Medizinethnologie

Healing the City: Sufi Prayers in Berlin’s Towers

Nasima Selim

Sufism in Berlin and Material Healing

When little spots of roadside space are claimed, memorials constructed and maintained, mourning rituals performed, the separated space defended and protected, the secular made sacred, and public space privatized, then a place is made known and given dimension. Place is space with meaning added. (Clark 2008, 165)

Religious/spiritual healing happens in the realm of individual and collective experience: either felt in the body or as an inner dimension of the mind. Healing is understood as ‘Healing’ of ‘problems of living’ perceived in ‘relation to a highest reality’, or as ‘healing’, when it ‘addresses the particularities of individual episodes of suffering’ (Barnes 2011). However, healing has also a material and spatial aspect that is often overlooked. The word ‘healing’ triggers knee-jerk reactions surrounding the human body, mind and at best a collective of people engaged in rituals geared towards their health and wellbeing. As ‘material practice’ (Meyer 2012) the creative imagination of healing is not necessarily restricted to human beings but extended to human history, non-animate objects, artefacts and architecture. In that respect, contemporary healing practices constitute the processes of ‘re-sacralization and re-enchantment’ of the world (Csordas 2007). During a 15-month-long fieldwork on Sufism and healing in Berlin in 2013 and 2014, I came across certain practices that illustrate such material and spatial aspects of healing in particular ways.

The global history of Sufism goes back more than a thousand years to the Early Medieval Period (850-1000 C.E.). Within a few centuries, the movement spread from the region of present day Iraq and Iran to North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula in Europe and different regions of Asia (Green 2012). Although there is evidence of early European contacts with Sufism, arrival of Sufi practices widely in the ‘West’ and specifically in contemporary Western Europe and Germany, is a more recent phenomenon (Geaves 2015; Klinkhammer 2009). In 1910, a little known Bektashi (A Sufi order originating in 13th century Turkish Anatolia) group was formed in Berlin by its German followers. In 1925, Sufi Bewegung (Sufi Movement), the first German ‘Universal Sufi’ network was established as an association (eingetragener Verein) by the local Murids (disciples/students) of Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927). Inayat Khan was a classical musician and Sufi Murshid (teacher) from the Chishti order in West India (A Sufi order originating in Afghanistan and South Asia between 10th and 12th century C.E.). Inayat Khan founded the first Universal Sufi orders in North America and Western Europe in the early 20th century (Klinkhammer 2009; Schleßmann 2003). There are currently three different streams of the transnational Inayati Universal Sufi networks active in Berlin.

Based on her research on ‘Muslim religious life’ in Berlin during 1997 and 1998, Jonker (2006) stated that, about twenty-seven Berlin ‘tekkes [traditional Sufi centres], madrasas [education centres] and prayer halls’ were engaged in some ‘forms of Sufic devotion’ at that time (p. 74). Jonker (2006) also mentioned that she did not include the private prayer circles linked to therapy sessions. This estimate would probably be higher now if it includes the smaller, non-registered Sufi friend circles and groups engaged in practices derived from Sufism. While many Sufi networks identify themselves exclusively with ‘Sufi Islam’ (e.g., Haqqani-Naqshbandi and Tariqa Burhania), others adhere to more ‘universal’ definitions of Sufism beyond the regulatory practices of Islam (e.g., the Inayati Sufis, the Sufi Tradition of Omar Ali Shah, and Reshad Feild’s Chalice). There are also ‘therapeutic’ Sufis who offer music therapy (Tümata Berlin) and a number of Sufi/non-Sufi networks in the city who are engaged in healing and aesthetic practices and performances (e.g., Rumi Project, Whirling Berlin) drawn from multiple Sufi traditions.

During my fieldwork, I accompanied one of the three Inayati Sufi networks in the city, who selected several Berlin towers to perform dhikr (remembering). Dhikr is a specific form of Sufi prayer, done aloud or in silence, alone or in the presence of others. This particular Sufi group performed silent dhikr on these towers with the niyat (intention) to turn the wounded urban landscape into an ‘enchanted’/‘re-enchanting’ (Saniotis 2008; Baptist 2013), and healing/‘therapeutic landscape’ (Foley 2010). The chosen buildings included the Fernsehturm (Television tower) Siegessäule (Victory column), and Reichstag (Parliament building) in the central district of Mitte and the Funkturm (Radio tower) in the western district of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. These are some of the tallest buildings in Berlin that offer an ‘eagle-eyed’ overview of the city. Owing to their monumental architecture, they are considered national symbols of Germany and distinctive markers of the historical and spatial landscape of Berlin. As preparation for the prayers in the first tower, the leader of this particular group evoked briefly certain ‘wounds’ of the city, referring to the Second World War and the Nazi period, the Holocaust, and the Stasi (Secret police) repression in former East Germany. The prayers were to be addressed not only to the people living in Berlin but to its past and present injuries, its buildings and green spaces, its animals and eco-systems. Berlin was perceived as an actor who needed to be healed in all its dimensions, human and non-human, temporally and spatially.

