Halfway through a recent Saturday night at the Jerrahi-Helveti Sufi Order in Etobicoke, about 70 men and women were engaged in a spirited spectacle of sound and motion. While the music of a wooden flute, called a ney, soared above the melodies of a zither, the men of the Order provided a pounding beat with their baritone chants to Allah. Two whirling dervishes—one of whom looked to be in his sixties, but was capable of spinning at 60 exquisite revolutions per minute—paid tribute to the rotation of planets and atoms, sending a breeze into the faces of those nearby.
When Tevfik Aydoner moved to Toronto from Istanbul back in 1977, he was a self-described 26-year-old “guitar-playing modern boy” who found a home at the disco. After that, he was a businessman, managing several Rabba Fine Foods stores and, for a time, owning the original Panzerotto Pizza in Mississauga. Now, at 62, Aydoner runs Seraglio, a business that imports Ottoman accessories from his homeland. But every Saturday night, from half past seven to about one in the morning, he serves as the sheik to the dervishes and guests of the Jerrahi Order.
Of course, that didn’t happen overnight, because you can’t just buy a Sufi Order like a pizza franchise—a man is only made a sheik by an existing sheik. Back in 1984, Aydoner and 20 other Toronto Turks organized a multiple-minivan road trip down to New York to see Grand Sheik Muzzafer Effendi, who was visiting from Istanbul. “We all fell in love with him,” said Aydoner, including the two who arrived as atheists. Back home, Aydoner and half of his crew became dervishes, the name given to students of Sufism.
Often confused for a sect of Islam, Sufism is in fact the inner, mystical exploration of that faith. As Jerrahi sheik Gregory Blann puts it in his history of the Order, The Garden of Mystic Love: “The conventionally religious tend to focus on the outer modes of practice. They believe in God, live moral and ethical lives, and practice prayer and other forms of worship. For the Sufis, this is only the beginning.” Striving to overcome his ego and align his every action with Mohammed’s generosity and lifestyle, Aydoner studied with a dervish in Toronto, visited New York every couple of years, and had regular phone conversations with Tosun Bayrak, Grand Sheik of the Americas. In 1995, Bayrak made him a sheik.
Aydoner said that most of the roughly two dozen Sufi Orders in Toronto meet in basements or rented temples, as his Order did until five years ago, when they collectively purchased a former church one long block north of Humber College’s Lakeshore Campus. The atmosphere inside the two-storey building is warm and punctuated with many public displays of affection. On one recent Saturday, dinner—a delicious Pakistani lamb dish prepared by a family of the Order—was shared cross-legged on low tables with barely an inch between elbows. And at the end of the evening, while the women sat in snug rows, the men formed a giant circle, holding hands as they swayed and chanted. The whirlers ended their spinning standing side by side, cozying their heads into a neck cuddle.
Those who gather on Saturdays—half of whom are Turkish, and the rest a broad mix of ethnicities—drive in from downtown and as far as Mississauga and Markham. While the music and communal dinners are draws for many, Ozan Celikel, who was initiated as a dervish seven years ago, comes for his sheik’s guidance. “If we have a problem, he’ll give us advice by telling a story, or he’ll reference a real situation that is similar. He will listen to our dreams and help us understand them,” Celikel said, explaining that the Sufi path has helped him both in his family life, as a father of two, and at work. “I’m a salesman for a large heating and cooling company, and there are times when I could get more money from a customer. But right away, I think, ‘What does my prophet teach me?’ The businessperson who cheats his customer—heaven will be far from him.” Then he shared a famous story about Mohammed urging a man at the market to charge him more for a shirt lest the seller’s business go under. “That’s where you see the buyer being generous to the merchant,” he said.
Celikel has learned much from his sheik, but believes he still has far to go. And his daily struggle isn’t with his customers, but instead with two individuals a little closer to home, who he himself must guide. “I still scream and shout sometimes,” he admitted. “I cannot lie. I am only a human being. And sometimes, your children just don’t listen to you.”
The Jerrahi Sufi Order of Canada, 270 Birmingham St., firstname.lastname@example.org.