National Geographic Croatia, June 2009

Coauthor: Nina Skorup

Sarajevo was embraced by an autumn sunset. Sheikh Halil Hulusi Nakshibendi, the spiritual leader of the Nakshibendian tekija in Mejtaš, set on the southern point of this dervish temple of unification and prayer of heart, facing Mecca. Veiled women’s faces were peering through inlaid-wood on the upper floor of the tekija, while men were sitting on the first floor, forming two or three halkas (circles). The room was rather dark, but it felt warm nevertheless; the light in it was softening the dark green shades entwined with the color of wood. His eyes closed, Sheikh Halil interrupted the consecrated silence with the introductory verse of zikr. The dervishes’ address to God, started with the rhythmic beating of a kudum (drum) of one of the dervishes. First quiet and then loud, a holy verse from the Koran, “La ilahe ilallah,” filled the spacious tekija. Accompanied by almost monotonous rhythm and melody, the verse was repeated louder and louder, manifesting itself in escalating voices and intonations on the conscious level and in ecstatic moving of bodies on the subconscious level. Women had gentle expressions on their faces and their eyes were closed. Hardly moving their bodies at all, they chanted quietly, almost silently. At the same time, the loud crescendo and staccato of the chanting was turning men’s faces into ecstatic grimaces. The growing intensity of drumming would make them rise on their knees one by one, in random order; their bodies would then sway back and forth, faster and faster, and they would wave their heads to both sides. Their breathing would speed up and become louder as their chanting was becoming more and more intense. Their faces grimaced uncontrollably and they sweated, as if in agony. Their attention was focused to only one thing. “There is no God but Allah,” was the message that transpired from their tongues into their minds, and from their hearts into their bodies. Almost palpable mystic resonance of dedication and ecstatic love for the Lord of the dervishes’ faith strongly vibrated in the air. Zikr is the first degree and the answer to the question how to acquire the mystic lore of the dervishes, the secret that Allah has placed in their hearts.

For six centuries, the heart of Bosnia – the country mostly known by its recent war – has been a realm of tessavuf, an Islamic spiritual science and a discipline that deals with the sublime. “There is no God but Allah, there is nothing but Allah; only God is real”, repeated Sheikh Halil after the final ceremony. This was all clear to his disciples. Seemingly blissful, purified by the ceremony, with bare feet, they lightly step away from the tekija’s carpets. To us strangers, everything remained dangling in the air, somewhat unclear and mysterious. Sheikh Halil, our considerate host, tried to explain it all to us. “Sufism is a science aimed towards purification of the heart,” he said. “Dervishes try to turn their heart away from anything that is not God.”

And what is God, we dared ask. Mysteriously and seemingly intoxicated by poetry, one of the dervishes recited the verses of Jelaluddin Rumi, the greatest mystical poet of Islam of all times who lived in the 13th century and the founder of the dervish Mevlevi Order – the ‘whirling dervishes’ – who spin around their axis during zikr, imitating the sun:

“Ever since I discovered the world of love, my soul has been burning with desire.
I spent my life, my heart and my eyes, too, thinking that servant and Master are two.
But now I’ve learned something as shining as the Sun – where I saw two, there was only one!”

Before leaving for Bosnia, we carried out a little survey: we asked a few people in Croatia who are the dervishes. Some thought those were Islamic fanatics and extremists, while others said they were wandering ascetics depicted in Meša Selimović’s novels. Sheikh Halil told us that people in Bosnia perceived dervishes and sufis the same way. However, dervishes are not people dressed in ascetics’ robes and wool (hence the ethimology of tessavvuf – Arabian for sufism). They are nothing like the people from the 7th-century Mecca mosque porch when der meant ‘door’ and vish meant ‘threshold’. Neither are they beggars traveling through the Bosnian Mountains in caravans, nor are they people who have chosen poverty, asceticism and meditation and rejected the material world. Continuing to live in this world, they do not totally break free from human desires; they merely restrain themselves from those which are contrary to God’s law and to common sense. Through sufi practice and evolutionary tradition of Islam, they are trying to penetrate deeper into their heritage and deliver their hearts in the process. Those who we saw at the close of this day were mostly young, modern Bosnians who live their regular daily lives in the 21st century. They are physicians, professors, tradesmen, vendors, artists, craftsmen and family people, but they are also true saliks (spiritual pilgrims) of their lives.

