From Sufism to Universal Vision: Murat Yagan and the Teaching of Kebzeh

in Journal of Sufi Studies
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This article examines aspects of cultural exchange between the Middle East and the West in which Sufism, Christianity, the traditions of the Circassians and New Age concepts played a central role. It focuses on the teaching of Murat Yagan, of Abkhaz-Circassian origin who grew up in Turkey and immigrated to Canada in the 1960s, where he developed his philosophy, Ahmsta Kebzeh (“the knowledge of the art of living”). The Kebzeh way of life emphasizes modesty, mutual responsibility and compassion. Yagan linked these values to the ancient ethos of the Caucasus Mountains which he sought to revive as the basis of a universal vision. The nature of Kebzeh was influenced by the cosmopolitan environment in which Yagan was educated in Turkey; by his enrollment with Sufi circles in North America; and by the multicultural Canadian atmosphere. These diverse influences enabled him to devise an ecumenical model of dialogue between cultures. The article provides a first-time survey and analysis of Kebzeh ideological and communal features. It sheds new light on the role of ethnicity and cultural heritage in immigrant societies in the context of the evolution of spirituality in Canada, a relatively unexplored milieu in comparison to the United States and Europe.

From Sufism to Universal Vision: Murat Yagan and the Teaching of Kebzeh

in Journal of Sufi Studies

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2

Literally“the ethos (or spirit) of the nobles.” For an impression of Yagan and his teaching, see A. Viacheslav Chirikba, “Abkhazian Wiseman From Vernon,” Respublika AbkhaziaSukhum Abkhazia 21–22 April 2001. For an English translation see Lucy Feldman at: http://chirikba.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=87%3Aabkhazian-wiseman-from-vernon&catid=37%3A2011-02-27-08-28-58&Itemid=55&lang=ru (accessed 27 November 2011). Chirikba a well-known Abkhazian linguistic authority was invited to Vernon by the Kebzeh Society. He became minister of foreign affairs of Abkhazia in 2011.

9

P.B. Henze“Circassia in the Nineteenth Century: The Futile Fight for Freedom,” in Passé turco-tatar présent soviétique: études offertes à Alexandre Benningsened. Ch. Lamercier- Quelquejay G. Veinstein and S.E. Peeters (Louvain and Paris: ehess 1986) 243–73.

10

Kemal Karpat“The Hijra from Russia and the Caucasus: The Process of Self-definition in the Late Ottoman State,” in Muslim Travelsed. Dale F. Eickelman and J. Piscatory (London: Routledge1990) 131–52.

11

Murat YaganI Come from Behind Kaf Mountain: The Spiritual Autobiography of Murat Yagan (Putney, Vt.: Threshold Books1984) 10; also Ryan Gingeras “Notorious Subjects Invisible Citizens: North Caucasian Resistance to the Turkish National Movement in the South Marmara 1919–1923” International Journal of Middle East Studies 40. 1 (2008): 89–108.

15

YaganI Come from Behind Kaf Mountain16 61. Historically the Bektashiyya was perceived as an unorthodox marginal order partly because of its affinity with Shiite Islam. This unorthodox quality apparently attracted Yagan.

17

YaganI Come from Behind Kaf Mountain63 67–8.

18

Ibid.6669 71 106 112–13.

19

Ibid.139–40.

20

Mark SedgwickAgainst the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press2004); idem “European Neo-Sufi Movements in the Interwar Period” in Islam in Inter-war Europe ed. Nathalie Clayer and Eric Germain (London: Hurst 2008) 183–215; Jamal Malik and John Hinnells eds. Sufism in the West (London: Routledge 2006); Elizabeth Sirriyeh “Sufi Thought and its Reconstruction” in Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century ed. Suha Taji-Farouki and Bashir M. Nafi (London: I.B. Tauris 2004) 104–127; Hermansen “Hybrid Identity Formations in Muslim America” 158–97; and idem “In the Garden of American Sufi Movements: Hybrids and Perennials” in New Trends and Developments in the World of Islam ed. P. Clarke (London: Luzac Oriental Press 1997) 157–78.

21

YaganI Come from Behind Kaf Mountain166.

