The Other Islam
The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony is an inspired intellectual endeavour on many levels. In this work Stephen Schwartz undertakes to encapsulate on an ambitious scale the story of Sufism, one of the most fascinating and so far relatively unknown and largely ignored, underestimated, abused and often persecuted 'sects' of Islam both in the Muslim world and globally, covering almost everything of importance regarding its achievements and setbacks from its inception in the twelfth century (or perhaps earlier) until the start of the twenty-first century.
Academics interested in religion (especially comparative religion), theologians and general readers alike will find in this meticulously researched study more than just dates and impressive details about Sufism. The wealth of information on the time and place as well as historical, political and spiritual circumstances when Sufism emerged, flourished and was oftentimes defeated but never eliminated, is not presented as dry facts. Whether he catalogues main Sufi orders/tariqas and related phenomena (such as Qadiri, Mawlawi, Nimatullahi, Rifa'i, Ba'Alawis, Alevi, Naqshbandi, and Bektashi), important Sufi saints since the eleventh century (including Husain bin Mansur Hallaj, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, Muhyid'din Ibn Arabi, Hajji Bektash), renowned Sufi scholars, mystics and poets (from Rabiya Al-Adawiyya in the eighth century, Rumi in the thirteenth century, and Abd Al-Qadir Al Jazairi in the nineteenth century), Schwartz offers an engaging account of the crucial though often thwarted and largely unacknowledged impact Sufism has traditionally played in a global Islamic context and beyond: Judaic, Christian, Ottoman, Asian, Balkan and Western.
A religion is not created overnight and no faith is revealed or delivered as a 'finished product'. It took Christianity at least five centuries to have something resembling an official doctrine on the Virgin Birth, Jesus Christ's divine humanity, Incarnation and Trinity. This does not mean that Christians have stopped wondering about these and other key aspects of their faith. Christian dogma is the outcome of an on-going exchange of 'heretical' ideas over centuries in numerous synods and councils, a large number of them finally becoming part of the official canon, which is in constant need of updating to reflect better the society in which it operates and whose spiritual needs it purports to cater for.
The general perception in the West is that Islam has yet to undergo a necessary reformation process similar to what Christianity went through mainly from the fourteenth century onwards. Schwartz's account of Sufism indicates otherwise though. Islam, it seems, is neither immune nor hostile to reforming. On the contrary, given the reasons why and the time when Sufism apparently emerged and flourished, one could conclude that Islamic faith was faced with the reformation issue not very long after it was revealed in the seventh century.
To Schwartz, Sufism has contributed considerably in spreading Islam perhaps from the time of the Prophet Mohammed and the four Caliphs. Whether in the olden days Islam spread across the globe primarily through peaceful means, as Schwartz often claims, is debatable. Schwartz makes a strong case in this book, however, in support of his view that Islam owes much of its expansion to the peaceful preaching of Sufis orders. So, for instance, he holds that following the destruction of the Baghdad caliphate in 1258, it was mainly by the Sufi path that, like their ethnic Turkic cousins, the Mongol rulers of Iran and Iraq came to Islam (pp. 123-4).
North African scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) predicted that urbanization would result in the replacement of the original Arab embodiment of Islam by 'new Islams'. Reading Schwartz's book, one could conclude that Sufism presented the original Arab embodiment of Islam with the first serious challenge. Sufism was perhaps the first attempt to articulate and resist, mainly peacefully, early attempts on the part of some Arab 'purists' to appropriate, 'Arabize' and present Islam as being fundamentally different and as such in direct conflict with other religions, cultures and traditions.
Schwartz identifies two key Arab Muslim 'prosecutors' of Sufism. The first such prosecutor was Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), a former Sufi, who was in favour of applying Shariah to the letter and remained opposed to any foreign influence in Islam. Schwartz tends to present Ibn Taymiyyah more as 'a confused individual, of a type known throughout history' (p. 126).
The second prosecutor of Sufis, Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab (1703-1792), argues Schwartz, is a much more controversial and dangerous figure. As in his 2002 book, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror (the subtitle of this work was subsequently changed to Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism), in The Other Islam Schwartz holds Wahhabism, the official Islam inspired by Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab and currently practiced in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, accountable for the 'unrestrained war' that Sufism, this metaphysical form of Islam, has been suffering for over 250 years.
Schwartz is equally keen to emphasise the risks that, according to him, Wahhabism poses to the West with its alleged links to Islamic terrorism. Schwartz is critical of the West in general, especially of 'military and political planners in Washington, ever concerned not to offend the Saudis', seek to 'evade' (p. 180) apparently obvious information implicating Saudi clerics and volunteers in preaching openly in favour of planning and carrying out suicide attacks on Coalition forces in Iraq as early as April 2003. In this context, the Wikileaks disclosures are not 'news' to people familiar with Schwartz's oeuvre.
