A Muslim and Sufi, But No "Shopper for God"
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz in 2012 at the monument to Sulejman Pasha Bargjini, founder of the Albanian capital, Tirana, in the 17th c. CE.
How do you recall your life before embracing Islam?
I am now 65 and in some way should be retired from active life. I have been a Muslim since the age of 49; I entered the religion in 1997. I now see in my life before Islam many illusions regarding my professional aspirations, my attitude toward myself and others, and my educational goals. For years I considered myself a poet first, and possessed the typical arrogance, I think, of the poet, in believing that the values of literary achievement were supreme, and would be rewarded easily.
I should have perceived in myself a different attitude from that of people around me, and that recognition by my peers, even when it came, would be transitory. I was brought up without religion; indeed, as an atheist. My mother was Christian and my father Jewish, but both of them abandoned religion, and I was raised to believe in no faith. I was a revolutionary communist for 22 years, until the age of 35. Nevertheless, I believed in God after I was eight years old. I did so secretly – my mother was ambivalent about the matter, but my father was very hostile to any religious choice. When at 17 I felt drawn to the Catholic religion – which I did not join – my leftist comrades were dismayed and contemptuous.
I took a long time to choose a religion; I investigated Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism, but did not affiliate with any of them. Indeed, I was first drawn to Sufism by reading of its influence on Catholic spirituality, and then about its relationship with the Jewish schools of Kabbalah.
But I was not what we call in America – and especially in California – a "shopper for God." I did not feel a spiritual emptiness, and attempt to fill it by joining one religious group after another. Once having broken with the radical left, I assisted Catholics who had been persecuted by Communists, but I helped anybody righteous who asked for my aid. I understood that such professional success as I had was bestowed by God. I knew, once I broke with the left, that I would arrive at a religious solution.
That proved to be Islam. Islam is my first and only religion. Communism was not a religion, although it attempted to substitute itself for religion.
My parents had both died before I became Muslim. My brother, who became Jewish (because our mother was not Jewish when we were born, we were not so considered by the Jewish faithful), and my son, who was raised as a Catholic, accept my religious choice. It is a very American story, I believe.
Islam has brought stability and serenity to my life and helped me rid myself of bad habits, such as drinking alcohol. Had I realized I would become Muslim, I might have followed a different educational path. There are many topics in Islamic history that fascinate me and I would like to be able to pursue them using original sources in Arabic (and Turkish), in a proper academic and scholarly setting.
Instead, I began in linguistics – which has ceased to exist almost entirely as a university discipline in the U.S. – and turned to journalism, where monetary compensation was greater, at least before the arrival of the internet and collapse of traditional newspaper, magazine, and book publishing.
But given the disintegration of American academic life, I might probably have ended up more isolated than I am as a "veteran journalist." The study of Islam in American universities is almost completely monopolized by sympathizers of the Wahhabis, Deobandis, Muslim Brotherhood, and Mawdudists. The standing of Sufism in American academic studies has declined. I would not fit in with them, any more than I did, as I admit, with the literary caste and the journalistic profession.
I must add that a "veteran journalist" in America today is a survival from another age, like a rare species of fish. It may be put on exhibit or eaten, or it will rot. America now belongs to the engineers and entrepreneurs. Muslims can succeed as both engineers and entrepreneurs, but I cannot, and am forced to admit it. Such is the will of Allah subhanawata'ala.
I have a reawakened interest in poetry, however, but of a religious kind.
The flag of the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina.
What made you embrace Islam?
I embraced Islam because of the exemplary conduct of the Bosnian Muslim soldiers during the war in ex-Yugoslavia in 1992-95. I was in Bosnia before the war and in the Balkan region during the Bosnian and Kosova wars. I worked for international bodies in Bosnia-Hercegovina after the fighting ended, and in 1999 I moved to the Balkans, intending to stay there and to study Islam.
I was astonished by the forbearance and humility of the Bosnian Muslims, and in particular their refusal to reply to the atrocities they suffered by reprisal or vengeance. Tens of thousands of Muslim women and girls were raped, hundreds of thousands of people killed and driven from their homes, thousands of historic mosques destroyed – but the Bosnian Muslims pledged not to do to others what had been done to them. And they kept their word.
