Articles and Translations

Ibn ‘Arabi and Ottoman Dervish Traditions: The Melami Supra-Order (Part two)

Victoria Rowe Holbrook

Victoria Rowe Holbrook is an American scholar and translator of Turkish literature and language. She studied at Harvard and Princeton, obtaining a PhD from the latter in 1985. Her subject was Near Eastern Studies. She won numerous fellowships and research grants in her academic career. She was attached to Ohio State University from 1987 to 2005, also teaching at Bilkent University, Koç University, and Bosphorus University in Turkey.

She is best known today for her translation of Orhan Pamuk’s novel The White Castle, which won the inaugural Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Other translations include: Beauty And Love by Seyh Galip (2 vols.); East West Mimesis: Auerbach in Turkey by Kader Konuk; The Other by Ece Vahapoglu; The New Cultural Climate in Turkey: Living in a Shop Window by Nurdan Gurbilek; Listen: Commentary on the Spiritual Couplets of Mevlana Rumi by Kenan Rifai. Her own book The Unreadable Shores of Love: Turkish Modernity and Mystic Romance won the Turkish Studies Association M. Fuat Köprülü Book Prize.

(Source: Wikipedia 2020) [/]


Articles by Victoria Rowe Holbrook

Ibn Arabi and Ottoman Dervish Traditions: The Melami Supra-Order | Part one

Ibn Arabi and Ottoman Dervish Traditions: The Melami Supra-Order | Part two

Part one of this article is available here.

At the fourth annual symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabi Society held at Berkeley in 1990 I offered an introduction to the Turkish Melami[1] supra-order, I described (“second wave”) Melami origins, drew distinctions between the tarîkat and a principle of melâmet, and gave an account of affiliation quoted from the last known Melami “Axis”, Kemalî Efendi (d. 1954).[2] Here I will develop a more general working description of the Melami and narrate instances from their literature relevant to the topic of our present focus, theophany and imagination.[3] Melami history is known for being difficult of access, and our relationship with our sources will occasion my digressive comment on the activity we are engaged in, and its own history.

The Melami emerged as a Turkish tarikat during the hiatus of centralized Ottoman power following Tamerlane’s sudden decimation of the swiftly expanding empire in 1402. With the re-establishment of Ottoman imperial government and conquest of Istanbul in 1453, the supra-order spread from central Anatolia to the empire’s western provinces on the European continent. The early Melami are called Bayrâmî-Melami because they branched away from the Bayrami, which had then itself just emerged as a tarikat. They later became known as Hamzavî-Melami after their martyr Hamza Bâlî (d. 1561).

I have called the Melami a “supra-order” because they are said to begin where sufi orders leave off. They have been, to a great extent, an order of şeyhs. A typical Melami gathering included, and still includes, persons affiliated with various dervish orders. Multiple affiliation was not uncommon in Ottoman practice, but among the Melami it was all but customary to complete a course of inculcation available elsewhere before initiation, and biographies of Melami figures usually mention the person’s prior regular order affiliation. In so far as their tarikat transcends the orders, it may be called a supra-order.[4]

My own experience of Melami activities in Istanbul during the 1980s included weekly meetings at which texts were read and discussed, attended by figures hailing from a wide range of dervish orders. They were mostly older men descended from a last generation of influential Ottoman şeyhs. All the orders were banned in 1925 by republican reform law, and it is illegal to represent oneself as a şeyh in Turkey. But the law is not now generally enforced, indeed never has been entirely enforcable, and many do so represent themselves and accept followers on that basis. Those attending the gatherings I participated in, however, did not. Their sensibility prohibited assertion of any public profile as Melami affiliates; they quickly withdrew if approached on that basis. And they were staunch supporters of the secularizing reforms which abolished the traditional institutions and semiotics, though not all social functions, of the orders.[5] They spoke of the reforms as timely and necessary for the welfare of Turkey. Yet a meeting of these individuals, many prosperous enough in various professions (medicine, engineering, the military) to send their children to the best universities abroad was, by virtue of their ancestry and the regard in which they were held, republican counterpart to a gathering of şeyhs.[6]

This brief description indicates defining characteristics of the Melami which seem to have generally held true throughout Ottoman history. Their function as an association of şeyhs is obviously distinctive, though there were other fora for gatherings of şeyhs. More basic is their rejection of any public profile – melâmet self-deprecation – so uncompromising that I still feel ambivalent writing about them. My curiosity about Turkish Melami history is a decade old, but one condition of freely pursuing it was acquiring the habit of not mentioning it, and the habit stayed with me. While republican prohibition against the orders occasions some degree of secrecy in all such activities, the principle of melamet is much older, older than the Melami themselves.

In Part One of this study melamet was defined as a taste in the spiritual life anyone, regardless of affiliation, might share: a specific kind of humility through self-deprecation, whether taken as a philosophical denial of being to the self or a more practical concealment of spiritual virtue.[7] The Turkish Melami claim self-deprecation as the purest practice of Ibn ʿArabi’s teachings, without invoking any genealogy or silsile chain of authority passed on by initiation originating with “The Greatest Shaykh”. Association of the Melami with Ibn ʿArabi (d. 1240) is a result of their own claims as well as centuries of popular understanding which attribute to the supra-order a radical observance of the vahdet-i vücûd (unity of being) philosophy most often associated with Ibn ʿArabi.

But involvement with Ibn ʿArabi’s thought – and here begins the promised digression – was almost universal to Ottomans: to the literate (typically in Arabic and Persian as well as Turkish) through Ibn ʿArabi’s writings and their commentary tradition, and to all through oral teaching. When one considers this fact, obvious though not yet sufficiently asserted in philological style, the Shaykh’s reputation for difficulty is puzzling. If his teachings are so difficult, how could they have been so popularly known and espoused? The Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabi Society provides an appropriate forum for this discussion, not only because the Turkish Melami have been, of all tarikats, most closely associated with Ibn ʿArabi, but because the rare quality of the Society’s ties have occasioned its interest in Turkish commentary on Ibn ʿArabi’s works, a body of literature so central to the history of Ottoman philosophy that the lack of attention paid it has left the history of philosophy lacking its Turkish chapters.

