The mystical twirling Sufi dervishes of southern Iraq are a peaceful and generally well-educated Muslim minority who live in poverty in hopes that it will teach them humility. Like most Islamic sects, they’re not appreciated by their religious brethren (especially extremist groups like Al Qaeda) and are regularly shunned, harassed, or even killed. And the continuing onslaught of extreme prejudice has worked; many dervishes have fled their homeland in recent years.
The few who remain continue to practice their rather intense brand of Islam, which occasionally includes a special form of zikr (a religious ceremony that involves the “remembrance of Allah” and repetition) during which men continually stab themselves in the head and abdomen with knives and spears. The ritual dates back to the early days of Sufism and is performed as both a display of practitioners’ spiritual superiority and a means of recruiting new members by proving God’s existence through a demonstration of his miraculous healing powers. Not too long ago, during a visit to Basrah, Iraq’s southern oil hub, I was lucky enough to be invited to one of these prickly ceremonies.
The rite took place in a takia (dervish temple) in Al Zubeir, one of Basrah’s most deprived areas, a run-down neighborhood with dirt roads and spartan flat houses. As I entered, I was received with a warm welcome and a frugal but delicious meal of lentil soup, local bread, and oranges. Afterward, five young boys started playing timpani, singing, “There is no god but Allah,” while a circle of assembled men rhythmically swayed their heads up and down with their eyes closed. I would soon learn that this was their way of preparing for some serious body perforation.
About 30 men of various ages were gathered, six of whom volunteered to be stabbed. The youngest looked no older than 16, but his calmness and confidence made it apparent that this wasn’t his first time under the knife. The khalifa (leader of the ceremony) unwrapped the brown leather clutch packed with spears and knives of various sizes, and Alí, a young oil engineer, grabbed a hammer and smashed himself in the head before plunging a knife into his forehead. He walked up to me and asked that I take his picture. (I was allowed to take photos, but they no longer permit anyone to film the ceremony, since a previous guest uploaded a video to YouTube with a description that, Alí said, was something like, “How the fanatics of Al Qaeda prepare for jihad.”) He then asked me to pull the knife from his skull. Out of politeness, I gave it my best shot, but it seemed to be stuck. The khalifa came to the rescue, effortlessly removing the blade. Shortly after this, a man named Aqil, who had just had two knives shoved into his head, said, “The miracle is in the healing process. Mine are not serious injuries; you will see other people perforate vital organs without consequences to their health.”
Sure enough, minutes later, a man called Hassan had a spear thrust through his lower left abdomen. With a painful grimace, Hassan told me, “Today it did hurt a little because the tip of the spear hit my hipbone before coming out through my back.” I asked whether he thought the spear had passed through his kidney. “It’s possible,” he replied, and said it wouldn’t be the first time it had been pierced. “Once, after a perforation like this one, a friend had a problem and was taken to the emergency room. After the operation, the doctor told him he had never seen anything like it—he had over 15 holes in his kidney.”
The ceremony lasted for three hours, with only about half an hour devoted to the congregation’s cutting, slicing, and stabbing themselves all over. There was even a cool-down session, when everyone got on their knees and prayed. The only one who seemed to be bleeding was Aqil, who had a cloth wrapped around his head to absorb the blood. No doctors or medical personnel of any type were present, and no one seemed alarmed. When the ceremony concluded, everyone shook my hand, thanked me, and (as was inevitable) invited me to join the religion. Careful not to seem rude, I assured them I was most grateful for their generous offer and said I needed to consider it first.
The dervishes also told me that last year a Japanese journalist had accepted their invitation. I smiled at the thought of the poor girl whose customary cultural politeness wouldn’t allow her to decline such an offer. Who knows, maybe she now practices knife ceremonies by herself in some dark Tokyo apartment. Soon I began to feel guilty about how these men had potentially seriously injured themselves, at least partially on my behalf. Hassan, who had just thrust a spear through his side, assured me I had no reason to worry and suggested that we meet the following day so that I could see God’s healing miracle with my own eyes.
The next day, a hale and hearty Hassan peddled up to me on his mountain bike, right on time. He stopped in front of me, unbuttoned his shirt, and proudly displayed a pitifully small scar on his stomach.