Dancing Towards God
Tasnim Fernandez’s Eclectic Turns on the Mystical Path
by Judith Gabriel
Lost in an easy rapture, Shaykha Tasnim Hermila Fernandez sways side to side as she intones, in Arabic, one of the 99 names of the divine attributes of God. Ya Nur—O light. Ya Nur. Ya Nur. Mounting in pitch, the chant rises from the circle as a dozen Sufis—representing as many religious and ethnic backgrounds—rock back and forth on their pillow seats, their faces illuminated by nearby candles, their eyes closed as they are propelled on an inner journey toward spiritual illumination.
Soft light flickers from an altar draped with saffron-hued linens, on which rest several volumes of holy writ—the Koran, the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Torah, as well as Native American and other scriptures. The light radiates over a child-sized statue of an angel in the corner, brass wings thrust eternally upward. As the Arabic chanting decrescendos, the minor tones of a Hebrew prayer emanate from a stereo speaker. This is no ordinary Sufi gathering. But Shaykha Tasnim is an eclectic teacher, espousing an all-encompassing mysticism that draws its basic direction from the Sufi path, as embodied by the Sufi Order International, headquartered in New York.
A steady stream of students and seekers, mystics, clergy and international visitors pass weekly into Fernandez’s modest, Spanish-style bungalow. They come to chant, they come to study and they come to dance. The more observant ones know that it is good Sufi adab, or manners, to take off their shoes and park them on a waiting shelf before they enter, taking care to cross the threshold with the right foot first. For two hours, members of the group set aside the mundane world to lose the “small self” in the communal ritual of dhikr, the remembrance of God. Dhikr instills an awareness or connection with the divine through the chanting of sacred formulas and ancient breathing practices, as well as through sacred walk or dance. On alternate Thursdays, the group explores the writings of the 12th Century Spanish Sufi mystic, Ibn al-’Arabi.
Many Sufi aspirants come regularly every week, including Waliya Inayat Perkins, who drives from her Santa Monica home. The 57-year-old fund-raiser and event planner was initiated into the order more than three decades ago. “This is my center,” she explains, her clean-scrubbed face belying her Midwestern origins, the scarf of her hijab denoting her Sufi meditation practice. “The drive is well worth it.”
Seated on a fluffy white sheepskin tossed over a high wooden chair, Shaykha Tasnim is an elegant, almost queenly figure. Wearing an ivory-colored Indian silk tunic, an ephemeral scarf draped loosely over jet-black hair, her face is serene as she leads the group chant. She might as well be alone, so lost is she in self-forgetting. Her voice is low, soothing, hypnotic. It fills the prayer room, smoothly skimming around the rich, jade-toned walls. Green—the color of life—a color that imparts energy, contrasts dramatically with the muted shades of the kilim on the gleaming hardwood floor. This room is the zawiya, the “little corner,” the humble term for a Sufi meeting place. But on Thursday evenings, in the hearts and minds of the Sufi chanters gathered there, the little corner expands to fill the ephemeral dimensions of the entire universe.
Despite her exotic air, reminiscent of a timeless figure from a Persian miniature painting, Tasnim Fernandez is quintessential Los Angeles. Born in Mexico City and raised in Pico Rivera, Fernandez spent her youth devoted to theater and the arts, as well as social activism. The sonorous contralto voice that now leads dhikr, the remembrance of the divine, first emerged when she was a young alto in her church choir. In the ‘60s, Fernandez spent time as an underground radio disc jockey, and she still makes frequent guest appearances on KPFK-FM Pacifica Radio.
Immersed in the Sufi path for more than three decades, Fernandez was interested in spirit from an early age. Lured by a name that was similar to one she was given in honor of her grandmother—Hermila—she turned to the work of Hermes Trismegistus, the fabled inventor of alchemy, and attended a lecture on “Alchemy and the Kabala” given by a Sufi master, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. “I’d never heard of Sufis,” she said, “I was only pursuing my interest in alchemy.” When Fernandez learned that Sufis aren’t interested in turning dross into actual gold, but that the metaphor applies to the transformative process of the spirit, she soon became a student. She was initiated into the Sufi Order International in 1971 when she “took hand” with Pir Vilayat, who has since died and been succeeded by his son, Pir Zia Inayat Khan, as head of the order.
Now, as spiritual director of the order’s Church of All for the past 28 years, Shaykha Tasnim conducts services of Universal Worship and bears the title “Reverend.” As such, Fernandez is authorized to perform weddings and rites of passage. The Church of All is the “container” for the Universal Worship Service, which was instituted by Hazrat Inayat Khan in the 1920s after he brought Sufism to the west a decade prior.
Origins of Sufism
The whole conundrum of what Sufism means, and who “owns” it remains complex. As Fernandez explains, “The minute we use the word Sufism it automatically links, by default, to Islam.” While Fernandez loves Islam and embraces many of its tenets, she makes clear, “You don’t have to be a Muslim to be a Sufi in this order.” She is “alarmed at the misinformation that abounds among Americans who readily accept what they hear in media and from Islam’s detractors without investigating it for themselves.”
