x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Eat, pray, love

World Followers of Sheikh Muhammad Kabbani hope to reintroduce his brand of Sufism to Lebanon. Meris Lutz investigates.

Obeida Adra meditates inside at villa in Lebanon owned by the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi order. Meris Lutz for The National
Obeida Adra meditates inside at villa in Lebanon owned by the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi order. Meris Lutz for The National

Followers of Sheikh Muhammad Kabbani, a liberal Sufi leader, hope to reintroduce his mild, American brand of Sufism to sect-addled Lebanon. Meris Lutz meets Obeida Adra, his ambassador in Beirut.

Thikr at Obeida Adra's house is a casual affair: pleasant conversation followed by some light Sufi meditation before dinner, cigarettes and air-kissed send-offs among lingering guests reluctant to relieve babysitters and grandparents of their sleeping charges. "I'm into reality," Adra says, laughing, when I ask about the rumours of drug use, whirling and other shortcuts to enlightenment allegedly taken by some Sufis. "Spiritual cleansing of the self - that's the journey of the real Sufi."

Sufism, which names a wide array of practices that embody a tradition of Islamic mysticism dating back to the ninth century, has been subject to ridicule and persecution among Muslims and, more recently, new-age fetishism in the West. It seemed an unlikely refuge for Adra, a disillusioned Sunni Muslim who had seen sectarian warfare devastate her native Lebanon. She certainly never saw herself returning to Lebanon over a decade after she left, as the regional ambassador for the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order of America.

Adra and I perch on a stiff ornamental couch, the kind that is typical of formal salons in Arab homes, as a pair of Ethiopian maids deftly arrange a small spread of tea, blueberry pie, and ice cream. The marble-floored room is so large there is another receiving area arranged at the far end with an equally daunting set of furniture. The villa belongs to the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi order, led by the US-based Sheikh Muhammad Kabbani. The brand new home - obviously a substantial investment intended to play host to a growing community - still seems empty and monolithic. The mosque downstairs is unused except for a small corner, with stacks of cushions still wrapped in plastic pushed against one wall.

When Adra, who describes her husband Zeid and herself as being among Kabbani's "closest followers", moved with her family back to Lebanon a little over a year ago for personal reasons, she was entrusted with the delicate task of reintroducing the milder American strain of Naqshbandi Sufism back into its native Eastern habitat. Twice a week she and Zeid host thikr, a Sufi group meditation, inviting friends, acquaintances and now a curious journalist to the villa, which is situated in the low mountains just south of Beirut.

Attracting an earnest following has been difficult, however. Mainstream Muslims and Arab society in general tend to see Sufis as novelty shamans at best and infidel cultists at worst. But the amount of money invested in the Naqshbandi villa suggests that someone believes this new liberal Sufism could provide a viable alternative to trends in the region towards fundamentalism and sectarian violence.

"I am happy to be here in this country now, because I really feel like [Lebanese people] need some kind of meditation- they need some kind of help," Adra says. "They're seeking fortune tellers and the future and I don't know what, some magic, which is so ridiculous." Indeed, Lebanon is a country where superstition coexists and even flourishes alongside religions that openly condemn such beliefs. The only time I've ever seen the streets of Beirut totally quiet on a Friday night - and this includes the 2006 war - was an evening in autumn 2005 on which the renowned psychic Michel Hayek had predicted "blood would flow". It did not, but that didn't stop Beirutis from staying indoors just in case.

Adra's own spiritual path started in Detroit, Michigan, where she and her husband moved to start a new life in the wake of Lebanon's 15-year civil war. Born into a country deeply divided by bloodline and sect, she suddenly found herself in a sea of rootless soul-seekers, where the curious and confused drifted easily from Druidism to Hinduism to Buddhism, Kabbalah or Wiccan Marxism, or simply preached their own value system based on a convenient combination thereof.

Unsure of her own beliefs, and wary of wolves dressed in holy men's clothes, Obeida started to do some soul-searching of her own. "I prayed to God: I need someone like all the prophets," she says. After extensive reading, she found Sheikh Kabbani, a fellow Lebanese and the leader of the American branch of the Naqshbandiyya, a Sufi sect led by Grand Shiekh Nazem Haqqani, a Turkish Cypriot. The Naqshbandi sect was formally founded in the 14th century, but its adherents trace their tradition back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

It's impossible to refer to the Haqqani-led order as the definitive Naqshbandi institution, with distinct groups of Naqshbandi operating independently throughout the world, especially in the Middle East and South Asia, and even a jihadist "Naqshbandi army" in Iraq. But Shiekh Haqqani and his brother-in-law, Shiekh Kabbani, are among the most widely recognised Naqshbandi leaders, attracting millions of devotees from around the globe.

Sufi orders in general differ from mainstream Islam in their belief that enlightenment can be achieved on earth through worship, and in particular by chanting and reciting the 99 names of God during meditation sessions called thikr, or "remembrance" [of God]. The Naqshbandi-Haqqani order refers to itself as "the Golden Chain" because it traces its spiritual lineage all the way to the Prophet through Abu Bakr, the first caliph. Their emphasis on legacy - on the sheikh is the sole inheritor of the true tradition - has contributed to the popular misconception of the Naqshbandi as an esoteric cult that demands complete, blind allegiance to its leaders. I received several whispered warnings from friends and acquaintances to whom I casually mentioned this article; they cautioned me not to be "taken in" because I would be forced to allow the sheikh to name my children, among other things.

