[This account cannot be written without mentioning R, the (non-Islamic) sufi teacher (who died in 5/16) my wife and I studied with between 1974 (in Tepoztlan, Mexico) and 1976 (in Los Angeles, California). Although he is described here in a less than flattering manner, I will always be grateful to him for opening me up to the path of sufism, individual and group prayer-chanting [zikr], the Mevlevi whirling prayer (the "Turn"), Mawlânâ [Mevlana] Jalâluddîn Rûmî's masterpiece of mystical poetry, "The Mathnawi" [Masnavi] a wide variety of profound spiritual teachings focussed on being of service to God and humanity, and for inviting Suleyman Dede Efendi to America.]
Suleyman Dede was born in Konya, Turkey and lived from 1904-1985. His home was very close to the Mevlevi center (dergah; dargâh) there which contains the tomb of Mawlana Rumi. He reportedly said that he began visiting the center when he was fifteen, and that at age eighteen he was initiated as a Mevlevi dervish supporter (mühip; muHibb), which meant that he lived outside the center. Not long after that, he began working in a kitchen just outside the walls that was dedicated to public charity. After the dergah was closed in 1926, it was re-opened the next year as a museum. [The following: was told to the author of this article by Guzide Chelebi, the 91 year-old widow of Jelaleddin Chelebi, the previous leader of the Mevlevis (d. 1995) during an interview in December 2018: He worked as a cook to feed the museum guards. After working as a cook for 23 years, he said that this was more than eqivalent to the traditional (1,001-day) seclusion in the dergah (mostly serving in the kitchen), so he should be called "Dede" (lit. 'grandfather,' but is a Mevlevi title). And so he was. He used to travel to Istanbul every year during (the Islamic month of) Ramadan to cook for the Chelebi famly (and their many guests). One year when he came, he told Jelaleddin Chelebi that he was pressured (by Mevlevis in Konya) to lead the Sema (the Whirling Prayer Ceremony), but that he told them he would not do so without the Makam Chelebi's permission. So he authorized Dede to be a Mevlevi shaykh. Asked what year this was, she said it was two years after a military coup. (This occured in 1960, so the year was 1962, as confirmed by this date on the photograph below (click to enlarge) that shows Dede (right), Enver Hüsrev Chelebi of Afyon, center), and Selman Tüzün (left, the Mevlevi shaykh in Friedlander's 1975 book, "The Whirling Dervishes.")] [One Westerner who was a close disciple of Dede said that Dede was appointed as a shaykh because his superior (Jelaleddin Chelebi) could not live in Konya, and that he needed a deputy [vekil] in Konya in order to represent the Mevlevi Order and to welcome people who came there to visit (the tomb of) Mevlana (and other Mevlevi tombs). Another Westerner who was a very close disciple recalled that Dede said that he was authorized as a shaykh at the same time as two other Mevlevis----evidently what the photo below shows.]
The fact that Dede was the Makam Chelebi's shaykh in Konya and his respresentative seems to have developed into a divergent view: that Dede, as the "Shaykh of Konya," was deputized with equivalent authority (including as the acting leader of the Mevlevis who had the power to authorize individuals as shaykhs). However, there was no title of "the Shaykh of Konya," and he had no more authority than other Mevlevi shaykhs in Istanbul and elsewhere at the time.
I never had the fortune of having a close relationship with Suleyman Dede Efendi-- something I long regretted. But I was very blessed to be with him on three occasions between the years 1976 and 1978.
I did not view Dede as being a "saint," but he unquestionably had many saintly qualities. Dede was suffused with the Grace of God, and his eyes, glowing face, bearing, and physical gestures all gave witness to this.
"O God, what Grace is this that You have bestowed upon Your friends?"--`Abdullâh Ansârî (d. 1089)
To over-emphasize Dede's saintly qualities would be to negate his example for us, since he was basically a simple and ordinary person-- except that he was unusually pious and devoted to God and to the memory and spirit of Mevlana. But when this humble and devout Mevlevi Muslim was chosen to be the Shaykh of Konya, and lived with his family so near to Mevlana's tomb, he became permeated with the barakat-- or grace, of the Mevlevi tradition of Islamic sufism. And his devotion to Hazrat-é Pîr, the spirit of Mevlana, increased even further. This pious but ordinary man became exceptionally gracious and loving towards other people-- to such an extent that most people felt an immediate and spontaneous love and veneration for him soon after seeing him.
