Selamaleykum dear brothers and sisters.
I am always grateful for an opportunity to speak of Sufism to a Bosnian Muslim. First, because Bosnia is a major force in the education of Europe and the world as to the reality of Islam as a faith and as a civilization. Second, because the history of Sufism in the Balkans -- especially in Bosnia -- is very distinguished and inspiring.
I am a new Muslim, and cannot comment on matters of doctrine. But I can speak about my own life. My road to Sufism, as represented by the Naqshbandi-Haqqani tariqat to which I belong, comes from three streams in my own personal experience.
To begin with, I spent almost 20 years, starting in 1979, studying kabbalah -- the mysticism of my Jewish heritage -- according to the interpretation of Spanish Jews and their heirs, who had lived in Muslim countries and who saw in kabbalah something very close to Sufism. Indeed, anybody who studies kabbalah historically, and who understands its origins in Spain and its continuity in the Ottoman domains -- including in Bosnia -- sees that there is in kabbalah what I call "Islamic directness'' in the relationship between man and God. Then there is what I call "Islamic ecstasy," that is, the attainment of a beautiful merging with the presence of Allah in the universe, which leads in turn to eloquent speech in praise of Allah, through poetry and song. Both these factors reach their ultimate point in Sufism.
Then, while studying kabbalah and its origins in Arab Spain at great length, and reading Torah, the Jewish scripture, I began traveling to Bosnia as a reporter. I made three trips to Bosnia, one to Croatia, and one to Romania during the 1990s. For the first time, in Bosnia, I found myself in a Muslim country, and began to share ideas with Islamic intellectuals. For the first time, I walked into a mosque, namely the Careva dzamija in Sarajevo.
A third experience that strengthened the other "tendencies" in me involved my encounter with an Albanian Catholic holy man, Gjon Sinishta. Beginning in 1990, I worked with this man, an exiled leader of Albanian Catholics, in producing a bulletin. I assisted him in documenting, translating, and editing, all with the hope of assisting Albanian believers in rebuilding their religious life after nearly 50 years under the most severe and god-hating of the Communist regimes. The Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha, had ordered the closing and destruction of hundreds of mosques, churches, and the tekkes of the Bektashi dervish order.
Gjon Sinishta, a true Albanian, taught me that for him, a Catholic, Muslim Albanian believers were no less dear to his heart. He taught me that Balkan Catholics and Muslims are equally threatened by Christian Orthodox imperialism -- "Yugoslav," Macedonian, Greek. He instructed me in the tradition of mutual respect and friendship between believers of the two faiths, with Albanian Catholics joining their neighbors in celebrating Bajram, and Muslims honoring Christmas.
I also learned something really significant from Gjon: he showed me that Catholicism in the Balkans has a spiritual intensity generally missing elsewhere (except, notably, in Spain!), and he ascribed this great quality to Muslim influence, especially to Sufism. Gjon taught me that in regions like the Balkans, ruled by the Ottomans for centuries, the praise of God and fear of God of Muslims had saturated the social life of all believers, greatly influencing Christians. I came to understand, as well, the influence of Balkan Islam on Jewish spirituality in the region. I thus closed the circle that had begun in my encounter with kabbalah.
Finally, thanks to Gjon, I encountered and examined the Bektashi dervishes, through the work of the Albanian Baba Rexhebi of Detroit, who died recently.
All of this came together for me last September. I went to Bosnia for a month, as a representative of the International Federation of Journalists, and this time I took my Quran with me. I read Quran in Bosnia -- visiting Tuzla among other places -- and when I came back I was ready to go back into a masjid with a different attitude. I went to masjid and felt, more than any other time in my life, that I was in the presence of God. I saw that Islam is the closest way to God's love. Then I met Shaykh Hisham of the Naqshbandi order, and, within weeks, had made shehadeh, hamdilullah. I was immensely inspired by the role of the Naqshbandi tariqat in the freedom struggles of the Chechens.
Regarding my Jewish background: I read in our generous Quran the beautiful, beautiful surah 28, about the life of Musa. I cry when I read the Quran's description of Musa's life, because although the account in Torah, in Jewish scripture, is very beautiful and moving -- it also makes me cry -- Quran has something extra: that when Musa had killed the Egyptian oppressor, and was then forgiven by Allah swt, that he said to Allah swt."Oh my Lord! For that thou hast bestowed Thy Grace on me, never shall I be a help to those who sin!" That is, as Muslims, we must never aid oppressors; we are, as Muslims, the children of freedom.
This is why I am so glad to have become Muslim, and am especially glad to have encountered this distinguished Naqshbandi tariqat.
So if you ask me, what is Sufism to me? I can only say: it is utter love of God, and it is the defense of God's freedom.
Of course I am only beginning in my path with the tariqat. Perhaps if you have some special questions I can pass them on to my shaykh.
I hope to hear from you again. Allahuakbar!
Suleyman Ahmad Stephen Schwartz