TCS Daily

Sufism and the Future of Islam

By Stephen Schwartz - February 10, 2005 12:00 AM

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- As the year came to a close, in an elegant residence in the capital city of this Central Asian ex-Soviet republic, Sheikh Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf, the 52-year old, former grand mufti, or chief Muslim cleric for Central Asia, spoke in a manner seldom heard from Islamic community leaders inside the United States. He began by declaring that Muslims worldwide need to study and take responsibility for the problem of Islamist extremism. He also spoke appreciatively of visiting Washington.

He then remarked, in a colloquy on how U.S. leaders should formulate global policy and strategy, "Sufism, our Muslim spiritual tradition, enjoys support from the American authorities."

This belief, which seems naïve at best, is easy to understand, given that certain Washington voices have advocated such an approach. In a recent confidential study, a Defense Department contractor recommended that one of seven major strategic goals for Western success in the Muslim world consist of backing Sufis, adherents to the eponymous movement, as an alternative to radical Islam.

Similarly, in March of last year, a conference at the Nixon Center in the capital heard the West's preeminent academic expert on Islam, Bernard Lewis, answer how the Bush administration might improve dialogue with Muslims: "I would suggest that they should talk to sheikh [Muhammad Hisham] Kabbani." The leader one of the largest groups of Sufis, Kabbani has been an outspoken supporter of the United States against Islamist radicals.

Clearly, as America refines its leadership in the war on terror, some aspects of Sufism may have increased in relevance. The basic questions are two:

· What is Sufism and where is it geographically distributed?

· What are its relations with Muslim radicalism, and can it indeed be used
as an American policy and strategic asset?

Sufi history. The term Sufism is traced by some to the Arabic word "suf," or wool, denoting the rough garments worn by ascetic Muslim mystics, and by others to the Greek word "sophia," or wisdom. In Arabic Islamic parlance, Sufis typically refer to their discipline as "tasawwuf," or purification of the self. Sufis are also widely known as dervishes.

In their teaching, Sufis trace their history to two of the outstanding companions of the prophet Muhammad: Abubakr and Ali. Both were among the four original successors to Muhammad, or caliphs, as rulers of the Muslim collectivity -- Abubakr is also considered the progenitor of Sunni Islam, and Ali that of the Shia sect. In this way, the Sufis assert their theological legitimacy as well as their historical continuity. Sufis may be either Sunni or Shia; some would claim to have transcended the difference.

However, a woman, Rabiya al-Adawiyya, was the earliest-known exemplar of the "faith in divine love" that most Sufis cite as the foundation of their tradition. Rabiya died some 180 years after Muhammad founded Medina, the Muslim ideal city. The passion of Rabiya was expressed in verses celebrating God, and her gratitude to the deity for permitting her love to exist. She wrote, "I have never worshipped God so that I would be rewarded; nor have I prayed to be saved. If I did I should be an ordinary servant. I pray only because I love God with all my soul. To weep and cry out for God's mercy would be for nothing; for all I want is to approach God and dissolve my inner self in Him."

This summary of tasawwuf evokes similar themes in Jewish and Christian mysticism, both of which were historically influenced by contact with Sufism. Conversely, Sufism drew extensively on its encounters, during the centuries of expanding Muslim conquest, with Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Turkic and Mongol shamanism, Buddhism, and the Confucian and other Chinese sects.

Many, but not all Sufis belong to an organized order or tariqa, similar to Christian monastic institutions and to the Jewish schools of Kabbalah and sacred communities of Hasidim. Students in the Sufi orders follow religious mentors, whose positions are likely to be inherited. Instruction is a lifelong commitment, with progress through successive levels of knowledge. In the Muslim world, little of Sufi doctrine is offered to the broad public; in the West, where Sufism has acquired a wider, mainly "New Age" milieu of aspirants, much more is propagated through books, magazines, videos, lectures, and other media. But Western Sufis tend to be more highbrow than the usual sort of spiritual seeker; while Madonna claims to follow Kabbalah, the novelist Doris Lessing became a Sufi.

Sufis practice many distinct versions of a ceremony called "remembrance of God," or zikr. One example of zikr involves continuously turning on one foot, as practiced by the Mevlevi Sufis, the so-called "whirling dervishes," who are followers of the Farsi classic poet Jalaludin Rumi. Zikr may involve prayer, chanting, silent meditation, singing, dancing, and other physical exercises, including forms of martial arts, and is supplemented by reading, memorization and recitation, seclusion, and lectures and sermons by teachers. Some Sufis partake of collective meals, and nearly all provide charitable services, usually food and shelter, to the poor.

