A Builder of Spirituality: Muhammed Lutfi Efendi, the Imam of Alvar

Question: Could you share your feelings about the Imam of Alvar (d. 1956), the saintly guide, with respect to his messages for society and his influence on you?

Answer: Actually, describing that great person properly is beyond the abilities of a humble servant like me. For this reason, I should confess from the very beginning that I do not posses a capacity of discernment to have deep insight into his life, world of thought, or his horizons of heart and spirituality. In addition, when that great personality passed away, I was only 16–17 years old. Although I spent some time near that pure wellspring, a young man at that age obviously cannot benefit from that great figure with an immense horizon in the real sense of the word. For this reason, it needs to be known that the points I am going to tell will be limited by my narrow comprehension, lack of ability, and childish consideration.

A Lustrous and Fruitful Home

The family of the Imam of Alvar was like a blessed source of spirituality. His father Huseyin Efendi and brother Vehbi Efendi were very great personalities. I did not see his father Huseyin Kindigi Efendi, but even one particular event I previously narrated to you will suffice to give an idea about the virtues of that blessed person:

One day, the Imam of Alvar and his father Huseyin Kindigi Efendi, who are from the lineage of the Prophet, traveled to the city of Bitlis in order to become disciples of Sheikh Kufrevi. As he probably discovered their potential immediately, Sheikh Kufrevi showed special care to them and gave them importance. Without any processes of spiritual journeying or Sufi retreats, the sheikh authorized both of them as spiritual guides, as the true worth of jewels is appreciated by masters of the field. So Sheikh Kufrevi was such a master who recognized the worthy jewels before him, and confirmed that they were eligible to guide people. In the face of this unexpected development, the disciples who had been near to the Sheikh until then expressed their protests at night and began to ask the two newcomers questions to see whether they were really eligible to guide others. In the meantime, the door burst open and the Sheikh came in; he addressed them as follows: “You disciples! Huseyin and Muhammed Lutfi Efendis did not need me. What brought them here is their very perfection.” If a person has nothing to do with spiritual maturity, what difference does it make, even if he owns a treasure equivalent of the Korah (a.k.a. Qarun)!

His brother Vehbi Efendi was also a sea of wisdom. He was predominantly a quiet person, but even his quietness had an influence that would cause different undulations in our souls. Both of my parents had deep respect and loyalty to them. Sometimes those great persons would come and stay in my grandfather’s guesthouse. My grandfather had a deep respect for them as well. Vehbi Efendi was older than the Imam of Alvar and passed away when I was about five years old. I think the Imam wrote the lines meaning, “I drifted apart from beautiful ones, now I woe with this longing…” after his brother passed.

The Touching Melodies That Light up Fever in Souls

The Imam of Alvar was a person with a deep inner world, a man of God overflowing with love and enthusiasm. His state at circles of remembrance was a living example of this richness of heart. Both the Naqshbandi and Qadiri orders inspired him, and it was possible to witness both types of remembrance in the Mosque. There used to be a crowded circle in the mosque. In Sufi tradition, the head of the circle goes to the contributors to teach them to say the words of remembrance. Since that blessed person was very old in those days, he would not go through the circle but sit somewhere, like the prime one among prayer beads and behold those in the circle from there. Anyway, a short while later those in the circle would become enraptured and unable to realize their surroundings. There would be some people who choked with tears and some even fainted. Despite his serious health problems, the Imam of Alvar would sit with folded legs (as in the Prayer) on the sheikh’s mat for two to three hours. Religious poems, eulogies in praise of the Prophet as well as litanies would be recited from his work, Khulasatu’l-Haqaiq (Summary of Truths), with a rhythm of a simple frame drum (daire). There was a Hafiz—memorizer of the Qur’an—with a very beautiful voice in the village. He was the one who beat the frame drum. At that moment, the Imam of Alvar would be oriented to God Almighty with his entire being. Sometimes he would be entranced with the sublime atmosphere generated by the hymns, effect a similar mood in those around him, and would kindle in hearts the fire of love for the Divine. When a few people lost themselves in ecstasy, or someone became enthusiastic with tearful eyes, this would pass to the other participants and form an atmosphere of love and enthusiasm in everyone. Such powerful atmospheres that even though I witnessed these in my childhood, I can say that I am still under their effect.

