A Still Point in a Turning World (December 2000)

Speech of Hüseyin Peter Cunz in Ankara on 15./16.12.2000 


Honourable Minister, your Excellencies,

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I’m thankful to be allowed to be among you, and I congratulate the organisers for this well-done event. Please allow me to outline – in other words – a few points from the paper I offered for this occasion. I begin with a verse from T.S.Eliot:

At the still point of the turning world
Neither flesh nor fleshless
Neither from or towards
At the still point, there the dance is
But neither arrest nor movement

Let us acknowledge that everything in this world is subject to change and movement! And it is not alone the environment, politics and social co-operation that are subject to change. Also religion is confronted with the changes of our time. If we accept that Hz Mohammed was the last Prophet and that Islam was revealed for all people for all time, then we may not simultaneously demand that the culturally conditioned forms of religious expression should never change.

Rightly or wrongly: Western man often sees the Islamic codex as rigid 10th Century dogma which can no longer be reconciled with modern times. At least he sees Islam as adherence to modes of thinking and life-styles from the Orient, and he feels that Islam is in opposition to modern life. And still the expression of the Sufi and the teaching of Tawhid attract him.

Yes, in today’s time Mevlana and the Mevlevi tradition are extremely attractive for the Western society. In the USA Mevlana is apparently the most mentioned poet, and there is an immense amount of books and papers about Mevlana out in the US and European market. Also many more or less knowledgeable persons appear with the title of a Shaykh or Pir offering themselves – of course against some sort of remuneration – as teachers for people in search of spiritual experience. Various esoteric workshops include the Mevlevi-turn as one of their practices. Mevlana has become the source of a big market.

All this has its own beauty but it also creates new sorts of conflicts to be looked at. The Mevlevi tradition is strictly based on Islam, which is the predominant religion in the oriental countries. Within the Islamic culture the Mevlevi teaching offers – like other Sufi schools – a platform to deepen ones understanding on Islam and to express this acquired understanding in the outer world of every day – and in doing so, the Mevlevi pupil grows in his spirituality.

And here we have the people of the West with their Christian roots, attracted by the beauty of this Mevlevi expression. But they are hesitant to touch Islamic themes, because their picture about Islam is rather negative and distorted by the news they receive from the TV, newspapers and the churches. Knowing this the editors of books and organisers of esoteric workshops pick out all those sayings of Hz. Mevlana that match with the esoteric desires of modern man, and they leave away the multitude of references from the holy Qur’an and the Hadiths.

In seeing this conflict we could argue that the Mevlevi tradition does not bring to the West what it is originally standing for. We could also argue that the wisdom written in the Mesnevi and other works of Mevlana should only be for Muslims, because Non-Muslims may receive a wrong impression of what Mevlana was standing for. Even more we could argue that it is heretical to feed Non-Muslims with attractive selections of Mevlana’s sayings, because this may lead them more astray into Pantheism.

Let us not polarise unduly! Islam offers more than what we from the West believe to observe. Islam is much more than the observing of some compulsory rules. Islam is religion and philosophy in one. Islam offers an attractive basis of spiritual activity also for modern minded men and women.

If we accept that Allah’s greatness cannot be estimated by human mind, then we have also to accept that Islam surpasses the capacity of human awareness and judgements. Hz. Muhammad was born as Arab, but his function as Prophet had little to do with the Arabs. The Holy Message is universal. It is valid for Africans and for Eskimos, for the Orient and for the Occident. Accepting this I find it wrong to try to overlay oriental customs to other well-established societies. After the French Revolution the Europeans had developed a most advanced democratic thinking and system that so far has not been reached yet in the Orient. And rightly people of the West do not want to turn their back to their society, and our women refuse to be treated with less social rights than men.

I ask:   Are we Muslims because we know about the rules of Islam? Are we Musicians because we know about music? Are we Sufis because we perform a traditional Sema in public or because we speak and write about Mevlana? The fact that we come together here in Ankara and later in Konya does not make us Sufis! And yet such conferences are important, and I congratulate the organisers and decision makers for this event.

There are a lot of documents about Mevlana and there is a tradition of first class Mevlevi music and arts in Turkey. But still it is important that the authentic Mevlevi-tradition is kept alive. Searching people in the West are mostly not interested in Turkish folklore. What they want is to be connected with authenticity, with a proven Mevlevi tradition, with the Maqam Çelebi, with Shaykhs that have received the authority from the Maqam Çelebi. People of the West don’t want self-made Shayks and they don’t want to replace the arrogance of the Church by an Islamic self-complacency.

I’m sincerely convinced that Turkey has – through its culture and history – acquired the necessary knowledge to unite Islam with the modern Western social life. And I sincerely wish that Turkey would become a member of the European Community. In history Turkey had always had an important role as bridge between the Occident and the Orient. I’m most happy to be here, and I’m proud to have so many good Turkish friends.

The world turns and continues to change. When the Semazen extends his arms and through turning, comes closer to the still point of his heart with the essence of his being, all differences between traditions and modern times are dissolved for a limited and ecstatic moment. And after that he returns to his work, with greater certainty and in remembrance of Hz. Mevlana’s words: “When you plant an apricot seed in the earth without its shell, nothing grows: however if you plant it with the shell a beautiful tree will grow and bear new fruit.”

There are laws, which are valid forever, and there are habits that should never become law. May Allah grant us the wisdom of discrimination between law and habit, and may Allah give us the necessary strength to act accordingly!

Thank you for your attention.