The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Sufism: An Interview with Henry Bayman

Master Ahmet Kayhan in his living room/study, 1987

By Muhammad Ashraf

An engineer by profession, Henry Bayman is an independent scholar living in Turkey, who has spent twenty-five years studying with the (Sufi) Masters of Wisdom of Central Anatolia. He is the author of The Station of No Station, a detailed study of Sufism and Islam as they relate to contemporary issues, The Secret of Islam: Love and Law in the Religion of Ethics, The Black Pearl: Spiritual Illumination in Sufism and East Asian Philosophies and The Teachings of a Perfect Master: An Islamic Saint for the Third Millennium. Through his writings, he introduced one of his spiritual teachers in the Sufi Path, Ahmet Kayhan (1898 – August 3, 1998), whom he calls the ‘Grand Master of Sufism.’

In The Secret of Islam: Love and Law in the Religion of Ethics (2003), Bayman portrays an Islam suffused with democratic and humanitarian values. And he has critically analyzed the insider and outsider threats that the Islamic world has ever felt with the arrival of fundamentalist forces. Bayman is a propagator of the belief that Islam is a religion of love and tolerance and that fundamentalism is incompatible with Islam or Sufism.

In this Interview, Henry Bayman speaks to Muhammad Ashraf.

Muhammad Ashraf: Contrary to the Western stereotypical understanding of Islam, your book, titled The Secret of Islam (2003), presents true understanding of what Islam rightly is. How did your research prepare you to write with such courage?

Henry Bayman: I didn’t originally intend to write about Islam. It was my meeting, first with Sufis and then with the Sufi Master, Ahmet Kayhan, that prompted me to write about these matters. In him, I saw the purest, highest form of Islam manifested.

MA: In the academic world, Sufism is being popularly termed as an extra organ spread out from the core concept of Islam. You present it as an inherent part of the religion of Islam. Why has the West diverged from the real understanding of Islam? Have Muslims, others or Islam itself been responsible for this?

HB: I’m not a specialist in these matters, but in my opinion there are two main reasons. The first reason is that the Orientalists, from the very beginning of their studies, strove to understand Sufism as a “borrowing” from Hinduism, Yoga and Vedanta. Having become acquainted with Indian philosophies earlier than with authentic Sufism, they saw what they thought were striking parallels with them. As Carl Ernst has shown, Indian influence on Sufism and its dependence on concepts originating in India were assumed from the start. All that was necessary was that the Indian forms of thought predate Islam, which they did. Orientalists disregarded the fact that Islam came as an original revelation. In fact, their religious predispositions prevented many of them from seeing Islam as an authentic revelation at all. Whereas, of course, the concepts of Sufism are grounded in the verses of the Koran and the Traditions of the Prophet.

As to the second reason: have you heard of a phenomenon called “gravitational lensing”? It’s a relatively recent discovery in astrophysics. When a large gravitational source lies between you and a distant galaxy, the light coming from that galaxy is bent in accordance with Einstein’s theory of relativity. As a result, you see two separate, distorted images of the same galaxy, instead of the galaxy itself.

Now I think there is a similar effect in the history of Islam. This is provided by the power struggle of the Umayyads. Although the Umayyad dynasty lasted less than a century, its effects were far-reaching. In that period, the Prophet’s lineage and the study of Islam were rigorously suppressed. Theirs was more a secular kingdom than a caliphate. You will note that the collections of Traditions, the biographies of the Prophet, the schools of law (madhhabs), and Sufism itself, all came after the Umayyads. Finally, the famous scholar Ghazali was able to reconcile Sufism and Islam, five centuries after Islam was revealed. Otherwise, Islam was very advanced right at the beginning.

So today, many people think of Islam and Sufism as two different things, whereas they were originally one. They were the two sides of the same coin: the exoteric (outward) and esoteric (inward) aspects of the religion.

MA: You say that Imam Ghazali was finally able to reconcile Sufism and Islam, keeping the duality. Could you please clarify?

HB: I mean that Ghazali was able to reconcile Sufism and Islam for those who were in doubt. Before Ghazali, there were disputes in the Islamic world as to whether Sufism was compatible with Islamic law. Ghazali wrote his autobiography, Deliverance from Error (Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal), towards the end of his life, almost 500 years after the Hegira. This is the book in which he recounted his experiences and reconciled the two. Ghazali also defended Sufism in his earlier great work, Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya Uloom-id-deen).

MA: I think many of the Sufi masters and even the principals of Madhhabs were present before the decline of the Umayyad dynasty. Then what does your argument suggest?

