Tag Archives: Sufi

Bektashism in Albania


The Bektashi Order is a heterodox Sufi dervish order that is nominally a part of Shia Islam but that has incorporated elements that are close to Christianity and other religions. The order was founded probably in the 13th century in Anatolia. Contrary to the information you find in some publications (including Wikipedia!), Hadji Bektash, a Persian wali living at that time, was not the actual founder of the order but a kind of patron saint that was chosen much later by the sect as a spiritual inspiration.

In the Ottoman Empire, Bektashis have had for a long time a very influential position. Possibly due to their seemingly less “strict” interpretation of Islam, they seem to have attracted quite a lot of converts from the ranks of the Janissaries, the elite soldiers of the Sultan that were recruited among young Christian boys in the Balkans (also known as devshirme).

In the 19th century, following the purge of the Janissaries, the Bektashi order lost a lot of its influence and after Atatürk declared the Turkish Republic, he banned all dervish orders and the Bektashis transferred their headquarter to Tirana, Albania. This transfer was also due to the fact that many leading figures of the Albanian independence movement, including the Frasheri brothers, came from the ranks of the dervish order.

Bektashis are famous for their religious tolerance and hospitality. They don’t keep Ramadan (instead they fast during Nowruz), they don’t reject alcohol and the women are not veiled. They have a kind of confession of the sins that seems close to the Catholic faith. It is because of these syncretistic habits together with their very unique history that make the Bektashi a frequent object of scientific research.

During Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship, Bektashis suffered just like the Christian and Sunni Muslim believers from the paranoid politics of the “First Atheist State in the World”. People who prayed could end up in front of a firing squad or in Burrel, a concentration camp, in which most prisoners didn’t survive for long.

After the fall of the Communist regime, the Bektashi, like the other religious communities enjoy again full freedom of religion, but the times have changed. Bektashism is facing the big problem of all religious groups and especially of heterodox sects: should they stick to their traditionally very little institutionalized organization or should they – in order to survive as a group – develop into a new orthodoxy.

The last aspect is the main topic of an interesting study by the Albanian scholar Albert Doja, “Bektashism in Albania – Political History of a Religious Movement”. Doja, who is a renowned Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, is coming in his very instructive work to the conclusion that when members of a previously persecuted religious minority is acquiring a degree of religious and political respectability within society at large, the doctrines of heterodoxy and liberation theology that were in the case of the Bektashis such a strong undercurrent in the time of the Frasheri brothers, fade in the background.

“In the end, the heirs of the heterodox promoters of spiritual reform and social movement turn into followers and faithful defenders of a legitimate authority. They become the spokespeople for an institutionalized orthodoxy whose support is sought by the political regime.” –

Just like Saudi Arabia was instrumental after 1990 to try to bring the “folk” Sunni Islam in Albania in line with the much stricter Wahabi ideology by providing money and “training”, Iran (via the Saadi Shirazi Foundation – officially an organization that is promoting Persian language and culture, unofficially believed to be a branch of the Iranian Secret Services) is trying to get a hold on Bektashism in Albania, a development that is seen with great skepticism in the Bektashi communities outside Albania (and also by a big group inside Albania).

The future will show which faction will prevail: the orthodox or the tolerant Sufi faction of traditional Bektashism. Doja’s study is the first to ask this question so clearly and is therefore very valuable.

Albert Doja: Bektashism in Albania – Political History of a Religious Movement, Albanian Institute for International Studies, Tirana 2008


© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



The Bleeding of the Stone

“The desert is a true treasure

for him who seeks refuge

from men and the evil of men.

In it is contentment,

In it is death and all you seek.”

This muwwal, a traditional song, performed by the Sufis in the community at Uwaynat is quoted by Asouf’s father in Ibrahim al-Koni’s novel “The Bleeding of the Stone”. And this muwwal seems indeed to express perfectly what the desert means to the hero’s father.

