It must have been in the nature of the Albanians – the curiosity to look at history from inside just like children who want to know how toys function. Maybe only in this simplified and almost cynical way can we interpret one of those centuries-long investigations (‘how does religion work?’, ‘what’s the name of God?’, ‘can he watch us when we sleep’ etc.) when the Albanian lands became the latest stop for a long shamanic journey that originated from somewhere deep in Central Asia’s spaces.
The shamans, mystics who identify themselves as mediators between God and man, by using a variety of means from music and dances to hallucinogens, and who in their long journey seem to have met, somewhere between Afghanistan and Persia, the prophecy of a religion, would identify in the latter the framework of a moral code. After melding their mysticism with a monotheist religious order like Islam, they would continue their journey towards the West until they reached their most advanced position, among Albanians.
After a journey of seven centuries, it was only among Albanians that Sufism (known in Albanian lands as tarikate, including Bektashis, Mevlevis, Rufais and other names from the 12-member family) found a safe home in Europe. And through Albanians it reached also America, with the first teqe opened in Michigan by Baba Rexheb Beqiri.
As if all this story were not interesting enough, with the Albanians taking the journey of the Central Asian shamans to a teqe near the automobile plants in America, now comes Stephen Schwartz, American journalist, son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, a former communist with great interest in the Latin American revolutions, who travels to the Balkans to cover the wars in former Yugoslavia only to discover and to embrace the call of Sufism and to author, among many books, a new one with the Albanian title Islami Tjetër: Sufízmi dhe rrëfimi për respektin [The Other Islam: Sufism and the dialogue about respect, KOHA, Prishtina, 2009].
The arrival of mysticism among the Albanians – it may sound like the title of an article, but according to Schwartz’s book, mysticism was a challenge for all three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The three tried to institutionalize mysticism within them in the 13th century. One of them, Judaism, was directly influenced by Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, in structuring ‘Kabbalah’ as its own mystical form.
In the two-way exchange, Islamic Sufism pushed the limits of the interpretation of God and God’s message, by suggesting a common source for all the monotheistic religions. As two other Americans, James Fadiman and Robert Frager, who have also embraced Sufism, explain in their Essential Sufism (Castle Books, New Jersey, 1998), Sufism is capable of integrating in itself Judaism and Christianity, by defining all of them as coming from a sole Truth, a sole God, declaring the lives of Adam, Moses and Jesus Christ as parts of and completely expressing the same prophecy. Of course, all this is functional only within the Islamic theological framework.
However, as Schwartz explains it, this makes sense only for a genuine and liberal Islamic theological framework. Such would, along with dialogue with other religions, frankly accept gender equality, the right to celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, and in its philosophical aspect, the right to an eternal quest of the Truth, first within ourselves and within this life, and especially through Beauty and Love.
Seems complicated? Wait until politics enters the picture as well, with two essential events.
First is the division over the heir of Muhammad. The Sunnis who make up the majority of the Islamic world are part of the group that after the death of Muhammad defined election/selection as the form of establishing the heir. The Shias, a minority in the Islamic world, are part of the group that wanted the heir to be a blood relative of Muhammad.
After the Battle of Karbala where Shias refused to submit to the orders of Sunnis, the theological debate turned into a political one and continues to these days as is demonstrated in the internal conflicts in Iraq.
Secondly, there is the division of power in Saudi Arabia. Before the birth of the modern state that territory saw the birth of Wahhabism, a strictly orthodox interpretation of Islam, which promoted inequality between men and women, while the praise of Muhammad and celebration of his birthday were seen as polytheistic and contradictory to Islam.
During the rise of the Saudi kingdom and, strengthened after the discovery of oil, a contract was established in the foundations of that country: the Wahhabis would be in charge of God while the Saudi royal family would be in charge of the state and of the oil needed to finance the Wahhabis. (In this book, Schwartz promotes respect towards and within Islam, but he calls Wahhabism ‘idiotic’ and the Saudis ‘bandits’.)
Provided with petrodollars, the Wahhabis have, for several decades, been on the offensive, exporting ‘bearded’ men in three-quarter-length pants, to impose their interpretation of Islam on what the author calls the seven identities of Islam, including the Turkish-Balkan one, in which the Albanians are included.
After the American occupation of Iraq, according to Schwartz, the Wahhabis (despite Saudi Arabia being an American ally) incited the Sunnis against the Shias, which then caused the Shias’ violent reaction. However, this is not simply a Sunni-Shia conflict, according to the author. In reality, we see an effort by the Wahhabis to destroy the Iraqi Sufis who are both Sunnis and Shiites, Arab and Kurdish, but more importantly are disciples of a personal, liberal interpretation of Islam.
‘White Muslim!’ They would shout in disbelief and sympathy. They would speak in English to the red-haired, blue-eyed nurse when they first met him, but he responded to them in Arabic (with his limited knowledge of the language). When asked where he came from, he explained that he came from Kosova. Then they would gather around him to watch this walking two-legged controversy: the soul of a Muslim (and therefore Asian/Middle Eastern) in the physical structure of a European.
The explanation of the nurse who had spent some time working in the Saudi Arabia came to mind during the last summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), where there was an effort to pass a resolution in support of Kosova. Meanwhile, I was reading Schwartz on the prejudices of Wahhabis towards Sufism.
In fact, the Resolution on Kosova could be identified as an effort to play the card of surprise and sympathy for the ‘white Muslims.’ However, it also represented a paradox: Albania (a country with all the Sufi tarikats) had composed for Kosova (a country with a considerable presence of Sufi tarikats, persecuted with bloodshed and other violence by the Serbian regime) a supporting resolution which would be sponsored in the OIC by the same Saudi Arabia (with the Wahhabi headquarters in Najd, also spiritual center of Al Qaeda).
A resolution, completely emptied of any substantial support for Kosova, was eventually adopted with consensus. Where had all the Islamic solidarity gone? (Wouldn’t this be a winning case, with ‘Wahhabi’ Saudi Arabia joining ‘Sufi’ Albania?)
One reason is simple. It has to do with our 20-year old effort to present our struggle against the Millosheviq [Milošević] regime not as a religious challenge but as a national democratic one. This self-defined image of ours is now known throughout the Islamic world. In their midst, there are countries which do not view favourably the birth of new states or the democratizing movements that lead to their birth. What bothers them the most is the model separating religion from politics, as in the case of the democratic movement towards independence in Kosova.
The centuries-long journey of Sufis towards the Albanian lands was crowned with the rise of Ataturk, who excluded them from Turkey in fear of their mystic and secretive ways.
Among the Albanians however, they found a long-established tradition of harmony and co-existence of different religions.
With the birth of the 21st century, the world would discover that what was normal to Albanians was also almost impossible and extraordinary to other cultures and people throughout the world. It would be underlined that among Albanians there lives and flourishes not only religious pluralism, but also Islamic pluralism.
It is exactly this Islamic pluralism that represents an intellectual, political and theological challenge to the Islamophobes, who see nothing more than violence in this great religion, but also to those within Islam whose aim is to suppress diversity by imposing their own rigid interpretation of Islam.
Translated by Bosnian Institute, 10.08.2009.