On a hot summer day in June 2015 I arrived in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina to conduct my fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation which focuses, broadly, on the revival of Sufism. More narrowly, I was interested in ethical self-making through religious ritual practice. My research asked why people choose to practice Sufism instead of other forms of Islamic practices. The research question was contextualized within the legacies of the Bosnian war (1992-1995) and the fall of Yugoslav state socialism.
As my taxi driver welcomed me, he asked what brought me here. I answered that I came to study Sufism, and I asked him if he knew anything about it. Surprised upon hearing my question, he answered: “well, I don’t know much about Sufis. Are they the ones who pierce themselves with needles?” He then looked at me and posed another question: “Are they the ones who are hukting?” To hukt is a misappropriation of Hu, the pronoun of Divine presence. In Bosnia, this purposefully coined verb is used by a generation of people who have no knowledge that Hu stands as a pronoun of the Divine. Instead they assume that it is a randomly chosen word by dervishes to indulge in an ecstatic trance. He apologized for not knowing and told me that few Bosnians are aware of their dervish tradition.
“He then looked at me and posed another question: ‘Are they the ones who are hukting?’ To hukt is a misappropriation of Hu, the pronoun of Divine presence.”
Our route took us past the Skenderija Center, a well-known Yugoslav construction built in the 1960s. The center is home to sports halls, a music hall, contemporary galleries, shops and restaurants, which also hosted the youth center which was burned down in May 1992 during the Serb and Croat aggression against Bosnia. Until 1935 Skenderija was the site where a branch of the second largest Sufi lodge in Sarajevo stood. It was built by the Bosnian governor Iskender Pasa Beylerbeyi of Rumelia in 1499, from whom the site also got its name. It comprised eleven shops, musafirhana (guest house) and imaret (kitchen). This posed a research inquiry on its own: how could one of the most established Sufi centers in the Balkans up until the early twentieth century arrive at this point of amnesia?
Sufism arrived in Bosnia with the Ottoman conquest in 1463. Next to Sultan Mehmed Fatih who led the campaign, there were also two esteemed Sufi sheikhs Ayni-Dede and Shamsi-Dede. They were the first missionaries to proselytize Islam in Sarajevo, together with Dervish Khorasani whose missionary work centered in Oglavak near Fojnica (Central Bosnia). A tekke was built there in the late eighteenth century by Husein-baba Zukić, the sheikh and Pir of the Bosnian Naqshbandi Tariqat.”
While the role of dervishes and sheikhs is well acknowledged today in the Islamization of Bosnia, tekkes as religious institutions also played an important role in organizing social life.”While the role of dervishes and sheikhs is well acknowledged today in the Islamization of Bosnia, tekkes as religious institutions also played an important role in organizing social life. Next to taking the lead in the correct Islamic upbringing for Bosnian converts and providing education to the population on Islam through popular devotional songs like Ilahije (songs of reverence) and poetry, they also exercised their influence and authority over Bosnian guilds. Most recently, Ines Asceric Tood’s work showed just how deeply the Sufi ethos penetrated Bosnian Muslim society during the first two centuries of Ottoman rule, the most intensive phase of conversion to Islam. Dervishes founded towns and contributed to the socio-economic and political life in the country. Even the ethos of guilds which were run by Futuwwa Brotherhoods (Futuwwa is Islamic chivalry), was tied intimately to the teachings and ideals of Sufism. The methods and process of perfecting a craftsmanship was akin to perfecting the purification of the soul in Sufism. Futuwwa Brotherhoods had direct contacts with Sufi Tariqats. Many of my interlocutors would later tell me that dervishes in the past were craftsman, and they were very good craftsman at that. Though there were some tensions between Ottoman authorities and some Sufi Brotherhoods, in general the Ottomans sought to secure the help of Sufi sheikhs in enforcing their imperial policies, and tried to stay on good terms with them, due to their large numbers and social support.
“Dervishes founded towns and contributed to the socio-economic and political life in the country. Even the ethos of guilds which were run by Futuwwa Brotherhoods (Futuwwa is Islamic chivalry), was tied intimately to the teachings and ideals of Sufism. The methods and process of perfecting a craftsmanship was akin to perfecting the purification of the soul in Sufism.”
