Ibrahim Gamard is a California-based sheikh of the Sufi Mevlevi order and has spent his life translating the poetry of the 13th-century Sufi mystic, Rumi. Murtazali Dugrichilov of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service spoke to Gamard about why Rumi is so popular in the West and the problems of modern-day Sufism.
RFE/RL: Is it possible to say that Mevlana Rumi's poetry is more popular today in the West than in Muslim countries?
Ibrahim Gamard: Yes, this is possible. I’m told that in Turkey, the language has been changing so rapidly that people read very little of Rumi’s poetry, especially the younger generations, because they cannot understand enough of the vocabulary of most Turkish translations, which contain many Persian and Arabic words that are no longer used in Turkish. Fewer people in Afghanistan read his poetry because of the decades of war there and the disruption of the educational system. The teaching of classical Persian language in India and Pakistan has probably declined.
However, Rumi’s poetry remains highly read and appreciated in Iran. I don’t know about other Persian-speaking countries, such as Tajikistan, and cities such as Bukhara and Samarqand, but I hope that they are still appreciating his poetry. There has been little interest in his poetry in Arabic-speaking countries over the centuries, in spite of translations of Rumi’s "Masnavi" into Arabic. Rumi also composed many poems in Arabic, but these are little known in Arab countries.
RFE/RL: How do you explain the huge popularity of Rumi's poetry and that of other Muslim poets at a time when anti-Islamic sentiment in the West is on the rise? Does it make sense for people in the West to study Islamic culture as a phenomenon totally separate from political Islam?
Gamard: In spite of anti-Islamic sentiments, Islam continues to be the fastest-growing religion in the United States. At the same time, there continues to be a strong interest in Sufism, but this is because it is presented as a type of mysticism that is not dependent upon Islam and which transcends particular religions.
As you may know, Islam spread throughout such regions as Central Asia, Africa, and Indonesia by means of popularized forms of Sufism that were mildly Islamic until more traditional forms of Islam and Islamic Sufism were established later on. Similarly, there are popular Sufi movements in the U.S. that are attractive to Americans because they are only mildly Islamic. And this is a major reason why Rumi’s poetry is so popular, because it is presented in popularized versions, not faithful translations, in which Rumi is depicted as a mystic who is only slightly Islamic.
And this is also why my book, "Rumi and Islam," which contains selected translations of Rumi’s praises of the virtues of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, has sold so poorly. Many Americans love Rumi for his ecstatic spirituality about divine love, but they prefer that he not be a Muslim, or at least no more than minimally. Therefore, most Rumi books are marketed to satisfy the wish for maximum mysticism and minimal Islam. Americans have little interest or sympathy for political Islam, but by reading even the most popularized Rumi books, Americans are learning about many traditional Muslim values and wisdom teachings.
RFE/RL: For the past few years, we've been observing a very disturbing tendency in Chechnya and Daghestan. Local governments there promote popular Islam that selectively borrows -- and sometimes grotesquely distorts -- the symbols and rituals of Sufism, even as it ignores its essence. Sufism is turning into state religion. Sufi sheikhs and prayer leaders are close to governments. Can Sufism be used in service of political authorities?
Gamard: This is something about which I know little. It seems to me that governments in Muslim countries that are working against traditional Islam, especially secular governments that are following the wishes of powerful non-Muslim countries, have been ruling Muslims for centuries by dividing them into so-called "good Muslims" and "bad Muslims" -- such as rich against poor, city dwellers against country dwellers, Westernized against traditional, non-Sufi against Sufi, Sunni against Shi’ite, PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] against Hamas, and so on.
I have read that, in America, some university scholars of Middle Eastern studies once advised the U.S. government to arrange for the Sufis of Afghanistan to rule that country, based on the belief that Sufis are the opposite of "Islamists." But this is naive, because Sufis are Muslims, so, like other kinds of Muslims, they range from liberal to conservative.
We Muslims should not allow ourselves to be divided against each other by these manipulations. And Sufis should not allow themselves to be manipulated by such governments. Instead, they should focus on the essentials of Islamic Sufism, such as cultivating virtues, or akhlaaq, and engaging in the remembrance of God, Zikru‘llaah. They should avoid flamboyant displays and extravagant claims.
