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Sufism: Legitimate Resistance?

By G. Willow Wilson
Posted on Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 08:57:53 AM EST
Tags: Sufism, Politics, Islam (all tags)

The now-infamous Rand Report on strategies to promote 'civil democratic Islam' mentions Sufi Muslims as possible allies in the war against radicalism. Modern Sufism's tolerance of indigenous cultural norms; its rich tradition of poetry and song; and its emphasis on one's individual, emotional relationship with God, make it an appealing alternative to more rigid sects. But western patronage may actually be harming the ability of individual Sufi orders to counter extremist ideology in the Muslim world. Sufism itself, a more nebulous and imprecise idea than it first appears, may be too diffuse and complex to form a coherent pan-geographic resistance to Islamic radicalism.

There is no doubt in my mind--none--that Sufis form the first line of defense against radicalism in North Africa and the Middle East. In mosques all over Cairo, many of which have become little more than repositories of Wahhabi propaganda, one can find Sufi-made bumper stickers countering Wahhabi ideology with quotes from Imam Ali and alternative readings of popular Qur'anic verses. When Wahhabi evangelists preach on public buses and metro cars, the brave few who stand up and argue with them are nearly always Sufis, or come armed with Sufi rhetoric. In Isfahan, I met a group of young Sufis who had synthesized tawassuf, punk and traditional Persian music into one of the most astonishing subcultures I have ever seen; not exactly the sort of Islam the framers of the Revolution envisioned. On the Libyan Plateau, Berber Sufis staunchly resist the invasion of black head-to-toe polyester by flatly outlawing it in order to preserve traditional Berber dress. Yes, Sufis are doing the work most of the rest of us simply talk about. But is Sufism?

Here we begin to encounter the limits of terminology. 'Sufism' is a large tent that shelters ideas and people so varied that they are often in conflict. Egyptian Rifaa'i Sufis identify themselves as staunchly Sunni, despite the fact the Rifaa'i Order originated  in Iraq, and is identified by Iraqi Rifaa'i Sufis as Shi'ite. The Sufis I met in Isfahan maintained that all Sufis are Shi'ites, yet the average Iranian refuses to recognize Hafez himself as a Sufi. Arab Sufi orders, such as the Qaderis, tend to frown on the ecstatic, voluptuous poetry made famous by Turkish and Persian orders; and blame this art form for producing the highly sexualized Sufism of western pop culture, whose followers often do not consider themselves Muslim. The indigenous Islam of rural North Africa is deeply rooted in Sufi forms of worship--group dhikr that is sung or chanted rather than recited; the practice of saint-reverence and saint-festivals--yet few North Africans who are not active members of specific Sufi orders identify themselves as Sufi. So when it is only really possible to answer the question 'What is Sufism?' with more questions: Where? According to whom? In what sense?

Nor is Sufism a 'moderate' philosophy. There is nothing bloodless, compromising or watered-down about Sufi Islam as it is practiced in the Muslim world; on the contrary, passion and commitment are central to the ideology no matter what iteration of it one comes across. This is where western patronage has been damaging to the ability of Sufis to counter extremism; current western public opinion holds that a better Muslim is a less Muslim Muslim, and in an effort to paint Sufism as Islam Lite, western powers are steadily alienating the most popular and widespread Sufi order in the world from other Sufis and from mainstream Muslims. The Naqshabandi Order (also spelled 'Naqshbandi') was formed in the 14th century in Persia, and is the only Sufi order to trace its spiritual lineage through Caliph Abu Bakr rather than Imam Ali. Thought to have a following of over a million, the Naqshabandi Order is spread over four continents and a dozen languages. But it has recently fallen on hard times, in terms of public relations: the unprecedented level of cooperation (PDF) between the Naqshabandi Order and the Bush administration, culminating in this widely talked-up photo of President Bush posing with a Naqshabandi sheikh, has hurt the order's legitimacy in the Middle East. Two years ago, when an Egyptian news channel producing a documentary about Sufism approached a popular Naqshabandi sheikh for an interview, the sheikh's representatives returned a letter, in English, requesting three million dollars for the privilege; more recently, one of the Order's most prominent Cairene followers has been hit by a minor sex scandal. The glare of western prominence and prestige has, ironically, accomplished the opposite of what it was intended to do; instead of helping the Order make inroads against extremism in the Muslim world, it has helped extremists paint the Order as westernized, decadent and the servant of two masters. 