And yet, this socio-political and cultural eminence declined very quickly after the Congress of Berlin in 1878 when Bosnia-Herzegovina was put under the administration of the Habsburg Empire. Anxious to secure Muslim cooperation while eager to limit dependence and links to Istanbul, the Habsburgs inaugurated a new hierarchical organization of Sunni ulema through the formation of the Islamic Community in 1882. Appointed by the state, a new grand mufti, the reis-ul-ulema, was tasked (among other duties) to appoint sheikhs in tekkes. The Islamic Community established a Waqf Assembly (regulation of finances of religious endowments) which weakened the financial independence of tekkes, and it adopted its first constitution in 1930. This constitution claimed Sufi practices amounted to: “pantheistic beliefs and inclinations.” After the Second World War, the newly formed Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia confirmed the legitimacy of the Islamic Community which maintained its status as the sole organizer of Muslim life across the Yugoslav Federation. As anthropologist Ger Dujzings concluded, the conflict between Sufi Brotherhoods and the Islamic Community played out as that of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. In 1952 the Islamic Community, in collusion with the Yugoslav Communist Party introduced a total ban on Sufi practices in the country on the pretext they were “corrupt and superstitious” and a “deviation from true Islam.” It confiscated their properties (waqf) and prohibited activities in the tekkes in the 1950s and 1960s until the ban was loosened towards the end of the 1970s.
This had several structural consequences, affecting both the continuity of charismatic leadership (silsilah), cultivation of divine knowledge, but also something I deal with in my thesis, namely, reducing the space for the practice of devotional ritual dhikir (remembrance of Allah). When Sufi orders were operating unrestricted, the anthropologist Tone Bringa reports that the dhikir, which was available to all ordinary Muslims, constituted an integral part of Islam in Bosnia. Efforts were made to integrate the Sufi brotherhoods within the Islamic Community structures, but full integration did not happen until after the war in 1995.
While Bosnia has not experienced a full revitalization of Sufism, according to sociologist Milan Vukomanović, in part due to the loss of older generations of elite sheikhs and charismatic leadership as well as due to ongoing structural issues with the Islamic Community, Sufism has become an important option for individualized spirituality. Anthropologist David Henig has written extensively on the Sufi revival from an institutional aspect. Just as anthropologists studying religious revival cases in the former Soviet space, Henig also frames contemporary Sufi revival within the “historically disruptive contexts” of “Marxist-Leninist atheism.” He treats it as an “emergent form of organization of divine knowledge and practice that is embedded in historical and political processes, that of state socialist oppression and postsocialist liberation.” Within this approach, he shows how this emergent post-socialist organization of Sufi divine knowledge harbors an improvisatory nature which he names creative moments. The creative moment presents itself in all aspects of Sufi revival. It ranges in scope from the way the silsilah (chain of succession) is renewed, to restoring and building new tekkes to reconnecting with translocal and transnational networks of dervish lodges, to exploring the nature and dynamics of Sufi divine knowledge. Henig proposes, the gradual integration within the structures of the Islamic Community has fully rehabilitated Sufism as an authentic Bosnian tradition. Sufi sheikhs nurture close cooperation with the Islamic Community on coordinating joint religious activities. These activities involve doing joint local pilgrimages some of which were banned in Yugoslavia. However, as Henig reminds us, these integrated practices are not free of contestation. The contestation usually revolves around the renegotiation, administration and management of the sacred space like the various pilgrimage sites. It is a competition whereby both Sufi communities old and new, and the Islamic Community claim a form of legitimate ownership over those sites.
“Henig relates these contestations to the ongoing changes on negotiating the question of what is Islam in Bosnia, as various groups vie for influence in the ongoing engagements with Islam as a discursive tradition.”Henig relates these contestations to the ongoing changes on negotiating the question of what is Islam in Bosnia, as various groups vie for influence in the ongoing engagements with Islam as a discursive tradition. While all these factors represent the more institutional aspects of Sufi revival, the current literature does not address what it means to become a dervish and what the experience of belonging to a Sufi Brotherhood is. In my dissertation, I seek to provide some ethnographic evidence for the revival of the Sufi experience.