This is certainly what happened to me. Despite all the anticipation that a Mevlevi Shaykh was arriving from Konya, when I saw him for the first time he struck me as having a low-key, mild, and "unimpressive" personality-- and yet I loved him instantly and independently of his title and prestige.
It was Dede's first trip to America, during the summer of 1976. Los Angeles was his destination. We were told that he had not flown in an airplane before and was doing zikru 'llâh-- remembrance of God, the entire way, sitting on his knees in his seat, and fingering his tasbîH-- or circle of prayer beads. He had come to R's Mevlevi- oriented school in downtown Los Angeles which was called the Institute for Conscious Life, where my wife Sher and I were students.
Months prior to this, R had declared that Dede was coming to America for the sole purpose of making him not only a Mevlevi shaykh-- or spiritual guide, but to make him his successor as well-- until such time that Dede's son, Jalâluddîn Loras, could become mature and ready to take on this role.
As part of my own preparation for Dede's visit, I spent hours at a time in the carpeted garage which contained the spiritual library for our group, and managed to read through all six books of Mevlana's Mathnawi. I had previously established a special feeling of connection with the Mathnawi during several occasions when I was very needy for Divine guidance and had "randomly" opened up Whinfield's abridged translation. I was brought to tears, especially on one occasion, when the passage before me answered my problem perfectly. I was convinced that this was the guidance of God through the spirit of Mevlana.
It was not long after Dede's arrival that R became increasingly domineering-- something we had seen him do in the presence of other spiritual teachers. He had to take "center stage," and he indulged in so many extreme behaviors that my wife and I severed our relationship with him immediately after Dede left Los Angeles-- despite the fact that we had been invited to travel with Dede to Berkeley as semazen-- or "whirling dervishes."
However, I have many fond memories of Dede in Los Angeles, especially when he was instructing us for the first time in the Samâ'-- or Whirling Prayer Ceremony. This wonderful elderly gentleman was darting around the room with the excitement of a little boy, moving semazens here and there, marking the outer boundaries with chairs, and teaching us respect for the invisible center line [khatt-é istiwâ] extending from the pôst, the place from where the shaykh represented Mevlana. I remember feeling very affected by Dede's joy and enthusiasm. I thought that he must have been thrilled by the religious freedom available in America, since the Samâ' had been illegal in Turkey for decades, except for the annual government-regulated event during the week encompassing December seventeenth, the solar anniversary of Mevlana's death. But in America there were no such restrictions and interferences-- Samâ' could be done any time!
R had difficulty tolerating all the attention, veneration, and love which his own students felt towards this seemingly unimpressive old man. During one very memorable occasion when there was a large gathering with many guests present, R yelled "Stop!" and we all froze in place for a while-- in conformity with Gurdjieff's "stop exercise." R then launched into a long tirade about how it was his birthday, and how no one had thought to bake him a cake, and so forth. In the midst of this tantrum and all the tension and embarrassment present in the room, Suleymân Dede stood up from his couch and began to turn slowly in the manner of the Mevlevi shaykh near the end of the Samâ'. The room became hushed, and there was an extraordinary feeling of transcendent peace and love in the room. After at least five minutes, Dede sat down and, though much tension still remained, it was much reduced by this devotional and simple, but spiritually profound act.
R invited a small number of individuals, which included my wife and I, to witness his initiation ceremony. I remember vividly how Dede wrapped the honey-colored sikka-- or tall fez hat, with a long turban fabric, very slowly and carefully, while he sang the Islamic takbîr-- or glorification of God:
"Allâhu Akbar! Allâhu Akbar! Lâ illâha illâ 'llâh!
Allâhu Akbar! Allâhu Akbar! wa li-llâhi 'l-Hamd!"
God is Most Great! God is Most Great! There is no divinity but God! God is Most Great! God is Most Great! And to God is the praise!
A tape recording of this had been made and I listened over and over to Dede's voice singing the wonderfully elusive tune. And I sang it softly, as did others, while helping to clean the floor and walls of the Masonic auditorium where the Samâ' would take place.
