Ibrahim Gamard is a California-based sheikh of the Sufi Mevlana order and has
spent his life translating the poetry of 13th-century Sufi mystic Mevlana Rumi.
Murtazali Dugrichilov of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service spoke to Gamard about
the problems of modern-day Sufism and why Rumi is so popular in the West.
RFE/RL: Is it possible to say that Mevlana Rumi's poetry is more
popular today in the West than in Muslim countries?
Ibrahim Gamard: Yes, this is possible. I'm told that in Turkey
the language has been changing so rapidly that people read very little of
Rumi's poetry, especially the younger generations, because they cannot
understand enough of the vocabulary of most Turkish
translations, which contain many Persian and Arabic words that are no longer
used in Turkish.
Fewer people in Afghanistan read his poetry because of the decades of war there
and the disruption of the educational system. The teaching of classical Persian
language in India and Pakistan has probably declined.
However, Rumi's poetry remains highly read and appreciated in Iran. I don't
know about other Persian-speaking countries, such as Tajikistan, and cities
such as Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, but I hope that they are still
appreciating his poetry. There has been little interest in his poetry in
Arabic-speaking countries over the centuries, in spite of translations of
Rumi's Masnavi into Arabic. Rumi also composed many poems in Arabic, but
these are little known in Arab countries.
RFE/RL: How do you explain the huge popularity of Rumi's poetry
and that of other Muslim poets at a time when anti-Islamic sentiment in the
West is on the rise? Does it make sense for people in the West to study Islamic
culture as a phenomenon totally separate from political Islam?
Gamard: In spite of anti-Islamic sentiments, Islam continues to
be the fastest-growing religion in the United States. At the same time, there
continues to be a strong interest in Sufism, but this is because it is
presented as a type of mysticism that is not dependent upon Islam and which
transcends particular religions.
As you may know, Islam spread throughout such regions as Central Asia, Africa
and Indonesia by means of popularized forms of Sufism that were mildly Islamic
until more traditional forms of Islam and Islamic Sufism were established later
on. Similarly, there are popular Sufi movements in the US that are attractive
to Americans because they are only mildly Islamic. And this is a major reason
why Rumi's poetry is so popular, because it is presented in popularized
versions, not faithful translations, in which Rumi is depicted as a mystic who
is only slightly Islamic.
And this is also why my book, Rumi and Islam, which contains selected
translations of Rumi's praises of the virtues of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be
upon him, has sold so poorly. Many Americans love Rumi for his ecstatic
spirituality about divine love, but they prefer that he not be a Muslim, or at
least no more than minimally. Therefore, most Rumi books are marketed to
satisfy the wish for maximum mysticism and minimal Islam. Americans have little
interest or sympathy for political Islam, but by reading even the most
popularized Rumi books, Americans are learning about many traditional Muslim
values and wisdom teachings.
RFE/RL: For the past few years, we've been observing a very
disturbing tendency in Chechnya and Daghestan. Local governments there promote
popular Islam that selectively borrows - and sometimes grotesquely distorts -
the symbols and rituals of Sufism, even as it ignores its essence. Sufism is
turning into state religion. Sufi sheikhs and prayer leaders are close to
governments. Can Sufism be used in service of political authorities?
Gamard: This is something about which I know little. It seems to
me that governments in Muslim countries that are working against traditional
Islam, especially secular governments that are following the wishes of powerful
non-Muslim countries, have been ruling Muslims for centuries by dividing them
into so-called "good Muslims" and "bad Muslims" - such as rich against poor,
city dwellers against country dwellers, Westernized against traditional,
non-Sufi against Sufi, Sunni against Shi'ite, PLO [Palestine Liberation
Organization] against Hamas, and so on.
I have read that, in America, some university scholars of Middle Eastern
studies once advised the US government to arrange for the Sufis of Afghanistan
to rule that country, based on the belief that Sufis are the opposite of
"Islamists". But this is naive, because Sufis are Muslims, so, like other kinds
of Muslims, they range from liberal to conservative.
We Muslims should not allow ourselves to be divided against each other by these
manipulations. And Sufis should not allow themselves to be manipulated by such
governments. Instead, they should focus on the essentials of Islamic Sufism,
such as cultivating virtues, or akhlaaq, and engaging in the remembrance
of God, Zikru‘llaah. They should avoid flamboyant displays and
RFE/RL: You converted to Islam in 1984. How did that happen? When
did you realize that you wanted to become Muslim?
