A Catholic priest from the US, who was influenced by 13th-century Islamic scholar, poet, and Sufi mystic Mevlana Jalaluddin al-Rumi, converted to Islam and changed his name to Ismail.
Born in 1955 in the US state of North Carolina and raised in Los Angeles, Craig Victor Fenter went to a Catholic school at the request of his family and became a pastor.
Before converting to Islam, Fenter taught religion classes at US universities for a decade.
But in time, he began to have a feeling of spiritual void. In 2004, he crossed paths with Esin Celebi Bayru, Rumi’s 22nd generation granddaughter, during a program in the US.
After learning about Rumi and Islam, he visited Konya in 2005 at Bayru’s invitation, watched Seb-i Arus — the “wedding night” when Rumi reaches God — ceremonies.
Fenter, very impressed by stories, the Sufi dance known as the Sema ceremony, and the spiritual atmosphere during ceremonies, converted to Islam in 2006.
Religion very important to my family
Speaking to Anadolu Agency about his conversion to Islam, Ismail Fenter said he was raised as a Christian since childhood.
“Religion was very important to my family. My grandmother wanted me to be a pastor. I went to the seminary to learn the priesthood,” he said, adding that he used to go to church every Sunday.
He said many things did not make sense to him then.
“I believed in God but something wasn’t right. The information I was trying to teach my students afterwards didn’t make any sense to me. So I spent most of my life searching. I used to teach at the seminary, but I didn’t believe in what I was teaching.”
“I quit and left the church. I went back to California with my family and became interested in music. There was a lot in music, but my heart was empty. People’s applause was great, but something was missing,” Fenter noted.
He went on to say that with the advice of a teacher, he met Bayru, who was in San Francisco for a program.
“I told her: ‘I feel myself at the bottom of the ocean.’ I said: ‘I don’t know where the treasure is.’ She said to me: ‘You have already found the treasure because you sought it.’ This sentence impressed me a lot. Then, on Bayru’s invitation, I came to (Turkey’s central province of) Konya in December 2005 and watched the Seb-i Arus ceremonies,” Fented added.
Fenter also said he felt something “special” while watching the whirling dervishes, noting that they also went to the Mevlana Museum when he was in Konya.
My heart ripped open
In Konya, Fenter also took lessons on Islam and Sufism from Nadir Karnibuyuk, a Sufi teacher he met at the ceremonies.
“I stopped and watched him (Karnibuyuk) and looked around while he was praying. … Then he called me to pray (as well). Not knowing what to do, I walked towards the ‘Niyaz penceresi’ (wishing window),” said Fenter, adding that he started praying.
“Then something happened. I don’t know what happened, but I was stunned. I felt like my heart was ripped open and I was crying. … I felt like Rumi was calling me. I cried for hours.”
At that moment, Fenter said he felt like that place was where he needed to be.
“Rumi’s way is the way of Prophet Mohammed, I knew that this was the truth, I became a Muslim the next year,” he added.
He then visited Konya every year, as he believed that this was the right place that he can learn more about Rumi.
Following Rumi’s path is different from living in the US, he stressed, saying that he then decided to move to Konya, after a conversation with a young man.
“One night, a young dervish (Rumi follower) asked about my family and I said: ‘My parents are dead.’ He looked at me and said: ‘We are your family.’
“That was one of the most important things someone told me. That’s why I kept coming to Konya, and then settled there,” he added.