INTERVIEW WITH Shems Friedlander

Shems Friedlander, “born in the heart of New York City”, is not just an award-winning graphic designer, but an accomplished photographer, painter, poet, and author on Rumi and Sufism. For the last 11 years, he has been teaching Graphic Communications in the Journalism Department of the American University in Cairo. After more than 30 years of research into the world of Rumi and the ‘Whirling Dervishes’, and having documented much of it already into several well-known books, he has more recently ventured into the realm of film-making.

In May 2005, he launched a two-film DVD set, the first two parts in a series of films on dhikrullah, and aspects of Sufism, which he has collectively called “The World of Rumi”. The set includes a visual biography of Rumi and the Whirling Dervishes, “Rumi: The Wings of Love”; and a new film of the annual khalwa [seclusion] ceremony of the Demerdache Khalwati Order in Cairo, “Al-Mahya: Come to Life”. It also includes a short interview with the director himself. A third film, “Circles of Remembrance”, which deals exclusively with the various practices of dhikr [remembrance of God] around the world, and contains many interviews with sheikhs and scholars, is due out later on this year.

He talks to ISLA ROSSER-OWEN about his films, and his love for Rumi founder of the Mevlevi Order and mystical poet, whose magnum opus, The Mathnawi, is some 26,000 verses long.

ISU ROSSER-OWEN I When did your interest in the world of Rumi begin?

SHEMS FRIEDiANDER 1 1 First went to Istanbul in 1970, but actually I met the “Whirling Dervishes” in New York prior to that They were doing a tour and I went to greet them afterwards. At the time I was interested in comparative religion. The Mevlevis would come back to my house every night; we would make dhikr and have tea and eat We became friendly and they invited me to go to Konya.

When I got there I was again taken by the visual, emotional and intellectual aspects of the sema, the dhikr ceremony of the Mevlevi dervishes. It was beautiful: the whirling dervishes with their long, outstretched arms like fledgling birds; their long, white tennures, representing shrouds; and their tall, honey-coloured hats which represent tombstones. I began to document that which intrigued me.

ISLA | What is the origin behind the “whirling”?

SHEMS I It started with the relationship between Rumi and his beloved guide, Shams-i Tabriz, a king in a patched robe.

Rumi first met the wandering dervish Shams in Konya in the winter of 1244, when he was riding past the sugar merchants’ stalls and Shams suddenly reached up and grabbed the reins of his horse. Shams asked Rumi, “Who was greater, Beyazid Bastami or the Prophet Muhammad?” Rumi had answered, “The Prophet is the greater, why speak of another”? Shams then replied, “Then how can the Prophet have said, ‘We have not known Thee as Thou ought to be known’, while Beyazid said, ‘Glory be to Me! How great am P?”

This exchange, this meeting of minds, led on to a deep bond of love and friendship which developed between the two. They would spend months together in khalwa, suhba [spiritual conversation] and dhikr.

Shams opened up a part of Rumi’s heart which was ready for a spiritual awakening; he unfolded like a flower at dawn. The jealousy of Rumi’s murids led to Shams disappearing once or twice, and then finally he was never found again. Rumi went into mourning. He was seen turning and turning and turning in the market-place to the sound of the gold-beater’s hammer. To Rumi, this sound was the repetition of the Name of Allah. He adopted a special mourning robe, and a honey-coloured hat, symbolising a tombstone. He also made a hexagonal guitar, explaining that, “The six angles of this guitar explain the mystery of the six corners of the world; its string explains the hierarchy of spirits unto God.”

This was the beginning of the whirling; although the formal sema [the whirling ceremony] as we know it today came through the son of Rumi, Sultan Velid, who formalised the Mevlevi Order.

ISLA | Out of all the various Sufi poets, why the focus on Rumi?

SHEMS | Rumi touched my heart What he says, and the way he says it, is amazing. Rumi takes everyday situations, the sound of thunder, the sight of snow, the smell of flowers, the fragrance of fruits, and he shows us how he experiences all of this through his five senses – in a manner beyond what we could imagine.

There’s a story of the Buddha after he was enlightened. He was walking down a path and he was completely glowing. He was shining. He was effulgent He was “munawwara”. A man came up to him and was so taken by the light, he asked, “Are you a celestial being, ora god”? He answered, “No”. And then he said, “Well, then you must be a magician”. “No”. “Are you a man”? “No”. “What are you”? “I am awake. I am pure light”

It’s this light this “nouri Muhammad”, that we begin to show through ourselves by adhering to the Five Pillars of Islam, performing dhikrullah, invoking the Name of Allah continuously.

ISLA | In your film, “Rumi: Wings of Love”, Seyyed Hossein Nasr mentioned that Rumi Is now one of the most-read poets in the West, surpassing even Shakespeare; why do you think that is?

SHEMS | Once you study Rumi and begin to look deeply into what he says, things emerge that are exciting to read, and I think that people are sensitive to this.

A great deal has been published on Rumi – they say there are hundreds of books now. So, the more that’s available, the more possible it is for people to connect with him. Also, it’s fascinating to watch the whirling dervishes; with Rumi, there’s music, there’s movement, and there’s beauty.

I also think people in the West have a misunderstanding of Rumi, in the sense that Rumi was the “Poet of Love”, but he’s the poet of metaphysical love not physical love. I think one has to understand that the roots of Rumi’s thoughts are Islam. He always stated that, and those that wish to gloss over that are incorrect in my opinion.