Perhaps the readiest response that would be given to this question of “difficulty” – were it regularly asked – is that the Shaykh’s philosophy was corrupted in popular understanding and assimilated in forms more easily accessible for the distortion. But such predictable response seems far from straightforward. Negative criticism of concepts associated with Ibn ʿArabi has traditionally focused on their susceptibility to heretical interpretation, if not their heresy, and implied if not generated an elite corps of inter­preters prepared for true understanding.[8] Corruption theory reiterates this tradition, and its anti-populist tone raises questions for the study of power relations and Muslim elite discourse.

Academic favoring of Arabist curricula traditional to Orientalist, and then “Mid-East Studies”, rooted in European espionage promoting Arab nationalism as one element of its anti-Ottoman policy,[9] encourages one to forget that Ibn ʿArabi and the “unity of being” philosophy associated with him were not considered heretical in mainstream Ottoman discourse. It is academic preoccupation with a tradition of “Arab” thought – composed in Arabic though not necessarily by Arabs, deprecating Ibn ʿArabi in times felt to evince political and intellectual decline for which Turkish rule is often retroactively blamed – which bequeathes us his international reputation as a heretic.

“Difficult” is also the adjective most often used to describe Melami history, as well as Ottoman literature and language. The usage highlights a sector of history avoided for political reasons. Invention of “modernized” literary institutions and educational practices in Muslim states left the first modern scholars of Ibn ʿArabi deprived of basic familiarity with discourses in which the Shaykh was fluent, and their subsequent development. If a person’s works are seminal they can only be understood as such in their reception, and Ibn ʿArabi became “hard to understand” when modernists suppressed his Ottoman reception.[10]

Anyone involved in Turkish literary studies is aware of the extent and force of international prejudice against the Ottoman past. While it is notoriously futile to question the non-occurrence of an historical event, a lack of scholarly attention to major historical events can be normative for an academic discipline. The absence most conspicuous here is exclusion of the Turkish from modern scholarship of sufisrn. Dervish orders came into existence as fully elaborated, international institutions only with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and flourished in Ottoman territories more than anywhere else. It is because the orders were so central to Ottoman social organisation that the Turkish Republic found it necessary to take radical measures against them, and far from promoting sufism as a national treasure (as the late Iranian Shah could), republican discourse has discouraged scholarly interest in it. While we define the Melami as a supra-order, the comprehensive lack of account, in any language, of Ottoman tarikat social realities let alone philosophical content leaves us seeking a frame of reference. The establishment of dervish orders in Turkish Anatolia and the Ottoman west remains obscure; there is no widely observed definition even of the term tarikat informed by Ottoman example, the major example.[11]

Another characteristic of academic Arabism is its invention by transliteration of an atemporal history and geography. Where, for example, did Ṣadr al-Dîn al-Qûnawî, ancestor of Ibn ʿArabi schools (referred to in my note 10), live? In Turkey the man is Sadrettîn Konavî, and his tomb in Konya well known. But no one seeking “Quna” will find their way, for there is no such place. “Ṣadr al-Din” too, is a series of syllables unique to transliterationese based on “classical” Arabic but never pronounced by speakers of any language, let alone Arabic. And where was al-Qayseri from? There is a Turkish city called Kayseri, but the commentator is located in an Arab middle ages imagined by Orientalists. Transliteration may seem a trivial matter, but it is far from trivial that even the scarce scholarship on Ottoman commentary – primarily Nicholson’s use of Ankaravi’s commentary on Rumi’s Masnavî – appears unconnected with its Ottoman context.[12]

By these and other means an ignorance of Ottoman humanities was produced which spawned a vast historiographical tradition suppressing the humanity of a civilization whose ruling dynasty was the longest-lived in Muslim history. Today Turkey’s real geopolitical relations are haunted by ancient prejudices which academic practices perpetuate. In a rare article on the Ottoman Melami appearing in the ongoing publication of the Encyclopaedia of Islam‘s second edition, Colin Imber remarked that “the organisation and membership of the sect remains as obscure as the Malamis themselves obviously intended it to be”.[13] He made no reference to how prominent in literary and intellectual life Melami affiliates were.[14] The Melami appear in Imber’s article as a minor sect, yet in Part One of this present study, employing the same sources he used, we observed that Melami Axes of the seventeenth century included a Şeyhulislam and Sadrıazam [15] such a phenomenon cannot be minor.

Imber repeatedly referred to the Melami as “heretical”, a term which like “sect” recalls sectarian violence in Europe, though one is hard-pressed to cite examples of such violence among Ottoman dervish orders. Imber’s heresy invites a too convenient embrace of that academic tradition favoring some Islamic sector deemed orthodox – an ahistorical Muslim elite with whose authority European scholars have, oddly, identified.[16] The unexamined complicity of these strange bedfellows, the third and final legacy of academic Arabism to be mentioned here, has banished the possibility of identifying melamet as revolutionary desire. But it is just this possibility that makes the Melami historically significant in political climates favoring values of free speech and free thought as indicators of, for example, the (un)worthiness of Turkey’s application to join the European Community.

Melami history is one of the more obvious places to look for instances of Ottoman dissent. In Part One of this study we left off the account of the supra-order when it began to suffer severe government suppression in the sixteenth century. Imber sought its causes in Melami deviance from şeriat divine law, but such law as defined only by government authority. One might argue that he limited himself to facts of Melami history as they were told; Ottoman authorities did not call the men they condemned to death dissidents, and Imber simply observed their criteria. But such simplicity perpetuates the panoply of anti-Ottoman discourse customary to nineteenth-century colonialist attitudes.

