I watched a man hammer three six-inch daggers into his head and drive a skewer through his face. Then I had to pull the daggers out. I got the first one out. I couldn't shift the second one. The wooden handle came off in my hand. Another man wrapped the naked blade in paper and gripped it tightly enough to tug it out. They didn't ask me to pull out the third one.
This was the mystical order of the Kasnazaniya Qadiris trying to recruit me. These actions with knives, skewers and burning torches is their proof that they possess the power of God. By the time we reached the daggers, I had already watched one man eat a fluorescent light tube, another eat an entire packet of Chinese razor blades, a third slash his tongue with two knives, a fourth nail his eye shut with two needles, and a boy of maybe three skewer his cheeks. After the daggers, a man slashed his back repeatedly with a three-foot sword.
It happened. Apart from the pictures, I can show you the blood on my notebook. I think in fact the miracle is not so much that people can mutilate themselves like this but that the wounds seem to heal so fast - some of them almost instantly. I took a picture of the man who nailed his eye shut after he took the needles out and I could barely see the wound. Mind you, the boy who slashed his tongue still had a mouth full of blood when he came to show me his wounds half an hour later.
I don't fancy the knives in the head but I can feel some empathy with the Qadiri order. They pledge allegiance to the Sufi tradition, a mystical ‘Path’ which became prominent in Islam more than a thousand years ago but which goes beyond Islam. These men I met hold that all religions are essentially the same and that what matters is to search for truth and unite with God.
They say that the self-mutiliation (in Arabic 'darb', or 'striking') is not the heart of their faith. It is a 'blessing' and a demonstration that they possess the power of God, channelled through their leader, currently Shaikh Mohammad ash Sheikh Abdul Karim al Kasnazaniyah al Hussainy, who has received it passed on from hand to hand down a line of imams and saints from the Prophet Mohammad. Nobody can take part in the darb without being ordered to by the Shaikh.
The heart of the Sufi way is the search for truth. There are three pillars - an oath of allegiance to the Shaikh, the dhikr ('recitation') ceremony which may or may not include knives and skewers, and spiritual exercises set for each seeker by his master.
In the end, I think my problem is with the oath of allegiance. The door to understanding is opened by total negation of the self, putting yourself utterly in the hands of the Shaikh. I find it hard enough to work for a company that tells me what to do, let alone put my entire life - literally - in the hands of someone else. They're probably right, and I'm probably arrogant. But I spent about three hours this afternoon saying as politely as I could, 'not yet.'