She notes that despite many Americans’ misconceptions about Islam, people are inexorably drawn to Rumi, whose poetry has such power to touch the heart. Rumi’s appeal is Sufism, “the essence of which is one in all human beings.” The mystical, progressive framework in which Sufism exists is not divorced from Islam or the Koran. Nonetheless, the shaykha, or teacher, imparts Sufi teaching to anyone, regardless of his religion.
As illustration, Fernandez’s students and followers come from several different religious backgrounds. The group is comprised of Jews, Christians and Muslims, she notes, pointing out that her interfaith group includes two Christian ministers, a Jewish rabbi, the grandson of an Algerian Sufi shaykh and four converts to Islam. “If we’re looking for anything common among us, it would be that we are all fairly progressive and have a tendency to be open,” she says. “If we were fundamentalists, we’d be somewhere else.”
While Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, Fernandez’s order, the Sufi Order International, teaches respect for all the world’s great religious traditions, embracing the idea that Sufism can be understood as the inner experience of all religions. Nonetheless, the order’s teachings are clearly rooted in the centuries-old traditions of Sufi masters and include the practices of several major traditional Sufi orders: the Chisti, Naqshbandi, Suhrawardi and Qadiri schools of Sufism.
The term Sufism (Arabic tasawwuf) probably has its origin in the wearing of undyed wool (suf) as a mark of personal penitence; others say it is derived from saf, which means “pure.” Sufis are also known as fakirs and dervishes, both words originally denoting people who believed in being poor (in spirit). “Dervish means door sill,” states Fernandez. “It probably refers to the beggars and mendicants of centuries-past Sufi practice. But it can also mean standing before the doors of experience—the mystical Sufi experience, where one surrenders the ego and merges with the All.”
Dances of Universal Peace
For centuries, Sufis have turned to dance and music as a route to mystical attainment. Through ritualized movement, they believe, the universal can be experienced within the core of the individual. Fernandez is world famous in her role as one of the pioneer developers of the Dances of Universal Peace. Based on Sufi tradition, but incorporating the sacred sayings and liturgies of dozens of world spiritual paths, the dances have become an international network.
A compendium of circle and line dances using refrains from every spiritual tradition, the Dances of Universal Peace were originally developed by Samuel L. Lewis—the famous “Sufi Sam” of the ‘60s San Francisco hippie scene—but Fernandez has become their leading proponent. While she travels extensively to conduct the dances in seminars throughout the globe, Fernandez no longer leads them locally, devoting herself instead to overseeing development of new teachers. (Universal Dances of Peace sessions are held twice a month in Redondo Beach and Santa Monica). “There are now more than 400 dance circles, and the repertoire is immense: more than 500 dances. There are new dances all the time,” notes Fernandez.
But perhaps the dance of all dances—for someone on the Sufi path—is that of the whirling dervishes in the tradition of the Turkish Mevlevi Order. Fernandez is a trained semazen, or whirler, and the contact person for the Mevlevi Order of America. The order was founded by 13th Century mystic Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the beloved poet, and is the basis for yet another series of classes Fernandez conducts. “Even in his time, Rumi was ecumenical, honored by the local Jewish and Christian communities,” Fernandez explains. “His embrace of poetry and whirling was a supreme expression of the love and ecstasy at the heart of a personal experience of God.”
The dance of the dervish—the smooth, orbital turning that billows out the dancers’ white tent skirts—has remained unchanged for centuries. Fernandez explains, however, that contrary to popular belief, the semazen’s goal is not to lose consciousness or to fall into a state of ecstasy. “Sema is a magnificent experience,” Fernandez says of the Mevlevi whirling ceremony. “You don’t get dizzy. It takes practice, because you turn with your eyes open. You have to know where you are. It’s not a trance dance. You do enter an altered state, but I don’t refer to it in my own experience as being in a trance. You have to be awake, present to the other semazens around you, and to the directions being given to you by the semazen leader. You have to know where you are.”
And the primary reason for staying alert? “You are praying for everybody, for the whole world.”
Prayer and meditation are not attained through a rigid posture for Fernandez. “Everything in the universe is in motion,” she explains. “Everything turns. Like the nucleus of the atom, revolving in harmony with all things in nature—with the smallest cells and with the stars in the firmament.”
With fluid ease, Fernandez’s long, graceful arms glide effortlessly in spheres and arcs as she celebrates her awareness of the divine, sweeping through the filtered light of her “humble corner,” the space where she prays and teaches and imparts. Unlike the brass statue of the angel in the corner, Tasnim is eternally in orbit, moving from one deepening to another, imparting instances of light to spiritual seekers on the Sufi path. She is prayer in motion.
Judith Gabriel, a Los Angeles-based free-lance journalist and playwright, is former news director of Pacifica’s KPFK-FM.
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Thanks to Whole Life Times and Judith Gabriel for permission to post this article.
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