Islamic Sufism in Response to the Contemporary Global Crisis
by Stephen Schwartz
[Presented to the 4th Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Spiritualities (ICSCS), University of Haifa, Israel, March 20, 2012]
Dedicated to Prof. Moshe Idel
Greetings, Shalom, Selamaleykum warahmetallahuh wabarakatuh,
I wish to begin my lecture with three extraneous points.
First, I will recite Al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of Qur'an, for the victims of the criminal terrorist attacks on Muslims, a Mediterranean Black, and Jews in Toulouse, France, in recent weeks. Once again, as so often in the past, Jews, Muslims, and people of color are united as victims of extremism. The blot on the city of Toulouse, with its long history as a center of intellectual and political dissent, from the time of the crusade against the Albigensians to the aftermath of the Spanish Revolution of 1936-39, is particularly heinous. May Allah subhanawa'tala, the merciful and compassionate, protect us all from these evildoers.
Bismillah ir-rahman, ir-rahim,
Alhamdulillah wa-raab al-alamin,
Maliki yaumi din,
Iyyaka na budu, wa-iyyaka nastain,
Ihdina as-sirat al-mustaqim,
Sirata alathina anamtha aleyhim,
Ghayri magdoubi aleyhim,
In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,
All praise belongs to God, lord of the worlds,
The compassionate, the merciful.
Master of the Day of Judgment.
To you we turn, to you alone,
Lead us on the straight path,
The path of your reward,
Neither that of those who provoke your wrath
Nor those who have gone astray,
I would continue by noting that tomorrow, 21 March, is the Central Asian holiday of Nevruz, marking the beginning of springtime. Nevruz is celebrated by the Sufi groups I will describe here as the birthday of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad.
I will also add that, in response to the questions I face constantly, in Israel as elsewhere, I am not an apostate from Judaism. My mother was Christian and although my father was Jewish, I was raised in no religion. I came to religion on my own. Islam is my first and only faith.
This lecture is a continuation of a paper I delivered in 2011 at the First International Conference "In the Footsteps of Sufism: History, Trends and Praxis," of the Al-Qasemi Academy, in Baqa al-Gharbiyya, Israel. My presentation there was titled "Notes on Sufism as a Social Movement." Both papers, and others of my writings, draw on the same corpus of empirical experience and observation by me in the environment of Islamic Sufism and varied Muslim religious phenomena embodying it or influenced by it, in the Balkans, Israel, Central Asia, and in the Turkish, Kurdish, Kurdish-Iranian, and South Asian diaspora communities in Europe and North America.
My investigations have focused on the Bektashi Sufi order in the Albanian lands and global diaspora, the Alevi-Bektaşi movement in the Turkish and Kurdish populations of Western Europe, and the Ahl-e Haqq (People of Truth) community among Kurdish-Iranian immigrants in Western Europe. These manifestations of metaphysics are not, of course, limited to migrants. The activities of Albanian Bektashis in the U.S., Turkish and Kurdish Alevi-Bektaşis in Germany, and the Kurdish-Iranian Ahl-e Haqq in Western Europe faithfully reproduce the traditions and rituals of the communities from which they originate, in the Balkans, Turkey, and Iran. I will also remark, tangentially, on socio-political aspects of conventional Sunni and Shia Sufi tariqats, such as the Naqshbandi order, the Nurcu movement founded in Turkey by Said Nursi (1877-1960 CE), the Qadiri order as it presently exists in Pakistan and India, and the Nimatullahi order in Iran.
I emphasize that this and other writings of mine are focused on Sufism within Muslim societies and Muslim minority communities, and do not address expressions of Sufi spirituality that emerged in the West. Sufism in Muslim societies and Muslim minority communities is often heterodox in its beliefs, practices, and the derivation of sources for its development, but is an expression of Islamic religiosity. For example, the Bektashi Sufi community, centered in the Albanian-speaking territories and in the global Albanian community, clearly displays the influences of pre-Islamic shamanism, Christianity, Buddhism, and, arguably, Judaism – the latter, I believe, through the adoption of Hurufiyya, the esoteric study of letters and numbers that arose in the Persian culture area during the 14th century of the common era.
