The Sister of Sheikh Efendi, who promotes interreligious dialogue
A colourful turban frames Feride Funda G-Gencaslan’s smile. This is a young woman who brings words of peace to the world. Her charm is attractive, her determination awe-inspiring to many men. She speaks with the gentleness and strength of someone who knows what she is doing and why. I met her during the world assembly of Religions for Peace on Lake Constance, in Lindau, Bavaria, Germany, and we have not left each other since.
Feride was born in Berlin, the daughter of migrants from Turkey, who are practising Muslims, but not excessively. She grew up in a modern environment, and was interested in all religions. At the age of 14, she became interested in Buddhism, struck by the figure of the Dalai Lama. She played bass in a rock band and acted in a theatre company.
Along the way, she came closer to the religion of her origins, and strengthened her faith in Almighty Allah, but was not satisfied with the institutional level, the way Islam was presented, and women’s rights. She experienced the strong contrast between official Islam and how she felt inside, so searched for explanations in books to go deeper.
At the age of 15, upon her encounter with Mawlana Grandsheikh Nazim El Haqqani Naqshbandi, the Sufi spiritual master, everything changed. Master Mawlana came to Berlin at the invitation of Feride’s brother, the future Sheikh Eşref Efendi. His teachings on the way of peace moved many young people who gathered in the Sufi Naqshbandi community.
Feride’s encounter with the Sufi community was very strange at first, but “it was full of light and love”. Something, however, still kept her away. She sought a logical explanation, not just emotional satisfaction. At one point, at a convention full of people, Master Mawlana addressed her directly, saying, “Islam is beauty!” This message won her over and opened her heart. For Feride, Sufism became an ecstatic and aesthetic understanding.
During her years of study, she listened to the master’s speeches on cassette tape, duplicated them, translated them into German and disseminated them. She was a modern girl, and no one understood that she was experiencing a profound change in her spiritual life. At university, she studied art history and linguistics, which helped her on her way: “Allah Almighty speaks to me through art which is what is dearest to me,”
In the meantime, she spent time in the Sufi community in Berlin, which is attended by people of different religions, and commenced her inter-religious exchange programs. She met the boy who would become her husband, Hajji Emrah Gencaslan, and only covers her head while she prays.
Just a few years after graduating, the two married and decided to go and live in a Sufi community, and dedicate their lives to spirituality and help those in need. Feride tells me with a mixture of firmness and tenderness, “We made a life choice, which is to help people to live their faith, no matter what, we only need to help them to experience a deep spiritual life. In addition, we try to show them the Sufi way to live in peace with their faith, with themselves, with a light and bright heart. We are addressing people of faith, wounded by life, who have lost the will to believe”. At this point they decided to cover their heads, both her and her husband, as requested in the Koran and by Master Mawlana, as a symbol of Islam and as protection from evil.
Today, Feride is president of the Sufi Center Rabbania and spokesperson for the Naqshabandi order; she is permitted to speak officially in public about her faith and Sufism. Few women do, yet she is a representative. Her work involves supporting the poor, organising events around the world with the Sheikh and the dancing dervishes, and presents the Sufis in dance as a form of prayer.
“As a woman I feel much supported by my community and Sheikh Eşref Efendi. He says men and women must express their talents. Allah gives talents and to be closed to women would be to close oneself to Allah Almighty. There are many people who do not respect me in my role, but I have a task and I have to carry it out throughout the world, and go beyond all disrespectful comments or gestures. My authority comes from above and I have to experience it to the full”.
Feride was a jury member at the 23rd Religion Today Film Festival in 2020, and a member of Women of Faith for Peace and a promoter of the Religions Prayer Week for the Environment in Germany. Her clear eyes are a source of inspiration, saying “You can find happiness and satisfaction in your practice of faith, when you look through the lens of beauty. Practice beauty, learn to look at beauty, find the beauty hidden in every part of creation”.
by Lia Beltrami
A writer and director