Traces of Hz. Mevlana Jalal al-din Rumi in Europe (Dez 2007)

Peter Hüseyin Cunz, President of the International Mevlana Foundation in Switzerland
International Conference, 13. – 15. December 2007, Selçuk University, Konya



There are two types of traces of Hz. Mevlana in Europe. One is the academic work produced by elder scholars such as Reynold A. Nicholson, Eva de Vitray Meyerovitch, Annemarie Schimmel and Johann Christoph Bürgel, but unfortunately very few known academic works from younger scholars of European universities are to be found. The other trace – prominent but difficult to measure and evaluate – is the substance of what remains in the hearts of individuals that have been in touch with the message of Hz. Mevlana.


The academic traces are characterized by a scientific or philosophical approach with a high degree of objectivity and a choice of expression that is easy to be communicated on an international level, such as in this conference. In contrast to this the expression of a touched heart is subjective and often emotional, is expressed in a metaphorical language and is influenced by patterns originating from education and personal experience. In both cases the expression will be guided by the cultural and social setting of the concerned person. Since culturally and socially there are remarkable differences between Orient and Occident, these differences reflect in the way of expression – be it scientific or emotional.


Differences have to be understood on both sides. Considering that the cultural flow is much stronger from the Occident to the Orient than vice versa, it is only obvious that oriental people find it easier to acquire an understanding of western mentality than vice versa. Westerners who thoroughly understand oriental values and mentalities are scarce. This fact is of particular relevance when spiritual requirements and work become involved, such as those practised in the Mevlevi Tariqah. In Europe we are confronted with these differences, for in the Mevlevi Tariqahs of Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, both, western and oriental persons come together to learn and deepen a common understanding of Hz. Mevlana’s teachings.


We must see the historical context in which Europe has developed. In the Middle Age the Christian church was the dominant force of spiritual thought and work. But in the 17th and 18th century the Christian church lost much of its power, and it had to give way to values of the Enlightenment, which include the notion of citizenship, the concept of democracy, the idea of secularization and the acceptance of reason as the only and last authority for the determination of methods, truth and errors. In today’s Europe ethical values take a higher rank than religion, and yet we all know that the highly esteemed reign of law in western democracies was not able to eliminate the abuse of power, dictatorship and injustice; the living of ethical values is not more in the western societies compared to tribal or theocratic societies. But we must see and consider the point of view from which “educated” Europeans attempt to view and understand spiritual values, with the rational mind being the dominant factor. Yes, there is acceptance of irrational esoteric and religious values in Europe, but these have to be in harmony with accepted ethical values.


To merge traditional Islam with democratic ideas is difficult and probably not possible without compromises on one or both sides. This is today subject of controversial discussions and political debates, and we experience this controversy also within the Mevlevi Tariqah. Some of my friends and colleagues in Turkey argue that the Shariah is first to be considered and to be observed, and then in addition we may seek for Tawhid (experience of unity in God). On the opposite, I, as a European, tend to say that the yearning for Tawhid is the first condition for any spiritual progress, and that Islam is one possible way offered by God to reach Tawhid. Being responsible for the Mevlevi Tariqah in Switzerland I do not want it to be seen as an imported Islamic sect but rather as a place where any sincere seeker may discover an acceptable context for his or her spiritual growth. It is indeed first of all the atmosphere and Barakah (divine power of grace) that he or she experiences within the Ummah (gathering of believers) of the Mevlevi Tariqah which attract non-Muslim Europeans. They are touched by the beauty and tolerance of Hz. Mevlana’s message and the ethical values they find in it. To first require from newcomers the strict observation of traditional Islamic dogmatic rules is not helpful, considering the Islamic requirements’ incompatibility with European values such as the spatial separation of men and women and the restrictions for women in their dressing codes, public appearance and other rights. Rather there is a necessity for rational explanations about the difference between Koranic requisites and cultural influences, and there is a necessity to question issues of the Sunnah and Shariah and to accept a debate about it. Unfortunately such debate on an academic level is still very little if not even suppressed. In my view Turkish universities with their experience of all aspects between orthodoxy and liberalism could play a prominent role in such international debates.


