[Homestead] Sufi backlash against vicious Wah-habi's
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Tue Feb 1 12:25:57 EST 2005
The Weekly Standard
Getting to Know the Sufis
There is a tolerant, pluralist tradition in Islam. We can't afford to
by Stephen Schwartz
02/07/2005, Volume 010, Issue 20
JUST FOUR MONTHS AGO, thousands of mourners thronged the Grand Mosque in
Mecca for the funeral of a famous Sufi teacher. This was an
extraordinary event, given the discrimination against all non-Wahhabi
Muslims that is the state policy of Saudi Arabia. The dead man,
58-year-old Seyed Mohammad Alawi Al-Maliki, had been blacklisted from
employment in religious education, banned from preaching in the Grand
Mosque (a privilege once enjoyed by his father and grandfather), and
even imprisoned by the Saudi regime and deprived of his passport. That
so many Saudi subjects were willing to gather openly to mourn
him--indeed, that his family succeeded in excluding Wahhabi clerics from
the mosque during the memorial--says something important, not just about
the state of dissent inside the Saudi kingdom, but also about pluralism
It's hard to know which facet of Al-Maliki's identity his mourners were
turning out to honor--if indeed these can be separated. He was, first, a
Hejazi, a native of the western Arabian region that was an independent
kingdom before the Saudi-Wahhabi conquest in the 1920s. Home to Mecca,
Medina, and the commercial port of Jeddah, the Hejaz hosts an urban,
cosmopolitan culture very different from that of the desert nomads.
Al-Maliki's funeral was the first for a prominent Hejazi to be held in
the Grand Mosque in decades.
He was also a leader of the Maliki school of Sunni Islam, a classical
school of interpretation that the Wahhabis have forced underground in
Saudi Arabia. Prior to the imposition of Wahhabi fascism, the Malikis,
along with the other three main schools of Sunni Islam, had maintained a
respected presence in the Grand Mosque for many centuries. Dialogue had
characterized relations among these schools of Islamic thought.
But perhaps most significantly, Al-Maliki was an eminent teacher of
Sufism. This spiritual and basically peaceful form of Islam is anathema
to the Wahhabis, who have ferociously suppressed it. With disciples in
South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even the United States, Al-Maliki
was an outstanding representative of moderate, traditional Islam.
Some Saudi dissidents saw a muffled demand for political reform in the
public outpouring of admiration for Al-Maliki; he had attended a
Saudi-government-sponsored national dialogue on political change in late
2003. Others viewed it as an affirmation of secret affiliation with the
Maliki school. But many Saudis treated the massive funeral principally
as a manifestation of sympathy for Sufism. Clandestine Sufi meetings
have become commonplace in Jeddah, the hive of liberal reformism in the
kingdom, and increasing numbers of young people have taken to Sufism as
an expression of anti-Wahhabi defiance.
ISLAMIC PLURALISM is not a new idea dreamed up in the West and offered
as a helpful cure for Muslim rage. It is a longstanding reality. The
Muslim world comprises a spectrum of religious interpretations. If, at
one end of the continuum, we find the fanatical creed of Wahhabism,
cruel and arbitrary, more an Arab-supremacist state ideology than a
religious sect, at the other end we find the enlightened traditions of
Sufism. These stress not only intra-Islamic dialogue, separation of
spiritual from clerical authority, and teaching in the vernacular, but
also respect for all believers, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish,
Hindu, Buddhist, or other. Sufis emphasize, above all, their commitment
to mutual civility, interaction, and cooperation among believers,
regardless of sect.
Indeed, the further the distance from Wahhabism, the greater the element
of pluralism present in Islam. Where the Wahhabis insist that there is
only one, monolithic, authentic Islam (theirs), the Sufis express their
faith through hundreds of different orders and communities around the
globe, none pretending to an exclusive hold on truth. Sufis may be
either Sunni or Shia; some would claim to have transcended the
difference. Throughout its 1,200-year history, Sufism has rested on a
spiritual foundation of love for the creator and creation, which implies
the cultivation of mercy and compassion toward all human beings. These
principles are expressed in esoteric teachings imparted through formal
Sufis follow teachers--known as /sheikhs/, /babas/, /pirs/, and
/mullahs/ (the latter, meaning "protector," had no pejorative meaning
before the Iranian revolution)--but they resist the notion that
religious authority should be based on titles and offices. Rather, Sufi
teachers gain acceptance and support by their insights and capacity for
transmission of enlightenment to their students.
