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Sufism – An Insider’s Story

sufis whirling

The following is an interview by Kent Philpott of a man who will be identified as Noema.

He was born in London, England on the day President Nixon was inaugurated president— January 20, 1969. At that point his father was Muslim, and his mother was Jewish, though neither practiced either religion. Both his parents were born in British India, his father in Aligarh, U.P. and his mother in Bombay (Mumbai). Both are well educated--his father, now retired, was a Chartered Accountant, and his mother is a PhD in Nutritional Science. On his father’s side is an ancient family of titled landlords, and before Independence, the family owned thousands of acres of land. His mother comes from a Persian-speaking family.

Presently Noema works in a computing IT environment as a database specialist. He studied physics at the university level for two years but had to drop out due to a lack of money. 

Question: Noema? This is not your real name. What does it mean, and why did you choose it?

Answer: This name I chose because it means “the object of focus for the consciousness.” It can be an object external to the human consciousness or an object within the human consciousness. The focus of my life has been God. I do not lust for money or possessions. I have been searching all my life for something other than material goods. I had been thirsty and knew I had no love in my life. I could not find it among others. I found it when I found Christ. It was a joyous occasion. I felt joy, I felt uplifted, as though a large weight had been lifted off me. And still I have this sense of it; I am content.

Q: Tell me more.

A: I thought of God to be loving yet distant. My childhood was somewhat unhappy and lonely. I remember talking to God as a child. I had a telescope and would look up at the sky and admire God’s handiwork. The idea of space and the universe made me feel very small. But I thought how great God must be.

When I was a child I was told that religion was about law and rules that God set down to live our lives by. I was told that God gave laws and rules, or the world would be full of chaos, that the strong would rule the weak, and the rich would exploit the poor. My mother would read a book to me every night, and some were stories about the Bible and Tales of Aesop. I loved the stories with simple moral lessons at the end.

I had little interaction with my father growing up; he was always busy, always gone from home.

I had a very strong sense of right and wrong. I would become upset if I saw someone hurting someone else or even being unjust toward another. Sometimes I would ask God why He let people get away with such things.

At school I would be bullied. A gang of about five white kids would beat me up and call me names. This made me angry and made me question God as to why He would let this happen to me.

Q: Your early family life greatly impacted you. What other significant events stand out in your mind?

A: It was my 7th or 8th birthday. Everything was going fine; I cut the birthday cake, then after the guests left, I went to bed. However I was not asleep and I heard my parents argue, scream, and shout at each other. I got upset and walked out of the flat onto the street and started to run and kept running until I could run no more. The problem was I no longer knew where I was and I did not know the way home. Then I saw a bus, which I recognized as one that my mother often used. I hopped on and no one noticed me get on except a priest wearing a black cassock and a collar. He asked me if I was lost, I said that I was. We then got of the bus at the next stop.

We went to a phone box, he asked me my name, I told him, and he then went through the phone book until he found the correct phone number and called my parents. He told me that they were coming to pick me up. He stayed with me until my parents arrived. While we were waiting he prayed:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
 He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
 He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
 I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
 your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
 you anoint my head with oil;  my cup overflows.
 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
 and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I now know this to be the 23rd Psalm.

^This is where we stopped in our first issue. Now continue on...

Q. How is it that you moved to India?

A:  It had been decided by my parents, that I was to go and live with my maternal grandparents in India.  My bags were packed and my ticket bought; I was to leave in a couple of days time. The only thing that had been said to me was that it was for my own good and that I needed to know who I was.

It was a total change for me; a very different experience. At first I had a difficult time adjusting to my new surroundings. School life was a lot better. Many people thought it funny that I had come from London to study in India. Usually it is the other way around,  people in India go to London to get an education.

I learned a lot from my grandparents. With our family background, certain rules had to be followed, some of which I still have not broken and do not intend to break. Apart from the Ten Commandments, there were a couple of others which I found rather unusual but did not question. The first of these was to do with not ever visiting graveyards nor attending any funerals. I have broken only one of these when I attended the funeral for my maternal grandfather. The second was to practice cleanliness and avoid sexual impurity.

I did my daily chores, and although my grandfather was loving he was also a tough disciplinarian. One event I remember was having to finish a whole crate of Cola after a party because I had taken some other kid's bottle of Cola after finishing my own bottle. My grandmother stopped him from taking my punishment any further. All this occurred after I had my bar-mitzvah ceremony.

At some point, not long after my arrival in India, some of my relatives from my father’s side appeared, and I was then taken to Delhi. I tried to protest, but my grandfather let them take me. I found out later that I was to stay with both families in turn.

Q: Your life was about to change?

A: Two men, my first cousins, had been sent by my grandfather to collect me and bring me to Delhi. The train ride took around sixteen hours. I did not really want to go since I had settled into life with my grandparents, but my grandfather had assured me that the move would be all right.