All religions started in a specific cultural environment and adapted through history to social and cultural changes. From a European point of view this issue needs more clarification. What parts of Islamic behaviour is to be respected under the constitutional guarantee for free religious expression, and what parts are to be seen as of cultural origin? Are the dressing codes, the circumcision or arranged marriages – to name some of the hot issues – part of religion or part of culture? Such questions are difficult to address because they provoke strong emotions in the camp of traditionalists. Personally, I categorically refuse to import oriental culture into Switzerland, my home country. The observation of the Sunnah should not be at the detriment of a visible respect for our Swiss brothers and sisters. I do not support the creation of Islamic parallelism, and it is not my duty to spread Islam in its conservative form, as some of my friends and colleagues in Turkey would like to see. In our Mevlevi Tariqah we come together to learn to live Islam for the good of our personal relation with our Lord (Rabb il alamin), and this includes the living an exemplary social life and the testifying of full respect for others, independent of their religion and their willingness to accept our way.


The resistance against Islam in European feelings would be much less if today’s mainstream-Islam had the opportunity to appear more prominently with its essentially universal message, beauty and openness for other religions. It would already be helpful if the holy Koran were translated correctly. The Arabic word “Islam” means surrender unto God. But in most translations the word Islam is left in Arabic, giving the impression to be the proper name of what we see today under the label Islam. A European would love to read, “The only true religion in the sight of God is man’s self-surrendering unto Him” (Koran 3:19), and he or she may not feel at ease reading “The only true religion in the sight of God is Islam”, as it is rendered in most translations. As a matter of fact, for us Europeans it is a real sign of the universality of Islam when we correctly read the last legal injunction that was revealed to our Prophet three months before he passed away, setting a seal on the message of the Koran: “Today have I perfected your religious law for you, and have bestowed upon the full measure of My blessings, and willed that self-surrender unto Me (Islam) shall be your religion.” (Koran 5:3, translation taken from Muhammad Asad)


Yes, there is merit to keep a tradition in its original way as precise as possible. While a ritual is kept alive it accumulates morphologic power from which a follower of a tradition will take advantage when participating in this ritual. But it has to be in balance with what the followers’ mind can accept, and such a balance will be different in Europe compared to Islamic cultures and societies. Through the years I served as teacher within our Mevlevi Tariqah I could observe how the message of Hz. Mevlana opens the sight of Non-Muslims for the beauty and universality of Islam, and in the experience of Tawhid their mental viewpoint shifts slowly to the place of a believer. It’s a shift away from the rational control with its attitude of free will to an attitude of devotion for a spiritual path linked to a religious tradition, including the forms and rituals that belong to this tradition.


There are not only Non-Muslims in the European Tariqahs. In Switzerland for instance a third of participants are native Muslims, many of them of Turkish origin. They do not face the hurdles of Non-Muslims as mentioned before; instead they face other difficulties. One of them is the confrontation with the view that Islam is not the only correct religion. For the Muslims in Europe it is a challenge to accept that the Muslims can as much learn from the Christians as the Christians from the Muslims. A further challenge for native Muslims is to be ritually united with Non-Muslims who in their daily life do not strictly observe traditional Islamic rules, and to accept them as truly equal brothers and sisters. And for people with a Turkish origin it is sometimes difficult to separate national folklore from spiritual work, and they may have to be reminded that Hz. Mevlana is neither Turkish nor Iranian.


In the last years Sema has become an object of business and a flourishing cultural export from Turkey. Thanks to the advertising of Whirling Dervishes, Europeans are going to Turkish concerts to which otherwise they would never go. Yes, some grasp a bit of the beauty of Turkish music, but many are disappointed to have seen mere folklore and little spiritual values. This business with pretended Mevlevi spiritual values is a huge challenge for our Mevlevi Tariqah. Whereas my colleagues in Turkey may have some justification to do Sema in public because it is part of Turkish culture, we in Europe have no basis that justifies a public show. We do not respond to the many requests for public Sema; we leave this to Turkish music groups. We consider Sema as a prayer, and a prayer needs an atmosphere of intimacy. Therefore we do Sema with personally invited guests only who join us in Dhikr before the Sema starts. And in such privacy neither Turkish nor other participants with an Islamic culture find it embarrassing if we allow men and women to turn together.


Summing up it may be said that the European Mevlevi Tariqahs are places where the religious dialogue is fruitfully lived, and where Non-Muslims and Muslims essentially come closer together, this thanks to the spiritual yearning of each participant. In Europe it is neither the common religion nor the culture that unites us in the Mevlevi Tariqah, but it is that yearning which Hz. Mevlana expresses in the first 18 lines of the Mesnevi and in numerous poems of his Divan that acts as common denominator. As followers of Hz. Mevlana we train to leave the rough and fluctuating surface of the sea and learn to dive into the depth of the ocean where the pearls are to be found. In other words: we try to get into the present moment where the past and future collapse into the “Here and Now”. This happens with the help of rituals within the Ummah. Especially Dhikr and Sema attract European searchers, and it is beautiful to observe how Europeans who have left the church for various reasons, find again a taste for religious rituals.


