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Chapter 5

Prayers for the Present

Chapter 5 lets a number of discomfiting eco-characters move from the margins of the project’s field records, where this ethnographer initially and wearily kept them, into the thick of the messy, near-end ecology of our historical present: among them, jinnand the Devil himself. Bringing together a local and Islamic eco-cosmology with expert discourses and policy statements on natural disaster, climate risks, and the resilient climate futures of Bosnia and the wider Balkan region, the chapter develops a proposition about occult and remedial practices (siḥr) that are used to manage a dawning era of extreme weather events. Ultimately, it wonders about prayers, their appeal and their very possibility in our globalized contemporary world.

On cats’ purring

Pepe often sneaks into my library in the attic. While I struggled writing the manuscript over the last year, his quiet company was a welcome break from the punishing solitude that I need in order to produce texts.
His arrival is always announced by a muffled sigh that precedes the jump it takes to propel him up the steep ladder, which looks like a neck-breaking threshold to cross between the attic and the rest of the one-bedroom mountain house that my family noisily shares. He comes in, purrs a light greeting (when he feels like it) and then, typically, falls asleep on the heap of volumes that sculpt my reading list at the moment. Watching him at times, I feel a cross-species envy: a lucky being, books as his bedding, seeming so at ease in the world.

Shaykh Ayne, my Sufi guide to this ethnography, like the Sufi masters we read together, is often impressed by cats. Bediuazzman Said Nursi, a Sufi who has spent a good part of his life in political prisons through the turbulent history of early 20thcentury Turkey, seems to have felt about cats something close to what I just called “cross-species envy.” “What monsters,” he wrote that he thought to himself once, watching a cat’s leisurely affairs. What would be the point of this creature’s existence, he wondered disapprovingly--all it does is chase mice, play around, purr, eat, and sleep. He reports how later that night, however, in a truthful vision (ru’ya), the Divine Friend taught him a lesson: in the vision, a cat came to Nursi’s bed, curled up by his pillow, and started purring in his ear. Except that in the dream-vision he could hear the cat tongue translated into Arabic. The purring, he learned, was an invocation (dhikr). The cat, in fact, was chanting one of God’s gentle names: Ya Erḥamerrāḥīmīn, Erḥamerrāḥīmīn, Erḥamerrāḥīmīn (Oh, the Most Merciful One). He woke up with his mind changed about cats.

Shaykh Ayne tells me that the village houses in Western Bosnia, at the turn of the 20thcentury, had special holes cut into doors so that cats could come in and out of houses as they pleased. They slept at night by the hearth or the stove without being domesticated; at the sound of people’s footsteps, they fled through the door.  Cats would also always get the first serving of fresh milk, right after the cows had been milked; their dish stood at ready in the barns. By the time Shaykh Ayne was a boy, in the 1940s, village cats were mostly domesticated: the imamic household he grew up in “had” cats and he enjoyed petting them. Cats teach us about love and closeness and Divine Presence, he often says. “You see how a cat enjoys caresses, it twists its body with pleasure, it stretches out on the floor to get more attention, and shows all its softness and gladness (claws tucked in) but then, the very next moment, it has had enough--it bristles, shows its teeth at you, hissing. You could get a scratch. You might think, ‘how strange that this should happen: the same hand is stroking the cat in the same loving mood and yet everything has changed.’ It’s because nothing ever sits still. Hearts change all the time. They are held between God’s ‘Two Fingers,’ so He turns them now this way, now that. [The word for heart in Arabic, qalb, connotes turning, upturning, a change.] One must stay watchful.” If cats change towards us, though, they loyally keep God’s company. Their nature, unlike ours, isn’t forgetful (the root of the word for “human,” insan, Shaykh Ayne tells me, comes from nisyan, forgetfulness). “So who are you sitting with, when Pepe sleeps near by?” Shaykh Ayne asks me to contemplate. Perhaps cats’ unswerving presence with the Divine is what inspires so many Islamic stories of reverence and fondness for them. One such wisdom tale (hikaja) I heard from Shaykh Ayne tells how, once, a Sufi dervish sat still, immersed in prayers and invocations until he lost track of time. A call to prayer brought him out of his meditations. He stretched out his sore limbs and was going to get up and join the prayers at the mosque when he discovered that a cat had, in the meantime, fallen asleep at the corner of his coat. What was he to do? He called out for a pair of scissors and cut his coat free, without disturbing the feline’s sleep.

In keeping with the wisdom tale, I try not to bother Pepe but to read my way around his book-bed quietly.

