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Bos/Hrv/Srp 08 Apr 13

Bosnia’s Dervishes in a Spin Over Rebuilt Tekke

Muslim followers of Sufi-ism await the reconstruction of their ancient ‘tekke’ – a symbol of the revival of the forgotten dervish tradition in Sarajevo.

Amina Hamzic
BIRN Sarajevo
The new tekke at the Kovaci memorial centre | Photo: Amina Hamzic

Followers of the Sufi tradition of Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina eagerly await the opening of a new tekke  (Sufi shrine or home), scheduled for May 8.

Construction of the new tekke was completed on April 6 at the Kovaci memorial centre near the centre of Sarajevo.

The site is where the former president Alija Izetbegovic was buried. A secluded spot, it is surrounded by greenery and nature, with a great view over the old part of town. 

The aim of the municipality of Seldzuk, the main source of money for the construction, is to replace the tekke built by Isa Bey Isakovic in 1462 on the outskirts Sarajevo at Bentbasa, which was demolished after World War II.

Many Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina are delighted with the idea, as it shows that tariqas - Sufi orders - are reviving in Bosnia and Herzegovina once again.

One such believer is Hajji Ahmetak Ahmed, a dervish of the naqshybandiyya order, and big fan of dhikr - a devotional act or ritual glorifying God, performed in the tekke.

Although he comes from a family that cherished the Muslim faith, he says his more complete devotion and understanding of its lifestyle came after he experienced a tragic event.

During the war in Bosnia, on November 10, 1993, in an attack by Bosnian Croat fighters from the HVO, he took 13 bullets in his chest, neck and jaw from a distance of only two metres.

Amazingly, he survived. Having partly recovered, the next year he performed a hajj, a pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, with a group of wounded civilians and soldiers alongside President Izetbegovic.

Ahmed now maintains that it was good that he was shot because his wounds paved his way towards the Kaaba, the holy site of Mecca, and gave him the chance to perform hajj near the president with the touch of a thousand brotherly hands.

Today, he is retired and every free moment he spends in visiting tekkes and mosques where he performs dhikr.

A once famous tekke:

Tekke at Buna

Mevlevi Tekke on Bentbasa, which the Communist authorities demolished in 1957, was one of the most famous tekkes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, known for its historical and cultural significance along with the one at Buna in Blagaj and the Qadiri tekke Haji Sinan, which houses a valuable collection of calligraphy.

The original tekke on Bentbasha was the first registered institution of a tariqa in Bosnia and Herzegovina and is thus an important symbol in BiH history.

Many other tekkes in this area were also built in the 15th century. In Sarajevo alone there were 47 at one time, many of which are now demolished.

The goal of building a replica of the original, built by Isa Bey Isakovic in 1462, is to return to Sarajevo its old dervish order, which existed here for centuries.

The head of the Association for Promotion and Preservation of Ottoman Heritage Haji Mujaga, Velija Kukuruzović, says rebuilding the Mevlevi Tekke is highly significant.

“Mevlevi Tekke has cultural, historical and heritage importance for Bosnia and Herzegovina, because, although the tariqas were officially discontinued during the rule of Austria-Hungary, the Mesnevi (the poem of 20,000 verses of the founder of the Mevlevi order, Dzelaludin Rumi, which is one of the best explanations and interpretations of Quran) never stopped being recited and the Mevlevi continued their religious practices,” he said.

Kukuruzović adds that opening the tekke will also lead to the administrative recognition of the tariqa by the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Official recognition of the Mevlevi tariqat in Bosnia and Herzegovina will come soon,” he said.

Mevlevi dance, the “sema”

Dervishes of the Mevlevi order are recognizable for their characteristic dance, the “sema”.

By spinning in circles for hours, they pass into a state of meditation in which they praise God. The dance was invented by the founder of the order Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.

This order is also known for public reading and interpretation of the Mesnevi, which critics consider a masterpiece of Islamic art.

The interpretation of the Mesnevi in Bosnia and Herzegovina has a tradition dating back hundreds of years.

On the other hand, the Rufaiyyah tariqa are best known for their specific form of worship, during which their faces are pierced with needles and the dhikr often includes games with fire.

