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by Huseyin Abiva
Driving down one of Taylor, Michigan’s broad thoroughfares, one spots, amid the quaint spires of a number of Protestant churches, a seemingly out of place sight. Atop a spacious redbrick building sits an oversized metal Huseyni taj painted white and green. For nearly four decades, this symbol has quietly proclaimed the presence of the Bektashi Order of Sufis in the North America. The large bilingual sign that stands at the entrance to the building’s parking lot gives the name of the place in both Albanian and English: this is the Teqeja Bektashianë Shqiptarë, The First Albanian American Bektashi Monastery.
Since its establishment in 1954, The First Albanian American Bektashi Monastery (affectionately referred to as the Teqe by the community) has been a prominent landmark in Albanian-American cultural and religious life, recognized not only in the greater Detroit metropolitan area but nationally and internationally as well. Notwithstanding religious affiliation, individuals active in Albanian-American associations are well aware of the continuing importance of the Teqe to the ethnic community and the noteworthy contributions of Baba Rexheb – its founder - as both a religious and cultural leader.
This significance is widely recognized outside of the Albanian-American community as well. Among Bektashis in Albania (the land of Baba Rexheb’s birth) the Teqe enjoys a valued reputation and it is appreciated for its role in not only preserving Bektashi identity during the darkest days of communism, but for its help in rejuvenating the Albanian Bektashi community after the ban on religion was lifted in 1991. The Teqe and its founder find great praise and acknowledgement in Turkey, the land where Bektashism was born. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find both popular and academic works in Turkey concerning Bektashi tradition that do not make mention of Baba Rexheb and his “American” Teqe in a positive light.
As a religious and social institution, as well as a center for spiritual training, the Teqe could never have achieved the distinction it possesses today without the saintly magnetism of Baba Rexheb, an individual whose life story is noteworthy if only because of the vast panorama of events witnessed during his lifetime. He was born at a time when Albania was an Ottoman province; by the time he was twelve his homeland had achieved independence, only to be soon after plunged into the ruin of the Balkan and First World Wars; he was nearly thirty when Albania became a kingdom and almost forty when the Italians annexed it to their empire. He saw the rise of Communism, the ruin it caused to his beloved Sufi order, and lived long enough to see religious freedom restored to his motherland.
The future baba of America was born on August 18, 1901 (Jumada al- Awwal, 3rd 1319 AH according to the Islamic calendar) into the arms of a respected Muslim family living in the southern Albanian town of Gjirokastër. His father, Refat Beqiri, was a local mullah in the charming old mahale of Dunavat. Refat’s family had originally migrated to southern Albania from the Kosovar town of Gjakova via the important central Albanian city of Elbasan.
Baba Rexheb’s mother was a woman deeply attached to the Way of Haji Bektashi.28 Both her maternal and paternal uncles were Bektashi babas of considerable reputation. The later was Mustafa Baba Qefshi (d.ca. 1878), who, after spending time as a dervish in the teqe of Shemimi Dede in Krujë, was appointed spiritual guide of the Xhefaj Baba Teqe located on the outskirts of Elbasan. The former was Ali Hakkı Baba, a man whose life deserves further discussion, particularly given that his very prayer was responsible for the birth of his grandnephew, the future Baba Rexheb.
In the years before his walk to the Real, Ali Hakkı Baba’s sister approached him with a dilemma. After seven years of marriage, her daughter Sabrije failed to give birth. Ali Baba told her not to be troubled, for two sons and four daughters would soon be born to his niece. However, one of the sons was to be handed over for service to the Bektashi Order, and that son was named Rexheb.
Given that Rexheb was six years old when his great-uncle Ali Hakkı Baba died, and it fell on the shoulders of his uncle, Baba Selim, to ensure that the child was groomed to become a servant of the Bektashi Path. The first thing that needed to be taken care of was education. When he reached the age of seven, Rexheb entered into one of Gjirokastër’s mektebs, where he obtained an elementary education in Islam and learned to read and write Osmanlı Turkish. Following the completion of his primary studies, Rexheb entered the city’s madrasah. In addition to the formal educational track common for the learned class, for several years he received private tutoring at the hands of one of southern Albania’s leading Islamic scholars (‘ulama’), Delvineli Mullah Ragib, from whom he learned Arabic and Persian.
