We have visited Prof. Ekrem Demirli, founder of the School of Classical Thinking in Iskender Baba Dervish Lodge, which hosts the School in Üsküdar, Istanbul. We have made an interview with him about Mawlana’s (Rumi) vision of death, sheb-i arus (the wedding night), and the Prophet. Emphasizing that behind the words of Mawlana and all saints (wali) we mention is the exegesis of hadiths, Ekrem Demirli has made noteworthy remarks about the relationship between sunnah and Islamic Sufism.
How would you describe the image of the Prophet that has been shaped in the Islamic tradition and Mawlana’s vision of the Prophet (pbuh)?
One verse in surah al-Hujurat of the Quran reads: “Do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet or be loud to Him in speech like the loudness of some of you to others”. This means that God Almighty tells us not to let our voices drown out the voice of the Prophet. This Quranic verse was certainly revealed within a specific context. During the period following the Treaty of Hudaybiya, when an intense Islamisation began, some Muslims, especially among Bedouins, who could not adopt Islamic manners properly, were talking to the Prophet as if he was an ordinary person. This Quranic verse was sent as a warning to these people. This is a warning indicating that you should not address the Prophet as if he is an ordinary person; beware that he is a prophet. Up to this point, it has been the overall interpretation of the verse, known by almost everyone. However, in my opinion, it is possible to infer a secondary interpretation of this verse, which enables us to comment on Islamic history, Islamic traditions and manners. This secondary interpretation is this: What exists within the Islamic tradition had been shaped around the Prophet. Something is considered authentic or religiously acceptable to the extent that it is shaped around the Prophet; and untrue, innovated (bidah) or sinful to the extent that it falls away from the Prophet. In this respect, the core principle in Islamic tradition is “not to drown out the Prophet” and “not to subordinate his individuality”, but rather “to ensure that he becomes more prominent”. Islamic tradition has such a peculiarity.
There is even a well-known story between Mawlana and Shams Tabrizi. In that story, Shams Tabrizi compares one of Bayazid Bastami’s şatahat  with the Prophet’s words. He says that the Prophet says he repented everyday while Bayazid Bastami speaks as if his state was beyond grace, mercy and repentance. Mawlana explains this situation in the way it is held in the surah al-Hujurat and says that “the reason that Bayazid Bastami uttered such a şatahat was due to the lack of his predisposition. In other words, a little knowledge had driven him to distraction. That of the Prophet’s, on the other hand, was the infinity.” Expressing the same point of view, Shams Tabrizi then says: The Prophet states in one of his hadith that “My back is like the front of yours” (while praying, some people in the back rows behave improperly and the Prophet utters this to warn them). He says that I can see you even if you are behind me. Shams Tabrizi makes a broader interpretation and says that this can also mean “my outer (zahir) is your inner (batin)”. This actually means that whoever or whatever has risen to the surface within Islamic mysticism, they have all risen out of the outer (zahir) of the Prophet, and Mawlana is not an exception. I think we should evaluate perhaps any discussion in Islam with this perspective. In other words, this is in a sense an exegesis of the Prophet’s life, an effort to understand him, and all in all, the one who is to be followed is the Prophet. We should look at it this way.
What is the origin of the concept of sheb-i arus? Is it a concept originated with Mawlana and in what sense does Mawlana use it?
It is December and sheb-i arus ceremonies will be held in this month. In many occasions earlier, I have tried to explain that yes, there is a concept called sheb-i arus. It is the concept that Mawlana uses to express death. It means that life is spent with love; it is spent with a kind of longing and desire. And death means to attain what is desired or missed throughout one’s life; it is the ultimate end of longing; reuniting with Allah… This issue has in fact a lot of explanatory aspects. First, we see that the love here is the divine love; it is faith. We see that the one that is longed for is Allah; the beloved of human beings is Allah. This has nothing to do with human love.
If we identify the concept of sheb-i arus with Mawlana or presume that it is a religious concept that he created, we will be going astray. The expression of “Ar-Rafiq Al-A’la” (The Exalted Friend) is used by the Prophet and it means to return to Allah in compliance, meaning, to welcome death with complacency. What Mawlana’s sheb-i arus (the wedding night) designates is nothing but a conceptualization of Ar-Rafiq Al-A’la. The origin of the concept is the Prophet’s expression.
