Monday, June 9, 2008

Interview with Sherif Baba


This is a slightly edited version of a chapter in my MA thesis in anthropology.

I primarily intend to let the Sherif Baba speak for himself in this chapter, but I would like to mention a few things first. In the previous chapter, many of his students gave vivid descriptions of him and of his style of teaching. During my fieldwork, his students consistently described him as playful, humorous, patient, gradual in his method of teaching. Many described how his teachings usually come in the form of stories. In the sohbets and gatherings I attended, almost every question was answered by a story of one of the Prophets (particularly Moses) or of some of the Sufi saints (erenler). He, like many Sufis, draws heavily on analogies to make his points clear.
Sufis, including Sherif Baba, often use the analogy of the mirror. The mirror is a symbol of one who has removed all traces of rust (negativity, selfishness, and disunity) so that he or she can only reflect the qualities beauty and goodness, in essence, the qualities of God. The Sheyh aims to reflect these qualities, and the disciple’s mirror is to reflect that of the Sheyh.
The following interview provides some example of Sherif Baba’s ways of teaching. Though this out of his usual teaching context, he seems to have approached the interview as being more-or-less like a sohbet.
The interview below took place on a return visit (April 27th, 2000) after my intensive fieldwork period. Cem and I rode together to Sherif Baba’s small but charming apartment located in a complex where several of the dervishes live. Not surprisingly, the walls in his study are covered with images of Hz. Ali.
The texture of the interview below is interesting because it reveals the complexity of our connection. At times, I am explaining the nature of anthropology and of my research. At times, the interview is relatively detached; I am an outsider asking questions of the ultimate insider. At other times, however, the connection is far more intimate; more of a relationship between student and teacher. These roles shifted consistently during our interactions, and are similar to the “between two worlds” feeling shared by many anthropologists as a result of very positive and intense experiences with the groups they study.
The following is an interview from April 27, 2000. Following a concert at Silk Road, Cem took me over to Baba’s house and translated for us. In addition to information about Serif Baba and his perspectives, this interview also reveals something of our respective roles in the dialogue of fieldwork. At times, I am an outside investigator interviewing the ultimate insider. I am explaining to him the nature of anthropology and of my task as he explains the nature of Sufism and his task. In some cases, the situation is more of teacher and student, murshit and murid. Sometimes this discussion reveals my own liminal situation between the worlds of Insider and Outsider, between Sufism and anthropology.
SB: Ask your questions.
WJ: I was interested in what you were just saying because I’ve found many of he reasons studying Tasavvuf. For example, in the Kuran, Allah says “I have created all of you different so that you may come to one another,” which basically what anthropology is. I found an anthropologist… who said that the primary goal of anthropology is to be a mirror for the humanity. If I could ask you, first, how did you become interested in Tasawwuf yourself?
SB: This is very old with me. Even before I went to school as a child, I grew up with Tasavvuf teachers and my ears were filled with them. So whatever you pour into a bottle, when you remove the cork, that’s what’s going to come out. So this is how Tasavvuf developed with me. The filling of the ear, the birth of that joy inside: this turned us toward humanity. Because Tasawwuf is the mirror of humanity, we entered into this knowledge and started researching, and it’s still continuing. The one who knows is Allah. No one can know anything completely. We always have to be searchers, researchers. [one word in Turkish, Cem corrects himself in this translation]. The creator creates a new idea every day. Every day he creates a new endeavor. What does he create this from? From the human being. And Tasawwuf is the foundation for this. When a person doesn’t know Tasawwuf, he looks at people with different eyes.
WJ: Your father was Naqshbandi?
SB: Yes, my father was a Naqshi. My mother was Kadiri.
WJ: Who was your first murshid?
SB: My first murshid was a Naqshi and then it became Rifa'i. And then I took lessons from Bektais. And now we are trying to live as Rifa'is. If your ask them, ask of these, they’re all different school names inside of Tasavvuf. The foundation is one. To get stuck with these names, we will put rust on the mirror, and you won’t be able to see your reflection very well. Because Tasavvuf doesn’t accept labels.
