Away from screaming headlines about extremists and jihadists, in private apartments and hidden-away mosques, one group of Berlin Muslims peacefully lives out their faith: the Sufis.
They gather at a ground-floor apartment on Wissmannstraße in Neukölln: Muslims and non-Muslims, Turks and Germans, people from around the world and all walks of life. The atmosphere is cosy and intimate as they sit on Oriental rugs and cushions, sip black tea, talk and listen to their sheikh, speak in parables and allegories about the spiritual search.
It feels more like one of Berlin’s ubiquitous Hare Krishna meet-ups than a prayer session at a conventional mosque. But this, too, is Islam: Sufism, the mystical branch that seeks to attain an awareness of God through emotion rather than strict adherence to outward laws. Sufis bring in an added aesthetic dimension to their worship – approaching God using music, chanting (dhikr) and the trance-engendering ‘whirling dervish’ dance.
I never wanted the normal ones. I prayed to God to send me the crazy ones, the abnormal, and that is what he has done.
The main meeting point for Sufis in Berlin, Neukölln’s Sufi Zentrum is what’s known as a dergah: both a mosque and a place of philosophical and spiritual exchange. One of the things that sets it apart from a traditional mosque is the relatively free gender intermingling. Men and women sit together, and there are few headscarves in the gathering. Some are traditional Muslims who have lapsed and then rediscovered the religion of their birth, while others are delvers in the esoteric who may know each other from a Krishna circle elsewhere, or may have been reading up on the Kaballah before coming.
Abdul Cemal, who declines to give his Christian name for fear of a backlash from his employer, is a German Muslim and Sufi of 10 years standing.
A self-described ex-“techno punk”, he appeared at the dergah for the first time with bright red hair and piercings, upon the recommendation of his girlfriend. He was at the end of his tether, so to speak.
“I was fed up with my whole life in Berlin,” he recalls. “And then I came across a flyer from the Sufi Zentrum. ‘If you’ve reached a dead end and you no longer know how to proceed, then pay us a visit.’ That was the message. My girlfriend said she had been there once before, and that if I went I would find an answer to all of my questions.”
He showed up at the dergah’s old address in a private apartment in Prinzenstraße, Kreuzberg. Back then, it was all Turks. Upon arrival he caught a glimpse of the sheikh, sitting there with his turban, traditional Sufi dress and cane. His first thought, he says, was, “Oh shit, I’ve fell in with the Muslims and the next thing I know they’ll be strapping a bomb to me.”
Now, he is Hausmeister at the Neukölln dergah, a position he’s held for four years. Over his past decade as a Sufi, he has seen people come and go and come and stay and become Muslims.
“Generally speaking, I can say that every person who goes there comes out a nicer person. I’ve made a number of very close friendships with brothers and sisters that developed over the years. Or there are those who come like comets every two years and then disappear again. But as a rule, everyone who passes through is changed in a positive way. Because everyone who has a question laying heavily on his breast finds an answer to his question.”
What the brothers and sisters of the Sufi Zentrum have in common is that they have come to seek spiritual guidance from Sheikh Esref Efendi, the presiding spiritual leader of the dergah. Following a sheikh is one of the hallmarks of Sufism: a student becomes a Sufi by seeking out one such guru, who has to have received the authorisation to teach (ijazah) from another grand master (in Esref Efendi’s case, the recently deceased Sheikh Nazim al-Haqqani from Cyprus) in an unbroken succession, known as the “golden chain”.
Members describe the sheikh as a “father”, a master, a teacher. “He has dedicated himself to a life of dignity in order to serve Allah, to help people,” says Medina, a 27-year-old convert who wears the hijab. “Not to turn them into Muslims. But rather to help them in spiritual problems, in normal everyday problems, whether that be in married life or with regards to psychological issues. But of course, in the name of Allah and with Sufi methods, Islamic methods.”
Esref Efendi’s devoted circle of followers has been with him for over 10 years, distinguished both in the dergah and on the streets of Berlin by their distinctive headgear: a turned around flat cap worn over a Muslim skullcap.
“Because we try to imitate our sheikh, we also copy his fashion,” says Abdul Cemal. “And this, interestingly, has given rise to a feeling of belonging to a group, and that lends security, and in the time being it has become a trademark in Kreuzberg and Neukölln. When you see someone wearing this cap that way, then you know he is one of us. Many recognise us. Sometimes complete strangers greet us on the street with ‘salam alaikum’ and ‘give my regards to the sheikh’. People whom I don’t know, but he knows.”
Sufis must still adhere to the five pillars of Islam: declaring there is no god except God and that Muhammad is God’s messenger (shahada), ritual prayer five times a day (salat), giving 2.5 percent of one’s savings to the poor and needy (zakat), fasting and self-control during the holy month of Ramadan (sawm), and a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime (hajj). But Sufism’s humanistic, non-dogmatic approach and colourful, often cathartic rituals make it the most accessible form of the religion for many Westerners.
Tanya is an ex-Catholic German convert and regular at the Sufi Zentrum, who wears the hijab “80 percent of the time”. She says she identifies herself as a Sufi, rather than as a Muslim per se.
“I never introduce myself as a Muslim. Rather, I say that I am a Sufi. I’m already so often pigeonholed because I wear the hijab. I don’t want to be associated with that which most people understand by the word ‘Muslim’.”
The same characteristics that endear Sufism to the West have also made Sufis the target of hostility and violence from more extremist Muslim groups. In Iran, Egypt and Pakistan, militant Islamists have attacked Sufi mosques and shrines, feeling that Sufi practices are heretical in their adoration of sheikhs and their use of chanting and music, which they see as bid’ah or impure, and shirk, polytheistic.
Distancing himself from extremist brothers who are entirely dismissive of Sufism, conservative Berlin imam Abdul Adhim Kamouss, a one-time teacher at Neukölln’s Al-Nur mosque, says, “I am against people saying, ‘Sufism? Ach, get rid of it!’.” However: “There are those who transgress upon the fundamentals of the religion, making a saint out of their sheikh – they say only through the sheikh will you achieve paradise, that the sheikh is infallible. And they go to the graves of the great sheikhs, touching the gravestone and thinking that they receive blessings from it. That goes in the direction of Christianity, of what they did with Jesus.”
Back at the Sufi Zentrum on Wissmannstraße, while the sheikh talks with his cohorts, a young German slightly the worse for drink rests against the open window on the street outside and rambles on drunkenly and philosophically, half to himself, half to the Sufis within.
Suddenly the sheikh breaks off his musings and invites the kid in. Surprisingly, he accepts the invitation, kisses the sheikh’s hand and sits down and waxes philosophical about his various twists and turns of fate, till one of his friends comes in and drags him away. It’s an encounter that would be inconceivable anywhere else, at any other mosque.
Later the sheikh says, “I never wanted the normal ones. I prayed to God to send me the crazy ones, the abnormal, and that is what he has done.”
“And that is precisely the point!” says Abdul Cemal. “I was exactly like that kid. You’re not sent away. Although this man was drunk. Although he was a punk. Spiritually, it says over our door, ‘Come, whoever you are’. The quote is from [13th-century Sufi mystic] Rumi. And this saying is put into practice with us. In the 10 years I have been there, there hasn’t been a case of someone being refused entry.”