Sufi Muslims and Islam

Cultural Insights, politics and culture — By on January 29, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Could the West gain a foothold in the battle against Islamic terrorism by working to strengthen Islam? Yes, under certain conditions, suggests this intriguing essay in the Boston Globe. According to the author, Philip Jenkins, the West has a natural ally in the Sufi Muslim movement, which is a more mystical branch of Islam that has traditionally battled the fundamentalists in their faith.

Many observers see a stark confrontation between the West and Islam, a global conflict that entered a traumatic new phase with the Iranian revolution. But that perspective ignores basic conflicts within the Muslim world itself, a global clash of values over the nature of religious practice, no less than overtly political issues. For the Islamists — for hard-line fundamentalists like the Saudi Wahhabis and the Taliban — the Sufis are deadly enemies, who draw on practices alien to the Quran. Where Islamists rise to power, Sufis are persecuted or driven underground; but where Sufis remain in the ascendant, it is the radical Islamist groups who must fight to survive.

Around the world, the Sufis are struggling against violent fundamentalists who are at once their deadly foes, and ours. To look at Islam without seeing the Sufis is to be ignorant of a crucial clash of civilizations in today’s world: not the conflict between Islam and the West, but an epochal struggle within Islam itself.

Who are the Sufis?

If the word “Sufi” conjures up any images for Americans, they normally involve mystical poetry or dance. Thirteenth century poet Rumi was a legendary Sufi, as are Turkey’s whirling dervishes. But these are just the most visible expressions of a movement that runs deeply through the last thousand years of Islam…

They are, potentially, the greatest hope for pluralism and democracy within Muslim nations. The Sufi religious outlook has little of the uncompromising intolerance that characterizes the fundamentalists. They have no fear of music, poetry, and other artistic forms — these are central to their sense of the faith’s beauty — and the brotherhoods cherish intellectual exploration. Progressive Sufi thinkers are quite open to modern knowledge and science.

From their beginnings, too, Sufi traditions have been religiously inclusive. Wherever the orders flourish, popular Islamic religion focuses on the tombs of saints and sheikhs, who believers venerate with song and ritual dance. In fact, they behave much like traditional-minded Catholics do when they visit their own shrines in Mexico or southern Italy. People organize processions, they seek healing miracles, and women are welcome among the crowds. While proudly Islamic, Sufi believers have always been in dialogue with other great religions.

This open-mindedness contrasts with the much harsher views of the fundamentalists, who we know by various names. Salafism claims to teach a return to the pure religion taught by the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, and in that early Islamic community Salafis think they can find all they need to know about life and law. The most powerful and best-known version of this back-to-basics ideology is the Wahhabi movement that emerged in the 18th century, and which in modern times has built a worldwide presence on the strength of Saudi oil money. At its most extreme, this exclusive tradition rejects knowledge that is not clearly rooted in the Quran and Islamic legal thought, and regards other religions and cultures as dangerous rivals lacking any redeeming virtues. Al Qaeda and its affiliates represent an extreme and savage manifestation of this fundamentalist current…

Nobody is pretending that building bridges with Sufis will resolve the many problems that divide the West from the Islamic world. In countries like Afghanistan or Somalia, warfare and violence might be so deeply engraved into the culture that they can never be expunged. Yet in so many lands, reviving Sufi traditions provide an effective bastion against terrorism, much stronger than anything the West could supply by military means alone. The West’s best hope for global peace is not a decline or secularization of Islam, but rather a renewal and strengthening of that faith, and above all of its spiritual and mystical dimensions.

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