Paying Attention to the "Other Islam"
Cover of the Other Islam by Stephen Schwartz (Doubleday)
To the extent that it can influence that debate, the next U. S. administration might consider paying closer attention to followers of the Sufi tradition, a mystical and philosophical current within Islam. ("Sufi" itself as a term may have derived from the Arab word for wool, in reference to the simple, rough cloak worn by early Muslim ascetics).
In his new book, The Other Islam: Sufism and Global Harmony, Stephen Schwartz, a journalist and executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, D.C., argues that Sufism "offers the clearest Muslim option for reconciliation between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds, as well as fulfillment of the promise that Islam shall be a religion of peace." U. S. News spoke with the author, himself a convert to Islam. Excerpts:
What is Sufism?
Sufism is the esoteric, metaphysical, and mystical tradition within Islam, similar to and influencing [Jewish mystical] kabbalah and Catholic spirituality. It is the tradition in Islam that looks behind the sacred texts, behind the practice, behind the outward manifestations of the religion, seeking the inner truth, the truth of the heart.
When and where did Sufism emerge within Islam?
Sufis say that Sufism begins with Islam itself. There is the famous concept that the Creator was a hidden treasure who wanted to be known. And almost all Sufis trace their lineage back to Caliph Ali, who was a relative and fourth successor [caliph] of Muhammad. The first Sufis are generally considered to be the Basra school in southern Iraq in the first century and a half after the death of the Prophet, and actually the first famous one is a woman, Rabiya Al-Adawiyya. She was the first person to speak eloquently of divine love and love for God and God's love for creation and humanity.
Of the some 1.2 billion Muslims today, approximately how many are Sufis?
Husain Haqqani, who is now Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, had a conversation with me about this, and he said that we were pretty legitimate in saying that half of the Muslims in the world either are Sufis or consider themselves to be pretty much under Sufi influence or in some ways follow Sufi precepts. When you start breaking it down demographically and look at large Muslim societies like India, Indonesia, Egypt, Morocco, French-speaking west Africa, Turkey, and some parts of Central Asia, that figure of about half makes sense. I've developed the proposition that you have two kinds of Sufism. You have a kind of generally diffuse Sufism in Muslim societies where basically the Islam of the whole society is very saturated with Sufism. Indonesia is one specific example of this. Then, overlapping with that, you have societies with the organized tariqat [orders], where Sufism is a social institution. In countries like Morocco, Kosovo, Turkey, Sufism is really belonging to a movement, going on Tuesday or Saturday night to dhikrs [ceremonies devoted to remembering God]; it's having a sheik and going to regular lectures, and participating in some of the social-welfare activities.
Taking a complicated case such as Iran, would you say that its deep Sufi tradition could potentially be a counterweight to the political-ideological Islam that now dominates?
I would say in Iran, and also in Saudi Arabia and to a less visible extent in Iraq, Sufism represents the main cultural, social, and religious alternative to the ideological forms of Islam that have recently dominated. In Iran, the situation is very complicated because of the obstacles to reporting on what is really going on inside the country. Part of the argument of my book is that in both Saudi Arabia and Iran the Sufis can provide the basis for a transition away from the model of ideological Islamic governance toward a more normal type of society in which religion plays a large role, just as it does in Mexico or Poland, but a normal role.
Why have some Muslims, particularly those called fundamentalists or puritans, objected to Sufism?
There are two objections. There is the theological objection, which begins with Ibn Taymiyya in the 13th century and continues with Wahhabism starting 250 years ago, and that simply says that the Sufis elevate the saints or the sheiks or the Prophet himself to the equivalent of God, that this is like the Christians who view Jesus as a divine being, and that this is against the Islamic principle that only God is worthy of worship. That is the theological objection.
But in the 19th century, you have a situation in which the Ottoman Empire is heavily involved with Sufism; you also have the Persian Empire, which became Shia under Sufi guidance. These empires are the leading Islamic states at the time, and there was a group of Islamic reformers who looked at the situation of Islam, and especially the weakness of Islam faced by the West and the problems of western imperialism, and they said, "Well, Islam is weak because of the superstitious practices of praying over graves, the dhikrs, following sheiks, believing in saints."
So you have two streams that object to Sufism, the stream of puritanism and the stream of reformism. And course they could hook up and combine, as they did in Wahhabism.
As you point out in your book, Wahhabis are probably the biggest foes of Sufism.
I've said for a long time you can have two visions of Islam as a religion, just as we can have two visions of Christianity as a religion. You can view religion as a fairly narrow set of doctrines that require fairly rigid obedience in which the emphasis is on strictness, discipline, and outward adherence. Or you can see religion in civilizational terms. If you think the world is impressed when a young Muslim commits an act of terror, you are wrong, because the world is much more impressed by cultural achievements. The picture of the Taj Mahal means a lot more than a headline about a bombing to make people respect and become interested in Islam. The biggest difference to me is that Wahhabis don't view Islam civilizationally. They're against decorating mosques, against music, against anything beyond saying the prayers, going to the mosque on Fridays, keeping the prayers limited, maintaining this extremely puritanical, fundamentalistic, and limited view of religion as a set of doctrines according to which you live life in a very limited manner.
If you see that there is a variety of Islamic cultures, if you accept, for example, that most Indonesian women are not going to cover their faces, if you see that each of the Islams, the Islam of the Kazakhs or the Islam of the Moroccans, has a specific cultural character that is still Islam and believes in one God, one Prophet, and one Koran but also accepts that there is much else that goes with it, that's the Sufi mentality.
Why has the United States, and particularly the public-diplomacy arms of the government, been so poor at recognizing and highlighting the importance of Sufism, Sufi leaders, and Sufi organizations and, where possible, supporting them?
First of all, it's a daunting task for any westerners to engage with these issues. I've been engaged with them for a long time, and it's hard to sort them all out. There is no denying that in the State Department and in the legacy of public diplomacy in dealing with the Islamic world, there has been a bias in favor of dealing with the official authorities, with the clerics, with the Saudi structures, with the Wahhabis and others who claim to represent a normative Islam and who have behind them the vast oil wealth and the special role of Saudi Arabia as an ambiguous but long-standing partner of the United States. Public diplomacy has not attracted people who know or have much interest in this, and also there is a bias in academic study toward a normative and official Islam.
Now, if the United States or the West were to embark on some sort of wholesale embrace of the Sufis, that could conceivably lead to a problematical outcome. Sufism has always thrived because of its autonomy and its independence, and we can't compromise its spiritual autonomy in the name of a short-term or even long-term political advantage.
However, there are certain things, just in terms of the human-rights responsibilities of western democracies, that we should be able to do for the Sufis. In places where Sufis are under physical attack from Wahhabis [and other ideological Islamists] —for example, in Macedonia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Iraq—I think democratic governments, human-rights organizations, and NGOs have a moral responsibility to point this out and engage in diplomatic interventions and to make it clear they are on the side of Sufis. But first of all, that means that they have to sit down with them, meet with them, get to know them, invite them to diplomatic receptions, and consult with them fairly regularly. As long as the consultation is one that is based on respect instead of vulgar recruitment, I think it would be beneficial for both sides.
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