Hurufiyya, as developed by Fazlullah Astarabadi (1340-94 CE) bears a strong resemblance to the Kabbalistic Jewish practice of Gematria. Indeed, the similarity of Hurufiyya to Gematria suggests that the Hurufi trend represents the sole example of a Jewish stimulus in Islamic Sufism. By contrast, it is an accepted principle of the historical study of Kabbalah, as expressed in the works of Gershom Scholem and professor Moshe Idel a sponsor of the current series of conferences on contemporary spiritualities, that Islamic Sufism inspired various aspects of Kabbalistic practice.
Returning to the Albanians, they who wish to enter the Bektashi way, regardless of the traces of shamanism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism in the tariqat, must be Muslims, who have made the shehadeh or profession of faith. In addition, all of the mentioned trends show strong ethnic identifications. The headquarters of the World Bektashi Community was moved to Albania after the official suppression of the Sufi orders in Turkey in 1925, and in its contemporary form the Bektashi order is Albanian in language, spirit, and symbolism. There are approximately three million Albanian Bektashis today – with a million, or a third of the total census of three million, in Albania itself. In Bektashi teqet (meeting houses) the Albanian national flag is invariably displayed. Kurdish Alevi-Bektaşis manifest a less-open but unarguably real identification with a specific form of "being Kurdish" that is opposed to the Turkocentrism of the Kemalist state and its successors, and many elements of the Kurdish-Iranian Ahl-e Haqq harbor a similar sense of "Kurdishness" independent of the "Persian" cultural paradigm in Iran.
This identification with Muslim faith and particular ethnic identity contrasts with the situation in Western Sufi movements, where self-described Sufis may not have entered the community of Islam, and Sufi groups are often drawn from the wide spectrum of ethnicities present in Western countries. I would suggest that Islamic Sufism is "transcendental" while Western Sufism is "universalist."
The mention of Hurufiyya here is relevant in another sense. Sufism has been described by many commentators as a protest movement against the injustices and corruption of Muslim rulers as well as an intellectual counterposition to rigid precepts and dictates forthcoming from Muslim clerics, or ulema. Hurufiyya, and successor groups it inspired, like similar forms of metaphysical analysis of letters and numbers in Christianity and Judaism, lent itself to revolutionary interpretations of events, based on analyses of dates as apocalyptic signs. The "subversive" aspect of Hurufiyya led to its relentless suppression in the Ottoman empire, even as it persisted in the ranks of the Bektashi tariqat, which happened to comprise the spiritual organism in the institution of yeniçeri or "new men," who served as military advance troops for the Ottoman Sultans.
As another of their "social" aspects, since the commencement of the Albanian national awakening in the 19th century, Bektashi Sufis have always assumed a prominent role as advocates of national enlightenment. One of the most striking aspects that unites the spectrum of Sufi movements including the Bektashis in the Balkans, the Alevi-Bektaşi movement in Turkey, and the Ahl-e Haqq in Iran is their emphasis on gender equality.
In addition, the Albanian Bektashis are supporters of secular government and education, notwithstanding their mistreatment at the hands of the Kemalist regime in Turkey, while Alevi-Bektaşis in Turkey are secular and, in contrast with the Albanian Bektashis, are generally of the political left.
The present-day worldwide financial crisis, in addition to regional political confrontation in the Middle East and elsewhere, is an undeniable challenge. How will the mentioned Sufi groups respond to the social and political convulsions surrounding them? It may first be said of the Albanian Bektashis, Turkish and Kurdish Alevi-Bektaşis, and many adherents of the Kurdish-Iranian Ahl-e Haqq that they have assumed a prominent role in opposition to the spread of Wahhabi fundamentalism and Khomeinist Shia clericalism.