The lesson to be learned here is this: Sufism's inherent flexibility and diversity is both its greatest asset and its Achilles Heel; it makes Sufism an excellent grassroots antidote to radicalism, but also means that Sufism is difficult to either define or promote on a global scale--and, perhaps, should not be defined or promoted on a global scale, if doing so decreases its utility and authenticity at the local level. If the West wants to foster Sufism, it will have to do so much more delicately than it has done; and with a much deeper understanding of its complex role in spirituality and politics, which changes from region to region and even from city to city. 

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Tags: Sufism, Politics, Islam (all tags)
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Grass Roots vs. Cult Followings(none / 0) (#1)
by dmz on Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 09:37:08 AM EST

Sufism or Tasawuf would be compromised by very large orders. Inevitably, large orgs become political and the esoteric qualities are sacrificed for the exoteric opportunities.

This is the nature of large groups.

The Maizbhandari of Bangladesh seem to be one exception. Maybe in some parts of Africa and Indian subcontinent, Sufism is so firmly established that fundamentalism cannot make firm headway to challange it as status quo conscience for the people.

Sheikh Hisham is a fine man and an excellent Shaykh in my opinion. He overplayed his hand in the US trying to match what went on in Britain with the Sufi Muslim Council. In Britain it works. I watched a suit an tie SMC pundit debate a fundo on Channel 4 and it was obvious who was addressing secularity and who was obviously a radical and out of step.

Will a thobe make the SMC person more 'agreeable' to traditional muslims? Less of a sell-out? I hope people learn to look less superficially into their political ideas.

 Sheikh Hisham overplayed his hand by claiming that 80% of American mosques contain or are lead by Saudi wahhabi (terrorists was the implication and the interpretation in the media) elements.

This alienated him from other Muslims in the U.S. of course and eventually within his own order.

Critiques of Sufism's flexibility are really a sort of history that occured with Sufi Order of the West, its wide appeal with hippies and post-hippie new age people who dragged SOW to universal worship. There is an element of that in the Chishti order but Pir Vilayat, one of Inayat Khan's sons, went haywire with Sufi Order of the West to make it more appealing to Americans and Euros. Ironically, I would say they ended up being rather hostile to Islam in their universal worship. Pillars of Islam were not reinforced.

This flexibility is not embraced by all Sufi taruq in the US. Many hold the foundations of Islam as the prerequisites to Sufi Path: Shariat,Tariqat, marifat, Haqiqat.

Loosely: Law, Devotion, Knowledge, Truth.

great(none / 0) (#2)
by hakimpey on Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 10:11:56 AM EST

A few points(none / 0) (#3)
by Julaybib on Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 02:11:33 AM EST

1. The UK government have been courting Sufis, via the Sufi Muslim Council (SMC), in order to sideline Muslims opposed to the Iraq war. The SMC publishes articles which are anti-Wahhabi written by the Hudson Institute, which as well as being Neo-con central, has also engaged in demonising Muslim hip-hop for inciting youth towards 'extremism', meaning Muslim hip-hop sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The SMC also claim to be "apolitical" yet pictures of its leaders standing next to leading UK politicians appear on the front page of its website. The British Muslim Forum, another Sufi group, revamped its website last year - it is now run by a former civil servant.

2. The fastest growing Sufi organisation in the UK is MUQ. I am not aware of how closely linked this group is to the SMC. However, Muslims who join this group generally show a very high level of commitment (and this is what the research says, not me). So any ideas that Sufism makes Muslims less Muslim is, I agree, a delusion based on politicians in the UK listening to idiots like Martin Bright editor of New Statesman.

3. As Carl Ernst points out, Sufis engage in power discourses just like any other Muslim group in their bid to be seen as the 'true' Islam. They are, in this respect, no more 'unwordly' than Deobandis, Salafis or whoever. My preference is for Sufi Ahl-as Sunnah Islam, but I feel very uncomfortable with the way Sufis and the UK government seem to be getting into bed together.

4. Let's not forget, Sufis are just as capable of spreading looney ideas. Just have a skip through Ian Dallas' website (Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi al-Murabit to his friends) and read some of his views on Catholicism, for example, or simply find a scholarly account of his group's history. He counts barristers and even one quite reputable Muslim scholar amongst his current/ex followers. I once has a polite bash at one of Mr Dallas's supporters, who was in the papers over his support for whackier Freemason conspiracy theories and suddenly my blog had a new reader - a friend of Ian Dallas (who assumed I was ignorant and/or dim).

5. Is Sufism the answer to extremism? Muslims with their feet on the ground, brain engaged and an appreciation that compassion and justice are at the centre of their faith are our best best, in my humble opinion.