The potential of religious impact of the traces of Hz. Mevlana in Europe is tremendous, however in reality it is controversial and limited due to the seemingly negative perception of Islam. Therefore it is of utmost importance that more work is done on an academic level where the international dialogue is easier. I would like to see that European universities increase their interest to invest in projects linked to Hz. Mevlana and his message, and to seek for partnership with oriental universities. An intensified exchange and collaboration between occidental and oriental universities would also be a substantial contribution for peace in this world.

The Mevlevi Order in a European Context (Mai 2007)

UNESCO-Conference, Istanbul, 9th May 2007


I would like to start by affirming the existence of the authentic Mevlevi Order (or Tariqah) with worldwide activities, and I would like to present some thoughts based on my personal experience as one of the appointed teachers (Shaykh) within the Mevlevi Order.


Known as a powerful and much respected organisation during the Ottoman Empire, the Mevlevi Tariqah’s profile changed with the confinement of all Tekkes and Zawiyahs by law in 1925 during the establishment of modern Turkey and the loss of all assets as a consequence. Today the true kernel of the Mevlevi Tariqah as a religious path is relatively small and spread all over the world. In Turkey its expression is mainly seen in well-esteemed cultural activities such as classical music, Sema, fine arts and philosophical circles, whereas in Europe and North America it serves directly and openly a religious or spiritual purpose. In my speech I’d like to concentrate on the religious value of Hz. Mevlana’s works and messages, as seen from a western and particularly European point of view and in a European context.


When analyzing the spiritual needs of people we are immediately confronted with cultural and social questions, for it is the cultural and social environment that mostly influences the psychological patterns of an individual. Culturally and socially there are remarkable differences between Orient and Occident, and these differences reflect in the way we react to and reflect on religious messages. Whereas many oriental people have an understanding of the western way of thinking and feeling, the opposite is less obvious: there are very few Westerners who really understand the oriental way of reflection and feeling. I find it much easier to discuss with oriental people about western values than to discuss with Westerners about oriental values, and I feel a lot of esteem for those few who see clearly in both worlds, such as the great philosopher Mohammad Iqbal.


We all know and hopefully agree that Hz. Mevlana’s message is not only compatible with Islam but is in fact a direct teaching of Islam. Now, how come then that people in the West find strong inner resonance when reading works of Hz. Mevlana but decline or have at least difficulties with traditional Islamic values? One of the answers to this is the widely spread rejection of any religious dogma. In Europe the Christian church with its dogmatic approach has lost a lot of its power and had to make space to the values that were born in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century. They include the notion of citizenship, the vision of democracy, the idea of secularization and the acceptance of reason being the only and last authority for the determination of methods, truth and errors. Europeans and Westerners in general today face much difficulty in seeing the beauty of Islam when it appears in its traditional dogmatic way. In contrast to this the poetic approach of Hz. Mevlana offers more freedom to the individual in his or her interpretation and assimilation of the religious content.


Be it in the Orient, be it in the West, every human being carries a treasure in the heart: it is the yearning for the first and last origin of being, the paradise with nearness to God. Those who have understood that the real paradise is not linked to material wealth, worldly power and fame, will search for happiness through philosophy, spiritual values or religion. While most oriental people find it obvious that Islam offers the way to God, Europeans tend to seek for new approaches. They are receptive for various philosophies originating from Far- and Mideastern religions, among them Sufism. They search for an alternative to the ways offered by Christian institutions.


But we Europeans have a problem: in trying to find our way to God we use our reasoning and feeling as final authority for a judgement. This may be good for a start in order to prevent from following dubious sects, but does not work anymore when progressing on a religious path. We cannot comprehend God – this is impossible, by definition! The place of nearness to God is far beyond the limits of reasoning and understanding. Faith – and this is more than trust – is needed to progress beyond ourselves, but faith cannot be constructed – it builds up through our experiences in life. God gave us yearning and destiny; both together may lead us to faith. In the prayers and Dhikrs of our Mevlevi spiritual tradition we daily ask and beg for the increase of our own yearning.


How do we European rationalists, intellectuals, disillusioned Christians, atheists – you name it – find a new door to spirituality if not by being touched in our deepest being? It is not the dogmatic speech of a priest or imam who would enflame our yearning. It needs the combination of Haqq (truth) with beauty. Hz. Mevlana offers this rare combination. It is this expression of essence that touches so many hearts in our western countries and helps us to see – at least for a moment in our life – a spark of God’s Light.