In Turkey and in Turkish and Kurdish communities abroad, a majority of Alevi-Bektaşis support the main, secularist opposition, the Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi or CHP by its Turkish initials), against the regime of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The current leader of the Turkish Republican People's Party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, comes from the Zaza Kurdish and Alevi region of Tunceli in Eastern Turkey and is widely believed to be a Zaza Kurd and Alevi himself. While his Alevi affiliation seems undeniable, Kılıçdaroğlu has stated that he is of Turkmen, rather than Kurdish origin. Turkmen Alevis make up a large share of the Alevi sect. It is beyond doubt, however, that the Republican People's Party under Kılıçdaroğlu represents a major obstacle to the state ideology of the AKP, which is linked to the Ikhwan ul-Muslimun or Muslim Brotherhood.
The successive AKP-Erdoğan administrations have embodied two paradoxes. First, like the Kemalist secular state before them, they have identified "state Islam" with Sunnism, to the detriment of the Alevis. But second and more significantly, the AKP apparatus and its Islamist predecessors – some of them notably identified with hatred of Jews – are dominated by Naqshbandi Sufis and followers of the Nurcu movement. The repression of Sufism by the Kemalist regime never succeeded in completely extirpating the Naqshbandi presence in Turkish society, and, historically, Naqshbandis are well-known for their avid desire for association with political power. When the Bektashis and yeniçeri were first suppressed by the Ottoman state in 1826, the properties of the Bektashis were handed over to the Naqshbandis, and Bektashi babas were persecuted and killed for their heterodox views, at the instance of Naqshbandi shaykhs.
Within a generation, even without the support of the yeniçeri, the Bektashis had recovered in numbers and public spiritual activities, but the collective memory of their atrocious treatment remains alive among Albanian Bektashis. While Naqshbandi Sufis are, with the Qadiri order, believed to be the two largest Sufi tariqats in the world, few Naqshbandis are found in the Balkans today, and none at all are active in Albania, Kosovo, or western Macedonia, the heartlands of Albanian Sufism. By contrast, Bektashis, Halvetis, Rifa'is, Qadiris, Hayatis, Sa'adi-Jibawis, Tijanis, Xhelvetis, and Gjylsheni Sufis are active throughout the Albanian lands, with Bektashis and Halvetis leading in representation. At the same time, the Turkish Islamist movement of Fethullah Gülen, which is derived from the Naqshbandis and Nurcu movement and has deeply penetrated the AKP government, while developing an ubiquitous international network of schools and public relations campaigns, has recently sought to bring the Albanian Bektashis under their influence.
The Alevi-Bektaşi movement in Turkey and its diaspora remain little studied by social scientists. Unlike the Albanian Bektashis, the Alevi-Bektaşis do not consist of an organized tariqat, but of a large community accounting for seven to 20 million citizens and migrants, or between eight and 25 percent of a total Turkish population, at home and abroad, of around 82 million. Alevi-Bektaşi faith is traced historically to the Safavid movement in eastern Anatolia during the 16th century C.E., when they were known as kızılbaş or "red heads" – a hate term among contemporary Turkish Sunnis. Turkish and Kurdish Alevi-Bektaşis are especially proud that their communities are free of the dual plagues of so-called "honor" murder and female genital mutilation (FGM). So-called "honor" crimes are prevented among Turkish and Kurdish Alevi-Bektaşis by a simple rule: their ritual, or cem, may not begin until any and all disagreements between members of the community are resolved. Aside from its Safavid legacy, Alevi-Bektaşi religion incorporates pre-Islamic Turkish shamanism and elements of pre-Islamic Kurdish religion.
Alevi-Bektaşis are currently divided between two large groups, defined by marriage practice and involvement with Sunni ritual. About half of Alevi-Bektaşis living in the West refuse exogamy, while about half marry into Sunni families. Along the same lines, about half of Alevi-Bektaşis will observe Ramadan, sacrifice animals at Kurban Bayram, or Eid-ul-Fitr, and undertake pilgrimages to Mecca, while maintaining a primary Alevi-Bektaşi affiliation. Alevi-Bektaşis living in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Austria also enjoy a privilege denied them in Turkey, which is juridical recognition as a separate community from Sunni Muslims. Within Alevi-Bektaşi ranks in Germany, a debate is presently underway as to whether the community should declare itself a distinct religion from Islam altogether.