ISLA | Ybu first showed the Rumi film at the Cinema in the Spirit Film Festival just after 9/11, what kinds of comments and reception did it receive?

SHEMS | Actually, the first showing of “Rumi: The Wings of Love” was at the Falaki Theatre at the American Univer- sity in Cairo during an annual Rumi Festival, which I produced in order to make Rumi and his work more acces- sible in Cairo. This was May 2001. It was then shown in San Francisco at the Cinema in the Spirit Film Festival 40 days after 9/11. There was a question and answer period after the screening and I stood in hesitation as to what questions I would be asked about Islam or Sufism so close to that dreadful event

The audience was moved by the film. It was as if they all participated in a group meditation. There were the general film questions, and then one woman said she did not have a question but would like to make a statement I invited this and she said: “I would like to thank you for bringing this film to us when we are in such an hour of need.”

ISLA | What are you trying to convey with this series of films?

SHEMS | An 80-year-old sheikh in Istanbul once said to me: “I have been a sheikh for over 50 years, and only now when I invoke the Name of Allah do I have, way in the back of my throat a taste of honey. And now I want to live.”

It is this taste of honey that I would like to convey in the films that I make. I am attempting to show that there are things that are hidden. There is the world every one of us sees if we have eyes to see; the world in which we work, have friends, talk, eat and sleep; the world of boundaries. There is also an inner world into which one can find the path…

Rumi said, “I am neither from the East or the West No boundaries exist in my breast”

ISLAI What is the future of the Mevlevi Order?

SHEMS I In 1924 Ataturk closed all the dervish tekkes in Turkey. Prior to that there had been five active Mevlevi tekkes in Istanbul. But the Mevlevis diminished. It took until 1953 before the Mevlevi were even allowed to make the smallest of semas in Ronya, when a music master ofthe Order approached the Ronya city council with an idea for an annual sema festival.

In my opinion, the main function of the Mevlevi Order today is to disseminate the ideas and work of Jalaluddin Rumi. The Order is not as it was at one time. There are some Mevlevis who are also members ofthe Halveti-Jerahi Order. They enter at a certain point during their dhikr, and begin to turn as the dhikr is going on around them.

ISLAI What are fte origins of the Demerdache Khalwati Order, and the Khalwati ceremony, which you filmed in “Al-Mahya: Come to Lite”?

SHEMS I There are many branches of the Rhalwati Order in various parts ofthe world. The Demerdache was established by Shemsuddin Demerdache, who came to Cairo from Persia some 500 years ago.

ISLA I Could you explain the significance of the various ceremonial elements in “Al-Mahya” of the murid entering and leaving his cell for the Khalwa?

SHEMS 1 The sheikh prays two rakats in each cell prior to the dervish entering. This is a baraka. Like the wearing of a dervish cloak made up ofthe fragments of a garment which has been continually worn in the sema anà has taken on particles of vibrations into the cloth. Incense is to sweeten the space; the naqib is a kind of protector, or guide, should the khalwati be in need of anything. The candles are lit to bring light to the hearts ofthe dervishes. When the sheikh is in khalwa, he is just like everyone else – a khalwati – so when he emerges, the “?a;” ofthe sheikh is ceremoniously replaced on his head.

ISLA I Why did they let you film the Khalwati ceremony? Was there any resistance to your doing so?

SHEMS I I got to know the sheikh. We liked one another and he trusted me. When one of his naqibs voiced an opinion against the filming, the sheikh said to him, “Shems is doing this for me. When I am gone there may be nothing of this ceremony the way it is. He is making it possible for those who come after us to know our dhikr?

ISLA I Do women ever take part in the sema or khalwa ceremonies?

SHEMS I One ofthe most important women in the Mevlevi Order was the grand-daughter of Jalal al-Din Rumi, who was the person who literally took his teachings into the world outside of Anatolia. There have been Mevlevi sheikhas – women sheikhs – as well as in other Orders. Because ofthe nature of Islam and the nature of presentation of women publicly, they’re usually in the background. For example, in the Halveti-Jerahi tekke, there is an upstairs area where all ofthe women are performing the same movements in the dhikr as the men are doing. So, yes, they do exist

Women can assuredly perform the khalwa in some Sufi orders, but not in the Demerdache.

ISLA I How do you think your work on Rumi, and Sufism, over the years, has been received?

SHEMS I There’s a book I wrote called, “When You Hear Hoofbeats Think of a Zebra”, which is a series of talks that I gave to a small group on Sufism. I received an email out ofthe blue the other day from a woman saying, “I just want to thank you for doing this book. I keep it next to my son’s bed every night so he can receive the baraka from it”. How do you answer something like that? You know, you’re overwhelmed inside, and you just say, “thank God I could do it”. That book, for some reason, has had a lot of impact on people. I think it touches them emotionally and it’s very readable. It speaks to the heart, and the heart can hear and answer.

ISLA I Can there be Sufism without Islam?

SHEMS I Every Muslim is not necessarily a Sufi, but every Sufi should be a Muslim. Certainly, you could live a life in which your honour and your daily life encompasses the principles of Sufism, but Sufism without “La illaha ilia-Allah, Muhammad Rasoul Allah” does not exist It’s something else, even if its precepts bridge that gap.

Rumi said, “I am a slave of the Qur’an while I still have life; I am dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen One. If anyone interprets my words in any other way, I deplore that person and I deplore his words.”

ISLA I Are you something of a wandering dervish yourself, like your name-sake Shamsi Tabriz?

SHEMS I We are all wandering dervishes since this life is temporary.

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on