After the zikr, we all sat down in another room of the tekija, where a ritual meal consisting of mutton, bread and black tea with Turkish delight followed. The atmosphere was much more relaxed. The Sheikh sat on an elevated bench in the far end of the room and the other dervishes sat on the floor. A few ‘orderlies’ were running dedicatedly across the room, serving food and drinks, first to the Sheikh, and then to everyone else. The moment someone ran out of bread or tea, the orderlies would hurry to the kitchen and come back with a new helping. On their way out or way in, some dervishes would stop at the door, turn to the Sheikh, put their hand on their heart and humbly await his look. When the Sheikh would give them a sign, they would approach him and kiss his hand three times. Having seen that this token of appreciation came to us as a surprise, one of the dervishes smiled after he received a blessing and was dismissed by his teacher, and explained, “When you find a teacher, kiss his hand and do not let go of it!”

Orthodox Muslims often criticize dervishes for this worshiping, almost adoration of their teacher – sheikh, since Prophet Mohammad, the founder of Islam, ordered that only God should be worshipped. “Sufism does not depart from Islam”, Sheikh tried to explain in his calm baritone voice. “Sufism is the very essence of Islam. A dervish is every person who wants to follow a higher path, free of illusion and deception. A dervish is the person who purifies himself in the name of God, which is not possible without a spiritual leader. A disciple must unreservedly obey his teacher. The question is whether he will do everything he is told to. This is hard. Being a believer is hard.”

The institute of sheikh is as old as Islam itself; it has been passed on from teachers to disciples for almost fourteen centuries. Every sheikh must have a silsila – a spiritual genealogy of a sort – the unbroken chain by which knowledge is passed on from Prophet Mohammad, the founder of Islam, to the sheikhs of our time. Every sheikh receives the knowledge from his teacher and passes it on to a disciple that, in his opinion, is mature and trained enough for the title. Sheikh Halil showed us this valuable document that follows his knowledge via Istanbul, Morocco and Baghdad way back to Mecca and Medina of the days of Prophet Mohammad.

The first sufis, contemporaries of Prophet Mohammad, were a group of poor people dressed in distinctive woolen robes who were gathering on a mosque porch in Medina. In the first centuries of Islam, sufism was an ascetic movement. An inseparable part of Islam from its very beginning, it meant deepening of the fundamental principles of faith and introducing a personal approach to them in order to come nearer to the Islamic ideal of morality. Sufism has always been an esoteric aspect of Islam and its inner, mystical dimension. It gained strength as Islam was spreading across the world. Dervishes were not just wandering ascetics any more, but also leading intellectuals in courts and acclaimed thinkers, mathematicians, astronomers and other scholars. They are the ones who deserve credit for the ‘Golden Age’ of the Islamic world that flourished in the first half of the second millennium. However, the more established sufism became, and the more it spread from the spiritual elite to the people, the more frequent became the conflicts among sufis on one side and lawyers and theologians of orthodox Islam. The ruling class disliked nurturing of critical opinion, so they proclaimed the dervishes’ relation to God a blasphemy and heresy and started persecuting, excommunicating, harassing, imprisoning and executing them systematically.

In the centers of the Arabian empire of those days, fostering of a ‘pure’ Islam, Islamic Puritanism and even literal interpretation of the Koran prevailed and the original Sufism was pushed to the margins of the large empire and into the newly conquered areas, such as the Balkans. The first dervishes came to the Balkans in the fifteenth century, preceding the Ottoman armies. The wandering dervishes would go from village to village, telling people about the new faith. In order to prove the power of their God, they would ritually pierce their own cheeks, bellies and necks with large needles, without spilling a drop of blood. This picture – dervishes piercing themselves with large needles – was the one that some respondents in Croatia evoked when we asked them if they knew who dervishes were. We asked about this custom in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but we found out they do not practice this there any more. This is why we went to Kosovo.