My wife and I had been given our first lesson in the Mevlevi whirling practice by R in Mexico during 1974. And when R invited us to be a part of the new Institute he was starting in Los Angeles, we were among the first Americans trained to do the Turn. During 1975-76, we were part of a group of five who whirled on Thursday nights, when guests were invited to attend talks given by R, followed by zikr-- or prayer-chanting, plus whirling. However, we knew nothing of the ancient Mevlevi Samâ' ritual until Dede Efendi taught it to us in 1976. It was then that he gave permission for women to be semazens together with men during the sacred ceremony-- something which had never been allowed before.
Up to that time, I had been the "star" semazen, and when R made a guest appearance on the "What's My Line" television show and was revealed to be a whirling dervish, a film of me turning in costume was then shown as an example of a "real whirling dervish" (a show which my parents saw). However, during Dede's assessment of our whirling abilities, when R had signalled me to turn, I whirled too fast too quickly, out of nervousness, and lost balance slightly after perhaps 15 seconds. Dede immediately clapped his hands, and I was finished-- and never received the appreciation from Dede that I wished for.
Although Dede had blessed our sikkas, or tall hats, my wife Sher and I always felt that participating in the Whirling Prayer Ceremony with him as the shaykh representing Mevlana, as well as being the Shaykh of Konya, was our real initiation into the Mevlevi tradition. That first Samâ' was the most blessed one my wife and I have ever experienced. I remember, just afterwards, walking up some concrete steps leading outside from the auditorium in order to cool off. I sat down and looked up at the stars, and it felt like the whole sky was opening up to me beyond the physical dimension.
Other memories of Dede in Los Angeles stand out. He had such a beautiful (and unforgettable) way of placing his hand on his heart, lowering his head slightly, and saying "Al-Hamdu li-llâh!" (Praise be to God) in that soft voice of his. I remember being impressed by how he was more liberal that I expected a devout Muslim to be. He extended the Islamic statement of faith by saying "Lâ illâha illâ
'llâh, Muhammad-an rasûlu 'llâh-- 'Isà rasûlu 'llâh, Mûsà rasûlu
'llâh, Ibrâhîm rasûlu 'llâh" (There is no divinity but God,
Muhammad is the messenger of God-- and Jesus, Moses, and Abraham are (all) the messengers of God).
R was not the only person to vent anger in public situations during that time. I remember how angry Dede was toward D, his most long-time American murîd-- or disciple, who was translating from Turkish for him. Dede blasted him for pausing to look up too many words in a pocket dictionary. I felt uncomfortable that he would embarrass his disciple in front of other people in this way. And I was told that Dede could be very harsh and strict toward his disciples in Turkey.
One time I happened to pass R on the back door steps. He had just spent a couple of hours with Dede and his translator in the carpeted garage behind the house. Dede had confided to him, as a new shaykh, the "Mevlevi secrets." R told me that Dede had more to tell him, but he was obviously disappointed and said that Dede was "nothing special," an "ignorant man, really." I was shocked that he would assert his own superiority in such a manner. Sometime after Dede's visit, he promoted himself in a photograph dressed as a shaykh with a caption which said, "R, Mevlevi Sheikh of North and South America."
Being "crowned" by Dede as a shaykh had a very detrimental effect upon his ego-state and the way he regarded others. It was ironic for us that the moment our teacher was made a shaykh in an authentic sufi tradition, we felt it was necessary to quit our involvement with him.
We first began to think seriously of leaving the group after R, in an angry fit, expelled a dear friend of ours named H from the Institute building. H was not a student of R, but was hired as the Institute's cook. It was some time later that he revealed himself to be not only a devout American Muslim, but a dervish who had visited sufis in Turkey, Afghanistan, India, and Indonesia. After a time he began to lead pre-dawn zikir-- or prayer chanting, and to talk about sufism. R viewed him as a rival. H told us that he had once gone for a long walk with Dede in Konya. He was quite anxious to see Dede again. But R made sure this never happened.
