Dervish Mystics with an Albanian Heart

by Jean Arnault-Derens


The following is a translation of an article originally published in French as "Les derviches mystiques au coer de l'identite albanaise" in Peuples du Monde, June 2001. Although the author, journalist Jean Arnault-Derens, writes as an outsider and a non-expert, it nevertheless contains useful information on modern perceptions of Balkan Muslims for dervishes in general and Bektashis in particular---- (translator)


It feels like you need a password to penetrate the vast enclosed Harabati Baba Tekke, the center of the Bektashi dervishes of Tetovo, Macedonia. The ancient convent, with its 16th century buildings, lies at the foot of the mountains which overshadow the city. Baba Tahir Emini, the current head the Bektashi brotherhood in Macedonia has never left the tekke, even at the height of the confrontation between Macedonian police and Albanian guerrillas last March. The tekke enclosure contains the tombs of quite a few Bektashi holy men as well as the lodgings for its dervishes, monks of a kind unique in the world of Islam, who in the past had to pronounce a vow of chastity. The baba, who lives in the tekke with his wife, is the leader of the community and spiritual guide of all the faithful who claim to be Bektashis.


Bektashism emerged in the 14th century out of the mystical world of Sufi and Shi’i Islam. Nevertheless it fully developed in Balkans, where the Islam practiced is entirely of the Sunni sect. Many claim that Bektashism is a syncretic faith, mixing Sunni and Shi’i elements with pre-Islamic influences. “Contemporary Shi’ism is too often associated with fanaticism. We, naturally, have nothing to do with that,” objects Baba Tahir, for whom Bektashism represents a broadminded understanding of Islam.


“The goal of this path is to know God,” explains Baba Tahir, “God’s presence apparent to anyone with eyes. He is reflected in beauty, in friendship and in righteousness. God is everywhere and this has been made clear by the mystics of all religions. The aim of Bektashism is to see all of this, but it is necessary to have eyes to see, the eyes of soul which are forged through the sacrifices of self-negation. Bektashism calls for people to struggle against their baser instincts.”


For the most part Bektashis believe in many of the things that other Shi’is hold dear, including some of its major celebrations. Nevertheless Bektashism does have its own rituals, mostly held under the seal of secrecy. Bektashis teach a metaphorical understanding of Qur’an, which makes it possible to reinterpret many of the obligations presented through a literal reading of the sacred text.


All the dervish brotherhoods developed within the framework of the Ottoman Empire and Bektashis were found in the ranks of that elite military body, the Janissaries. This order was a widespread success among the Albanian peoples of the empire, and it gradually acquired the markings of a “national” religion. Many Bektashis are to be counted among the founding fathers of Albanian nationalism, like the Frashëri brothers or Hasan Prishtina and Bajram Curri, both of whom were originally from Kosovo. Many Bektashis were in fact delegates at the League of Prizren in 1878, which demanded autonomy for the Albanian-populated provinces of Ottoman Empire and which is regarded as the first modern expression an Albanian national conscience.


The Bektashi Order is arranged in a hierarchy under the direction a dedebaba, who is authorized though the recommendation of the other babas. The Kemalist revolution and the subsequent secularization of Turkey following the First World War forced Bektashis to move their center to Tirana in the 1930’s. After the communist revolution of 1945, the they were not initially subjected to the same pressures that other religious confessions had to endure since Enver Hoxha wanted to see the sect as a type of “national religion” in opposition to Catholicism or Sunni Islam, both of which were dependent on outside contacts and more difficult to control. The communists even tried to infiltrate the tekkes, by imposing certain pro-communist “red babas”. Collaboration caused a rift in the order as the large Albanian diaspora refused to recognize the dedebaba in Tirana.


The total banning of religious activity in Albania which came in 1967, failed signal the end of Bektashism, which could count on the faithful of the diaspora as well as the tekkes still in Kosovo and Macedonia. Yugoslavia never imposed the systematic repression of religion as in Albania, but the Muslim community was under the domination of the Sunni clergy (usually hailing from Bosnia), who did not have a favorable opinion of the “heretical deviations” of Bektashism. Mosques had to conform to Sunni sensibilities, even if türbes (the tombs of the saintly dervishes) were located near these places of worship. Opposition between orthodox Sunni Islam and the dervish sects exaggerated the opposition between a Bosnian Islam and the Islam of dervishes, followed largely by Albanians. The faith of the dervishes took refuge from the anti-Sufi campaigns, and beliefs and practices were transmitted by families, frequently in a warped way. Towns like Prizren and Gjakova (in Kosovo) remained important centers for dervishes.


In addition to the Bektashis, there are several other mystical dervish orders. In Preševo, a small Albanian town in the south of Serbia, the türbes of four saints stand in the enclosure of the mosque. “These graves should not be here,” recognizes a faithful Sunni coming out of the place after noon prayers, “People come to pray at the türbes to obtain blessing, even though it’s not allowed in the Qur’an.” The dervishes of Preševo belong to the brotherhood of the Khalwatis. “Shaykh Maksud Efendi was a dervish of Preševo and is an important nationalist figure. He represented our town at the League of Prizren in 1878.  Yet those that claim to be dervishes now are ignorant and a disgrace to Islam,” complains this faithful one pointing out the houses in the small neighborhood where dervish traditions are maintained. Outside of Bektashism and of some other orders now active in Kosovo, the Islam of the dervishes belongs to a long-gone era. The revival of Sufism in the 1970’s hardly affected Bektashism, which holds a more innovative and coherent vision of life, to the point were it is almost considered at times religion distinct from Islam. 


Within the last ten years the order of the Bektashis has been somewhat restored in Albania, and everywhere in the country tekkes and türbes (sometimes situated on the summits of barely accessible mountains) have been restored by the faithful. If the network of the babas has been put back some places, the same can’t be said of the dervishes.  “In Macedonia,” explains Baba Tahir, “two tekkes have been renovated in addition to the one in Tetovo; one in Kičevo and in the small town of Kanatlarci. In the old days there were five tekke in the alone city of Tetovo.” One can count on thousands of the faithful in the whole republic, and there are many who combine the obligations of Sunni Islam with a devotion to the holy dervishes. 


Scores of the graves of holy men have arisen in the compound of Harabati Baba Tekke. The Bektashis in fact have a notion of intercession similar to Catholicism. “The saints are the foundation of our faith. Many of saintly Bektashis were also big patriots, who laid the groundwork for the Albanian nation,” explains Baba Tahir, who sadly observes the presence of Macedonian policemen in the compound, hoping the faithful will be able to come peacefully to the celebration of Ashurah, and event that commemorates the death of Imam Husain at the battle of Karbala’. It’s the most significant celebration in the Shi’ism, and it’s also on the Bektashi calendar.

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