In the area near the borders of Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo there is the most traditional dervish community in Europe. In the tekija of Rifai Order in Prizren, we found Sheikh Adrihusejn Šeha, originally from Pula, Croatia, who spends half a year performing his service in Prizren and the other half in New York. He told us that ijra – ritual piercing – would take place in their tekija on March 22, celebrating the birthday of Sultan Nevruz, Prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law. The event also marks the first day of spring because dervishes celebrate the rebirth of nature and the beginning of a new life cycle. “Ijra has nothing to do with zikr,” Sheikh Adrihusejn explained. “We do it to honor the tradition. This way we strengthen ourselves and the task of Sufism is to strengthen yourself and to prove to yourself that you are a believer.”

A few hundred people gathered in the Prizren tekija on that day. Half of them were young and old dervishes dressed in black-and-white dresses and fezes and the other half were visitors from Kosovo and numerous tourists and members of KFOR – international peacekeepers in Kosovo, uniformed army officers armed with cameras. On the wall behind the Sheikh hung numerous ritual sabers, axes, swords and large needles, each with an iron ball on one end, giving a hint about the forthcoming piercing. After a sermon, the dervishes started pronouncing God’s name energetically, swaying their bodies back and forth and gradually falling into a trance while controlling the rhythm of their breathing. The Sheikh took cymbals and a few dervishes took drums and tambourines to accompany the rhythm of the ritual with an intensive sound. At one moment, the youngest participants dressed in dervish outfits stepped out before the Sheikh. While the older dervishes loudly shouted verses from the Koran, the Sheikh pierced the cheeks of four eight-year-olds with the thinnest needles. Although it was their first piercing experience, an initiation of a sort, the boys humbly and quietly endured it and then returned to the crowd and started swaying back and forth in the rhythm that engulfed the whole tekija. After them, the older dervishes followed – high school and university students – and the Sheikh pierced their faces with larger and thicker needles.

Then adults, experienced dervishes stepped into the center of the tekija and the Sheikh placed the blessed needles, the largest and the thickest ones, onto their hands,. Four of them lined up in two rows and started piercing themselves and dancing. First they pierced the thick flesh on the side of their bellies and then they kneeled down, threw their heads back and pushed the needles a few centimeters into their gullets. In the end, each of them pierced both of their cheeks with a single needle. Blood appeared only after they had pulled the needle out for the last time.

When the amazed KFOR representatives joined the Sheikh for tea in the other room after the ceremony, they asked him how could it be that the piercing caused no pain to them and was that magic. “Even if it hurts, you do not feel it,” laughed Sheikh Adrihusejn, obviously amused with the foreigners’ questions and attention. “Many claim we are doing magic. We can do everything, but we cannot conjure blood. If you love Allah, you are dedicated to him; and if you are dedicated, then there are no obstacles.”

The orthodox Islamic community’s second most frequent objection to the sufis is the use of magic. Many Muslims hold that these miracles are a heritage of pagan practice and that they have nothing to do with orthodox faith. Sheikh Halil Hulusi, whom we met again in Sarajevo’s Mejtaš tekija just before another zikr, agrees with that. “True believers do not need miracles or proofs,” he said, commenting on the ijra in Kosovo. “There are dervishes who can levitate, walk on water, and lie on sabers. But who needs that? The faithless, gullible crowd! I teach my dervishes to stay as far away from that as they can!”

Sheikh Halil explained that he requires from his disciples to be normal people. To study and work and not to neglect the material world on the account of spiritual world. Not to turn to asceticism. To be wise in knowing the limits and to be right-minded in faith. “A dervish enjoys himself in everything, but he is trained to pervade with love for God,” continued Sheikh Halil while his disciples were bringing to him his ceremonial fez for zikr. “He drinks but does not get drunk; he eats but does not get stuffed; he is careful about what he says and what company he keeps; he does not waste time; he sleeps little to seize the day; he marries; he loves, reads and teaches.”