The final straw for us was what became known as "Pizza Night." It was Dede's last day in Los Angeles and people in the group thought Dede would enjoy eating a favorite American meal for dinner at the Institute. This was an innocent mistake (involving ignorance about the Muslim prohibition against pork). After Dede politely refused it, R launched into another angry lecture, his worst yet, in which he blasted the entire group because of the pizza. He went on and on about it excessively. At one point I asked if we could talk about something else. He shouted back, "No we will not!" and continued on. At one point he declared angrily, "And I am not speaking-- Allah is speaking." From within my entire being, I wanted to scream out, "No that's not true-- it's completely false!" But because Dede was in the room, it was his last night as our guest, and he was so venerable, etc., I held my tongue. I found out afterwards that I was not the only person in the room who wanted to scream out in protest. Because Dede showed no sign of reaction, it seemed that perhaps these words were not translated for him (but they were, and Dede commented on them only to his translator).After my wife and I returned home, we made up our minds to leave the group and to inform R as soon as possible. We felt strongly that
to remain any longer in R's group would be unethical, since it would be a silent assent to such wrongness from a man who had been our teacher, whom we had loved, and from whom we had learned so many valuable spiritual teachings. I began working on a letter to R, in which I said I was leaving the group as a warning to him that his ego seemed to be hopelessly out of control. The next day R, the other semazens, and Dede left to go to Berkeley to do the whirling prayer ritual there. We did not go, and thus missed a further opportunity to be with Dede and to participate in another Samâ' with him.
Not long afterwards, we went to Portland, Oregon, where H had moved. When he suggested that my wife and I should go on a spiritual journey to visit sufi places and teachers he knew in Turkey and India, we found jobs in order to save money for the trip. In April of 1977, Sher and I travelled non-stop to Istanbul and two weeks later went to Konya, the ancient Iconium, where we stayed for two weeks. We had not written to Dede to inform him of our plans to visit, because we were unsure of how to handle the problem of our having left R. It was our sincerest hope that we would be able to connect personally with Dede without the impediment of R. However, this was not to be the case. We were delighted to discover that some friends of ours from Vancouver, Canada, who were still students of R, were staying in a hotel very near to ours in Konya. Since they had been officially sent to Konya by R, they were given "special guest" treatment by Dede, in which he gave them a private tour of the Mevlana turba-khâna-- mausoleum, and to other prominent Mevlevi tombs elsewhere in town.
Dede seemed a bit confused by our presence in Konya, since we were not formally sent by R. We considered whether or not we should tell him that we had left R and why, but one of his Western disciples who translated for him told us that Dede could not bear to hear criticisms or complaints about R. So we kept our silence. We had also been told that Dede was rather tired from receiving the last series of visitors during the preceding two weeks, and that it was not the best time to have arrived. For this reason, we did not try to visit Dede in his small house on our own initiative. But on several occasions we went there when invited by his Western disciples.
On one such occasion, it happened that we were visiting in his home, some other visitors left, and my wife and I found ourselves alone with Dede and his Western disciple who could translate. Here was the moment we had hoped for at last-- an opportunity to connect heart-to-heart with Suleymân Dede Efendi! Surely, I thought, we would be able to share with him something of our love for God and our devotion to the spirit of Mevlana, and he would recognize this in us. But, uncannily, the influence of R still got in the way. At that very moment, the mailman arrived, Dede graciously offered him some tea, the mailman declined, and then he handed him a letter from America-- a letter from R. Dede was thrilled to get the letter and repeated R's name several times with great excitement and pleasure. He had not heard from R for several months, we were told. The letter was translated and the big news was that R had moved his group from Los Angeles to Boulder, Colorado, where he was starting a Mevlevi tekke-- or center. Dede had a look of utter joy on his face. For my part, I felt nothing but astonishment and sadness, because Dede was clearly in a state of illusion and false hope about R-- and there was not a thing that I could do about it.
Surprisingly enough, our devotion and spiritual yearning were recognized not by Dede Efendi, but by a guard named 'Umar at the Mevlana mausoleum, who happened to be a Mevlevi. I had gone there every day during those two weeks, and he must have recognized something about my attitude. Since the area in front of Mevlana's tomb was usually very crowded, I used to stand inside the mihrâb-- or prayer niche, which was an indentation in a large pillar to the right of Mevlana's tomb. Standing there, I would close my eyes and feel the extraordinary spiritual presence near Mevlana's tomb-- a sweet "perfume" of God's Love. When I introduced my wife to 'Umar, we were standing near the middle of the samâ'-khâna, or Whirling Prayer Ceremony room, within sight of Mevlana's tomb. He spontaneously led us in a short zikr, completely oblivious to the large crowd of people in the room. I felt such joy that I had an urge to start whirling then and there, but I suppressed it. It was through this man that the spirit of Mevlana greeted us. Al-Hamdu li-llâh! So much for preconceptions!
