Getting to Know the Sufis
by Stephen Schwartz
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.
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.
Against many obstacles, the kings of Morocco--home to some of the most respected and subtle Sufi thinkers--have sought to maintain good relations with the country's centuries-old Jewish community as well as with Israel. Turkey, whose cultural life is replete with Sufi influence (even though the Sufi orders themselves were outlawed by the secularizing regime in the 1920s and remain underground to this day), also has an excellent record with both Turkish Jews and the state of Israel. The constitution of Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, with a population of 240 million, promises religious freedom for all beliefs, though the religion of the majority is taught in public schools; a Sufi mass organization with 30 million members, the Muhammadiyah, has been outspoken in its opposition to Islamist extremism. What varies considerably in these countries is the institutional strength of Sufism. Thus, in Central Asia, where famous Sufis are national cultural heroes, the long night of Soviet communism left the Sufis structurally weak, and they are presently rebuilding their orders.
In places where Sufism is dominant, spiritual traditions may play a positive role in fostering civic values conducive to democracy. The Bektashi Sufis of the Albanian lands, counting 3 million members from Kosovo to northern Greece, for example, declare boldly that they are "the most progressive Muslims in the world!"--as I was vociferously reminded in 2003 by Baba Tahir Emini, their leader in Western Macedonia. They are especially known for their dedication to women's rights and popular education, and are the only Sufi order to permit drinking alcohol.
(3) A third model can be identified in places where Sufism is influential among the mass of Muslims, but the dervishes have kept their heads down so as to avoid conflict with the ruling dictators. In these countries--among them Syria, Iran, and Sudan--Sufism remains quietist. Nobody can say what role the Sufis might eventually play here, if or when each regime begins or accelerates a transition away from Baathism (in the first case), clerical rule (in the second), or violent Islamism (in the third). But the Sufis' private dedication to religious and intellectual pluralism can only reinforce whatever positive developments may emerge.
GIVEN THIS VARIED PICTURE, how should Sufism enter into American strategies for dealing with the Islamic world?
Most obviously, Americans should learn more about Sufism, engaging with its leaders and followers, and getting to know its main trends. This isn't hard, as the meeting houses of the Sufi orders are easy to find in every Muslim country except Saudi Arabia. American diplomats in Muslim cities from Pristina in Kosovo to Kashgar in western China, and from Fez in Morocco to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, should include the local Sufis on their lists for frequent visits. American students and business people, aid workers and tourists, should embrace opportunities to get acquainted with Sufis. Most important, anyone in or out of government who is in a position to influence the discussion and shaping of U.S. policy toward the Middle East can benefit from an appreciation of this indigenous tradition of Islamic tolerance.
It should go without saying that attempts at direct cooptation or subsidy of a "Sufi alternative" to radical Islam should be avoided. To remain true to itself, Sufism must be independent. Sufis do not need money, but comprehension and respect as a major component of the global Islamic community.
At the same time, on human rights grounds, the United States must speak up for Sufis against those who repress them, often violently, especially in Saudi Arabia. To repeat, in the Wahhabi-dominated kingdom, an independent, spiritual Sufi oppositional culture is emerging, with special attraction for young people. Against the backdrop of Saudi fanaticism, including the open support for radical Islam coming from some of Riyadh's richest and most powerful personalities, Sufism exemplifies the Islamic pluralism that, if restored to Saudi Arabia, could shut off the money flow to al Qaeda and its allies worldwide. These are opportunities in the war against terror that the United States would be foolish to miss.