“By pious fools my back has been broken.” The Prophet
For centuries the dervish orders have been persecuted by the ulema or institution of orthodox theologians. In the twentieth century the existence of the orders has been further affected by western social and political influences. In Turkey and the Soviet Union the orders are officially prohibited, but the veneration of the mazars continues. Personally I witnessed an important number of pilgrims at the mazars of Konya, Hagibektas, Bukhara and Samarkand. Although many sanctuaries in the Soviet Union have been closed for years one can still see pilgrims kissing the closed doors. Recently an active Sufi group in Istanbul reobtained official authorisation to bury their deceased sheikh in their convent.
In Albania, to where most of the Bektashis of Turkey fled, all the convents, mazars and mosques have been closed since 1967 and transformed into ‘Houses of Culture’. Here follows a report of the closing of the first mazar in Albania: “A group of young men entered the shrine. They broke open the sarcophagus and found the skeleton of a dog. The young men decided that henceforth the sanctuary should serve as a ‘House of Culture’. For days and days the incident was made headline news in the press, radio and cinema. The campaign caused similar actions throughout Albania. Mazars were destroyed and relics were burned. In some places where dervishes were not cooperative they were killed or confined to an asylum.”
Mazars have been desecrated not only by non-religious fanatics but also by religious zealots such as the Wahhabis who destroyed all mazars in the beginning of the nineteenth century and again when they rose to full power in Saudi Arabia after the First World War. The Wahhabis held that worship at shrines of saints is idolatry and as such opposed to the Islamic dogma which says that ‘Allah is without a second’. Forswearing music, stimulants and the wearing of silk clothes, they consider it blasphemy to attribute any action or effect to someone or something other than Allah. They do not accept the possibility of an intermediary between Allah and man, because they hold that the souls of the deceased have no power to act. At one time they considered demolishing the dome over the Prophet’s tomb. Along with the cult of the saints the Wahhabis also abolished the orders.
The only country in Eastern Europe that has not outlawed the orders is Yugoslavia. In the southern republics I found a notable number of active tekijas or convents. In Sarajevo I assisted at the Thursday meeting of a
Qadiri group. In Djacovitsa I visited a Qadiri, a Bektashi and two Sadi convents. The Bektashi convent headed by an old sheikh still had five resident dervishes in 1975. It is perhaps the only remaining traditional convent of the once widespread Bektashi order. My informants told me that in Djacovitsa alone there were thirteen active tekijas. Only the Sadi convents showed a strong tomb cult. Many tombs were covered with towels to absorb the healing baraka. In Tetovo I went to see the large Bektashi monastery founded by Sersem Ali Baba on the spot where he experienced the Presence of Hazrat Ali. After the last Bektashis left in 1944, the monastery was turned into a war museum and later into a hotel. The magham of Ali in its octagonal edifice still breathes a subtle atmosphere.
Institutionalization of an esoteric teaching usually causes reformation of the teaching towards orthodoxy. With the evolution of an order into a large social organization the criteria of admission are lowered and much time is spent on politics to maintain the power and influence of the order. This contrasts sharply with the wise universalism and keeping aloof from politics of many of the great Sufis of the past. Of Abu Yazid al-Bistami it is known that he followed for some time the instructions of a non-Muslim from Sind in Pakistan. Of Ahmad Yasavi it is said that he had contacts with a shaman. The original Chishti sheikhs did not demand conversion to Islam as a prerequisite for being accepted by them as a pupil.
But the outward behavior of a dervish or order should not mislead us. The attachment shown by Sufis to the observances of the Qoranic law may be a way of protecting their secrets and themselves. I remember a meeting in Timbuktu, after the call to evening prayer when shops close and when the silence of the desert recaptures the town, with an orthodox brotherhood of which the self-effacement of its members was such that they gave the impression of having almost ceased to exist. Their vibrations while performing prayers in one of the sandy streets made me think of those who ‘are not aware of the excellence of their state’ and ‘who are hidden from themselves and from mankind.’
Of my association with institutionalized Sufi groups I recollect my initiation of the latifa of the heart by a Naqshbandi sheikh, reputed as much for his baraka as for his political power. He was the head of an order that had been reformed in the seventeenth century. During my first interview with him he listened attentively and kindly to my religious experiences and aspirations. When I expressed the wish to receive a spiritual exercise, he told me to come back after four days in the morning.