The history of Sufism is filled with examples of interfaith fusion, in
contrast with the rigid separatism of the Islamic fundamentalists.
Balkan and Turkish Sufis share holy sites with Christians. Central Asian
Sufis preserve traditions inherited from shamans and Buddhists. Sufis in
French-speaking West Africa adapt local customs, and those in Eastern
Turkestan borrow from Chinese traditions such as Confucianism and
Taoism, as well as martial arts. In the Balkans, Turkey, and Central
Asia, Sufis have accepted secularism as a bulwark against religious
intolerance and the monopolization of religious opinion by clerics.
The mode of life followed by Sufis, who are also known as dervishes, is
as varied as their geographical distribution. Some retire into
seclusion, living on the grounds of /tekkes/ or lodges where Sufis
typically meet weekly for meditation, chanting, and other rituals, known
as /zikr/ or "remembrance of God." Others give up their worldly
possessions and wander as pilgrims. Yet most Sufis in the Muslim world
maintain ordinary working lives, and some have become rich; it was said
that when Sheikh al-Maliki's funeral was held in Mecca, private jets
choked Saudi airports for days. Sufism has also exercised an influence,
if a limited one, on intellectuals and spiritual seekers in the West.
Among Western experts at the State Department and in academic Middle
East Studies programs, Sufism is often dismissed as "folk Islam,"
echoing the denigration voiced by the Islamic clerical establishment.
This is paradoxical, for although there are regions where Sufism is the
prevalent form of Islam and its influence is seen in a lack of strict
observance, Sufis are more often than not sophisticated in their breadth
of reading and worldview. In some countries, such as Egypt, Sufis are
sometimes derided as credulous bumpkins, but in others, like India, they
tend to be viewed as an elite.
Western experts' disdain for Sufism, however, is worse than paradoxical.
It indicates a remarkable blindness to a cultural resource profoundly
relevant to the possible growth of pluralism and tolerance--and
therefore the emergence of democratic cultures--in the Islamic world.
JUST WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP between Sufism and the prospect for
political progress in the Muslim nations? At the risk of grossly
oversimplifying complex phenomena, it may be useful to distinguish three
(1) We have already seen how, under conditions of oppression, Sufism in
Saudi Arabia has become something of a channel for cultural resistance
and political opposition. The Saudi case is not unique. In several
places, Sufism has nourished resistance to oppressive regimes. The Sufi
always prefers peace to war, and nonviolence to violence. But Sufis are
also fighters against injustice. As the dean of Western historians of
Islam, Bernard Lewis, puts it, Sufism is "peaceful but not pacifist."
Some Sufis have been famous for their involvement in /jihad/, although
the 19th-century Sufi and leader of the early Algerian opposition to
French conquest Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi famously commented, "The Sufi
does not go gladly to /jihad/." Al-Jazairi himself preached, and showed
by example, that protection of non-Muslim civilians (in this instance,
French colonists in Algeria) was required of Muslims fighting a
Similarly, in Kosovo, Sufis played a major role, over decades, in
resisting, sometimes by means of guerrilla war,* *the abuses inflicted
on Albanians by the Turkish authorities, and later by Slavic
imperialists. Iraqi Kurdistan is another Sufi center; its spiritual
leaders were prominent in fighting Saddam Hussein, and now actively
promote the Iraqi alliance with the United States. Sufis were the
traditional inspirers of the struggle against Russian aggression in
Chechnya and other Caucasian Muslim areas, until, at the end of the
1990s, the conflict in Chechnya was usurped by Wahhabi Arabs who bent it
in a terrorist direction.
(2) A second model can be discerned where Sufism is the dominant form of
Islam, in lands stretching from French-speaking West Africa and Morocco
to the Balkans, Turkey, and Central Asia, and from India to Indonesia.
