The white blast of the noon sun offers no mercy to the pilgrims as they shuffle along the marble path leading to the “green tomb,” so known because of the cylindrical dome that shelters it.
The visitors stop at the fountain outside to wash away the dust and sweat before entering. Inside, the cool air grants respite at last, and a line of framed poems leads to the source of a gentle hum.
It is the faithful whispering their prayers alongside the large, velvet-covered tomb of Jalal-al-Din Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet and mystic popularly known as “Mevlana,” “Our Master.”
Nothing could seem further from the furor over a proposed Islamic study center in Lower Manhattan than these scenes of devotion for a man who transformed the Persian-speaking areas of the Islamic world with poetry about love, humility, tolerance and the individual embrace of God.
In fact, the center is being planned by an organization that seeks to promote dialogue with other faiths, and it is led by a Sufi imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf. Yet vocal anti-Muslim critics have claimed that an Islamic center would be an affront to those who died in the attack nine years ago on the Twin Towers that stood nearby, or worse — that it would become a cradle for terrorism and hatred.
Here in Konya, the dispute makes no sense. The city straddles ancient trade routes in south-central Turkey between the Aegean Sea and the Fertile Crescent, and between the Mediterranean and Black Sea, that have been used since pre-history. For over 4,000 years it has been occupied by, among others, Hittites, Romans, Arabian raiders and Seljuk Turks.
To survive, Konya’s Sufis have needed not just tolerance toward others but a strong internal culture. It is imbedded in continuity, in the calm repetition of holy script and a conservatism unswayed by raucous fashion.
Many women wear long-sleeved ankle-length coats known as a jilbab, and their hair, neck and shoulders are completely covered by a tesettur headscarf and an under-scarf. Even at home, women remove them only when alone with their husbands. A generation or so ago, women were not allowed out without a male escort.
“Konya is not a holy city like Mecca or Medina. Rather it is a spiritual city that transmits its spirituality through the presence of Rumi’s tomb,” a Sufi devotee explains as we sat in his house sharing iftar, the meal that marks the end of the day’s fast during Ramadan.
It is not only in New York that Sufism is misunderstood; even in the Muslim world it is widely ignored or sidelined. And that’s when it is not being persecuted, sometimes by fellow Muslims who claim it is deviant.
In the past year, at least four Sufi shrines and mosques in Pakistan have been the target of suicide bombers — attacks that have killed at least 42 people. In Turkey, where Sufism was suspected of being a covert sect with tentacles reaching into every corner of society, the post-Ottoman secular rulers closed Sufi lodges and outlawed the Whirling Dervishes, the hallmark of Sufism.
The Dervishes were later granted a “cultural” status and permitted to continue performing their ecstatic dances. Every Saturday night, Dervishes in white gowns and cone-shaped hats perform at Konya’s Mevlana Cultural Center to gentle applause from tourists and respectful silence from Sufis, who consider the twirling salutation to be an act of mysticism, a way to touch the divine presence in this life.
In the half hour before the breaking of the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast, traffic jams form as workers rush to get home for the evening feast.
One evening, I sat with a family in their modest house after they had broken their fast. Our conversation stopped as the call to prayer issued one by one from the neighborhood mosques and floated out on the still air of the dusty plateau.
The people, the city and their faith seemed to breathe in unison, disconnected from the frenzied demands of modern life and oblivious to the tumult among the skyscrapers 5,000 miles away.
Catherine Field, a journalist based in Paris.