During another visit to Dede's house, we were shown an upstairs room where Dede would occasionally lead zikr. But we were told that this occurred rarely, because Dede didn't want to arouse the attention of the police-- because organized sufism was still illegal in Turkey, since 1925. At the top of the stairs was a photograph prominently hung in the center of the wall. I asked about it and one of Dede's disciples told me that it was a picture of JelâIuddîn Chelebi, who was Dede's superior in Istanbul. Dede was said to be very respectful towards this man, and was very quick to fulfill any requests he made, such as to obtain any needed Mevlevi ceremonial garments. I remember feeling shocked at this, because we were told in Los Angeles that Dede was the "world head of the Mevlevis" (which was not true). We were told that Jalaluddin Chelebi was a businessman who traveled between Syria and Turkey.
Other memories of Dede in Konya stand out. Someone had recently given him his first television set. We were visiting at his house and the television was tuned to a long concert of classical Turkish music. At one point, Dede turned to his wife, Fareshta Khânom, and said in Turkish, "That's a Mevlevi tune they're playing now!" Once Dede showed my wife and I a photo album of his visits to Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Hawaii. He treasured these photographs, we were told. I must confess that my ego was pained once again, because there was not one clearly recognizable picture of either myself or my wife in the album. Once Dede walked with us part of the way to a small museum of Hittite, Greek and Roman pillars, statues, and other artifacts near his house. Another time I walked with Dede to visit the bakery owned by one of his sons (we were told that his youngest son, Jalâluddîn, was in the Turkish army). I walked back with him to his house, and the townspeople showed such respect toward him that I felt as if I was walking next to the mayor. But then he stopped at the butcher's shop in order to buy a small bag of sheep intestines for his cat. Such humble, but caring, acts!
There was a small contingent of Westerners studying with Dede and living in Konya. They were all converts to Islam. They invited my wife and I to stay in Konya and join them. I asked what Dede Efendi was teaching them and was told that he encouraged them to do the Islamic prayers, attend daily prayers in the mosques, and to learn to read the Qur'ân in Arabic. I did not find this attractive, since I shared R's negative view of Islam, viewing it as "mere exotericism." I was looking for a more mystical and "esoteric" teaching. I asked if Dede taught the mystical wisdom from Mevlana's great work, the Mathnawi, since I thought he must have studied Turkish translations and commentaries of it. But I was told that no one was available to translate whatever Dede Efendi might have to relate or explain about Mevlana's writings because the Turkish would be far too difficult to translate by anybody who was available to translate into English.
Despite Dede's graciousness towards us, and the kind invitation of his disciples to stay, we decided to leave Konya. I took very seriously the sad fact that we had been unable to "connect" personally with Dede Efendi. And since I was seeking a teacher who could communicate mystical teachings, I decided to continue our planned journey. I asked his advice about whether to travel to Aleppo, in Syria, in order to visit the Mevlevis there. He looked sad, and said, "They used to write me, but it has been many years now since they haven't." I remember when we said good-bye to Dede and how he said he would pray for our safety in journeying overland to India.
The next summer, in 1978, when we were living in Oakland, California, we heard that Dede would be visiting R's center in Boulder, Colorado. A lot of the people from the Vancouver group came down for this. A Samâ' was held. Before it began I was very moved by what Dede said: "Since no one knows on which date of the year the Laylatu 'l-Qadr (Night of Power) falls, let us say that this night is that night!" I was invited to wear the Mevlevi sikke, and black khirqa-- or cloak, and play the flute part of some newly composed Samâ' music. It was a joy to watch the whirling prayer ritual for the first time. Since I had always been a participant in whirling prayer classes and events, I had never before seen others whirling in the traditional costumes. During the Samâ', I watched Dede in standing on the pôst-- or red-colored sheepskin, doing the various bows, and then going into the middle of the circle and turning slowly in place during the fourth selam-- or musical section. His every movement had an aura of other-worldly grace.