Asouf grows up somewhere in the Libyan desert, living the traditional life of Bedouins who are the only inhabitants of this great landscape that seems so hostile to any outsiders and that is therefore the perfect place for people like Asouf’s father, a loner. When some other bedu families move to their valley, he forces his own family to move to an even more remote place simply because he can’t stand the vicinity of other people, much to the regret of Asouf’s mother who seems to be considerably more sociable and probably also to Asouf himself, who never had other children to play with and who is of an age where his interest in girls is growing. But the Tamba sandals that Asouf is receiving as a present and that are

 “embellished by the nimble fingers of the girls of Tamanrasset, who poured into the designs their passion and their longing to meet the knight of their dreams”-

that’s as close as he ever comes to a girl.

Asouf is taught by his father how to survive in the desert, how to hunt, how to always treat his camel with respect and even tenderness, and how to spare water and bullets.

“In the desert, he’d go on, water and bullets were like air, the very foundation of life. If you ran out of the first, you’d die of thirst, and if you ran out of the second, some enemy, man or beast or snake, would strike you down. Water and bullets were the life blood of a lone man.”

Hunting is not a sport in this traditional society – it is simply necessary to survive. To kill more animals than necessary, or to kill a pregnant animal, is therefore out of the question. Asouf’s father, as a true Sufi, admires the beauty of the gazelle and he is suffering from the fact that he sometimes has to kill one of these creatures because it is necessary for the survival of his family.

Also with the waddan, a kind of desert moufflon, he has a special mystical relationship and one of the worst moments of his life is the moment when he has to kill a waddan because his family is starving and the meat of the waddan the only available food. The waddan is also instrumental in the death of Asouf’s father who would see in this outcome probably the deserved fate of someone who broke his oath to never hunt and kill a waddan.

Asouf is at the time of his father’s death already a young man who knows the secrets of the desert. He is tending his goats and knows the places where the rare waddan, already extinct in most other regions where it used to live, is hiding. Asouf has become a vegetarian, a true son of his Sufi father. But his quiet pastoral lifestyle is threatened: “civilization” and its agents are slowly trickling into Southern Libya (the Italian war against Abyssinia is mentioned, so the story is taking place in the 1930s as it seems). Government officials arrive and declare Asouf to be from now on the custodian of the prehistoric rock paintings that have started to raise some interest from the side of archaeologists and other scientists; small tourist groups from abroad start to visit the place. Asouf sees these visitors and their (to him) very strange behavior with some interest but he keeps a careful distance, partly because of his great shyness. He hides his blushing and embarrassment behind his veil, one of the typical adornments of the male dress in the traditional Tuareg culture. The government employees are surprised that Asouf is rejecting their salary – but for Asouf, money is worthless because everything he needs he can find in the desert.

These mild “clashes of civilizations” are unfortunately only the harbinger of worse things to come: one day two hunters with a big hunger for meat – they take pride in having killed the last gazelles in the north just for the fun of it – are arriving with their jeep and ask from Asouf to help them to find and hunt the waddan…the reader can already imagine how this encounter between a traditional culture and a “modern” civilization will end – with the victory of the party that has the bigger firepower and no moral qualms on its side, i.e. with the victory of the “modern” and “more advanced” party.

The desert is the setting of most of the works of Ibrahim al-Koni, and it is of course also a metaphor for (among other things) the human power to resist. This novel also raises ecological questions, questions related to the lessons we can learn from traditional societies in terms of how to lead a sustainable life that is not based on the short-sighted over-exploitation of natural resources. It is a book that breathes the air of the desert and the deep respect the people living traditionally in this habitat feel for everything that lives and even for the stones and sand that is surrounding them.

Ibrahim al-Koni was born 1948 in Southern Libya and grew up in a traditional Tuareg family. He started to learn Arabic at the age of 12 and studied later literature at the Maxim Gorki Institute in Moscow. After having worked as a journalist in Russia and Poland, he is living since many years in Switzerland.

For those who don’t know his work, “The Bleeding of a Stone” is an excellent opportunity to discover this extraordinary author. It’s a wonderful book.

The Bleeding of the Stone

Ibrahim al-Koni: The Bleeding of the Stone, transl. by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley, Interlink Books, New York Northampton 2002

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.