As a religious and social institution, as well as a center for spiritual development, the First Albanian American Bektashi Monastery (the Teqe) could never have achieved the distinction it possesses today without the saintly magnetism of Baba Rexheb, an individual whose life story is noteworthy if only on account of the vast panorama of events that he witnessed during his lifetime. He was born at a time when Albania was an Ottoman province; by the time he was twelve his homeland had achieved self-determination, only to be soon after plunged into the destruction of the Balkan and First World Wars; he was nearly thirty when Albania became a kingdom and nearly forty when the Italians annexed it to their empire. He saw the rise of Communism, the devastation it caused to his beloved Sufi Order, and he lived to see freedom again restored to his motherland.
Any serious student of the Balkans surely knows of Albania’s special relationship with the Bektashi Order. Ever since the traumatic suppression of the order during the infamous Vak’a-i Hayrîye of 1826, Albania (chiefly the southern part of the country) was destined to be one of the few remaining bastions of Bektashism in the Ottoman Empire. Numerous dervishes and babas fled Istanbul and other locations throughout the Balkans to the relative safety of Albanian lands, where the sympathies of the local population afforded a measure of protection from the Sultan Mahmud II’s enforcers. Prior to the era of the Tanzimat – when the restrictions against the order gradually eased – Bektashi dervishes carried out their rituals in a concealed or semi-clandestine manner, often under the guise of belonging to non-Bektashi orders. Nevertheless, by the 1880s, many Bektashi tekkes were in unguarded operation throughout Albania and their number increased yearly. In 1920s, Bektashi tekkes were so pervasive in southern Albania that one European traveler was forced to note that while north of the Shkumbin River Bektashis were only 1 in 10 out of the total Muslim population, to the south they were 9 in 10!
It comes, then, as no surprise that one of the most celebrated figures of 20th century Bektashism, Baba Rexheb Ferdi, hailed from an area of southern Albania that was noticeably bestowed with a robust Bektashi presence. The future baba of America was born into the arms of a respected Muslim family living in the southern Albanian town of Gjirokastër (Ergiri). His father, Refat Beqiri, was a local mullah in the charming old mahale of Dunavat. Refat’s family had originally migrated to southern Albania from the Kosovar town of Gjakova via the important central Albanian city of Elbasan. Baba Rexheb’s mother was a woman deeply attached to the Way of Haji Bektashi. Both her maternal and paternal uncles were Bektashi babas of considerable reputation. The later was Mustafa Baba Qefshi (d.ca. 1878), who, after spending time as a dervish in the tekke of Shemimi Dede in Krujë, was appointed spiritual guide of the Xhefaj Baba Tekke located on the outskirts of Elbasan. The former was Ali Hakkı Baba, a man whose life deserves further discussion, particularly given that his very prayer was believed to have been responsible for the birth of his grandnephew, the future Baba Rexheb. To be frank, given that Baba Rexheb spent the first forty years of his life in a world immersed in Bektashism, it would be fitting to present the background of his immediate predecessors.
Ali Hakkı was born in the city of Elbasan sometime following the outlawing of the Bektashi Order in 1826. As a baby he was blessed by a certain Baba Salih, a Bektashi mürşid who had recently come to Elbasan after the demolition of his tekke in Veles/Köprülü. In his youth, Ali studied in the city’s medrese where he struck up a close relationship with Mustafa (Qefshi) Balteza. The two young men developed an interest in Sufism and resolved to go to the tekke of Melçan (near Korça) to take the hand of Baba Abdullah and thereby enter the Bektashi Way. They were given a cordial welcome and in the following years they regularly visited the tekke. After they attained the rank of dervish in the early 1850s, the two friends parted ways. Ali traveled to the tekke of Haji Bektash in Anatolia, while Mustafa went to Krujë.
When Dervish Ali Hakkı arrived at the Pir Evi, the dedebaba was Haji Ali Turabi Dede (d. 1868). He remained there for seven years and was assigned to the post of türbedar to the tomb of Haji Bektash Veli. In 1861 word arrived that the position of spiritual guide for the influential Asım Baba Tekke (otherwise known as the Teqene e Zallit) outside of Gjirokastër, had become vacant with the passing of its baba. To address the needs caused by this vacancy, the dedebaba conferred the rank of baba on Ali Hakkı and dispatched him to Gjirokastër.