Baron von Frankenberg reinvigorated Sufism in Australia when he arrived in 1927. (Supplied: Avatar’s Abode Trust Archives)
Baron Friedrich von Frankenberg was an unusual pioneer of the Sufi movement in Australia.
The German aristocrat was known as a bon vivant with an early and strong spiritual compass.
But his real quest for meaning came after he was conscripted to the German army during World War I.
“He prayed to whatever God he conceived, that if he could be released from the army he would devote his life to spiritual matters,” says Celia Genn, vice president of the Sufi Society of Australia.
While Sufism had been present in Australia well before 1927 — some of the cameleers who came from Afghanistan, India and surrounding countries in the 19th century were Sufis — the baron’s arrival reinvigorated the mystical religion.
And it signalled the start of the multi-ethnic blooming of Islam in Australia, which would expand when new arrivals from across Europe, Russia and Cyprus gathered after World War II to form a diverse group.
What is Sufism?
- Sufism, or Tasawwuf as it is known in Arabic, is Islamic mysticism
- Sufi orders can be found in Sunni, Shia and other Islamic sects
- Sufi rituals, such as dhikr (devotional chanting), encourage introspection and spiritual closeness with God
A ‘unity of religious ideals’
Baron van Frankenberg was “quite an extroverted character”, says Dr Genn, who completed her PhD on the history of Sufism in Australia.
It was a family connection that brought him to Australia in 1927, where he would stay until his death in 1950.
He was born to an Australian woman, Jessie Elliot, and into the German aristocracy on his father’s side.
The Turkish Sufi Mevlevi, also known as the Whirling Dervishes, practice movement-based meditation. (ABC: Clare Rawlinson)
The young baron was searching for spiritual direction when he first encountered Sufism — the mystical arm of Islam, concerned with an inwards, spiritual connection to God through meditation.
After his release from the army, he encountered Inayat Khan, the Sufi master who brought Islamic mysticism to the West, and whose writings were published in newspapers at the time.
Dr Genn says these writings prompted the baron to travel to France to study with Mr Khan in 1925 — an experience that cemented his commitment to Sufism.
The “training in how to explore the inner life really struck a note with him”, Dr Genn says.
He was drawn to the “unity of religious ideals … that honours all religions equally”, and wanted to tap into the wisdom that might be gained from learning about other religious traditions.
According to Dzavid Haveric, this plurality is a theme that defined Islam in Australia in the post-war years.
A ‘rather invisible’ Islam
The baron was a “pioneer of the Sufi movement in Australia”, says Dr Haveric, an adjunct research fellow at Charles Sturt University.
The German collected a large library of books of “oriental traditions and literature”, which Dr Haveric says formed “the core resource for Australia’s first Sufi group”.
He was an important example for Muslim traditions that would grow in later decades.
Following World War II, under the White Australia policy, Muslim migrants from Cyprus, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Russia made Australia home.
Ships started to bring “a polyglot multi-ethnic and multicultural human cargo”, according to Dr Haveric.
He writes that during the early post-war period, “Islam was ignored in the public arena simply because there was a small number of Muslims and they were in dispersed settlements.”
“Visible Islamic buildings like minarets didn’t exist,” Dr Haveric explained to RN’s Religion and Ethics Report. “The Muslim community was a rather invisible community.”
The decades following World War II were an important time in Australia.
The country signed the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1966, the White Australia policy was coming to an end and multiculturalism was becoming the focus.
Moving to Australia was an enriching experience for Muslim migrants, who “found Islam more pluralistic and more sophisticated”, Dr Haveric says.
Unlike their countries of origin, “they met Muslim fellows from many different ethnic, racial, cultural, sectarian and linguistic backgrounds”.
Sufism in Australia
Soon after his arrival in Australia, the baron settled in Camden, in south-west NSW with his Australian wife, Olive Pauline Ward Taylor, also known by her Sufi name, Lila.
The baron spread the Sufi faith from his home in Camden, NSW. (Wikipedia Commons: Richard Gifford)
The couple was well-liked — the baron’s generosity and learned nature attracted mureeds, or students, to his house, where they would work and study with him.
He had wide-ranging influence in the worldwide Sufi community, and in 1939 he organised the visit of a renowned Sufi leader, or Murshida — a woman who was a devotee of Mr Khan.
Murshida Rabia Martin was born Ada Ginsberg, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants to America.
“She made and felt an immediate connection with Inayat Khan,” Dr Genn says, and the two stayed in close contact through letters for many years until Mr Khan’s death in 1927.
Rabia Martin’s visit to Australia was significant because she provided a strong link between Australian Sufis and their founder, Mr Khan.
Murshida Rabia Martin was born Ada Ginsberg to Russian Jewish immigrants to America. (Supplied: Nekbakht Foundation)
After the baron’s death in 1950, he was succeeded in Australia by the poet and artist Francis Brabazon, a devoted student of Meher Baba, another early spiritual teacher who gained a loyal following in the west.
Several Sufi orders are flourishing in Australia today.
Dr Haveric writes that through their “thankfulness to God”, renouncing certain aspects of materialism and interfaith interactions, the various Sufi orders in Australia have become “anchored in the multicultural milieu”.