Gamard: I was raised a Christian and my strongest belief was
expressed by a quote from the Bible, where Jesus - peace be upon him - said, "O
God, not my will be done, but your will be done." So I was already a Muslim,
but I didn't know it. Then in college, I studied mysticism, which is about
spiritual states of consciousness that are beyond the ordinary mind and
intellect. A few years later, I realized that I was more attracted to Sufism
than any other kind of mysticism I had studied. At the time, however, I didn't
understand that Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam.
More than 10 years later, after I had studied more about Islam, I finally
accepted that real Sufis had always been devout Muslims and that if I was
sincere about wanting to become a Sufi, I should convert to Islam. I did and
soon fell in love with the namaz prayers. And because I had been
learning Persian for some years by then, I found it easy to learn enough Arabic
to read the holy Koran.
RFE/RL: You are well known not only as the author of many books
but also as a sheikh in the Mevlana order. Could you please explain your
Gamard: This is something about which I feel rather private. But
I will say that my basic practice every day is to do the five namaz prayers
and to repeat the name of God in my heart as much as I am able throughout the
day - as the Koran says, "Remember God with much remembrance." Then, as I have
the time, I make improvements to my Rumi/Mevlana website, read verses from
Mevlana Rumi in Persian, and read or listen to verses from the Koran in Arabic.
RFE/RL: In 2007, you became a Mevlana sheikh. Could you please
describe the rite of initiation?
Gamard: It occurred in stages. First, I was in Istanbul at a
Mevlana gathering at a historic Mevlana center when there was a cell phone call
from the leader of our order, who is the 22nd generation direct descendent of
Mevlana Rumi. I was told that he had just given me authorization to be a
By the time of my next visit to Istanbul, a calligraphy of the authorization -
or ijaazat - to me had been written in Ottoman Turkish script and signed
by our leader, which was given to me. Then there was a simple ceremony in the
upstairs room of a mosque in which an elder Mevlana initiated me as a sheikh,
on the order of our leader. I wore the Mevlana black mantle and we sat on our
knees on the carpet, facing each other.
Then he recited verses from the Koran in Arabic and the sheikh's initiation
prayer in Turkish, and then he put the sheikh's turban on my head. Thus, we sat
as equals, unlike the traditional Mevlana disciple's initiation ceremony, in
which the disciple sits lower on the floor and places his head on the sheikh's
knee. Then photographs were taken and there was a short celebration.
During my next trip to Turkey, I spent most of Ramadan [Muslim holy month] in
Konya because it is a tradition for new sheikhs to go to there for a spiritual
retreat of 18 days. During that time, my sheikh's turban was placed under the
covering of Mevlana Rumi's tomb for 10 days for a blessing, or barakat,
and I also did some acts of humble service, or khidmat, such as sweeping
the outside courtyard and mopping part of the floor in front of Mevlana's tomb.
RFE/RL: Is the internal hierarchy and structure of the Mevlana
order still the same today as it was centuries ago? If not, what are the main
Gamard: The main differences are too many to describe here. The
traditional hierarchy and structure had the full support of the Ottoman Empire
for centuries. However, in 1925 the Turkish republic that replaced the Ottoman
Turkish government declared that all Sufi orders, professions, and titles were
illegal. All Mevlana buildings, properties and endowments were confiscated.
The famous Mevlana Whirling Prayer Ceremony was allowed, starting in 1953, but
as a performance on stage in order to celebrate Turkish culture and promote
tourism. Because the ceremony must be led by a Mevlana sheikh, wearing
traditional garments, the Turkish government has allowed it.
Other than participating in the ceremony, and training people to do it, the
activities of Mevlana sheikhs are done privately and discreetly, and their
meeting places - like those of other Sufi groups in Turkey - are called
"educational" and "cultural" centers. The traditional central authority has
been very weakened, discipline has been lax, many traditions are not maintained
as they should, and groups both inside and outside Turkey generally are too
independent and unsupervised in regard to maintenance of standards of high
quality. The Mevlana tradition has become seriously weakened and Sufi
organizations are still illegal in Turkey.