HB: Of course, there were Sufis before the end of the Umayyads, but they did not make themselves public. The political atmosphere did not allow them to surface. The most famous of these is Hasan al-Basri (died 728 CE). The real emergence of Sufism into the light of history occurred during the last decades of the 8th century and in the 9th century [see for instance Ahmet Karamustafa, Sufism: The Formative Period (2007)]. As to the schools of law, Abu Hanifa (born 699) and Imam Malik (born 711) were born during the Umayyad period. Imams Hanbal and Shafii were both born afterwards, and the establishment of the four essential schools of law thus necessarily post-dated 750, when the Abbasids took over.

MA: What was the reason behind the radicalisation of newly emerged sects and factions such as extremist Salafism? Or were they themselves radical by origin?

HB: If you trace the history of Salafism, you find that each view is closer to radicalism than the preceding one. So there is definitely a progression. At the same time, we should recognize that none of the famous names of Salafism, up until the most recent ones, advocated its present-day manifestation. So I think a blanket condemnation would be a mistake. Each case would have to be analyzed separately.

Salafism in its latter-day form is mainly a response to westernization and modernization. Some people have tried to formulate solutions in the light of Islam as it was practiced in the Prophet’s day, with dubious results.

MA: In this present time of the IS threat against humanity, we could see a lack of applying the Prophetic mode of coexistence and harmony in the textual understanding of Islam, as you have vibrantly noted. I believe it’s because of the loss of importance of following the tradition of scholars and Sufi saints. How would you comment on this?

HB: I agree. Both traditional Islam and Sufism have been abandoned in recent times. Sufism, the esoteric or spiritual aspect of the religion, was the first to go, in an effort towards modernization. But traditional Islam is also being abandoned as an older generation dies out, beginning in the 1970s. We should be thankful that many Muslims still observe the basics of their religion. As the Prophet said, ignorance is the root of all evil. Ignorance about Islam and the Prophet leads to all kinds of misperceptions and, consequently, ill-advised actions.

If you leave out some ingredients from a recipe, the meal you cook will have no resemblance to the real thing except in name. Crucial things will be lost. This is precisely what has happened. If people were to study traditional Islam and Sufism more deeply, many misconceptions would be remedied.

We have to remember that Islam is a religion, not a political ideology. It provides guidance for organizing our lives in this world and the next. If you try to make a political ideology out of it, you will be betraying its very essence.

Though most people fail to realize it, the caliphate itself is a political institution, not a religious one. A caliph is not like a Pope. He is not a religious leader. This is a very important distinction which few seem aware of. Because there is no church in Islam, a caliph can’t be a religious leader. Furthermore, the caliphate is extinct. It has been superseded by newer political institutions. The Prophet’s Tradition (hadith) comes to mind: “The caliphate is for thirty years. After that, it will become an oppressive regime.”

MA: Your analysis of the hijackers of Islam rings true. But people, more significantly Western people, are still confusing this misinterpreted form of Islam with the sole reality of Islam. What is the reason? How do you view these hijackers?

HB: Well, Western people come from a Christian background, and throughout history, Christianity has seen Islam as a rival newcomer. Today, you have the further influence of secularism, which frequently has the effect of otherizing all religions. So Western people are caught in a vise of negative propaganda. It’s very hard to escape this, unless you decide to investigate Islam and/or Sufism seriously. Of course, the incessant succession of terrorist events, amplified and broadcast by the media, is no help.

Master Kayhan said: “Terrorism does not emerge from Islam. Peace emerges from Islam, ethics emerges from Islam, culture emerges from Islam. These are the enemies of Islam. They’ve taken the label of Islam, they’re wearing and bearing the label of Islam.” [The Teachings of a Perfect Master (2012), p. 113.] I don’t think I could improve upon that description.

At the same time, I can’t resist the feeling that something else is at work behind the scenes. A process seems to be going on here of which we are unaware. I don’t think an entity like IS/ISIS could survive for a second without the backing of some very powerful international interests. Perhaps in the future, history will judge today’s seeming chaos differently than we do now, living as we do in the heat of events.

MA: Your books on Sufism and the ethics of Islam have dealt with the amazing diversity and beauty of Islam, presenting the democratic and humanitarian values in Islam. My question is a little autobiographical. Is there any particular impetus that led you to analyse Islam in this beautiful way? Maybe Sufi saints, as you regularly quote Master Kayhan?

HB: Right! Like I said at the beginning, it was the example of the foremost Sufi saints, and especially of Master Kayhan, that led me down this road.

Muhammad Ashraf is currently a research intern at Madeenathunnor, Calicut, Kerala. He is an interviewer, writer and independent research fellow, specializing in the areas of Sufism, Islamic studies and cultural anthropology. He is also interested in tradition, philology and subaltern literature.


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook.  Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘JNU and Its Tradition(s) of Dissent’, edited by Malavika Binny, JNU, Delhi, India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: