Skip to Content

Humera Afridi: The Call of the Dervish

Pilgrimages to a master of mysteries in the Bronx.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/photo-3-2-e1418607643350.jpg
Taweez (talisman). Image courtesy of Humera Afridi.

By Humera Afridi

A Master of Mysteries in the Bronx

The first time I met with Baba Kazi, on 260th Street and Broadway—a little past the fields of Van Cortland Park, on the border of Yonkers—it was a late afternoon in the fall of 2011. Hailstones clattered on the tops of parked cars. And the sky, riven with lightning, echoed the ravaged state of my heart. My marriage of twenty-one years had collapsed. I still had one foot in Istanbul, where my husband lived; I was disoriented, unmoored. I didn’t know how to be in the world. I’d been married my whole adult life—having agreed to an arranged marriage when I was nineteen, after meeting my husband for the first time over three days. Baba Kazi, I’d been told, dispensed healing remedies to hundreds of people from all across the world. He was a keeper of potent secrets; a surgeon of the mystical heart. I needed a cure.

Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfathers, Baba Kazi is a healer in the ancient Sufi mystic tradition. Baba Kazi’s birth name, Khadim–i-Hussein, means “servant of Hussein.” The family traces its spiritual lineage back to Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani, the powerful twelfth-century saint of Baghdad, founder of the Qadiriya Order of Sufis, and a descendant of the noble Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, who was martyred in battle.

When I entered Baba Kazi’s sixth-floor apartment, I found, to my surprise, that it was an actual home—not an office, as I imagined—candidly embroiled in the throes of domesticity. The television blared; voices and aromas drifted from the kitchen. A heavy wood-frame daybed took up a wall of the living room. A little girl in a long, flouncy dress came up to me as I slipped off my shoes and said, “Are you also a Hussein? I’m watching the Smaarfs. Do you like the Smaarfs?”

I took ginger steps toward the desk at the far end of the living room where the Master of Mysteries sat, erect and dignified, of indeterminable age, in a collared business-style shirt, surrounded by piles of hard-backed books in Urdu and Arabic. He wore a white prayer cap; his bare feet and ankles, I noticed, were swollen. With a nod, he indicated the chair across from him. I sat down and clasped my hands, suddenly feeling as if I had to remind myself why I was there. I’d never been to a spiritual healer before, yet I felt surprisingly ready to surrender myself to Baba Kazi. Directly across from me a window offered a view of the blackened sky.

“How can I help?” he said, and his voice—strong and avuncular, rising above the booming television—emanated kindness. It possessed a strain of gentleness and presence, despite its jalal quality (a divine attribute of power). Tears threatened. I stared out the window and felt the familiar ache inside me, a desolation that was wide and deep. I recognized with a start now that it stretched further back than the years of my marriage.

I looked at Baba Kazi. His expression was beatific. Light-filled and serene, he seemed to have captured with an invisible net the words I couldn’t say. Abruptly, he broke into a mellifluous recitation of Quranic verse. Then he picked up a large pair of scissors, and got to work.

*                      *                     *

I came to Baba Kazi via the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order—a branch of a seventeenth-century Ottoman Sufi mystic lineage from Istanbul (which, like all traditional Sufi orders, traces its origins to the Prophet Muhammad)—whose center, or dergah, is based in Tribeca. I had “taken hand”—bayat or initiation—into the order a year prior. There, too, I had arrived feeling bereft, at a new juncture in my life: my maternal grandmother in Karachi, the person I felt closest to in this life, had recently passed. My husband had moved overseas with a new job; I was suddenly alone in the city with my toddler.

By repeating this single phrase, we negate everything except God, sweeping away illusions; affirming a wisdom that the soul possesses but the mind has forgotten.

Tentatively, I came one Thursday evening for zikr—the sacred ceremony of divine remembrance. I’d heard of the practice, but never experienced it. Through breath and vocal recitation of La illaha illallah (“there is nothing but you, O God, Your being is the Only Being”) and hu (divine essence) the Beloved’s presence is invoked—our remembrance of God unfolds God’s remembrance of us. By repeating this single phrase, we negate everything except God, sweeping away illusions; affirming a wisdom that the soul possesses but the mind has forgotten. Moved and uplifted on that first visit, I came back each week, feeling clarified and even, at times, inspired by flashes of illumination during the communal chanting. Shaykha Fariha, the spiritual head of the dervish circle, reminded me of my beloved grandmother. They shared a similar lightness of being: a rare blend of ecstasy and sobriety carried with natural grace. In the midst of the absences in my life, this “unveiling”—the discovery of a Muslim, universalist spiritual community within walking distance from where I lived—felt like a gift.