On distance, love & disaster (reading Sufis)

- coming up

Buds Like Birds

On retreat (“Stay-at-home” with Sufis)


Among the strange things that emerged with the Coronavirus pandemic are the stay-at-home orders and other forms of quarantining now recommended worldwide. I hear reports of serious suffering, disorientation, and discomfort that this new form of involuntary mass retreat is causing people--my kith and kin among them. Forced indoors, pulled apart from the shared gathering places and reassembled variously through online venues, our estrangement from the once-normal rites is making our high-modern lifestyles--artifacts in their own right--more obvious than ever. This is an old lesson of cultural anthropology: when the ordinary becomes strange or is about to be lost, we become capable of better appreciating it. What I am saying is that, along with unease, anxiety, and grievances about these novel forms of dwelling we never wished for, pondering how, in fact, we once lived (and why), and how we were made to be through those quotidian modes, may be a worthwhile emotional response. If we could dwell upon this displacement from life as usual, we might turn the crisis into a “soul-searching” pursuit, which any crisis, inevitably, calls for.  How “social,” were our former lives? What did living mean for us, when we lived our busy existences routinely? What were we like, together and alone, previously? What comforts did we draw in the recent past from constituting a shared public in built spaces, incidentally, with minimal contact: through walking, talking, consuming side-by-side, even when each of us immersed in personal micro-scapes, browsing remote places via touch-screens, tuned to the private sounds of our earbuds. What worked, living and being that way? What didn’t? When pondering, let us remember that prior to COVID-19 there was talk of other global pandemics, namely, depression and anxiety. According to WHO, more than 300 million people were suffering from depression and anxiety in 2015, with nearly as many suffering from a range of anxiety disorders. I am raising questions, not arguments, really, but I do have a point.

And I take a particular direction in pondering these questions, with apparently unlikely sources: Islamic and Sufi. That these have something relevant and provocative to say about the present condition dawned on me after I talked to a Sufi Shaykh, soon after the coronavirus shut down Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in mid-March. Shaykh Ayne is a Sufi master (shaykhmeans an “elder”), referenced elsewhere on this site, with whom I have been thinking through and writing Beekeeping in the End Times. The writing time in Bosnia was afforded by an ACLS/Luce Fellowship (I will never tire of singing praises to the ACLS, and, especially to Luce/ACLS RIJA* and its fellows). Stay-at-home orders are legally enforced in Bosnia and Herzegovina for those in the population who are over 65, so Shaykh, in his 80s, is effectively homebound. “This is the time to go to khalwa” he said over the phone, laughing. “We’ve all been now forced into a retreat and it may not be a bad thing. As one of my shaykhs used to say, ‘everyone will become a dervish, sooner or later.’”

Halvet is a Sufi term for retreat ( in Arabic, khalwa; whereas the local, Bosnian Muslim transliteration, halvet, follows the Persian and Turkish form). It typically lasts 40 days. Incidentally, “quarantine” also connotes a forty-day period, with the Italian quaranta (forty) and quarantina (forty days) at its root. Halvetin Sufi practice, however, can last even several hours or few minutes, Shaykh Ayne often says, indeed, for as long as one deliberately steps away from … what? To begin with: “steps away from the world.” In the simplest terms, halvetis a deliberate pursuit of solitude. Behind the closed door, letting go of the usual routines and associations, ceasing to speak, to plan, to rush and fret, one settles into contemplation and adoration. The principle occupation during halvet is zikr (from Arabic dhikr, and Persian and Turkish zikr), which translates to remembrance and invocation. Invocation begins with the tongue--God’s beautiful names are chanted--then the tongue falls silent while one’s heart, enlivened, carries on. With the heart’s invocations, as Ibn al-‘Arabī, the 13th-century Sufi, known as the Greatest Shaykh, puts it, “one will achieve what one seeks and will attain an increase in knowledge.” For other Sufis, the achievement one seeks is first and last of all love. But knowledge and love are two ways of speaking about the same matters at the root-- divine desire. “God loved to be known, then He brought about the world,” a ḥadīthsays (ḥadīthsare a record of the Prophet’s sayings). Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī, a 13th- century Sufi whose devotional poetry has been made famous around the modern world, wrote the following verses:

    “Come to the orchard in spring.

    There is light and wine and sweethearts

    In the pomegranate flowers.

    If you do not come, these do not matter.

    If you do come, these do not matter.”