The 16th c. CE Hadži Magribija Mosque, an outstanding Sarajevo historical and spiritual monument – Photograph 2009 Via Wikimedia Commons.
They had the attitude, first, that Bosnia-Hercegovina was their homeland and that they would have to live with their enemies there again; second, that their moderate, traditional, conventional, spiritual, and conservative (but not radical) form of Islam forbade them from engaging in cruelty. In 1997 I went to Sarajevo for a month for the Council of Europe, to assess the situation of media, and took Qur'an with me. I then and there realized I had found my religion: Islam in its Hanafi form.
Did you face pressures or threats after accepting Islam from any section of the public?
Since my Islam was publicized after the events of September 11, 2001, I have undergone a considerable degree of insult and provocation from non-Muslims as well as abuse from Wahhabis, of whom I am known as a prominent critic. More recently, I have been condemned by Shia Muslims because of my strong defence of the Syrian Sunnis and other victims of the non-Muslim dictatorship in Damascus. I have been threatened by Wahhabis and other radicals on occasion, but do not take such threats seriously. I have followed the path I believe to be correct. My life is in the hands of Allah subhanawata'ala.
How do Westerners see Islam, especially after September 11?
Westerners do not understand Islam, for reasons so extensive and complicated they would take one or more whole books to explain. Of course, the atrocities of September 11 and those that followed in Madrid, London, Mumbai, and elsewhere made a difficult situation worse. Westerners should experience Indian, Balkan, or Indonesian Islam, or authentic Islamic Sufism, rather than extremist aggression and "New Age" nonsense. They would then see how much Islam has in common with the other religions of the Book, and how we as Muslims are commanded to, and have proven worthy in, respect for their revelations.
How would you comment on the American Muslim lifestyle, religious and educational progress, and the scope of Islamic da'wa?
American and British Muslims are faced with the typical challenges experienced by emigrants, but more acutely. For the majority of American and British Muslims (in comparison with Arab, Turkish, and Kurdish Muslims in Europe) their homeland and its factors for maintenance of belief and moderation are distant. American Muslims in particular are excessively influenced by radical ulema from Pakistan – since South Asians make up a plurality of 34 percent of believers in American Islam – and, in the past, were dominated by Wahhabism and manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The quality of Islamic education in the U.S. is, I believe, very low, precisely because of the atmosphere of conformity that has been imposed on American Muslims by the Wahhabis, Deobandis, Mawdudists, and Muslim Brotherhood.
Further, American Muslims are beset by issues of integration, assimilation, and cultural transformation. Integration and assimilation are not the same. While we should be active for integration of Muslims into American life – meaning equal rights and responsibilities with the members of other faiths, and of no faith – I question whether we want to "assimilate."
I wonder sometimes if the organizational ambition of radical Islam among American Muslims does not represent a kind of "negative assimilation" in which Muslim leaders have adopted aggressive and intrusive influence-seeking strategies because they consider such habits to be normal for Western society. But they are not normal, not intrinsic to the West, and not Islamic. A more Islamic approach to the West would emphasize acceptance of Western law as commanded by Muhammad, polite conduct, gratitude for opportunities offered, and appreciation rather than denigration of the West. Finally, with all its faults and problems, Western society attracts Muslim immigrants because it offers freedoms – including in education, professional life, and until recently, even in religious radicalism – absent from most Muslim-majority countries.
Among the Muslim youth in America as well as Europe, we see a phenomenon I have called "perverse assimilation," in which the generation born to immigrants becomes attracted to the least-healthy elements of Western culture, such as that which glorifies criminality. But that is a right that cannot be denied the Muslim youth in the West. Unfortunately, many young Muslims drawn into an immoral popular culture then react to its risks and excesses by becoming fundamentalists, if not violent extremists.
Do foreign-born Muslims need to take up an enthusiasm for American football, movies and videos, television comedies, pop culture, or other forms of frivolous and often irreligious entertainment? While I would never suggest a prohibition on Muslim football fans or video watchers, I would ask whether some of us do not have the right, which is shared by conservative (but not radical) members of the other faiths, to live in harmony with our neighbours while preserving our own cultural interests and religious practices. We should not interfere with them, nor they with us.
Bombed mosque in Ahmići, Central Bosnia,1993 -- Photograph Courtesy of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Den Haag.