In 1912, the Ottoman Empire was plunged into a disastrous war with its Balkan neighbors. Despite the longing for cultural and political autonomy, the majority of Albanians rallied to the defense of the Sultan’s realm, if only for the fact that their very homes were in jeopardy. Albania became a prize for Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. Southern Albania was particularly hard hit during the initial phase of the Balkan Wars when Greek irregulars inflicted mayhem and destruction attempting to rid the region of its Muslim population. Because the Greeks targeted Islamic religious institutions with great ferocity, scores of Sufi teqes (primarily Bektashi and Khalwati) were burned to the ground, while others were plundered or appropriated for military use. Bektashi teqes were particularly targeted due to their reputation as being centers of patriotic resistance.
When Greek troops encircled the Teqe i Zallit late in 1912, Baba Selim and most of his dervishes narrowly escaped execution by fleeing to the safety of Gjirokastër. However, an elderly dervish named Sulo Kuka was unable to escape and received a heartless thrashing. The Greeks looted and desecrated the teqe, utilizing it over the next three years as a barracks.
During the Greek occupation, Baba Selim and his dervishes resided at his sister's residence in Gjirokastër. The home was virtually transformed into a teqe. For the twelve-year-old Rexheb, Baba Selim’s moving into the family home must have given the young boy many opportunities intimate interaction. These days, however, were not without peril. In 1914, the Greek occupation authorities learned of Baba Selim’s continued agitation for resistance. They moved against his residence, stormed the house and had him arrested. The Muslim population of Gjirokastër was outraged over the arrest. Baba Selim was so well loved among patriotic circles that even many among the town’s non-Muslim population rushed to his aid. In fact, it was by the intervention of a few Albanian-speaking Orthodox notables of Gjirokastër that secured his release from custody.
Although he had been raised in surroundings permeated with Bektashism, it was not until he turned seventeen that Rexheb took his nasib (initiation) to enter the Bektashi Way as a muhib. At this time, he continued his studies with Mullah Ragip while he served his uncle, Baba Selim, and the teqe. Once Rexheb had concluded this initiatory phase at the age of twenty-one, he was advanced to the rank of dervish. At the age of twenty-four, he took a further vow, that of celibacy. A year later, he concluded his studies at the madrasa hand received his ixhazetname (license/diploma) in 1925 thereby becoming a recognized Islamic scholar and theologian.
Owing to the degree of education earned through years of study, as well as his devotion to the Bektashi Way, Dervish Rexheb’s talents were put to good use as his uncle’s personal assistant and secretary. He accompanied his uncle in 1924 to the second nation-wide meeting of Bektashi babas held in the nearby Teqe i Shtufit and in 1929 he represented Baba Selim at the Third Bektashi Congress held at the Turan Teqe near Korça.
During the 1930s, a decade that can aptly be called the “Golden Age” of Albanian Bektashism, the teqe of Asım Baba flourished. The number of dervishes progressively increased from the seven that resided in the teqe when Dervish Rexheb entered, to twelve.42 In addition, Selim Baba had scores of muhibs and at one time, a fair number of students from Gjirokastër’s madrasah had taken his hand. During the weekly muhabets, it was typical to find 40 or 50 people coming together in the teqe.
Baba Selim had intended for Dervish Rexheb to succeed him as leader of the teqe, but the outbreak of the Second World War forever changed this plan. On April 7, 1939, Italian troops invaded Albania, ousted King Zog I, and annexed the country. Given that the majority of Bektashi babas had supported nationalist causes in the past, their resistance to foreign occupation should have been a foregone conclusion. Initially this seems not to have been the case as a Bektashi response to the new authorities appears to have been one of subtle antipathy, or in some cases, reserved cooperation
In time the increasingly repressive policies of the Italians triggered widespread and violent defiance throughout Albania. An ardent Albanian patriot, Dervish Rexheb - along with many other Bektashi clergy - joined the resistance. He became a member of the Balli Kombëtar (National Front) and quickly established himself as one of its leading representatives in the Gjirokastër area. Formed in November of 1942, the Balli Kombëtar found widespread support from the middle class, religious conservatives, and landowners. The Balli Kombëtar’s goals were to restore the republic and push for the establishment of an Albania whose boundaries would embrace all of the Albanian-majority regions of Yugoslavia and Greece.
