Tasawwuf and Technology

Up until about the last 100 years, there was no electricity or mechanical transportation. Traveling a few hundred miles used to take days, if not months. Communication was limited to the availability of the postal service. Receiving the guidance of a shaykh (spiritual master) was possible only for those who could visit a tekke (dervish lodge). Since commuting long distances every week was not feasible, those who sought guidance would take residence in the tekkes. This was a very powerful and intense way of learning: students learned the traditions by imitating the senior dervishes, ultimately the shaykh. The dervishes (students) served and performed their religious obligations at the lodge. They were always with their shaykh. There was no other way of learning other than being in the presence of the shaykh, listening to him, and being with other dervishes. The teachings were the "teaching of the moment," and personalized for the needs of the dervishes who were residents.

Many years ago, somebody walked into a tekke and saw a group of people sitting very quietly. He asked one of the dervishes “I heard Tasawwuf is being taught here, and I’m here to learn."

The dervish said, “Yes.”
The man asked, “Where is the classroom?”
The dervish said, “This is the classroom.”
The man asked, “Where is the teacher?” The dervish pointed at his shaykh.
The man said, “But I don’t see anyone talking; when does the class start?”
The dervish replied, "It has already started.”

The teaching of that moment to that particular man cannot be delivered, because it is not possible to capture it. The closest way to capture these teachings of the moment is through stories and anecdotes.

Technology disrupted social and business life starting in the 1960's, when computers became part of back office computing. PCs started in the 80’s. The internet started in the 90’s, and around the same time, mp3 became a standard format in digitizing audio signals. We also started digitizing all the sohbahs and hutbahs (Friday sermons). It all started in my basement, on a workstation with a big tower casing. I purchased the domain name" Jerrahi.org" Then I posted the jerrahi.com page. This was first in the history of the Jerrahi Order. With the excitement of the new technology, we started broadcasting sohbahs and dhikrullahs (remembrance ceremonies) outside the dergah (dervish lodge). Later we recorded and translated these talks into various languages as well. Now we have all the sohbahs in an archive.

Written articles, and later sound and video recordings, in short, the messages that were intended for the dervishes who were present at that moment, are now being broadcast to a whole new group of people who live at a different time period and location. Did we do the right thing? Yes and no.

It is true that many have learned a lot online. At the same time, however, the context of many messages and stories were inevitably lost, because they were meant only for the dervishes with a specific state of mind and heart, who were present at that time. In a way, we packaged and distributed the food that was meant for the dervishes at a particular time and space to all, no matter their appetites or their needs.

I am not saying that it was completely wrong, but I am not sure if all benefited from the messages, understood them completely and equally. Some could not understand, some misunderstood; and they did not have a shaykh who would guide them to the essence of the messages. When you broadcast a message or the sayings of saints or shaykhs, some can consume them and some cannot, depending on their state and capacity. Honey is good, but there are lots of babies out there who will vomit when they are given honey. I certainly believe that it is more to the point, more precise and more effective, when the message is delivered by a shaykh personally to his original audience, rather than delivered indirectly from a recording machine.

Then emails started. Then social media started. We opened ourselves up to many people with myriad questions. People of all walks of life started communicating with us, asking questions related to religion in general, or social issues as well. They started asking us to interpret their dreams, which is actually only limited to the dervishes. People started asking questions about the Shariah (religious jurisprudence) even from Saudi Arabia, which is not our primary function in society. In contrast to the old days, where the dervishes from young ages started living on the same premises and received their spiritual education directly from their master, today the majority of dervishes in many parts of the world grew up outside, received their social and religious teachings and values from outside, and then came here. So the seed was not planted here in the dergah, it was planted somewhere else. By the time a person comes here, he or she is already fed many social, material and spiritual values, so our job becomes first cleaning the essence from the weeds, so that we can finally come to help them advance spiritually. It is not impossible, but it takes longer.

Social media has also changed the language. Using only a few hundred characters a day, people’s way of communicating has changed. The nature, character, and quality of social engagements and interactions have changed. All of that has brought us to the 21st century, where we are now.

How much are we maintaining the essence is what we should be worrying about. Alhamdulillah, in the midst of this technological perfect storm, we did not sacrifice the core principles of Tasawwuf, which is fighting against our blameworthy qualities, egos and egotism. We are following our shaykh Tosun Efendi (ra) who followed his shaykhs and the chain of shaykhs all the way to Resulallah, sallallahu alayhi wassallam. In that sense, we are traditionalists.

Somebody called me an “exclusivist traditionalist," because I did not accept certain changes in the way we perform our rituals. I tried to explain that each individual was totally free to express his or her spirituality outside this dergah, but inside this dergah we gather to follow a specific format, and we will not attempt to rebuild or bring innovation based on our impulses. So we were called exclusivist traditionalist, which I take as a compliment!

As far as communications, however, obviously we are using every avenue, the internet, Facebook, Instagram, etc. I think all of this is part of the divine plan and we follow it. We use technology as a vehicle. In the old days people used candles to light up the mosques; then the candles turned into lanterns; now lanterns turned into electricity. Now we have LEDs. Tools are changing and we are adapting. Mosques are not the same mosques. Dergahs are not the same dergahs, but the teachings are the same. Yes, things are changing. Technology is also changing us, changing the tools and instruments. Like any tool, if you don’t use it correctly you will not benefit from it. You have to know how to use it.

There are groups of people who build their own farms. They live isolated from the rest of the world. I totally disagree. Society is out there, and we should live our dervishhood in it. Whatever we learn here we must practice within society. You have to have a job, you have to experience what other people are experiencing, otherwise who cares if you can walk on water? Whom does this benefit? You have to be out there practicing what you have learned. Are we there? No, but it is essential to be a part of the society, of course without attaching our hearts to its deceptions, such as money, fame, etc.

We have to understand properly the beautiful qualities of Resulallah and the attributes of God. It should have been the Muslims who invent the technology and the tools and led others, as was the case up until recently. But today we just follow. We follow the applications that have been invented by others. Some narrowminded mollas (students of religion) in the 16th century destroyed the observatories, claiming that we should not occupy ourselves with useless knowledge, while up until then science was highly regarded. In the 15th century, Ali Kuscu in Samarkand had drawn a map of the moon. Knowledge spans from the ground to the skies, from East to West, written in every atom in the universe. We must learn the signs of our Creator behind everything that He has created. We are here to witness His Divine hand in everything. We have to drive technology for this divine purpose, rather than being driven by it unconsciously.

Yurdaer Doganata al - Jerrahi