By Evie Andreou
Followers from around the world have gathered at the hospital in northern Nicosia which is treating a revered and influential Turkish Cypriot Sufi leader who has inspired millions with his spiritual teachings and messages of peace and humility.
In hospital since April 17, 92-year-old Shaykh Nazim is in the intensive care unit of the Near East University Hospital. Admitted for heart and respiratory problems as well as kidney and liver conditions combined with old age, the Shaykh’s condition is serious.
Since his admission, the Shaykh’s followers and the leaders of his order from around the world have been visiting the hospital to be close to him and pay their respects. The hospital on its website’s home page has even created a special section with get-well messages for the man who followers call Mawlana Shaykh. Mawlana is a title showing respect and “denotes the Lordship and the Sovereignty of Allah”.
On his website saltanat.org, Shaykh Nazim’s oldest son and successor, Shaykh Mehmed, is urging followers to pray for his father’s recovery. His second son, Shaykh Bahauddin, says that followers with compatible blood types are providing blood for transfusions.
“My father is strong, he is a fighter. He is responding to medication. The doctors are careful in their announcements but they are optimistic he will recover,” he said.
“But at the end of the day we are believers. If it is time for my father to move on to the after world, we will not fight it.”
The Larnaca born shaykh is the leader of the Sufi Naqsibandi-Haqqani Order – Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam – and is believed to be a descendant of the 13th century mystic Djalal al Din Rumi. He is considered to be the fortieth sheikh in the “golden chain” of the Naqshbandiya, which leads back to the Prophet Mohammed and he has great influence within the Islamic world, ranking 42nd in the list of the world’s most influential Muslims. Among his followers are members of royal families and statesmen.
He resides with his followers in his dergah (religious commune) in Lefka in a number of restored Ottoman-era houses. The shaykh has two sons and two daughters.
When I made my way to the Near East Hospital this week, I was struck by the gentle reverence in which this elderly man is held. Followers flock to the hospital daily to receive updates and just be close to their religious leader.
Ahmet, a Turkish Cypriot from Limassol and now living in Kyrenia, described the shaykh as a simple, intuitive and spiritual man. He described how his link with Sufism came when he was in his 20s. He was in his home in the middle of the night when a strong smell of roses filled the air and tears started rolling down his cheeks. He got up, drove to Lefka where the shaykh was standing outside the door waiting for him.
“The shaykh knows what is happening everywhere. He knows what is happening in the next room, he is even aware of the tiniest ant outside in the garden,” said Ahmet.
I was invited into the hospital’s cafeteria to have breakfast with family members and followers. One of the shaykh’s daughters in law, Sultan Aliye hanim, was giving instructions about the serving of food. I asked if I could take a picture of the breakfast area.
“You may,” she said, “but don’t photograph us (the women)”. There were two long tables, one for women, one for men, laid with breakfast food and beverages. The family arranges breakfast and dinner in the hospital’s cafeteria every day for the shaykh’s visitors.
I left the cafeteria to go chat to the men I spotted standing at the hospital’s entrance. One of them was the shaykh’s grandson, Mehmed, aged 27. He said he was living with his grandfather in Lefka in order to learn from him and assist him in his life mission.
“We teach love, that all people unite under God/Allah,” he said. “My grandfather is against violence and extremism.”
The shaykh’s oldest son and successor, Shaykh Mehmed Nazim, joined us. In his presence everyone else stood back in a show of respect to the man who is at present the leader of the order’s dergahs in Istanbul.
“My father is the guide that helps us acquire knowledge of both worlds. The spiritual one and this one,” said Shaykh Mehmed in his calm, low voice.
Present in the company were also shaykhs of the order’s dergahs in Algeria, Kenya and England.
With dergahs throughout the world, an obvious question is to ask how many followers does Shaykh Nazim have?
“Numbers are not important,” the religious leader’s second son, Shaykh Bahaddin, told me later when I visited his office in northern Nicosia. “I think it’s wrong to think in such a way. It is not a competition. Love is important, not numbers.”
He gave me a photo of his father, a book he wrote himself called Cafe Talks and a CD with spiritual melodies, where he chants and sings prayers dressed up with jazzy music.
“I am active in the business sector, mainly trade and the last ten years I have been the chairman of a private bank, and I am also a part-time shaykh,” he said, smiling.
“It is our duty to carry the spiritual inheritance of our father, to manage it and keep it running,” he said.
He described his father as a “world-man” who has the ability to bring people together. “He shows us the way to love our creator and helps us develop spiritual power in order to be able to continue our daily lives,” he said.
Despite his father’s influence in the Muslim world, his son said he follows no government, no ruling and no money power.
“He is a humble ordinary human and yet people are drawn to him because he shows the way to love our creator, he provides us with spiritual support.”
In terms of a solution to the Cyprus problem, Shaykh Bahaddin said his father had always supported peace.
“He never liked the division. The island belongs to Cypriots my father says. He says that we Cypriots are the same, same genes, habits, food, we shouldn’t be divided,” said Shaykh Bahaddin.
“And he never bought any Greek Cypriot land, never!”
The shaykh’s original house in Larnaca still exists and before the invasion Shaykh Mehmed attended elementary school in Episkopi.
I left Shaykh Bahaddin’s office and walked back to the Ledra St checkpoint, my mind full of the faces, words and images I had seen.
A voice behind me brought me back to reality.
I turned around to see a Turkish Cypriot policeman walking toward me with a worried look in his face.
“Efendim, check-out,” he said pointing to the passport control cubicle. I realised I had walked straight passed it. I had got so caught up in the idealism of the spiritual world I forgot the mundane practicalities of this one.