"We Must Recognize in Baba Rexheb the Founder of Authentic Sufism in the U.S."
"We Must Recognize in Baba Rexheb the Founder of Authentic Sufism in the U.S."
Interview with Stephen Schwartz
Urtësia [Tirana], December 2008
Illyria [New York], March 27, 2009
Urtësia: Mr. Schwartz, can you please tell us something about your life?
I could be considered a representative example of the literary and political intellectuals produced by the cultural ferment of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States , and especially in California. My mother was Christian, my father was Jewish, I married a Catholic woman – the mother of my son Matthew – and I was exposed to Buddhism as a youth. I grew up in an environment influenced as much by the Far East and Latin America as by the Anglo-European world. The first capital city I ever visited was Tokyo, Japan, in 1972, followed by London, Paris, and, later, Washington . The first language I learned beside English was Spanish.
I wrote poetry before becoming a professional journalist. I was active for 20 years in revolutionary leftist politics but moved away from that outlook, and in doing so, was drawn into religious life. I had been interested in Sufism and in Central Asian spirituality beginning at 17 years of age. The great turning point came when I was 40, and began, as a newspaper writer, to examine the situation in the former Yugoslavia . Communism was nearing its end but I learned that Serbian imperialism was reborn in its most violent form ever. I reported on the Yugoslav collapse in the San Francisco Chronicle (where I worked for 10 years), with special attention to the situation in Kosova. I visited then-Yugoslavia for the first time in 1990. Because of that, I underwent my most important personal encounter, with an Albanian Catholic writer and publisher from Montenegro, Gjon Sinishta, whom I call "my second father," and who had emigrated to San Francisco.
I became the English-language editor of the Albanian Catholic Bulletin (Buletini Katolik Shqiptar) published by Sinishta, but in a paradox some have pointed out, the fervent belief I saw in Gjon led me to Sufism rather than Catholicism. Gjon introduced me to the patriotic traditions of the Bektashis as well as the Catholics, who together account for many of the outstanding heroes of the Albanian nation. I have often said that Naim Frashëri and Gjergj Fishta are more than the outstanding Albanian national poets; their "twin star" represents the whole spiritual legacy of the Albanian people.
Islam and Sufism were invisibly present, like the mystical figure of Al-Khidr, in every stage of my development. I was attracted by Spanish and Catalan Catholic spirituality, in which Sufi influence is explicitly acknowledged; much later I studied the Jewish Kabbalah, which is recognized by all Jewish authorities as Islamic Sufism in Jewish dress. Finally, there came the great moral challenge of the Yugoslav wars, in a place where I did not know any of the languages, but into which I threw myself with my full heart and commitment, on the side of the victims of Serbian imperialism, many of them Muslim. I believed then and believe now that journalistic objectivity means accuracy in reporting on evil, not neutrality.
In 1998 I was in Sarajevo when the liberation war began in Kosova. Gjon Sinishta had died in 1995 but I was committed to continuing his support for Albanian religious reconstruction. I had already become a Sunni Muslim. But I did not "convert" from another religion; I had never belonged to a religious community before, and Islam is my first religion. Since "conversion" means to change religions, I did not "convert." The next year, in 1999, I went back to the Balkans three times and, finally, retired from my job in San Francisco and moved to Sarajevo . Later I worked in Kosova. One of the first personalities with whom I formed a bond in Kosova was Baba Mumin Lama of the Bektashi teqe in Gjakova.
I returned to the U.S. permanently in 2001, just before the horror of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington I wrote my most successful book, The Two Faces of Islam, the first major expose of Wahhabism ever presented to the Western reading public. The book has been translated into Albanian as Dy Ftyrat e Islamit, printed in Shkodra.
In 2004 I founded the Center for Islamic Pluralism as a trans-national network of Sunni, Shia, and other Muslims committed to restoration of intellectual pluralism and forward-looking debate in the global Islamic community. I now write, lecture, and travel frequently to support the work of the Center, which encompasses websites, correspondents and groups, including Bektashis, in the U.S. and Canada (www.islamicpluralism.org), Britain (www.islamicpluralism.eu), Germany (www.islamicpluralism.de), France, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, Kosova, Macedonia, Albania, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. But I return most often to the Albanian lands, the place where my heart lies.
Urtësia: What caused you to become interested in Bektashism?
