Robert Frager: an old American and a new Sufi

Robert Frager: an old American and a new Sufi

Robert Frager studied psychology and founded his own school in California. After a zikir ceremony, he met with the Turkish dervishes and was very impressed. he has been a member of the Jerrahi community ever since.

August 01, 2010, Sunday/ 15:32:00
He is an American professor of psychology, a former Jew, a new Muslim and a Jerrahi sheik. Can all these seemingly contradictory words come together to tell the story of a man?

Yes, if this is the life of Robert Frager. Frager, who is the founder of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology and the author of “Heart, Self and Soul: The Sufi Psychology of Growth, Balance, and Harmony,” is known in Turkey as “Sheik Ragıp.” Frager spoke to psychology experts at Kim Psikoloji last Saturday and gave us an interesting interview on his life.

You established the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in 1975. What was the starting point for the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology?

It is an academic institute that provides graduate and postgraduate training to students. Before I established the institute, I was interested in a number of areas such as meditation and yoga. I lived in Japan and learned aikido. I and a friend of mine were discussing what we can do for new students and what training we can provide to them. We concluded that we should provide a two-faceted training to students by teaching them yoga, aikido and other physical disciplines and religious doctrines as spiritual doctrines. In 1975, we founded the institute with almost no funds and with only 17 students. Currently, the school has grown considerably and has students from all over the world. Its basic philosophy: Education must target all aspects of human beings. It should not focus only on mental faculties. It must also concentrate on the human soul. At the same time, education should be able to effect changes on people. Otherwise, we face what the Quran refers to as a scholar loaded with information, who is likened to a donkey loaded with books. The purpose of my school is to change and transform human beings.

You established the institute five years after you were introduced to Sufism. What was the impact of Sufism on the institute? Can we say, for instance, that it has made contributions to it?

I hope that it has made contributions to me, first. If it has any effect on me, I would be a good teacher and a good executive at the institute.

You are a Jerrahi sheik and known in Turkey as Sheik Ragıp. What changed in your life after you met with Muzaffer Özak Hocaefendi, the head of the Jerrahi order?

It is hard to describe how I changed, but I can say it was an interesting moment. We had wanted to see Muzaffer Efendi and his dervishes as our guests in the US. We were willing to see the zikir (remembrance of God) ceremonies at Stanford University. (The institute is located opposite the university.) There were numerous women with headscarves and men with skullcaps. When I saw them, I thought, “These should be the Turkish dervishes.” At that moment, I was the president of the institute and I was very busy. As I was talking on the phone, the door of my room was ajar and a man passed by the door. He did not stop, but we caught each other’s eyes for an instant from that the small gap. Suddenly, time stopped for me. It was a very strange experience. It was as if that man knew everything I had done in the past and even the phone call I was making at that moment. I wished he were Muzaffer Efendi. Because if he were a dervish and Muzaffer Efendi were his sheik, I would not be able bear with it. Because it would have been something very powerful.

What impressed you so much at that moment?

What I saw in him at first glance was wisdom and power. I had met a host of spiritual guides because of my position at the school. I had known numerous Jewish, Christian and Buddhist mystics. Many of them had taught me many things and some of them I had liked very much. But Muzaffer Efendi was totally different from them. What I felt was that that teaching affected all my life. I could feel it even in the first year. When I heard that he would pay a visit to our institute, I would cancel my entire program so that I could spend some time with him.

When did you see him again?

He came to the institute again one year later. We greeted them at the airport, giving them gifts. What I knew by heart was that I loved the dervishes and Muzaffer Efendi. I had no information about Sufism until I heard an interesting conversation between a young woman and Muzaffer Efendi. “Can an American be a dervish?” she asked Muzaffer Efendi. He listened to her attentively and replied, as if to reflect like a mirror what she asked, “Yes, an American can be a dervish.” Obviously, this was what she had intended. Then, the woman asked, “Can a person living in the US be your dervish?” Listening carefully once again, he replied, repeating the question, “Yes, a person living in the US can be my dervish.” Finally, the woman asked, “Can I be your dervish?” and started to cry. Muzaffer Efendi said, “You have already become my spiritual daughter.” When I heard this, I thought to myself, what if I could become his spiritual son? I was confused, and the woman’s crying had affected me deeply, and I went to my room and cried secretly. During that day, I would go to my room to cry whenever I remember that moment. These cries were different. They were not coming due to sadness. Rather, they came from a deep enthusiasm.


‘Crying is good. We all cry’

How long did it last?

In the evening, I asked one of the dervishes to come to my room. And I asked him, “Can I be a dervish of the sheik?” and started to cry again. “Crying is good. We all cry,” the dervish said. The next day, no one said anything to me and I had no idea as to what happened. There was a zikir ceremony on the next night. Then, I thought about whether I could attend the ceremony. But I realized that I did not know anything about zikir. After the zikir, Muzaffer Efendi said some supplications. Like everyone, I closed my eyes and raised my hands during the supplication. I did not understand anything he said, but it was a strange experience. It was as if light was pouring from somewhere down on me. Then, Muzaffer Efendi said, “This supplication is for you, and you are being accepted to the order.”

What were your ideas about Islam at that time?

I had strange ideas in my mind on the night I was accepted to the order. I still did not think I should stop being a Jew. And I still practiced yoga and meditation. These were my parts of me and I continued to preserve them. If they had told me to quit them, I perhaps would not have been able to comply. But after the supplication, no one said a single thing to me implying that I should do anything. Still I was aware that this would eventually happen, as it was a natural process. It felt that I was traveling on a dangerous road with ups and downs.

When did you become a Muslim, then?

I had professed faith on that night, but it took several months for me to comprehend what it really meant. What did being a dervish or a Muslim mean? Should I pray? How should I do it? I did not know anything. In March, I professed faith, and a dervish came from New York in April. And I started learn how to pray.


Sufism taught me that everything is in one’s heart in a short time

There are cases in which psychology, which is a social science, can benefit from positive sciences. You argue that 21st century psychology should focus more on the spiritual beliefs of man. Have you received reactions from positive scientists?

Sure. When I started to show interest in transpersonal psychology, I was working at the University of California, and I had a rising career for 10 years. In retrospect, it sounds crazy, but after 10 years I decided to establish my own school. Because I believed that psychology should accommodate spiritual traditions as well and we could not do this at that university.

As a Western scholar and a professor of psychology, which aspects of Sufism’s impact on human psychology impressed you most?

Sufism is not being dramatic. It means being a real man. Some people may have great spiritual experiences, but this is like watching a movie. After the movie, nothing changes and everything stays the same in life. Few films can make one a good father or mother. The progress one can make in real life is much more important than such special spiritual experiences. Such as treating the people at work positively and doing one’s responsibilities at work better.

You are an American and your wife is a Turk. How did you meet?

I met my wife at the Jerrahi lodge in New York. At that time, she was visiting the same lodge.

You are also interested in sports. You have the rank of seventh dan in aikido, and you even taught aikido for some time. Does your interest in aikido continue?

I learned aikido from its founder in Japan in 1964. I still teach aikido. All my psychology students are supposed to learn aikido from me. I also teach aikido to businessmen. What I learned from the Japanese is that they carry everything in their belts, but from Sufism I learned that everything is in one’s heart.

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