Imber outlined a pattern of Melami development which coincides precisely with nineteenth-century rise-and-decline paradigms of Ottoman history now debunked in all but its neglected literary sectors. His rehearsal of authoritarian views of a Melami tarikat regarding itself “as self-governing and beyond the authority of the Ottoman state, whose titles and organisation it mimicked” (p. 228), does not allow that Ottoman titles and organisation might owe something to dervish institutions. Comparisons between dervish order and dynastic institutions could bring to bear as example the (Turkic) Safavi dynasty which ruled Iran in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – first emerging in the fifteenth as a dervish order – and was the major ideological rival to the Ottoman state. We are slow to theorize on the nascent state/para-state potential tarikats then had, which might explain in part the severe Turkish republican posture towards them. Yet the Melami emerged at a time when central government was far from predictable; surviving Melami sense of autonomy might be an instance of dervish order para-state consciousness, and the fetvâ jurist decisions condemning to death “Oğlan Şeyh” Ismâil Maşûkî (1529), Hamza Bâlî (1561), and Sütcü Beşir Ağa (1663), responses on the part of an insecure state to revolutionary bids for an alternative future of Islamic ideology.

In 1984 the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet published a series of articles by Riza Zelyut on the theme “Ottomans who Gave their Lives for their Beliefs”. One of them was devoted to Ismail Maşuki.[17] Zelyut’s articles were symptomatic of a climate of protest against the military coup of September 12, 1980, which occasioned the public prosecution and less public persecution of thousands of Turkish intellectuals. Zelyut interpreted Ottoman suppression of dissent as a cause of the empire’s decline, and concluded his series with this sentence:

Those societies that wish to bequeath their children a secure future should, above all else, support their intellectuals and scholars (February 22, 1984, p. 8).

Zelyut implied that present-day Turkish dissent is a tradition the ancestors of which include the martyred Melami Axis Maşuki, and that Turkish republican suppression of intellectuals continues an Ottoman tradition it claims to reject. While efforts to legitimate current phenomena by appeal to ancient precedent may not illuminate the past, they do, like academic Mid-East scholarly identification with Islamic orthodoxy, document various ways in which an imagined past is used. In this case Melami aspirations, interpreted as revolutionary desire (which is sometimes considered legalized in modern institutions for transferral of power by democratic elections), were cited as correlates of contemporary values of free speech and free thought.[18]

Let us pause to summarize principles for a working description of the Melami outlined so far: one is their supra-order status as an association of şeyhs. More basic is their melamet self-deprecation, identified with Ibn ʿArabi and the “unity of being”. A third principle offered for consideration is their revolutionary desire. We now turn to a fourth: the extraordinarily tight organisation of the tarikat. But before going further, we should consider the nature of our sources.

There has been one major modern scholar of the Ottoman Melami, the late Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı (d. 1982). He was also the sole modern scholar of Mevlevi – “The Whirling Dervishes” – history beyond its first generations. Although publication regarding Mevlana Rumi remains more voluminous than any other regarding Islamic culture, only Gölpınarlı’s scholarship comprehends Mevlevi history.[19] In his 1931 study of the Melami he employed a wide range of sources, but relied primarily on the historiography composed by affiliates beginning in the seventeenth century. The oldest of these texts is a Book of Guidance by Hakiki Bey (d. 1640–1).[20]

The central Melami authority is called the Axis (Kutup) or “Succor of the Age” (Gavs). While in regular Ottoman orders initiation would normally be administered by haltfe deputies, among the Melami it has been obligatory to receive guidance from the central authority. They cannot be guided by anyone but the Axis, who is the Muhammeden Heir (Vâris-i Muhammedî). Hakiki Bey explained this exigency thus:

God the truth, may he be praised and exalted, has with that light of the Muhammeden reality given a sacred power to all the prophets and saints given to no one else; and with that light all the sciences of the beginning and the end are unveiled to them. With that light they know the science and reality of all things in the heavens and the earth and between earth and heaven. And with that light they become possessed of the summons and power to bring grace to the eighteen thousand worlds, to solve the difficulties of all creatures, and bring them to reach God the truth. Theirs is the right to summon people to God the truth and to guide aspirants. [The function of] guidance is forbidden to all others, unless by their order and permission. With the guidance of that master of grace and guidance who is site of manifestation of the light of Muhammeden reality, those who attain and all the saints find solicitude (perveri§), and when it is necessary for someone to be guided, they do it by order and permission of that personage. All of them have obeyed [that master], in whose presence all ends originate. All aspirants and travellers are in [that] noble presence annihilated in absolute being and consumed. And the perfection of the group who travel this path is this, that choosing transience (fenâ) – even if thousands of sublime miracles and spiritual intimacies (vilâyât-i maʿnevî) should be manifest on that account, even if thousands of aspirants should come to the path of God the truth – they attain grace and rapture on that account [fena], and never attribute being to themselves in any thing; all those of that court (<dergah) know their own selves to be insignificant {hakiyr bile), and reaching the station of “Die before you die”, they reap the worthiness to find deliverance from the exigencies of creaturehood. For it is the perfect guide who has the gaze of grace and wisdom and the grace of expansion and strength and power.[21]

Gölpınarlı attributed the extraordinary strength of Melami organ­isation to this centralizing imperative. They maintained inde­pendent courts, themselves trying and punishing affiliates for transgressions against divine law; they did not turn their members over to government authorities. Hakiki Bey explained:

