A Sublime Way: Religion, Authoritarianism and Diversity (Book Launch talk)

The below are the edited comments delivered at the book launch event for “A Sublime Way”, a book co-authored with Shaykh Seraj Hendricks and Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, in Cape Town on the 26th of November 2018.


This particular book has a particular resonance for me, connected as it is to a number of different parts of my life. I first came to Cape Town in January 2009, almost exactly 10 years ago – a city I had never visited hitherto but had known through my father. In his youth, my father had been the International Vice-Chairman of the National League of Young Liberals in the United Kingdom, the youth wing of the Liberal Party, which later went on to become the Liberal Democrats following a merger with the Social Democrat Party in the late 1980s. The Young Liberals (YL) were one of the most active political movements in Britain at the time, agitating against the apartheid regime of South Africa. At the 1967 Liberal Assembly, my father urged the Liberal Party to “show that we are in tune with the present-day world’ by rejecting ‘fascist’ white regimes and supporting the ‘wind of change’ blowing across Africa.” But there was a deeper commitment to South Africa, which Catherine Ellis and Matthew Redding note in their historical essay on the topic, published in the Journal of Liberal History in the spring of 2012:

“But Hellyer insisted that supporting a resolution was not enough – mouthing ‘pious sentiments’ was no better than the ‘cowardly hypocrisy’ of Harold Wilson’s Labour government that supported British business interests in Africa at the expense of human rights. Liberals must follow the YL example and take real action. Early in 1968, the YLs formed a South Africa Commission and their involvement in the anti-apartheid movement gained momentum. The focal point of their campaigning was South Africa’s participation in international sports competitions, and their protests took place principally through the Stop the Seventy Tour (STST) committee led by Peter Hain. Hain was the son of white anti-apartheid and South African Liberal Party activists who had fled to London in 1966 after one of their friends was executed by the South African government. Upon arrival in England at the age of sixteen, Hain found the Young Liberals a ‘vibrant, irreverent force for radicalism’ and quickly joined – although first he had to set up a YL branch in his local constituency. He became a member of the YL executive and the Liberal Party’s national executive, as well as Vice-Chairman of the South Africa Commission. Both he and Hellyer also served on the executive of the AntiApartheid Movement (AAM), a major London-based protest group with strong Liberal and Labour Party support.”

As such, the issue of South Africa and the history of apartheid was one often spoken about in my home as a child and coming to Cape Town in 2009 was quite striking for that very reason. As I ponder my own writing and engagement vis-à-vis Egypt in particular, and the Arab revolutionary uprisings of 2010/2011 more generally, I wonder if that sense of suspicion of power was secretly taught to me in my own youth.




Be that as it may, there were a number of interesting points behind my coming to South Africa. I had been working on a project that looked at education in different types of Muslim communities, and I confess that I proposed South Africa as a case study in large part because of a long-standing interest in coming to Cape Town. I had known of the Zawiya mosque – known as Azzavia Masjid in local parlance – for some years, due to the writings online by the two main shaykhs of the mosque, Shaykh Seraj Hendricks and Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks. Their writings had been superb, particularly on spiritual traditions, and I was very curious to have the opportunity to meet in person. I contacted Shafiq Morton, one of Cape Town’s own luminaries in his own right, and he facilitated that first meeting with Shaykh Seraj Hendricks in the office of the Zawiya mosque.

During that trip, I was thus exposed to a tradition that I had never seen before. Shaykh Seraj and Shaykh Ahmad were the third generation of Hendricks that had trained in Makka at the hands of a family and a tradition that was unique, powerful in knowledge, and distinguished in spiritual prowess. But they were also integral parts of a community – the Cape Muslims – that had struggled against the oppression of apartheid and were deeply concerned about issues pertaining to social justice. Indeed, Shaykh Seraj himself found himself briefly in prison as a result of that period. That commitment to integrity, and that open rejection of tyranny, while profoundly connected to a normative spiritual tradition, spoke to me tremendously.

As I reflect on the past decade of my life, having spent much of it in authoritarian states in the Arab world, and trying to make sense of how different religious factions responded to oppression and repression, I see more than ever why the likes of the Hendricks appealed to me on that level. Years after visiting Cape Town that first time, I read the words of another shaykh, this time one of the Azhar in Egypt, who represented that spirit in one of the most exemplary fashions I’d ever seen:

“I urge everyone, especially my students, to pause and reflect. The gauge is not the success of the revolution but taking a stand. Revolutions can be aborted, and sincere calls can be defeated. Some prophets, peace be upon them, will come alone on the Day of Judgment, some were killed, and that is not a measure of failure. Not at all; the gauge is one’s stand.”

I ponder again and again if my own stand has been sufficient over the years.

Much happened on that first day in the Zawiya, but that is best written about elsewhere at another time.

On a personal level, Cape Town spoke to me in another fashion. As an Arab, I felt very comfortable in the Muslim surroundings that I engaged within – and as an Englishman, the wider Western context of Cape Town was familiar. And it was an intriguing experience to see the two intermesh in such a deeply organic fashion. In some ways, it felt very much like a home I had never had. In future years, I would return to Cape Town again and again.


So, the introductory part of the book is partly about that kind of social history that the tariqa (Sufi order) of the sages of Makka found itself in when it manifested in Cape Town – the Hendricks’ generations of scholars that were so close to the Maliki family of Makka. And close they were indeed – as students, but also as family members, for intermarriage did take place. As you look throughout the history of the tariqa in Cape Town, the context in which it existed is fascinating, and draws heavily on generations of a Muslim community that existed through slavery, persecution and racial prejudice. All of that might be regrettable, but it also inspired a level of deep and intense commitment to justice – something that cannot be underestimated in terms of importance.