In the Jerrahi Sufi tradition, dream interpretation by the spiritual head plays an important role: dreams signify a dervish’s spiritual state. The tenor of my dreams in the fall of 2011 was fitful and threatening. The nightmares were frightening, full of snakes and beasts. And the state of my heart was fraught, eviscerated. One Thursday night after zikr, someone suggested I visit Baba Kazi. Following protocol, I requested Shaykha Fariha’s permission and made my first “pilgrimage” to the Bronx.

*                      *                     *

Baba Kazi sits at his desk seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The door buzzer shrills every little while, competing with his telephone. Visitors stream in. The concept of appointments is absurd: he is on sacred duty. The words of the mystic poet, Jelalludin Rumi (1207-1273), come to mind:

What the Prophet wants is to inspire you to work and
devotion.

What He means is make yourself ready to do all He wants…
Real lovers serve ardently, hopefully, in an ecstasy of awe.

“Whoever comes through this door is a friend. I don’t think about if someone’s a liar or a thief, or pure or good. Whoever sits in this chair, I pray for them. Allah has the knowledge of who they are. I don’t.”

Baba Kazi does not turn anyone away, nor does he charge a fee for his time or his prayerful remedies. Visitors voluntarily leave a monetary contribution. However, there is no sign or donation box suggesting they should. Spending anywhere from ten to twenty minutes with each visitor, he simultaneously attends to phone calls. But amid this multitasking he remains consistently—miraculously—present to each person he is speaking with. If there is a queue, visitors are asked by his wife—a petite and extraordinarily soft-spoken, smooth-skinned woman from Eastern Europe—to wait outside the apartment. Those who know Baba Kazi and his family are invited into the bedroom that adjoins the living room. The life of his household continues, matter-of-factly, encompassing the constant flow and footsteps of strangers.

“The very, very rich and the very, very poor. All kinds of people, all nationalities and faiths. They are all friends,” says Baba Kazi of his clients. “Whoever comes through this door is a friend. I don’t think about if someone’s a liar or a thief, or pure or good. Whoever sits in this chair, I pray for them. Allah has the knowledge of who they are. I don’t.”

The pleas for help are diverse, and they come from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. From bankers and presidents of companies to housewives and construction workers, individuals and whole families filter in, seeking answers and divine help in matters of the heart—marriages, separations, proposals—legal and business issues; the removal of obstacles; physical ailments and illnesses; unruly children… On one occasion, when the phone rang, it became quickly evident from Baba Kazi’s side of the conversation that the subject of the phone call was a cat.

For each particular ailment or trouble presented to him, Baba Kazi slices through the shell of words, paring down to the kernel, the heart of the matter. He perceives the “cause behind the cause.” He doesn’t make promises to his clients. He prays: Everything is Allah’s hikmet (wisdom); Allah is the one who makes things happen… His prescriptions are based on divine inspiration and guidance, received in that very moment. Many of his remedies work with the Asma ul Husna, the “ninety-nine beautiful names of God” and with the Ism-i-Azam, the supreme name of God. The divine attributes, embodied in the names of Allah, reside within each one of us, Sufis believe. In the practice of repeating a name, or a combination of names, subtle centers awaken, blockages wash away, and the desired quality is manifested.

Baba Kazi prescribes divine names for healing purposes to his clients—specifying the number of mantric repetitions, in correlation with the mystical science of numerology. He makes talismans, recites prayers, offers practices that involve the elements of water or fire, or the breath, for instance. “There are hundreds of possibilities,” says Baba Kazi when one day, beset by curiosity, I ask him about the number of remedies that exist. Each consultation ends with a positive affirmation: God will be with you. You will be fine.

During my first meeting—all of eleven minutes long—Baba Kazi cut out a rectangle from a sheet of white paper, then, using two different colored pens, drew a geometric diagram, inscribed it with Arabic calligraphy and numbers, folded it artfully into a triangle, and handed the talisman—known as a taweez—to me, the whole time murmuring a Quranic recitation. Next, he made out a twenty-one-day “prescription” that involved the element of fire. At the end of three weeks, he said, I was to return. “Everything will be alright,” he stated with confidence.

*                      *                     *

Sufis believe that the divine exists within us, but is veiled. The journey of the mystic is, in one sense, a path of removing the distance and veils which hinder union with the Beloved—who is not up in the heavens somewhere, but rather “closer than the jugular vein.” A hadith, or prophetic saying, states: “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known, so I created Creation…” Sufis believe that our potential, our “hidden treasure,” is the divine presence, which we each have the ability to actualize within ourselves. A Sufi aims to know the truth of her deepest self. To be able to do so, a guide is essential on the mystical path. They say that the light of prophethood—nur—is shared by the messengers, saints, and sages who walk this earth. And it is their light that serves as a compass toward the Beloved.