As to da'wa: we American Muslims, in my view, must first exercise da'wa toward those in our Muslim communities under the sway of radicalism, fundamentalism, fanaticism, and other deviations from the straight path. When we have rid our ranks of these influences and can claim truthfully the respect of our non-Muslim neighbours, then we, like other believers, will have an American right to preach our faith. But we cannot begin to think of da'wa toward non-Muslims in America before cleansing our house of extremist influence.
You describe the life style of American Muslims. As far as our Indian state of Kerala is concerned, we have a traditional religious educational system. Every Muslim student will acquire basic Islamic knowledge from Islamic schools (medressas), beginning at the age of around 10 years. For deeper Islamic studies we have "palli dars" in which students learn Islamic knowledge under spiritual scholars, the Ahl-Us-Suffa ("People of the Bench") who reside in the masajid, and in shariat colleges. Do American Muslims follow these kinds of traditional Islamic system?
Illuminated mosque in Kerala – Photograph 2009 by Challiyan at ml.wikipedia, Via Wikimedia Commons.
There is very little traditional Muslim religious education in the U.S. In 2011, the MSNBC television network reported that 240 to 250 Islamic primary schools were operating in the country. Deobandis have some medressas, and attempts have been to launch Islamic colleges. But most Muslims seeking higher religious education go abroad, to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the Balkans, Malaysia, and other countries. The development of moderate, traditional, spiritual, conventional, and conservative (but not radical) Islamic education in the U.S. has been held back by the prevalence of extremist financing and control.
Islamic education in the U.S. will have to assume new forms, appropriate for the American environment. This is especially so given that, because of the intrusion of radical interests, Islamic schools are under suspicion.
You mentioned that the Islamic education of American Muslims is in a poor condition because of the intrusion and invasion of Wahhabis and other radical Islamists. However, have you taken any sort of actions to impede or hamper such intrusions as well as to expand Islamic institutions in America?
The Centre for Islamic Pluralism, of which I am the Executive Director, was created specifically to obstruct the further penetration of Islam, especially in the West but throughout the world, by radicals, including Wahhabis, Deobandis, the Muslim Brotherhood, Mawdudists, and Khomeinists. We write, publish, speak at open events, lecture in an academic setting, and maintain correspondence with Muslims like yourself. If we had greater resources we would do greater things. But we are proud of what we have accomplished so far. Insha'allah we will be able to expand our programmes, recruit more members and colleagues, and continue our work to defeat extremism. But that, like so many other things, is in the hands of Allah subhanawata'ala.
Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir are eminent propagators of Islam in California. There is a Zaytuna College, which is led by them. What do you think of co-operation with them for the sake of Muslims' uplift in the West?
We have been extremely critical of Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Zaid Shakir, and the so-called "Zaytuna College" project.
We do not consider Hamza Yusuf or Zaid Shakir to be "eminent propagators of Islam." They are unknown to the non-Muslim American public except when they engage in publicity for themselves.
We consider Hamza Yusuf an opportunist who, after years of very extreme Wahhabi-style preaching, suddenly embraced moderation and American patriotism after September 11, 2001. He is associated closely with Muslim Brotherhood representatives and refuses to criticise Wahhabism on the spurious ground that to do so would "divide the Muslims." But recognition of differences between Sunnis and Shias, the different schools of Islamic law, the Sufi traditions, long ago divided the Muslims and to appeal for a false unity now is merely to reinforce the influence of the radicals. Prophet Muhammad (sallallahualeyhisalaaam) foresaw the division of the ummah into 73 sects, of which only one would be saved from the fire.
The glory of Islamic tradition was that it embraced debate and resolved differences through consensus. To refuse debate about the problem of Wahhabism, as Hamza Yusuf has done, is, in our view, un-Islamic.
The so-called "Zaytuna College" is a small entity featuring courses in the Arabic language and in Islamic law. It is not accredited by the official educational authorities in America.
We object to teaching of Islamic law in America as a normative legal system applicable outside the Muslim-majority lands. Traditional guidance holds that Islamic law cannot be applied in non-Muslim societies. Rasulallah commanded the muhajirs who went to Abyssinia that a Muslim in a non-Muslim country must adhere to the laws and customs of the country to which the Muslim emigrates, unless the laws of the latter prohibit the adhan (call to prayer) and teaching of Islam, or a believer fears his Islam is in danger, in which case the Muslim should return to a Muslim territory.