It was, perhaps, one of the reasons why I initially wanted to learn more about that path. So, one can say, without exaggeration, that that part of the book is really quite significant.


Another part of the book is the single authored essay by Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, which is a tract on diversity and the respect for it. At a time where we reject diversity and we insist on uniformity, Shaykh Seraj, a very traditional and classically-trained scholar in the Muslim canon, is insistent that the normative answer is to accept that there many valid points of view, encompassed by a modus vivendi underpinned by expertise and scholastic depth. As he expertly notes in his essay:

“However, there is no gainsaying the fact that fanaticism is a reality of a recurrent nature. Every epoch and era—regardless of geography, place, time, habitation or belief—will produce its fanatics. A fanatical tribalist in politics anywhere in the world is no different to a fanatic of any of the legal schools of thought—whether Ḥanafī, Mālikī, Shāfiʿī, Ḥanbalī, and so forth. The fundamental question is not one about fanaticism; the fundamental question addresses the nature of approach to any form or instance of fanaticism. Here, we prompt the reader, and ourselves, about the reminder from Imam Abū al-Ḥasan al-Shādhulī (d. 656/1258):

“If anyone finds a sweeter spring than this [path of ours], let them drink from it (i.e., let them find their sustenance elsewhere).

So far is he, as all true sages are, from the temptation of fanaticism. In the latter respect, prejudice—the stubborn antagonist of harmony and understanding—is often the result of an inability, or sheer lack of will, to understand and accept difference and diversity. In our quest for peace, therefore, we need to understand the wisdom behind the diversity that we witness in the world.

As that understanding sinks in, we might yet be able to contribute to a renewal and rejuvenation—at the heart of which Sufism is vital and pertinent.”


We then go into the following part of the book, which examines the way of the tariqa, which at heart is a Shadhuli one, drawn from a particularly Idrisi rendition, while encapsulated by a Ba’Alawi heritage. But it takes from beyond both of these paths, in a generous and beautiful style – at a time, when we desperately need that kind of respect for diversity. An extract from the book hints at more:

“When we consider the path of Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī, there are three major aspects to recall.

The first is that, as Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks confirms, the original heritage of Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī, his father Sayyid ʿAlawī al-Mālikī, and his grandfather, Sayyid ʿAbbās al-Mālikī, was undoubtedly Shādhulī in terms of spiritual path. One might even consider that the way in which Sayyid Muhammad inherits that Shādhulī way is specifically the Shādhulī-Idrīsi view of it—perhaps indicating why Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī was so keen on the formulae of the declaration of faith (taḥlīl) of Sīdī Aḥmad b. Idrīs.

The second aspect is to recall that after having seen Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī’s promise as a scholar and leader from an early age, the sāda of the Bā ʿAlawī, in Makka, publicly ‘adopted’ him from his father Sayyid ʿAlawī al-Mālikī.

This made the Sayyid very particularly Bā ʿAlawī, especially of the ‘Makkan’ rendition of that spiritual path. This particular Makkan rendition of the spiritual path of the sāda of the Bāni ʿAlawī should be noted: in many ways, one might describe it as especially and deeply emphasising a Shādhulī ‘gloss’ on the way of the Bāni ʿAlawī, even more than what is considered to be ‘usual’ among the Bā ʿAlawīs, who consider themselves to be Shādhulī inwardly, in any case.

This second aspect is why so much of what the ṭarīqa is enveloped and protected by is essentially the teachings of Imam al-Ghazālī. The sāda of the ṭarīqa love and cherish the sāda of the Bāni ʿAlawī, and the Bā ʿAlawī sāda uphold the teachings of Imam al-Ghazālī passionately and completely.

The third aspect to recall is the surrounding scholastic-ṭarīqa environment of Makka that the Sayyid inherited. The different ṭuruq of the umma flowed into Makka, and some of our shaykhs mastered their methods to the point that they became, essentially, independent interpreters (mujtahids) in the sciences of Sufism. As Shaykh Aḥmad Hendricks reminds with regards to these great knowers of Allah,“for them to drop the names of Bā ʿAlawī, Qādirī, Shādhulī, Naqshabandī16 [or others] is perfectly in order. They are, in effect, saints and knowers of Allah in the highest sense of the word.”17 Shaykh Aḥmad also relays that, “when all the spiritual paths then poured into Makka, the need for a name seemed to have disappeared.”18 Since all these schools and approaches reached Makka, the mashāyikh of Makka gradually combined the different approaches to Sufism. It was why the litanies (wird pl. awrād) and the remembrance text(s) (dhikr pl. adhkār) of the various paths were, and are, handed down to the students of the lofty ʿulamāʾ of Sufism in Makka.”

We’ve seen in our time opposition to that kind of respect from purist and extremist Salafis, of different types, including the ‘modernist Salafis’ of different political movements – and from many among the ranks of those who call themselves Sufis. Indeed, we’ve seen it in the expression of certain types of politics, where our men and women of religion (though usually men) back authoritarians, tyrants and scoundrels – all in the name of upholding faith and virtue. Only recently was I told of a ‘minister of religious affairs’ that suggested that the maqasid of shari’a (ultimate purposes of the sacred law) be updated to include – at one of the highest levels – the benefit of the state (maslaha al-dawla). So easy, it seems, for people to walk the slippery road – that leads only to fascism.


And finally, we go into the description of the tariqa itself – a Sufi way, with its own ideas, its principles, litanies and remembrances, which contains much of the core of the book’s intention – to be a practical guidepost for those interested in this particular way. Biographies of some of the shaykhs associated with the tariqa are at the end of the text, including the authors, Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki, al-Faqih al-Muqaddam, and Sidi Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhuli.

I am honoured to have co-written this with Azzavia’s shaykhs – and I hope you benefit.


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