In his literary masterpiece, the Masnawi, Rumi writes of the reed that has been cut from the reed bed:

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.

The reed’s song of separation is akin to the soul’s longing for union and return to divinity. The soul, although of the angelic realm, on entering the body begins to identify with the earthly limitations of its physicality. Not only does it suffer, feeling the pain of separation, but it also forgets its divine inheritance.

The western Sufi mystic Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916-2004) asks in Call of the Dervish, a collection of talks exploring the meaning and purpose of spirituality in the contemporary world:

“How do we make that perfect inheritance a reality? The answer is that to become who you are, you have to see yourself in another yourself who is more able to manifest what you are than yourself. You have it in you, but you have to see it in order to become it, and that is why we are continually looking for ourselves in another ourself—in other people… It gives you the courage to be like that.”

*                      *                     *

Born in 1940, in Punjab, in the village of Nur Jemal, which is named after Baba Kazi’s forefather—a renowned healer who was sought after by the maharajas of princely India—Baba Kazi moved to New York decades ago, sponsored by a doctor whose son and daughter-in-law finally had a baby after many years of trying, after meeting with him. As lineage holder of a branch of the Naqshbandi-Qadiriya Sufi Order, Baba Kazi has a significant following of disciples, or mureeds, in Pakistan. Much to the surprise of his American-born grandchildren, hundreds of people greet the family with garlands of flowers and celebratory drums when they return to their village each year.

In his presence, my mind stilled, and a subtle, calming influence pervaded me. I loved hearing him repeat, “God says, ‘If you remember me, I will remember you.’”

After my initial “treatment” with Baba Kazi was complete, my nights became peaceful; vitality flickered back into my life. But I kept going back, pulled by a silent and mysterious draw. In his presence, my mind stilled and a subtle, calming influence pervaded me. I loved hearing him repeat, “God says, ‘If you remember me, I will remember you. If you take one step toward me, I will take seventy steps toward you.’” There was, too, an ineffable sensation, akin to the feeling of having come to a resting place on a long journey—a place that reminded me of home.

Sitting at Baba Kazi’s desk piled deep with books, and absorbed in his stories, I relived my childhood heart-to-heart talks with my grandmother. She and I would sit together in her room in Karachi, a breeze wafting in off the Arabian Sea, surrounded by her books—she was an avid reader and a professor of literature. I would listen to her stories of childhood in Bombay; about Partition and building a new life in Pakistan; about betrayals and heartbreak and forgiveness. It was my grandmother who introduced me to the shrine of the ninth-century Sufi saint Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, where a mysterious happiness would overcome me on the climb up the steep steps to the mausoleum.

All this I lost and mourned when my parents, sister, and I left Pakistan in 1983. I imagined us, expatriates, as a threadbare patch of cloth, scissored out of the lush bolt of languages, rituals, and relationships of home. In the harsh, foreign climate of the United Arab Emirates, a template of longing and nostalgia set in, deepening with the years, becoming so habitual that it might as well have been an actual sense.

Over time, I developed a rapport with Baba Kazi so that when the doorbell rang in the midst of his storytelling, I’d wait in the adjoining bedroom, or step inside the kitchen and chat with his daughter-in-law while he dispensed remedies to his “friends,” as he calls his clients. He has transported me to the battlefield of seventh-century Karbala in Iraq; to the grave of the eighth-century ascetic mystic Rabiah al-Basri; to the time of the birth of Prophet Muhammad; to the river where he as a young man stood, all night alone, thigh-high in water, calling on God during his esoteric training in the mountains.

Baba Kazi began training in the sacred sciences at the age of six with his father, after he’d completed his first study of the Quran. He was then sent away for several years to live and train in the mountains with an Afghan Sufi master, who would guide him in his attainment of the two levels of divine wisdom—to know Allah’s attributes and manifestations in this world, and to know Allah’s essence in the mysteries of the hereafter.

“When Allah chooses someone, He tests them,” says Baba Kazi. “We are tested in everything at every step. In school you have exams. You have to study for those exams. If you study, you pass. Success happens with effort. In the same way, those on Allah’s path have similar tests and must also make effort. Gold only becomes gold after taking a beating! If you want twenty-four-karat gold then you will have lots of tests! To become gold is really very difficult—it goes through the fire, it gets beaten, purified. Study the Quran. Repeat God’s names with purity of mind, heart, and body. Repeat them when you are sitting, walking, sleeping. Then, light—nur—comes. Then, knowing comes.”

Before him, I become a child, listening with awe, attentive to the message behind his words that emphasize the importance of pure intention, good character, and humility.

