The sheikh departed from Syria together with his disciples; they were headed for Mecca in order to observe the commandment of the Hajj, the pilgrimage, which is one of Islam's five pillars. As they journeyed through towns and villages, they never for a moment forgot to observe the commandments of Islam, especially that of the heart, which are lofty, spiritual commandments that stem from the innermost recesses of the soul and transport those who observe them to whatever destination they seek. By day, the pilgrims traveled in the very heart of nature; by night, they undertook their inner journey. The sheikh served as his disciples' teacher and guide at all times; some of them even claimed that he guided them when they were sleeping. The most important thing that the sheikh stressed was al-adab (politeness and proper moral conduct), especially vis-à-vis God, which means keeping one's heart clean and preventing the entry of anything foreign, except God's presence. The great sheikhs taught that the heart was God's temple.
The People of God (Ahal Allah) must constantly adhere to two modes of conduct. The first is hassab al-nafs, soul-searching, which they must engage in at least twice a day – in the morning and in the evening. The second is al-marakba, awareness, which means that the People of God must be aware at all times. The sheikh's disciples had to treat the People of God politely and respectfully. Throughout the entire journey, the disciples behaved in accordance with the guidelines that the sheikh had given them, as they waited for the moment when they would finally reach their destination. The sheikh warned his disciples of the dangers they might face along the way: fitna (temptation), surrender to lust and the dominance of one's passions that exist alongside one's material nature. The disciples would say to themselves, “As long as the sheikh is with us, we can be confident and our soul can be tranquil.”
The journey through the Land of the Romans
One day, the group reached the land known as Al-Rum (the Land of the Romans, or present-day Turkey) and the sheikh and his disciples offered prayers of thanksgiving to God for his having given them the strength to proceed on their journey and for his having brought them to this place sound in mind and body. Afterwards, they continued on their way and, at one place in the Land of the Romans, they heard the voice of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani (the great 12th-century sheikh who founded the Qadiri Sufi Order) surrounding them from every direction and calling out to them: “I am the master of all righteous individuals.” With a single voice, the disciples responded, “Amnana” (Amen, we agree). However, their sheikh said, “I do not agree.” A voice was immediately emitted from deep inside the sheikh's body, calling out to him, “Beware temptation!” Nevertheless, the sheikh was unaware of any danger that could rob him of all that God had granted him, and he continued on his way.
After the group had journeyed a little further, they saw a village perched on a hill and young girls walking along the path leading from the village to a well and bearing pitchers on their heads. The sheikh instructed his disciples, “We will ask them for drinking water and we will take it along with us on our journey.” They obeyed his instruction and, as they neared the well, they did not cast their eyes on the young girls drawing water from it; however, the sheikh remained fixed in one spot as he gazed at one of the girls. Although the disciples were surprised, the commandment of al-adab prevented them from asking the sheikh why he was acting in this way. They even refused to allow themselves to ponder the meaning of his behavior because of their deep belief that such thoughts would be contrary to the moral code they had learned from their teacher and master.
The sheikh approached the girl, asking her where she was from. Shyly, the maiden answered him that she was from the village on the hill. After ordering his disciples to set up camp outside the village for a few days, the sheikh promised them that they would resume their journey following this brief sojourn. The disciples obeyed his instructions and, as the days passed, they waited for him to order them to continue the journey to Mecca. However, the sheikh issued no such order.
One day, the mystery was solved. When the young girl approached the well to draw water, the sheikh walked over to her and asked her whether she would agree to accept him as her husband. She replied that she would have to ask her parents. Without a moment's hesitation, the sheikh accompanied the young maiden to her parents' home and asked them for her hand in marriage. Her father told the sheikh, “We agree, but only if you convert to Christianity.” Without even pausing to think, the sheikh answered, “Yes, I will do so.” The parents then told him, “But you will first have to undergo a certain process.” He immediately agreed to this condition as well. One of his disciples, who overheard the conversation, rejoined the group and told them what he had overheard. They pondered what they should do. Finally, they decided to send one of the disciples to the great sheikh of Baghdad, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Al-Baghdadi. The disciple immediately set out on his journey. On reaching Sheikh Al-Baghdadi's home, he told him what had happened. Smiling, the sheikh said to the disciple, “My sons must first learn the commandment of al-adab before they can become sheikhs. Take this water and pour it over the head of your sheikh. Go quickly! The wedding is about to take place!”
