Saturday, October 21, 2017

Every people has a form of celebration, and this is theirs


My 2015 post about the new modal music from Crete explained how the mystical strand of Islam known as Sufism was a cultural influence during the two centuries of Ottoman rule in Crete that ended in 1913. That Sufi influence still finds expression in the more progressive parts of Cretan culture such as the music of Ross Daly and the alumnae of his Labyrinth workshops. But the majority of Cretans have never forgiven the Turks for occupying their island; this despite their folk hero Nikos Kazantzakis - creator of Zorba - confessing that his father's bloodline contained Arabic - i.e. Muslim - blood.

As a result of this deep dislike of Turkey the influence of Islam and Sufism have been expunged from mainstream Cretan culture. In the city of Chania the waterfront mosque has been shorn of its minarets and is now an anonymous exhibition space. The well-preserved hydraulic system of the historic 17th century Turkish baths in the city, located ironically opposite the Archaeological Museum, was ripped out and the premises converted into shops for tourist tat. Elsewhere in Chania the shrines of two Sufi saints have been converted into a souvlaki outlet, and the nearby tekke (lodge) of Chania's first Mevleni Sufi order is now a run-down municipal building. All of which which makes it very difficult indeed to find any visual evidence of Sufism in Crete. So on my recent travels I was elated to find the postcard seen above pinned to the wall of a restaurant in Paleochora on the south coast of Crete. It shows whirling dervishes outside the Sufi teke (lodge) in Chania and is dated 1908 - five years before the Turks left the island. It seems the postcard was bought in Istanbul by a French lady and sent to the proprietor of the Third Eye vegetarian restaurant on Crete who is a world traveller with a syncretic outlook. An online search has not found any other instances of this photo, so it may be a rare record of Sufism on Crete.

That postcard is just one example of serendipitous links to Sufism that can be found if you dig deep enough on Crete. Daskalogianni Street in Chania runs through the old Turkish quarter away from the main tourist drag, and is our favourite part of the city. A shop in the street sells the usual battered copies of discarded airport novels that are found in all tourist centres. But two years ago in that shop I found a gem, a nearly mint copy of Claude Addas' biography of Ibn 'Arabi Quest for the Red Sulphur. This year - and this surely cannot be a coincidence - the same shop yielded a mint copy of Two Who Attained: Twentieth-Century Saints - Shaykh Ahmad al-'Alawi & Fatima al-Yashrutiyya from the same publisher for the bargain price of 1.60 euros. Shaykh Ahmad al-'Alawi is well-known as Sufi saints due to Martin Lings celebrated biography of him and through Robert Irwin's somewhat more racy but highly recommended autobiographical Memoirs of a Dervish. The latter book opens with the memorable line "It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided I wanted to become a Muslim saint". But Fatima al-Yashrutiyyae is virtually unknown: as I write there is no English language Wikipedia entry for her, although there a German one.



That is Fatima al-Yashrutiyya above in one of the very few photos of her. She is exceptional because she was a woman in the male-dominated world of Muslim scholars, and because she lived from 1891 to 1978. Which means this rare female practitioner of a venerable wisdom tradition was still alive when men walked on the moon and Saturday Night Fever topped the charts. Fatima al-Yashrutiyya was born in Acre, Palestine, the daughter of a Shaykh of the Shadhili Sufi order. As a result she was immersed in Sufism from an early age; when her father died in 1899 she was only eight and she resolved to continue on the Sufi Path. She studied as many Sufi texts as possible and was helped in her search for knowledge by her father's disciples. She travelled to the Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, and in Damascus she studied with the most erudite scholars in that centre of Islamic learning.

Beirut became Fatima al-Yashrutiyya's permanent home at the end of the Second World War and she wrote the four books that are her spiritual testament there. It was very unusual at this time for a Muslim woman to move in scholarly circles, and her acceptance was due to her very considerable intellectual and spiritual achievements. It is even rarer for a female Sufi to leave a written legacy and this makes her writings even more important. These writings range across many spiritual topics, and as an example I will conclude by quoting from her teaching* on the contentious subject of music in Islam. The language may be arcane and I don't expect this quote will be re-tweeted. But Fatima al-Yashrutiyya's refreshing pragmatism is, if anything, even more relevant in the 21st century:

Those Sufis who permit and make use of spiritual songs base their standpoint on written evidence from the past on this subject. In the Ṣaḥīḥ. of al-Bukhari it states that Ubayd ibn Ismail related from Abu Usama, on the authority of Hisham, on the authority of his father, that Aisha (may God be pleased with her!) said, "Abu Bakr came while I had two slave girls from the Ansar with me. They were singing according to their custom, for that day was one of festivities, but they were not very good singers. Abu Bakr said, 'Are the devil's songs in the house of the Messenger of God, and this on a day of festivities?' The Messenger of God said to him, 'O Abu Bakr! Every people has a form of celebration, and this is theirs."
* This quote is from Leslie Cadavid's translation in Two Who Attained: Twentieth-Century Saints - Shaykh Ahmad al-'Alawi & Fatima al-Yashrutiyy. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

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