The Bektashi Sufis Should Join the Kosova Sufi Union [BTK]

Stephen Sylejman Schwartz

Stephen Sylejman Schwartz

Baba Musa Qazim Bakalli, who died in 1981 aged 101, was one of the greatest personalities in the spiritual history of Kosova. Today his Bektashi Sufi teqe [meeting house, pl. teqet] in Gjakova, devastated by Serbs during the 1998-99 Kosova liberation war, has been restored magnificently, and the street on which it stands is named for him. When I visited the then-ruined teqe, in 1999, I was told by its current Baba, Mumin Lama, that the loss of the library at the facility, burned in the destructive attack, was especially hard to bear. Its irreplaceable holdings included a 1,000 page manuscript in which Baba Qazim described his visit, on foot, to India, whence he was drawn by curiosity about Buddhism.

The passing of Baba Qazim in 1982 had been marked by a memorial issued by the Community of Aliite Islamic Dervish Networks in the former-Yugoslavia, known by its Serbian initials as ZIDRA and in Albanian as BRDIA. Today that body is named the Kosova Sufi Union, or BTK (Bashkësia e Tarikateve të Kosovës).

In honoring Baba Qazim, “HU,” the Bulletin of ZIDRA/BRDIA – its title reproduces the Sufi salutation to God – recalled that the Bektashi leader declared when the Sufi group was established, “I admire your ambition and your youthful tariqats [Sufi orders]… I am sure you will be able to establish in our country a body uniting the tariqats such as has long been awaited. The program you have elaborated and the Statute you have adopted reflects the works of great shejhs [sheikhs] and is completely original for the tariqats… I am with you; I want to be an ordinary member of the community of tariqats, and it is a great honor for me.”

HU noted that prior to his affiliation with the Bektashi teqe in Gjakova, Baba Qazim served at the Harabati Baba teqe in Tetova, Macedonia. The Harabati Baba teqe has been almost completely usurped and vandalized by Wahhabi radicals, incited by the official Islamic Religious Community of the Republic of Macedonia (IVZRM) in a tragic example of fundamentalist pillage beginning in 2002. In this regard, the Serbs in Kosova are imitated by the Wahhabis in Macedonia – except that the criminal damage committed by the former has been repaired, while the radicals in the latter instance continue their invidious path unrestrained.

Such discrimination is not new. When ZIDRA/BRDIA was founded, Baba Qazim pointed out, “there has never been such an organized effort by the tariqats [in the former Yugoslavia]… because we are independent of the ilmija [Islamic clerics], we have suffered a lot from them… they even closed teqet and prohibited the activity of the tariqats. As if that were Islamic.”

Shejh Lulzim Shehu, based in Prizren and now the public spokesperson for the BTK, met with me during the 4th International Interfaith Conference sponsored by InterfaithKosovo, a state-supported effort with global influence. This year, the event was held in Prishtina on May 28-30. Shejh Lulzim provided instructive documentation on the struggle faced by the metaphysical and meditative Islamic Sufis of ex-Yugoslavia after the Communist takeover of the country.

The Communist regime was fully established in 1945. In 1951, financing of teqet (tekije in Bosnian) by awqaf (vakuf) or Islamic pious endowments typically paying for their maintenance, was downgraded from the central budget of the official Supreme Council of the Islamic Religious Community of Yugoslavia, meeting in Sarajevo.

In 1952, the work of all tekije were banned in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

In 1955, the Directorate of the Islamic Religious Community of Serbia noted that 40 teqet were active in Kosova, then under Serbian control. But the Sufi institutions did not come under the responsibility of the official religious directorate. The strict repression imposed on Bosnian Islam could not be attempted in Kosova.

In 1971, after protests and repression in some Yugoslav regions, an Initiative Committee was set up in Prizren to create the ZIDRA/BRDIA. In 1972, however, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Religious Community of Yugoslavia, from Belgrade, ordered the closure of all tekije, since, allegedly, “their existence and creation is not in harmony with the interest of the Islamic Community.”

This order remained, nevertheless, impossible to enforce in Kosova and other Albanian-speaking areas. In 1973, ZIDRA/BRDIA informed the Commission on Religious Relations of Serbia that they intended to proceed with the formation of ZIDRA/BRDIA. The statement was copied to the reis-ul ulema [chief Islamic cleric] of Yugoslavia and to the political authorities in Serb-occupied Kosova. The new group proposed to act within the structures of the official Islamic Community but with “a certain internal independence.”

In August 1973, the creation of ZIDRA/BRDIA was obstructed both by the Supreme Council of the Islamic Religious Community, meeting in Sarajevo, and the Islamic Religious Community of Serbia. The former proclaimed that they could not work with tekije, or allow the recognition or adoption of statutes by dervish associations. The latter specified that it was impossible to agree to or approve or any such activity.

Socialist Yugoslavia adopted a new and liberalized constitution in 1974. One of its stipulations granted Kosova and Vojvodina, as provinces of Serbia, greater political power. The 1974 constitution further removed the barrier to the open functioning of ZIDRA/BRDIA. The Sufis defined themselves as “an independent religious community… with its own administration… which cooperates on a basis of equality with the [official] Islamic Community.” HU began to appear in 1980, and before his death, Baba Qazim, the Bektashi from Gjakova, contributed to its pages, writing in 1981 on the vocabulary of Bektashi moral teachings. According to HU, Baba Qazim was “learned and well-read” in addition to his fidelity to Bektashi principles. His intellectual gifts are illustrated, obviously, by his sojourn to India and back.

But it is now, I believe, appropriate to pose a question. The Kosova Sufi Union (BTK) has reserved positions for 12 Sufi orders in its majlis or general assembly. These are the Qadri, Rufa’i, Naqshbandi, Halveti, Sinani, Sa’adi, Shadhili, Bektashi, Mevlevi, Badawi, Bajrami, and Desouki Sufis. The last four orders currently maintain no teqet in Kosova, but that is not the case of the Bektashis. To emphasize, Baba Mumin Lama of the Baba Qazim Teqe in Gjakova has carried on the noble commitment of his predecessor and is a leading figure in Kosova religious life today. Yet the Bektashis are absent from the BTK.

Shejh Lulzim has advocated for their inclusion in the Union. He says the BTK operates on the principle of a single vote for each Sufi order, although a tariqat may have more than one member in the majlis. He wrote to me, “the sovereignty of tariqats and teqet is respected fully by the Union. The Union does not impose obligations on its members regarding specific dogmas, eschatology, epistemology, cosmology, or doctrine of any kind… but it expects correct adab [Islamic manners], akhlak [morals], and peaceful relations between all people and all communities.”

Bektashi Sufis are a significant element in Albanian cultural and social history. They suffered under the brutal, anti-religious dictatorship of Enver Hoxha in Albania and, as described above, shared the burden of Sufis in pre-1974 Yugoslavia. Their situation in the Republic of Macedonia involves their essential survival in that country. In Albania proper, where the Bektashis once counted more than 30 percent of the population, the 2011 census released by the Institute of Statistics credited the Bektashis with no more than 2.09 percent in a population of three million.

The Sufis of the Albanian lands are unique in Europe for their endurance and vitality. The Bektashis are particularly significant in their identification with the fortunes of the Albanian nation. In Kosova, the Bektashi Sufis should unite with the BTK, for the achievement of their common devotional aims and protection against Islamist fanatics.