I appropriate Henig’s metaphor of the creative moments, and I apply it to my analysis of reviving Sufism as the creative moment of the ethical self-formation. Though tekkes were shut and their activities banned, there was still some continuity of the tradition in the Yugoslav period especially within the Naqshbandi Tariqat and the Qadiriyya tekke whose famous charismatic sheikh Fejzullah Hadzibajrić – known as the first translator of Rumi’s Mesnevi into the Bosnian language – lobbied the Islamic Community for decades to restore the Sufi orders under its jurisdiction. My fieldwork experience points out that by shutting down the tekkes as faith institutions, the Islamic Community, coopted by the Communist Party, made a direct intervention into shrinking the experiential aspects of faith, that of becoming a good Muslim as an act of embodied self-making. This embodied self-making through dhikir involves a very particular way of how Muslims would perceive themselves as believers and the way in which they perform their faith or ibadet. My interlocutors often told me: “dhikir cleans the heart. By repeating the beautiful names of Allah, we want to become good Muslims, to reflect Allah’s sifats [characteristics] in the way we live our lives.” The fall of the tekke as an institution, we could argue, is the rise of a reformist Islam which is as much a legacy of movements and currents that took shape in the nineteenth century, but also of European modernity, which in Bosnia was brought about by the Hapsburg Empire, and expressed through new religious institutions and offices.
The revival of Sufism shows us that this process of embodied self-making is actualized again, especially in the context of the war trauma and experience. It is due to this dynamic that contemporary Sufi groups, as sources of authentic tradition and heritage, are centers of attraction for the practitioners because Sufism is is also a source of charismatic leadership. Sufi sheikhs are highly regarded by their followers as role models of Muslim ethics. Most importantly, Sufism also offers practitioners the ritual practice dhikir, whereby the ritual cleaning of the spiritual heart (Qalb in Arabic) is intimately fused with the suffering subject whose aim is to clean the heart from the dert (Turksih for pain) in the path of a closer union with Allah.
“The revival of Sufism shows us that this process of embodied self-making is actualized again, especially in the context of the war trauma and experience.”
As an authentic Bosnian tradition Sufism serves as an anchor and a platform for recuperating a mode of Islamic practice, which had not been corrupted and politicized by Yugoslav communism. My research is centered around what practitioners perceive as an ethical demand whereby they see the process of becoming a good Muslim not only as an act of self-care, but also of social responsibility. Thus, the acquisition of Sufi adab (proper conduct), gaining knowledge of one’s own tradition, making new kinship like relationships, are important parts of ethical self-making. As much as those help the self, they also help in living with others, in a postwar society. Many of my interlocutors spoke about the permanent breakdown of social ties as one of the most insidious war legacies, but also of the desire to repair those. However, wider social change was seen as achievable and preconditioned by self-repair. To this end, I was often reminded of a verse from the Quran: “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Qur’an, 13:11). The tekke is seen as an inaugural scene of this ethical change. The sheikh of the Naqshbandi Tariqat with whom I worked once told me: “Among the multitude of institutions today in Islamic education none of them deals with the heart. The tekke educates the heart”. Within this education of the heart, I propose lies the process of self- transcendence.
Sufi Adab and the Transcendent Self
Ethnographic research, which seeks to understand the role of transcendence in the care for self can enrich studies which have followed Talal Asad’s line of inquiry: that self-formation is a matter of disciplined practice. What is neglected here, as Paola Abenante and Fabio Vicini have recently argued, is “God and the relation believers establish with Him. In more general terms, … [studies] overlook the ways in which the transcendent is present…as people attempt at understanding, and eventually transforming oneself.” This experience differentiates Sufi Islam in contemporary Sarajevo from the mainstream Orthodox Sunni Hanefi Islam. Firstly, the sense of kinship formed through the tekke as a house for new ethical transformations is a unique experience; secondly, the role of the sheikh as someone who facilitates the ethical transformation of the self through terbijjet (upbringing) gives an alternative way to form a noble character, which, as Paul Heck argues, has been a formidable idea in Islam since the revelation of the Quran; and it is a formidable ethical heritage of the religion so much so that “adherence to the law alone without a formation in noble character can easily result in arrogance”.