Maybe a bit inspired by our conversation, Sheikh Halil started his sermon before zikr with reading the first imperative from the Koran in a loud voice: “Learn, read, become enlightened in the name of your Lord! This is the first commandment from the Koran for every Moslem. There is nothing good in our believing and in your actions if they are not based on knowledge. Knowledge guides actions and actions are its followers!”

We found out that knowledge is highly regarded among dervishes when we visited the Faculty of Islamic Studies, a magnificent edifice resembling the scholastic palaces of the Islamic empire of the old days. Complemented with the warmth of Bosnian ornaments and ubiquitous mentality, the faculty was giving out an impression of the seducing, mystical spirit of ancient temples of lore. The classes of comparative religion and mystical philosophy held by Professor Rešid Hafizović, a young scholar and dervish, always attract packed student audiences. Standing at the rostrum, he spoke smoothly and eloquently, making strong and passionate gestures. However, when we met him in his cabinet later, he gave the impression of a calm and quiet man. He spoke quietly and with composure, and yet with enthusiasm, in meditative rhythm. All of his answers were extensive. We wanted to know what happened with sufism in recent history and what was Bosnia’s position in the sufi map of the world.

“Sufism was the corner-stone of Islam, but the builders rejected it”, said the professor. “For example, today’s Vahabism, a conservative Islamic movement, shows no desire for critical opinion at all. Puritanism of that kind is the worst tragedy that has ever happened to Islam. Fortunately, Sufism retained its original form in Bosnia,” he said, wandering into history a bit to substantiate his argument with facts. The professor said that Sufism did not come to Europe, but was partly created there, in the Spanish province of Andalusia in the 12th century, where one of the greatest Sufi thinkers of all times – Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi – was born.

“We can say that Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the westernmost part of the former Ottoman Empire, is the strongest sufi community in Europe,” continued the professor, explaining that dervishes in Bosnia were opening tekijas and shelters for the poor from the very beginning. The oldest tekija, the one in Bembaš in Sarajevo, was built in 1463. It was torn down in 1952, under communism. Today, a gas station stands in its place – a monument of capitalism, as dervishes say. Many tekijas were destroyed during communism; while this forced many dervishes into hiding, it did not stop them to keep Sufism alive in secret. Many dervish orders reemerged and flourished in the past couple of decades and Sufism gained new strength and freshness. Among the educated part of the Bosnian population, Sufism has played an important role in redefining and establishing their cultural identity.

“Today, in no other place can be found such a strong presence of dervish orders and such a strong dervish life in tekijas as in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Professor Hafizović. “The people that gather in local tekijas include common people and those with degrees. Sufism in Bosnia is growing and as many as a few hundreds of people can be found in tekijas during zikr. Take a look at Sheikh Halil Hulusi, for instance. He attracts the largest crowds. Sometimes he finds in the street youths that have gone astray and makes miracles with them. Although he does not have a degree in theology and cannot read Ibn Arabi’s work in Arabic, he is successful in educating people. This is something that the Islamic Community should do, but it does not,” concluded the professor, who is not an official member of Halka, but performs zikr with the members of his household when he feels the need for it.

Sheikh Halil Hulusi welcomed us again during one of the ritual meals after another evening prayer. The female and male dervishes were sitting on the cushioned floor while disciples on duty were serving them tea. As usual, there was no God-fearing silence so characteristic for most sacral sanctuaries; on the contrary, the room was filled with a natural and warm hubbub of voices. Used to the routine, the Sheikh was answering the dervishes’ questions in a corner of the main room. He would get carried away now and then and would give a short lecture or merely say a sentence in a loud voice so that everybody could hear him.

“Our faith and our actions are our life. There is no life outside it,” he said, and then he turned to us. By then we were  already accustomed to being their guests. He explained to us once again that the essence of Sufism is that dervishes must be fully integrated in this world. Whatever they do, they must do the best they can; they must approach every profession with the same passion as when approaching a prayer or zikr.

