The Other Islam
Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony
by Stephen Schwartz
New York, Doubleday, 2008
Reviewed by David Pryce-Jones
New York Post
September 14, 2008
One day in 1979, Stephen Schwartz went into a famous bookshop in Paris and found a book by a Rabbi Ariel Bension about the relationship between Jewish and Muslim mysticism. This, he says, was a turning point in his life. However intelligent and even worldly he might be, from now on he was to become a mystic himself, more exactly a convert to Sufism, which is an integral component of Islam. The purpose of Sufism, Schwartz says, is to discover "inner tranquillity," or more simply still, "the path to God."
Sufis are the harbingers of the pluralistic and peaceful Islam that must replace the Wahhabism now distorting Islam, Schwartz argues. Natural allies against violence and terror, Sufis will lead Muslims, Jews and Christians to embrace "a modern and global identity."
Dating from the earliest times, Sunni and Shia are the two main divisions within Islam, and doctrinal differences between them have led to much mutual injustice and oppression. Sufis may be either Sunni or Shia, and they appear around the 12th or 13th centuries, seemingly with borrowings from contemporary Christianity and Judaism. Sufism is usually described as popular Islam, encouraging forms of worship and patterns of behavior that mainstream Sunnis and Shias reject as un-Islamic.
Traditionally, Sufis have organized themselves informally in lodges that stretch from West Africa to Indonesia, India to China. As a reporter who happens also to be a pilgrim, Schwartz has visited lodges in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, the Balkans and other faraway places. Most surprisingly, he found Sufis thriving in Israel, apparently manifesting Rabbi Bension's glad tidings that Muslims and Jews meet as equals at the mystical level.
These lodges are in part places of worship, and in part schools devoted to passing on the spirituality of some historic and exemplary teacher and founder. Informality of organization gives them a certain secrecy, and in bad times they go underground. What Sufis actually do, and what are the requirements of their beliefs, remains rather mysterious. They sing, they dance, they have a devotional literature and they venerate those they judge to be learned in the community. Schwartz hints at ceremonies in tombs and shrines but he keeps practical instruction to himself, merely classifying some Sufis as "sober" and others as "intoxicated" without really explaining why. Instead he quotes lots of religious poetry as though its meaning were self-evident when it is bafflingly opaque.
Far from homogeneous, Sufis often clash and even fight each other, and wage jihad against unbelievers. Opposition to Communist and secular nationalist regimes has helped them maintain their identity. During the break-up of Yugoslavia, Schwartz spent long periods in Bosnia and Kosovo. In a passage of unrestrained indignation, he describes how Serbs massacred Albanian Sufis in one of the villages he knew well.
The Saudi regime is an even more systematic persecutor of Sufis than the Serbs, and this book builds to a well-founded tirade against them and Wahhabism, their extreme Sunni version of Islam. Wahhabis are too bigoted and fanatical ever to tolerate others, and to Schwartz they are responsible for the current violence and al Qaeda-type of terror. To give one example of the daily abuse, he tells the story of someone arrested by the Saudi religious police just "for facing the 'wrong' direction while praying."
Liberation will come, Schwartz thinks. Meanwhile, the mixture of learning and quirkiness make "The Other Islam" something like a prayer for a most unusual projection of harmony.
Related Topics: Sufism
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