If a contrary vice and action (dahlî ve âmelî) outside of the noble şeriat and the illustrious tarikat should issue forth from a tarikat member, they reject that person and do not accept the deed; and if that person should, turning back from the crime, finally ceasing to commit that sin, repent and seek forgiveness, and desiring the former state and station, seek his/ her way, then it is incumbent upon God the truth’s people that elders should show the way and draw that person to the tarikat. If s/he obeys whatever they command and accept, and they administer whatever punishment accords with God’s command and the Messenger’s word and the path of the saints – well-known to God the truth’s people – then they accept and love that person as before. And if s/he is stubborn and does not accept God the truth, they continue to reject that person. As long as s/he does not regret the deed, confess the crime, and seek the way, they do not give way on account of anyone’s intercession.[22]

Gölpınarlı observed that although this treatment of erring members may resemble certain Bektâşî practices, such comparison is annulled by perfect Melami observance, while they remained most extreme adherents of the “unity of being”, of the dictates of şeriat law. He found nothing contrary to the §eriat in the correspondence of major Melami figures, and added that they did not adhere to Batini doctrines, nor can takiyye “dissimulation” [23] be attributed to them.[24]

Having introduced four characteristics –şeyhly association, melamet, revolutionary desire, and the centralizing imperative of guidance by the Axis – for a working description of the Melami, we turn more directly to the topic of theophany and imagination. The Melami avoided theorizing, and little explicit systematizing of this or any other topic is found in their literature. Rather, the certainty that human beings are by definition the site of divine self-disclosure is assumed, and miraculous display forbidden by the principle of melamet.[25] The more dramatic instances of theophany occur in anecdotes of affiliation: moments when aspirants recognize the Axis.

We may take as example the initiation of Sarı Abdullah (d. 1660-1), whose commentary on Mevlana Rumi’s Masnavî[26] signals the close relations between the Melami and Mevlevi at the time, which continued into the present century; Gölpınarlı cited his Hearts’ Bounty[27] as the second major document of Melami historiography. Sarı Abdullah was son of a Moroccan prince, Seyyit Mehmet, and an unnamed woman whose father, a certain Mehmet Pasha, had a powerful brother in the Ottoman Sadrıazam Halil Pasha. Abdullah migrated to Istanbul during the reign of Sultan Ahmet I (reigned 1603–17) and entered Ottoman service as a tezkireci secretary, joining the Sultan’s Iranian campaign. He rose to the office of Reisülküttap (Secretary-in-Chief of the Imperial Council) in 1627–8, but was relieved from duty when his patron the Sadrıazam fell from favor. Re-appointed Reisülküttap after Halil Pasha’s death in 1637–8, Abdullah also joined Sultan Murat IV’s (reigned 1623–40) Baghdad campaign. He retired from political life in 1654–5.[28]

Sarı Abdullah had his regular tarikat affiliation with Azîz Mahmût Hüdâyî through his grand-uncle Halil Pasha.[29] Although Halil was a disciple of the Melami Axis Idris-i Muhtefi (d. 1615), Abdullah came to enjoy his Melami affiliation through the agency of his “spiritual father” (babalği) Hajji Hüseyin Ağa:[30]

One day Hüseyin Ağa took Abdullah Efendi to the Peştemâlcılar quarters at Kirk Ceşme[31] There twelve men “gazed into his heart” (nazar), and Abdullah Efendi fell in a swoon. When he revived, he found a light shining in his heart. Noticing that he tried to cover the light with his robe, the Peştemâlcılar Pir [leader] smiled and said: “There’s no need to conceal it; not everyone can see that light. Do your best to preserve it.” Later, again by Hüseyin Ağa’s agency, Abdullah Efendi encountered Idris-i Muhtefi while leaving the Ayasofya mosque.

Feeling the Axis Idris-i Muhtefi’s gaze, Sarı Abdullah fell again in a swoon. Thus ends the account of his affiliation. Later Abdullah committed fornication (zinâ’) and suffered a spiritual contraction (derûnî bir inkibâz). His spiritual father perceived this, and Abdullah was tried in the presence of Melami affiliates for transgressing the şeriat. By submitting himself to trial he regained his former purity of heart, but was never again able to witness the light in his heart.[32] The passing reference to Sarı Abdullah’s great loss becomes important as a rare quoted Ottoman account of sin and its consequences. Islamist scholarship has made more readily available proscriptions for daily behavior in predictable detail which offer no answer to the hard challenges people face. After Muhtefi passed away, Abdullah swore fealty to his successor Hajji Kaba’î, and after Kaba’î’s death (1627-8), to his successor Beşir Ağa (martyred 1662–3). At the time of Kaba’îs death Abdullah was on campaign with his patron Halil Pasha. When the Pasha suffered the Sultan’s displeasure during this campaign, Abdullah shared his patron’s fate. The Pasha returned to Istanbul in secret and, taking refuge at Hüdayi’s tekke, was pardoned through Hüdayi’s intercession. Abdullah was eventually pardoned through intercession by the şeyh at Koca Mustafa Pasha. Gölpınarlı quoted Abdullah’s account of his meeting with the last Melami Axis he would know, Beşir Ağa:

Fearing the Padishah’s [Sultan’s] wrath, I travelled to Istanbul secretly, going from village to village. Enjoying such hospitality one evening, I was about to retire when a servant came through the door leading to the women’s quarters, saying that the lady of the house wished to see me. I was forced to accept her invitation, though I felt uneasy, wondering if my hostess might be a loose woman, or if I had been recognized. The lady of the house came and, opening the door slightly, stood behind it and said to me:

“I am no stranger, Abdullah Efendi. I have seen you a number of times in the presence of our Efendi [Kaba’i]. There is something I want to ask. When our Efendi passed away, to whom did he surrender his trust?”

I still did not know about Kaba’i Efendi’s death, and said: “I have not even heard about his death. How should I know who has taken his place?” We both begged God for guidance and wept.