During the act of piercing the faces, dervishes’ wounds often do not bleed, which is attributed to the believer’s deep state of meditation.

Believers approach certain tariqa according to their own sensibilities. For example, the Naqshbandiyya tariqa is well known for attracting people of a gentle and pacific disposition. 

Part of Bosnia's identity:

Mevlevi Tekke has cultural, historical and heritage importance for Bosnia | Photo by Amina Hamzic

The following tariqas exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Rufaiyyah, Qadiri, Naqshbandiyya, Khalwatiyyah, Shadhili and the Mevlevi order.

Tariqas only differ in the practices and rituals performed in the tekkes, as they are the legacy of their original founders, while they all share the same faith in God and the Prophet.

There are 12 tariqas in all in Islam, whose number symbolizes 12 human natures.

Although Islam is usually thought of as coming to the region with the Ottoman conquest of the 15th century, some scholars believe that it appeared as much as 200 years earlier, thanks to the dervishes and their rituals.

As political systems and governments changed in Bosnia and Herzegovina over the past centuries, tariqas were not always approved of by the state, as was the case in 1952 when they were prohibited. Although they continued to exist in secret, the ban was lifted only 30 years later.

Today, as in the past, they have significance for the historical, artistic and cultural development for Bosnia and Herzegovina, a professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, Sedad Dizdarevic, explains.

“There is almost no writer or poet who in the Ottoman period did not belong to a tariqa.

“Not only are they responsible for the flourishing of 'divan' literature in our region, but they also developed a national literature in Bosnian and Arabic, known as Aljamiado,” he explains.

Dizdarevic says that the religious, cultural and civilizational background of Muslims in the region cannot be understood and interpreted without understanding the role of the tariqa.

Tariqas had a very active social role, and they encouraged science and humanitarian work in society,” he says.

Dizdarevic recalls that in the past, tariqas were inseparable from public life as the dervishes dealt with work, science and art as well as with the spread of Islam.

“The teaching of the tariqas... gave Islam the seal of universalism, tolerance, spirituality and enlightenment,” he adds

Dizdarevic also stressed the role of dervishes in the development of cultural, scientific, religious and other institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Tariqas change individuals from within, not wishing to change the community outside,” he notes.

“But, although the tariqa is primarily an individual sphere, it allows that through individuals, the community lives a better, happier, more tolerant and more humane life.”

Many today follow different ritual practices from those that they had in the past.

Mensur Effendi Pasalic, Chief Imam of Fojnica, in central Bosnia, notes the modified ritual practices of the Naqshbandi tariqa:

"The Naqshbandi tariqa in the 1980s had a very strong ritualistic practice of piercing with swords,” he recalls.

“However, the influence of educated sheikhs gradually eliminated that practice, and now it is reduced to the dhikr and spiritual meditation,” he adds.

Spirituality and hedonism blended:

Photo by Amina Hamzic

Tekkes are not created by accident. Usually the sheikh has a dream about the location of the future tekke, and through time the dream comes true.

For all tariqas, dreams represent an important part of the faith. For example, one becomes a sheikh when a previous sheikh on his deathbed dreams about which of his students will become the next sheikh. It happens often that a student dreams an identical dream, and the overlap of dreams becomes crucial in the selection process.

Tariqas are characterized also for symbolism. Fasting, the dhikr as well as the costumes of the dervishes include symbols of Islamic events.

For example, during the last ten days of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar), a red prayer mat is used, symbolizing the bloodshed and tragic events in Islamic history that occurred over these ten days, such as the exile from heaven, or the death of Hussein on Karbala.

Tekkes are always built in secluded and beautiful places surrounded by nature, Effendi Abu Samed Hadžimejlić explained to BIRN.

“Each location has been carefully chosen. The surroundings of a tekke and its appearance should inspire and create peace in our hearts,” he says.

Hadžimejlić Effendi continues that the tekke has an ambivalent nature, involving a combination of spirituality and hedonism.

“Although tekkes are spaces where dervishes glorify and praise God and nurture their spiritual side, it's also a place where they talk, read poetry, drink tea,” he adds.

"In an entirely different way, the tekke provides a kind of hedonism, consumption of those living benefits that are in full agreement with Islamic tenets," Effendi Hadžimejlić concludes.

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