On another day after the Samâ', R invited my wife and I to meet with Dede. We went into a small room where Dede was sitting. There were almost a dozen people squeezed together. R introduced me to Dede, saying that I had been to Konya and had played the flute during the Samâ'. As far as I could tell he did not remember me at all. But since he kept confusing R's wife with her sister, calling the latter by the former's name (and they had both visited him in Konya on separate occasions), I thought that perhaps did remember me but just couldn't place me, due to some decline of his memory.
It was during this visit of Dede that I did the Islamic prayers for the first time in my life. I remember how strange and embarrassing it felt to prostrate with my forehead on the floor (and yet such a profound experience now). We all did the Islamic congregational prayers every morning with Dede. Then Dede would lead a simple but beautiful Mevlevi zikr, which he intoned "Allâh, Allâh" in a moving and gentle way.
One afternoon, Dede left to proceed to Vancouver. We all lined up to say good-bye. My last memory of him was that beautiful way manner he had of placing, his hand on his heart. But this time, instead of bowing his head slightly as he usually did, he looked up at us and his face was beaming.
The evening of the very same day that Dede departed, R held an "urgent" and "extremely important" meeting in which he announced his intention to "initiate" his students to the "next level" by giving them a very important "esoteric spiritual exercise" for they had not been "ready" for until that very time. Their initiation into this exercise could very well be the "turning point" in their lives and lead to "total transformation" beyond anything they could presently know, etc. During his whole charismatic and hypnotic presentation I don't think he made a single reference to Dede. Nothing that he said dove-tailed, complemented, or had any relation at all to Dede's Mevlevi and Islamic teaching. Everything he said that evening was from the Western Esoteric-Occult tradition. He appeared to be want to convince everyone that what he had to teach was vastly more important and "transformative." It was clear, once again, that R was using his Mevlevi connection as a means to promote his own esoteric syncretism, and that he was not particularly loyal to the Mevlevi tradition itself.
Dede, on the other hand, did not need to be "impressive" or "charismatic" in order to be spiritually attractive. He was loved and revered in a special way-- not because he was "humble"-- but because he was himself: simple, natural, and delightful. He emanated holiness, but he wore it like a favorite worn coat considered far more comfortable than anything new and shiny. Dede did not have to exert himself to "impress" others. He was loved for himself, whether his words were translated clearly or not. Whatever he did was charming and delightful: whether it was the way he smoked, gestured with his hands, spoke his soft Turkish, or showed that look on his face that combined innocence and a knowing trust in God. He did not have to claim, produce, or even say anything to be loved. In fact, I cannot remember a single thing Dede said or advised during his stay in Boulder. Somehow it was not as important as what he taught us by simply being in his presence.
Suleyman Dede Efendi has passed into the next world (in January, 1985), I have looked at my photographs of him with great fondness. But I have also reflected on the effects of his radical actions to preserve the Mevlevi tradition by spreading it to the West. He appointed quite a few individuals to the position of shaykh, based on an apparently desperate hope that they would somehow carry on the Mevlevi tradition-- which has been greatly weakened during the past decades. Several of them clearly impressed him as being spiritually developed. He must have hoped that such individuals would be gradually drawn to Islam, at least to the minimal practices of the religion of Mevlana and the Mevlevi tradition. But of such persons that I have met (including some given the title of Mevlevi shaykh by persons appointed by Dede Efendi to be Mevlevi shaykhs) , few have had much attraction toward Islam. It is striking how many such individuals are more committed to esoteric-Occult, Gurdjieffian, and other (non- religious) mystical teachings rather than to religious mysticism-- which is what the Mevlevi tradition is all about.