“Take anyone here,” he said, making a circle with his arm and showing all of his disciples. He called Adis Bekir, a barber from Sarajevo’s Baščaršija. “He is the youngest barber in Sarajevo but he takes his job with such a passion that he is already the best!” He then called Husein Resić, a twenty-eight-year-old who has a successful dental practice, runs his new hotel in downtown Sarajevo, and is married with children. Husein quoted the verses of Ebu Seid, an 11th-century dervish:

“A perfect Sufi is not the intoxicated one, the one who is lost in t thoughts about Unity, neither is he a hermit who has cut all ties with the world. The true Sufi lives among people, he eats, buys and sells, and yet he does not forget Allah the Sublime for a single moment.”

Next to him sat Dr. Omer Perva, a cardiologist. “God reveals himself through the heart and Omer watches and cures hearts every day,” said Sheikh Halil with the pride of a father who is commending his son. “Take Sejfudin Vila,” he pointed at another gentleman, “a world-known wood-carver. His hands carved the chair for Pope John Paul II.” He then called Dževad Jogunčić, a project engineer who is introducing to Bosnia a state-of-the-art technology for reduction of environmental pollution. “He has just negotiated a USD 50-million-worth project for the thermal power plant in Kakanj that will reduce the consumption of greenhouse gasses by 80 percent. Prophet Mohammad ordered us all to keep all places in nature clean.”

So, what is the secret, we asked, why is Sufism considered to be ‘mystical’. The Sheikh did not reply but he laughed mysteriously, proud of his disciples. One of them told a new story. “My great-grandfather was a dervish somewhere in central Bosnia. In those days nobody knew what that was,” he said. “It was all secret and closed. People would occasionally see traveling dervishes and they knew there was a tekija in the village, from which zikr could be heard. But they had no idea who these people were and what was going on in the tekija. Not even wives and families of dervishes knew that. In order to become a dervish, one had to pass numerous tests; today, it is different, everything is known… People can come when they please but they also eliminate themselves. Before, it was the test that would eliminate them; today, they themselves see that they cannot go any further and that it is a hard road.”

“Do you know what Sheikh Halil said when I came here?” joined in Mirza Mušija, a Sarajevan actor. “After my first zikr, I reached an amazing level of consciousness and I said that it was better than any possible intoxication and that I would bring my fellow actors here to see it and try it. And the Sheikh replied: ‘You can send your actors to me, but I usually send “actors” out.” A sincere laughter filled the tekija. “After I graduated from the Academy, I thought it natural to continue my education in this school of spirituality,” continued Mirza more seriously. “As an actor, I have to find in myself,  and bring to awareness, all possible levels of being. This is the best way to get to know them. It is important for everyone’s personal development to get to know oneself well. This is an upgrading, a school of self-awareness, facing with the utmost depths of self.”

A young woman then joined in, too. It was dervishana Dženana Hasenpašić. “I don’t know how today’s young people can live their lives without spiritual practice, without guidance. I don’t know how they can live without knowing the right direction and without peace. And all that in the times when people need caring and tenderness the most – which is something that can only be manifested through love.”

All that time, several dervishes were making sure that no one stays without tea. The moment someone would drink the last mouthful of the sweet liquid from a small Turkish cup, a dervish on duty would bring them a new dose of refreshment. Sheikh Halil watched his dervishes as a father would watch his sons becoming healthy, conscious people before his very eyes. As the night passed, the dervishes were leaving one by one. They would stand opposite to the Sheikh, humble, with a hand on their heart. When he would give them a sign, they would approach him and kiss his hand. He would give them a blessing and bid them good night. In the end, only the Sheikh and dervishes on duty remained; the duty of the latter ones was to guard the tekija during the night and open its door to unexpected guests. For dervishes believe that it is God’s treat if he sends some of his children to their door and give them an opportunity to help them.

“I wish you all the best and have a safe journey,” said the Sheikh with a bold, friendly smile when we were leaving. Our steps echoed through the silent night while we were going down the empty streets from Mejtaši to Čaršija. The lights in the tekija went out a moment after the Sheikh saw us off. The dervish temple of mysticism, the shelter of the souls seeking peace, thus disappeared into Sarajevo night, fading away like a magic. Accompanying the echo of our steps, Rumi’s verse with which the Sheikh bid us farewell also kept sounding somewhere in the silence for a long time: “The heart must penetrate the secret of this life and see its beginning and its end with a clear eye.”