After the prayer the man gets up and says loudly “Assalamualaikum!” turns and leaves just as he had entered, with long subtle silent steps. The congregation again place hand to heart. Who is this man?
Leaving the mosque we are told by a man wearing a red fez hat and green waistcoat that the Sheikh invites us to return for a gathering later in the evening.
Inside the sheikh sits amongst his students imparting knowledge and wisdom, exhorting them to be honest people and good. There is something different yet intangible about the relationship between Sheikh and congregation. Sessions of dhikr (singing praises of God) are tightly regimented; the circle formed by the murids (students) is disciplined into perfection. Late entrants must wait until granted permission to participate in the rhythmic undulations. “La il-la-ha il-allah” swaying left to right. – There is no God but Allah. Lights dimmed. Everyone deep in his own on themselves.
The undulating dhikr movements over, a few announcements for future sessions, lessons and meetings are read out to the students. I catch a glimpse of the Sheikh in a room attached to the mosque. He beckons to me to approach. Sheikh Halil Hulusi Nakeshibendi el Bosnevi sits sedately austere surrounded by his students. Accompanied by numerous servings of tea our conversation commences.
Sheikh Hulusi was the general of the Muslim Brigade, commanding over 5,000 men.
“I have responsibilities as a sheikh. One of those is to fight in the defense of our community and country and people. This was incumbent on me”. He speaks softly yet authoritatively.Students move around punctiliously never turning their backs on the sheikh, walking backwards through doors as they leave, never sitting themselves higher than the sheikh, always hanging on his every single word, eyes fixated on either his mouth or on the decorated carpet, unflinching, intent.Sheikh Halusi was based in Zanista outside Sarajevo during the war. He relates how gatherings of dhikr preceded each operation. Spiritual guidance was an integral part of his leadership as he lead his men into battle throughout the war.
During the war Serb forces destroyed mosques across Bosnia, wiping away history and those numerous architectural gems and ancient Turkish architecture, that made so much of the character of the country. Sheikh Hulusi was involved in the construction of the only mosque during the war built in a mountain primarily servicing fighters.
Since the end of the war Sheikh Hulusi went back to his spiritual duties, teaching his students and leading dhikr gatherings. Tajkie are established in 17 different locations across Bosnia and two in America, all under the Sheikh’s guidance, he is keen to tell me, naming all the tajkie along with the names of the students in charge of each one. This is a growing movement that has been established since the 16th century in Bosnia when the Turks first came to the region.
The Naqshabandia Mosque in Sarajevo was destroyed during Tito’s communist reign to be used as a storage depot. Sheikh Hulusi and his followers restored the mosque, succeeding even to restore the sixteenth century minbar (pulpit).
Breaking a taboo of Sufi gatherings across the world I bring up issues of politics. I ask the sheikh about the current state of Bosnia and his opinions of the status quo after the war. My question does not seem to trouble him . “Bosnia is far from perfect,” he says thoughtfully sipping from a glass of dark red tea, “but look at the goals of the Serbs” he says darkly. “We saved Bosnia as a state. The term ‘Bosniak’ became a recognised form of self-identification. “Subsequent to the Dayton agreement, people that had fought against Bosnia are now in the government, working against Bosnia” These words are echoed by many others, including politicians such as the current president of Bosnia, Haris Silajdžić.
Sheikh Hulusi says “The best future plan for Bosnia is to join the European Union, it’s the only way to stop future genocides”.
Students discuss all manner of issues with the Sheikh, spiritual, political, aesthetic. I suggest to Sheikh Hulusi that he is a different kind of Sufi Sheikh compared to other sheikhs. He disagrees and says that he is a true Sheikh. Other Sheikhs also stood up against oppression and occupation: Shamil Daghestani of the Caucasus and Omar Mukhtar of Libya: Both were spiritual leaders that led a resistance movement for freedom against tyranny: the Russian Tzar and Mussolini respectively.
The sheikh was awarded the Golden Lilly, the highest military honor for his efforts during the defense of Bosnia. The General, the Sheikh, and the Luminary. His students find everything in one man. He salutes us as we leave his hand on his heart with a warm smile. It was an invitation to return. For Sheikh Hulusi the real struggle was about to begin. Spiritual heights to reach, political advice to give, a nation to pull together from the debris of the past. Water trickles from the beautiful white and grey marble fountain which is topped with a bright white sphere that turns with the water flow