For a dervish, then, closing a door behind frees up time and opens up spaces for inwardness. But, also, for companionship: these verses are an invitation, a yearning: come, won’t you? One closes the door not to escape, the Greatest Shaykh says, but to actively seek: seek what’s been lost or hiding or muffled by the usual clutter of events and things. Then seek out what or who might arrive. Closing the door to the rest, one must stay alone with one’s self, but the self isn’t obviously or properly there, it must be coaxed, invoked. This is the first step. If one merely stays here, one may clear up one’s thoughts, regain some peace and quiet, perhaps get a respite from the companions one loves but needs a break from. One may even get to taste the “sweetness” of solitude, Ibn al-‘Arabī writes. But seeking is a journey: you’re always after the next best place. If things go well, the self, seated in the orchard, immersed in the “wine” and “fragrance” and “blossoms,” basks in the Divine Light. Then one becomes alone with Alone. Those who attain that sort of knowledge in halvetsupposedly do not lose it once they step out. Then they get to see that the world is with God and God is with the world. About these folks, Ibn ‘al-Arabi writes the following lines:

    If with every being, one sees nothing but God

    retreat from beings becomes pointless.


    If you were so, then you are in halvetwith God, alone.

Listening and reading to Sufis, you tend to retrace your thinking steps again and again, but each time, the familiar things on the path look slightly different: this notion of the “self,” for instance. The self that entered the solitude, needed a retreat from the world, to find itself. Then, if lucky, the fellow finds herself with God and realizes that the world (she left) has never been away from God (whom she has just “found”). Seeking solitude, to begin with, presumes that we have been veiled from the self and from God, who is so extremely close, that the world/orchard is roused: “sweethearts” awaiting each other, pomegranates blooming, and such. A Sufi, Shaykh Ayne often says, will get nowhere if he doesn’t find himself. And this isn’t easy; it takes a guide (that’s what shaykhs do), trials, and the time-space of retreat. A ḥadīth Shaykh Ayne often cites, says that “The one who grasps one’s self, grasps one’s Nurturer.” The incitement, by the way, is not addressed to Sufis alone but to practicing Muslims in general. Shaykh Ayne takes the point further still when he cites his Sufi guide’s words: “Everyone will become a dervish, sooner or a later.” Everyone will be forced into a solitude of sorts, will experience moments when the world shuts down for them and the supposedly familiar self has to be sought, found out, invoked, courted. Once you start down that path, the question of the world, its meaning, its relation to you, whether of nurturing fullness or daunting emptiness, will be laid out around you, like a perfect picnic spread on the grass. “Trouble is,” Shaykh Ayne says in our conversation, “no one wants the solitude any longer; you can hardly find a dervish willing to go into halvet.”

As for the rest of us, could we, at the very least, take Sufis at their word when they write and say that retreat is for seeking and finding the self, to begin with, and that this isn’t easy though it’s the necessary condition to being well-accompanied―? Forever? I, at least, take Shaykh Ayne at his word when he says that even dervishes these days hesitate to undertake halvet, let alone the quarantine length of it. His words make me wonder what it is about our advanced modern condition that is so deeply averse, nearly allergic to withdrawing? And yet, we are all expelled now into a halvetof sorts. Now what?
         Come to the orchard, it’s spring.


*Luce/ACLS RIJA is American Council of Learned Societies’ Program in Religion, Journalism, and International Affairs. https://www.acls.org/Luce-ACLS-in-Religion-Journalism-International-Affairs-Fellowships-for-Scholars.

1WHO (World Health Organization) has described a rise in depression as a “crisis” and a “leading cause of disability worldwide.” “Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates,” Mental Health, World Health Organization, accessed April 24, 2020, https://www.who.int/mental_health/management/depression/prevalence_global_health_estimates/en/. Articles in leading media have spoken of depression as a global pandemic, including this article in the Guardian. Juliette Jowit, “What is depression and why is it rising?, The Guardian, June 4, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jun/04/what-is-depression-and-why-is-it-rising; but strong arguments have also been presented against thinking about mental health illness in epidemiological terms. Some psychologists are resistant to thinking of depression or anxiety as particular to our advanced capitalist consumer society, while medical anthropologists and scholars interested in the close ties between public health and political economy, on the contrary, urge us to think of illness historically, as an experience, a diagnostic and treatment procedure that emerges in particular contexts through complex dynamics between agents, institutions, and structural conditions.

2Coleman Barks,Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing (San Francisco: Harper, 2003).

3Muhyiddin Ibn al-’Arabi, Mekanska Otkrovenja, trans. Salih Ibrišević and Ismail Ahmetagić (Sarajevo: “Ibn Arebi,” 2007), 263.  See also Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone; Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

4Ibn al-’Arabi, Mekanska Otkrovenja, 26