Ask one million people how they feel about COVID-19 lockdown measures, you will get 1 million strong opinions. Ask a Sufi what they think about lockdown, and you will get a reserved and resigned response. 

“Obey Allah, obey the Holly Prophet Muhammad, and obey those who are authorities. This is the basis of our life.” This is the guidance of Shaykh Diomande Suleyman, leader of The Most Distinguished Naqshbandi Sufi Order in New York/New Jersey. “Those authorities can be male; they can be female. They can be president, they can be governor, they can be a health director, a police officer, a supervisor – whoever is in that position of authority, you must obey that person.”

Obedience is a key part of being a Muslim and Sufis have raised this attribute to something of an art form. In the four stages of Sufism, the first two stages – sharia, the religious laws, and tariqah, the inner mystical path – govern how to live your life outward and inward to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Their literal translations from Arabic both refer to a type of pathway that must be followed in order to achieve the higher stages of truth and knowledge. Following the rules is foundational to Sufi spirituality.

According to Suleyman, you cannot pick and choose who you listen to and which rules you will follow. When the rules from different sources of authority conflict, it is the duty of the faithful to try and make them work together as best as possible. You can draw from the Quran, Islamic Scholars, government guidelines, and Allah himself when trying to arrive at the best compromise, but the rules must be followed.

Suleyman made it clear why following the rules, all the rules, is so important, especially in a time of pandemic. “All life is sacred. You have to save a life! So, by not coming to worship, it’s not something you choose or you like. Because God says life is sacred, we have to save it. You save lives by respecting the restrictions the authorities put in place.” 

Still, there is an element of worship that cannot be captured at home, and no amount of justifying why a rule was put in place can overcome the sense of loss that follows. Zoom meetings are fine for passing a sermon, and the musical poetry of the Qasidas can be found on any platform that allows audio uploads. It’s ok – but it cannot capture the power of a zikar meditation in the dark, surrounded by the voices of other practitioners. You cannot pass the warmth of a shared meal through a screen as easily as you could a plate of food to a person beside you. Worship is about community, and the digital realm can only take you so far into the spiritual realm.

The Most Distinguished Naqshbandi Sufi Order had to abandon in-person worship in March of 2020, just like most other houses of worship around the United States. . Despite the yearning for their shared community, the members dutifully stayed apart for 15 months until the authorities told them they could return. They masked and sanitized as they were told, and refrained from shaking hands, an important part of establishing a connection to each other. Now, nine months later, they were able to worship with few restrictions. They could even share a meal again. 

Speaking privately, Suleyman explained why he didn’t mind the lack of physical connection at first. “If you wear a nice perfume, and I sit near you for one hour, what happens? I will smell like it! When we sit together, the goodness is like a contagious disease. It jumps from one person to another person.” His measured and steady voice did not waiver as he made the analogy, but the barest hint of wry smile crossed his face as he let the comparison sink in before moving on. “One good person in the room means the whole group gains from that individual.”

As restrictions begin to ease in New York, the Sufis allow themselves to become closer physically and spiritually once more. Whether the rules change again or the path ahead becomes unclear, they know to accept and obey what they are told. For now, they revel in the spread of the spirit while the spread of COVID dies down.