Interview with Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi

            “I am trying to be an obedient dervish,” says Tosun Bayrak, whom many people call Tosun Baba. He is one of the khalifas of the late Jerrahi shaykh, Muzaffer Ozak. After graduating from Robert College in Istanbul, Turkey, Tosun Bayrak attended the Academy of Fine Arts, and after a short while found himself at the University of California as an architecture student, where he also developed an interest in Indian culture. He went to Paris, Turkey, and then to London to complete his education in fine arts.

            In 1949 he married a Czech artist (from whom he was later divorced) and moved to Casablanca, where he spent ten years as a businessman. Meanwhile, he continued to paint. Famous Turkish artists became his close friends. He became successful and rich in Casablanca, and he was powerful enough to influence political circles in Morocco. He joined the independence movement on the side of the Independence party. He proposed that Morocco become a republic; however, when the sultan returned, Tosun Bayrak became an unwanted man.

            He returned to the United States, began to teach at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and established the Art department. He organized seminars for famous international artists for the next seven years. He met his wife-to-be, Jamilah Hanim, at one of these seminars. 

            Although he adopted abstract expressionism, which was very popular in the 1950s, he also created his share of street theaters and happenings, and he started to sculpt with flesh, blood, and body parts. Tosun Bayrak explains that some people interpreted this art  (named Shock Art by critics) as a protest against the Vietnam war, and some interpreted it in terms of Sufism. He says that the artists’ real aim was to convey the message: “We look beautiful from the outside, but inside we are made of blood, flesh, bones, etc. So let us see what we really are, and get rid of our pride.”

            Tosun Bayrak had lived in the United States for many years when, during a visit to Turkey in 1968 with his wife, Munevver Ayasli told them about Muzaffer Ozak Efendi. The quest that had spanned more than forty years had thus ended. He established his own dergah in New York after he was given khilafet from Karagumruk. Tosun Bayrak, who ended his life as an artist, still lives in New York as a sufi whose heart and dergah are open to all.

 

NOTHINGNESS IS THE GOAL

            In Turkish Aksiyon magazine, Bekir Ayvazoglu described you as an anarchist artist who became an obedient dervish. What kind of adventure took you from being an anarchist to a dervish?

            I am not upset at being labeled as an anarchist. Many of those who looked from the outside saw it that way. However, our intention was different. It was to show people with images that there is an inside different from the outside. Allah says, “I do not fit in the heavens and in the earth, but I fit in the loving heart of My servant.” When we talk about the heart, we think of this piece of flesh. Rasulallah (saws) says, “There is a piece of flesh in the human being; if it is good, the human being is good. If it is bad it disturbs the whole.” 

            It is difficult to show the inside in images. We tried to show the reality of the human being by using what was called Shock Art by the art critics. It could be considered by some as an anarchistic approach. What we did then was to split the human body open to show what was inside. It looks beautiful from the outside. Allah has decorated it with flesh, skin, hair, and beautified it with colors. But, what is seen when you split it open is a different story. It was the time of the Vietnam war; people were dying, and the media thought that we were demonstrating against the war through art. We did not intend to protest against the war, but we wanted to show the reality of man.

           

            Did Shock Art shock people?

            It is not easy to look at a dead body. Of course, to look and see are different things. People need to be shocked to understand. They look at pictures without really seeing. Our intention was to wake people up to reality with a shock. It was not anarchy. For example, Leonardo da Vinci also did it. He made pictures of skinned, split-open bodies. He was also misunderstood; people thought his aim was to study anatomy. Our art was misunderstood; Inshallah our obedient dervishhood will not be misunderstood as well. I am trying to be an obedient dervish.

 

            To be an obedient dervish . . . What does that mean?

            To be a dervish is to give up ones will. Rasulallah (saws) says, “the good one amongst men is the one who is good to people.” We are talking about servanthood when we say our shahadat. For the perfect man, servanthood comes ahead of everything. Allah says, “I created men and jinn only to serve Me.” To be a dervish means to give up ones will, to be Allah’s beautiful instrument, to serve His creation, His air, His water, His mountain, His plants, His animals, but most of all, the best of His creation, other human beings.

 

            How does the world look through the eyes of this dervish?