In addition, Sufis in Islamic societies are almost always Muslims by faith, while Western Sufi proselytes often remain non-Muslim. At the western and eastern extremes of the Islamic world, in French-speaking West Africa and Indonesia, and in the "northern" Muslim lands, i.e. the Balkans, Turkey, and Central Asia, Sufism is less formally organized, becoming a more diffused, generalized phenomenon encompassing local majorities. In Arab Muslim countries, it is typically an elite pursuit.

Geographical distribution. Sufism in Muslim countries is obviously the most significant element of this picture. The main centers are French-speaking West Africa, Morocco, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iraq (particularly its Kurdish north), the Balkans, Turkey, Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia -- in other words, the bulk of the Islamic world.

The main orders in size and local importance are the Qadiris, Naqshbandis (among whom sheikh Kabbani's group is numbered), and the aforementioned Mevlevis. These are ubiquitous, counting tens of millions of adherents nearly everywhere, with the latter two orders also present in the West. All of these comprise "sober Sufis" and are orthodox Sunnis. The Yasawis and Bektashis are significant in the Turkic and Balkan countries. They are much more unconventional, known as "ecstatic Sufis" and, in the Bektashi case, are extremely modernist; there are three million Albanian Bektashis.

The Bektashis are Shias and particularly committed to social justice; they promote secularism, public education, and the emancipation of women, who often lead their rituals. They alone, as a Sufi order, permit consumption of alcohol. They are also the only authentically Muslim Sufi group to have maintained a substantial history in the United States. Their great modern master, Baba Rexhep Beqiri, immigrated to the Detroit area after the establishment of Communism in Albania. But they remained obscure, teaching only in the Albanian language, until the very recent emergence of a second, Albanian-American generation, which has taken tentative, and highly promising, steps to express themselves in the English they know as natives.

Other major orders, looking across the Muslim map, include, in Black and sub-Saharan Africa, the Tijanis and Idrisis, the latter distinguished for their historic battles with Wahhabism, the ultrafundamentalist official religion of Saudi Arabia. The Sa'adi-Jibawis, Shazalis, and Badawis are widespread through Arab North Africa. The Chishtis spread Islam through India, where they remain strong, via peaceful preaching and exemplary works. The Rifa'i Sufis in Iraq and the Balkans are known for body piercing and other ecstatic practices borrowed from the shamans accompanying the pre-Muslim Mongol conquerors of Baghdad, who took the city in the 12th century. The Halveti Sufis engage in periodic withdrawal from the world, and have fostered many offshoots. The roster of Sufi orders is at times dizzying in its complexity. In Iran, where the Sufi classics form a great part of the national literary canon, the Nimatullahi order, which adheres to strict Islamic law, is the main organized Sufi entity.

Muslim Sufis often belong to more than one order. Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukhari, an Uzbek Sufi who lives in Jerusalem, noted in a recent interview with me his affiliation with the Naqshbandis, Qadiris, and Mevlevis. A direct of descendant of Imam Bukhari, who was one of the most influential of the early Muslim figures as a collector of hadith, the oral teachings of Muhammad, Sheikh Bukhari is a peace activist whose biography may be viewed at He expressed pride in his extensive relations with Israeli intellectuals (he speaks Hebrew and English along with Uzbek and Arabic).

Opposition by radicals. Sufism has long been despised as heretical by Islamic fundamentalists, and is especially loathed by the Wahhabis and their followers throughout Sunni Islam. Possession of the Sufi classics, mainly composed in Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish, is prohibited by the Saudis, and adherents of the tradition are imprisoned and otherwise sanctioned by them; in the past they were massacred.

The Jerusalem-based Sheikh Bukhari described to me the occasional harassment he suffers from Arab radicals: "They attack me because I invite non-Muslims to our zikr, and accuse me of being a Baha'i and a Mason." Both are dangerously loaded reproaches for Muslim fundamentalists, since Baha'is are viewed as apostates from Islam and Masons as powerful conspirators serving the West.

Still, he adds, "my family has lived in Jerusalem for four centuries, since we were sent from Central Asia to teach the Naqshbandi way, and none of the Arabs would dare try to expel me." In Saudi Arabia and in other extremist states like Iran, Sudan and Syria, the Sufis flourish, either underground or legally, partially as a countercultural phenomenon.

The Sufi classics are widely read even where banned. At the Library of Congress, during the National Book Festival in Washington last year, Iranian author Azar Nafisi cited the names of the most famous of them. They were doubtless mainly unknown to her hearers on that occasion: Ibn ul-Arabi, a Spanish Arab; Rumi, who some claim has become the most widely read poet in the West; Fariduddin Attar, whose classic The Parliament of Fowls was rendered into English by Geoffrey Chaucer; and Muslihuddin Saadi. All three of the latter wrote in Farsi. Many, many more are known to Muslim readers, having written in every language spoken among them.