Although the Balli Kombëtar’s initial military activity involved attacks against the Italian army, by the fall of 1943 (that is, after the collapse of Italian authority) it came into increasingly recurrent clashes with Enver Hoxha's communist-dominated National Liberation Army. Fighting between the two rival groups was often ferocious, with the Germans contributing supplies to Balli Kombëtar units. This civil war made life in southern Albania increasingly more challenging and many villages ended up completely destroyed in the crossfire. In addition to the bloodshed, the region suffered from an outbreak of typhus. During this time of trials, the Asım Baba Teqe opened its doors to become a sanctuary for many displaced by the fighting.
Toward the end of 1944, it was obvious to observers that the communist-dominated National Liberation Army would win control of the country after the Germans began their staged withdrawal. Concerned that his anti-communist activities would soon cost him his life, Dervish Rexheb fled Gjirokastër in late August 1944 on the orders of Baba Selim. He headed for Shkodër and in November boarded a ship for Italy shortly before the communists seized the city. He would never step foot in his homeland again. By the end of September, the partisans were in control of Gjirokastër, and it is said that Baba Selim died the very day that they entered the city.
For the next four years, Dervish Rexheb lived the life of a refugee in a camp for displaced peoples in Bari, Italy. In 1948, an opening came for him to depart the refugee camp for Cairo, where one of the last functioning Bektashi lodges outside of Albania was found: the Kaygusuz Sultan Teqe. There he continued his spiritual advancement under the supervision of the teqe's guide, Ahmed Sırrı Dede (1895-1965).
In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy placed considerable financial strain on the Kaygusuz Sultan Teqe. The teqe’s waqf property was nationalized, depriving it of income that was used for day-to-day maintenance. Many wealthy and influential Albanian émigrés, who were patrons of the teqe, were forced to flee the country along with King Faruk (who was of Albanian descent himself). A number of these individuals were frequent visitors to the teqe and had regularly sent stipends for its upkeep.
A year earlier – in April 1951 - Dervish Rexheb’s younger sister, Zejnep Çuçi arrived in the United States and took up residence on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Given the pitiable financial situation of the Kaygusuz Teqe, Dervish Rexheb decided that the best thing to do given the circumstances would be to join his sister in America. Having traveled back to Italy, he left Naples aboard the Italian Line’s SS Saturina for a twelve-day voyage across the Atlantic. On December 10 1952, Dervish Rexheb landed in New York, beginning a completely new phase of his life. During his first year in America Dervish Rexheb lived in his sister’s apartment. He and his supporters labored to organize an effort to establish a teqe in the New York City area, but the brawls within the Albanian community between anti-communist and pro-communist factions made this plan unworkable. An opportunity came, however, by way of Dervish Rexheb’s budding connections with the sizeable Albanian community in Detroit.
In October of 1953, a group of fifteen Albanian immigrants, all from families with Bektashi backgrounds, met at a hall in Detroit to plan the opening of a teqe for Dervish Rexheb. They immediately launched a fundraising campaign and set up a board of directors, which included a president, a treasurer, a secretary and five council members. The plan had widespread support throughout Detroit’s Albanian community and within the space of a few days approximately $8,000 dollars had been raised. With this money, the board began to look for a site for the teqe. In due course, a suitable location was found some 15 miles outside of the city in the agricultural community of Taylor Township. There the board purchased an already existing farm that sat on 18 acres of land, the cost of which totaled $25,000.60 Following renovations and state approval of its non-profit status, The First Albanian American Bektashi Monastery opened on May 15, 1954 with a ceremony attended by some 200 people.
In conjunction with the establishment of the very first Bektashi teqe in the New World came Dervish Rexheb’s promotion to the grade of baba. He had spent the last thirty years of his life faithfully carrying out his duties as a dervish, but a new teqe necessitated a new baba. Baba Selim had intended to elevate Dervish Rexheb to baba and had even planned for him to be his successor in overseeing the Asım Baba Teqe, something derailed by the unanticipated events of war.