That particular day I went to his khanegah (Khanegah (Pers.) : dervish hostel; convent) and was led into an empty room. Soon the sheikh came in followed by two men. He was dressed in a dark grey classical cloak and wore a white turban. The two men were dressed in local costume. After some joyful talk the sheikh began with the verbal initiation. The eldest of the two dervishes translated: “The blessing of the latifa of the heart originated with Adam and is related to the divine attributes of Takvin: the power of creation, of sustaining life and causing death.”
“Sit cross legged. Each time before you begin your practice, say, “The blessing of Takvin will come to me through my Spiritual Teacher.” “Next concentrate your attention three fingers below the left breast. Put your teeth together and place your tongue against the roof of the mouth. Start breathing through your nose and close your eyes. Then visualize your teacher’s face and imagine that your heart latifa, three fingers below your left breast, says ‘Allah’. The best time for practice is before sunrise after morning prayer and in the evening after evening prayer or before going to bed. Put always when possible your attention on your heart latifa and say silently ‘Allah’ also during your work or any other occupation.”
I was to practice this exercise for six months. I was also advised to do four cycles of prayer at each prayer time. Good moral conduct was required. I was to trust my teacher and feel love towards him. If anything important happened I was to write it to him. If any physical or psychical derangement should occur, I was to say five hundred times ‘Hu Allah’. After some time I should see a light inside.
The two interpreters left the room and I stayed alone with the sheikh. We sat cross legged facing each other. The sheikh told me to come nearer and put his hands on my heart, at the same time looking fixedly into my eyes. He began to roll me from left to right, about ten times, until I was out of equilibrium, then pulled me against his chest and embraced me. He repeated this action three times. It seemed as if I was a child. At other moments the scene looked as if we were lovers. His hands passed endlessly over my chest, shoulders and back. I let everything happen, without resistance. Again he looked straight into my eyes, rocked me and pressed my body hard against his chest. As the sheikh’s manipulations continued I became tired and drowsy. At the end he held me for a long time in his arms; I was breathing heavily and had closed my eyes. Then he took me by my shoulders and smiled. The sheikh stood up, called and went into an adjacent room. The two dervishes came in and congratulated me. The sheikh emerged from the room with a bottle of rose perfume and two old Kasghar incense burners of colored lacquered wood which he presented to me. A servant announced that- dinner was ready. Time had passed quickly. The food was delicious and after tea we separated in the best of moods. I was allowed to kiss the hand of the sheikh.
The initiation had an unexpected effect. Other rites of initiation or ceremonies by which I was authorized to practice a particular exercise had always had some result. But this time nothing happened. In the meantime I travelled to India and rented a room in the village near the mausoleum of the fakir, where I continued the sheikh’s exercises with the knowledge that the transformation of the nafs-i-ammara needs patience and perseverance. When I told the fakir about my initiation he made no comment.
Shortly after my arrival in the village I had two dreams. I dreamed that I was walking in what looked to be a deserted Muslim city in ruins. Coming near a mosque I perceived standing under an arched gate three turbaned men who held a spotless white horse at the bridle. The horse was saddled for a long journey. One of the men shouted at m: “Take the gate of the Afghans!” When I walked towards them, I woke up.
In the second dream I found myself in a long underground vault, resembling in many aspects of its architecture the main alley in the bazar of Aleppo. Along the whitewashed walls stood a row of rectangular wooden coffins, the size of which was larger than a human body. Except for the sarcophagi the immense underground necropolis was deserted. The whole atmosphere was pervaded by a majestic tranquility. All of a sudden I heard a man’s voice above my head saying very clearly and distinctly: “Of their bodies should be taken care. This is not a command. If they do not, they shall not be punished. I only tell them.”
Yet while visiting the fakir and visualizing the face of the sheikh I became aware of an important difference in my relation respectively with the fakir and the sheikh. With the fakir there was a link of mutual sympathy. Insights and energy were given to me without my having asked for them, while drinking a glass of tea or just while sitting in the mausoleum. Though the sheikh was very hospitable his high status and his many religious duties made a very distant personage of him. In reality I did not feel any love for him; there seemed not to be any affinity between us. With the fakir it was entirely different.