The disciple quickly returned to the village in order to save his sheikh, arriving on the day of the wedding and minutes before the sheikh was to enter the church. The disciple poured the water over the sheikh's head and the latter immediately awoke and asked, “What am I doing here?” After he heard the chain of events, he lifted his eyes heavenward, proclaiming, “My master is Sheikh Abdul Qadir.” He then looked at the young girl, saying to her, “I will not marry you because you led me into fitna (temptation) and because anyone who distances me from God is my enemy.” Turning to his disciples, the sheikh told them, “We will not remain here much longer, for we must quickly resume our journey to Mecca.” After he had uttered these words, the girl looked into his eyes and said, “Now I choose you, and I want to go with you.” The sheikh replied, “You may come with me, but not as my wife.” She answered, “I agree,” and she began to follow him. As he journeyed to Mecca, the sheikh stressed to his disciples the importance of the commandments of al-adab and al-to'ada (humility).
Several centuries later, we set out on a journey to the Land of the Romans. We took into account the danger we might face – namely, Turkey's beautiful young women – and we adhered to the moral code dictated by the commandment of al-adab. This was a journey designed to retrace the steps of the Sufis in the hills of Anatolia. There were twenty people in the group – Muslims and Jews – and our guide was Ze'ev Ben-Aryeh.
Inside the former empire
When people think of Turkey, their thoughts immediately focus on the Ottoman Empire, whose borders stretched from east to west and from north to south. Then they see in their imagination the manifestations of the sultans' power and the luxurious palaces and splendid treasures that filled the lands of Anatolia and, afterwards, Istanbul. Even if you have never visited Turkey and have never seen Istanbul, you still know – along, of course, with the tourists who flock to this country – that, in Turkey, you can find whatever you have dreamed of: palaces and open marketplaces, city squares and alleyways that give you such a vivid sense of the historical events that have taken place here. You can easily imagine the daring romances that blossomed in the palaces located on the banks of the Bosphorus. Nonetheless, most people think of the Ottoman conquests, of the humiliating way the Ottoman emperors treated, in the empire's waning days, the different nations they ruled, of the iron-fisted regime and of the suppression of the various religions. However, if we dare to enter, to get inside the former empire, we can see a myriad of phenomena that flourished far from the sound of clashing swords and from the dust of war: poetry, literature, art and calligraphy. However, the most important phenomena was certainly Sufism (Islamic mysticism), which developed and splendidly blossomed in Islamic society.
The Sufic movement began almost the same time as Islam, and there is disagreement as to when Sufism first made its appearance – whether in the first century of the Hajira (Mohammed's transfer of domicile from Mecca to Medina in the year 623) or the second century of the Hajira. Some ancient sources refer to Abu Hashim al-Sufi of Kufa (present-day Iraq), who lived in the second century of the Hajira. Nevertheless, I have found in one of the sources that this name first appears in the first century of the Hajira.
There are various interpretations of the term Sufism. There are those who argue that it comes from the word for purity, purity of heart, while others argue that it stems from the term Ahal al-Sufa, the poor people, who were Mohammed's friends and who sat on a bench in the mosque in Medina. Still others maintain that the term is derived from suf, wool, which is what the Sufis wore and which symbolized their ascetism. This interpretation is especially close to my heart.
We reached Konya via Istanbul and Ankara. Konya is the major center of Sufism; it is the “Kaaba of the heart,” which is what the celebrated Sufi poet Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi called his city. (The Kaaba is the ancient cube-shaped shrine in Mecca.) His love poetry, which he addresses to God, is universal and has been translated into many languages; it has had a major impact on all those engaged in the pursuit of spirituality, even those who have no connection whatsoever with Islam.
If you want to cleanse the mirror of your heart, you must spend a few days in Konya. You can purify your heart if you seek shelter under the wings of Mevlana and his disciple-friend Shams of Tabriz (present-day Iran). Although it is unclear which of them was the sheikh and which one the disciple, the two of them certainly created a sweeping, universalistic form of love. We ascended to Rumi's tomb and felt there strongly linked to God; that powerful link stemmed from the mutual love existing between Rumi and all who visit his tomb and which originates in a given space and in what is beyond that space.
