Trance of the Zikr
Sufism is one of the most vibrant religious traditions in Egypt today with a following of up to fifteen million people. Believing in a mystical form of Islam, Sufis are free thinkers, many giving up everything to follow a spiritual way of life. The most important Sufi ceremonies in Egypt take place at Moulids, which are celebrations of the birthdays of holy men and women, the closest thing Islam has to the honoring of saints.
In 2014, we attended one of the largest Moulids held in Egypt, in honor of Sayyidna al-Hussein, held in the old city of Cairo, where hundreds of thousands of Sufis made their pilgrimage from all over Egypt to attend this five-day celebration. The spirit of the old city was buzzing until the wee hours, crammed with the arrival of pilgrims. Merchants hawked hot flatbread and sweets, souvenirs and bric-a-brac.
In the dark of the night, sheikhs delivered blessings and led the charismatic Zikr dance (the word literally translates as “remembrance”). Accompanied by drums, tambourines, and flutes, the Zikr devotees chanted the name of Allah and swayed rhythmically until they
reached an ecstatic trance intended to bring them closer to God.
In a thousand-year-old caravanserai, an Egyptian group of whirling dervishes spun
into a meditative state. Persian Sufi poet Rumi invented this whirling meditation seven
hundred years ago, believing that repetitive body movement driven by rhythmic drumming
and chanting assisted in transcendence. The Persian word darvēsh means “at the sill of the
door”—referring to the Sufis who arrive at the gates of enlightenment.