Schwartz provides several reasons why, in his view, Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab was keen to target 'dissenters' of his version of Islam, especially Sufis. For someone like Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, who apparently had a phobia against anything foreign and 'a deranged talent for heresy hunting' (p. 131), Sufism's 'cosmopolitan' nature, favourable attitude to science, willingness to adapt to modernity, and readiness to benefit other cultures and religions as well as learn from them, apparently made its followers, in the eyes of Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, a 'legitimate' target that should be dealt with swiftly.
Schwartz sees Sufism as an early genuine effort on the part of some Muslim scholars and mystics to offer some form of resistance to tendencies to 'Arabize Islam', and Sufi orders as a manifestation of Islamic pluralism. The grouping of Sufi students after Sufi mysticism became institutionalised in Islam in orders, argues Schwartz, is indicative of what Sufism has in common with Christian monastic institutions, the Jewish schools of traditional Kabbalah and sacred communities of Chasidim (p. 8). In this context, referring to Khalid Durán, one of the most important points Schwartz highlights in this work is the claim equating 'the rise of Sufism with protests against the corruptions and wealth' (p. 40). This, together with the 'fracture' running through Islamic history between the 'legalists', who are hunters of heresy and haters, and the mystics, who are pluralists and lovers (ibid.), indicates that the early students of Sufism were, to some extent, trying to do for Islam what Franciscans and Dominicans in the thirteen century were doing for Christianity: preach the significance of leading a simple and fully devoted religious life at a time when the Church was becoming increasingly concerned with amassing wealth, an obsession which together with other circumstances eventually triggered off the Reformation.
Schwartz's book is a welcome publication at a time when following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, misperceptions of and bigotry against Islam and Muslims have increased, especially in the West. In the 'enlightened' West, Islam, unfortunately, is often perceived as an 'alien' and 'hostile' faith that apparently has nothing to do with our values. In general, our understanding of Islam today is at the level of Thomas Carlyle's sweeping and rather derogatory statements about this faith, the Koran, and the Prophet Muhammad. Carlyle can be somehow 'justified' for his flimsy comprehension of Islam; after all, he was a representative of the mid-nineteenth century European colonial mindset inclined to see any real or perceived threat to Western expansion as 'crude', 'uncouth' and even outright 'barbaric'.
While the Western discourse on Islam is often either hostile or politically correct, Schwartz does not resort to condescending statements of the type often made by some Western politicians and scholars of Islam. Nor does Schwartz present this faith patronisingly as the friendly 'other'. Rather, he unearths Islam from the very foundations of Western civilization arguing convincingly not only that this faith is not 'our enemy' but also that if we are objective and open-minded the West can find in Islam an ally that has contributed generously to enriching our values and is indispensable in addressing the acute problems facing mankind at the moment.
The book is not intended to 'exonerate' Islam either; one of its purposes is to inform readers (including Muslim readership) of how little they know of a faith that continues to be largely misunderstood, pigeonholed and demonised as a result of external as much as internal factors. Likewise, Schwartz is critical of Sufi scholars who, in his view, fail to realise what Sufis have contributed to Islam. Referring to the Sufi scholar G. F. Haddad of the Naqshbandi order, Schwartz is critical of his attempt to 'enclose Sufism in a framework of orthodoxy' (p. 150). To Schwartz, the best way for Muslim Sufis to defend themselves from 'the homicidal mania' of 'radicals' is 'by proclaiming their own superior adherence' not 'to narrow Shariah' but to 'legal and intellectual pluralism' (ibid.).
Schwartz believes that Sufis' traditional superior adherence to legal and intellectual pluralism makes it more imperative for the West to 'abandon dismissive insults' about Sufism as 'folk Islam' (p. 29), especially now when it has become clear that relations with the community of Muhammad can no longer be handled only through Sunni and Shia 'intermediaries'. Sufism is a natural bridge-builder between Islam and the West, especially nowadays that they need each other to win 'their common battle against Islamist radicalism' (ibid.). '[G]enuinely enlightening, progressive, and even libertarian Sufi elements advancing in contemporary Islam,' argues Schwartz, can play a crucial role in this battle if the West does not attempt to manipulate or buy them off (ibid.).
One of Schwartz's claims that is bound to take by surprise readers fed on an 'Islam-as-a-threat' diet discourse for so long, is that Islam, as the history of Sufism reveals, has from the start attempted, at time successfully at times not, to foster pluralism in its midst, that it has benefited from and inspired both Jewish and Christian mysticism, and that it has influenced and inspired some of the best writers in the West including Dante, Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau and Lessing.
One cannot help thinking after reading this book that rather than a two-branch faith – Sunni and Shi'ite – Islam is a three-mainstream religion. I understand this is not why the author wrote or what he believes he has conveyed in this work. The best of books, in my view, generate their own meanings. The fact that The Other Islam is such a book is yet another proof of Schwartz's outstanding erudition and veneration for Islam in general and especially Sufism as an important player in our collective endeavours to achieve global harmony.
[Gëzim Alpion is Lecturer in Sociology, Department of Political Science and International StudiesUniversity of Birmingham, UK]