            There is the possibility of seeing Allah. For instance, Hd. Ali (ra) said, “I do not worship the god that I do not see,” but he still worshiped. This means that he saw Allahu ta’ala. It is not possible for the human eye to see Allah. There is His essence, and there are His attributes. Obviously we cannot see His essence, but we can see Him through His attributes. In an artist’s words, we cannot see the Artist, but we see His art. It is possible to know the Artist through His work. The world is such a work of art, and it is right before our eyes.

 

            Economy, partisanship, and politics . . . They all define and try to encapsulate the human being in their own terms. In such an environment, differences create gaps and estrangement, and give rise to dysfunctional individuals. What is the significance of differences in the creation?

            Allah did not create any two things identical to each other. He says, “I created you so that you know each other.” To know each other means to know oneself. Now there are differences, and there is unity. With our limited sight, when we look at a tree, we see the leaves and the branches separately, and fail to see the divine harmony present in the tree. They are parts of a whole, yet we see them as different. Scientists also appreciate this. It is also true for human beings. Our aim is to see, or at least to believe this. Even if we are not the same, we are a family coming from the same parents. I am not only talking about the Muslims but all of humanity. It is possible to see unity as such.

 

            How does a person who believes in Allah differ from another who has no faith, as far as inner peace is concerned?

            Allahu ta’ala created the souls in the Alam-i-Arwah (World of Souls) before He created man and the rest of creation. We believe that the plants, animals, even metals, have souls. On that day we all said, “Yes! You are our Rabb.” For example, this ashtray is a better Muslim than this faqir. Muslim means one who has submitted himself to the will of God. Unless someone lifts it, this ashtray will not go anywhere. On the other hand, we move in all directions, we move to the right, we move to the left. We transgress our boundaries countlessly, up and down. A true believer (mumin) does not forget the promise his soul made and the contract he signed. A true believer struggles to keep his promise in spite of his ego’s temptations. He knows that this world is temporal and his work is toward the eternal. It is said, “die before you die”; that’s how it is. He can thus avoid the domination of this world, and actually use it for his own good. He can have a peaceful life, free from slavery. Unbelievers and hypocrites are far from this peaceful existence, because they can never be themselves, and those who cannot be themselves can never be elevated to the level of servanthood.

 

            You want to tell people, “You look beautiful from the outside, but inside you are filled with veins, blood, pus, bones and flesh. Look at your insides and leave your pride.” What is the reason of pride in man?

            To think that they are Allah. To say, “I did it myself” and to compete with Allah.

 

            The desire for fame, and love of power and praise,  are in the nature of man.  Allahu ta’ala created man as His vicegerent on earth and bestowed upon him His gifts. Why do we fail to see this and run after petty praises and fame?

            We are not aware of the gifts bestowed upon us. Allah says in a Hadith Qudsi, “I created everything for man, and man for Myself.” We do not know this, or even if we know, most of the time we forget. I think that most of us cannot comprehend a gift of such proportions, and that is why we are after such simple recognitions such as fame.  People who lack insight (basirah) say, “My father and my mother slept together and I was conceived; why should I be worthy?” and they do not appreciate their own value.

 

            Why are we looking for appreciation elsewhere when Allahu Ta’ala has blessed and honored us with His gifts?

            We think that everyone who has the shape of a human is actually a human being. However, there are donkeys, monkeys, scorpions and snakes, all in human form. There are people whose eyes, ears and hearts are sealed. May Allah have mercy on them. Allah created the ego in us to test us. Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (qs) compares man to a divine government. He says that the soul of man, the assigned khalifa of God, is the ruler of this government, and reason is his prime minister. In addition to this there is the ego. Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (qs) does not put the ego down. In fact, the ego is also in love with the soul. There is an ongoing battle inside the human between the soul and the ego. Sometimes the ego wins the battle, sometimes the soul. When we are under the influence of the ego (al-nafs al ammara in Sufism) our eyes, ears and hearts are sealed with this influence, and we believe ourselves to the Rabb, God.

 

            Why are we having difficulty comprehending the material and the spiritual (body and soul) together?

            It is interesting that one can point to ones nose, ear, or heart, but we do not know where to point when asked about the soul. Actually, your soul is wherever you put your fingers. Those who are distant to metaphysics find it difficult to grasp this unity. Those with reason can easily comprehend the soul and the body together. Sometimes people whom we first perceived as ugly transform and become beautiful in front of our eyes. This indicates a passage from physical to spiritual. In this respect, Turkey has less of a problem compared to the West, because it has not completed its economic development yet. In the West, as the economy developed, an attempt has been made to expel religion and spirituality. 

