Searching for Sufism in Art, Music and Dreams

by Rev. Gina Rose Halpern, D.Min.

July 2008

“If you put your heart against the earth with me, in serving
every creature, our Beloved will enter you from our sacred realm
and we will be, we will be so happy.”


I am working on a painting to capture the essence of Sufism. How am I to know this spirit that is so elusive, so filled with mystery?

Rev. Gina Rose Halpern

I look out the window and the leaves of the willow tree shine in the sun, their subtle dance reminding me of the dervishes spinning gently in their prayer. “La Illaha il Allah,” says the voice of the willow as it dances in the breeze.​ ​There is no reality but God. All-ah, nothing but the great ‘Ah’… a sighing for connection with Spirit.

After days of practice and meditation and designing and painting this image, I arise ​this morning ​feeling especially awake and present to life.

On this warm morning of prayerful reflection, I recall the sweltering heat of Philadelphia summers when I took refuge in the cool of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Inside the museum was the interior of a golden mosque with turquoise tiles. Its symbolic script spoke of God in a language that touched me, but that I could not understand. It seemed as if this scene had somehow been magically transported to the museum.

I sought out the cool interior of the “mosque” as an oasis from suburban life.I drank in the beautiful calligraphy, the colors, the rhythmic patterns. During these trips I spent hours gazing at Persian miniatures. Each was an invitation to enter a whole world. These miniatures, in a language from a culture I didn’t know, exposed me to mystical tales of spirit and sent me on a quest has continued to this day.

I now realize that even without knowing about the Sufis, I was searching for them.

After I began my international travels, first I went to Jerusalem. It was a miraculous journey, particularly since Israel was at peace with Palestine. This meant that I could wander the ancient streets, flowing from the Jewish Wailing Wall through the incredible cathedrals and to the Dome of the Rock.

The Dome of the Rock is an exquisite sanctuary of Islamic architecture and faith. It​ hovers like a mirage over all of Jerusalem. Golden and turquoise, it is filled with light and the colored gardens of woven prayer rugs.

I could feel my heart opening and flying up to meet the windows where the shimmering light poured through the Dome. Later when I traveled to Pakistan and India—particularly in Kashmir, high in the Himalayan mountains—I felt that I had physically entered the world that I had previously visited in Persian miniatures.

Artwork by Rev. Dr. Gina Rose Halpern

The Sufis are elusive. The mystery of their tradition is woven in poetry, in carpets, and encoded in the pattern of paintings and textiles, architecture, and song.

One night I had a dream that I was traveling in search of my Sufi teacher. In the dream it was a beautiful day; it was like stepping into the oasis in the dry, parched lands where the water flowed gently off the mountain.

Full of yearning, I traveled far on my quest to the town where the Sufi teacher lived. When I knocked on the door of his home, they said, “The teacher is at the stream, trout fishing.”

I went to the stream and saw my teacher standing it, fly-fishing. I could only see him from the back. I thought, “I don’t know how to fish.” Then I realized that there was no hook on his line. Each time he cast the line out in the wind, it was writing scripts of Sufi poetry and prayer in curves and arabesques, in the slow drifting of the line, on the wind of Spirit.

How I wished I could read that​ language! Yet that was my mind, thinking and desiring. My heart knew what his line was saying: “All is God. There is no​thing​ but God. All beauty, all creation, all beings, all is Allah … All-ah.”

Then in the dream, I realized that my teacher had died. I saw his body being carried upstream on the giant back of a salmon, returning to the source—returning home.

Working on this small painting has taken me on a journey of remembrance.

Surrendering to the creative process of opening my heart to Spirit, I allow myself to take wing and soar in the beauty of this ancient faith tradition.

In creating this illuminated image of Sufism for The Chaplaincy Institute’s Sufism module, I worked to capture the qualities of a Persian miniature that invites the viewer to a spiritual paradise—the abode of The Beloved.

The heart aspires to union with the Beloved. How is such Union attained? Through spiritual practice and prayer; through the Dervish’s whirling; in the practice of Sema, the practice of remembrance; in daily devotional practices; and in exalted poetry and prayer—particularly as captured by the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, and Rabi’a.

I placed Rumi’s tomb (located in Konya, Turkey) as the foundation of the painting, since it is through Rumi that so many Westerners have come to know and appreciate the golden spirit of the Sufis​, the spirit that gives wings to the heart.

The archway is a repeating motif, both in the architecture and as the pattern in the prayer rug, which is the place where the Sufi surrenders to God. The prayer rug is the place from which the Sufi travels on the ascending journey towards God.

In Sufi symbolism, the pomegranate and the Seal of Solomon—known to the Jews as the Mogen David, the Star of David—point to the Jewish roots of Islam. In this symbolism is encoded the remembrance of returning to the garden of Paradise—that is, spiritual union.

La Illaha Il Allah…There is no God but God.