WJ: Despite the similarities, on of the problems with studying something like this from the lens of anthropology…. I remember you saying last summer that if it’s Sufism, it doesn’t divide. On the other hand, anthropology often tries to look for “What’s different about this?”. Making lines sometimes. In some ways, it is hard to reconcile those two very different ways of looking at things. I have heard parts of this story, but only second-hand. You had studied in a medrese? I had head that Burhan Efendi had kind of shaken you?
SB: Tasavvuf can’t be achieved just by studying. It’s not like religious knowledge: you can study, you can know, you can be a scholar, but you won’t be able to attain Tasavvuf. There are many examples of this in history. For example, Mevlana had studied and was a great scholar. When he found Shems, he started at zero when he entered Tasavvuf. So, what does he say? He says “I was raw, I was cooked, and than I burned.” So we study this knowledge and made searches, but it was all stuck in knowledge. You absolutely find someone alive and has experience, so that your knowledge can become alive and be seen by his mirror. Because it’s only people who can train people. All religions came out of the mouths of people, and Tasavvuf is the same. It didn't drop out of the sky. It didn’t come down like rain. So when people can establish a connection with one another, that’s when knowledge will open. Then you take your lessons of life, then you recognize people, and then also recognize and know life. Just knowledge doesn’t give a person a right to passage. Look at all of history. With Musa, it was the same. With Isa, it was the same. With all of the prophets, the same thing happened.
WJ: How did you know that Burhan Efendi was your murshid?
SB: It came completely from the spirituality. Nobody introduced me to him. Neither was I searching something like this. What can I say? It was completely the grace of Allah. It’s something from just seeing. Let me give you an example. You are walking down a road and you see a beautiful woman. You look at her, she looks at you. You don’t know each other, but with that look you fall in love with each other. Now, how can you explain that? It’s a joy. It doesn’t come to words. If there is the ak, the love of Allah inside a person, then Allah will allow people to meet.
WJ: Can you tell me a little about how you were taught in different tarikats?
SB: Now, the only reason I studied in different tarikats was to increase my experience in Tasavvuf. Because all of the pirs created each of the tarikats looked t the world with different views. So in order for me to do this research, I worked in different tarikats. I said “I can learn something from each one of them. My knowledge can expand.” And I looked in the end, and the foundation was all the same. Just the colors are different. It’s the same building. One floor is painted pink, the other is blue, the other is green. If I hadn’t worked in these different tarikats, I’d be stuck in one place. I would put on one label, whatever label it is, and that’s how we’d go. That wouldn’t benefit me at all. A person to be without a label, has to reflect in a clear way the presence of Allah. When we put on a label, then separation is born. Then don’t even get near anthropology! [laughter] Because these separations will then close if off…. All knowledge, all science, is reflected to people according to the views of this world. I’ll give an example. What can I see from here. I can see the house across the street. I can’t see any further that that. So, let’s say that this is the worldly view. Someone in Tasavvuf has unlimited view. We’ll see that house, we’ll see what’s behind it. That’s why when the knowledge of this world is without Tasavvuf, then people believe in what they see. One day, for example, someone told me something. You know, someone with knowledge. He said “Well, how can you believe in something you can’t see?” And I asked him “Do you see your mind? Where is this mind? But you believe in it’s existence, don’t you? Now, show me! Where is it?” So it means you can’t just believe in what you see. There are things you can believe without seeing them. This is how Tasavvuf fills in the cracks. The knowledge of this world, the science of this world, only believes in what it sees. Now, I’ll see you. So, what do I know of you? I know you physically. Your eyes are green. You hair is blonde. [at least by Turkish standards!] Your cheeks are red. This is the worldly view. But when I look with my Tasavvuf look with you, I see different things in you. What do I see, for example? I see you have an open heart, you are clean inside, you don’t think bad thoughts of other people, you’re trying to doing good for all people. Now, where do I see this from? This is the Tasavvuf view. You see everything inside. This is how knowledge is. It sees a person up to so far, and then stops. What’s inside? You are a human being on the outside, and inside you’re the presence of Allah. Allah says, “Allah has an attribute is called upon” [Cem offers other translations: spoken, proven] These words are the essence of what you are looking for. These are the only words that are going to fill in the cracks. If you’re going to bring newness to this science [anthropology], we have to give a place to this spiritual view. The world is in need of this today, and people are in need of this. Otherwise they’ll be left in darkness like this, and they’ll make people keep on walking with this science of illusion. What else were you going to ask?