While I gained fragmentary notice of Bektashism in reading about Sufism and the Balkans, my first introduction to the Bektashi tradition came in the form of J.K. Birge's volume The Bektashi Order of Dervishes, first published in Britain in 1937. When I began working with Gjon Sinishta, however, he gave me the English edition, issued in 1984, of the introductory section of The Mysticism of Islam and Bektashism, by the blessed Baba Rexheb, may his mystery be sanctified! His was the most promising way into Sufi spirituality that I found.
Urtësia: What are your memories of Baba Rexheb?
Gjon Sinishta loved and respected Baba Rexheb greatly, and wanted very much for me to meet him. They died in the same year, 1995, and so I never met Baba Rexheb personally. Nevertheless, I feel an immense debt to him because in 1992, when I went through the personal trial of my father's death, I was comforted by the friendship of Gjon Sinishta and the writing of Baba Rexheb. I have argued that we must recognize in Baba Rexheb the founder of authentic Sufism in the U.S.
In 1954 Baba Rexheb established the First Bektashi Teqe in America , in Taylor , Michigan . With the opening of the teqe in Taylor, he tried to explain Sufism to Americans in an idiom never previously articulated on our shores. Launching a small Albanian- and English-language periodical that saw only four issues, Zëri Bektashizmes (Voice of Bektashism), he wrote in a Shia vein about the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (may Allah almighty be pleased with him!). Baba Rexheb declared that the grandson of Muhammad (may the peace of Allah almighty be granted to him and his family!) was persecuted and slain because he defended a constitutional attitude toward religious rule, liberty, and the welfare of the people. Imam Husayn, according to Baba Rexheb, "kept alive the flag of liberty, the prestige of religious democracy." The people rebelled against the injustices of their rulers and Imam Husayn joined them in their protest, but the evil usurpers of authority replied with "terroristic actions."
This anticipation by an Albanian Bektashi exile in America of the key questions in the relations between Islam and the West a half century afterward is more than remarkable. The principle of "religious democracy"—meaning democracy within religion, not a democracy ruled by religion—is a great challenge to Shariah-driven conformity in Islam, and the description of Muslim tyrants maintaining their position by terror could be taken from the pages of any newspaper in the world right now. But because his activity was mainly limited to the Albanian-speaking community in America , Baba Rexheb remains almost unknown to the world today.
Urtësia: What are your impressions of Bektashism during your past trips to the Balkans?
The Albanian lands represent the only Balkan region outside European Turkey in which Sufism is a living reality. Sufism in Bosnia-Hercegovina is diffuse and organizationally weak. The Albanian lands are therefore of particular importance for Westerners interested in Sufism, because these communities are easier to visit than those in the rest of the Muslim world. Within the notable phenomenon of Albanian Sufism, the Bektashi Community has a special role and a great responsibility. As the blessed Baba Tahir Emini (may his mystery be sanctified!) said to me in 2003, before his death, "Bektashis are the most progressive Muslims in the world!"
Just as I read Baba Rexheb during my ordeal at the death of my father, I met Baba Tahir during another period of profound psychological stress, caused by life in Washington at the beginning of the Iraq war. Thus, I owe much to the Bektashi babas, whose intervention has aided me in times of great personal difficulty.
Above all, Bektashism stands for democracy, popular education, women's rights, and defense of the oppressed. We saw the latter aspect in the role of Luan Haradinaj and other Bektashis in the UÇK during the Kosova liberation war. I expect the Bektashis to continue their exemplary activity in the forefront of the intellectual and social development of the Albanian nation and the wider Balkan region. And I hope to assist the Bektashis at every step on this path, as long I can.
Urtësia: Can you tell us something about your visits to Albania in 2006 and 2007?
In 2006 I visited Albania in the company of my friend and CIP colleague, the Iranian intellectual Kamal Hasani, to research Sufism in northern Albania and in Tirana. At that time we also visited Gjakova and Tetova. But most importantly, we went to the Kryegjyshata in Tirana.
In 2007, while visiting Tetova for Nevruz, I went with my old California friend Mark Taylor to again visit the Kryegjyshata. I should add that Mark is a printer and that we hope to publish the collection of poems by Naimi titled Lulet e verës (Summer Flowers) in a bilingual Albanian-English edition, prepared by myself and Agim Morina, who lives in London .
Urtësia: What challenges do you see the Bektashi community facing in the 21st century?