Mevlana was one of the greatest religious mystics of all time. A devout practicing Muslim, his writings were an inspired elaboration of scriptural verses (from the Qur'ân) and sayings and doings (ahâdîth) of the Prophet Muhammad. A prominent Rumi scholar [Talat Sait Halman, "The Turk in Mawlânâ/Mawlânâ in Turkey," in Chelkowski, "The Scholar and the Saint," New York University Press, 1975] has shown that about six thousand verses of the Mathnawi and Dîvân-i Kabîr are virtual translations into Persian poetry of Quranic verses. A large part of his writings involve very traditional Islamic interpretations of the Qur'ân and ahâdîth. And, of course, a substantial part are devoted to mystical interpretation. Although Mevlana attained a certain universality, his perspective remained Islamic.
The idea that has been promulgated that one can be a Mevlevi and ignore Islamic religious beliefs and practices has been very exaggerated. It is true that in modern times (since the 1950's), Mevlevi shaykhs have accepted people of other faiths to be disciples without requiring or pressuring them to convert to Islam. But they certainly would have hoped that such persons would eventually become attracted to accept Islam as the foundation of the dervish path.
Mevlevis are famous for practicing extreme tolerance toward others, yet they have always been strict and disciplined among themselves. Dede Efendi took a radical approach, in an attempt to save the Mevlevi tradition, by appointing non-Muslims to be Mevlevi shaykhs, or spiritual leaders. I believe that this was a mistake, because this resulted in a lack of clear standards of behavior for such leaders, who could easily avoid making any serious changes in their life-styles. Aside from daily practices of Islam, such individuals had no experience of Mevlevi disciplines and practices. It could be argued, however, that Dede had little choice but to try to pass on the tradition to whoever he could who showed a strong attraction to Mevlana and the whirling prayer-- since it was rare for Western students of sufism to convert to Islam. I was told that traditionally, no Mevlevis were initiated as shaykhs until they had spent many years going through the many ranks or stages of the tradition and were then recommended to an official Mevlevi leadership committee. The Sheikh of Konya (a position traditionally held by the Chelebi) was the only one who had the power make someone a shaykh who had not gone through the customary preceding stages (an exception allowed, perhaps, to allow exceptional spiritually gifted individuals to skip some of the usual stages). It would appear that Dede made no such consultations.
In view of the failure of Dede's radical experiment, perhaps a more conservative approach would be suitable now, so that no Mevlevi leader should be called or considered a Mevlevi shaykh (or shaykha, a woman leader--if that was ever allowed) who is not a practicing Muslim. And perhaps there should be an established procedure for disciplining such shaykhs who fail to live up to the minimal standards for daily practices and ethics in Islam as well as in the Mevlevi tradition. In regard to this, in 1995, before Jalâluddîn Chelebi died (in April 1996), he was able to clarify that there are Mevlevi standards of expected behavior:
"In order to bring the Mevlevis of the world under one roof, I
recently ordered the establishment of the International Mevlevi
Foundation. One of the most important roles that the Foundation
will assume will be to inform everyone about actions and
applications that are inconsistent with the principles and practices
of Hazret-i Mevlana and also to clarify other issues as and when
this becomes necessary. In this age of freedom, individuals may
choose to behave, think, and exist in any way that is appropriate to
their personality. However, if such inclinations do not conform to
the culture, thinking, and tradition of Hazret-i Mevlana, which
have been clarified in detail over a period of more than seven
hundred years, those people will be considered quite apart and
separate from the principles of Hazret-i Mevlana. In these times
one can observe a spiritual emptiness. Some people, who appear
bright outside and are actually dark inside, take advantage of the
situation. Such people exploit the pure, clear love of Mevlana and
compromise its integrity. I pray to God that our foundation will be
one that organizes the teachings and principles of Mevlana and one
that gathers people around his love. May the light of Islam and the
love of Mevlana be upon you."
--Dr. Jalâluddîn Muhammad Bâqir Chelebi. (See also the Chelebi family website.)
Hopefully, Dr. Chelebi's son and successor, Farûq Hamdam Chelebi, will further his father's aspirations in order to protect and guide this precious tradition.
I am convinced that Suleyman Dede (may God pour blessings upon his soul), if alive today, would be very pleased to see the establishment of such improved standards for Mevlevis. This should help the Mevlevi tradition-- the tradition of Hazrat-é Mevlânâ Jalâluddîn Rûmî (may God be well pleased with him)-- not only to survive, inshâ 'llâh--God willing), but to flourish on a more solid foundation, while welcoming all to enter the rose garden of Divine Love.