 

A newcomer extending healing energy to the city. View from the Radio tower ǀ 2014 © Nasima Selim

A newcomer extending healing energy to the city. View from the Radio tower ǀ 2014 © Nasima Selim

From the Fernsehturm to the Funkturm: ‘Eagle-eyed’ Prayers for Berlin

In Berlin’s towers, the healing practices of this particular group of Universal Sufis were directed towards the real and imagined historical wounds of the place but they also led to remembrances of different kinds. Dhikr literally means remembering. In Sufi lore, it is the remembering of Allah through repetition of wazifa, the evocation of the 99 ‘beautiful names’ (Asma ul Husna). Each of these divine names refers to a certain attribute or quality and a Sufi Murid must incorporate these attributes in everyday life by remembering them, reciting them aloud or in silence. The series of such Sufi prayers in Berlin’s towers began with one of its most well known landmark, der Fernsehturm (the television tower). On a clear spring night in 2013, I accompanied a small group assembled by the leader of the group (Amir, his Sufi name) for the first time [Amir is a pseudonym. I use pseudonyms for all my Sufi interlocutors throughout this text]. Amir had earlier emailed us the specific wazifa for silent utterance, as we would reach the top of the tower: Ya Shafi, Ya Kafi. His instructions to us on that night were simple:

Since there are some people who are not so much aware of Sufis. Let me say. We say the Wazifa – Ya Shafi – the divine healing energy (Göttliche Heilenergie) while breathing in and then we say Ya Kafi – the divine healing material (Heilmittel). We choose a spot and focus on one part of the history. Or, we choose a particular place in Berlin. We can think of any time or place. There are so many points of injury and wounds in Berlin. The Nazi period – the killing of the Jews – the DDR [former East Germany] Stasi History. We will go up to the top floor. We will do the meditation… We will do it silently because we do not want all the people around us to look at as if we are strange creatures. [Fieldnotes May 21, 2013]

A silent dhikr on the television tower leads to a surplus of its etymology and becomes ‘remembering’ on many levels. Not only religious/spiritual acts of remembering Allah and the divine attributes as they send out ‘healing energy’ to the city but also the active remembering of a collective past. These healing prayers can therefore be conceptualised as imagined, symbolic healing of the contemporary urban landscape and across time, materialized and spatialized within the contours of possibilities. These practices are also techniques of familiarization with the city. Berlin is a place of mobile actors. Amir, the leader of this Sufi group, was a relative newcomer to the city but most members of this particular group were not quite the so-called Urberliner or Alt-Berliner (natives of Berlin). Only one of them was born in the city. Three of them were long-term members who had moved to Berlin at various points of their lives and have been engaged for years with the transnational Universal Sufi network: an elderly physician, a social worker, and a spiritual healer engaged in contemplative therapies. The two newcomers in the group were friends of the group, interested in ‘alternative healing’.

As I accompanied this particular group to these towers, I was fulfilling my role as part tourist, part anthropologist. Coming back to the Sufis in that spring night on the television tower, more than remembrance of the past a contemporary imagination of the city seemed to be occurring. Although Amir talked about past wounds, history came surprisingly as a marginal reference in the conversations that followed among the group. After the silent prayers around 10.45 p.m., we met at the top lobby of the television tower and came down to the first floor lobby for a chat:

Patricia [friend of Amir]: Berlin is new and there is not much nature. I miss that!

Joachim [Long-term member]: I could not concentrate. There was so much restlessness. I felt it was a mix of positive and negative energy. I could not focus on a particular place in Berlin but did it overall. I also have a slight anxiety for height. It was a mixed experience.

Norbert [Joachim’s friend]: I was thinking. Where is water in this city? Only Baustellen (building sites), only buildings. Unheimliche (strange) energy. Restless energy. As if, it was epileptic. Nervous energy. Here and there pieces [of building materials]. Why build so much? Let it be!