Comparative courses on different legal systems, including Islamic law, are an acceptable feature of Western education. But most Muslims in the West who study law apply themselves to Western law in the interest of their professional success. Teaching of Islamic law as if it were possible to import it into the West or to require all Muslims everywhere to adhere to it is, in our view, wrong. Hamza Yusuf's adventures in this realm have been inappropriate if not dangerous for Western Muslims.
We are not afraid to debate with Hamza Yusuf or his cohort but we would not otherwise cooperate with them.
I read your noted book The Two Faces of Islam, in which you mainly discussed Wahhabism. Does Wahhabism deserve to be criticised so much?
Wahhabism has done more harm to Islam than any non-Muslims ever did, throughout history. It is only comparable to the Khawarij in early Islam and the Al-Muwahhidun (Almohads) in Muslim Spain, whose radicalism undermined Islam in Andalusia and led to its inevitable collapse.
Wahhabism has been harmful in legitimating jihad against Muslims through unrestrained takfir, the claim that Muslims have left the religion, and deserve to be killed, based on doctrinal and sectarian differences. It has attacked the Sufi tradition. It has preached violence previously forbidden to Muslims by Qur'an al-qerim. It led in turn to the rise of other forms of pernicious fanaticism, including those of the Deobandis and Muslim Brotherhood, the followers of Mawdudi, and, through the latter, even the Khomeinist regime in Iran. It has distorted the emergence of Islam as a recognized faith in the West.
Wahhabism can exist as one among many Islamic interpretations so long as its followers refrain from violence and it is not, as at present, the state sect in Saudi Arabia. I believe the Saudi monarchy is moving away from its past support for the Wahhabi monopoly on Islamic affairs in that kingdom. I hope sincerely that Wahhabism will lose its official backing. That will be a tremendous step forward for the people of Arabia and for the whole Islamic ummah.
Why do you find two faces in Islam when Islam has only one face?
I do not agree that Islam has only one face. The faces of Islam are theologically, culturally, and historically very diverse. I would point to the distinctions between Sunnis, Shias, Ibadhis, and among the fundamentalists, some of whom have been so extreme as to risk taking themselves out of Islam – like the Wahhabis – as well as the variations among Sufi groups. I would also note the differences between the legal schools or mazahib, of which seven are considered legitimate, and the persistence of three different ways of reading Qur'an in Sudan.
As an example of the cultural factors that support many faces of Islam, I have learned that Keralite Muslims are proud of their spiritual origin in Arabia, and feel limited affinity with the Persian cultural background of north Indian Muslims.
The 16th c. CE Čobanija mosque, an intimate and distinguished Sarajevo edifice.
Bosnian Muslims, the westernmost indigenous Muslims, have very little in common culturally with Arab, Iranian, African, South Asian, and Southeast Asian Muslims, aside from prayer and the other four "pillars" – shehadeh, zakat, fasting at Ramadan, and hajj. Even at the hajj, distinctions are visible between Sunnis and Shias, and between Wahhabis and Sufis.
Muslims living in Muslim-majority lands also manifest differences from those who have emigrated to non-Muslim lands.
I therefore do not believe Islam has one face. Islam has always had many faces. At present, unfortunately, the two "biggest" and most contradictory faces of Islam are fundamentalism (Wahhabism, Deobandism, Mawdudism, the Muslim Brotherhood, Khomeinism) and Sufism. Some Deobandis and certainly Khomeinists (the latter being Iranian) claim to accept the legitimacy of Sufism. Deobandis, however, declare that they accept Sufi wisdom while rejecting the construction and decoration of tombs and shrines to the memory of the great Sufis and prayers in their favour.
The Mosque of Prophet Muhammad Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam in Madinah Al-Munawwarah.
The soul and substance of Islam is sleeping in holy Makkah and Madinah, which are on the territory of Saudi Arabia, and which have played a key role in the spread and growth of Islam. How did Saudi Arabia come into the hands of cruel Wahhabism?
Wahhabism did not originate in Hejaz, the province in which Makkah and Madinah are located, but in the remote desert of Najd. Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, its founder, formed a political alliance with the Ahl Al-Sa'ud, a clan of raiders in Najd whose economy was based on robbing pilgrims and other caravans travelling between the Arabian Gulf and the hajj sites.