In other words, created by the imagination of a poet, sheb-i arus is actually just a more poetic and exaggerated expression of what the Prophet said in a simpler and more elegant manner, in a prophetic language. Therefore, I believe that when it comes to the most prominent concept of any sufi, thinker or scholar, Muslims are supposed to find the equivalent of it in the sunnah. If this link is not established, it means we are turning towards some people detached from the Prophet, and these people would not consent such a case. For example, Yunus Emre and Mawlana would not desire such a situation. Same thing applies to other concepts as well. For instance, Yunus Emre uses a concept like “not separating the seventy two nations”. Or it is Haji Bektash Veli or Ibn Arabi who uses a similar concept. Or, let’s say, in Mawlana’s lodge, there is the invitation saying, “Come, whoever you are”. All of these are thoughts that originated from the interpretations of the Prophet’s hadiths. Every single name we have mentioned, including Mawlana, is a scholar and a friend of Allah (wali), and behind all their utterances are the interpretations of the Prophet’s hadiths.
Does this mean that while evaluating a new concept or a new statement, the core principle is to look for its equivalent in sunnah?
One of the biggest problems of our day is the fact that new conceptualizations and new interpretations of sunnah that are formed in the words of poets cannot be linked to the Prophet. The connection between these new statements and sunnah cannot be established. Today it is indeed a huge problem. We should always set out from this core principle: From within Islamic tradition, if any voice happens to drown out or silence the voice of the Prophet, or anybody, whose voice happens to rise above the voice of the Prophet, each Muslim must reject it. There should be no voice above the voice of the Prophet, which means that the name written above is the Prophet’s name. Islamic tradition, Islamic sciences and Islamic mysticism are all formed around this principle.
I would like to emphasize that in his last breath, our Prophet (pbuh) used the term Ar-Rafiq Al-A’la in order to express the state between staying in this world and going to the hereafter. I am going to my friend, the most exalted friend… There are some other hadiths like “there is no friend but Allah”. Therefore, if a religion refers to death, through the mouth of the Prophet, as “going to the most exalted friend”, the poets or sufis who come after him can use a concept like sheb-i arus in relation to this expression. Mawlana too, used the concept of sheb-i arus based on the Prophet’s expression of Ar-Rafiq Al-A’la. So this concept originated with the Prophet.
If it had not been expressed in this manner through the Prophet’s utterance, sheb-i arus would have remained as a personal expression. We should especially underline that the main reference point of all concepts and ideas that have emerged in Islamic literature is the Prophet (pbuh). That is why he is called as “burhan’ul muhakkikin” (the proof for all those who have true knowledge). Namely, he is the proof for all of these people. For example, if we asked Mawlana what his proof for his concept of sheb-i arus is, he would say that it is the Prophet. This should be our main starting point and it actually is.
While there are lots of sufis, scholars and thinkers that could be mentioned within Islamic tradition, why has Mawlana become prominent to such an extent? Do you see a problem of singularisation in ranking Mawlana, as a person, in such a special and important place?
Today, almost everyone who speaks about Mawlana emphasizes this problem of singularisation. In fact, nobody is happy about that. While talking about Mawlana, it is stated by different means that such kind of a singularisation is wrong. However, it is always easier to deal with an issue by singling some things out. For example, there are many heroes in the War of Independence, but we talk about this war by referring to only few of them. This is a way of making sense and a way of making things easier and more practical. But still, we should at least keep in mind that this approach is faulty or it ignores a lot of things. Like in a famous saying: Grow the tree but keep hold of the forest at the same time. This is in fact an important principle since the tree is the proof for the forest. The tree is important inasmuch as there is a forest nearby containing plenty of similar trees. Otherwise, if there is no other tree around, one single tree is of no great value.
Mawlana is a significant thinker. Mathnawi, Diwan-i Kabir and Fihi Ma Fihi are his works, and in these works he uses a remarkable language. This language had existed before the birth of Islamic mysticism; it partially existed in religious thought too, but Mawlana elevated this language to a more splendid form.