RFE/RL: You converted to Islam in 1984. How did that happen? When did you realize that you wanted to become Muslim?
Gamard: I was raised a Christian and my strongest belief was expressed by a quote from the Bible, where Jesus -- peace be upon him -- said, "O God, not my will be done, but Your will be done." So I was already a Muslim, but I didn’t know it. Then in college, I studied mysticism, which is about spiritual states of consciousness that are beyond the ordinary mind and intellect. A few years later, I realized that I was more attracted to Sufism than any other kind of mysticism I had studied. At the time, however, I didn’t understand that Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam.
More than 10 years later, after I had studied more about Islam, I finally accepted that real Sufis had always been devout Muslims and that if I was sincere about wanting to become a Sufi, I should convert to Islam. I did and soon fell in love with the namaz prayers. And because I had been learning Persian for some years by then, I found it easy to learn enough Arabic to read the holy Koran.
RFE/RL: You are well known not only as the author of many books but also as a sheikh in the Mevlevi order. Could you please explain your spiritual practice
Gamard: This is something about which I feel rather private. But I will say that my basic practice every day is to do the five namaz prayers and to repeat the name of God in my heart as much as I am able throughout the day -- as the Koran says, "Remember God with much remembrance." Then, as I have the time, I make improvements to my Rumi/Mevlevi website, read verses from Mevlana Rumi in Persian, and read or listen to verses from the Koran in Arabic.
RFE/RL: In 2007, you became a Mevlevi sheikh. Could you please describe the rite of initiation?
Gamard: It occurred in stages. First, I was in Istanbul at a Mevlevi gathering at a historic Mevlevi center when there was a cell phone call from the leader of our order, who is the 22nd generation direct descendent of Mevlana Rumi. I was told that he had just given me authorization to be a Mevlevi sheikh.
By the time of my next visit to Istanbul, a calligraphy of the authorization -- or ijaazat -- to me had been written in Ottoman Turkish script and signed by our leader, which was given to me. Then there was a simple ceremony in the upstairs room of a mosque in which an elder Mevlevi initiated me as a sheikh, on the order of our leader. I wore the Mevlevi black mantle and we sat on our knees on the carpet, facing each other. Then he recited verses from the Koran in Arabic and the sheikh’s initiation prayer in Turkish, and then he put the sheikh’s turban on my head. Thus, we sat as equals, unlike the traditional Mevlevi disciple’s initiation ceremony, in which the disciple sits lower on the floor and places his head on the sheikh’s knee. Then photographs were taken and there was a short celebration.
During my next trip to Turkey, I spent most of Ramadan in Konya because it is a tradition for new sheikhs to go to there for a spiritual retreat of 18 days. During that time, my sheikh’s turban was placed under the covering of Mevlana Rumi’s tomb for 10 days for a blessing, or barakat, and I also did some acts of humble service, or khidmat, such as sweeping the outside courtyard and mopping part of the floor in front of Mevlana’s tomb.
RFE/RL: Is the internal hierarchy and structure of the Mevlevi order still the same today as it was centuries ago? If not, what are the main differences?
Gamard: The main differences are too many to describe here. The traditional hierarchy and structure had the full support of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. However, in 1925 the Turkish republic that replaced the Ottoman Turkish government declared that all Sufi orders, professions, and titles were illegal. All Mevlevi buildings, properties, and endowments were confiscated. The famous Mevlevi Whirling Prayer Ceremony was allowed, starting in 1953, but as a performance on stage in order to celebrate Turkish culture and promote tourism. Because the ceremony must be led by a Mevlevi sheikh, wearing traditional garments, the Turkish government has allowed it.
Other than participating in the ceremony, and training people to do it, the activities of Mevlevi sheikhs are done privately and discreetly, and their meeting places -- like those of other Sufi groups in Turkey -- are called "educational" and "cultural" centers. The traditional central authority has been very weakened, discipline has been lax, many traditions are not maintained as they should, and groups both inside and outside Turkey generally are too independent and unsupervised in regard to maintenance of standards of high quality. The Mevlevi tradition has become seriously weakened and Sufi organizations are still illegal in Turkey.