There are many publications of varying nature using Hz. Mevlana’s verses in a simplified or distorted translation and interpretation. As an intellectual with a rather scientific mind I don’t feel attracted by such publications, but I have to admit that they do a lot of good in this world. The message of Hz. Mevlana is so powerful that it even breaks through romantic decorations and/or misinterpretations. Millions of hearts have been nourished by such publications! Of course a person already on a mystical path will most likely tend to wish for correct and professional translations.


To advance on a Sufi path it is of course not enough to be touched. We have to mobilize energies to create the necessary will for making an effort and we have to use our intellectual capacity and our body to overcome psychological barriers. Many seekers remain stuck in the consumption of fascinating and emotional impulses, and the actual esoteric market is actively promoting this. Sufism fascinates many of us Westerners, but when it comes to actually walk on such a path we fear the barriers that we encounter, of which the two biggest are (1) the need for regular effort and (2) the acceptance of Islam. While the first barrier is common in the entire world, the second is a typical western problem.


Islam as it appears to the western public and media is threatening. The social separation of men and women with the restrictions for women in their public appearance – be in dressing regulations, in mosques, or in public Sema – is certainly the first stumbling-block in the endeavour to open up for an Islamic spirituality. But also those Westerners, who overcome this, will encounter more disturbing facts such as the incompatibility of the Khalifah and Shariah with democracy. Today’s Turkey is a living example of the difficulty in bringing the traditional Islam and democratic principles to a common denominator. I’m convinced that reforms in Islamic thinking are indispensable.


In the Ottoman Empire and earlier it was normal that an aspirant for membership in the Mevlevi Order was a Muslim. Common Islamic rules were not a matter to be discussed, and all tests concentrated on psychological and behavioural issues. Also the absolute submission to the Shaykh was no matter of discussion. In today’s Europe we are in an entirely different situation. Hence, as one of the appointed and responsible Shaykhs and facing reality, I don’t request from an aspirant to be a pious Muslim and to accept immediately my absolute authority. If I would do so I could mainly attract people of eccentric character from fringe groups who are reacting to social frustrations and injuries. I rather welcome any seeker with acceptable manners and respect and with an open mind for our way.


Let me give you some insight on how the Mevlevi Order is functioning in Switzerland, a small country in the centre of Europe:

We meet every Thursday evening in a suitable meeting-place with a wooden floor. From 19.00 to 20.00 time is reserved for an inner circle, and we do the formal prayer followed alternatively by Sohbet (teaching by the Shaykh) or the training of the Mevlevi whirling. From 20.00 to 21.30 the meeting is opened to a wider public with Dhikr (invocation of His Names) and the studying of the Mesnevi. Additional to the weekly meetings we celebrate four times per year a full Sema, gather once per year for a three days retreat in the mountains and organize once per year a trip to Turkey (Konya). There is no fixed fee to be paid, but we ask to help sharing the direct costs.


Regarding the observation of traditional Islamic formalities we believe that there should not be any compulsion. A peaceful heart is more worth than the exact keeping of formalities. As responsible for the Swiss Tekke I seek for the individual psychological wellbeing of the members to enable them to see, experience and live the beauty and universality of Islam. During the formal prayers women stand in the same lines as men, with a small separation between them. Those who are not yet prepared to join this Islamic ritual are sitting behind in a meditative posture. The covering of the head is a free choice, also for women. We don’t do public Sema as Turkish groups do it; we celebrate it in a private atmosphere. Sema for us is a form of prayer without relevance for our culture. In our Sema men and women turn together.


Please allow me to conclude – in other words – with the following statements:

The purpose of the Mevlevi Order has always been to be of service and of support to those who seek nearness to God. In the past this happened in monasteries offering refuge to those wishing to go beyond the accepted standard way of Islamic belief. Today we live in a globalized world with an undefined chaos of religious opinions, mainly in Europe and generally in the economically dominating countries; and in this world the Mevlevi Order offers a way to clarity and spiritual fulfilment. Hz. Mevlana’s message can be an opening for Westerners to understand Islam and absorb its message for the shaping of one’s own being.


However, the basic cultural differences between Orient and Occident are to be considered. Traditional Muslims tend to believe that the observation of the traditional Shariah is an indispensable first act to reach Tawhid (unity in God), whereas Westerners widely do not accept this, seeing the Shariah as a secondary matter developed by human reasoning during the Islamic history. This difference in view exists – also within the Mevlevi Order. This is a challenge to overcome, and I pray that it will be solved in the spirit of our Pir Hz.Mevlana.