That blessed man was a devoted lover of the Prophet at the same time. When somebody who returned from Medina remarked near him, “I saw so many creatures with mange,” he reacted right away: “Stop that! Do not talk like this even of the dogs of Medina. For the sake of the Prophet, I am ready to be sacrificed for the mange of Medina!” He would say such things from the bottom of his heart, with his entire being, to such a degree that he was virtually melted in the spirituality of the Prophet, and passing into a state of fana fi’r Rasul (becoming immersed in the love of the Prophet to the degree of forgetting oneself). This deep love for the Prophet is reflected in his following poem:

O the Sacred Witness, O the Sun embellishing the universe
Your clothes are melodious, your eyebrows are lovely
A strand of your hair is dearer than the entire world
Your hair disseminates a pure fragrance to both worlds

Such eulogies in praise of the Prophet would often be recited in his presence; he and all the people there would burst into ecstasy. Sometimes he lamented in such a way and his voice rised to such a high pitch while reciting the following stanza that the place where he was would resonate with awe of God and everybody in the circle would shake:

This heart is so fond of you, O beloved: why?
Your beauty is shining like the bright day: why?
Your eyebrow is like the “two bow-length’s nearness to God”
Your face brings to our minds the chapter of ar-Rahman (The All-Merciful): why?

He Appreciated Everybody Virtuous

He was a master of verbal expression. He voiced the inspirations of his soul in different metric styles. However, in addition to being an authority on verbal expression, he would never be disturbed by sayings and poems of other great figures recited in his presence; he would even encourage that. For example, I heard Ketencizade’s following poem in praise of his master Sheikh Kufrevi being recited in the presence of the Imam of Alvar:

My dear master, spiritual guide, shining light,
My remembrance of God is the illumination in both worlds
All of my disciples agree with the hopeful prayers
Help us, O noble Spiritual Pole, the greatest Spiritual Helper, the king of all time
Never neglect these servants, O our dearest Sultan.

Normally, a feeling of envy could easily arise, but the Imam of Alvar trampled such negative feelings under his feet. He would salute any truthful words no matter whom they belonged to. I memorized many poems, including the following ones he would frequently recite:

Does one who seeks the Beloved struggle for his own life?
And can another who seeks his own life be in quest of the Beloved?
We have entered the path of love; we are lovesick,
O my heart, are you ready for this? (By Seyyid Nigari)

I found he had left his home already
The beloved Prophet passed away, leaving his headquarters empty
The bottles of love were broken, and the drinks spilt
The cupbearers left the scene.

***

On which mountain can I find that doe?
In what desert should I look for the eyes of that gazelle?
Just like a gazelle that lost her fawn,
wandering indecisively from desert to desert. (By Zihni of Bayburt)

As well as,

Growing tired of my life, doesn’t my beloved get tired of the torments?
Heavens burned from my sigh; doesn’t the candle of my will burn?
My beloved gives the cure to every patient;
why not me; am I not a patient?
My soul burns at the night of separation; my crying eyes shed tears of blood
My cries wake people; doesn´t my bad fortune wake up, too?
To your rose-like cheek, bloody water falls from my eyes
My beloved, this is the season of roses; do the rivers not blur?
I was keeping my grief secret; they say “Make it known to the beloved”
If I say this, I don´t know whether the unfaithful would believe or not
I was not interested in you, you made my mind perish
Wouldn’t that careless person reprimanding me be ashamed when he sees you?
Fuzuli is madly in love, and is always shameful in the eyes of folk
Ask what kind of love this is, isn’t he sick of it? (By Fuzuli)

I can even say that he would see these words no different than the fruits of his own mind and appreciate all of them. I think this is an important criterion in terms of giving an idea about his horizons, world of thoughts and feelings, maturity, and greatness.

Salih Özcan, a student of Bediüzzaman, related a memory about the Imam of Alvar, which I find very meaningful in terms of reflecting his maturity and level of thankful contentment. Brother Salih came to Erzurum in early 1950s and visited the Imam of Alvar. He told the Imam about the famous scholar Bediüzzaman and his works on faith. Brother Salih told the imam that they were disciples of Bediüzzaman and were trying to guide youths of the time with the works of their guide. On hearing that the Imam of Alvar responded: “I wish my eyes could see, so that I could join you as well.” Real virtue is being able to appreciate others’ virtues and being respectful toward them.