In keeping with Bektashi principles, for a dervish to be elevated to the rank of baba the consent of a dede (also called halife-baba, or gysh) would be needed. For Dervish Rexheb to approach the Bektashi hierarchy in Albania for this sanctification was out of the question given his anticommunist wartime activities. The only individuals with the authority of dede outside of the communist world at this time were Said Seyfi Baba of the Durbali Sultan Teqe in Greece and Ahmad Sırrı Dede of Cairo, who, as mentioned above, was recognized as the legitimate head of the order by the majority Bektashis outside of Albania. The latter sent Dervish Rexheb an ixhazetname shortly before the Teqe opened raising him to the rank of baba along with a letter of bestowing his heartfelt backing to all the community’s endeavors.
Over the next decades Baba Rexheb became a fixture on the spiritual landscape of Albanian-American religious life. Outside of religious services, muhibs, ashiks, and other visitors could be found calling on the Teqe daily to sit with Baba Rexheb in the grand new sitting room or, on sunny days, outside underneath an expansive shade tree. Nor was this place exclusively for Bektashis, or even for Muslims. As a center of Albanian-American life, Catholic and Orthodox individuals frequently visited the Teqe and the representatives of their respective churches were guests of honor at yearly gatherings. The fact that Baba Rexheb was greatly appreciated and loved by those within and without the Bektashi community says much about the power of his character and personality. Even as his health began to fail in the last two years of his life, which caused repeated hospitalization, Baba Rexheb continued to receive visits by devotees, admirers and well-wishers.
Baba Rexheb lived long enough to see Bektashism re-emerge in his homeland. Between 1967 and 1990, Albania endured the most stringent anti-religion policies ever enacted by a government in modern times. In 1967, all religious institutions in Albania received orders to close their doors and all clergy directed to remove their clerical garb and assume conventional lives. Those who refused to comply were sent to labor camps or executed. Needless to say, the destruction this caused to the Bektashi Order was appalling. The entire intellectual and spiritual tradition of Bektashism was shattered with one stroke. When religious freedom was restored 1991, there were only five babas and one dervish out of the hundred or so that were living in 1967. In 1994, Baba Bajram Mahmutaj and Baba Reshat Bardhi made an extended visit to the Teqe and ties to the Bektashi community in Albania were bolstered. When Baba Rexheb finally “walked to the Truth” on the 10th of August 1995 (which amazingly fell on the sacred day of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth), these two men, along with Baba Selim Kaliçani, and 1,000 other people, were present at his xhenaze (funeral) prayer and interment in the tyrbe.
To describe the depth of Baba Rexheb’s character would require volumes of writing. My own personal memories of him are held cherished in my heart. Baba Rexheb fully represented Bektashism in all of its lofty morals and ethics. Bektashism is oftentimes called a liberal sect within Islam. Having watched Baba Rexheb in the years that I knew him, I feel it more appropriate to describe it as an interpretation of Islam that orders one to perfect and purify oneself before criticizing others. When one does this, one will come to see great beauty in all of God’s creation, the harmony of humankind and eventually find love and peace emitting from the heart. Baba Rexheb radiated such love. To this day the love, guidance and service he provided to all who sat in his shadow are warmly remembered by all he touched. His tyrbe, where his holy body now rests, is a pilgrimage place for all those who still seek his love, guidance and prayers, for as the Holy Quran – the wellspring of Baba’s knowledge – states: “And do not say about those who have died in God’s path are dead. No, they are alive, though you perceive it not.”
It is in commemoration of this life, the life of a man who was a friend of God (evlija) and a friend of humanity that we celebrate August 19th as “BABA REXHEB DAY.” On this day those within and without the Bektashi community, those of Albanian descent and beyond, are invited to come gather at the Teqe for a day of feasting, celebration, and prayer. This year’s celebration will be held on Sunday, August 19th at 3:00pm. In keeping with one of Baba Rexheb’s many beautiful traditions, the doors to the Teqe are open to ALL!