WJ: I was going to ask about how you came to United States.
SB: I came here because of Tasavvuf. There was a Tasavvuf group that invited me. They said they wanted this knowledge from me. They called us, and we came here and worked with them together. Put our ideas out in the open. We’re still here.
WJ: That was in New York? The New York Cerrahis? [the Halveti-Cerrahi Order] Then I went to Philadelphia, to the tekke of Bawa Muhaiyyadeen. I gave teachings there and we were together with them. They loved us, and we benefited from one another. They tried to find ways to keep me here. I stayed here for five years with an R-1 Visa, as a religious teacher. After that, I got my green card. Let’s see what happens after this! [laughter]
WJ: How did you start teaching? Did your eyh tell you to?
SB: In this path of Tasavvuf, when you become mature, they give you a duty.
Just like school. You go to the school of education, and you get a certificate in order to become a teacher. Then you have the right to teach. In Tasavvuf, it’s the same. You can be a dervish of forty years and not be able to obtain the position of teacher. You keep going and coming to your murit, your ears are stopped up, your eyes closed. You go and come. You know the horses that they used to keep tied to the water pumps and kept going around and around. If you become a dervish like that, you’ll stay where you are. But if you extend your knowledge and try to get lessons from your experiences, then your kamilat [maturity] will increase. Then you would have trained yourself and you’ll be able to give that light to those around you. If the murshid see this in you, he’ll give you permission. If he doesn’t see this in you, then he’ll just have you walk around.
WJ: So how has that been with the group here? I’ve noticed as you’re traveling more, certain people in the group are doing certain duties. One thing that struck me as interesting is having some of your murids doing things like being the imam for cuma. Is that unusual in the way that you were taught?
SB: No. It’s the same system. It’s part of the same system that I was taught in. Some people that get a light in Tasavvuf become teachers. You give them the position of teachers. Some get imam status; they read and recite Kuran. They have more interest in the religion, so you make them the imams. You give them the different duties according to the capabilities they are showing. For example, there are some to teachers who will see a child in his class, look at his lessons, and will recognize what that child is going to be in the future. He will call the child’s mother and father and will say “This child has the capability of being a professor of mathematics when he grows up, so emphasize mathematics with him.” He might be more interested in physics or medicine. A teacher can recognize this and will push him in that direction, and the murshid is the same. He will recognize what state his mrid is in, and will dress them in the clothes each one is worthy of. Some of them he strips down and makes naked, and some he makes crazy and throws on the street! [laughter]
I mention that I’ve notice that there is a pattern of Americans in leadership positions.
SB: No. It’s according to their capabilities. Most of the Turks here are not so open to Tasavvuf. They’ve come here to make money. But our American brothers and sisters are searching for this. They’ve come from different branches of Sufism. Some from the Kabbala, some from Buddhism, but all of them from some branch of Sufism. There is desire and they have the desire to learn the Tasavvuf of Islam. We see that they learn what we give them, and are trying to live it. There is a light coming out. So, let them give this light to people. Our countrymen don’t have this. They’re all trying to make money; they’re not trying to make Tasavvuf. So it’s the events that bring them there. We don’t do anything knowingly.
WJ: I was wondering if that was maybe thinking of the long-term future.
SB: Of course you’re thinking of the long term, because the desire is not just in America. The desire throughout the world is going toward Tasavvuf. Go to Japan, go to China. We went to India and saw. We saw this in Arabia. Everyone is turning toward Tasavvuf because it’s a big highway. It’s not a narrow street. It’s a place where humanity can live. There is discipline in Tasavvuf, but that discipline is lived as joy. It’s not with dry and harsh rules and regulation: “this is a sin and that’s a blessing, this is paradise and that’s hell”. It actually gives you such joy. You create what you want. If you want, create cennet [heaven]. If you want, create cehennem [hell]. If you want, sin. If you want, do good deeds. The beauty of Tasavvuf is that it teaches you the attributes of humanity and connects you to yourself. Whatever you’re searching for, you find in yourself. Hz. Muhammed had these words: “Only he who knows himself can know his Lord.” So Tasavvuf ties you to yourself. The murshids here become the mirrors of Allah. Just like the prophets, they become the mirrors of Tasavvuf for you. It’s the need of the world; of course, this all depends on long-term work. Who ever’s hungry, that’s who you feed. Whoever’s poor, that’s who you give the money to. You don’t go and give money to a rich man. So what are people hungry for today? The system of beautiful ahlak. [moral behavior] They want to be saved from darkness. They want peace. They want friendship. What are you going to do? You have to play the game according to its rules. Are you playing cards? Let’s say you’re waiting for a king of spades. You’re not going to throw out a joker, you’re going to wait for the king of spades. You have to play according to the rules. Whatever the world needs today, we have to give that. Now, this research of yours is going to open the way to newness. Because this is how Allah wants it. He wants newness. As we said, everyday he creates something new. So where is he creating this from? From you and me, from people. So, why don’t we recognize people as being so? It’s because we have been locked into this narrow road…. It’s closed dead end. What else?