The Wahhabi ban on Shia and Sufi shrines was a licence for the Ahl Al-Sa'ud to continue their pillage, which became visible with the Wahhabi-Saudi forays into the Shia holy cities in Iraq and the holy mosques of Makkah and Madinah, at the beginning of the 19th century. Wahhabism mobilized Arab resentment of Ottoman rule on the coasts of the peninsula.
When the Wahhabi attacks in Iraq and Hejaz were first reported in the West, Wahhabism was treated as a rebellion against Islam. There was much that was accurate in this observation. Many Wahhabis, such as Osama Bin Laden, have committed terrorism that has taken them out of Islam, in my view.
Finally, the victory of Wahhabism in Makkah and Madinah was helped, undeniably, by Britain, which sought to seize parts of the Ottoman empire and to, at that time, maintain its rule over the Indian Muslims. The British seem to have considered that Wahhabi control of the holy mosques would further this aim. Of course, it did not. The British empire, no less than the Ottoman empire, was doomed – the Wahhabis merely took advantage of the collapse of the empires.
What did the "Arab Spring" contribute to the Muslim world?
I am afraid the "Arab Spring" was illusory and contributed nothing but further disintegration, confusion, and violence to the Muslims of the world. A popular transformation, revolution, or peaceful transition cannot succeed in countries that have no civil society. It is notable that such foundations were established by Indian Muslims in their struggle against British imperialism. But they have been lacking in the Arab lands such as Egypt and Syria.
The "Arab Spring" was not a new political development, but a reflection of breakdown of the global economic system at its weakest point. For a people's upsurge to succeed in the Arab countries, they must first accept independent media, above all. They must support entrepreneurship and accountability in trade and the professions, as well as Islamic and multireligious pluralism. Sufi institutions possess an irreplaceable role in such a process.
When the essential components of civil society have matured, a movement similar to the "Arab Spring" may succeed. In the absence of a strong underpinning for civil society, when the Arab dictatorships entered a crisis, the radicals of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Wahhabis (so-called "Salafis") and others like them presented the strongest alternative. The result was disastrous.
In some respects the "Green opposition" in Iran was more significant than the "Arab Spring," at least in furthering dialogue among the people of the country. Unfortunately, however, the Iranian "Green opposition" was no more successful in effecting political change than the "Arab Spring," but for different reasons.
Do you believe the brain behind Islamist movements such as Al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc., is America?
I believe that such a conception is nonsense. Wahhabism, the foundation of Al-Qaida, emerged before the United States of America existed, and Wahhabism committed itself to violence when America was a minor power mainly uninvolved in Muslim lands. Did the Wahhabis know about the foundation of the U.S. at the end of the 18th century? That is difficult to imagine. America, for its part, was oblivious to the emergence of the Deobandis in India. The Muslim Brotherhood and Mawdudist movements were created at a time when the Americans had no interest in the Arab countries. America defended the Iranian monarchy against the Khomeinist revolution.
Only a fool would believe that either Americans or Islamist radicals are so deranged as to ignore their own most basic security. It was not in the interest of the American government to support Al-Qaida, which played no significant role in the Afghan resistance to Russia, contrary to legends popular among some Muslims. The effects of the September 11, 2001 attacks on America have been continually negative, in social, economic, political, internal interreligious, and foreign affairs, as much or more for the non-Muslims as for American Muslims.
The Obama administration has turned to a policy of ameliorating global tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims by diplomatic support for the Muslim Brotherhood and an "opening" to Iran. But this is an attitude of "acceptance of existing conditions" as they are perceived in Washington. It is not and cannot be a policy of direct control.
The consequences of the Obama strategy so far have been immoral, in that America has treated the Syrian civil war as a distant event inferior in importance to conciliation with Iran, while thousands of innocents have been killed by the Damascus tyrant, with the complicity of the Tehran regime. That is wrong and must stop. America must become more active in ending the Syrian bloodshed.
