I don’t remember when I first read Samiha Ayverdi’s name. Perhaps it was in a footnote in one of the numerous works of the noted German Sufi scholar Anne-Marie Schimmel, or in an article on pioneering Turkish women writers. What I did know, when I first came across a book by her in the early years of this century, was that she was a novelist and a chronicler of Istanbul in late Ottoman times, as well as a Sufi intellectual from a period when such figures weren’t remotely fashionable in Ataturk’s Turkey. She had barely been translated and was probably forgotten except by a handful of Western friends and local disciples.
Born in 1905, Ayverdi lived a life not dissimilar in its essentials to those of her Kemalist contemporaries, though their ideologies were often in opposition. She was an educated member of the elite, didn’t wear a headscarf, and enjoyed all the privileges of a liberal, modern Turkish upper bourgeois milieu. She married young, divorced early, returned to her family home with her daughter, and published a number of books in various genres. At a fairly young age, she met Kenan Rifai, a Sufi teacher who changed the course of her life by bringing her back to what is now described as a moderate Islam, which she practised for the rest of her long life and saw as a defining element of a Turkish identity, as it brought together various ethnicities within the country. When Rifai died, she became the leader of his group of followers. Though like many Sufi teachers Rifai had often been accused of a syncretism that deviated from the norms of conservative religion by accepting other sects into its fold, his disciple prayed five times a day, and fasted during Ramadan. Ayverdi also established the celebration of Rumi’s anniversary in Konya and would later reclaim public Islam as a potential force that transcended all borders and could unite diverse cultures in a common cause against a vaguely defined rank of enemies.