Ibn ul-Arabi, known as "sheikh ul-akbar" or the supreme teacher, is best known for his verse,

"My heart is a pasture for gazelles and a convent of Christian monks,

"A temple for idols and the Ka'bah [in Mecca] of pilgrims,

"The Tablets of the Law in Torah and the Book of Qur'an.

"I follow the religion of Love, wherever Love takes me,

"There is my religion and my faith."

Outside the territory ruled by Riyadh, radical regimes have sought to coopt Sufis, generally with little success. In a typical attempt to assimilate Sufism into a local power structure, Sheikh Bukhari was offered a job in the formerly-Jordanian, now-Palestinian Waqf, or pious foundation, which controls the Dome of the Rock (or al-Aqsa mosque) and other Muslim holy sites in Israel. He refused, and thereby hangs a Sufi lesson for the West.

Sufism: support for Muslim progress, and/or a Western asset? Can Sufis serve as allies in the modernization and democratization of the Muslim world? In some cases, yes. But slipshod formulations and simplistic illusions also surface when this concept is discussed in Washington and elsewhere.

Sufis emphasize, above all, their commitment to mutual respect, interaction, and cooperation between differing religions. But some Sufis are combative. Serious clashes between fundamentalists and Sufis occurred in Afghanistan, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and, most recently in Fallujah. Sufis suffered extraordinarily under nearly all Communist regimes, but could not be wiped out. They survived Russian and Serbian imperialism, and they have survived repression in Chinese-occupied Turkestan. The Uzbek capital, Tashkent, today includes a large memorial complex to shehids, or martyrs of Islam, at the hands of Russian colonialists, both tsarist and Soviet. Many were distinguished Sufis.

The virtue and agony of Sufis and other Muslims under attack has been immortalized in Russian literature. The most notable example comes from Tolstoy, whose short novel Hadji Murat describes the Chechen combat of the 19th century. The lesser-known but brilliant Soviet-era author Andrey Platonov wrote a novella, Dzhan, that describes in genuinely shocking terms the effect of Stalinism on Muslims in the borders of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; it is one of the most affecting works produced by the Soviet cycle of horrors. Both may be read in English, to the profit of those seriously interested in the conflicts between Slavic aggressors and Islam.

Still, in the broader context, the pluralism and moderation of Sufism may indeed play a significant role in the ongoing transformation of the Muslim world. In Turkey, Sufism has always been close to power, even after it was officially suppressed as "backward" in the 1920s, and mainstream politicians such as former president Turgut Ozal, an ethnic Kurd, have been Sufi adherents. In Syria and Sudan, Sufi orders could very likely help accelerate transitions away from dictatorship.

Iranian Sufism, on the other hand, is so deeply embedded in that country's culture it is difficult to imagine it becoming a distinct civic force. Shia reformers, many of them traditionalists who never intellectually accepted Khomeini's scheme for clerical rule (which was without precedent in Islamic history) could overshadow Sufi teachers in dismantling the present Tehran regime. This is especially possible if the new government in Iraq embodies an Arab Shia alternative to Khomeinism, as most close readers of Iraqi Shi'ism, and its outstanding representative, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, expect.

It is all to the good if Sufism is reinforced in the Islam-wide battle for the soul of a religion, and for the restoration of pluralistic Muslim thought. Another positive aspect of the Sufi legacy resides in its aforementioned and extensive networks for charitable relief. A study commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development, as yet unpublished, has suggested that obligatory Muslim charity, or zakat, required of all believers in the faith of Muhammad, could save new Muslim democracies from committing excessive resources to social welfare systems. The Sufi orders have already demonstrated how such a parallel to President Bush's "faith-based" charity concept functions effectively, in most of the countries where they work openly. Sufi orders have played an important role in collecting donations for victims of the recent South Asian tsunami.

But it would be an error to believe that Sufism can or should become a direct agency of political change, or an implement of Western strategy, in the transformation of the Islamic world. "Official Sufism," whether financed by the U.S. or not, would no more be appropriate than the merging of the state and the Catholic religious orders, such as the Franciscans, Jesuits, or Dominicans, in such countries as Nicaragua, Poland, or the Philippines. The esoteric nature of Sufism, which is necessarily private and personal, must be respected. Those are the lessons of the Jerusalem Sheikh Bukhari's rejection of a seat on the Palestinian Waqf, and it is in their spirit that Westerners sincerely seeking the betterment of the Islamic world should approach him and the millions like him.


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