Nasima [The author]: I was caught in the tourist mode and started to take pictures. I forgot that I was also here to meditate. Later I stopped taking pictures to look at the Berlin lights and concentrated on Ya Shafi Ya Kafi. It helped.

Amir: I also have a bit of height anxiety. I had fast, strong heartbeats. But as soon as I did Shafi Kafi, it calmed me down. All the history was going through my mind. The Nazi time and all that! Then I saw an S-Bahn (city rail) running and I said Ya Shafi Ya Kafi again. I felt the S-Bahn was running through Berlin with the Heilenergie (Healing energy) of Ya Shafi Ya Kafi. That gave me a lot of peace. Maybe it spreads from one place to everywhere. And heals! [Fieldnotes May 21, 2013]

This first visit to the television tower was followed by a few other visits, to the Siegessäule, Reichstag and Funkturm. Although most visits in these historical buildings evoked reference to wounds and injuries and the necessity of healing, the Siegessäule was an exception. As a monument, Siegessäule symbolised the national pride of Germany, materialized as a huge structure announcing the Prussian victory in the so-called ‘wars of unification’ against their neighbours back in the 1860s and 1871 (Berlin.de 2015). Selecting Siegessäule had more to do with its prominent, central presence in the urban landscape offering a comprehensive view of the city. Apart from the historical references, the architectural designs and the spatial possibilities offered by these towers underscored the reasons why they were selected for these ‘urban prayers’.

Eagle-eyed view of Berlin and the urban deity, the Television tower. View from the Radio tower ǀ 2014 © Nasima Selim

Eagle-eyed view of Berlin and the urban deity, the Television tower. View from the Radio tower ǀ 2014 © Nasima Selim

Therapeutic Landscaping, Sacralising the Secular

[Reenchantment is a temporal condition of] transformation and destabilization of the very mundanity of materially ordered space. (Holloway and Kneale 2008, p. 303; Baptist 2013)

Sufi practices are not limited to human healing, i.e., alleviation of human suffering. Sacralizing landscapes as a practice plays a vital role in the Sufi healing repertoire. The references are in fact too many to summarize in this short text (see Kasmani 2015; Saniotis 2008 for details). In a North Indian city, contemporary Sufis engage in sensuous participation with the shrine (dargah) complex of the 13th century saint Nizamuddin Awliya (Saniotis 2008). In his recent ethnography in Sehwan, a small town of Pakistan famous for its Sufi/Fakir connections, Kasmani (2015) illustrates ‘charismatic spatiality’: how Sehwan is ‘experienced and articulated in its inter- and intra-spatial relationships involving sites and places within and also beyond its confines’ (p. 249).

In contrast, Germany and its capital are not conventional Sufi places charged with sacred meaning. But Berlin Sufis are engaged with the limited ‘sacred geography’ that are available to them as well as deliberate practices of sacralization that includes but is not limited to material/spatial healing. I have observed other Sufis (Haqqani-Naqshbandi) saying a particular prayer with Quranic verses (Al-Fatiha) as they drive past the Muslim cemetery in Columbiadamm, Neukölln, ‘remembering’ a Sufi who was buried there (Fieldnotes April 16, 2014). During one evening in the month of fasting (Ramadan), the same network turned an open square in Wedding (Leopoldplatz) into a make-shift place of Sufi dancing and communal eating (Fieldnotes July 31, 2013). The Universal Sufi group who visited the towers, also occasionally organized ‘Sufi Walks’ in collaboration with another Inayati branch in the city. Their ‘walks’ constructed a ‘sacred geography’ along Tiergarten and other locations in the city where Hazrat Inayat Khan had literally walked and stayed almost one hundred years ago (Fieldnotes May 4, 2013). These are only a few of the many different pathways and practices through which the Sufis are experiencing and articulating multiple spaces and localities in Berlin. I argue that such contemporary Sufi practices are engagements with the city in a particular fashion, in order to redefine its otherwise secular landscapes. It is not possible to enumerate and illustrate them all. In this text, I elaborate only one set of such ‘place-making’ practices that constitutes a specific, definitive intervention in sacralizing Berlin through material and spatial healing.

