Ronen Izhaki meet Sheikha Khadija
I first met Sheikha Khadija in New York, five years ago where she taught Sufi whirling. Working with her I discovered the unique powers of a woman who accompanies her students in the inward journey of Sufi whirling. Following the growing interest of my friends and students, half a year ago I was compelled to invite Sheikha Khadija to Israel, in order to facilitate an encounter with a teacher external to the Israeli reality capable of bringing together students and friends from different religions, Israelis and Palestinians. Sheikha Khadija Radin, currently in her sixties, was born to a Jewish family in the Bronx of New York. She resides in the US but spends a significant portion of the year elsewhere around the world, especially Turkey. When visiting Turkey she is a frequent guest of Sheikh Jelaluddin Loras, the leader of the Sufi Mevlevi Order of America, who taught her and qualified her as a Sheikha.
For the first morning of her visit to Israel I planned a visit to the Temple Mount, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall. Since that day was also the Feast of Sacrifice (Id al-Adha) we weren’t able to reach the Temple Mount. As we were casually conversing I found out that in the past, Khadija was a modern dancer (with the choreographer Martha Graham). Since we suddenly had some time on our hands, I suggested she teach a class at the Music and Dance Academy. Khadija agreed immediately. The Music and Dance Academy did not miss the opportunity either. The class she gave at the academy did not focus on Sufi whirling but on attentiveness and presence in movement. I do not believe she knew what she would be teaching during this spontaneous class; she simply came curious and open to what ever may occur, and indeed it was a refreshing and festive class. What surprised me the most was her ability to say “yes” free of contemplations and calculations. Even when an Academy student asked to see one of her choreographies, she stood in the middle of the studio and danced her very personal dance as a generous offer and a medium of communication with her surroundings. Sheikha Khadija is a “yes” person.

photo by Lee Guthrie
In the early seventies Sheikah Khadija began her journey into the world of Sufi whirling. In the early eighties after seven years in the field, she met her teacher, Sheikh Jelaluddin Loras. Guided by Loras she underwent a three-year-long initiation process, which eventually made her the first woman in the US ever to be qualified by the Sufi Mevlevi order to teach this tradition. Since then, she has been literally whirling and touring the world, generously sharing the dance of the dervish—the physical insight of the Sufi tradition.

What brought you teacher, Sheikh Jelaluddin Loras to the United States?
In 1925, the Turkish prime minister Ata Turk, prohibited the Sufi orders from practicing their religious ceremonies. As a result, many Sufi orders went underground and gradually faded away. Among these was the Mevlevi Sufi order that was founded in the 13th century 700 years earlier by the son of the poet and teacher Jelaluddin Rumi. In that period, says Sheikha Khadija, Postneshin Suleyman Hayati Dede, the Sheikh of the Sufi order of Konya, ordered his son Jelaluddin Loras Postneshin to leave Turkey and not return until he established the Sufi order in the United States. Even when the father was lying in his death bed he ordered his son to continue his task and not visit his dying father. When Jelaluddin was still freshly arrived in the United States, he was invited to be a guest at the Claymont School in Virginia. This school was established by Bennett and administrated by Pierre Elliot who was the nephew of J.P. Bennett. Bennett himself came from the tradition of G. I. Gurdjieff. There he taught the secrets of his doctrine, as he himself received them from his father, became a proficient English speaker, and after nine months was invited by Sufi Ruhaniat to teach in San Francisco in 1980. Eventually he did establish the Mevlevi order in San Francisco.

When did you first encounter the way of the Sufi work? How were you introduced to whirling?
In 1971, Ahmed Murad Chisti, also known as Sufi Sam, died. At that time I was the student of the Indian Guru Muktananda, who took me to an event in remembrance of Sufi Sam. During that event and due to sights I experienced I was filled with a grace I had never experienced before, and then I knew that something in my life was about to change. It was the seed that was sown deep and is still growing.
At the beginning of 1972 as a dancer and choreographer in San Francisco I was late to some friends' party. That period of time in San Francisco was highly influenced by Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Starship, and other celebrities of the Flower Children that frequently used drugs. When I arrived at the party there was no food left except for the bottom part of the punch which was very tasty. I drank quiet a bit of it before I realized it included fruit, wine and LSD. At that time I was working very intensively and could not afford such an experience, so I hurried home. As soon as I arrived I entered the studio and from then on everything happened naturally. As I was improvising I found myself dancing in a circle. As I was walking and dancing, the circle reduced and introverted to the tiny point in its middle. This is the point that is at the middle of the center and the heart of the Sufi work


What is the nature of the Sufi whirling?
Sufi whirling is meditation in movement in which the physical performance demands a certain presence. Even if the Sufi whirler is well experienced she can not whirl with out that specific presence. The meditative aspect is that the human, in this state, truly returns to her origin.

Why are you interested in Sufism and Buddhism while you, as a Jew, can rely on the rich, sacred, and ancient resources of Judaism?
First of all because the whole engagement with frameworks of belief stems from the assumption that one is right and another wrong. When I see what chaos is created as a result of that, and especially here in the Middle East, I am incapable of adopting any one particular framework of belief. My belief is suited for any framework. If to be a believing woman means being a Sufi, a Buddhist, or a Jew, I must admit I am not a believer. However, as a Buddhist, a Sufi and a Jew I am dedicated to the mystical search of the experience of being present at each moment. When this happens I am filled with a deep gratitude to my life. This gratitude is the most sacred within me. A long time ago, I had spent some time in the court of Rabbi Milobawitz, where the people there would have liked to see me returning to religion. As far as I am concerned, I told them, I am finding religion at every moment anew or at least that this was my intention. When they requested, "at least keep the Sabbath", I realized that I can keep the Sabbath in between the breaths I take. Today, when I practice sitting meditation, I inhale air to my back and exhaling, I invite the Sabbath to reside in the space between inhaling and exhaling. I am fond of the Brooklyn devotees and receive a great amount of inspiration from them.

