They alone are our real friends,
Whose company washes away our misdeeds.
To seek them, I leave no stone unturned.
Few and far between are such good souls.
----Guru Arjun (Raag Gujri)
District of Gjirokastër
A Nirmala among Bektashis
by Tirath Singh Nirmala
For those who follow the path of Gurmat (Sikhism), it is imperative to keep the sadh sangat or company of the seekers of God. Even more so within the Nirmala samparday (a Sikh order created by the last Guru), added emphasis is placed upon meeting with those who have adhyatmic gyan or spiritual knowledge in the aim of learning more through discussion and interaction, regardless of the source’s tradition. Absorb the knowledge of truth from wherever it may arise. Historically the sadhus of this order have met with and learned from seekers of a variety of backgrounds.
A source of inspiration for myself has always been the various tariqats of Islam, whether the Chistis such as Baba Farid (whose writings form a part of Sikh scripture), the Mevlevis in Turkey or here with the Bektashis of Albania. My initial interest in Bektashism was sparked two-fold, through snippets of information gleaned from texts dealing with Sufi and Shi’a orders and secondly by a beautiful compilation of Bektashi music picked up during my visit to Konya, Turkey. The more I read, the more I recognised numerous aspects of the Bektashi mindset that chimed with the traditional Sikh practices and world-view, such as the chivalrous martial history, the desire for inter-faith harmony and open-mindedness, gender-equality, and iconoclastic mysticism.
With this as my motivation I travelled to the city of Gjirokastra in southern Albania. Once I had arrived I made the journey to the Bektashi Tekke lying on the cusp of the town. Seated before a panoramic view of ever serene snow-capped peaks and rugged farmland, encircled within its own plot of land, the distinctive green fencing and gates announced that this was the tekke.
Up a neat track lay the tekke itself. Purportedly an 18th century structure it was evident that it has recently undergone both renovation and extension. Through the entrance lay the courtyard within which three turbes (tombs) lay at the top, the Dervishes lodge itself at the very back of the complex and a modern office to the left. After a few minutes, a young man came to greet me. His name was Mikail, and he was a muhip (initiate) at the Tekke. He explained that the present Dervish was currently in Tirana, but that he himself was the dervish’s official representative in his absence. He was accompanied by another elderly muhip. After initial hospitality and some basic conversation, Mikail took the initiative of inviting a small group of local intellectuals to assist in translating our conversations into English and Albanian. We proceeded to talk on a number of issues, and the following comments below reflect some of was discussed in our conversation.
Mikail outlined the process of initiation and ascension in rank within the Bektashi tariqat; from a follower (ashik) to a muhip or disciple, to a dervish and finally a baba. He himself was hoping to become a dervish soon (mudjeret ayni). Mikail explained that the baba decides which Muhips have the spiritual capacity to progress on to becoming a dervish. Those chosen maintain a strict vow of celibacy and undergo approximately three years of training in a medresse (traditional school for Islamic studies). When asked as to what the muhip is expected to study during this time, Mikail stated the Qur’an, Hadith, Ahl-ul-Beyt and Haji Bektash Veli’s writings and life stories.
When asked about how Bektashis survived through the communist era in Albania, Mikail explained how the tekke was not officially functioning as such and that the authorities had turned the place into a small factory. The old factory building is on the left hand side in the photo here.
Later a question was posed on the nature of a Bektashis’ highest possible spiritual station and consequently the nature of this relationship with Allah. It seemed that either something was lost in translation or he was unable (or unwilling) to answer. Regarding those who follow Bektashism without being initiated, he confirmed that there were no weekly meetings, sema nor group zikhr (unlike other tariqats) or special practices, but at times of festivals such as Muharram functions take place. Music would be performed, although no wind instruments are used, only stringed instruments. On the issue of the practices adopted by ashiks and local devotees, a suitable example was later seen when a local woman entered the tekke, lit a candle near the entrance and proceeded to respectfully visit the numerous turbes.
