Sufism Group Clears Minds on Campus
Meditation helps group focus and find energy
October 3, 2006 10:18 AM
The candles flickered in the dim room and soft music gently wafted through the air as the Tamarkoz leader Dr. Jilla Benham told the class to inhale deeply while raising their right arm.
Sitting cross-legged and with closed eyes, the Sufi students were then told to exhale while lowering their arm and to focus on the magnetic energy radiating from their palm.
Tamarkoz, or meditation, is an important part of Sufism, according to Paiom Youssefi, 23, president of the Maktab Tarighat Ovessi Sufi Association at SF State. He said Tamarkoz allows a person to clear their minds of unimportant matters and focus on the truth that's in their hearts, which is the essence of Sufism. Sufism is not a religion or a philosophy, rather it's a discipline that helps people find their paths to self-cognition by knowing God, Youssefi said.
“It's often called the mystical side of Islam, but it uses the teachings of all the prophets to help you find the path to self-knowledge,” Youssefi said.
According to Fred Astren, director and professor of SF State’s Jewish Studies, Sufism originally came about by followers of Islam who wanted to get a more personal experience of God. Practitioners of Sufism would experiment through various techniques such as dancing and meditation that did not go over well with traditional Islamic leaders.
“Sufism was a large part of Islam until modern times,” Astren said. “But in the past 100 to 150 years as nationalism and modernity swept into the Islamic countries, they began to scapegoat Sufism as the cause of their society’s problems.”
The MTO order of Sufism is over 1,400 years old and traces back to Oveys Gharani, who lived during the time of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Oveys never met Muhammad, but is said to have learned the teachings of Islam from Muhammad, through his heart.
For the second year in a row, the MTO Sufi Association at SF State only has the required minimum of five members. Youssefi said this is because not many people know about Sufism.
“There are a certain percentage of people who hear 'Islam' and immediately dismiss it,” he said. “And when a lot of people hear 'mystical' they start to think about hocus pocus, but that's not what Sufism's about.”
Astren said Sufism is deeply embedded in Islam, but as it reaches new places it opens up in new ways.
“Sufism is about the inner reality of religions ... about finding the path to God by finding knowledge in your own heart,” said Benham, who is an off-campus advisor for MTO. “The institutionalized religions are too hung up on rigid laws. If a person is praying in any religion and the essence is not there, it's like eating food and constantly bringing an empty fork to your mouth.”
Esther Halwani recently celebrated Rosh Hashana, and has been practicing Sufism for about two years.
“There's a wonderful example we're taught, where the human spirit is like an apple seed,” said Halwani, event coordinator for MTO. “An apple seed has all the characteristics and potential to grow, but if it's not nourished properly it will never grow into an apple.”
Women are given “100 percent equality” in Sufism, Halwani said, which is different than traditional Islam and other major religions.
“Women lead the meditation groups and do everything a man can,” she said. “It's about finding the truth in yourself, and God's truth has no gender or race.”
Benham said she wants atheists to at least try a Tamarkoz workshop, and see the tools that are out there. Perhaps they would feel more energetic and gradually realize there's more to them, she said.
“When you're thirsty, someone describing to you what water is and how it tastes doesn't help,” she said. “You become quenched when you drink that water.”
The MTO Sufi Association will be holding a meditation workshop Oct. 11 from 11:30 a.m to 2 p.m. in Rosa Parks Room F.
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