To Dance or Not to Dance

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is adapted from Signs on the Horizons by Shaykh Michael Sugich.

“We were invited into the bourgeois home of a wealthy Saudi industrialist who was a dogmatic Salafi that constantly condemned Sufism but who loved my teacher, Sayyid ‘Umar ‘Abdullah.  The industrialist was denouncing the practice of the sacred dance, hadhrah, as a forbidden innovation, bid’ah adh-dhalalah, in Islam.  When the industrialist left the salon where we were sitting, Sayyid ‘Umar jumped up mischievously and said to us sotto voce, ‘Now, if I stand here before you and declare God’s Name, ‘Allah!’; is this Forbidden?’  We looked at him, shrugged and shook our heads.

He then moved casually from one foot to another and said, ‘If I do this and say, ‘Allah!’ am I doing something Forbidden?’  Of course not.

He then moved from one foot to another with more rhythm and said, ‘If I do this and say ‘Allah!  Allah!’ is this Forbidden?’  We shook our heads.  Then he started to swirl around the floor with an imaginary partner and said, ‘But if I do this,’ and he began singing, ‘Everybody loves Saturday Night!  Everybody loves Saturday Night!’  Well, that is Forbidden.  What he was telling us is that what differentiates what is forbidden from what is permissible is the purpose and this is the classical Sufi approach to remembrance in all its various forms.  When the industrialist returned Sayyid ‘Umar sat down with an impish smile and continued to charm his unwitting host.  And Sayyid ‘Umar never practiced the hadhrah, except once.

During the post-colonial period in the 1960s when African states achieved their independence, Muslims across the continent were being marginalised because they had fallen behind Christians, Marxists and nationalists by rejecting secular education in favour of the traditional Islamic schools, kuttab madaris, which focused on memorising the Qur’an and religious teaching.  Delegations had been sent around Africa to try to convince Muslim parents to allow their children to have a more rounded secular education with little success.

One of the Muslim communities most resistant to change was in what was then the Belgian Congo.  As one of Africa’s pre-eminent educators, Sayyid ‘Umar was sent on a tour to make yet another plea for secular education.  In the Congo, his presentation was to take place in the grand mosque after the Friday prayers.  Sayyid ‘Umar was the honoured guest of the day.  When the prayers were completed, he expected to stand up and make his speech.  Instead, the whole congregation stood up and started a huge African-style hadhrah, which was absolutely wild.  Although Sayyid ‘Umar was a scholar and his Sufi practice did not include performance of the hadhrah, he joined the dance.  He became so involved in the invocation that he was pushed into the center of the huge circle.  He threw himself into this unfamiliar ritual heart and soul and led the community in the sacred dance.  Then he was called on to give his talk.  Up to that point none of the educators who had advocated secular education had any credibility, but now, as a leader of their hadhrah, Sayyid ‘Umar was one of them.  The whole community agreed to enter their children into the secular school system.”


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