A Mevlevi view on Chivalry (Futuwwah) in modern times (December 2014)

Symposium in Kars on 16-18 December 2014

By Peter Hüseyin Cunz

The idealization of the noble behaviour of the knights who formed the chivalry in the European Middle-Age of the 13th to the 16th century was shaped by historical events such as the power game of the Church, the crusades to the Middle East and wars among European rulers. The knights were soldiers of the aristocracy. They had to follow certain rules of obedience and bravery. For the aristocrats it was essential that their subordinates remained loyal also in difficult times. Therefore they developed and propagated an idealistic view on serving as knights. The idealisation of the noble behaviour of knights polished the reputation of the aristocrats who then were named “The Nobles”. The cult around nobility and chivalry helped the persons in power and wealth to safeguard their position. Knights were “knighted” with a sword, a ritual of initiation to a higher level (maqam). Even a king had to be knighted before he was accepted as a king. This cultural element was reflected in poetry and music. Values from Christian monasteries, such as service, chastity and asceticism also found their places in this culture.

In modern times, after the aristocracy had lost their status and gave way to the bourgeoisie, the noble virtues of chivalry remained as an ideal in movements such as the scouts, the freemasonry and various secret orders. The Christian virtue of compassionate service as described in the story of the good Samaritan told by Hz. Jesus (see Luke 10:25-37) remains as a religious duty until today. Cowboy-films and video games incorporate heroes that are powerful and represent values of chivalry. “The strong shall protect and care for the weak, and the powerful shall live an exemplary life”.

Let me list the main virtues stemming from the idealisation of Christian chivalry:

  • Dignity (P)
  • Moderation and reasonability (P)
  • Steadiness and firmness (P)
  • Good manners (P)
  • Politeness (S)
  • Kindness (S)
  • Generosity (S)
  • Humility, humbleness (S)
  • Bravery (S)
  • Loyalty (S)

If we study this list, we can make the distinction between virtues of personal importance and those of social importance (“S” and “P”). And we can easily compare them with the rules of good conduct in Sufi Orders such as the Mevleviye, generally referred to with the expression “Adab”. However, all virtues and deeds that appear good carry the potential for abuse. They may easily serve the egoistic tendency of the soul (nafs). Even the virtues of very noble character can be nourishment for the shadow of our soul. When Hz. Jesus was spiritually on the highest point, Satan stood next to him immediately and tried to seduce him. And Hz. Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only (auzu billahi minna shaytani rajiim).“ In this World of Appearances (dunya) every light produces shadow. As Dervishes we have to be aware of and observe our shadows. They mostly operate as hidden motivation for our acts. Satan is clever and his influence can be very subtle.

I would like now to analyse some of the virtues and illustrate the education of Dervishes in today’s time.  Of the mentioned virtues there are four that are of personal importance, namely dignity, moderation, steadiness and good manners. These four virtues can be seen as cardinal criteria for the shaping of our soul. If we develop these virtues, the risk of falling into Satan’s traps is lowered. Let me now comment on each of these virtues:


The Christian Church recognizes dignity in man because he was created “in the image of God”. In Islam we could say that we all possess dignity because we were created as custodians of this world. Today the international view on human rights gives to each human being a right to dignity. The humiliation through all sorts of exploitation of a human being is generally seen as a violation of man’s dignity. We exploit human beings by allowing poverty, unequal rights of women, mobbing, all sorts of slavery and torture.

What creates in us the feeling of dignity? First it is our awareness of being a creation of God and our awareness of responsibility for this world. Dignity demands dignified acts. This includes of course a noble conduct towards others, but it also includes a respect for oneself. Self-respect is a precondition for balanced behaviour. Self-respect makes us free, and it prevents us from appearing in need of recognition.

Moderation and reasonability:

This virtue underlines the necessity of remaining in balance and of refraining from all sorts of extremes. Extremes always attract the opposite; there is no peace in extremes. Extremes are challenging. Why do we want to go for challenges? Why are mountain climbers, sportsmen and sportswomen looking to break new records? Why do people undertake risky acts, just to be mentioned in the book of records?

We all have a soul (nafs), and this soul is constantly in fear of death. So it wishes only one thing: to remain alive for ever. This urge to remain alive is expressed in our wish to exist. The feeling to exist is essential for our soul. If we are not able to create this feeling by ourselves, we seek situations where our existence is confirmed, we seek situations where we are in the centre of attention. We do this by any means, be it with political power, ostentatious displays of wealth, provocative art and scandals, just to name the most obvious.

To be moderate and reasonable means to be capable of seeing the richness in ourselves and to feel alive without the confirmation of others.

Steadiness and firmness:

In our Dervish-education we seek to master our urges, and we learn that it doesn’t work to try to eliminate them. If we repress our wishes and urges we create considerable psychic stress that later has to be cured again. So we try to transform these natural forces in us and lift them to a higher level (maqam). Instead of repression we choose confrontation. We try to identify what happens in us and describe it in the light of the Greater. Thus we allow our urges to exist albeit in a controlled way, or at least in an observed way.

The control of our urges requires lots of willpower, and willpower is not easily developed. And probably we feel uncomfortable or even depressed if our willpower is not enough to control an urge that has appeared in a certain situation. How can we ease this struggle? We learn to accept our weaknesses in the light of God’s all-embracing Compassion. Thus we can give less importance to our weaknesses and still remain in self-respect as described before. All the shadows of our own Self and Being will eventually die and disappear.

