Sufism traces its roots back to the origins of Islam and focuses on the inner, mystical dimension of the faith and a personal relationship with God, especially through meditation. It is made up of many orders. Among the most prominent are the Naqshbandi, renowned for their austerity and scrupulous observance of Shariah.
Sheikh Nazim, now very frail at the age of 91, leads a group known as the Naqshbandi-Haqqani, which is more flexible in its teachings, and “is one of the best known Sufi masters in the West,” says Thierry Zarcone, a French historian and specialist in Sufism. “It’s an Islam that is more flexible, with an acceptable vision. At the same time, [Nazim] is playing on the danger of radicalism in the U.S. and Europe … by showing that Sufism is a kind of instrument against radicalism.”
Nazim’s door is open to all, with a cheerful greeting of “welcome to the house of love,” and visitors are invited in to share one of the day’s two meals. Inside, the shady arched veranda looks out on a courtyard brimming with flowers and fruit trees. There’s a steady flow of people into the house in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, from residents to visiting pilgrims and locals who have come to ask for prayers or to seek a favor. Among them are Germans, Italians, Swiss, Americans, Russians, and, of course, Turks and Turkish Cypriots, who converge on the tiny mosque to attend prayers followed by a sermon on “true love,” the love of God.
At the center of it all is Sheikh Nazim, whose blue eyes, though dimmed by age, still radiate gentleness and affection. Nazim, who is now mostly confined to a wheelchair and has difficulty talking, was not up to an interview, but he still preaches sermons that are later uploaded to the Web by the Internet-savvy community.
Three years ago, already bent with age and walking with difficulty, he came to the attention of the wider world when the former pope, Benedict XVI, visited Cyprus. He traveled from Lefke to the Roman Catholic church in the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone that divides Nicosia. Benedict was heading into church, but stopped when Nazim approached him, and the two shared a few poignant moments in quiet conversation.
“God bless you,” Nazim said, before adding: “Pray for me. I am so old,” to which the pope replied with a twinkle in his eye: “I am also old.” Nazim then embraced the pope and patted him on the back before pronouncing: “Good one. Good one.” To some, it might have seemed incongruous to see a Muslim cleric embracing the pope, but the message of love, of tolerance is at the center of Nazim’s teachings. In his book Love, Nazim says that “in every religion, love is the primary force. When you love, you respect.”
Nazim’s son, Bahauddine, said: “If you love the human and you love nature and you love the people and you love the animal, that means you are in the right way.”
Jehan Raqab is an Italian-Egyptian who gave up a good job with the United Nations to join Nazim’s community. “I came here once and felt like I was in heaven,” she said. “When I see Sheikh Nazim, he feels your heart with his eyes.” She adds: “I had quite a bit of difficulty with my family [over the move], because I was working with the U.N. … and suddenly I felt something else was more important.”
Raqab, who is single, came to Lefke three years ago and settled into a simple life that revolves around prayers five times a day and weekly meditations, known as Khikr. Looking back on her “tasteless” former world of “running, working, and shopping,” Raqab said her new one “gave me a sense of satisfaction that my life and work was not giving me anymore.” She lives near the derga, the common house where dozens of adepts share meals—the men on one side, women on the other—and participate in household tasks, work in the garden or go out to do service in the community.
Bahauddine explained that “we have here people who are originally Muslim, others are converts. We do not make any separation.” He adds: “Our most active communities are in Europe, particularly in London.” He also mentions followings in Istanbul, Los Angeles, and the U.S. state of Michigan. One of Nazim’s sons-in-law, Sheikh Hisham Kabbani, has actively promoted the order in the United States since 1990. And, after a terrorist bombing in London in 2005, he spearheaded the creation of a council of Sufis to get out the “voice of the silent majority” to counter that of radical Islam.
“We have to explain Islam to foreigners, especially these days as there are so many ideas that are violent,” said Bahauddine. “If you look back into the history of Islam, what are the rules? You cannot kill women or children or old people or burn a house. There is no excuse for suicide. This is our religion; it is the most beautiful religion. But it is coming into the wrong hands. I am deeply sorry to say this.”