Interview with Ahmet Karamustafa, 2010

Ahmet Karamustafa is Professor of History and Religious Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He has written on various aspects of the social and intellectual history of pre-modern Islam and worked especially on Qalandars and other “deviant” Sufi movements.

During his visit to Paris in May 2010, Delphine Ortis, a MIFS member, interviewed him on his intellectual trajectory as well as his vision of the Qalandariyya, and the differentiation he makes between Sufism and the cult of saints.

Could you first tell us about your educational and professional training, and how you came to work in the field of “deviant” dervish groups and Sufism? What kind of research methodology did you develop?

I did my master’s thesis at the institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal on a subject that led me eventually to the dervishes. In the study of Turkish history, the views of a particular historian, Mehmet Fuad Köprülü, had become very prevalent. He was among the first to ask the question of continuity between pre-Islamic or not yet Islamised Turks. He had peculiar views about this continuity. He saw the deviant or antinomian dervishes as survivals of shamans within an Islamic garb. In order to test this view, I worked on the hagiography of a famous 13th century Sufi master, Hacı Bektaş. After my MA thesis, I decided to work on an early 16th century text in Ottoman Turkish because I wanted to gather more information about the dervishes. My analysis led me to write a more comprehensive though short history of these dervishes from the late 12th century through the 15th century. The thesis put forward in my PhD was drastically opposed to that of Köprülü. We don’t really understand these dervishes if we cast them simply as “survivals” or as superficially Islamized types; rather we should take their religiosity and their Islam seriously and attempt to come up with an explanation. I tried to find in any kind of historical sources all available references to what I called ‘dervish piety’. I sifted texts and synthesised the information I discovered in the light of what I knew about the historical context. I don’t think any single explanation will hold across the board.

What do you consider to be the most striking attribute of the Qalandari path vis-à-vis other currents of piety and other deviant dervish groups?

To my mind the most important trait of the Qalandars was their persistent cultural and social ‘iconoclasticism’ and ‘unconventionalism’. They were persistent in their criticism of respectable mystics and Sufis. The temperament that prevailed was that of the happy, merry and carefree. The Qalandars had liberated themselves from social custom, which pressed down on people. They were libertine in their ways and happy and content about that. They would do anything to set themselves apart from respectable people.

Why do you use the term ‘anarchistic’ that usually belongs to the domain of politics, to characterise a movement of piety?

I use the term anarchism primarily because I wanted my readers to feel the very clear sense of criticism and of standing against established authority that I saw in dervish piety. And this critical stance is what defines them more than any other characteristic. To be ‘anarchistic’ is clearly something that really matters to Qalandars. They are actually persistently needling the authorities. That’s their function. Their agenda is that of reminding people that they have to see through the ways in which power and authority works in society.

Could you determine some reasons why the Qalandari movement was essentially developed in the Persian cultural sphere?

I really don’t know. But let me mention another factor. I think the Qalandari movement, like ‘dervish piety’ in general, is noticeably more prominent in places and times where the prevalent Islamic religious culture was that of the Hanafi-school. This legal school provides a more open space, has a more permissive attitude towards overtly antisocial or unconventional behaviour. Now, from the 13th century onwards the Persian cultural sphere is dominated by the Hanafis. So, this is one possible explanation. But there are others which have to do with the local colouring and local flavour of ‘Sufisms’ in the different regions.

Are you able to observe significant differences between the Qalandars of the Turkish world and those of South Asia?

Indeed, I believe there are significant differences, even probably back in the 13th century. But I don’t have enough evidence concerning the early centuries of Qalandari history to give you a satisfying answer. I believe things changed drastically after the 15th century with the formation of the large scale empires. And within that context, the subsequent history of the Qalandars is one in which they quite clearly continue to react to the prevalent Sufis. But they would not deal with the same Sufis; I mean the South-Asian Qalandars were dealing with Chishtis in particular, some Suhrawardis and some Naqshbandis later on. So I would say that, yes, definitely there are differences between South Asian and Anatolian Qalandars, but they have to do with the fact that they are essentially evolving in rather different cultural domains, and with the different political circumstances of the early modern era.

In your research on dervish masters, could you discern a particular link between ‘Ali or the family of the Prophet and the Qalandar, as I think is the case for La’l Shahbâz Qalandar?

Such a link is the case for all the dervishes that I am familiar with. That is not particular to La’l Shahbâz Qalandar, I would say. It is quite clear that the shaping of ‘dervish piety’ in general is clearly enveloped in a very special attachment to the family of the Prophet. Now, later on in Islamic history we have a tendency to associate this particular link only with the Shi’is. What we tend to forget is that especially until the 15th century, there is a lot of investment on the part of many Muslims into precisely this kind of attachment to what they consider to be the ‘fountain head’, the spring, the source of sanctity and sacredness in Islam. But certainly with the dervishes it is a clear move in their own minds and in the minds of their audiences to demonstrate their credentials as the true practitioners of Islam; to demonstrate that their close connection to the family of the Prophet is something that they are very clear about. This is one of the puzzles of the study of dervish piety. I still wouldn’t see this as necessarily peculiar to the Qalandaris.

Two ideas you develop echo in particular with my ethnological work. Could you explain the idea of islamization, with regard to the interaction between Islam and local society?

Generally my sense is that, as historians, we really should be extremely close observers of the local scene in order to really understand the ways in which people see themselves as Muslims or are seen by others as Muslims. But as historians, we have serious limitations in doing that. We could still be much more focused on local forms of life and on local forms of piety. The problem is that there are very few historical studies along this line. A new publication of collected essays in seven volumes was just published, called ‘A People’s History of Christianity’ (Horsley, Richard A., ed., 2005 Christian Origins. A People’s History of Christianity, Minneapolis: Fortress Press). This is a history of Christianity written not from the perspective of the church or from that of the authorities, nor of the theologians or the elites, but as we can see that history through the eyes of the people. We don’t have anything like that for Islam. With my research I contributed some things to such a project, but popular piety of the local type is really what needs our attention. What I mean by that is a sort of ethnographical history, we definitely need that focus.

Secondly, you insist on the distinction between Sufism and the cult of the saints at the beginning of Islam. Could you explain this idea, with regard to the origins of the cult of the saints?

On the one hand, we have a special mode of piety, a special form of religiosity, that developed among the urban middle class, an internalized form of piety that insisted on the need to explore within ourselves. But this can’t be a popular form of religiosity.

On the other hand, we begin to see what we call the cult of saints, just like in Christianity. These are popular cults that have nothing to do with Sufism. A local warrior or learned scholar dies, is buried, and then becomes the symbol of a particular village or town. And they all become automatically saints or a member of the family of the Prophet, whatever the reasons that led to sanctity. And sanctity is not confined to Sufism. So the idea is basically that these are developing as two separate phenomena: one is Sufism, the other is the cult of saints. But both flow into one another in a spectacular way, especially from the 5th Islamic century onwards. Eventually, many of the popular saints attempted to be or simply were Sufis. Analytically these are separate developments but they become completely interlinked with one another. And Sufism benefits greatly from this linkage.


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God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200-1550. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994. Paperback reprint: Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

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“Early Sufism in Eastern Anatolia.” In Persian Sufism: From its Origins to Rumi, 175-98. Ed-ited by Leonard Lewisohn. London: Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, 1994.

“Antinomian Dervish as Model Saint.” In Modes de transmission de la culture religieuse en Is-lam, 241-60. Edited by Hassan Elboudrari. Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1993.


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