WJ: Did you have students when you were in Turkey?
SB: Yeah, I have. In the summers I go there. I work three months there.
WJ: How is the way that you teach your students there different from how you teach here?
SB: Its different. There they have been created in a place of Islam. Because their religion is Islam, it’s easier to teach there. Also the language is easier to understand…. Here we have to work through a translator. Because of the cultural difference, it becomes difficult. In order to have humanity recognized, in order to have Tasavvuf known, to introduce Tasavvuf, you have to enter into religions. “Who is Adam? How is the unity of prophets?” Now, here you have to start from zero. In order to teach Tasavvuf, you have to go through many steps, and that makes a man tired quickly here. There it’s easy. You don’t have to teach the foundations, because everyone knows the foundations. Then you are able to expand Tasavvuf quicker there. Are there any more cracks you need filled?
WJ: Millions. [laughter]

I ask Sherif Baba if he chooses the influences of his tarikat backgrounds selectively for the purposes of teaching here, for example, finding Bektashi teachings more accessible than those of the other orders. My question was initially unclear, and Cem clarified it before asking Sherif Baba.

C: Are you talking about teaching here, and using what he’s learned from different tarikats and emphasizing certain teachings more than others in his teachings here?
WJ: Right, thank you [laughter].
C: Eyvallah.
SB: I made them all one. Because if I find that oneness that unity then I’ll understand Tasavvuf. As I said, if you’re stuck with the name, if you’re stuck with one label, “this one is better, that one is shorter”, then when separation enters, you can’t learn Tasavvuf. Tasavvuf demands unity. One of the names of Tasavvuf is vahdet-i vucut (oneness of body). The lessons that I took from Bektashi, the lessons I took from Nakshi, the lessons we take from Rifa’i, they are all the same. The difference is only in systems of working. One does a loud zikir, the other does a silent zikir. One does zikir sitting down, one does zikir standing up. It’s in the ways that there are differences but the foundation, the roots are the same. So, we are going down to the roots to bring it together. When you plant a seed into the ground, it becomes a tree. It grows out leaves. It opens up flowers, gives fruit. Inside the fruit, it gives you back that seed that you planted. So we come from the One, back to the One. If you find that oneness, you can raise that tree. In other words, teach people and give that seed to people. Otherwise you get stuck with the tree and don’t find the seed. So, as I said, there are no labels in Tasavvuf.
WJ: Where do you see this order going? How would you like it to be in, say, twenty years?
SB: The only thing that I like to see in twenty years is that everyone be training hundreds, thousands of people. I would like for everyone to be taking that beautiful ahlak, that inner peace, and that outer peace, and teaching at to people. I don’t need crowds. If I wanted crowds, we’d have lots of them. I want people that can be taught. We don’t get gold from every piece of earth, but you can take the earth and look at it. If there is gold in it, then you build the mine there, and you work it and pull it out. You get gold from it. We are able to benefit from all of it. You can serve people. You can make money. This is what it is. This path has spiritual currency, an what is that? It’s you maturity. So, the new world in the third dimension that you are going to go to, you are going to go with that maturity. I want everyone to be this way. Otherwise, you become a dervish, but what value does it have if you don’t find that maturity? Never mind twenty years, I’d like it to be this way in two years. Like ours here, maashallah, in four five years, six years, they’ve started. If you continue too, you’ll be one too. It’s not with knowledge, it’s with the ashk and the desire which comes from inside. You have to write that, not in the tape recorder, but in your brain.
