November 27, 2017
Extremist groups like ISIS promote the idea that Sufism is a heterodox form of Islam, and then go further to declare Sufis legitimate targets. But it’s not just violent extremists who foster the heterodoxy misconception. In Saudi Arabia, for example, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman claimed on Sunday that “the greatest danger of extremist terrorism is in distorting the reputation of our tolerant religion”—yet intolerance with regard to Sufism is the bedrock of much of the purist Salafi approach that underpins the Saudi religious establishment.
Ahmad bin Taymiyya, a commonly quoted authority for Salafis, for example, was reportedly a member of the Sufi order of Abdal Qadir al-Jilani. The Sufi affiliations of many medieval authorities have been airbrushed from history in several modern editions of their texts published by Salafi printing houses. Yet, there were virtually no prominent Muslim figures who cast aside Sufism in Islamic history. When followers of ibn Abdul Wahhab attempted to do so by describing Sufis as outside the faith, they were themselves decried by the overwhelming majority of Sunni Islamic scholarship as indulging in a type of heterodoxy because of their intolerance and revisionism.
And it is an extraordinary fallacy. Until relatively recently, it would have been unthinkable for students in Muslim communities to consider Sufism anything other than an integral part of a holistic Islamic education. The essentials of theology, practice, and spirituality—that is, Sufism—were deemed basic, core elements of even elementary Islamic instruction. And religious figures known for their commitment to Sufism would not have been considered a minority; they would have been by far the norm. Indeed, the very label of an Egyptian “Sufi minority” being bandied about since the mosque attack is a peculiar one: Sufism isn’t a sect—it’s integral to mainstream Sunni Islam.
The most famous Sufi in the West, as shown on Amazon bestseller lists, is Rumi, Afghan poet extraordinaire. Another renowned figure is Ibn Arabi, a Spaniard of the 12th century. But few in the West seem to realize that such figures, while indeed Sufis, were very much within the Islamic mainstream. Rumi, for example, was an author of fatwas and a specialist in an orthodox rite of Sunni Islamic law (the Hanafi school); Ibn Arabi was even more steeped in Sunni legal expertise, to the point where he was described by many medieval authorities as being capable of forming his own school of law.
That doesn’t mean that Sufis were never singled out for criticism in traditional Islamic scholarship—they were. Those criticisms were issued by Sufi scholars themselves, much as expert jurists criticized what they saw as shoddy attempts in jurisprudence, and specialized theologians critiqued amateurish forays into theology. One modern critic, a famed Sufi of the Comoros, said, “If we were better Sufis, everyone else wouldn’t think we are anything but good Muslims.”
This activist trend among Sufis remains in existence today. In my own research over the years, I came across teachers of Sufi texts like Shaykh Seraj Hendricks of South Africa and Shaykh Emad Effat in Egypt. The former was detained for activism against apartheid, while the latter was killed in the midst of protests in late 2011. This is to say nothing of the scores of members of Sufi orders in Syria who participated in the Syrian revolutionary uprising against the Assad regime, as well as against ISIS. It is also true that some Sufi figures engaged in actively supporting autocrats and repressive governments—which other Sufis critiqued for what they saw as inconsistency. That critique has everything to do with what such Sufi figures see as orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the Islamic tradition.
It’s too easy to cast Sufis as a quasi-sectarian group that is somehow detached from Islam. Sufism never betrayed Islamic orthodoxy; if anything, it is Islamic orthodoxy in its purest form. Both those who denigrate Sufis, like ISIS and the Saudi religious establishment, and those who admire Sufis, like Rumi-loving Westerners, would do well to finally recognize this. Otherwise, we all risk betraying Islamic history.
Source: The Atlantic