This is, of course, untrue. Throughout most of the world Sufis resemble other Muslims in their beliefs and practices. Naqshbandi followers in particular are known for being very strict in their adherence to Sunni traditions. Since moving to the United States 15 years ago, however, Kabbani seems to have adopted a more liberal, inclusive interpretation, branded "new age" by some, in which conversion to Islam is recommended but not required. This constitutes a significant departure from the traditional Naqshbandiyya practised in the Muslim world, whose adherents consider themselves conservative, if unconventional, Muslims.

Kabbani has shown himself to be remarkably adroit at using new media to bring Sufism to a new generation of followers. In addition to an official Naqshbandi home page and a slew of books and magazines, Kabbani has also launched sufilive.com, "the official media library of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order of America", which includes a variety of multimedia resources and no less than six different online radio stations dedicated to Quranic recitation, sermons in English and "Sufi chanting at its best: live, raw and uncut."

The open-minded approach and web accessibility has contributed to the Naqshbandi-Haqqani order's huge success in the states, where it has opened centres in Michigan and California and a Washington lobby group. Adra admits that the same liberalism that attracted her to the American Naqshbandi order is a source of suspicion among more traditional, "harder" Naqshbandis, and that the two groups generally keep to themselves.

"The US branch is more liberal because they come from innocence," she explains. "They're not born Muslims, they don't know Islamic ways ? while here in Lebanon, they came from a hard-core Islamic background, so of course it's going to be more strict." In fact, Adra seems hesitant to say that she related to Sufism because of her Muslim background, as if it were a tainted association Obeida prefers a "softer" interpretation of sharia. She doesn't cover her hair except while praying, and even then she says it's to "protect the good energy" rather than conceal her body.

"For me, Islam is the rules of the body, but Sufism includes this and the spirit of the human being- the unlimited love of all creation," she says. "Sufism is spirituality plus Sharia." Sufism first emerged in the ninth century as a small, pious order of ascetics who encouraged small groups to gather for spiritual training, according to Dr Vincent Cornell, an Islamic scholar at Emory University and the former director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies.

By the 11th century Sufism had emerged as a separate madthab, or path, with its own doctrine and traditions. But it remained fully integrated as a mainstream Islamic practice. Throughout most of Islamic history, Dr Cornell points out, Sufism was accepted by the majority of religious jurists and scholars, although it was condemned early on by a small minority from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence.

In the 20th century, the prominent reformist Rashid Ridha picked up the anti-Sufi ideas of the fundamentalist Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia and incorporated them into his widely-read Tafsir Al-Manar (The Manar Commentary). Ridaa's work influenced other Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, swelling the already inevitable wave of reformism that sought to purge the Muslim world of heretical practices. More recently Saudi Arabia's wealth and influence have given its religious institutions the resources to export salafism.

Despite the fact that Sufism is still illegal in the kingdom (many Sufi websites, including that of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Order, are blocked), a relative thaw in the last few years has made things easier for Sufis. Several low-key orders operate in Saudi Arabia, especially in Medina, and some Saudis fund Sufi projects abroad. Descending the glass staircase down into the villa's private mosque, it's hard to imagine Gulf money isn't somehow involved. Adra tells me the funding comes from donations, but doesn't get specific. At another point in our conversation, she refers to Sufis in Saudi Arabia, who are thought to include several high-placed officials and members of the royal family.

The participants in tonight's thikr begin to arrive. They could easily be mistaken for stylish guests at a small dinner party. Mostly young, affluent-looking couples in their thirties from a variety of religious backgrounds, they express both scepticism and curiosity towards Sufi spiritualism. "At the beginning I was a bit afraid because it is related to Islam, and I'm still not convinced one hundred per cent about this point," says Nadine, a petite, articulate woman in her thirties who describes herself as a non-religious "believer" from a Muslim family.

Ever the diplomatic hostess, Adra responds opaquely to the suggestion that the US brand of liberal Naqshbandi Sufism appeals only to a certain class in the Arab world. "It attracts empty souls," she says, smiling gently. "I have noticed that up till now it attracts educated people," Nadine says to me in an aside, later. "You have to be educated to understand the Naqshbandi philosophy." The thikr itself lasts less than an hour. The participants sit in a circle, men and women, on the carpeted floor of the dimly lit mosque, listening to or reciting along with Zeid as he leads the group in a series of common prayers and special Sufi chants. None of the women wear veils except for Adra, and the Christian couple remains silent through the fatiha, but the ring of peaceful faces, eyes closed in prayer, are turned attentively towards the deep voice gently chanting "Allah".

Afterwards, the group emerges with sighs and smiles as if waking up from a pleasant nap. "I feel so much more relaxed," someone remarks. Elie, a robust Maronite, says he found himself attracted to the new Sufism because it transcends sect by focusing on unity and closeness with God rather than petty doctrinal differences. "[Sufism] has so many things in common with Christianity - I mean true Christianity," he says. "It's just love. That's all I can say. Love love love love love."

Meris Lutz is a translator and freelance journalist based in Beirut.