Who is behind the war on Sufism?

Sufism is under attack across the Muslim world. Ehsan Azari Stanizai traces the troubled but inspiring history of Islamic mysticism.
Ehsan Azari
18 February 2011

On 25 October 2010 an al-Qaida-affiliated militant group turned a majestic Sufi shrine into a bloodbath in the Punjab province of Pakistan, detonating bombs hidden in milk cans and killing and wounding scores of innocent people. This was the latest in a spate of gruesome attacks on Sufis and dead Sufi saints this year alone, leaving hundreds of innocent people killed or wounded. Such violence has brought a new upheaval to Islam, shakes its ethical and moral foundations and reduces it to merely a radical political ideology. 

The ideological driving force behind this violence is religious extremism, which considers everyone outside its ideological league, Muslim or non Muslim, dead or alive, as an enemy and an infidel deserving to be destroyed. The fanatics blow up ancient relics, Sufi heritage, Sufi shrines and the Sufi way of life everywhere they can. They want to micromanage social, cultural and individual life. They condemn gatherings and ceremonies at Sufi saints’ graves, shaving beards, wearing charms, music and painting as heresy.

The history of Islam is not alien to violence against Sufism. The root of the current upheaval lies in Wahhabism, which has been gradually institutionalised from a tiny band of theologians into a political ideology by the Saudi ruling dynasty. The Wahhabi religious movement was originated by Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792), essentially to challenge the influence of the Ottoman Empire in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi petrodollars and the Pakistani military ruling elite have helped the spread of this fanatical form of Islam.   

Subsequently, the vision of this ideology was empowered in the middle east and south Asia by another extremist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which originally emerged in Egypt in the 1920s. The Brotherhood borrowed much of its ideological agenda, political structure, revolutionary features and violent persuasion from Marxist-Leninism. Like the latter during the Cold War era, the Brotherhood’s ultimate objective has been to topple the state by violent means and extend a radical ideology to the West. The Iranian revolution of 1979 gave further impetus to this ideology, which began to justify the export of Islamic revolution as an Islamic obligation everywhere in the world. 

Like Saudi rulers, secular Pakistani generals began to use the most lethal religious radicals for domestic security and as a tool to promote its foreign policy in Afghanistan and India. Pakistan served also as a gateway for the spread of Wahhabism in the region. At present they are pinching American coins in return for promoting sectarian genocide.

The war on Sufism is not a new phenomenon. Hussein Al-Halaj, a great Sufi poet and teacher was condemned for heresy when in a state of mystical trance he exclaimed, “I am the Truth”. He was cut to pieces and his remains were burnt by a mob in Baghdad in 922 AD. He was the first Sufi martyr. During the 17th-century Persian Safavid Empire, Sufis were suppressed, and while under the Indian Moguls it flourished, in the twentieth-century the Turkish secular leader Kamal Atatürk banned Sufi monasteries and Sufi rituals in Turkey.

Sufism (comes from Arabic noun, suf, literally meaning course wool, the Sufi is one wearing woolen garments) is the name of Islamic mysticism. The word Sufism was coined in the West for the first time by the German scholar August Tholuck in 1821. It has been divided into two practical and theoretical parts: To those who practice it, Sufism means a quick spiritual foray into a space where the presence of the divine could be experienced. To those who are concerned with its theory, it is a mystical and spiritual theology, a body of knowledge and an epistemology interwoven with Islamic metaphysical texts.

The Sufi philosophy was developed and promoted by medieval Muslim philosophers such as Ibn-Arabi, Averroës (known in Islamic world as Ibn-i-Rushd), Avicenna and Farabi, who, for their Islamic Aristotelianism, were often referred to as the Oriental Peripatetics. This school of thought was greatly saturated with Plato and Aristotelian metaphysics. The Sufis created a vast body of a literary and poetic heritage.   

As an elixir of wisdom and an intellectual Yoga, Sufism has been known, cherished and even practised in the West since time immemorial. It is hard to find a single great Western poet or thinker who has not been inspired by Sufism. Dr Johnson loved Sufi Oneness and pantheism; Voltaire in Candid saw Sufi philosophy as an antidote to the religious extremism of his time. Goethe loved Sufi poetry, Richard Burton and Robert Graves were keen on practicing Sufism. Sufism was cherished by Australia's greatest poet professor Alec Derwent Hope. Hegel draws on Sufi thought in his works. Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen was brought news of Sufi musicians and dancers - known as “Whirling Dervishes” - to Europe.

Nobel laureate, Doris Lessing is the doyen of contemporary Sufis in the West. She identifies Western admiration of Sufism since the 1960s as ‘a Sufi craze,’ and ‘Sufi bandwagon’. For Lessing, Sufism was a kind of universal feeling, emotion, a quick fix and an access with no intermediary. “Sufism is something one experiences on one's own,” she would say. In my own lectures in Australia and Europe, I have explored with enormous interest Sufi philosophy and literature.

The al-Qaida zealots and Pakistani militants will never win against Sufism. They might destroy their tombs on earth but cannot steal away Sufism from the hearts of people in the East and the West.   

The 13th-century great Sufi poet and the founder of the Whirling Dervishes, Rumi knew this. He believed that fanatics will never extinguish the Sufi torch or destroy Sufi tombs as he says “when we are dead, see not our tombs in the earth, but find it in the hearts of the people.” And the 17th-century Pashtun Sufi poet Rahman Baba, known in the West as the Nightingale-of-Peshawar said to the vandals: “We are all one body, whoever tortures another, wounds himself.” Last spring (2010), his mausoleum was bombed by the Punjabi Taliban.   

Rumi declared the Sufi manifesto of universal love, tolerance of nonbelievers, pluralism and interfaith harmony in one of his quatrains:

Come, come whoever you are,
An unbeliever, a fire or idol-worshiper, come,
Our convent is not of desperation,
Even if you have broken your vows a hundred time, 
Come, come again.                       

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