How do you deal with the fact that you are a woman in a tradition which is inherently designed for men?
Firstly, this tradition is not exclusively designed for men. There is Rabiah who was very central to the Sufi world hundreds of years ago in the ancient times of Islam. Although men and women do not whirl together in the Mevlevi order in Turkey when the ceremony is open to the public, when we perform private ceremonies, the ceremony is open to men and women alike. Moreover, if I restrict myself to the identity of a woman, I will never be able to do the inward work. There are compromises that must be found; just as the Israelis and Palestinians can find a way to live together in compromise, so I work with the compromises of me being a woman in a masculine tradition in order to live in true freedom and true peace.

Does it always happen? And if it does, is the whirler responsible for it?
At the beginning it doesn't happen. Then, when you enhance the turn it happens more and more until it becomes an intimate and more accessible place. When Michael Jordan began playing basketball his coach doubted his ability to be a basketball player. Today everyone knows that seeing Michael Jordan at his best is seeing someone doing the impossible.

So what is the difference between Michael Jordan and a dervish?
The dervish draws her intentions inward and outwards simultaneously; that is, she exists in the world but is not attached to it. This is expressed in the fact that Michael Jordan believes that there is a ball and a basket, as opposed to the dervish, which sees in that the phenomenon of the world, a phenomenon which is only an alleged embodiment.

In the Moderna Project, spirituality is always out of bounds for churches, temples or mosques, so that a person defines herself through her wisdom and free choices. That is contrary to the traditional world where a person defines herself though her religion and her faith. Where do place yourself?
I don't belong to any of these categories because there is no free will and no free choices. I have the connection to God. If I had one religion, I would be bound to a single framework of belief which would supposedly mediate between me and God. Since there is no one that makes, there in no one that chooses. The investigation of human nature or the direct experience of what there is above is a result of a very delicate mental activity. This activity clearly perceives that all that I see is nothing but the energetic impulses acting on the optic nerve that reach the part which perceives vision in the brain. Everything that I hear, taste, or smell is channeled through the gate of the perception system.

What is the nature of a relationship between partners?
My teacher says the following about relationships: in order to know yourself you must know how to be naked and exposed in front of another person. To be completely naked means to be vulnerable and fragile. This requires trust and commitment. The extent to which you are incapable of being completely naked with someone who you trust in a state of mutual commitment is exactly the extent to which you do not know yourself. Only when you know yourself will you be able to know what love is.

Do you find any difficulties which are rooted in the tolerance of the American culture toward the Muslim culture?
When you live in an environment that holds the mentality of constant discrimination between one person and another, suffering will appear. This in not restricted to the United States and Islam, it is the human conditioning. Personally, the way to make peace is it to clearly recognize the way in which I and my environment are united in the magnificence and humility of the universe. Normally, when people respond to the fact that I am related to an Islamic tradition they raise an eyebrow. But when they see the whirling all their rejections melt away. People are scared of what is different from what they know and understand. However, everyone performs the turn as children. When you observe children turning you notice a gaze of absolute pleasure in their eyes. When a person, no matter who, observes a whirling dervish she identifies her inner state and so she wonders how that occurs. Anyone might ask the question: "who am I?", as Moses was told at mount Sinai "I may be who ever I may be." This question is directed at everyone's heart – American Muslim, American Christians, or American Jews.

What happens during the ceremony, during the whirl?
Everything turns around the central axis, the whole world. The dervish directs all her intentions toward that axis, which is extremely thin. Suddenly, all she named "self" beforehand turns around the same axis. The object (the world) and the subject (the self) become one, while the physical movement is the turn revolving around this consciousness axis. All becomes one.

One of the traps I experience while turning is related to my expectation for a certain attitude of grace to appear. Sometimes I find myself whirling after flashes of this gracious attribute, or perhaps pursuing this other presence. What is the tool which one can use to let go of this expectation?
There is nothing to find or lose. You are home. You only need to let got of the idea of grace. The fact of "you" is gracious by itself.

This is a superb answer, but I am still not beyond, I address you from within the trap of expecting results.
Rumi said: "Is it not amusing that we must drag them, kicking and screaming, to the place they are already at?"
Is intense inner work needed? Is the amount of hours of training significant to the extent that effort is a condition for development? Perhaps age and unintended experience make a difference?
Both. There are those who are born mostly prepared for inner work; others, it seems, need to try many different things to understand that it is not the external circumstance that will determine their inner conditioning

Are there moments which are more special than others?
The special moments are the ones in which you remember and the less important are the ones in which you forget.

What was a significant moment for you in the duration of this visit?
There were many such moments. I have met wonderful people, Palestinians and Israelis, I felt treasured by all. One of the most significant things was to hear a Leonard Cohen song in a Palestinian shop. Leonard Cohen is a dear friend of mine. He is Jewish, Cohen, and he can still be heard in a Muslim shop. I see in some of his songs a modern version of Rumi's poetry. My hope is that more and more people will recognize each other's positive sides. I wish I will be able to return and share the way of the dervish with the Israelis and the Palestinians, and, maybe one day, they will be able to whirl together.
Translated by Elisheva Rubin