Therapeutic landscapes have been defined as ‘places that have achieved lasting reputations for providing physical, mental and spiritual healing’ (Kearns & Gesler 1998, 8). Berlin, in spite of its injuries and because of its resilience throughout its successive histories of destruction and regeneration, is a place of ‘remembering’ in the double sense. The city becomes an ‘enchanted landscape’ by such Sufi interventions and even stretched as far as designating it as ‘the spiritual capital [of Europe]’ (Hildebrandt 2014). In this illustrative configuration of the Sufi prayers in the towers, healing becomes simultaneously a bodily-sensory, emplaced, historicized practice directed at traces of collective suffering and contemporary imagination.

The specific Sufi healing rituals usually address specific episodes and forms of suffering, be it illness events or problems of living. I have argued elsewhere (Selim 2015) how such rituals can be conceived as innovative assemblages of practices drawn from multiple sources. Often what hangs together as ‘Sufi’, generates hybrid formations, such as Sufi Yoga, Heart Chakra meditation (the link to Yoga, a much more popular practice of ‘family resemblance’, is self-evident) or in this case, a Stadt-Meditation (city-meditation) combining the human, the transcendent Real and the urban. The ‘religious’ and the ‘medical’ fields are made porous by the Sufi interventions as different elements come together in such fusions, as performative practices and urban landscaping. Sufi healing is constitutive of these confluence-flows among the religious, the medical, the performance arts and contemporary urbanity. In Sufi practice, Islamic prayer (namaz/salat) evolves into Sufi Yoga, Music becomes music therapy, and healing prayer in this case is an ‘urban prayer’. Such urban prayers make it possible to turn the wounded landscape into a ‘therapeutic landscape’ (Foley 2010), where, according to Amir, the S-Bahn is running through the city distributing the healing energy of collective prayer. The city’s past and present could thus be healed and contribute to the accessible energy of healing made possible by the interventions of the human actors and their healing acts as much as the specific urban architecture (‘eagle-eyed’ towers) and city wide infrastructure (the S-Bahn).

Recent scholarly works around the thematic complex of religion, space and environment argue for exploring religion ‘not in relation but as a part of the spatiality and movement within the environment from which it arises and is nurtured’ (Bergmann 2014, 3). Bergman continues to explore religion ‘as a skill [that] reaches beyond a simple combination of essential and functional aspects; … [begging] an understanding of religion as a cultural capacity that is nurtured by place and an all-embracing space’. In his view, place and space are in ‘a dialectical reciprocity of static and dynamic, fast and fluent, local and global’ (p. 3). Following Ingold’s (2011) definition of skills, as ‘not…techniques of the body, but the capabilities of action and perception of the whole organic being (indissolubly mind and body) situated in a richly structured environment’ (p. 5), Sufism in Berlin seems to provide certain sets of skills in terms of enacting a ‘capability of action’ in perceiving Berlin as a ‘whole organic being’ that make an healing-the-city intervention possible.

Amir in silent prayer. View from the Radio tower ǀ 2014 © Nasima Selim

Amir in silent prayer. View from the Radio tower ǀ 2014 © Nasima Selim

Concluding Remarks

As mentioned earlier, Sufi prayers on the television and radio towers, or victory columns and parliament buildings are acts of double ‘remembering’ and to familiarize unfamiliar objects (the buildings and the aerial city). Through these acts and prayers a secularized city (Berlin) space, which is usually oblivious of the Sufi presence, is temporarily turned into a sacralized place, where healing could happen. Mobilizing the now-familiar utterances of Ya Shafi-Ya Kafi in the Fernsehturm (and repeating in the selected towers) one Universal Sufi healer and his network engages in such ‘place-making’ practices. Such practices are also always history-making acts. Berlin is no longer abstract, but made concrete and specific in its concrete-and-steel towers, by the grey and the green of its diverse landscapes, re-enacting the Wiedervereinigung (reunification) in contemplating the television tower of the former East tower with the older radio tower of the former West. ‘Whichever way you turn, there is the Face of Allah’ (Sura 2:115), is a Quranic verse popular among the Sufis. In Berlin, this phrase literally comes down to facing the inescapable television tower, the central ‘urban deity’ visible from whichever tower you climb in the city, be it the radio tower in the far west or the victory column and the parliament building in its central district.

