The Magazine

Getting to Know the Sufis

From the February 7, 2005 issue: There is a tolerant, pluralist tradition in Islam. We can't afford to ignore it.

Feb 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 20 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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JUST FOUR MONTHS AGO, thousands of mourners thronged the Grand Mosque in Mecca for the funeral of a famous Sufi teacher. This was an extraordinary event, given the discrimination against all non-Wahhabi Muslims that is the state policy of Saudi Arabia. The dead man, 58-year-old Seyed Mohammad Alawi Al-Maliki, had been blacklisted from employment in religious education, banned from preaching in the Grand Mosque (a privilege once enjoyed by his father and grandfather), and even imprisoned by the Saudi regime and deprived of his passport. That so many Saudi subjects were willing to gather openly to mourn him--indeed, that his family succeeded in excluding Wahhabi clerics from the mosque during the memorial--says something important, not just about the state of dissent inside the Saudi kingdom, but also about pluralism in Islam.

It's hard to know which facet of Al-Maliki's identity his mourners were turning out to honor--if indeed these can be separated. He was, first, a Hejazi, a native of the western Arabian region that was an independent kingdom before the Saudi-Wahhabi conquest in the 1920s. Home to Mecca, Medina, and the commercial port of Jeddah, the Hejaz hosts an urban, cosmopolitan culture very different from that of the desert nomads. Al-Maliki's funeral was the first for a prominent Hejazi to be held in the Grand Mosque in decades.

He was also a leader of the Maliki school of Sunni Islam, a classical school of interpretation that the Wahhabis have forced underground in Saudi Arabia. Prior to the imposition of Wahhabi fascism, the Malikis, along with the other three main schools of Sunni Islam, had maintained a respected presence in the Grand Mosque for many centuries. Dialogue had characterized relations among these schools of Islamic thought.

But perhaps most significantly, Al-Maliki was an eminent teacher of Sufism. This spiritual and basically peaceful form of Islam is anathema to the Wahhabis, who have ferociously suppressed it. With disciples in South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even the United States, Al-Maliki was an outstanding representative of moderate, traditional Islam.

Some Saudi dissidents saw a muffled demand for political reform in the public outpouring of admiration for Al-Maliki; he had attended a Saudi-government-sponsored national dialogue on political change in late 2003. Others viewed it as an affirmation of secret affiliation with the Maliki school. But many Saudis treated the massive funeral principally as a manifestation of sympathy for Sufism. Clandestine Sufi meetings have become commonplace in Jeddah, the hive of liberal reformism in the kingdom, and increasing numbers of young people have taken to Sufism as an expression of anti-Wahhabi defiance.

ISLAMIC PLURALISM is not a new idea dreamed up in the West and offered as a helpful cure for Muslim rage. It is a longstanding reality. The Muslim world comprises a spectrum of religious interpretations. If, at one end of the continuum, we find the fanatical creed of Wahhabism, cruel and arbitrary, more an Arab-supremacist state ideology than a religious sect, at the other end we find the enlightened traditions of Sufism. These stress not only intra-Islamic dialogue, separation of spiritual from clerical authority, and teaching in the vernacular, but also respect for all believers, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or other. Sufis emphasize, above all, their commitment to mutual civility, interaction, and cooperation among believers, regardless of sect.

Indeed, the further the distance from Wahhabism, the greater the element of pluralism present in Islam. Where the Wahhabis insist that there is only one, monolithic, authentic Islam (theirs), the Sufis express their faith through hundreds of different orders and communities around the globe, none pretending to an exclusive hold on truth. Sufis may be either Sunni or Shia; some would claim to have transcended the difference. Throughout its 1,200-year history, Sufism has rested on a spiritual foundation of love for the creator and creation, which implies the cultivation of mercy and compassion toward all human beings. These principles are expressed in esoteric teachings imparted through formal instruction.

Sufis follow teachers--known as sheikhs, babas, pirs, and mullahs (the latter, meaning "protector," had no pejorative meaning before the Iranian revolution)--but they resist the notion that religious authority should be based on titles and offices. Rather, Sufi teachers gain acceptance and support by their insights and capacity for transmission of enlightenment to their students.