By Shiva Sharif
Bilqis Fassassi remembers growing up in a religious and spiritual home. Her parents, practitioners of Sufism, encouraged their three children to explore and find their own spiritual journey. While Fassassi has chosen the path of Sufism, her other siblings follow traditional Islamic practices closely and don’t follow Sufism.
“I was 21 and I had this yearning inside me to find a mentor — spiritual teacher,” says Fassassi. “I was always interested in God, angels and spirituality, but I reached a point in my life, where I didn’t want to just learn about the Divine (God), but wanted to experience it.”
Fassassi, 24, lives in the Kensington, Md., and has been a Sufi in the Nimatullahi order for the past three years. Fassassi is a first generation immigrant, originally from Benin in West Africa. She has a philosophy degree and works at an agency within the National Institutes of Health, researching child psychology.
“You are called to a spiritual path and it’s yearning that you can’t control or ignore,” says Fassassi.
A recent Pew Research Center found that 46 million U.S. adults don’t affiliate themselves with any orthodox religious institutions. The study didn’t list spiritual paths such as Sufism or Buddhism as choices, only leaving respondents the option to choose “None” when asked to pick which religion they identified with. Like Fassasi, some in the “None” group might have opted to identify themselves as being spiritual in some way other than the listed options.
Fassassi says since becoming a Sufi she has become calmer and is not as worried about what’s happening from moment to moment. The one thing she wants people to know is that Sufism is hard when practiced sincerely in every moment. “The Sufi path commands you to challenge your ego and that’s hard,” she says.
Like Fassassi, Mariam Dadgar, 60, of Potomac, Md., chose Sufism over other spiritual paths and traditional organized religions.
Dadgar grew up in Iran and moved to the U.S. in her 20s. Although her father was very involved in the Sufi spiritual path, Dadgar re-connected with Sufism outside of Iran after looking at and exploring other paths to connect with the Divine source.
“Sufism basically means forgetting yourself through serving others,” says Dadgar.
“Orthodox religion,” she says, “is out-of-the-box experience that’s about following rules, while spiritual paths, like Sufism, are about following your heart.” There is no right or wrong choice, each person has to choose what works for them, she says.
According to Dadgar, Sufism teaches being non-judgmental, loving and respecting everyone, and breaking free from the ego. “Sufism brought me face-to-face with my shortcomings and helped me break-down my ego to evolve,” she says. “Experiencing pain is needed for growth; it hasn’t been an easy journey.”
Dadgar believes Sufism is on the rise. “In just our order alone, back in the 1990s, I knew everyone during our annual national gathering and now I only know about 20 percent of the people in my Sufi order,” says Dadgar.
The Nimatullahi order dates back to 15th century A.D. Safoura Nurbakhsh’s father, in addition to being a physician, was also a Master of the Nimatullahi Sufi order from 1953 until his death in 2008.
Although born into Sufism, Nurbakhsh, 50, chose to be initiated into Sufism when she was 17.
Nurbakhsh teaches at the University of Maryland and is working on completing her doctorate in Women’s Studies.
“Sufism transforms the ego from state of wanting and desiring to state of nothingness. You surrender your ego to become part of the whole – unity of being,” says Nurbakhsh.
Nurbakhsh says she believes all spiritual paths teach love, kindness, compassion, service to other, and truth. People become disillusioned with the world and they search for answers to make the burdens of life created by the ego easier to carry, she says.