After I returned to Istanbul and was pardoned I began to seek out the Master of the Age. One day, disconsolate, I visited Hajji Kaba’i [‘s grave]. I found Beşir Ağa sitting with a few people next to the grave. When I looked at his face I was enraptured (cezb) by his gaze and confirmed in my heart that he was the Succor (Gavs) [of the Age]. I immediately approached him and kissed his hand. Someone sitting next to him said: “You’re late.” I replied: “Praise God, I did not come prostrating myself to stones and trees. I inclined towards his true reality and awaited his acceptance.” He replied: “But it is not worthy of you to be late.” Beşir Ağa said: “Be silent; this is a matter of spiritual taste (zevk).”[33]

Such underplay of theophanic event is a Melami norm.

As a final example we will take, from the nineteenth century, Seyyid Abdülkadir el-Belhî’s (d. 1922) initiation. He was the first Melami Axis to enjoy a following as public as that of Beşir Ağa, martyred in 1663. The Kemâlî Efendi mentioned in Part One of this study was Belhî’s successor. Abdülkadir was born in 1839–40 in the village of Hâniqâh near Balkh in present-day Afghanistan, and pursued studies in Persian and Arabic there. Counted among his ancestors the ruler of Balkh Burhan ad-din Kiliç. Abdülkadir’s regular tarikat affiliation was with the Nakşbendi order, through his father Seyyid Süleyman. He accompanied his father and 300 of his father’s disciples in fleeing their homeland in 1855–6 for Iran, and thence by way of Iraq to Anatolia, reaching Konya in 1859–60. In Konya Abdülkadir calligraphed copies of Ibn ʿArabi’s works. He travelled with his father to Bursa in 1863ü4, and by invitation of the father of the Ottoman Sultan Abdülazîz, they moved to Istanbul.[34]

Abdülkadir enjoyed his Melami affiliation through the Axis of the time, Seyyid Bekir Reşat Efendi (d. 1875). Gölpınarlı related this account by a certain Muallim Arif Efendi of Konya:

While Seyyid Abdülkadir was in Konya, he saw Bekir Reşat Efendi in a dream. Bekir announced that he was charged with the duty of educating Abdülkadir, and he should come to Istanbul without delay. After the dream was repeated successively for a few nights, Abdülkadir told his father about it. This dream was the cause of their departure from Konya. When they came to Bursa, Bekir Reşat again appeared [in a dream], and Abdülazîz invited Süleyman Efendi to Istanbul. Thus they came to Istanbul and set about finding Bekir Efendi.

Saying “I will find my Efendi”, Abdülkadir took the love in his heart as guide and walked towards the district of Fatih; his father accompanied him. At last they came to Bekir Efendi’s residence, and Abdülkadir was inspired by spiritual rapture to choose that door. It immediately opened, and Bekir Efendi greeted him like father to son, friend to friend, and verifying the dream that day gazed into his heart, making him drunk with the joy of unity.[35]

In Istanbul they stayed as guests of the Sultan in a mansion at Sülüklü. Later they moved to the Istanbul district of Üsküdar. Abdülkadir’s father Süleyman was appointed şeyh at the Nişancılar şeyh Mürat tekke (near Eyyup, in Istanbul) when the position became vacant upon şeyh Feyzullah’s death in 1867–8. When Süleyman died in 1877, Abdülkadir was appointed to take his place.

All of the Melami figures mentioned in this essay, aside from the unnamed woman who informed San Abdullah of Kaba’i’s death, are male. Gender relations in Ottoman society are far from understood, and current clichés about Muslim women are mostly insupportable. There have been and are female affiliates of the Melami as well as other Turkish tarikats; it is worth noting both the unease Abdullah felt when the woman approached him and the intimacy they shared, weeping together over Kaba’i’s death, once he understood her affiliation. Cases of Ottoman women wielding power in tarikats and other institutions can be cited, yet women’s rights have thrived at the expense of religion as it has been understood. On the other hand, a broad wing of contemporary Turkish feminists consider patriarchal rather than religious institutions their primary obstacle. But a religious understanding more favorable to women’s rights, if even more desired, appears now even harder to attain.

In 1983 I was taken by members of the Melami group I frequented to visit an elderly woman, I believe then in her nineties, revered by them for her association with Abdülkadir el-Belhî. She was blind and lived alone in a tiny basement room near the Istanbul district of Aksaray, as immaculate as it was humble – surely painfully humble, though she praised her son-in-law for attending to her needs. During the few hours of our visit I was overwhelmed by her good cheer, quickness of mind, and girlish agility. Much in command, she regaled us with tales of Şeyh Abdülkadir and the dervish House over which he presided. She said that when guests came to visit him they would commune in silence, never speaking at all.


Columbus, 1992

This paper was first delivered at the ninth annual symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, “Theophany and Imagination”, held at Wadham College, Oxford, England, 1992. It was first published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, Vol. XII, 1992.


[1]   Spelling herein of Turkish words follows Modern Turkish usage, differing only by distinguishing, when confusion might otherwise arise, between the characters hemze, shown by (’), and ay in, shown by (ʿ); and by marking long vowels by only on first usage of a word or name; when this marking would contradict modern Turkish distinction between “front” and “back” consonants, the vowel is written twice.

[2]   The paper, “Ibn ʿArabi and Ottoman Dervish Traditions: The Melami Supra-Order, Part One”, was published in the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabi Society IX (1991), 18-35.

[3]   This paper was first delivered at the ninth annual symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabi Society, “Theophany and Imagination”, held at Wadham College, Oxford, England, 1992.