Could you elaborate on this? What are the main points that make the language and thought of Mawlana special and significant?
The foremost particularity of this language is the fact that it conveys the most complicated issues to everybody in the simplest manner. That is, it neither reduces the level nor sacrifices any reader. Mawlana’s language has such a peculiarity. Let’s consider the statement “come, whoever you are”. If we interpret this statement as “come, no matter in what state of comprehension you dwell”, then we can elucidate Mawlana in the right way. Although religious thinking was able to appeal to everybody when the Prophet (pbuh) announced the revelation, within time, it gained a more elitist form by means of the language used by scholars. The name of one of al-Ghazali’s works is very important in understanding the way of science: Iljam al-‘Awam ‘an ‘Ilm al-Kalam . Al-Ghazali says for example that the ordinary people should be kept away from the science of Kalam and from theoretical discussions. Now, in this case, there appears a gap regarding how these ordinary people will think and express their feelings about Allah, how they will establish their relationship with the religion and what they will do. This gap was mostly filled by Islamic mysticism and Mawlana is one of the greatest examples in this field. Whoever reads Mathnawi, they can have a grasp in one way or another. Everybody can find a seat around the table of Mawlana.
Does it bother you that the Quran and hadith are removed from the Western image of Mawlana? Do you think it is problematic that Mawlana is highlighted as an alternative figure of love and tolerance?
Personally, I do not find Mawlana readings in the West that much disturbing since we too take some figures from the West in the same manner. For example, while reading someone from India or listening to a story from a Native American or while reading something outside of the field of philosophy, we do not have the intention to share the same faith as theirs. We must admit that thinking has one aspect that is independent from belief and thus universal. Now Muslims need to understand well that Islam is not a tribal religion. It is a universal religion, which is to say that it has something to say to all individuals, all times, and all geographies of the world. That is what the religion of Islam is. It is still useful for a non-Muslim in Europe to read Mawlana within his own belief. If possible, reading the Quran and the hadith is no doubt much more beneficial. What is desired and hoped for, obviously, is that, following the traces of Mawlana, people would know Allah and the Prophet (pbuh).
It is said that Mathnawi is a book that cannot be read and understood outside of a study circle, without preparation. Do you think that deciphering the language and the symbols of this book requires expertise? Do you find it reasonable that while being responsible for understanding the Book of divine revelation, most people are not able to understand another book that is supposed to tell us about religion?
No, it is in no way reasonable and I do not agree with this idea. If we want to reach a true understanding of the Quran, and by extension the hadith, I believe we should read them with a method. To me, what matters is the proper reading of the Quran and the hadiths. When it comes to Ibn Arabi or Mawlana, it would be a big mistake to assume that they are telling something more mysterious. One should know that the people Mawlana addressed were more ordinary people. Mathnawi is a text that anybody can benefit from, so it makes no sense to attribute some mystery to the book. This idea is not compatible with the purpose of Mawlana either. However, at the end of the day, Mathnawi was written for the purpose of spiritual travel (seyr-i suluk). Therefore, it has a main theme. For example, he uses some tales of Indian origin, but by interpreting them, Mawlana wishes to take people to a certain point. During this process, it is of course necessary to make use of some secondary or supplementary sources.
Who is Ekrem Demirli?
He was born in Rize, Turkey, in 1969. Following his graduation from Marmara University Theology department in 1993, he wrote his MA dissertation on Abdullah Ilahi’s Keşf al-Varidat in 1995. He made his PhD with his dissertation entitled Being and Knowledge in Sadreddin Konevi. He currently works as a professor in Istanbul University Faculty of Theology. His studies focus mainly on two fields: Commentators of Konevi and Ibn Arabi. He has translations from Sadreddin Konevi, Abdürrezzak Kaşani, Ibn Sina and Ibn Arabi, many articles published in peer-reviewed journals, and papers presented in national and international symposiums.
 Expressions of sufis which are told under the influence of divine manifestations and which may sound contrary to intelligence and laws.
 Saving ordinary people from Kalam (scholastic theology).