By Refki Alija
Many people think 'whirling dervishes' have all but disappeared from the
Balkans but in Kosovo's western towns these peaceful mystics are going strong. Azbija Ceska enters the Saracan Sufi Muslim
shrine Saracan in Prizren in southern Kosovo with her 12-year-old son and another woman from neighbouring Orahovac. She has
had a bad dream, she explains, "which is why I have come to pray".
Ceska, her son and her friend are dervishes.
In Kosovo, there are as many as 12 orders of this Sufi sect, all of which trace their origins back to various saints and teachers
and who unite viewing Ali, nephew of the Prophet Muhammad, as their founder.
At the shrine, or "tekke", Ceska
makes her way towards the eight grave headstones of deceased dervish clerics, known as shehs, which are covered with green
velvet. A young man in a white skullcap gives the two women blue coats and headscarves, because according to Muslim tradition,
women may not go inside uncovered. He shows the women in which order to kiss the graves, and how often.
is one of thousands of dervishes in Kosovo.
The exact number is unknown because, according to Mumin Llama, a local sheh from Gjakova/Djakovica,
"each tariqah, or order of dervishes, takes account only of its own members".
Adrihusein Shehu, a sheh from the
order of Rifa'iyyah from Prizren, believes that before the wars of the 1990s about 50,000 dervishes of all orders were spread
around former Yugoslavia, mainly in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.
Most dervishes in Kosovo are naturally Albanian,
though some are Bosniaks, Turks and even Roma. "Since the wars, the number of dervishes in Kosovo has remained roughly the
same," Shehu says.
Ismail Hasani, a Kosovo's expert in religious studies, says most dervishes in Kosovo live
in Prizren, Djakovica, and Orahovac, with smaller numbers in other towns.
As he explains, the first dervishes
were mendicant ascetics who lived off the charity of the pious on their travels. The word dervish derived from Dari meaning
"door". A dervish, or darvish, was one "who goes from door to door".
Dervishes have been around in Kosovo for centuries. Sufi ideas reached
the Albanians soon after the Ottoman Turks first conquered parts of the Balkans in the 1300s.
The first dervishes
came into the Balkan semi-peninsula and then to Kosovo from modern-day Turkey, Syria and other Ottoman Muslim domains.
movement put down roots and in the 19th century, the Albanian philosophers, brothers and Bektashi dervishes, Naim, Sami and
Abdyl Frasheri, attempted to add a bit of local feel to the traditional doctrines and practices.
inherited his title as "sheh" from his recently deceased father, Xhemail. Under dervish tradition, the calling is hereditary
and some titles have passed from father to son over the passage of centuries.
Dervishes see nothing strange in
that. "Is there anything more natural than a son taking over from his father and then passing his knowledge onto his son?"
Shehu describes dervishes like as devout believers and as "devoted Muslims, soldiers of faith." But
he points out that dervishes are also mystics and their tradition is essentially non-violent.
Sheh Mumin Lama
agrees. Dervishes disapprove of the trend towards Islamist radicalism, he says. "Islam means peace and tolerance amongst people.
who support radicalism do not belong to Islam. We respect all God's prophets and holy books."
Islam's holy book,
the Koran, indeed recognizes 25 prophets, including some
of the principal figures of Judaism and Christianity, including
Abraham, Solomon, David, Moses and Jesus.
The difference between the various dervish
orders is defined by the way in which they conduct their services of prayer, called the zikr. Some practice quiet meditation
and others dance and whirl. Each fraternity has its own garb and initiation rites, some of which can be rigorous.
the special holy day of the Rifa'iyyah order, March 22, the believers gather in one of the Prizren tekke and stab themselves
as they dance themselves into a religious trance.
Shehu says that the "whirling dervishes", as the world knows
them, are not performing an ordinary dance. "It is something we call majdhb, an ability to reach a certain state of mind.
It is a secret which is passed on for generations," he says.
Because of pacifism of Sufis, they took little part
in Kosovo's armed conflicts, most of the tekke in Kosovo survived the devastation of the late 1990s, Shehu says.
Serbs left them largely alone in Prizren. "A part of Prizren was set on fire but we believe the downtown was preserved because
of our tekke, and none of the local dervishes was murdered," he notes.
That was not the case everywhere. Serbian
paramilitaries executed an elderly
Sheh in Orahovac, called Shemsedini, and another two or three people serving
the local tekke in 1998.
Moreover, if people were often spared, books were not. "What hurts is that our library
containing 1,500 books was set on fire," Mumin Llama says."The losses included 39 scrolls dating from around 1719, which are
Kosovo dervishes are formally included in the Islamic Community, though they take no part in
the decision-making process within the body.
"Dervishes have their own place in the Islamic Community of Kosovo, and acting on the proposal of
the various orders, the mufti appoints individual shehs by giving mensura," Resul Rexhepi, secretary of the Islamic Community
of Kosovo, told Balkan Insight.
"The Islamic Community of Kosovo regards them as Muslim believers who have a
normal place within the Islamic Community," he adds.
But among ordinary believers, differences are obvious. Zeqir
Shehu, 80, a dervish from Prizren, says the Sunni majority "often see us as something weird at the very least, though we've
got used to it".
At the Saracan shrine, around 70 believers have gathered in the tekke by 10pm for the weekly
zikr. After exchanging small talk and pleasantries, the sheh taking part dress up in colourful garb, bow, and begin the zikr.
by the sheh, they start singing in rhythmic unison, with the theme changing every 10 minutes. After around half an hour, they
begin standing up and whirling themselves into a trance.
Later, the dervishes take up their defs, shallow drums,
which produce a high-pitched sound, stepping up the pace of the dance. The prayer reaches its climax.
Then it's all over, as the sheh ends the service
and the worshippers depart.
As they leave the courtyard of the tekke, they recite a last prayer over the graves
of ancient shehs and kiss the wooden fence three times. Shehu is delighted. "It was a good zikr," he says, beaming.
Alija is a journalist from Prizren. This article is produced as a result of Minority Media Training and Reporting Project,
supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication