Ten p.m. on a sweltering June night. Oblivious to the stuffiness of their small meeting room, a group of Islamic followers hold hands, forming a circle that slowly revolves as they dance. Their voices deep, guttural, they chant one of the 99 names of Allah, or God. They’re performing the zikr, a meditation ritual that celebrates and evokes one of the 99 beautiful attributes of Allah. It will last until midnight.

This scene took place not in Turkey or Iran, but a little closer to home—in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This group, the Rifa’i Marufi Order, practices Tasawwuf, or Sufism—a mystical method of Islam.

Carl Ernst, professor and chair of religious studies, says that though such rituals may seem exotic, they are becoming more common. Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in America, with as many as four million Muslims living in the U.S. So it’s time, Ernst says, we start looking beyond our stereotypes about this religion.

Most people have a simplistic and fallacious view of what Islam is all about,” Ernst says. “If you believe the caricature of Islamic fundamentalists, they just open up the Koran and go to war. Because Islam is identified by the media with political conflict and opposition, it has the most negative and hateful images of any religion.”

The peaceful rituals of Sufism belie the images of Muslim terrorists that usually make the evening news. Sufism is denounced by the fundamentalist Muslim groups that get the media’s attention, Ernst says, but Sufism’s poetry, music, and meditation are an important part of the lives of many Muslims and have been for more than a thousand years.

In his recent book, The Shambala Guide to Sufism, (Shambala Publications, 1997) Ernst explains the basics of what he says is an overlooked but important part of Islam. Though it varies from one country to another, many Muslims have some contact with Sufism, such as visiting shrines of Sufi saints or reciting special prayers, Ernst says. He estimates that about one percent of the four million Muslims in the United States are dedicated members of Sufi groups, though many more have an interest in Sufism. The Rifa’i Marufi Order, in Chapel Hill, has about 30 members. About 20 attend all of the thrice-weekly meetings and services.

Sufism emphasizes the spiritual aspects of Islam and the quest to become one with Allah, explains Sherif Catalkaya, the leader of the Rifa’i Marufi Order. He speaks through an interpreter, but all the while he fixes you with his intent, brown-eyed gaze. Catalkaya says that before a person can truly love God, he must “clean the thoughts and learn to be a human being.” Becoming a human being includes learning sincerity and morality. Once the person becomes clean, he says, “then you can start filling him with the water of dervishness—the water of ashk, of endless love.

This love starts with the love of human beings,” Catalkaya says. “It’s not focusing your love on a God that is far from you, something in your imagination. Human beings are all mirrors of Allah. When you have the love of human beings, the love of God comes out. This is what dervishness is.”

As part of this quest, Sufism expands on the rituals and prayers of Islam. In addition to Islam’s five ritual prayers, Sufism includes short prayers that can be said during everyday activities such as waking up, getting dressed, or traveling. “It’s a way to sanctify even the really day-to-day activities, to prevent them from being mechanical,” Ernst says. “In modern life, religion often gets isolated to one hour a week, and other things are considered to be nonreligious.”

Sufism also includes additional rituals such as meditation, fasting, dance. Music, for instance, makes reciting the zikr more powerful, Catalkaya says. Like any religion, people practice Sufi rituals with different levels of commitment. Reference to the zikr, for example, can be seen in taxi cabs in Pakistan, Ernst says. “The driver will hang on the dash calligraphic depictions of some of the names of God, just as a sort of general blessing. But if you were an advanced Sufi disciple, your spiritual master might say, `You really need to meditate upon the name of Allah, the Merciful, in order to create that quality in your character.’”

Because Sufism strays outside some narrow boundaries, many fundamentalist Muslims denounce it. Fundamentalists view Sufi music as nonIslamic and illegitimate, Ernst says. Fundamentalists also accuse Sufis of idol worship because they show reverence for the Prophet Muhammad and the saints. This accusation is false, Catalkaya says. “We may praise the prophets because of the goodness and duty that they’ve taught. But we worship only Allah.”

Catalkaya says that Sufis’ main separation from fundamentalists is that fundamentalism emphasizes rules and punishment, while Sufism emphasizes beautiful thoughts and forgiveness. “If I steal something, and I go to a religious man, he may cut off my hand. But if I went to a Sufi, he would talk with me and give beauty to my thoughts, and I would see that what I did was very much a sin. Feeling guilty about what I had done, that would be the punishment.”

Ernst says that part of the fundamentalist discontent comes from their reluctance to share power. Fundamentalist Muslims emphasize a literal interpretation of the scripture and see themselves as the only authorized interpreters. “But Sufism emphasizes symbolic interpretation and seeking the inner dimension of the external practices of religion,” Ernst says. “Since that puts a great deal of power into the individual’s hands, it’s easy to see how that would be viewed with alarm by a group that wants to maintain a monopoly over interpretation of practice.”

These issues can cause great controversy. At academic conferences, Ernst has been heckled more than once by fundamentalists who didn’t want to hear Sufism discussed or acknowledged, even as a historical part of Islam. “If you visited Mecca or Medina about 200 years ago, almost all the religious scholars would have been members of Sufi orders. But when I talked about this at a lecture a few years ago, a man stood up and insisted, `Everything you’ve just said is false.’” In Turkey, where Catalkaya lived until 1991, Sufism is taught as a science, but it’s illegal to run a formal order like the one he leads in Chapel Hill.

Despite this division, Sufism is still practiced widely, and many Americans come into indirect contact with it through music and poetry. The poetry of Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi mystic, is a bestseller in America, Ernst says. And the music of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which has been featured in movies such as “Dead Man Walking,” is from the Sufi tradition.

Catalkaya says that entering Sufism through the poetry or music is “better than any other way. The prophet Muhammad said, `Teach the art of poetry to your children and teach them also the art of music and teach them how to ride a horse and teach them how to swim. All of these are the nourishment of the spirit. They bring you to a delicate way of thinking.’”

For some, Sufi music or poetry might be just a “new-age” fad. But including them in our popular culture may be one way people are letting go of fear of “strange” religions, Ernst says. “People are having to come to terms with religious pluralism.”