In Delhi I met my grandfather, a tall man with white hair and beard, a chewing pan with a tasbih in his right hand. He was wearing a white kurta, pajamas, and a white hat. I was to call him Dada Abba; other people called him pir sahab. He taught me the ways of Islam--how to pray, when to pray, and what to pray. Every Thursday night there would be a large gathering at the house where there would be a live musical performance called a qawwali. There were other smaller gatherings (sema) where there would be dhikr. The dhikr consisted of the chanting of the name Allah or any of Allah’s other names of which there were ninety-nine.

The effect of this chanting put the majority of the people first into a trance state and then into a spiritual ecstasy.  After my initiation and 40 day chilla I would be part of the dhikrs and would experience the same ecstasy. But for some reason I would go into this state more easily than the others. I describe the ecstasy state as being not conscious of my surroundings, like being in a zombie or dream-like state.

I understood that the dhikr had to do with praising Allah, but the experience puzzled me at first. Even after I left Delhi and stopped the practice that led to the state of ecstasy, I would still end up in that state after praying five times a day for say a week, or if I started to do dhikr on my tasbih.

After about a year, my father had found a job in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, so I left Delhi and went to live with my parents in Jidda. By this time my mother was praying five times a day, and on her work permit it said that she was a Muslim. (The work permit in KSA is different for non-Muslims, and only Muslims are allowed to go to Mecca & Medina.)

We were still in contact with pir sahib; he actually stayed with us in Jidda for about a month. We took him on the Haj and then to Medina while he was there. While living in Saudi Arabia, I was told not to mention to anyone the fact that my mother was Jewish. I was warned about this even after we had come back to England, despite the fact she did not practice any Jewish religion once we were back.

My mother and I came back to England in 1987 right after I finished my O’ Levels in Jidda mainly because I could no longer stay in the country on my father’s work-permit, as I had turned eighteen years of age. Once back in London I applied for and received admission in a college in London to do my A' Levels. 

Q: You continued in school?

A: Yes, and I had a fairly uneventful life during my college days. I had become fairly secular in my thinking, and my mother was back to her normal self. Then everything changed when I went to University. The first half of the first year was good fun; I even started a relationship with a girl, but that fell apart when I refused to have sex with her. She started to taunt me; she called me brother. I explained to her that I did not believe in sex before marriage. It did not help.

Q: This must have been a difficult time for you.

A: I was feeling rather dejected, and I started to drink. Every evening I would go to the pub on the campus and get back to my room drunk. I was then approached by a group of Muslims who knocked at my door and said they wanted a chat.

At first I wondered how they knew who I was, but I found out later that they would go around campus with a list of Muslim students and visit them. Later on I joined their group; they were the Tablighi Jamat (TJ). I also joined the Islamic Society on campus and helped out in various ways. At one point I served as the Imam for the prayer room. I started to spend all my spare time with these people, going from city to city, mosque to mosque. I went to a TJ Conference in Yorkshire with my father (by this time he had come back to the UK).

It was there that I met my new sheikh. He seemed very interested in me and told my father that I was blessed and very special. By that time I was continuing my dhikr and my five times a day prayers and had become quite powerful in terms of what I could do. I could probe other people’s minds. I was very spiritually aware, so I was told. I could see demons and tell if a person was possessed. The power was such that I could manipulate people and put thoughts into their minds.

It was a strange mental state, not being fully aware of my surroundings unless I focused on a person or object. I was in control, but felt disconnected from my body as if my body was no longer mine. At this time I came under the tutelage of a Sufi master who told me I had a lot of unrefined energy which had to be focused and used in a proper manner.

Q: Let’s explore this strange spiritual power you acquired. Can you describe it more carefully?

A: The ability I discovered I had was making people do things without their realizing what I was doing. I will give you a few examples. Here is an instance in which I am in a restaurant with my family. I order a Pepsi from the waitress but then I change my mind. Instead of speaking to the waitress, I focus on the waitress in my mind and communicate I want a Fanta instead of a Pepsi. She brings me a Fanta and members of the family ask what happened to the Pepsi.

Another time, I am in a car sitting next to a friend. He needs to take the second exit of the round about and is preparing to do that. But I want him to do something else, and so I focus my mind, and he drives along missing the exit five or more times.

Another one—I am in a line queing up for tickets for something. It is a long line. I concentrate on the guy in front of me and he steps aside and lets me go ahead of him. This process repeats itself. Once I remember a couple are in front of me, I focus on them and the woman of the couple turns and says to me to move up as she feels compelled to do this.

I believed that I was special and that I was being rewarded by God for my devotion to him. From my family I was told that I had inherited some of my abilities from generations past, some of whom had been Qutubs. My grandfather—there are stories about him being able to tell what was wrong with a person by taking their pulse--was a Hakkeem, which is practitioner of Unani medicine. It was said that if a photo was taken of him it came out blank.

My new master however told me to stop doing such trivial things, as it would draw unnecessary attention to me. He told me I was destined to be a Qutub, and it would come to pass, if I listened and obeyed and did not ask too many questions. But I am a person who asks questions to the point that I have been accused of being overly analytical, even paranoid.

Most interesting! Read more in the August issue.

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