Kosovo: Sufi mystics and a piercing 200-year tradition

Prizren, Kosovo - For a group of Sufi mystics, the advent of spring erupts in a clash of cymbals, guttural chanting, and a trickle of blood.

For hours several dozen men in the congregation have been chanting, swaying, and singing songs in Albanian, Turkish and Arabic. As the pace of the music quickens, Sheikh Adrihusein Shehu removes a small iron skewer known as a zarf from the mihrab behind him, blesses it with his lips, and inserts it slowly into the cheek of his 12-year-old son, Sejjid Emir. Several more children follow.

The annual ritual is a celebration of the birth of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first male to accept Islam. Held annually on the spring equinox, it is also a celebration of Nowruz, the Persian new year.

"We as believers each year turn toward love in this day, and continue our road to Allah, to live together, to respect all creation which he made, and to love one another," said Sheikh Shehu as he opened the ceremony, surrounded by visiting religious figures from around the region, from Turkey, and the United States.

Dervishes practice an ancient form of Sufi mysticism that focuses on the individual's relationship with the divine. Religious practice involves music and dancing, which are not allowed in mainstream Islam.

Four generations of Sheikh Shehu's family have presided over the Rufai Tekke, or house of worship, in Prizren, a charming town nestled below the mountains in southern Kosovo, just 22 kilometres from Albania.

Every Friday, Shehu presides over the zikhr, the Sufi devotional repetition of Quranic verses, that has been tradition since the Rufai Dervish order was established in southern Iraq in the 12th century.

"Our founder Pir Sejjid Ahmed Er Rufai made a miracle in his time to show others that God exists, and now we do this for tradition," Shehu's eldest son, Sejjid Xhemal, told Al Jazeera.

The swaying men in the congregation wear white felt hats with a black band. Some of the elders have small circular scars on their cheeks from years past when they were pierced.

As the chanting crescendos, Shehu removes a larger zarf from the mihrab, bathed in green light, and begins to bless it, slowly moving each segment across his lips. This zarf has a bulb weighing almost two kilos attached to one side.

Chains dangle from the bulb, making it look like a jellyfish when upright and swish when the mystics dance.

Ali Esghar, a mustachioed elder who has been participating in the ritual for about 20 years, moves the zarf between his palms and dances in the centre of the men circled around him.

At one moment Shehu is handed a scepter, which he uses like a hammer to push a zarf into the flesh above Esghar's right hip. He continues to gyrate, right back, left, back, right, with the zarf in his side.

Later, Esghar twists the spear into the area just above the centre of his clavicle. He appears ecstatic as a small trickle of blood emanates from his right cheek.

"It is a good feeling, I feel spiritually stronger," says Shehu's eldest son Sejjid Xhemal, 27. "I don't feel pain, you can see that I have only a little blood on my cheek," he said, pointing to a bit that had congealed on his trim beard.

Xhemal wants to be clear that contrary to widespread belief, the believers are not in a trance.

"We have been doing this with full consciousness since Ottoman times," he says. "It's just that we feel no pain."

Ethnic Albanians such as Shehu and most of his adherents comprise 90 percent of Kosovo's 1.8 million inhabitants. The vast majority practice a secular form of Sunni Islam, and Sufi adherents form a small minority of believers.

The order came to the Balkans in the 16th century when Kosovo was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, though the current branch was established in Kosovo in 1860.

Dervishes in Prizren had to weather decades of intermittent war in the 20th century: first the Balkan Wars, then the First and Second World Wars before being forced underground by Josip Broz Tito's communist vision for Yugoslavia.

But the Rufai Tekke helped revive Sufism in Kosovo. In 1974, Shehu's father Sheikh Xhemal founded an association of dervish orders that now has about 100,000 adherents.

Shehu's branch, or tarikat, is one of the seven practiced in Kosovo. It preaches tolerance and respect for all religions.

His message of peace is valuable in Kosovo, which is still recovering from the 1998-1999 conflict against Serbia, its former master. More than 10,000 people were killed and 90 percent of Kosovo Albanians displaced during the war, which ended after 11 weeks of NATO air strikes.

Following the conflict, Kosovo was run by the United Nations until declaring independence in 2008. It has been recognised by 110 countries, but its full realisation as a state is being hampered by Serbia, which still claims Kosovo as its own.

Many of the oldest and most hallowed monasteries of Serbia's Orthodox Church are in Kosovo, and church leaders are among the most vocal institutions condemning independence.

Kosovo society, struggling with the legacy of war and Europe's lowest employment rates, remains deeply divided.

Shehu urges his believers to look past ethno-nationality in order to forge a common future.

"All minorities of Kosovo: Bosniaks [Slavic Muslims], Serbs, Goranis [another Slavic Muslim minority], Turkish, are here today," he told to a group of visitors after the ceremony. "In Kosovo, we are all Kosovars, and once we understand that there will no longer be any problems."

Shehu's message of moderation also comes at a time when Kosovo, like most European nations, is trying to fight religious radicalisation, and show to Western Europe and the US that it is a secular country.

Between 150 and 300 Kosovars have joined armed groups in Iraq and Syria.

Seven people were indicted in early March for "inciting terrorism". In September, nine prominent imams were among 40 people arrested in a major police operation.

The Kosovo government has banned headscarves in public schools and says it is monitoring hardliners at home and abroad.

Throughout the festivities, Sheikh Shehu emphasises the importance of respect for all believers.

"We all have faith, but in form we are different," the Sheikh says, taking a drag on a cigarette after the ceremony.

"One goes to church, one to synagogue, one to the mosque. But we are all going because of belief in God. We must turn toward love, who gives you the right to hate?"