One may hate Americans and one may despise Muslim radicals. But neither Americans nor jihadists should be considered as mentally incompetent. America supported Saudi Arabia blindly, to secure its energy income, and ignored the spread of Wahhabism. That is a matter of ignorance shared with many Western and even developed Eastern countries, like Japan. America also assisted the Afghan mujahidin, correctly in my view, in expelling the Russian invaders. America allowed Pakistan, which was already under the power of ideological Islamist radicals, to direct the joint programme of support for the Afghan anti-Russian fighters. That was a similar error based in lack of understanding of Wahhabism and other forms of extremism. But ignorance and manipulation are hardly the same.
Nor do I think, as much as I oppose them, that Al-Qaida, the Deobandis, the followers of Mawdudi, the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Khomeinists are spineless enough to serve the Americans. America and radical Islam are opposed to each other in arms. That is not a masquerade or pantomime. It is a harsh but unquestionable reality. America may wish to end or avoid this nightmare, but it cannot do so easily.
Sadly, belief in conspiracies is rife among Muslims. It is a sign of intellectual weakness; Nabiullah predicted that as the Last Days approached the Muslims would have become inferior to the Christians. Muslims should be more sophisticated and should reject conspiratorial theories that are, on their face, absurd.
How do you see American interests in the Middle East countries?
America should first educate its political and military elite in the real history of Islamic civilization. It should then formulate programs based on reinforcement of moderate, traditional, spiritual, conventional, and conservative (but not radical) institutions in the Islamic lands. But America cannot, because of its constitutional limits on involvement with religion, play a direct part in the development of the Islamic ummah.
In the economic arena I believe it is in the interest of America and its citizens to call the energy companies to account for their support of dictatorships in Muslim lands. America may not succeed in exporting democracy but it should not continue in allowing the denial of popular sovereignty around the globe. Mainly, American policy experts and leaders need to study and develop new approaches to the Muslim lands. An "American Spring" is perhaps needed before an "Arab Spring" or "Muslim Spring" can succeed.
What is the future of Egypt, especially after the displacement of Muhammad Mursi?
That is a question the Egyptian people themselves will have to answer. It seems unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood will ever again stand as the main organized force opposed to the Egyptian state. Egypt is an ancient country that has been based on despotic rule for many, many centuries. It is improbable that, without a great rebirth of Islamic thought – a renaissance, not a reform in Islam – Egypt will be able to move forward.
What inspired you to bring out the renowned book The Other Islam?
I am flattered at your description of The Other Islam as renowned, because it was published, sadly, at the moment when the publishing industry had collapsed in the U.S., and did not have the success of The Two Faces of Islam. In addition, I am dissatisfied with my superficial treatment of Indian Sufism in The Other Islam.
My motivation and intent in bringing out The Other Islam was to describe Sufism as it exists in Muslim countries, aspects of it that have been neglected by Western and Islamic scholars, and to contribute to a better image of Islam in the West.
Have you argued in your book The Other Islam that the Wahhabis are intimate rivals of Sufism?
I have accepted the conclusion – which is not original to me – that Wahhabism and the revivalist forms of Sufism seen in India, such as that of Ahmad Sirhindi in the 16th-17th centuries and Shah Waliullah in the 18th century of the common era, had many similarities with the Wahhabi "reform" movement, if we set aside the Wahhabi hatred of Sufism. Some Sufis are shariah-centric and even, in their own way, fundamentalist. Nevertheless, Sufis have made great contributions to global Islamic culture, which certainly may not be said of the Wahhabis or those like them.
18th-19th c. CE Haxhi Et'hem Beu Mosque, Tirana – A most precious jewel of Albanian sacred architecture, subsidized by a Bektashi Sufi shahid. Photograph 2007 Via Wikimedia Commons.
What is the origin of Sufism in Islam?
We Sufis believe that Sufism – tasawwuf or batiniyya – was present in Islam from the beginning of the revelation of Qur'an to Muhammad (sallallahualeyhisalaam.) According to critical-historical studies, Sufism appears to have emerged among the Muslims in Mesopotamia during the second Islamic century, as symbolized by Rabiya Al-Adawiyya, who died in the year 801 of the common era. But our Sufi traditions tell the majority of us that Rabiya was preceded in Sufi wisdom by Imam Ali (radhiallahu an) and by Hasan Al-Basri (qaddas sirat'ul aziz).
Sufism is the pure manifestation of Islam, and many people are fascinated by Sufism. What do you think of claims that Sufism originated in the saffron religion – Buddhism or Hinduism?
