NOTEBOOK: Sufism meets the millennium bug

Followers of a Muslim mystic are preparing for the end of the world in a small Lebanese village - much to the irritation of the local mayor
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The Independent Online
Sir ed-Dniye feels a bit like the end of the world. The road runs out at the end of the village, beneath cold poplar trees and the towering heights of the 9,000ft Qornet es-Sauda mountains. In the main street stands the old Palace Hotel - built at the height of the French mandate, all stained glass and massive 1930s armchairs, empty and spotless, as if waiting for a Parisian general to drop in for cocktails. And then there are the Naqshbandi families who have stocked up on oil and food and bought horses and mules in preparation for - yes - the possible end of the world.

They are, for the most part, Sunni Muslim Lebanese, Sufis by faith, but they include a smattering of foreigners, including a German who calls himself Younis and who can be seen each morning, wearing a green turban and leading his horse down a muddy laneway below the cliffs. They are inspired by 77-year-old Sheikh Mohamed Nathimm al-Qubrussi, who fears that catastrophe may soon overwhelm the people of the world. Which is beginning to worry the mukhtar (mayor) of Sir ed-Dniye, who wants tourists, not end-of-the-worlders, in his pretty little village.

Future visitors to Sir ed-Dniye - always supposing it survives - will not find it difficult to locate the chain-smoking neatly-moustached Mahmoud el-Sheikh, because his little restaurant is called The Mukhtar's Cafeteria. "Some of our people in the village started hoarding supplies because of the lies of the Naqshbandis," he says. "We've put a stop to that. We asked the German where he gets his money from when he makes a withdrawal from the bank, and he says `Allah provides'. The money comes from outside Lebanon."

The mukhtar lists the Naqshbandis' fears without a smile. "They worry about floods, that a satanic force will cut off electricity - never to return - and the reappearance of the Mahdi, after which there will be no electricity, no cars, no life as we know it. That's why the followers of Qubrussi have started buying horses and stocking up on oil, corn and even horse-carriages. This has caused a lot of trepidation here - so I am keeping an eye on them."

As the mukhtar speaks, a young man enters. "Hi, I'm Bill," he says in an Australian accent. "I'm a student of Islam. Any Muslim who claims they know the future is blasphemous because God says in the Holy Koran that no one knows the day of judgement or when he's going to die. Look at the 35th Sura in the Koran." Bill studies Islam in Australia - his parents are from Sir ed-Dniye and his real name is Bilal - but he happily offers to find the German called Younis. The local Lebanese Sufis gingerly open their doors a crack to local journalists but don't want to talk about the supposed disasters to come.

Some men can be seen cutting down broken trees outside the mosque - the result of violent storms in September - and just round the corner a massive building lies crushed to lumps of concrete and rubble, as if the victim of an earthquake. "That was a school," says Bill matter-of- factly. "It stood there for 30 years and then just fell down two weeks ago. No one knows why. Luckily there were no kids inside." How very odd, I say. Bill seems not to notice.

The Naqshbandi - named after the medieval Mohamed al-Bukhari, who was known as the Shah of Naqshband - are Sufi mystics who have largely been ignored by the dictators and generals of the Middle East because they avoid politics. Another of their sheikhs described them as "curing the heart so that the outward and internal person is subservient to Allah". Their brotherhood originated in Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan, and spread to the Volga basin, Dagestan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. There are followers in Syria, Egypt and Turkey: the late Turkish president, Turgut Ozal, was a Naqshbandi.

Sheikh Qubrussi was born in Larnaca, Cyprus - he has a home in Turkish Cyprus today and also, according to some Lebanese clerics, in London - and is often, so say his closest supporters, misunderstood. Qubruss is Arabic for Cyprus.

So what are we to make of "Younis" when we eventually find him sitting on a carpet in the damp, cold basement of a village house, offering us nuts and pastries and Miranda orange juice? He talks about an "anti-God", about "bad energy". "We are following the holy saint of the Naqshbandi. People don't understand that when you have God and God loves you, he organises everything for you. It is so beautiful." Speaking of himself in the third person, he continues: "God told Younis to come to him and Younis went to him and a light came down. This light made Younis into a lion."

Alas, Younis is no lion. He is very ill; he has serious breathing difficulties and appears to be suffering a fever. In real life, his name - he spells it in my notebook in a shaking hand - is Dieter Wicktorowitz from Hamburg. "Electricity will finish before the end of November," he predicts. "An atomic bomb may explode. Everything - petrol, electricity, money - will end. Satan will come - and there will be fire."

"Bill" is upset. A young woman from the house Younis has rented shakes her head. She, too, it transpires, is a student of Islam; and does not agree with the German's apocalyptic forecasts. Younis/Dieter puts on his green Turkish-style turban. Sheikh Qubrussi is his leader, he says. And he coughs darkly into his chest. Can we get him medicine, I ask? Take him to a hospital? "Only God can cure me," he replies. Medicine is not allowed. But he gives us a telephone number in Beirut where a friend of Qubrussi lives - telephones will presumably survive the catastrophe - where we might contact a Naqshbandi colleague, an Englishman known as Ibrahim (real name Martin).

I call the number. Ibrahim is in Cyprus, but Sheikh Qubrussi's biographer, a Lebanese journalist called Rashid al-Hassan, answers the phone. "People sometimes use their own interpretation of the Sheikh," he tells me. "He is simply a sage, an enlightened person. People from the West sometimes take him literally at his word, with their own interpretations. Sheikh Qubrussi is a clairvoyant person who has a very strong feeling that important things are going to happen - that electricity is very vulnerable, that the computer problem is going to be much worse than governments think. The Sheikh thinks the storms and solar movements might interfere with the earth and compound problems, which might result in the collapse of electricity in big cities. But he has no control over how people interpret him - the people you talk about may be 50 families, but he has thousands of disciples."

So the 2000 computer "bug" has caught up with Sufism. Sheikh Qubrussi has been condemned by the Sunni mufti of Tripoli - the nearest big city to Sir ed-Dniye - as "a person who takes advantage of moral weakness", but Mr Hassan insists that Sufism has always been attacked by the Muslim establishment. "It is more complex than saying the Sheikh doesn't have the authority to predict. All his sayings are documented. He wouldn't say anything outside the doctrines of Islam. He's just a poor Sufi - but he has a big following and he's respected."

Mr Hassan promises to check on the health of Younis. Meanwhile time, and the millennium bug, will tell us whether Sir ed-Dniye will turn into ashes or the mukhtar's tourist dream.