 

            Bediuzzaman ( a Turkish saint) says, “One who sees beauty thinks beautiful thoughts. And one who thinks beautiful thoughts finds pleasure in his life.”

            Yes, it is true. We say that Allah has hidden His friends (veli-ullah) under His domes. Maybe that man you see on the street is a veli-ullah. My shaykh used to say, “Treat everyone as if he is a veli-ullah.” They asked Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi the meaning of the Hadis Qudsi I just quoted: “Allah hides His veli under His domes.” He said, “Allahu ta’ala hides His veli-ullah by showing them to other people as ordinary people.” In order to recognize a veli-ullah, one has to be one himself. In order to see beauty, one has to be beautiful himself.

 

            What is beauty, for a dervish?

            The unity of soul, body, and reason. The soul is with the One and only One. Beauty is found within harmony.

 

            How do you relate aesthetics and life?

            Rasulallah (saws) says, “Knowledge is a Muslim’s lost treasure; he should take it wherever he finds it.” I used to teach Islamic Art. What is Islamic Art? The Westerners say, “You saw Ayasophia and you built Suleymaniye.” I say to them, “No. Ayasophia became Islamicized and beautified when it came to us.” Our religion carried over our spirit of aesthetics, manners and life style to our architecture. A Muslim used to live in the best of aesthetic from birth to death. You could see the same beauty in their homes, cuisine, speech, worship and festivals. Unfortunately, today you see the most horrible looking furniture in Muslim homes. Still, Turks has the best aesthetics in all the Muslim world.

 

            How do you describe the world in Sufism?

            Allah instructs the world, “Tyrannize those who love you, and who are servants to you. Be a loyal servant to those who depend on Me and who love Me.” It is up to us to rule the world or to be enslaved by it. If the world takes you away from your Lord, the fault is nether the devil’s nor the world’s, but yours. The devil cannot take away faith. People throw it away and he only collects it. The truth of knowledge is that those who know themselves know their Creator, and have interest in His creation. The world is a reflection of His beautiful attributes, and we can only know Him through observing His attributes.

 

            To what extent do you think it is possible for today’s man (who has not tasted love, is of a violent nature, and who has lost his way) to attain this station of having deep love and affection toward the creation?

            There is no such thing. Everything can change at any moment. But we do not realize how limited our time actually is, and we waste it. Instead of living this short life on the path of Allah as perfect men, we waste our time, means and energy for the pursuit of such things as pleasure, gratification, money, and power.

 

            What kind of relationship exists between the heart and the tongue of a dervish?

            They should be together too. You made me talk a lot. If Allah protected me, He wouldn’t let me say the wrong thing. If a man listens to his heart, then he will say the truth. The duty of the tongue is to translate the truth of the heart.

 

            Allah’s orders and the nature of man do not change, but the interests of man change with time. In this ever-changing world, does religion call man back to his original duty?

            There are some civilizations that we know that are still alive today. Ancient Egyptians made the pyramids and mummified their dead. Civilization in Egypt at the time of the Pharoah, who tyrannized Hd. Musa (as), was at an amazingly high level. That civilization disappeared, and then came Greek civilization. After that, too, disappeared, there came the Middle Ages in Europe, when people did not even know enough to wash their hands. Civilization was completely lost. This was followed by the  Renaissance. Different stages in civilization follow one another. In this earth, many other things will come to pass. Ideas, events, new civilizations will be established. Sometimes we will feel like we are losing our minds when we see new things happening. But there will always be a need for the reality of religion. The nature of man will not change because we, the created, cannot change the Divine Will.

 

            Don’t you think the events of the world strip the strength of religion?

            It cannot happen. Everyone else is forgotten. Who is talking about the Pharoah today? Who makes frequent mention of Napoleon? But Moses (as), Jesus (as) , Resulallah (saws) are always remembered, known, and followed by millions of people.

 

            A long life started in 1926.  A man has been many places in this world. Who is this Tosun Bayrak?

            I must say I wish that I knew. There is the concept of nothingness in Sufism. We are trying to attain that. Allahu ta’ala has shown me so many things, made me do a thousand things, taught me and made me forget . . . I am attempting to pass beyond and be free of these things, and to be nothing. But the load is so heavy, there is no end to this ongoing job.