Similarly, in Albania and Kosovo, the Bektashis are recognized as a separate religious community from the Sunni apparatus as well as from non-Bektashi tariqats.
A comparable questioning of its relationship with established Islam, this time in its Iranian Shia form, has emerged in the environment of the Iranian-Kurdish Ahl-e Haqq movement, with about half of its followers supporting a declaration of independence from Iranian Shiism, notwithstanding the presumptive danger to its members that this would represent. The Ahl-e Haqq are divided between supporters and opponents of the Iranian clerical regime, although they participated in the Iranian Revolution. The Ahl-e Haqq are "Melami" or "hidden" Sufis who do not reveal themselves to the wider public. Approximations of their numbers are difficult but may reach eight million, in an Iranian total of 80 million. Dissident Ahl-e Haqq and other Iranian Sufis, notably the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi tariqat, have been subjected to repression by the clerical regime.
Moving further east from the heterodox continuum of Bektashism, Alevi-Bektaşism, and Ahl-e Haqq, we find in South Asia presently a problematical situation in the Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam, which claims to represent half of the Muslims in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as in the South Asian Muslim communities in Western Europe and North America. The Barelvis are known for their conflict with the fundamentalist Deobandi sect, which inspires the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. The Deobandis resemble and maintain close relations with Saudi Wahhabism, although Deobandis, unlike the Wahhabis, do not prohibit Sufism. But the Barelvi Sunnis include numerous members of the Qadiri and Naqshbandi tariqats within their ranks.
Barelvis in India and Pakistan have recently undergone a major differentiation, in that the Indian Barelvis have maintained a strong front against Deobandi penetration of Indian Muslim communal institutions and a fierce opposition to Wahhabi incursions. By contrast, the Pakistani Barelvis have found themselves weakened by Deobandi terrorism, and have accommodated to anti-Western, and, especially, anti-American attitudes. In January 2011, Salman Taseer, the secularist governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, was assassinated by a member of his personal guard, Mumtaz Qadri, a Barelvi. Barelvi leaders justified Qadri's terrorist act by alleging that Taseer was an apostate from Islam. For those accustomed to associating Barelvism with moderation in religion, the Taseer murder and the involvement of the Barelvis in its aftermath were shocking. In Britain, the Barelvis are fighting to retain their positions in mosque and community life against a significant Deobandi campaign. In the U.S., Barelvis have no representation in the institutional life of South Asian Muslims, who make up a plurality of American Muslims and who are dominated in my country by Deobandis.
Bernard Lewis remarked, not very long ago, that Sufis are "peaceful but not pacifist." Bektashi, Qadiri, Naqshbandi, Senussi and other Sufis have occupied prominent positions in armed conflicts, in the Balkans, Caucasus, and North Africa. I suggest then, that in the Islamic world, the dictum of Professor Lewis may be paraphrased to state that Sufism, while personal and introspective, is far from apolitical. Facing the political and social crises of the present moment, Islamic Sufis may not be expected to retreat into meditation. On the other hand, their capacity to resist aggression by Islamist fundamentalists, who have made visible inroads in Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, and the Balkans, may be limited. Notwithstanding slanders by Islamists, Sufis are not rich, and certainly do not benefit from the energy income enjoyed by, for example, the Saudi Wahhabis.
