A message of love, tolerance and peace
Hayat Nur Artiran is a Sufi teacher in the Mevlevi order, which was founded on Rumi’s spiritual principles and first brought into being by his son Sultan Walad. Over the centuries, the Mevleviyye has become one of the most influential Sufi orders in Anatolia, characterised by its emphasis on beauty and aesthetics, the study of poetry and a life spent in service to others.
In her youth, Artiran studied under various Sufi mentors, most recently as an intimate student of and assistant to the Sufi Master Sefik Can (1908-2005), whom she served to the end of his life. Sefik Can broke with tradition in naming Hayat Nur Artiran, a woman, as his successor. Artiran has penned numerous books on Rumi’s teachings and is president of the Sefik Can International Mevlana Education and Culture Foundation.
These days, people have many different notions of what the word ‘Sufism’ means. How would you define tasavvuf?
Artiran: Humankind comes into this world with a duty to recognise its creator. In the famous Hadith Qudsi [translator’s note: utterances of holy origin], it says “I was a hidden treasure and I wanted to be found, so I created the world”. We can only see our Master with love. But in order to recognise his or her master, humanity must first come to know itself. Those who do not know themselves cannot recognise their master. Sufism is the study of self-knowledge, of peace with the self – and therefore of peace with society.
Today, Jalal al-Din Rumi (“Mevlana” in Turkish) is considered by many to be the greatest messenger of peace to have emerged from the Sufi tradition. Who is Mevlana to you?
Artiran: I don’t think it’s possible for me to explain who Mevlana is. Only Mevlana can explain himself. Mevlana, as he is known across the world today, represents love and unity on earth, the true tawhid (the oneness of God in Islam); in the Masnavi, the Divan I Shams, and the Fihi Ma Fihi, the Mevlana tells people of love, unity, tolerance and peace.
He urges them to refrain from duality and separation. But Mevlana didn’t leave it to words. He offered an example through his own life. Because the way a person lives their life is also their message. He never resorted to duality, he did not discriminate between people.
For Mevlana, there was no ‘my religion’ and ‘your religion’. When he died, more Christians flocked to his burial than Muslims. Every Muslim ought to embody this kind of unity, because these are the true Mohammedan ethics. And yet, we have not fully understood our Prophet and the Koran. We’re defeated by our own egos.
The education of the ego is the central concern of the Sufi path. What does the Mevlevi path entail?
Artiran: The Mevlevi path is one that lives Islam out in the most elegant and beautiful way. It is a way of life in the very deepest sense. It is about living according to Mohammedan ethics. The Prophet once said, “I was sent to complete humanity’s good traits”. In other words, the first thing a Mevlevi Sufi must attain is a noble character, like the one embodied by our Prophet. However, without love, morality is useless. Another hadith says, “The best person is the one who serves others”.
Like other Sufi orders, the Mevlevi tradition also entails practices like dhikr and contemplation. But for Mevlevis, service is the utmost priority. The Mevlevi path requires what are known as the 18 acts of service, these are tasks that novices are given upon entry into the order [translator’s note: particularly in the kitchen]. The Master watches to see whether his students are truly performing their service with love or whether they are just carrying out their duties. In other words, the value of service is only as great as the love that resides within it. We serve every guest in the same way, without questioning their faith, their opinions, their Sufi order, their age or their gender.
One of the Mevlevis’ most significant spiritual practices is the study of Rumi’s Masnavi. Your Master Sefik Can was a mesnevihan and passed this role on to you. What does it mean to be a mesnevihan?
Artiran: Among Mevlevis, a mesnevihan is someone who reads the Masnavi aloud and comments on it. The first mesnevihan was Husamuddin Chelebi [translator’s note: Rumi’s most intimate student and scribe, to whom he dictated the Masnavi]. The mesnevihan then trains a second mesnevihan, the second trains a third, the third trains a fourth, and so on and so forth.
A mesnevihan is a person who has undergone an education in the book and has deeply internalized the inner meaning of its words. It is a path of initiation of sorts. Sefik Can was a mesnevihan, but at the same time, he also became Masnavi itself. One only needed to observe his nature, his behaviour and his way of expressing himself to instantly recognise within these the verses of the Masnavi.
Before his death at the age of 99, Sefik Can chose a woman as his successor. Isn’t that somewhat unusual for the Mevlevis?
Artiran: In his will, Sefik Can decreed that I should take over his spiritual duties, including those of the mesnevihan. The last record of this happening in the Mevlevi tradition was 400 years ago, when a woman in Afyonkarahisar was granted the office of mesnevihan. Not only that, but he also requested in his will that women serve the guests at his funeral.
No other Sufi Master would have dared request such a thing, but Sefik Can was such an esteemed figure that no one dared say anything against it. He was convinced that there could be no distinction between men and women in Sufism. Originally women occupied a position of great esteem in Islam. Unfortunately, however, the Arabian culture of jahilliyah [translator’s note: the pre-Islamic ‘era of ignorance’] endures to this day. This flaw can even be found in the Sufi orders. Sefik Can was aware of this and so hoped to do away with the taboo.
In 1926, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had the dervish lodges and Mevlevi orders in Turkey shut down. This basically capped the roots of a centuries-old spiritual culture. Some Sufi orders still mourn for what was lost to this day. What’s your take?
Artiran: Some people may view it as a bitter development, but I don’t see it that way. In Islam, nothing can stand between humanity and God. There is no need for a tekke – a dervish lodge – or a mosque. There are no limits to where or when a Muslim can be close to his or her God
Sufism, as we’ve discussed, is the study of self-knowledge, a state of proximity to Allah. This closeness cannot be given or taken away by the state. You can try limiting many things, but not love.
Love knows no boundaries. Of course, the closing of the dervish lodges brought one chapter to an end, but I don’t think much has changed for those who seek the truth.
Isn’t it difficult to give oneself over to seeking God in today’s chaotic world?
Artiran: A good place to start is by studying books on Sufism, as long as the source is a good one. But pure knowledge is not enough. We have to live [out the teachings]. However, in order to do that, we need a teacher. A person who seeks God with a pure spirit will undoubtedly find God wherever he or she looks.
I’d like to quote Mevlana here, too: “Whoever looks shall find what he seeks, and he who wants will find what he wants.” What matters is that we embark upon the search with purity of spirit. And then we will be certain to find what we are looking for, one day. We must have hope.
Interview conducted by Marian Brehmer
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu
Marian Brehmer studied Iranian Studies and is a freelance writer with a focus on Islamic mysticism. He is author of "Der Schatz unter den Ruinen: Meine Reisen mit Rumi zu den Quellen der Weisheit” (Herder, 2022), a spiritual travelogue that tells of encounters with Sufis, seekers and sages in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Turkey.