I believe that the development of Sufism in early Islamic Mesopotamia – chiefly in Basra, a rich trading city – may reflect the influence of Buddhist and Hindu merchants who went there in pursuit of commerce. The great Muhammad Iqbal described Basra at that time as "the play-ground of various forces — Greek philosophy, skepticism, Christianity, Buddhist ideas, Manichaeism." It was common among Western scholars, in the past, to read claims that Sufism was derived from Hindu and Buddhist interactions with Muslims.
Yet I have been told by Hindus that no Sufi practices came from Hinduism, and, unfortunately, Islam and Buddhism did not have a positive relationship in Central Asia. These are among the many subjects I would like to study further, though I would have to learn more languages to do so well. It is obvious that Sufism attracted many Hindus over the centuries, and at least one Sufi work was translated into Tibetan and incorporated into the Lamaist canon.
I do not consider Islam to be an "Eastern" religion like Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., but a Western religion linked to the Jews and Christians. This is, I am sure, a controversial proposal, about which I would like to write a book.
The 13th c. CE tomb of Rumi, Konya, Turkey -- Photograph 2010 Via Wikimedia Commons.
Mevlana Jalalud'din Rumi is a highly influential Iranian Sufi poet. His masterpiece, the Mesnevi, is widely and well accepted, particularly in the West. What is the rapport between Rumi and the West?
Mevlana, or Molavi as the Persians call him, is now believed by many people to be the most widely-read poet in America. I do not know if this is true. It is a fascinating concept. I have observed the phenomenon, which preceded the challenging "encounter" with Islam represented by terrorism in 2001, but do not completely understand it. Still, the verses of Molavi are better known among Westerners than the Mesnevi, which I regret.
What is the vital role of Sufis for spreading Islam in the West?
This is a contentious issue right now in that Sufis are accused of serving as advance agents of Islamisation. The role of authentic Islamic Sufis in the West is to show a good example as Muslims. I do not consider the time right for Sufis to engage in a broad effort to spread Islam in the non-Muslim world. First, Islam must be normalised and extremist elements within it defeated. Sufis can contribute well to this necessary task, if they are understood and not treated by the developed nations as mercenaries.
Nowadays Islam has been criticised severely as the most monolithic religion in the world. Islamic characteristics such as growing a beard, wearing a prayer cap, yashmak (niqab or face veiling) are viewed as symbols of terrorism, and the idea of jihad is misinterpreted. Despite this, the flow of people skeptical of this image is growing. Why is this?
Nobody in the West is suspicious of beards. Jews, Christians, atheists, and others grow beards as long and untrimmed as Wahhabi beards, or as neat and cared-for as Maliki beards. Wearing the prayer cap is considered a sign of Islamic militancy. The prayer-cap is not mandated in Islam and I believe that if it draws negative attention to a Muslim or a Muslim community, it should be avoided. I and my colleagues in the Centre for Islamic Pluralism reject the yashmak or niqab as un-Islamic. Hijab is one thing about which we debate, since there are millions of honourable Muslim women who do not wear an elaborate hijab, or any head-covering. Indeed, the definition of what constitutes the khimar – the part of the female upper body that should be covered for the sake of modesty – is in question. Does the khimar include the hair, or is it a reference to the throat and bosom?
As for the concept of jihad, while we Sufis emphasize the difference between the lesser jihad of fighting and the greater jihad of self-discipline (a concept that was borrowed by Jewish Kabbalah), jihad in the West is interpreted as war and conquest. It is therefore unsurprising that it is seen in threatening terms.
Against all such conflictive evidence presented to them, numerous non-Muslims, skeptical of this image, have accepted the religion. Why is this? I believe it reflects first, disillusionment with Western morals and values; second, the lure of an exotic "threat," and by extension, a distressing tendency to see Islam as a radical "fad" expressive of rebellion against the West. I fear the number of new Muslims we see flowing into masajid will diminish eventually, as a superficial phenomenon.
Europe is the most technically advanced continent, and it is historical fact that that Muslims played a key role in bringing Europe into the world's historical mainstream, but, today, Islam is mainly being persecuted by Europeans. Why?
I do not consider Europe the most technically advanced continent, when compared with either the U.S. or East Asia. These three regions have been equally successful in scientific development. Still, as you point out, many of the scientific achievements of Europe are owed to Muslim thought.