WJ: Thank you very much.
SB: I thank you, you came, you asked beautiful questions. These are things that people need. We write these things. We’ll see who is going to translate them later! [We laugh as Sherif Baba looks straight at Cem, the most likely candidate for this task]
We have to keep holding lights to each other. Whenever you need something, come and ask me. Our door is always open. Eyvallah.
On the Topic of Alevism:
During the Third Annual Rumi Festival in September of 2000, I met with Baba once more to ask him further questions regarding a topic which had interested me from the beginning: the group’s relationship with the Alevi path. On the final day of the gathering, I asked him about this . My ex-wife and a friend translated for us.

WJ: You know I’ve been interviewing a lot of people and getting different people’s ideas about this path. One thing I’ve noticed is that there are a number of people I’ve talked with who consider themselves Alevi…
SB: Are they Turkish?
WJ: Turkish, yes. Can you describe that to me; how you see those paths as related?
SB: There are two kinds of Alevis. The first kind is Ashiret Alevi [tribal] and the other kind is coming from the Prophet’s lineage, the way of Ehli Beyt. The people who love Hz. Ali are called Shi’ah in Iran and Alevi in Turkey. There are two types of Alevis in Turkey. One of them is Ashiret. How would you describe Ashiret? [asking himself] The people who live in the mountains, who live as tribes. The other kind is Ehli Beyt Alevi, coming from the Prophet’s family and walks on that path. The tarikat Alevis who are coming after Hz. Ali and who follow Hasan, Huseyin, and the Twelve Imams, who are following the Ehli Beyt, are considered Alevis. [He is using the terms “tarikat Alevi” and “Ehli Beyt Alevi” interchangeably] They are not Ashiret Alevis. There is a difference between them. The belief of Airet Alevis is more strict and more conservative. [with regard to their own traditions, not those of Sunni Islam] For example, they even consider Hz. Ali as God as some people call Hz. Isa [Jesus] as God. Tarikat Alevis are more into worshipping and they are closer to people, they are more humanistic. Since they are all called Alevis, they are considered the same. The Ashiret Alevis, especially in Istanbul, changed their ideologies… Some of theme became the supporters of Mao, Castro, Lenin, and some of them became Communists. They got crazy with politics. On the other hand, the tarikat Alevis never changed their path, they never stopped following the path of Islam…. [my ex-wife clarifies my question, asking him directly about the connection to Rifa’i Marufi] We are continuing that ideology, that culture, the Ehli Beyt here. Did he go to Istanbul, Haci Bektash? [asking whether we had visiedt the village where the shrine of Haci Bektash Veli is located, on our recent travel to Turkey]
SCJ: No. We couldn’t go to Haci Bektash.
SB: Inshallah. Since we introduced the Ehli Beyt love here, our order is becoming larger every day. In the West and East, love is everywhere. Since Hz. Ali spreads his love as other prophets, and since we are the representatives of this path, people like us here. We do not have any connection with any ideology like Shi’ah or Alevi. But when people ask, we say that we are Alevis since we are following the path of Ehli Beyt. If you ask me, I would say that I am Alevi but not Ashiret Alevi.
WJ: I’ve gotten the impression from talking with people and reading some things that the traditions which used zikir and the tradition which used semah were… well, some connections there, but somewhat different. Maybe that same distinction you were just making.
SB: The movements are different. For instance, namaz [Islamic five-times daily prayer]. Namaz is a zikir too. You’re bending and then standing up. The purpose here is to remember the beauty of the Creator. You can remember this with the movement or without the movement, but movement gives more pleasure because it relaxes the body. The real meaning is to express the beauty inside….
WJ: Yesterday, with the semah workshop [led by an Alevi/Bektashi]. I got another interview where someone was telling me that you are hoping to do more semah and that kind of thing with the order. Is that correct?
B: Correct. Semah is the tradition of old shamanist dances that Haci Bektash Veli demonstrated. For instance, the dances in the United States: if you perform these dances in Turkey, people would stone you. They would think that you are teasing God. Haci Bektash transformed these dances into worshipping. [I interpret this passage to mean that familiar dances from a culture can be transformed into spiritual activity, though their origin is not specifically Sufi.] Every movement represents a different thing. People remember God with those movements.

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