Here, Sufism has deeply influenced local cultures, facilitating
secularist attitudes as well as coexistence with non-Muslims. It is no
accident that Morocco, Turkey, and Indonesia, all of which feature
Sufi-dominated Islam, are the countries often deemed to have the best
potential for the development of Muslim democracies. In India, of
course, Muslims now numbering 130 million have lived as a minority in a
functioning democracy for half a century.
Against many obstacles, the kings of Morocco--home to some of the most
respected and subtle Sufi thinkers--have sought to maintain good
relations with the country's centuries-old Jewish community as well as
with Israel. Turkey, whose cultural life is replete with Sufi influence
(even though the Sufi orders themselves were outlawed by the
secularizing regime in the 1920s and remain underground to this day),
also has an excellent record with both Turkish Jews and the state of
Israel. The constitution of Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim
nation, with a population of 240 million, promises religious freedom for
all beliefs, though the religion of the majority is taught in public
schools; a Sufi mass organization with 30 million members, the
Muhammadiyah, has been outspoken in its opposition to Islamist
extremism. What varies considerably in these countries is the
institutional strength of Sufism. Thus, in Central Asia, where famous
Sufis are national cultural heroes, the long night of Soviet communism
left the Sufis structurally weak, and they are presently rebuilding
In places where Sufism is dominant, spiritual traditions may play a
positive role in fostering civic values conducive to democracy. The
Bektashi Sufis of the Albanian lands, counting 3 million members from
Kosovo to northern Greece, for example, declare boldly that they are
"the most progressive Muslims in the world!"--as I was vociferously
reminded in 2003 by Baba Tahir Emini, their leader in Western Macedonia.
They are especially known for their dedication to women's rights and
popular education, and are the only Sufi order to permit drinking alcohol.
(3) A third model can be identified in places where Sufism is
influential among the mass of Muslims, but the dervishes have kept their
heads down so as to avoid conflict with the ruling dictators. In these
countries--among them Syria, Iran, and Sudan--Sufism remains quietist.
Nobody can say what role the Sufis might eventually play here, if or
when each regime begins or accelerates a transition away from Baathism
(in the first case), clerical rule (in the second), or violent Islamism
(in the third). But the Sufis' private dedication to religious and
intellectual pluralism can only reinforce whatever positive developments
GIVEN THIS VARIED PICTURE, how should Sufism enter into American
strategies for dealing with the Islamic world?
Most obviously, Americans should learn more about Sufism, engaging with
its leaders and followers, and getting to know its main trends. This
isn't hard, as the meeting houses of the Sufi orders are easy to find in
every Muslim country except Saudi Arabia. American diplomats in Muslim
cities from Pristina in Kosovo to Kashgar in western China, and from Fez
in Morocco to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, should include the
local Sufis on their lists for frequent visits. American students and
business people, aid workers and tourists, should embrace opportunities
to get acquainted with Sufis. Most important, anyone in or out of
government who is in a position to influence the discussion and shaping
of U.S. policy toward the Middle East can benefit from an appreciation
of this indigenous tradition of Islamic tolerance.
It should go without saying that attempts at direct cooptation or
subsidy of a "Sufi alternative" to radical Islam should be avoided. To
remain true to itself, Sufism must be independent. Sufis do not need
money, but comprehension and respect as a major component of the global
At the same time, on human rights grounds, the United States must speak
up for Sufis against those who repress them, often violently, especially
in Saudi Arabia. To repeat, in the Wahhabi-dominated kingdom, an
independent, spiritual Sufi oppositional culture is emerging, with
special attraction for young people. Against the backdrop of Saudi
fanaticism, including the open support for radical Islam coming from
some of Riyadh's richest and most powerful personalities, Sufism
exemplifies the Islamic pluralism that, if restored to Saudi Arabia,
could shut off the money flow to al Qaeda and its allies worldwide.
These are opportunities in the war against terror that the United States
would be foolish to miss.
Stephen Schwartz is the author of /The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi
Fundamentalism and its Role in Terrorism/.
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