The result of the sheikh’s terbijjet is edep or adab (plural) or beautiful behavior/proper conduct, as an external manifestation of an inner way of being/knowing from which everything else in relation to living a moral life (ahlaq) emanates. For my interlocutors, working towards attaining Sufi adab is inevitably a process of initiating and holding the space for self-transcendence. Within this creative process of becoming edebli (proper dervish conduct) we can speak of performing Islam whereby the embodied belief of divine knowledge and the Sufi adab become a performance which sacralizes public space. Through studying Sufi adab ethnographically, we can arrive at an understanding of new tropes of public Islam, emerging from a Sufi community which aims towards common good and moral reform of a society. In the case of post-traumatic Sarajevo, it is worth understanding how can the religious serve in the function of urban civility. This also invites researchers to recuperate the tradition when they inquire about modernity, so as to critically challenge a dominant Eurocentric vision of modernity and the public sphere. For my interlocutors, integrating religion in the public sphere was not an anti-modern statement. To the contrary, Sufi adab upholds the values of modernity through tolerance and acceptance for the other, allowing for the expression of difference. This is very important for a multi confessional country like Bosnia. Much of this coexistence was damaged and deliberately targeted in the war.
“Through studying Sufi adab ethnographically, we can arrive at an understanding of new tropes of public Islam, emerging from a Sufi community which aims towards common good and moral reform of a society.”
It is impossible to separate a phenomenological approach to the religious experience from the cultural and personal trauma of war. Sufism as such is becoming an important part of renegotiating Islamic tradition in the post-war and post-socialist context. It also provides a fertile ground to study Muslim subjectivities in a very unique historical and socio-cultural context, and Bosnia-Herzegovina offers one such case. Sufism in Bosnia displays tendencies which it shares in common with other Sufi orders around the globe. These especially include pious fellowship and a sense of religious belonging with the umma. And it will remain an important factor in the process of negotiating the relationship between tradition and modernity in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
*Top image: Blagaj tekke; photo credit: Zora Kostadinova.
 Novakovic, Dragan, Djelovanje Zajednica Islamiskih Dervishkih Redova, Istorija 20 Veka ( br.2, 200), 103-115
 Vukomanović , Milan, “Sufizam: Unutrašnja Dimenzija Islama” Homo viator Religija i novo doba, (Èigoja štampa, Beograd 2008) [Sufism: The Inner Dimesion of Islam].
 David Henig, “Tracing creative moments: The emergence of translocal dervish cults in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Focaal- European Journal of Anthropology, 69, No.2 (Summer 2014), 97-110, 98.
 The famous Hađi Sinanova tekke in Sarajevo, which belongs to the Qadiriyya Sufi order (made memorable through the work of Meša Selimovič’s famous novel Derviš and Death), though closed after World War Two, was reopened in 1970s, and ritual practice was performed there, albeit in a reduced form.
 Most notably, see Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety. The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Oxford, 2005 and Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape. Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics, NewYork, 2006. Numerous studies on Islam in South East Europe mirror the approach of Mahmood and Hirschkind. See, David Henig / Karolina Bielenin-Lenczowska, eds, Thematic focus: Being Muslims in the Balkans: Ethnographies of Identity, Politics and Vernacular Islam in Southeast Europe, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures, 22, No.2 (2013).
 Paola Abenante and Fabio Vicini, eds, Interiority Unbound: Sufi and Modern Articulations of the Self, Culture and Religion, 18, No.2 (2017), 51-71, 60.
 Heck, P. L., “Noble Character in Islam” Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 9 (2007): 37-50; pp. 40-41
 Kim Knott, “Spatial Theory and Method for the Study of Religion”, The Finish Society for the Study of Religion Temenos, 41, No.2 (2005), 153-184.