Kenan Rifai

Kenan Rifai was a major figure in late Ottoman Sufism who navigated the transition from the Ottoman caliphate through the Republican period into the era of Turkish secularism. He can be viewed as a traditionally educated but modernizing figure, combining an expertise in Arabic and Persian texts with an interest in modern French literature. He supervised the transformation of his branch of the Rifai Sufi order into a spiritually oriented civil society movement that includes prominent women leaders in Turkey. This work is not a technical demonstration for scholars; rather, it is a close transcription of how a learned Ottoman Sufi would have explained the significance of the Masnavi to an audience of students in oral conversation. Kenan Rifai interprets Rumi’s Masnavi in Rumi’s Muslim religio-cultural context. Rather than treating Rumi as an isolated figure who transcends all cultural and religious identities, this commentary situates him in terms of the main Sufi traditions and presents him as his principal heirs understood him. As the only English commentary on Rumi’s Masnavi available in print, thanks to the meticulous and beautiful translation by Dr. Victoria Holbrook, this highly accessible volume is an exceptional contribution to the understanding of a key figure in Islamic mysticism, Jalal al-Din Rumi, as seen in the Ottoman Sufi legacy culminating in Kenan Rifai.

Kenan Rifai (Thessaloniki 1867 – Istanbul 1950). His father, Abdulhalim, was a member of a dynastic Turkish family from Plovdiv, and his mother, Hatice Cenan (Khatidje Djenan) was the key person who opened the gates of moral and spiritual world to him. She introduced her son to the guidance and supervision of her murshid (spiritual guide), Sheikh Edhem Efendi. Having graduated from Galatasaray High School, he was given a position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while, he studied law at the university.

He worked as a director for Provincial Directorates of National Education in various Ottoman cities and as a principal for a High School in Medina. Returning to Istanbul, he worked as a French language instructor at Boys’ College of Teachers, as a Council Member at Scientific Research Center, the Principal at Dar-ush Shafaka High School (a prestigious school dedicated to orphans) and a member at the Education Council. During the time when he was the Principal at Medina High School, he was in the service of great sheikh (Sheykh-il Meshayikh) Hamza Rifai. After four years of exclusively endowed spiritual training and guidance, he was given the permit to teach and guide, thus became a “murshid”. He began to teach his murids (his aspirants i.e. followers) Islamic Mysticism and Sufism at Altay Lodge in Istanbul that her mother had built. In addition to his native language, Turkish, he was fluent in French, German, Arabic, Persian, Greek, Circassian and English.

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