The Naqshbandi dervish monastery in the northern Cypriot town of Lefka has often been described to me in almost identical terms by different people: “It is like a United Nations with myriad languages spoken at the same time.” The monastery, whose disciples flocked from all over the world but are mostly British, was headed by Sheikh Nazim al-Qubrusi, who died on May 7 while being treated in a hospital. His crowded funeral in Nicosia was attended by government officials, among them Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) President Dervis Eroglu and Prime Minister Ozkan Yorgancioglu, as well as many disciples and ordinary citizens. The sheikh was laid to rest in the courtyard of his monastery, a former Ottoman mansion.
The sheikh’s long journey ended at age 92. He was a man of humor and wit with the easygoing temper of an islander, belying the solemnity of the turban on his head. He made headlines with amusing declarations and prophesies. Most recently, the hoots of an owl stranded in Famagusta’s ancient walls led him to prophesy: “The seven-headed dragon is crying out. It is an omen of the apocalypse.” And when four of the 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for 69 days in 2010 paid him a visit in Cyprus, the sheikh told the miners they owed their lives to a prayer he allegedly said for them 700 meters underground. On another occasion, he declared Prince Charles to be a Muslim.
His antics were met mostly with smiles and came to be seen as the hallmarks of his humorous nature. Scores of people from various countries were attracted to his colorful, benevolent, straightforward and relaxed persona. To others, however, he was freak, flippant and full-mouthed. He was a self-styled sheikh. The additions he made to his given name — Nazim Adil — reflected the enchanted self he imagined in his mind: Sheikh Muhammad Nazim Adil al-Qubrusi al-Haqqani al-Rabbani.
Advocating peace in Cyprus
Born in 1922 in Larnaca, Nazim studied chemistry in Istanbul, where he became a follower of Naqshbandi Sheikh Suleyman Erzurumi. In 1944, he went to Damascus to advance his religious studies with Caucasian-born Sheikh Abdullah Faiz Daghestani. After he returned home, he made a name for himself by challenging the ban on Arabic-language calls for prayer. He was arrested when he chanted the call for prayer in Arabic from the minaret of Nicosia’s Selimiye Mosque. Released after a week in custody, he remained defiant and toured villages chanting the prayer call in Arabic, earning himself 114 lawsuits. In 1973, he took over the post of his deceased mentor. During the time of Turkish Cypriot leader Fazil Kucuk, he was exiled for organizing a religious order.
Sheikh Nazim spoke Turkish, Arabic, English and Greek. He was a pacifist and believed in the cohabitation of Muslims and Christians. In the 2004 referendum in Cyprus, he lent strong support to the failed Annan Plan to unify the island. He even crossed to Greek Cyprus to meet with Greek clergymen opposed to the settlement plan and laid flowers on the grave of Archbishop Makarios, the first president of post-colonial independent Cyprus. He had a falling out over his support for the campaign with the TRNC’s founding president, Rauf Denktash, the man who had allowed the sheik to return to the island and gave him an untouchable status.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited Cyprus in 2010, he chose to meet not with the TRNC mufti, but Sheikh Nazim. The unscheduled meeting at the Holy Cross Church in the UN buffer zone was seen as an effort to promote inter-faith dialogue.
Spreading Naqshbandi faith to the West
Sheikh Nazim’s influence extended far beyond the island. His clout in Europe — mainly Britain, the Netherlands and Germany — was substantial, and his followers also hold weekly meetings at the Bayraktar Mosque in the Greek Cypriot sector of bisected Nicosia.
Turkish academic Tayfun Atay, the author of the book "A Muslim Mystic Community in Britain: Meaning in the West and for the West," describes Sheikh Nazim as an “ecumenical sheikh” and says he will go down in history as the man who brought the Naqshbandi faith and the West together.
“Sheikh Nazim represents a major turning point in the Naqshbandi order’s history. He both popularized and globalized the order, opening it up to the West and making it influential beyond the Muslim world. This made him a global figure,” Atay told Al-Monitor.
Atay offered an extensive overview of the sheikh’s legacy:
“As someone who spoke English, knew British colonial history and was acquainted with British culture and etiquette, Sheikh Nazim was able to reach out to the West. His mentor Sheikh Abdullah Daghestani had asked him to look after Westerners in particular.
“As Sheikh Nazim acquired influence in the West, he gained also political clout owing both to his followers’ profile and his own [distinct] approach. The Naqshbandis in Turkey have remained localized, with their Western extensions limited to Turks living abroad.
“Sheikh Nazim, however, was able to influence not only Muslims, but also people of Christian and Jewish upbringing. In Britain, he managed to appeal to people of Greek and Greek Cypriot origin. For instance, his followers in Britain included six siblings of Cypriot descent known as the ‘Greek Cypriot siblings.’
“The profile of the people he appealed to is extremely diverse, including even socialists, communists, hippies and anarchists on the periphery of the community. So Sheikh Nazim was a Naqshbandi sheikh of cosmopolitan/universal influence, a man who globalized the Naqshbandi movement. He was relevant in a wide area, from Indonesia to Latin America. That’s why he was a figure to be reckoned with. I know, for instance, he had links with the British royal family and some lords figure among his followers. Prince Charles, too, is rumored to have been interested in the sheikh. Nazim’s Lebanese son-in-law, Sheikh Muhammed Kabbani, meanwhile, is an influential figure in the United States.
“Global influence on such a scale comes as a historic turning point for the order. Since 9/11, it has gained prominence as an alternative formation more receptive of the West in the face of Islamic movements challenging the global system. It has been welcomed as a good-humored form [of religious faith] that accommodates cultural diversity. Its mystic aspect has appealed to Westerners as a way to address spiritual emptiness and loneliness.
“Sheikh Nazim’s Naqshbandi breed was a sort of a carnival. His concept of a religious order was based on a spirit of gaiety. He had a strategy of adjusting his rhetoric to the needs of the people he addressed.”
Successor and caliphs
Now the question is: Will the sheikh’s legacy live on? In 2011, Sheikh Nazim had designated his son Mehmet Adil as his successor. But it remains doubtful whether Mehmet Adil is capable of taking his father’s place.
According to Atay, followers claiming to be Sheikh Nazim’s intellectual heirs will emerge and each will find their own paths. He explains that Sheik Nazim remained mostly in seclusion over the past decade, especially after his wife’s death, while mighty caliphs like Sheikh Hisham continued to spread the message in various countries on his behalf. Those people are now likely to try to take the lead and trigger potential in-house rivalries or even a schism.
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