Good manners:

This is about our behaviour towards others in daily circumstances. It is a personal virtue insofar as it is the way we wish to express ourselves towards others. Each social class has its own code of conduct. Aristocrats have a certain way to speak and behave among themselves, but the same behaviour may appear arrogant in a non-aristocratic environment. Good manners become socially supportive if we adapt them to those of others. If we do so we are seen as polite. Politeness is a virtue of social importance.

In the Mevlevi Tradition we teach the Mevlevi Adab, which consists of a multitude of rules for daily life. They reflect our deep respect for the entire creation that surrounds us. We don’t turn our back to others, and we sit upright without crossing the legs in front of another person. We kiss the floor when sitting down on the floor, and we do the same when we get up. We kiss an object before we hand it over to someone else, and the receiver kisses it too. When we enter or leave a room we don’t step on the threshold; we do this in respect of the value that represents the room we are entering or leaving.

Now, all these rules of good conduct are very helpful and useful in a society that appreciates these manners. However, some of the Mevlevi Adab is not understood in Europe, and therefore we have to adapt our behaviour to the codes of conduct that prevail in Europe. But to be able to do so we have to understand the purpose of each of our rules. When I hand over a document to my boss I better don’t kiss it, as he would find this very strange. But I can be still in an inner attitude of respect, as if I had kissed the object. 

The four above mentioned virtues dignity, moderation, steadiness and good manners help to shape our soul and personality, and they help us to feel an inner peace. If we now turn our attention to the virtues of social importance, we can recognize that they bear in them a socially relevant risk of abuse. They are relevant for others, and they provoke a reaction by others. The virtues of social importance support us to be seen as people of good character and noble status. And exactly this is what the shadow-side of our soul, the Ego, wants to produce. Why is it so?

The soul is that part of us that gives us a feeling of Self, a feeling of being someone as an individual. We need this feeling to be able to live in this World of Appearances (dunya). We need this feeling of individual Self to be able to survive and to act in distinction and competition to other living beings. With this in mind we may now have a look at two of the virtues with social importance:

Kindness and generosity:

True knights were soldiers with a kind of Dervish-character. They had to fight, but the moment they gained superiority over the enemy they were asked to be kind and generous. On the battlefield they had to keep certain rules of respect for the enemies. Today we don’t see much of this when we think of what presently happens in some areas of the Middle East and Africa: mass killing with drones guided by a joystick on the computer, torture of individuals to extort money, mass killing of innocent people in the name of religion. It is horrifying what we hear every day from the media. Our society has technically advanced, but on a human level we have probably lost more than gained. In my view a Dervish nowadays should be a member of Amnesty International or any other NGO that fights for justice.

After whatever sort of battle, kindness and generosity should be expressed without any need of revenge. I believe that Hz. Imam Ali was a great example for this. Also in politics we see verbal attacks and battles where we can observe the violation of Futuwwah. Those who suppress different opinions by force are violating the principles of Futuwwah. Differences in politics, philosophy and religious sciences have to be settled with the virtues of Futuwwah in mind.

Our Dervish-education should help us to be aware of the subtle abuse of virtues. Kindness and generosity are good ways of attracting fame and approval that our Nafs enjoy so much. It is important to be very much aware of any hidden egoistic urge that drives us to be kind and generous.

Humility and humbleness:

Traditionally the Dervish-education includes 1001 days to learn to serve humbly. The aim is to shape our soul (nafs) to become less egoistic. But similarly to kindness and generosity we may gain attention by showing humbleness. Humbleness in expectation of thanks and attention has the taste of trading. Such a possible deviation from the right path has to be constantly observed.

Let us ask ourselves: Are we able to humbly serve without hoping for at least some thanks in return? How do we feel if we have done a service to someone and there is no sign of thanks in return? Are we at the level where this does not matter at all? Dervishes have to learn to be indifferent to any recognition of whatever sort. This requirement has to accompany all exercises and prayers.

Let me conclude by reminding that our soul has been designed with a constant yearning for individuality and existence. The way to overcome the self-assertion of the soul is by awareness and confrontation. To grow as a Dervish requires to observe one’s urges and to get away from focusing on oneself. A Dervish has to become a servant without expectation of any reward. The struggle on the path of a Dervish may hurt, but the pain is a possible sign of transformation. We are burning in the heat created through the polishing of our heart. In his Mesnevi, Hz. Mevlana compares the soul (nafs) with a black piece of iron. Let me end this speech with his words:

Then, though you are dark-bodied like iron, make a practice of polishing, polishing, polishing,
That your heart may become a mirror full of images, mirroring beauty from all sides.
Although the iron was dark and devoid of light, polishing cleared away the darkness of it.
The iron suffered the polishing and made its face fair, so that images could be seen therein.
If the earth body is gross and dark, polish it – for it is receptive for the polishing instrument –
In order that the forms of the Unseen may appear in it, and that the reflexion of houri and angel may dart into it.
God had given you the polishing instrument: Reason; to the end that thereby the surface of the heart may be made resplendent.
(Mesnevi, 4:2469 ff)