The Widening War Against Sufism
by Stephen Schwartz
On Tuesday, 5 April, the Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum reported that professor Ahmed Al-Sayeh of Al-Azhar university, the supreme academic institution for Sunni Muslims, had asked his relatives in Upper Egypt to send him a machine gun. He intends to use the weapon to defend the shrines of spiritual Sufis, which abound in the land along the Nile, against attacks by Islamist fundamentalists, who call themselves "Salafis" but who others call "Wahhabis," based on their inspiration in the Saudi kingdom.
Professor Al-Sayeh is not alone. In the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution, which brought so much positive expectation to the Arab and Islamic world, as well as to those outsiders observing it with interest, the complex networks of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have appeared to many as prepared to assume political leadership of the country. While the Brotherhood now disclaims violence and radicalism in religion, it shares an extensive history with the more aggressive, so-called "Salafis". All the strains of Islamist fundamentalism claiming authority over Sunnis have a common basis, from Saudi Wahhabis beginning in the 18th century, through the MB and its recent imitators in the Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This essence is incorporated as well in the South Asian jihadist followers of Abu'l Ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and the present-day Pakistani-Afghan Taliban, which draws its inspiration from the purist Islamic movement founded at Darul-Uloom Deoband in India a century after the Wahhabi outbreak in Arabia. That is, all have embodied an ideological fantasy of return to an idealized, primordial Islam – and an Islamic state – imagined as pristine and unaffected by 14 centuries of historical and cultural change, as well as by interactions with and borrowings from local and global non-Muslim societies.
Although it is rooted in Islam, the Sufi tradition has approached other faiths and the wisdom they have accumulated with sympathy, from the time of Muslim contact with the esoteric knowledge found in both the east and the west. Thus certain Sufis studied Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, while also reading Christian and Jewish texts and influencing mystical trends among believers in the prior revelations. To the fundamentalists, this syncretic tendency represents a dilution of Islam, rather than, as Sufis and both religious and academic scholars have argued, an expansion of Islamic-influenced culture and Muslim authority.
Wahhabi fundamentalism, fuelled by Saudi energy income in the past and now weakly opposed by a group of social reformers around King Abdullah, also seeks to remove from Islamic life customs practiced by the Sufis and throughout Sufi-oriented Muslim communities. These the radicals condemn as unacceptable innovations in religion. They include celebration of the birthdays of the Prophet Muhammad and saintly Muslims of the past, prayer at the tombs and shrines of such personalities, and the preservation of graveyards and inclusion of shrines inside mosques. And finally, Sufi habits that bridge the long-established split in Islam between Sunnis and Shias are despised by Sunnicentric fanatics.
Today in Egypt, as during the past six years in India and Pakistan, the front line of the radical Islamist offensive is located at the Sufi shrines under assault. The South Asian anti-Sufi campaign is widely seen to have begun in 2005 when the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad, commemorating a 17th century Sufi, was bombed during a Shia observance, killing 18 people. The year 2007 including the shocking attack on the tomb of Moinuddin Chishti, the most distinguished South Asian Sufi, at Ajmer Sharif in India. Two were killed and 20 people wounded. The same year also witnessed the near-complete devastation by explosives of the Abdul Shakoor Malang Baba shrine in Peshawar. But that was merely the first terrorist raid on Sufis in Peshawar, which had been chosen by the radicals as a major theatre of operations because of its many Sufi shrines.
In March 2008 near Peshawar, the terrorist Lashkar-e-Islam (Islamic Army) killed ten villagers in an ambush with rockets at the 400-year-old shrine of Hazrat Abu Saeed Baba. Next, the Ashaab Baba shrine in Peshawar was bombed. In 2009 the Afghan Taliban blasted the Peshawar shrine of the poet Rehman Baba, and, the next day, devastated the tomb of Bahadur Baba in Nowshera. Soon after, the Shaykh Omar Baba shrine in Peshawar was demolished. In June 2010, the Taliban blew up the Mian Umar Baba shrine in Peshawar; July 2010 brought the bloody news of an outrage by three bombers at the Data Darbar Sufi shrine in Lahore; 45 people died and 175 were injured.
Data Darbar is the mausoleum of Data Ganj Baksh, "the giver of spiritual treasures," a title conferred on the 10th-century Sufi, Abul Hassan Ali Al-Hajvery, buried there. Al-Hajvery, born in today's Afghanistan, is one of the most honoured Sunni Sufis, beloved by Hindus as well as Muslims in South Asia. The mausoleum of Baba Fariddudin Ganj Shakkar in the Pakistani city of Pakpattan was bombed in October 2010, killing six and injuring 15. On Friday, 4 March of this year, after weekly collective prayers, seven people were killed and 25 injured when a bomb blasted the crowded Akhund Panjo Baba Sufi shrine, once again in Nowshera. And the beginning of April saw a suicide bombing at the Sakhi Sarwar shrine in the Pakistani Punjab town of Dhera Ghazi Khan, with 42 people killed and at least 100 injured during a three-day festival. Sakhi Sarwar was among the most famous Islamic spiritual preachers in India, during the 13th century CE.
In Egypt, Islamist radicals had, recently, mainly targeted Coptic Christians, but anti-Sufi aggression commenced with depredations in Alexandria, in which the Sufis account for one in eight of city-dwellers, and Sufi shrines and mosques are prominent landmarks. Indeed, the city's most famous mosque, named for and sheltering the tomb of Al-Mursi Abu'l Abbas, a Spanish-born 13th century Sufi, was one of the first sites reportedly invaded by extremists. Radicals also have tried to seize control of the Qaed Ibrahim mosque in Alexandria, which was the scene of mass demonstrations against the Mubarak government coordinated with those at Tahrir Square in Cairo.