One time coming back after a long absence I found the fakir very ill. He had a dry cough and fever and was very weak. Worried about his health I advised him to break his ordinary fasts, but he only smiled and refused to eat more than was his habit. He had bought a big lock that he could hang from the inside on his door so that occasional visitors had the impression that he was absent. Only some dervish friends and I could drop in at any time. He said that he took this measure because some visitors withdrew power from him. In the same way that he was able to see the real mind of people, he was also able to feel the psycho-physical condition of visitors. He avoided being touched by visitors who were in an unbalanced psychophysical state as their touch caused him to suffer pain for several hours. I walked in every day and saw to my happy surprise that he returned more and more back to his physical body. First I did not connect his friends’ visits with his recovery but when after a week he had again resumed his regular activities, I did. His recovery had been helped by the flow of sympathetic-complementary energies between him and his friends. Between the sheikh and me there was not such a flow of energy. At least not as visible as with the fakir. That current of love and subtle energy between us was so strong that sometimes when departing from him tears sprang out of my eyes. More than once the fakir said: “There is a ‘connection of hearts’ between us.” In another context he used the expression ‘there must be heart connection’ to designate a psycho-energetic condition necessary to contact hidden powers. Sitting with the fakir was always rewarding. We communicated by the medium of a pidgin English of our own, full of curious idioms, that had developed between us through the years. He did not pose as a teacher. On the contrary, he told me twice that he himself was waiting for a person to guide him further on the Way.
Above all I learned much by living in his presence and by comparing my own moods and actions with his behavior. But this was not the main factor in the slow change that I underwent. Some subtle force which emanated continuously from him was the determining factor in refining my mind. At times the atmosphere between us was so strong that we hardly spoke a word. Then he only said: “Powers have come.” I often found out that, while we remained silent, he had communicated knowledge by telepathy. I would sit with him empty-minded, and at the appropriate moment I would ‘remember’ or become inspired.
While never losing himself in speculative metaphysical talk he excelled in knowledge about the extraordinary feats and stories of famous saints. When he was recounting the glorious exploits of a saint or a miraculous event it was extremely difficult to follow his train of thought. My thoughts were blocked and dissolved in the psychic energy that he was transmitting. His way of telling stories had to some extent the effect of doing zikr. It was like plugging our mind into the other world and calling up powers. The story was only a switch that turned on the current. Afterwards my perception and awareness became sharper. One of these changes of perception was that I came to see the real face of people hidden behind their physical face. It happened that while I was talking to someone, his ordinary head eclipsed and a hidden inner head took shape. Mostly the inner heads I perceived were ghastly and deformed, only rarely did they have a harmonious expression. Some stories he recounted over and over again. Every time some new aspect, hitherto seemingly unimportant, was discovered. On the other hand he never discussed past situations, no matter how significant they had been. He only recalled an event for the purpose of calling up powers. He never indulged in the game of remembering past data.
Not a day passed without a humorous happening. One morning a friend of the fakir came in with tears in his eyes and asked why he had refused to shake hands with him at a faraway shrine the day before. Great was the astonishment of the man when the fakir told him that he had not left his place for days and not visited that shrine for years. No further comment nor explanation was sought or given. The same attitude prevailed when someone had received a message in a supernatural way. No elaborate assumptions were derived from the event. It was all very real and important, but only for the moment. The fakir never got trapped in anything.
Another feature of his personality was his ability to become invisible though his physical body remained present. His mind at times was so empty of ordinary thought-forms that one almost forgot his presence. To the outside world our communication looked quite normal. An amusing scene happened when a man came in at a moment when the atmosphere in the mausoleum was very subtle. As we went on drinking tea in silence, the man grew nervous and started firing questions at the fakir, who gave indirect hints as to the nature of the present situation. But he was blinded by his problems and continued with his irrelevant utterances. When his spiritual impoliteness became insupportable, the fakir stopped sipping his tea, looked straight at the man, said something which nobody could remember afterwards and gave such a terrifying command by telepathic means that the man became perplexed and silent. Then as if nothing had happened he continued sipping his tea. Nothing was left of the discordant vibrations of the visitor.
Many orders observe the system of hereditary succession of the sheikhdom. While it is generally accepted that baraka is inheritable, sainthood is not and has to be realized individually. in Jerusalem I met a descendant of a famous companion of the Prophet and of an important hereditary line of Rifa’i sheikhs who claimed that all members of his family could easily handle snakes and scorpions from childhood on without initiation or training. He confided to me that, though he himself had never been a practicing dervish, certain genetically inherited Sufic qualities in him still caused miracles to happen in his surroundings.
When Chiragh-i-Delhi, the sixth and last sheikh of the Chishti order, was dying, he refused to indicate a Spiritual Successor because he found none of his disciples worthy to carry on the task. He ordered that all sacred relics of the order (cloak, staff, rosary and a special wooden bowl) which were usually given to the Successor should be buried with him. Only after Chiragh-i-Delhi’s disciples had established themselves by their own authority as sheikhs, did a hereditary system of succession originate in the Chishti Way.