[4]   A note here on terms. Melami affiliates staunchly reject usages which categorize them as a sufi order, although the term tarikat (literally, “path” or “way”, often translated “order”) has been used by Melami historians to refer to them. In Ottoman contexts the term more often names a highly elaborated social institution, whose primary stated purpose is guidance of the psyche, legitimated by a silsile “chain” of authority originating with an ideal ancestor but derived ultimately from the prophet Muhammed and passed on by initiation from figure to figure in the chain. The regular orders are recognized by their characteristic repertoires of ritual, costume, and international networks of dervish Houses (tekke, dergâh, âsitâne, etc.) and other real estate administered as pious foundations (vaktf). The Melami differ radically from the orders in that they have deliberately refrained from acquiring such public accoutrement. The institutionalization of the orders was a process which coincided with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and the Melami in a sense preserved some of the relatively informal characteristics of tarikats in their pre-Ottoman phase. However, their restraint required a conscious and aggressive anti-institutionalization which could not have occurred in pre-Ottoman times.

“Şeyh” is the Turkish form of the word often transliterated as “shaykh” or “sheikh”. I use the Turkish spelling to refer to functions of that office special to Ottoman contexts in which a şeyh was appointed, according with a hierarchy proper to the order, to serve as administrator of a dervish House. Such appointments were monitored, approved, and recorded by the central Ottoman government office of the Şeyhülislâm (highest rank in the ulemâ jurist/pedagogue institution). Other şeyhly functions, such as spiritual guidance or initiation, were shared with halife deputies, and the term was used generally to refer to a spiritual adviser. I use the spelling “shaykh” when referring to non-Ottoman contexts.

[5]   The reforms outlawed traditional semiotics in so far as signifying practices of professional title, costume, and institutional organisation were banned. Some of the social functions of the tarikats, however, have survived in altered forms, taking shape through conformity with the new laws. The Melami gatherings I refer to are one of many examples that could be given.

[6]   I will note a few characteristics of these meetings relevant to our purpose here. They were led by one individual, but the behavior towards him of those attending was not like that of disciples towards a master. I believe the leader’s connections by tarikat affiliation carried a superlative cachet. He also had an Istanbul University Ph.D. in Ottoman literature. But such distinctions were not overtly referred to; the gatherings were conducted as meetings among equals. The role he played was more that of organizer, announcing dates of meetings and providing (usually handwritten) copies of the text to be discussed, itself chosen by spontaneous agreement among the more regular participants. During the meetings I attended over the course of a few months most time was devoted to al-Insan al-Kamil by ʿAbdul Karim al-Jili (d. c. 1408-17) in an unpublished Turkish translation authored by a late associate of the group; it was constantly compared with a printed edition of its Arabic original. Poetry was read, mostly unpublished Turkish lyrics by contemporary Albanian and Bosnian poets, their theoretical content being the focus of discussion.

Chairs were arranged so that the majority sat like an audience (of about 30) watching the “leader” and a few elder members seated in front in a circle including the audience’s first row. But all were free to speak up at any time and did, politely, though a certain contentiousness in an oratorical mode was much appreciated. Related to this approval of competitive oratory was a fondness for eccentricity; each of the elder members particularly, sported a different sartorial style related not only to his tarikat affiliation but other kinds of loyalties – politically or economically defined class, or profession. An honored guest might be seated at “the leader’s” right, as I was, but in my case the seat of honor performed ironic service, for an American (though I was invited by “the leader”) was such a unique curiosity that there was no place else to put her.

On only one occasion did I see another woman; seated in “the audience”, she was a fiftyish Turkish woman descended from a renowned şeyh. She seemed unencouragcd to participate in this gathering among men accustomed to gathering as men. I never saw anyone as young as myself (I was thirty), and had the impression these gentlemen were rather alienated from the younger generation at large as they perceived it. I also felt they urgently sought to understand what role their spiritual and intellectual inheritance, deprecated by modernist ideals, should play in their nation’s future. For the more elderly among them the quest to realize it personally was most urgent.

The site of the meetings was a refrigerator shop that disdained by its decor the ultra-modern style of the Asian shore district in which it was located. One entered the unpainted, unheated storefront to find the very latest in machines lying about like medieval tombstones. On the wall behind the owner’s business counter was an informal collage of photographs of şeyhs most renowned at the time when the orders were banned. Calligraphic tableaux, ranging from corny popular art to valuable originals, were hung on a nail here and there. The meetings were held in an empty space beyond the refrigerators, where chairs were neatly arranged under a light bulb suspended from the ceiling. But we should not make too much of this shop, for the site of the meetings was often changed, whenever they attracted such disruptive attention as the gossip my presence inspired. I was then invited to come to “the leader’s” home, where a subgroup met while the larger gatherings continued at a new location as before.

[7]   Outrageous courting of public censure as a means of self-denial was more often called kalender; concealment, on the other hand, can have the purpose of insuring privacy, whether to practise this form of spiritual discipline or to disseminate it.

[8]   For a review of such negative reception of “the unity of being”, see William C. Chittick, “Rümî and Wahdat al-wujüd”, in The Heritage of Rumi, ed. A Banani and G. Sabagh (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

[9]   The phenomenon was described by Elie Kedourie in his England and the Middle East: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire 1914-1921 (London: Mansell & Boulder: Westview, 1987; 1st edn, 1956). This book was Kedourie’s doctoral dissertation, and in his introduction he relates how it was rejected by his supervisors at Oxford.

