Ismail Hakki Bursevi
An brief introduction to his life and work
by Christopher Ryan
For the more detailed and extensive version of this biography, click here...
Ismail Hakki Bursevi is one of the great saints of Anatolia. He was born in 1652 in Aydos, a town in Bulgaria, then part of the Ottoman Empire. When he was three years old, his father brought him to great sheykh of the Jelveti Order, Osman Fazli Efendi. Ismail Hakki kissed Osman Fazli’s hand. In later years, Osman Fazli would refer to Ismail Hakki as ‘our student since the age of three.’
Ismail Hakki’s mother died when he was seven, and at the age of ten, his father took him to Edirne to be educated under Osman Fazli’s representative (halife), Abdul Baki Efendi. Here he studied grammar, syntax, rhetoric, logic, Muslim law, theology, scholastics, Koranic exegesis and Traditions (hadith). He was such a keen student, and competent calligrapher, that he copied by hand all the books which were entrusted to him. He spent two thousand drachmas, the whole of his inheritance from his mother, on buying books.
In 1673, aged 20, he went to Istanbul to join Osman Fazli who held numerous teaching posts as well as preaching at the Selim I Mosque and the Suleymaniye Mosque. Osman Fazli initiated Ismail Hakki into the Jelveti Order. During this time he studied Muslim law, as well as the Mathnawi of Rumi, and Jami’s Baharistan.
In 1675, Ismail Hakki was sent by Osman Fazli to Skopje (Macedonia) as a preacher and to establish the Jelveti order there. Osman Fazli gave him the following advice: “ I recommend to you above all to be just and patient. I don’t recommend you to have gardens and orchards, tekkes and many disciples: be Imam and by that be something! If you do not find an appointment or position, do some job or other which will give you enough to live on. And above all, be disdainful of the fortune with which others are favoured. Live by your labour, by your works, and pay attention to God who has spread out the world before you, and who has initiated you. Your faith will be your adornment.”
Ismail Hakki married a sheykh’s daughter in Skopje, and spent around ten years preaching and establishing the Jelveti order in the region. He was zealous in promoting the word of God and often denounced the behaviour of the population who it appears spent much of their time in the local taverns. The citizens complained to Osman Fazli who then advised Ismail Hakki: “My son, persevere in following the precepts of our religion and our order; stop directly criticising these envious people and content yourself with indirect criticism so that the example of your own life will confront them. Don’t go to visit anyone unless you are invited; content yourself with the believers who take pleasure in your company. Leave to God the chastising of the frivolous. Resign yourself ” etc., etc. It was difficult for Ismail Hakki to comply with this sage advice, and the complaints came anew, this time to the Sheykh-ul-Islam who summoned Ismail Hakki to Istanbul. The great pontif dealt kindly with the young sheykh and re-installed him in Skopje after many exhortations, but to no avail. After six years of ineffective struggle, Hakki was forced to leave Skopje for the neighbouring town of Köprülü. He kept in close communication with his teacher, and together in Edirne they once spent three months in seclusion studying Ibn Arabi’s Fusus al-Hikam.
In 1685 Ismail Hakki was made Jelveti sheykh in Bursa, thus beginning a long relationship with this former Ottoman capital. Osman Fazli, whose outspoken criticism of hypocrisy and corruption within the Ottoman ruling system resulted in his political exile, died in Cyprus in 1691. Ismail Hakki himself went on campaign with the Ottoman armies in the Sultan’s suite, taking part in a number of battles in the course of which he was severely wounded. Peace followed the Treaty of Karlowitz (1698). Ismail Hakki made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1700. He lost all his possessions and narrowly escaped death after the returning caravan was ambushed by bedouin brigands.
During this period Ismail Hakki spent his time teaching, preaching (in the Ulu Cami) and writing. In 1717, inspired by numerous visions of Ibn Arabi, he moved with his family to Damascus. Here he wrote as many as twelve books, which he dedicated and sent to friends in Turkey. After three years he began to long for Turkey, and as he put it in a couplet: ‘At times there blows a zephyr from the land of my dreams. Bring news of this rose-garden to the nightingale singing in my soul’.
On his return to Turkey he received an inner command to stop in Uskudar. He settled in Istanbul for three years, teaching and writing, and surviving assassination by a fanatical mob, eventually reaching Bursa around the end of 1722. He was over seventy years old, and on his return he began to relinquish the ties of this world, bequeathing his books and other possessions, finishing off his writings, and with what money he had, arranged the building of a mosque in the grounds of his tekke. He died peacefully in Bursa in 1725 and is buried in the small cemetery behind the mosque he had built.
In Turkey, Ismail Hakki Bursevi is revered as one of the ‘Büyükler’ – the great saints. He is also recognised as an eminent literary figure. He produced more than a hundred written works, mostly in the nature of commentaries. Among them, the 4,637 page Koranic exegesis ‘Rûh'ul Beyân’ is particularly famous – written, he says, ‘with the guidance of my spiritual father Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi’. His ‘Rûh-ul Mesnevi’ is a commentary on the first 748 verses of the Mathnawi. He also wrote Kenz-i Mahvi (The Hidden Treasure) and translated and commentated Ibn Arabi’s ‘Lübb’ül-Lüb’. His profound scholarship enabled him to work as easily in Arabic and Persian as his native Turkish. He was also a poet, writing under the ‘mahlas’ (pen-name) ‘Hakki’.
Christopher Ryan has been a director of the Chisholme Institute since its foundation in 1979. He studied Law at University of West Australia, and Turkish at Oxford University. He is a businessman, consultant and restaurateur and writer. His current venture is the Damascus Drum, a cafe and bookshop in Hawick. He is author of 'The Story of the Damascus Drum.'