The central structure within the complex housed the turbes of three important historical Bektashi Babas associated with this tekke (Baba Hachim, Baba Ali and Baba Selim) who were housed in one large structure. There was a headstone in both Persian and Albanian stating the names of those whose turbes lay within, and the date of construction. On the inside wall as one entered the building was a portrait of Imam ‘Ali along with his two sons.
Inside the lodge itself, on the ground floor lay the women’s quarters, on the first floor was the public meeting room along with a small shrine (with cash offerings and a candle) to what was the choice seat of Baba Selim within the room. Further down the corridor was the room only to be entered by dervishes and babas, over which hung a very old framed Bektashi calligraphic insignia. Then came the present presiding dervish’s bedroom, in which his tesilim-i taj lay made of marble with detailed metal inlay and to be worn on the belt. More interesting still was the notebook of many pages of a previous baba (and one can only presume Baba Selim himself) filled with beautifully neat writings in Turkish. While flicking through the pages, images appeared, one unmistakably depicting something akin to a yantra, as a geometric design in which letters and numbers were placed.
In Baba Haxhi’s (who passed on in 2003) room, along with interesting black and white photos, a marble statue of a Bektashi Baba, we were also shown the Baba’s own gowns. Up a narrow staircase on the third floor was the dervishes private meeting room with floor seating, and fire and hob for warming their tea.
The numerous photos and images around the tekke itself told of the history and mindset of the place, with images of Imam ‘Ali along with the 11 other Imams indicating a strong devotion toward the Ahl-ul-Beyt, photos of Baba Rexheb (who was a student of Baba Selim), Dede-baba Reshat Bardhi, Baba Haxhi and Baba Selim on the walls. The numerous photos put up as a display showing the guests at Baba Haxhi’s funeral testify to the Bektashis mindset within modern Albanian society. Not only were all key Bektashis present, including those from Macedonia and beyond, but also representatives from the Albanian Orthodox church, Sunni representatives and current political figures among others.
When asked about other Bektashi tekkes in the area, two functioning tekkes are said to exist in the district of Gjirokastra with two Bektashis to maintain them although there are four tekkes in total. Later after returning to the town, I noticed and ventured up to a turbe on the otherside of the town on a small peak. There on the hill stood the remains of both a lodge and four turbes, three of which had been partially destroyed. The lodge itself was in a serious state of disrepair despite a gypsy family living in one end of it. One turbe, lit up at night, contained the tomb of three Sufis. Whether or not it was a remnant of a Bektashi tekke I was not sure, but it was a stark reminder of earlier attitudes of the communist regime in Albania to the Sufis and hence Bektashis.
There is a danger in taking too much of what I saw for granted, more so considering the fact of the reported reluctance of Bektashis to share deeper doctrine and practice with others. However, something I wasn’t expecting was the seeming lack of study taking place within the tekke itself, which is in stark contrast to the scholarly approach taken by the much lauded Baba Selim. Although Mikail himself remarked that Bektashis in the past were responsible for generating both Albanian and Arabic literacy in the area, when asked about the texts muhips study Mikail looked puzzled and simply stated the Qur’an, nothing more nothing less. This may again have been coyness, or perhaps the reality of having to rebuild from near scratch the Bektashi tariqat in a post-Hoxha and still strongly secular Albania.
A number of features of the lodge have remained despite the ravages of recent history; the adjoining land with sheep, the cistern that collects rain water, the dervishes meeting room with its sheepskin seating, built in furnace and hob for the teapot, the strictness with which certain rooms can only be entered by dervishes and babas alone.
If anything that invigorating intellectual complexity of mystical teaching seemed tangible, in the air, the photos and the Baba’s notepad. Alas for myself as a non-Bektashi on the outside looking in, I can only begin to wonder how sweet those secret doctrines and practices must taste. The meeting was rewarding and hopefully will inspire other Sikhs and Bektashis alike to engage in and benefit from discussion with each other in the future.