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
The history of Sufism is filled with examples of interfaith fusion, in contrast with the rigid separatism of the Islamic fundamentalists. Balkan and Turkish Sufis share holy sites with Christians. Central Asian Sufis preserve traditions inherited from shamans and Buddhists. Sufis in French-speaking West Africa adapt local customs, and those in Eastern Turkestan borrow from Chinese traditions such as Confucianism and Taoism, as well as martial arts. In the Balkans, Turkey, and Central Asia, Sufis have accepted secularism as a bulwark against religious intolerance and the monopolization of religious opinion by clerics.
The mode of life followed by Sufis, who are also known as dervishes, is as varied as their geographical distribution. Some retire into seclusion, living on the grounds of tekkes or lodges where Sufis typically meet weekly for meditation, chanting, and other rituals, known as zikr or "remembrance of God." Others give up their worldly possessions and wander as pilgrims. Yet most Sufis in the Muslim world maintain ordinary working lives, and some have become rich; it was said that when Sheikh al-Maliki's funeral was held in Mecca, private jets choked Saudi airports for days. Sufism has also exercised an influence, if a limited one, on intellectuals and spiritual seekers in the West.
Among Western experts at the State Department and in academic Middle East Studies programs, Sufism is often dismissed as "folk Islam," echoing the denigration voiced by the Islamic clerical establishment. This is paradoxical, for although there are regions where Sufism is the prevalent form of Islam and its influence is seen in a lack of strict observance, Sufis are more often than not sophisticated in their breadth of reading and worldview. In some countries, such as Egypt, Sufis are sometimes derided as credulous bumpkins, but in others, like India, they tend to be viewed as an elite.
Western experts' disdain for Sufism, however, is worse than paradoxical. It indicates a remarkable blindness to a cultural resource profoundly relevant to the possible growth of pluralism and tolerance--and therefore the emergence of democratic cultures--in the Islamic world.
JUST WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP between Sufism and the prospect for political progress in the Muslim nations? At the risk of grossly oversimplifying complex phenomena, it may be useful to distinguish three different patterns.
(1) We have already seen how, under conditions of oppression, Sufism in Saudi Arabia has become something of a channel for cultural resistance and political opposition. The Saudi case is not unique. In several places, Sufism has nourished resistance to oppressive regimes. The Sufi always prefers peace to war, and nonviolence to violence. But Sufis are also fighters against injustice. As the dean of Western historians of Islam, Bernard Lewis, puts it, Sufism is "peaceful but not pacifist." Some Sufis have been famous for their involvement in jihad, although the 19th-century Sufi and leader of the early Algerian opposition to French conquest Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi famously commented, "The Sufi does not go gladly to jihad." Al-Jazairi himself preached, and showed by example, that protection of non-Muslim civilians (in this instance, French colonists in Algeria) was required of Muslims fighting a Christian invader.
Similarly, in Kosovo, Sufis played a major role, over decades, in resisting, sometimes by means of guerrilla war, the abuses inflicted on Albanians by the Turkish authorities, and later by Slavic imperialists. Iraqi Kurdistan is another Sufi center; its spiritual leaders were prominent in fighting Saddam Hussein, and now actively promote the Iraqi alliance with the United States. Sufis were the traditional inspirers of the struggle against Russian aggression in Chechnya and other Caucasian Muslim areas, until, at the end of the 1990s, the conflict in Chechnya was usurped by Wahhabi Arabs who bent it in a terrorist direction.
(2) A second model can be discerned where Sufism is the dominant form of Islam, in lands stretching from French-speaking West Africa and Morocco to the Balkans, Turkey, and Central Asia, and from India to Indonesia. Here, Sufism has deeply influenced local cultures, facilitating secularist attitudes as well as coexistence with non-Muslims. It is no accident that Morocco, Turkey, and Indonesia, all of which feature Sufi-dominated Islam, are the countries often deemed to have the best potential for the development of Muslim democracies. In India, of course, Muslims now numbering 130 million have lived as a minority in a functioning democracy for half a century.