in this masjid, your really do feel warmth and love here.
I am trying to recall where in another Iftar this feeling has been present, and I am at a loss.
I too am now joining aloud in the Dhikr.
The tables begin to be cleaned up and removed. Sister Hollie (@commoncentsmom) has made the Sufi Centre her home masjid. She comes over and says Salam. We follow each other on Twitter, but it’s always nice to catch up in person. Hollie then properly introduces me to Tevfik.
I share with him the 30 Masjids project and how it brought me here. He is very happy I decided to join them on this first Saturday in Ramadan.
He reiterates what he said upstairs, he is a Spiritual Doctor. Later on, when I look at his business card, it doesn’t say Dr. or Iman or Shaikh. Under his name it reads Head Servant.
That’s how he views his responsibilities. He is here to serve all who come here.
Kids begin running around the room as it is now free of the tables.
Tevfik jokes with them Who wants to hug Grandfather! Grandfather Hugs are FREE!!
I am introduced to Brother Yilmaz Alimoglu. Writer. Poet. Sufi. Blogger.
He speaks to me and answers my questions on behalf of the Shaikh.
What Yilmaz shares with me, is as a Representative of the Sufi Centre.
He thinks that Spiritual Masters are like Spiritual Doctors.
He goes over the history of the establishment of the Canadian Sufi Cultural Centre over 25 years and the recent acquiring of the building we are in now. Mostly though, he’s sharing news of their latest project.
Irim in Burkino Faso.
It is a community of 450 families, about 2,000 people, who have been experiencing drought, crop failure, and hunger.
This small congregation can’t solve the World’s problems, but it can solve this one problem in the World.
The Toronto Star Newspaper write up of this relief effort is thumbtacked on the bulletin board.
Yilmaz brings me up to date.
Members of the Sufi Centre, about 70 families have contributed $40,000 so far for Irim. That amount will take care of 2,000 people into October of this year.
It looks like the drought will end by then and crops will begin to grow again.
There are all kinds of fundraising going on in every masjid this Ramadan for all kinds of projects. Much fundraising relates to expanding the physical size of those masjids.
This one, is about helping drought stricken families in the Sahel of Africa.
Locally, $40,000 is hardly enough for a down payment on a single family house.
Brother Kenan, a hardworking volunteer at the Sufi Centre, offers me a glass of strong Turkish Tea. It’s just what my sleepy head needs and will see me through Isha and Taraweeh prayers.
As I sip my tea, the kids run around and jostle in play.
Hard to believe it’s already past 10 p.m.
Isha will begin soon. Once upstairs, I am the only one of the men not in the Dhikr Circle.
Yilmaz asks if I would join in. I do. Tevfik points to the brother I should sit beside. At some point, I don’t even realize it, we end up standing in a circle holding hands. It’s an incredible feeling of spiritual connection as we continue to chant.
Over the better course of an hour, I lose myself in this meditative trance.
It is not dancing, yet it has brings about a similar sensation.
It is not singing yet I lose myself in the Qur’anic words we are repeating.
Children have formed their own smaller circle in the middle and seem to be having fun.
I notice Kenan’s baby boy mimicking the spinning of the Whirling Dervish from earlier in the evening.
At moments Tevfik steps out into the centre of the circle and stamps his foot gently on the floor.
It reminds me of a moment in the film The Hunt for Red October where the Russian Submarine Commander allows via hand gestures his crew to sing the Russian National Anthem. Elsewhere, in a American Submarine, the sonar techie-geek swears to his Captain that he just heard singing underwater.
The Russian’s hand gestures and Tevfik’s feet move as one in my mind’s eye and present eye respectively.
Isha was scheduled for 10:45 p.m.
People have entered the Centre since then and joined the circle.
It’s now 11:15 p.m. and Tevfik apologizes for going over, but it’s okay since it’s their first gathering in Ramadan.
We pray Isha.
Then we pray Taraweeh. It’s time for those Short Sures.
I’m expecting full recitation of the very short chapters found in the end of the Qur’an.
Taraweeh is performed Ottoman Style as it has been for six hundred years throughout Turkish History.
Surah Al-Fatihah, the opening chapter of the Qur’an, followed by exactly three verses of a specific surah. We are praying a mix of two and four rakats leading up to a total of twenty. The Imam recites those three Ayahs aloud in the third and fourth rakats. It has a Jaffery School of Thought feel to it found in Shia Masjids.
Taraweeh moves so fast that I can’t keep track of when we prayed two and when we prayed four.
Very quickly it is time for Witr Prayer and we are done.
Lights turned on, I’m finally able to properly admire the Mihrab, the prayer niche for the Imam.
It is exquisite.
I am expecting that circle handshaking before everyone leaves for the night that I always experience in Turkish Masjids. Nope. Another surprise.
What’s Iftar without Dessert ?
I was hoping to kickstart my Ramadan with a Spiritual shot of adrenaline.
Breaking Fast with The Sufis has done that and much, much more. I’ve reconnected with a neglected part of my Soul.
Sufi is not everyone’s Flavour of Islam as Tevfik earlier gave name to what Sufi is all about. Yet everyone in Islam benefits from a taste of it now and then.
Tevfik encourages me to attend Jumah Prayers and it is easy to say I will do my best to make at least one Friday Prayer in Ramadan.
InshAllah, Next Friday.
If Allah Wills….