Separation of the two religious civilizations – Christian and Muslim – was aggravated by the development of the sea route from Europe to Asia and the European conquest of the Western Hemisphere. These outcomes restricted the opportunities for cultural and economic interchange that had existed in Muslim Spain and elsewhere, such as in post-Muslim Sicily and in the relations between the Ottomans and the Venetians and French.
As commerce along the Silk Road and the links between the Ottomans and Venice declined, the two civilizations became more alienated from each other than they had been even during the Crusades.
Today, some Westerners and East Asians feel anxious that their identity and culture are being undermined from within, by decay, and from without, by immigration. These fears – the first I consider justified, the second not – bring about discontent over the arrival of newcomers, especially Muslims since the events of 2001 and the sudden relevance of radical Islamist violence in major Western cities.
We Kerala Muslims are unaware about the Sufis and Sufi orders in America. Can you explain their situation?
Sufism in the West is a spiritual movement that borrows from, but does not represent, with a few exceptions, Islamic tasawwuf. In many cases it is a "New Age" experience based on the "perennialist" concept that all religions are one. But all religions are not one. The religions of Pharaoh (Firayun) and of Moses (Musa aleyhisalaam) were not the same. Religions that include human sacrifice or other forms of violence in their rituals are not equal to those of the People of the Book, or Islam. As to Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and shamanism, I believe we can have good relations with their adherents, but that we must not confuse ourselves with them.
Interfaith relations are good when distinctions are observed, at least in modern times. I suspect that in past history, especially in India and Central Asia, as well as in the Ottoman dominions, there was a more porous kind of membrane between the People of the Book and Islam, on one side, and the "Eastern" religions on the other. But modernity suppresses distinctions in a way that I consider troublesome, at least. One of my basic principles is to make distinctions, not to confuse them. Sufism is Islamic spirituality, in my view. It is open to dialogue and peace with other believers, and offers an open door to them. But it must not be entangled with them.
The flag of the Albanian nation.
The least diluted forms of Sufism in America are ethnically-founded and, in effect, are closed off from the non-Muslims by linguistic and other distinctions. This is true, for example, of the Albanian Bektashis, who survived Communism in Albania because they had branches in Kosova (then in Yugoslavia) and in the U.S.
The main building of the Bektashi Teqe, Michigan, USA. Photograph 2009 by Stephen Schwartz.
In addition, North African and West African Tijani Sufis have a strong presence in America, but they are objects of discrimination by the Wahhabis and other fundamentalists who dominate in the community, and are therefore effectively invisible to the public. The same is true of the Barelvi component of the South Asian Muslim community in America. The Barelvis and their Qadiri Sufism are unrecognized by the fundamentalist leadership of American Islam, have no organization of their own, and are completely unknown to Americans. It is a tragic situation that emphasizes the low quality of Islamic thought in America.
Let us end our interview with a question. You will have more experiences in your da'wa realm as you are a global propagator. Could you please suggest some advice to the upcoming da'wa students in Kerala? There are more materially as well as religiously educated polyglot students in our Kerala. Are there prospects for them in America and similar countries in the field of Da'wa?
I have no doubt that there are excellent da'wa students in Kerala. But I would suggest that before they launch themselves into an American culture unfamiliar to them, as Islamic preachers, they visit the West and familiarise themselves with the conditions and difficulties of the Muslim communities here. The distinctive history of Keralite Islam, drawn from Arabia rather than from the Persian origins of most of South Asian Islam, is of great significance for historians of Islam. Paradoxically, the prosperity of Kerala has inhibited the spread of a Keralite diaspora community in the West, through which the Keralite da'wa students could learn more about the West. Few Keralites have emigrated to America.
A Keralite contribution to da'wa in the West should be preceded by sending a group of students to study at major Western, non-Muslim academic institutions. They may then gain a useful understanding of how to pursue da'wa in the West. I wish the Keralites the best in this endeavour.
[Thajudheen Ballakadappuram, who conducted this interview, may be contacted on e-mail at [email protected] or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thajudheenballa.]
Related Topics: American Muslims, Balkan Muslims, Bosnian Muslims, Deobandism, Muslim Brotherhood, Muslim-Christian Relations, Muslim-Jewish Relations, Pakistan, Shariah, Sufism, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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