[10]   During the past three decades a number of exceptional studies have left such pioneering efforts as Affifi’s far behind, although the new work, wide-ranging in provenance and intent, furnishes an accidental historical outline. Every Ottomanist owes William C. Chittick a debt for beginning the work of separating out strands of Ibn ʿArabi’s reception in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Turkish Anatolia. See Chittick’s “;Rümî and Wahdat al-wujüd”, previously cited; “Ibn al-ʿArabi and his School”, in Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations, ed. S. H. Nasr (New York: Crossroad, 1991), pp. 49-79; “The Five Divine Presences: From al-Qûnawî to al-Qaysarî”, The Muslim World 72 (1982), 107-28; and “Sadr al-Din Qûnawî on the Oneness of Being”, International Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1981), 171-84. Chittick’s article “The Perfect Man as the Prototype of the Self in the Sufism of J ami”, Studia Islamica XLIX (1979), 135-57, is also relevant here in view of wide Ottoman readership of works by Jami, prominent Ibn ʿArabi commentator.

The seventeenth-century Mevlevi Şeyh Rüsuhî Ismâil Ankaravi’s Turkish commentary on Ibn ʿArabi’s Fusüs al-Hikam (Bezels of Wisdom) has been published in modern transliteration by Ilhan Kutluer as Muhyiddin ibn el-Arabi Nakş el-Fusüs Şerhi (Istanbul: Ribat, 1981). Mustafa Tahralı and Selçuk Eraydın have published three volumes to date of their transliterated edition, with introductions and notes, of an early twentieth-century commentary: Ahmed Avnî Konuk: Fusüs’l-Hikem Tercüme ve Şerhi (vol 1, Istanbul: Dergâh, 1987; vols 2 and 3, Istanbul: Marmara Universitesi İ lahiyat Fakültesi, 1989-90). These studies introduce us to Seljuk- and Ottoman-vintage commentary dating from the fourteenth, seventeenth, and twentieth centuries, but cannot thereby form a coherent account of Turkish Ibn ʿArabi schools.

[11]   One reason why sufism is now most immediately associated with “Persia” – although the appellation “Sufi-Killer” (süfï-kush) was a proud title in Safavi Iran – is that generous funding of studies of Persian sufism suited the late Shah’s nationalist policies. Another is that British imperialism in Islamicate lands first took hold where Persian was the dominant literary language, in territories offering less resistance to European hegemony than those of its proverbial Ottoman foe. British officers like Wilberforce-Clark, stationed in north India, enjoyed their spare time translating the poetry of Hafez and sufi treatises. But British, French, and Italian colonialism in North African and Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire was not accompanied by translation of Turkish poetry and thought, perhaps because literary appreciation and military conquest are related, and European powers never managed to colonize Ottoman Turkey. It is a complicated combination of accidentally ironic factors – most of all the success of Turkish nationalism – which has limited scholarship of sufism to pre-Ottoman forms. A most recent study, Julian Baldick’s Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism (New York and London: New York University Press, 1989), devotes only a few pages to Turkish sufism. I intend no criticism of Baldick’s excellent book beyond a request that scholars at least note why they make such huge omissions.

[12]   Reynold A. Nicholson relied heavily on Ankaravi’s (d. 16 ) Turkish Fatih ül-Ebyât in his edition, translation, and commentary of the Persian text The Mathnawî of Jalâlu’ddîn Rûmî, 8 vols, Gibb Memorial series, new Series 4 (London: Luzac, 1925-40). Nicholson’s transliterations “Abyât” (for Ebyât) and “Mathnawî” (for Masnavî) are examples of what I am criticizing.

[13]   Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edn, ed. H. A. R. Gibb, J. H. Kramers, E. Levi-Provencal, et al. (Leiden and London: Brill, 1954– ), “Mawlamiyya”, p. 228.

[14]   For example, the renowned poet Neşati (d. 1674–5) and Abdullah Bosnavî (d. 1644–5), major commentator in Turkish of Ibn ʿArabi’s Fusüs. Bosnavi is credited with spreading the supra-order to Arab provinces of the empire; see Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı, Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler (Istanbul: Devlet, 19 ), p. 79; see pp. 143-5 for Neşati’s Melami affiliation.

Ismail Hakkı Bursevi’s translation of and commentary on Fusûs al-Hikam by Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabi rendered into English by Bulent Rauf with the help of R. Brass and H. Tollemache (Oxford and Istanbul: Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabi Society, 1986-91, 4 vols.) is a translation of Bosnavi’s commentary. Comparison of Rauf’s translation with the Bulak Press text cited in the Society’s edition as the original work – not a manuscript (p. iii), but a printing – leaves no doubt that it was Abdullah Bosnavi’s commentary Rauf translated. Erroneous attribution can easily occur for many reasons, and may indicate a tradition of deliberate concealment. Rauf’s work has unique value as the sole treatment in a modern language of the major Ottoman commentary on Ibn ʿArabi’s Fuṣuṣ. But it may be productive to extend attention from Bursevi and his silsile to Bosnavi and Melami intellectual tradition.

[15]   Şeyhülislâm Paşmakçizâde Seyyid Ali Efendi (d. 1715) and Sadrıazam (Grand Vizier) Şehîd Ali Pasha (d. 1719). The two government offices were the highest in the Ottoman Empire after that of Sultân, accessible only by birth.

[16]   Exceptions to this rule are John P. Brown’s late nineteenth-century amateur ethnography The Darvishes, or Oriental Spiritualism (London: Frank Cass, 1968; 1st edn, 1868), Lucy M.J. Garnett’s Mysticism and Magic in Turkey: An Account of the Religious Doctrines, Monastic Organisation, and Ecstatic Powers of the Dervish Orders (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1912), and John Kingsley Birge’s The Bektashi Order of Dervishes (London: Luzac & Hartford, Connecticut: Hartford Seminary Press, 1937 – an undated reprint is currently available).

[17]   The four articles appeared in 1984 Cumhuriyet issues of February 19, 20, 21, and 22. The February 22 article is the one devoted to Ismail Maşuki.