Afterwards, we walked to a place where we could observe the Mevlanan Order's ceremony of dikher. (After Rumi's death, his son and a number of disciples founded the order, which became the central and largest elitist order in Turkey.)
The ceremony of dikher (or zikher) is central to Sufism. It enables Sufis to enter their innermost being and helps them to overcome the body's dominion over the soul; ultimately, through this ceremony, they can even reach a stage of ecstasy. Once they are in that stage, they can receive hidden knowledge, which the human brain is incapable of attaining. The knowledge that God grants a Sufi as a gift is termed divine knowledge. The entry into one's inner being is achieved through dance: The adherents of this philosophy whirl themselves at a dizzying pace; hence the term Whirling Dervishes. First, they place their hands on their chests; afterwards, they begin to stretch out their arms in the shape of a rose. The drummer lifts his right hand, with the open palm turned upwards, while his left hand points downward at the ground; this gesture signifies the descent of heaven's abundance to the earth. This is the essence of the link that the sheikh creates between his faithful believers and God. The sheikh's function is to connect the internal light in the human soul and the divine light in order to prepare his followers for the receipt of hidden knowledge. In our Order, the Qadiri Sufi order, the sheikh stands at the center of a giant circle, which is formed by his followers. This is the start of the dikher (zicher) ceremony. The sheikh feeds the innermost selves of his followers with the light he receives from heaven. That is why the disciples must create two circles: The first is the horizontal circle, where the disciples stand side by side, while the second is the perpendicular circle that is created by the continual repetition of the name of God (Allah). The word leaves the disciples' lips and returns to the innermost parts of their hearts, until finally the tongue stops working and the heart continues to remember only God's name. Only then is the disciple ready to receive divine knowledge as a gift.
At Konya, visitors can stand opposite the mosque that was built beside Mevlana's tomb and can immediately recall how he met Shams of Tabriz. Mevlana was riding a donkey and was surrounded by many admirers, when an elderly man stopped him, holding the donkey's reins and asking, “Who is greater, the Prophet Mohammed or Tayfur Abu Yazid al-Bustami?” The elderly man was referring to the dilemma that arose when Abu Yazid, a great late ninth-century Sufi, declared, in a state of ecstasy: “Everyone must praise me,” although the Prophet Mohammed had taught “Everyone must praise God.” On hearing the question, Mevlana fell off his donkey and lost consciousness. When he awoke, he asked who that elderly man was, and, from that moment, the two became inseparable friends.
We found many visitors from various parts of Turkey and from the four corners of the globe at Shams' tomb, which is located inside a mosque, at Rumi's tomb, and at the museum near Rumi's tomb. Although we visited these places in August and the Mevlanan Order's festival is held in December, the place was packed with visitors. Rumi was right when he called this place the “Kaaba of the heart” and when he said that it would be visited by all those who loved him. Among the many visitors there were, of course, beautiful young women who had come in order to ask Mevlana to quickly enable them to meet their intended so that they could unite with him in the same way that doves unite. I also had a number of requests and I was convinced, as a Sufi, that my requests would be fulfilled because of my love for Mevlana. Afterwards, we walked over to Shams' tomb, which is situated not far from Mevlana's tomb, and I felt a tremendous surge of energy. Suddenly, I noticed several young women in a unique form of attire: black robes, headcoverings, long chains of beads adorning their necks, and – in some cases – veils. I became aware of their peace of mind and their inner harmony, as they knelt beside the tomb, reciting verses from the Koran and sending them as gifts to Shams. It occurred to me that they were undoubtedly disciples of Shams. Although smaller than Mevlana's tomb, Shams' tomb is filled with love and great longing for God. I did not forget to pray there as well and to make additional requests. Again I felt that my requests were being transmitted and that they would be fulfilled because, through love, all lofty things can be attained and because, through love, an individual's physical life and spiritual life can be altered. Love is what makes room for every person inside you and it is what makes room for yourself in every person. Look at Rumi! Through his bond with Shams and through the power of love, he brought treasures to the world. Look at his poetry, which is read all the time and which has been translated into so many languages, although, according to Sufism, time is part of the beloved's total imagination.
Ghassan Manasra is the director of Anwar il-Salaam (Lights of Peace), a Muslim peace center in Nazareth promoting tolerance and interfaith dialogue. He is an ordained sheikh and is the son of Sheikh Abdel Salaam Manasra, the head of the Qadiri Sufi order in Israel