In their own, specifically Islamic manner, Sufis stand in history alongside Catholic social movements, including revolutionary monastic orders, Protestant insurrectionaries, Jewish socialist groups that, while secular, proclaimed a definite "Jewish" vision of social justice, Christians and Jews that contributed alike to the rise of the trade unions, Buddhists in countries like Tibet and Burma protesting against oppression, and indigenous communities in the Americas, Oceania, Africa, and other regions demanding their rights to life and culture. This common commitment to human dignity may be the most important link between Sufism and the "New Age" movements in the West over the past 150 years, including theosophy, which was associated originally with radical social reform, vegetarianism, Esperantism, and the vision of the anarchosyndicalists in the Spanish civil war of 1936-39.
I would conclude by citing the late and much-missed Israeli sociologist Shmuel N. Eisenstadt (1923-2010), of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who argued that, rather than being "despotic" in their governance, the classic Islamic societies epitomized "Islamic pluralism" in which sultans, khalifas, ulema, awqaf or pious foundations, and the Sufi orders maintained a balance of authority in governance. In the contemporary evolution of Muslim societies, that vision, in which Sufism is a key component, and to which I would add the powerful trade and craft guilds, is far more promising for the future of Islam than that of a clerically-directed Islamic state.
Thank you for your attention.
 Scholem, Gershom, esp. Kabbalah, Jerusalem: Keter, 1974, pp. 35-37; Idel, Moshe, one may almost cite as Opera omnia, but esp. such important works as The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 1988.
 See, for example, Massignon, Louis, Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
 See Bildirici, Faruk, "Citizen Kılıçdaroğlu: Turkish opposition chief in his own words," Hürriyet Daily News [Istanbul], July 11, 2010.
 Roster of teqet in the personal archive of Stephen Schwartz, prepared by Komuniteti Alevian Islamik Të Shqiperisë, Tirana, 2006, unpublished.
 Gülen's writing has been published in the central, Tirana-based Albanian Bektashi periodical Urtësia (Wisdom).
 Sökefeld, Martin, Struggling for Recognition: The Alevi Movement in Germany and in Transnational Space, New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2008, p. 66.
 See, for example, the rather cryptic note by Reha Çamuroğlu, who served as an Alevi deputy of the AKP and as prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's adviser on Alevi affairs until Çamuroğlu's resignation from that post in 2008: "An important group of the new circles defines Alevilık as a 'secular belief' supported by folkloristic features. They intend to free traditional Alevilık, which depends on the doctrine of the trinity in the form 'Allah-Mohammed-Ali,' from its 'superstitions.' These circles define Alevilık as an ethno-political entity lying largely outside religious contexts." Çamuroğlu, Reha, "Alevi Revivalism in Turkey," in Alevi Identity, ed. by Tord Olsson, Elisabeth Özdalga, and Catharina Raudvere, Istanbul: Swedish Research Institute, first ed. 1998, reprinted 2003, p. 81. Çamuroğlu's paper dates from 1996. On his resignation from Erdoğan's staff, see Unsigned, "Turkish PM's Alevi advisor resigns," Hürriyet Daily News [Istanbul], June 12, 2008.
 Scholarly literature on Ahl-e Haqq is sparse. The main source in English is Moosa, Matti, Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, Syracuse University Press, 1988. Also see four papers on "Ahl-e Haqq et Alevis Kurdes" in Bektachiyya, Études sur L'Ordre Mystique des Bektachis et les Groupes Relevant de Hadji Bektach, ed. by Alexandre Popović and Gilles Veinstein, Paris: Revue des Études Islamiques, LX, fasc. I, 1992.
 Eisenstadt, Shmuel, "The Public Sphere in Muslim Societies," in Islam in Public: Turkey, Iran, and Europe, ed. by Nilüfer Göle and Ludwig Ammann, İstanbul Bilgi University Press,. 2006, pp. 446-7.
Related Topics: Albanian Muslims, Alevism, Balkan Muslims, Bektashi Sufis, Iran, Kurdish Islam, Sufism, Turkish Islam receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
© 2023 Center for Islamic Pluralism.
home | articles | announcements | spoken | wahhabiwatch | about us | cip in the media | reports
external articles | bookstore | mailing list | contact us | @twitter | iraqi daily al-sabah al-jadid