The Words Ringing in My Ears

I also would like to relate a few unforgettable memories of my own about that person I deeply feel the honor to have met. Here is one of them:

I was about fourteen or fifteen years old. I had a good friend whom I truly liked. One day he said, “There were such centers of spiritual teaching in Istanbul that they take someone to the top level of spiritual journeying within six months and make them eligible to preach.” My friend convinced me with these words. I packed my belongings without asking the teacher who was responsible for me and the great imam, and then left for the train station with that friend of mine. I would learn later that in the meantime another friend of ours, who was the grandson of Vehbi Efendi, warned my relatives about my intention to leave. When I extended my hand to the ticket booth to get my ticket, somebody suddenly caught me by the wrist. It was my father’s cousin and he took me back right away. The next day, my teacher told me that the imam wished to see me. I went to his presence shaking with fear. I had never seen him so angry before. He said, “I swear to God, if you had left, you would be perished!” These words he uttered are still ringing in my ears. For years I wondered, “Was my attempt really that bad that I would be perished if I had left?” and could not understand why he had said so. But in time, I started to somewhat understand his reaction. Possibly, he worried that a teenager could easily melt in an immense sea like Istanbul. Besides, leaving his blessed atmosphere without permission could mean losing. In addition, if that guide envisioned a certain duty for you to carry out in the future, you could not be where you should be by leaving for another destination. Therefore, I better understand now the intensity of his reaction and say, “Fortunately he did so and protected me under his spiritual shelter.” After making that warning, he made different complimentary remarks considering that I would be brokenhearted. I felt like an excited child whose pockets were filled with candies and decided to stay at that madrasa against all odds. Perfected guides’ treatment of others is different. That great figure fathomed the character of people before him well and treated them accordingly.

Here is another memory: We had newly started studying (the reference book known commonly as) Molla Jami and I went to him with some of my friends. A group of 5 to 10 rich people of Erzurum was sitting with him. He told them: “Now I am going to ask questions to my student. If he answers correctly, you will give him (this much amount of) money.” He asked from the parts I knew best, so I answered everything. Those rich men then gave me the amount that he had told them to give me. I think the total amount was two hundred liras. Considering the currency of those days, it was enough to send a man to pilgrimage to Mecca. He could not see how much I had due to the cataracts in his eyes. He asked how much money there was and I told him. Then he said, “This amount is too much for you. Let me give it to Demirci Osman Efendi so that he spends it for the needs of the students of the madrasa.”

While we studied in Erzurum, we were really poor and we sometimes could not find basic foods to eat, like bread and cheese, for a few days. My father gave me modest pocket money from what he earned as an imam, but it was too little to support a student. Most days, we had no money to buy bread. On such a day when we were starving, we went to the Sufi lodge, three or four students together. The Imam’s grandson Tayyib Efendi was also with us. There was a shed beside the Sufi lodge used for storing food. Through the spaces of the wooden wall, we saw watermelons inside. The Imam was praying inside. After a while, the door opened and he said, “Come in boys, let me slice a watermelon for you.” As we witnessed in very different examples, he was an immense figure of deep spirituality, understanding of others’ wishes and what passes through their minds, whose heart could sense beyond the physical reality.

In short, although I failed to fully benefit from him, I am so thankful to my Lord for the blessing of having known him.

I remember the day he passed away. My late father had come to Erzurum and we were resting in the house of my father’s aunt. All of a sudden I heard some distant voice saying, “The Imam of Alvar passed away!” I immediately broke into a run toward the madrasa of the Kurşunlu Mosque. When I arrived there, I saw my friends crying. From there, I went to the Imam’s house, which was in the neighborhood known as Mumcu. Sadık Efendi, who was the mufti of Erzurum, and the great scholar Sakıp Efendi had also come and personally washed his blessed body, not leaving this honor to anybody else. After the washing in a winter day, the body was taken to the village of Alvar and buried there. All the people attended the burial in spite of the severe winter cold. May God Almighty resurrect that great guide together with His Beloved Prophet and grant him eternal bliss in the highest Paradise of Firdaws, amin!

This text is the translation of Bir Gönül Mimarı: Alvarlı Efe Hazretleri

by Herkul-EN