A faqir (ascetic) can change the lines of kismet, he often repeats. Allah says that when a faqir looks at a person, his difficulties go far away. But faqirs come and go. Allah’s glory remains. Sometimes, he recites a Quranic line over and over—“You alone we adore and to You alone do we turn”—or quotes the Urdu poet Allama Iqbal—“Life is built with effort. Heaven and hell, too…” In every sentence, he invokes the names of God. Before him, I become a child, listening with awe, attentive to the message behind his words that emphasize the importance of pure intention, good character, and humility.

Above the daybed in Baba Kazi’s living room hangs a portrait of the luminary of divine law and spiritual sciences Hazrat Abdul Qadir Jilani, who declared that for a seeker it is necessary to be inspired by someone with deep insight, whose “eyes of the heart” are open. “Such a teacher who inculcates knowledge into one has to be close to Allah and able to see into the Ultimate Realm.”

*                      *                     *

In Sufism, the drama of love between mortals is a bridge to, and a preparation for, an experience of a higher, mystical love. Traditional Sufi lineages trace their origins to the Prophet Muhammad and observe the outer form, the shariah laws of Islam. However, the goal is transcendence and, ultimately, union: having a direct experience of merging with the divine. Love’s fire purifies us of our ego-driven desires that are an obstacle to intimacy. Love refines us, says Shaykha Fariha. Let us fall in love again and again, she enjoins her dervishes.

Mian Mir, the sixteenth-century Qadri mystic and poet of Lahore says:

For those who have love’s pain,
The only cure is seeing the Beloved…

I often marvel that the yearning and nostalgia within me found their salve in far-away America. Had I not been uprooted and experienced “love’s pain”—the heartache of so many separations and ruptures—I may have missed seeing the subtle beauty of the mystical path. There is the feeling, too, that Sufism is more authentically, in its essence—its inclusivity, its spirit of universality—alive here than in many lands of its origins in the Middle East and South Asia. The ideal of the American Constitution, with its emphasis on an individual’s rights and potential, is harmonious with the Sufi ideal of a person’s divine inheritance. The ground of America has been prepared for years to be the Noah’s Ark of humanity, says Shaykha Fariha, who came to Sufism in her adult years. The role of Sufism in America is to awaken the heart and guide humanity to its fullest potential.

Sitting in his Bronx apartment, dispensing peace of mind, healing, and heart-expanding remedies to New Yorkers and overseas visitors from all walks of life, Baba Kazi is both a hidden treasure and an emissary of the mystical teachings.

In the late spring of 2012, nine months after my first meeting with him, I complained: Why does love elude me? I’ve been patient enough, haven’t I? My heart, which had attained a certain peace, was unsettled again. I felt trapped, restless. Keep repeating God’s name, he said. You are being tested.

While listening to his teaching stories, time and place fall away—I could just as well be in Baghdad, sitting by the tomb of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani.

Weeks later, I would be catapulted into Love’s fire—and in the “burning” that the Sufi poets speak of—nudged a little further on the path to the Beloved.

*                      *                     *

I tread the earth a little differently now—less fearful and needy; gentler and more accepting—than the very first time I visited Baba Kazi. Fortified by his “prescriptions”—and my onward journey since the summer of 2012—I seem to be building a modicum of resilience to the vagaries of this life. Come what may, I sense that there’s a larger consciousness at work behind what is transpiring in the present. But, still, there are times when I need to be reminded. It’s comforting to know that in frenetic, heady New York, I am a mere train ride away from a seemingly anachronistic ethos—a healer whose door is always open; who is both tender and fiery, and a vessel of divine barakat (blessings), transmitting the healing light of his spiritual ancestors right here in the Bronx. While listening to his teaching stories, time and place fall away—I could just as well be in Baghdad, sitting by the tomb of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani.

On my most recent visit, Baba Kazi told me he had liver cancer, confounding even his doctors. “‘You should have died twenty years ago!’ they say. ‘Your cancer doesn’t go here and it doesn’t go there, it doesn’t go up and it doesn’t go down!’ I tell them, ‘It’s neither in your hands or mine: God decides who lives and dies.’”

Being a Sufi means you remain without grief even for a moment. Baba Kazi is consistently optimistic and cheerful. As we sat at his desk he suddenly said: “This will be your book—Challeh they hum to kismet bananaen, Allah diyaan gallan Allah hi jaane!” The first line is Urdu, the second Punjabi, and it roughly translates as: “We went out to make our destiny, but only Allah knows best what He knows!” Then he left for Pakistan, to attend his granddaughter’s wedding in their village of Nur Jemal.

Humera Afridi is a former Open City Creative Nonfiction Fellow at the Asian American Writers Workshop, and a former Fiction Fellow at the Writers Institute at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her work has appeared in Granta, the New York Times, and several anthologies. She is currently studying the teachings of Sufi mystic and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan at Suluk Academy, New Lebanon, New York.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

You might also like

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting