How Balkan dervishes have survived centuries of turmoil

By , and Simon Rico

They form a variety of different, disparate groups, some living in the middle of cities, others taking refuge in mountainous retreats scattered around the Balkans. But all practice the mystical Islam of Sufi religious orders, seen as a “heresy” by followers of rigorous Sunni orthodoxy from the Gulf states. Jean-Arnault Dérens, Laurent Geslin and Simon Rico look at how the Balkans' dervishes have managed to survive to this day, faced with the various challenges posed down the centuries by empire, nationalist upheaval, orthodox Islam, communism and atheism.

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Sometimes you need to get lost in the Balkans in order to stumble across a mountain peak or a little hollow where you can find the ruins of a turbe, the name given to tombs of dervish saints seen as intercessors between people and god. Some are still the object of regular pilgrimages, others lie forgotten, but throughout the countries of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and in the cross-border regions of Raška and Sandžak, these traces of the mystical, popular Islam of dervishes still mark the landscape. Over the centuries the dervish groups have often themselves, too, been marked by local beliefs, superstitions and other faiths of the Balkans.Some of the tariqa – the name for the different Sufi orders – remain very active in a region where they have been present since Islam itself was first established there, following the Ottoman conquests of the 14th and 15th centuries. Followers even happily claim that some wandering preachers made it to the Balkans before the Sultans' armies. Since then the Sufi groups have continually merged, split apart and reformed into various branches, all of them tracing their past back to a founding saint. In addition to the Rifa'i order, there are the Khalwati, the Sa'adi, the Melami, the Naqshbandi and the Mevlevi orders, all of whom differ less by specific beliefs rather than by different rituals.