I have observed a rule about radical agitation among Muslims from the Balkans to Indonesia: the ordinary Muslims, often living in a rural, village environment, are a bulwark against the radicals. This view is counter-intuitive to many non-Muslims, especially in the West, who presume that radicalism is a product of poverty and insufficient development. It has been noted many times that radical Islam appeals to an educated elite that has had no time for religion but which, feeling a nostalgia for faith amid their busy lives, respond to the appeal of a stripped-down Islam, denuded of its spiritual and local customs, that requires little application and, above all, is "not their father's Islam."
An important example of village Muslim resistance to Wahhabi intrusion was reported in Egypt on 3 April, in the Nile delta district of Al-Qalyubiya. A party of more than 20 radicals, carrying sledgehammers and crowbars, arrived at the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine after nightfall, hoping to demolish it. Alarm spread in the community and residents turned out to repel the radicals, beating two of them. Five Sufi shrines had already been destroyed in Al-Qalyubiya.
In other Egyptian developments, aside from the cautionary measure mentioned at the beginning of this column, involving transportation of a modern weapon from Upper Egypt to the precincts of Al-Azhar, the Sufis of Alexandria have initiated organization of local committees to defend shrines, and Sufi leaders have proposed the establishment of a political party to protect them against the MB and the Wahhabis.
A Sufi legacy, as I have written previously in NewsGram, is present, if unacknowledged by outsiders, in the resistance to the dictatorship of Mu'ammar Al-Qadhdhāfi in Libya. The role of Sufis as apostles of Islamic pluralism, as well as their history as institutions for public assistance and other forms of social welfare, makes them natural protagonists in favor of political progress in Muslim countries, which, of course, returns them to their present calamity as a target of violent radicals. The evil visited upon them in Pakistan and Egypt is likely to be seen in Syria, where the "Arab Spring" has generated a new round of clashes between protestors and the armed bodies of the state. Syria has been a rampart of resistance to Muslim fundamentalism for generations, and, like Pakistan and Egypt, is a country with many Sufi shrines and mosques. Tension in Syria also involves the country's Kurds – a nation known wherever it lives, in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, for its dedication to both traditional Sufism and to the Sufi-influenced, socially progressive and secularist Alevi movement (not the same as Syria's ruling Alawite minority sect.)
Radical encroachment against the Sufis is also not limited to Muslim countries. In eastern Europe, the members and friends of the Bektashi Sufi order, one of the most important elements in Persian and Ottoman culture and history, are anguished by ongoing attempts by Arab-backed fundamentalists in the Republic of Macedonia to either usurp or destroy the Harabati Baba Sufi installation in Tetova – one of the most important Islamic institutions in the Balkan region. India has experienced Wahhabi penetration of its Islamic communities and institutions, resulting in attempts to curb customary observances of Muhammad's birthday in Uttar Pradesh.
My colleague Dr. Irfan Al-Alawi, international director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, noted with concern a visit to India beginning on 25 March by the hate-mongering Saudi imam and Friday preacher at the Grand Mosque (Haram) in Mecca, Abdur-Rahman Al-Sudais. Al-Sudais, a prominent exponent of hard-core Wahhabism, visited Darul Uloom Deoband in U.P., followed by trips to New Delhi, including a dinner in his honour in the annexe of the Indian parliament, and to Old Delhi. The "moderate" Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind (JUH) asked that when he went to the parliament, Al-Sudais be spared a security examination. Al-Sudais was named by JUH the supreme world authority for Sunni believers and therefore above the supposed indignity of a security check.
JUH leader Arshad Madani, who invited the Saudi cleric, boasted that Al-Sudais would be shown how Wahhabi, Deobandi, and other retrograde interpretations of Islam are "flourishing" in the country. At the same time as JUH propagates Saudi influence over Indian Muslims, Madani has announced establishment of a "peace promotion course" at Bangalore this month, and described Al-Sudais as a representative of interfaith dialogue. But Al-Sudais is barred from visiting Canada and has even been condemned by some Saudi officials for his hateful rhetoric.
India cannot afford to follow the road of Pakistani passivity in confronting Wahhabi and other radical infiltration. Moderate, traditional Barelvi Muslims, living in Pakistan and India, as well as in the diaspora communities of Britain and the U.S., have preached against the doctrines of the Wahhabis and Deobandis, but have failed to organize an effective resistance against the widening bloodshed or to establish a solid organizational presence in their migrant communities, which should be an important resource for their resistance to the extremists. A 2009 publication on "Sufis in Western Society," issued by the prestigious Routledge publishing house and edited by three Western academics, includes a description, previously little-known, of an attempt by Barelvis in America to foster a permanent liaison with Western Sufis, academic Islam experts, and other sympathizers. While its traces remain in American Islamic life, where South Asians make up the plurality of born Muslims of foreign background, the effort failed. According to academic expert Marcia Hermansen, "most community organizations were controlled by anti-Sufi Islamists." The domination of American Islam by such ideological extremists – a phenomenon Hermansen identifies as "specific to the Muslim subculture in the U.S." – continues today.
Some of us have been saying and writing about these problems for a decade, largely ignored or derided. But the time is here when one must ask if, aside from their importance in the intellectual progress of Islam and democratization in Muslim countries, Sufis will fight to defend themselves.