Historian Brian Ladd called Berlin ‘a haunted city’ (Ladd 1998, 1). The city and its ‘urban morphology’ have been marked by five political regimes and their ruins (Blockmans 2003, 15-16). One could perhaps connect the Berliner Sufis’ insistence on ‘healing the city’ to the historians’ contemporary description of the post-wall Berlin – as ‘a city that never forgets’ (Ladd 1998, 38). The Universal Sufi healing meditation in this instance draws our attention to the persistence of ‘remembrance’ in a city charged with ‘material history’, expressing the need not only to heal the collective body and its traumas but also creating an extended, heightened perception of the landscape evoking past and present injuries. Whereas the given materiality of architectures standing as History enables them to become objects mobilized in transforming the apparent profanity of the touristic secular to a sacred geography enacted by the healing prayers.

 

Acknowledgments

I thank Amir and the Universal Sufi group for making it possible to accompany them to the Berlin towers. I shared an earlier draft of this text with Amir and incorporated his comments in the final text. I also thank the other Sufi networks who allowed me to take part in their practices to reach a wider understanding of Sufism in Berlin. I thank my supervisors and the reviewers of this text for their helpful comments. An earlier version of this text, titled ‘Healing the City: Sufi Healing at Berlin’s Fernsehturm’, was presented at the ‘Prayer, Architecture, History’ workshop held on November 4-5, 2013 at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin. Thanks to DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, for funding the doctoral project.

 

Author

Nasima Selim (MBBS, MPH, MSc) studied medicine, public health and anthropology. She is currently a doctoral student at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin and Senior Lecturer at the James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University Bangladesh. Her PhD project is a practice-centred ethnography of Sufism and healing in Berlin. Nasima Selim is a member of the working groups of Medical Anthropology and the Anthropology of Religion at the FU Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology.

 

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2 thoughts on “Healing the City: Sufi Prayers in Berlin’s Towers

  1. iradj Esmailpour

    Dear Writer,
    Hello,
    I am also a PhD. candidate from LMU working on Sufis in Kurdistan:

    http://www.ethnologie.uni-muenchen.de/forschung/doktoranden/ghouchani_dok/index.html

    Today I came accross your essay ‚Healing the City: Sufi Prayers in Berlin’s Towers‘ which opens a new window to the Sufism which I have not experienced before neither in my fieldwork nor in my readings. I really appreciate your approach and eager to read more about this. To my understanding Sufism was always conflated with ‚presence‘ but here we realize that there are some brotherhoods that commemorate to heal the wounds and memories of the past: Interesting!
    What follows are just some of my comments that came to my mind:

    1- You define that ya Kafi – is related to ‚the divine healing material (Heilmittel)‘.
    I think that it is also alluding to this verse of Quran:
    …الیس الله بکاف عبده
    „Is not Allah sufficient for His Servant [Prophet Muhammad]? And [yet], they threaten you with those [they worship] other than Him. And whoever Allah leaves astray – for him there is no guide. (39:36)“
    (kafi literally means sufficient.)

    2- I really like your innovative interpretation on the verse 2:115 and the way that you connect it to the issue of the city-towers. For sure you have read the seminal essay of Roland Barthes on the Eifel tower. If not it may give you a lot of more inspirations:
    https://books.google.at/books/about/The_Eiffel_Tower_and_Other_Mythologies.html?id=TZ2ZOeDWHEQC&redir_esc=y
    In your interpretations of Berlin towers and in contrast to Eifel tower we confront a deconstructive situation: There is always a tower in the landscape that like a panopticon shadows its gaze upon the city. Towers here are analogous to Foucault’s conception of heterotopia: spaces of otherness that blend psych with physics.

    3- I also think that the story of healing of the sick maid in Rumi’s mathnavi and the way that it is connected to the city of Samakand might be of your interest (pp.14 of the following link):
    https://books.google.at/books?id=icAlT_hrlTUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=samarqand+rumi+masnavi&hl=en&sa=X&ei=unJkVbixFcLQswGPr4OoDw&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=samarqand&f=false

    Again I appreciate your theme and approach and again it proves that the way (tariqat) is always keen to surprise its wayfarers with something new. Sorry that I write this in some hurry and looking forward to read more from you.

    All Good Thoughts

    1. Nasima Selim

      Thanks Iradj for your comments and the links. I find the Roland Barthes reference quite useful and will surely
      look into the ‘city of Samarkand’ reference as well. I would also like to clarify the point you raised regarding “Ya Shafi, Ya Kafi”.
      Yes I am aware of the multiple meanings-interpretations and usage of this ‘sacred phrase’. In this text, however,
      I used only the meaning-interpretation that my research interlocutor from this Universal Sufi network came up with.
      But thanks for raising the issue. It gives me the opportunity to clarify this.
      Best, Nasima

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