Divide and Rule(none / 0) (#4)
by nalhamid on Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 01:23:26 PM EST
The west feels that the only way to deal with the “Muslim Threat” is to encourage splinter groups and their followers, while discouraging other mainstream Muslim sects.

The Wahabi sect is not a threat in as much it requires its followers to stand proud and equal
to all others. It will resist occupation of its countries, exploitation of its people or its wealth.

The core problem with Islam and the west is the west wants to do what it wants without a peep from us. Any resistance is considered terrorism and is dealt with accordingly.

When Jews were persecuted by the west in the 1500’s and beyond, they (the Jews) found safety in the Islamic countries. You only stopped your systematic official discrimination  against the Jews and other races after world war II. Christians and Jews lived among Muslim in general harmony.

We do not have a problem with you, as long as you respect us as equals and refrain from trying to occupy our countries. Why is that too big of a request?

You in the west demanded democracy must be practiced everywhere and only then will all the worlds problems end. Palestine did what you told it and voted in Hamas. This was not acceptable to you, so vote but vote in what I tell you to vote in.

Islam didn’t come to existence yesterday. It’s a religion over 1400 years old and has over 1.5 Billion followers on this planet. Islam is the fastest growing religion ever.

In our Book The Quran a whole chapter is named after Mary the mother of Jesus. She is considered one of the most pious women ever. We believe Jesus is the Mesiah. We believe his birth was miraculous. Not a single chapter is dedicated to The prophet Muhammad’s mother, not even a verse.
It is time to stop telling us what to believe in or follow and time also for you to reflect on where you are standing on the field of battle between right and wrong.

Its our Book too(none / 0) (#5)
by dmz on Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 03:14:12 PM EST

and you can stuff the attitude mr. or ms. hardcore Muslim.

Who are you addressing? Who are you representing?

In your imagination.

[ Parent ]

Addressing the comments(none / 0) (#6)
by yursil on Wed Jan 31, 2007 at 05:59:52 PM EST

 My comments are specifically addressing the comments about the most distinguished Naksibendi order, specifically as a student of the tariqat.

 The first thing to understand is that you seem to be addressing the Naksibendi Hakkani order which is different than the numerous other Naksibendi orders including the Mujaddadi (a Deobandi order) or the Owaysi order.

 The largest is most likely the Naksibendi Hakkani order, which has numerous deputies and representatives, but very few look at the teachings of the Master of the order of today, Shaykh Nazim al-Hakkani.. The one who has given authority to all the deputies, including the ones who made political moves with Bush  or Britian that we hear about today.

 I don't think the Naksibendi order has 'fallen' on 'hard times'.  Politically, certain deputies stars may be falling, while others are rising. 

 I think the best way to understand the order is through its spiritual teachings.  But... If you want to focus on the practical aspects then it is good to understand it through how it was described by my Shaykh, a Khalifa of Maulana Shaykh Nazim...

And that concept was to understand that Shaykh Nazim has numerous deputies, he is watching and giving permission to all to begin their spiritual journeys at whatever levels and approaches they are ready for.   There may be one deputy which is praying 24x7, if that is what you seek go to that one.  There may be one deputy which is doing dhikr all day long, if that is what you seek find that one.  There may be one deputy in politics on one side, if that is what you seek, follow that one.  There may be one which is backbiting, if that is what you seek, follow that one. 

 Maulana Shaykh Nazim knows about it all and giving some permission for those to achieve something beyond this dunya.  But sometimes a little bit of dunya is what they need to progress to the next level... in that case.. he permits it to occur.  He has also stopped it when it goes beyond certain boundaries..  so I think you will see an end to such Bush efforts for some period of time, at least while our Shaykh Maulana is with us to help all of us.

May Allah grant him a long and healthy life, he is in his 80's now. 

Shokran jeziran Yursil(none / 0) (#7)
by G. Willow Wilson on Wed Jan 31, 2007 at 10:54:09 PM EST
Thanks for your observations and insights.

[ Parent ]

Not all Mujaddidis are Deobandis(none / 0) (#8)
by Yusuf Smith on Mon Feb 05, 2007 at 11:38:13 AM EST
As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

While there may be some branches of the Mujaddidi branch of Naqshbandiyya which are Deobandi, by no means all are.  The Mujaddid in question was Shaikh Ahmad Farooqi Sirhindi, also known as Mujaddid Alf-Thaani, or the Renewer for the Second Millenium.  Shaikh Nazim, and numerous Turkish shuyookh and others who are not Deobandis have silsilas going through him.  (The Mujaddidis of England, who follow Shaikh Asif Hussain Farooqui in Manchester, are definitely of a Deobandi inclination though.)

[ Parent ]

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