[18]   I prefer not to repeat Zelyut’s quotations from minutes of Maşuki’s trial without checking their source which, since he does not cite it (more than to say “Şeriye Siciller’ indeki bir kayıt“), would have to be tracked down. According to Zelyut, Maşuki questioned such basic distinctions as haram (practices forbidden) and helâl (approved). While Zelyut’s references should be established before quotation, if Maşuki did challenge the legitimacy of the five daily prayers, given his stature I would treat this as a major instance of Ottoman dissent rather than “heresy”.

[19]   His study of the Melami to which I refer is Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, cited before; and of the Mevlevi, the two volumes Mevlânâ Celâleddîn: Hayatı, Felsefesi, Eserleri, Eserlerinden Seçmeler (Istanbul: İnkılap ve Aka, 1959) and Mevlânâ’dan Sonra Mevlevîlik (Istanbul: İnkılap ve Aka, 1983; 1st edn, 1953).

[20]   Gölpınarlı considered this Irşâdnâme “the oldest and most authoritative book we now have containing information on Hamzavi–Melami beliefs and, especially, their organisation”. At the time of Gölpınarlı writing the MS existed only in private collection. For more detail, see Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, pp. 211-15. There Gölpınarlı recorded the 1050/1640–1 death date Müstakîmzâde gave for Hakiki Bey.

[21]   Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, pp. 201-2.

[22]   Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, pp. 202-3. Gölpınarlı noted that Sergüzeşt-i Melâmiyye by Abdiülbakî Laʿlizâde (d. 1746) contains the same version of this and the previous passage. Sergüzeşt was published in Istanbul, probably in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, though no press or date is indicated. Some editions include Meslek ül-Uşşâk, a collection of Laʿlizâde’s poems, for which Gölpınarlı cited the Millet KÜtüphanesi Tasavvuf MS no. 1023.

[23]   In many Ottoman contexts Batini (“esoteric”) doctrines are associated with rival Islamic ideologies whose adherents in eastern provinces of the empire sometimes offered staunch resistance to centralizing Ottoman government. Takiyye is an approved Shiʿi practice of concealing, to the point of prevarication, one’s true beliefs in order to avoid persecution.

[24]   Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, p. 204.

[25]   Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, pp. 195-7.

[26]   Cevâhir-i Bevâhîr-i Masnavî(Istanbul: Amire, 1287-8/1870–2).

[27]   Semeret ül-Fuad (Istanbul: Amire, 1288/1871–2).

[28]   Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, p. 137.

[29]   Hüdayi (d. 1628) was ideal ancestor of a third Bayrami branch, the Celvetî order. Halil Pasha (d. 1630–1) is buried in Hüdayi’s Istanbul tekke at Üskiüar (Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, p. 136).

[30]   Hüseyin Ağa is buried near the tomb of Idris-i Muhtefi (Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, p. 136).

[31]    I cannot now reconstruct the reasoning by which I first concluded that the Peştemalcılar oda had been located in a Han (Caravansarai) on the western shore of the Golden Horn between Tahtakale and Fener. Although the literal meaning of peştemal is “sash”, the Peştemalcılar apparently had central importance for the administration of Istanbul

[32]    Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, p. 137. Gölpınarlı cited the Millet K. Turkish MS no. 1051 of Suleymân Sadeddin Müstakimzâde’s Risâle-i Melâmiyye-i Şattâriyye calligraphed by Ahmed-i Tebrîzî in 1335/1916–17, for these anecdotes Laʿlizâde related in his Sergüzeşt from his father, who heard them from Sarı Abdullah. Laʿlizâde’s father Laʿli şeyh Mehmet was a grandson of Sarı Abdullah (Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, p. 153). Gölpınarlı cited the Millet K. MS no. 1052, 1053, of Laʿlizâde’s Sergüzeşt, calligraphed in 1175/1761–62. He also mentioned Laʿlizâde’s Mebde ü Meâd (Millet K. Pertev Pasha MS no. 636, calligraphed by Müstakimzâde, and Suleymaniye K. Halet Efendi MS no. 231, calligraphed by Derviş Mehmet ihni Mülûkî in 1161/1748). Turk Dili ve Edebiyati Ansiklopedin (Istanbul: Dergah. 1977– ) lists a Sülfet ut-Temkîn and translations by Laʿlizâde: El-Insân ül-Kâmil, from Jili; Kimya-yı Saadet, from Ghazâli, and Risalet ül-Murâdiye, from Charkhî.

Other writings by Müstakimzade which Gölpınarlı cited as relevant to Melami history are Tuhfet ül-Hattâtîn (Istanbul: Devlet, 1928), a history of Ottoman calligraphers, and an autograph Mecmua (Millet K. Pertev Pasha no. 1051) which contains: Laʿlizâde’s Sergüzeşt and Mebde ü Meâd;; a translation of Risâle-i Ünsiyye; a treatise epitomized and translated by Kadı Muhammed ibni BurhÂn (deputy of Hoja Ahrâr); a translation of Jili’s Haqîqat al-Yaqîn wa Zulfat at-Tamkîn: an Arabic Risâle-t Silsile by şeyh Mürad (sic) and its translation by Laʿlizâde; a brief treatise taken from Resehât (sic) narrating Mevlânâ Alâeddin’s encounter with şeyh Abdülkebîr-i Yemenî; a commentary on a treatise by şeyh Mürad: a section of Sergüzeşt and some poems by Laʿlizâde. In the margin of the Mecmua are found Habeşizâdc Rahîmî’s kaside Meslek ül-Isrâk and chronograms of the death dates of such important Melami figures as Oglan şeyh (Ismâil Maşûkî), Sarbân Ahmed, Hamza Bâlî, and Beşir Ağa (Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, p. 227).

[33]    Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, p. 141. Gölpınarlı again cited Mustakimzade,

[34] Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, pp. 181-2.

[35] Melâmîlik ve Melâmîler, pp. 182-3.