26

YaganI Come from Behind Kaf Mountain154.

28

Gisela Webb“Sufism in America,” in America’s Alternative Religionsed. Timothy Miller (Albany: State University of New York Press1995) 107–8. These developments were also followed by a more “Islamic-oriented” approach to Sufism in North America. Yagan at this stage stressed the independence of Kebzeh from Sufi Islam. Moreover he was critical of the Islamic tradition (see text below) and resented the Islamic notion of the supremacy of Arabic viewing this claim as a form of cultural imperialism. His resentment was also connected to his own cultural roots and his emphasis on the uniqueness and antiquity of the Caucasian languages.

30

YaganI Come from Behind Kaf Mountain143.

31

Paul HeelasThe New Age Movement (Oxford: Blackwell1996); and Charles Lindholm Culture and Authenticity (Malden Mass.: Blackwell 2008).

35

Ibid.143.

38

Bradford Verter“Spiritual Capital: Theorizing Religion with Bourdieu and against Bourdieu,” Sociological Theory 21.2 (June 2003): 150–74.

40

YaganAhmsta Kebzehxix–xxi.

41

Sedgwick“European Neo-Sufi Movements”; also Meir Hatina, “Where East Meets West: Sufism, Cultural Rapprochement and Politics,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 39 (August 2007): 398–404.

42

YaganThe Essence of Sufism in the Light of Kebzehxxi–xxviii.

44

YaganAhmsta Kebzehxxvii.

46

YaganAhmsta Kebzeh116–17 128–32; Murat Papsu in email correspondence with the authors 15 June 2010.

50

YaganAhmsta Kebzehxxvi–xxvii 148–9 158–60.

53

YaganThe Essence of Sufism50–6.

55

YaganThe Essence of Sufism68–75.

56

YaganAhmsta Kebzeh10–14. Notably a picture showing Jesus and bearing this title hangs in the main hall of the Kebzeh community church in Vernon. Yagan’s affinity to Jesus can be understood not only in connection with the important place of Jesus in some Sufi traditions but also in relation to Yagan’s Abkhazian background as most Abkhazians view themselves as Christians. Ancient Abkhazian and Christian traditions coexisted and exerted mutual influences ever since Christianity reached Abkhazia—according to tradition in the first century CE (Chirikba “Abkhazian Wiseman from Vernon.”).

57

YaganAhmsta Kebzeh6; idem The Essence of Sufism xxi 45–9 173–8 186–201 229.

58

YaganThe Essence of Sufism186–201 229. On these Sufi concepts see e.g. Annemarie Schimmel Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 1975) mainly 98–147 228–31; Julian Baldick Mystical Islam (London: I.B. Tauris 1989) 13–87; and Mark J. Sedgwick Sufism: The Essentials (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press 2001).

59

YaganAhmsta Kebzeh114–15; and idem The Essence of Sufism 95–8.

60

YaganAhmsta Kebzeh114–15.

61

Ibid.; and idemThe Essence of Sufismxx–xxi 95–8 186–7 188–201.

63

Ibid.; and idemAhmsta Kebzeh31–9 113–17 128–32.

64

Steve BruceReligion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (Oxford: Oxford University Press1996) 25–68 169–95.

65

YaganAhmsta Kebzeh133–4; and idem The Essence of Sufism in the Light of Kebzeh 186–201.

66

YaganI Come from Behind Kaf Mountain172.

68

See e.g. Khaliq Ahmad Nizami“Suḥbah,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion2nd ed. 15 vols. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference usa 2005) 13:123–4; and Laury Silvers-Alario “The Teaching Relationship in Early Sufism: A Reassessment of Fritz Meier’s Definition of the shaykh al-tarbiyya and the shaykh al-ta‘limMuslim World 93 (January 2003): 88–90; also Daphna Ephrat Spiritual Wayfarers Leaders in Piety Sufis and the Dissemination of Islam in Medieval Palestine(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press2008) 56101–4; and Sara Sviri The Sufis: An Anthology (Tel Aviv: tau Press 2008) 99–118 (Hebrew).

72

Interview with Yagan Summer 2009.

76

Idem“Hybrid Identity Formations in Muslim America” 180.

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