As troop levels go down in Iraq, the U.S. is still facing a tough insurgency in that country. But the threat this time is not as much from al Qaeda as it is from the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, which seems to be operating recently in the Diyala and Kirkuk provinces.
The Naqshbandi Army takes its name from an order—or path—of Sufism, what some call the spiritual aspect of Islam. During Saddam Hussein's reign, Sufism was tolerated in Iraq for precisely the reasons that make the Naqshbandi Army's behavior puzzling today. As a pacific spiritual path that shied away from politics, Sufism hardly constituted a threat to Saddam's Ba'athist regime—or any regime for that matter.
In the U.S., the peaceful image of Sufism still prevails. In a meeting house in New York's Greenwich Village, Sufis sit cross-legged on the ground, their eyes closed in meditation. Traditional Iranian Sufi music plays in the background, and its chants remind the Sufis that their path to God does not involve violence, politics or self-aggrandizement—but a complete annihilation of the ego.
As a school of thought based on love, Sufism has influenced Catholic and Jewish mysticism and the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In the U.S., Sufi teachings have attracted a wide swath of followers. In the music video for Madonna's 1994 song "Bedtime Story," whirling dervishes dance to Madonna's Sufi-inspired verse, "Let's get unconscious." To Stephen Schwartz, a convert to Sufism and the author of "The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony," the faith's emphasis on achieving internal peace can fill the "great spiritual hunger in this country and in the West in general."
"In Sufism, the focus is on fixing the self rather than fixing others. That concept is inherently pacific, not political," says Hedieh Mirahmadi, a Sufi practitioner. Ms. Mirahmadi is the general counsel of Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, the popular deputy master of the orthodox Naqshbandi order. In Sufism, many paths lead to God. Other orders include the aloof Nimatullahi, whose meeting house was described above, the progressive Bektashi and the militant Qadiri.
The problem arises when the spiritual path to God is blocked with violence. Do Sufis, inherently peaceful, take up arms in the name of the very complicated and controversial notion of jihad, or holy war? Ms. Mirahmadi says no, emphatically. She and her Sufi master, Mr. Kabbani, condemn the behavior of the Naqshbandi Army in Iraq.
Prof. Kevin Reinhart, who has been teaching Sufism at Dartmouth College for more than 20 years, notes that Sufis have not always behaved as pacifically as their teachings suggest they should. "Sufis took up arms to resist the Russians in Chechnya. They resisted the Italians in Libya. They resisted the French in Algeria."
Most Sufis define jihad internally—as a struggle against the ego, the part of the soul that tempts one into corrupt behavior. Mr. Schwartz, though, does not shy away from discussing Sufism's relationship to armed struggle. "We support a defensive jihad . . . for instance, to defend innocent people in Chechnya, Algeria and Bosnia."
But to Ms. Mirahmadi, the Chechens, the Algerians, the Libyans and the Naqshbandi Army in Iraq fight for "nationalistic reasons. They're not fighting because they're Sufis." In an interview with the Iraqi satellite channel, Al-Zawra, the official spokesman of the Naqshbandi Army in Iraq confirms this: "We will fight for the integrity and unity of Iraq, land and people, to maintain its Arab and Islamic identity."
That Sufis are fighting at all is a problem. According to a Nimatullahi sheikh, the former master of the Nimatullahi order, Javad Nurbakhsh said that if a Sufi kills anyone, no matter what the reason—even in self-defense—he will never reach the perfection required to achieve union with God. Ms. Mirahmadi expresses a similar sentiment: "I was there during conversations between the former president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, and Sheikh Kabbani. He called Sheikh Kabbani begging for advice on how to react to the Russian invasion. Sheikh Kabbani said stop fighting." Period.
Though Mr. Schwartz does not see jihad and Sufism as necessarily opposed, he is bewildered by the behavior of the Naqshbandi Army in Iraq. "It is counterproductive for them to fight the coalition forces. Those Sufis are either fanatical or there is some miscommunication." Miscommunication might be part of the problem, but fanaticism is a more likely explanation. The Naqshbandi Army seems to be a front organization. Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, one of Saddam's former top aides and a former Ba'athist, has strong connections with the group.
Ms. Mirahmadi claims that the group has been hijacked by former Ba'athists and jihadists. "They are not real Sufis," she says. Since the invasion in 2003, jihadists have publicly killed Sufis in Iraq, while Ba'athists, as secularists, are only nominally religious, if at all.
Bernard Lewis once called Sufis peaceful but not pacifists. Ultimately, such a view reconciles Sufi teachings with Sufi behavior—but it doesn't resolve the fact that Sufis must be both if they are serious about their spiritual pursuits.
—Ms. Smith is a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Journal this summer.
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list