The situation of Bektashism in the 21st century is exactly that stated by Baba Rexheb a half-century ago: to defend the democratic content of Islam against terroristic misrulers. In a certain sense, this has always been the challenge facing Muslims. But the Bektashis bear a greater burden than most Muslims and even Sufis because Bektashism, to reemphasize the words of Baba Tahir, has chosen a progressive path. The Bektashis must and will be leaders in the restoration of pluralism, intellectual growth, and spiritual power within Islam, and between Islam and the other faiths.
I have published several articles in the West about the current crisis at the Baba Harabati teqe in Tetova, seized by Wahhabi bandits. I think it is required of Bektashis and their supporters to be precise and sincere about this situation. First, we should call the enemy, who dare to usurp Bektashi properties, by their real names: Wahhabis, takfiris, terrorists, and disciples of Yezid.
At the same time, however, I believe the Bektashis should adopt a new approach to the problem in Tetova. The Macedonian Republic maintains a law on religious communities that restricts the activities of foreign subjects in religious work on Macedonian territory. This legal conception strikes against the trans-national character of the Bektashi community, and is therefore worthy of criticism. Yet the real problem for Macedonia does not involve Islam, either Sunni or Bektashi, but the continuing interference of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the affairs of Macedonian Orthodox believers. Sunni bigots who hate Bektashism exploit this problem to deny Bektashi rights by claiming that there can only be one Orthodox church and one Islamic community in Macedonia. I propose that the Bektashis take a firm stand in support of the Macedonian Orthodox and in repudiation of Serbian pretensions to authority in Macedonian Christian affairs, because Serbian imperialism is the greatest enemy of all freedom-loving people in the region. In return, the Macedonian authorities should grant a separate, pluralistic status for the Islamic communities in the country. Serbian imperialists want control of the properties of the Macedonian Orthodox Christians, which do not belong to the Serbs. Bektashis want nothing more than recognition and rights over their own historic assets.
Urtësia: What would you say about your previous books?
The Two Faces of Islam had an undeniable impact on Islamic studies both in the West and in the Muslim ummah. The Saudis and Wahhabis themselves were compelled to produce subsidized works by Westerners and others attempting to clean up the image of the Wahhabi cult, which, mash'allah, have failed. In Malaysia, Sunni extremists reacted to the book more directly, by ordering it banned. Still, the entire world now sees the Wahhabis as the fundamentalist radicals they are, neither ancient, traditional, nor conservative, but nihilistic, anti-traditional, and radical.
In addition to the Albanian translation noted above, The Two Faces of Islam has been published in Bosniak, Croatian, and Indonesian, with a Persian edition soon to appear and an Urdu translation in preparation now. My previous books include a work on Kosovar history and the 1998-99 liberation struggle, Kosovo: Background to a War, published in Prishtina as Kosova: Prejardhja e Nji Lufte, and now in its second edition. In 2003, I published a short, bilingual book in English and Albanian in Shkup, Ëndërrimi në shqip [Dreaming in Albanian]. I have also published works of poetry and translation and political-historical studies of Communism, especially in Spain and Latin America, as well as in the U.S. , and, particularly, California .
Urtësia: What about your new book, Islami Tjetër, and other projects on which you are working?
The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony came out in English in 2008 and the first translation will be in Albanian, under the title Islami Tjetër. Both The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam draw very much on the work of Baba Rexheb. The Other Islam includes a great deal of material about Bektashi and other Sufis in the Albanian lands, as well as about Turkish and Kurdish Alevis in Germany,and about my visit to the holy shrine of Hoxha Ahmet Yesevi in Kazakhstan. The book includes many citations from Ahmet Yesevi, Haxhi Bektash Veli, and Naimi. I hope it will be the first introduction of Bektashism to a large Western audience.
The Center for Islamic Pluralism is currently working on a volume about the future of Islamic Shariah law in the West. We also hope to produce a monograph on Wahhabi vandalism in Mecca and Medina, comparing it with Serbian destruction of Islamic sites (including the Bektashi teqe of Gjakova) during the recent Balkan wars. In addition, my editor wants me to write an autobiography – an account of my spiritual journey. I would like to publish a book about the relationship between the great Albanian patriot and author Faik Beg Konica and the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. I also hope, in the near future, to spend a long time of rest and reflection in the Albanian lands, and to return to writing poetry.
Interview by Shpëtim Mahmudi
Note: The content of external articles does not necessarily reflect the views of Center for Islamic Pluralism.