Could Sufi Islam be the cure-all?

The world is in urgent need of a ″soft″ strategy when it comes to fighting radical Islamist ideology. Enter Sufi Islam which, argues Pakistan academic Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi, can help us brave the challenges of curbing fanaticism, fundamentalism and violent extremism

Essay by Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

Islamic scholars and researchers agree that Sufism has the potential to cure those whose minds have been perverted by terrorism. Famous Sufis of previous generations include Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Fariduddin Attar – whose stories were later used by Chaucer – and the Spaniard Averroes, the ″great commentator″ on Aristotle.

Many of their ideas passed to Europe through contact between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the crusader states, Norman Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula.

From its outset, Sufism has been concerned with building bridges between communities, fostering contact to the mutual benefit of all involved. In the West, people as diverse as Dag Hammarskjold, St Francis of Assisi, Sir Richard Burton, Cervantes and Winston Churchill have all been influenced by Sufism.

The Sufist interpretation of Islam is considered moderate because instead of focusing on the state, it concentrates on the inner dimensions of Islam and the purification of the soul. Recent decades has nevertheless seen Sufi seminaries begin to teach a more political interpretation of Islam, fuelling the current dominance of the latter.

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (source: Wikipedia)
Pioneers of academic Sufism: many of the ideas promulgated by the great mystics such as Jalal ad-Din Rumi, Omar Khayyam or Fariduddin Attar arrived in Europe through contact between the Islamic and the Christian worlds in the crusader states, Norman Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula, influencing many of the Occident′s great historical figures as a result

Political Islam and the roots of radicalism

All the terrorist Islamist organisations in existence today are based on this political interpretation of Islam. There is a cultural dimension to globalisation of which many Muslims are acutely aware. They feel that the sort of values and ideas, the notions of living – emanating from the West and beginning to penetrate their societies, influencing their youth in particular – are harmful. Some of the more obvious aspects linked to music, dance forms and films etc. are seen as damaging their own culture and identity.

Two major trends have arisen as a result: dominance and submission.

In general, dominance has negative connotations. Muslims have developed an acute awareness of dominance and are highly sensitive towards it, at times reacting with aggression. While one can appreciate the historical circumstances that may have given rise to some of these tendencies, there appears to be no valid justification, neither from an Islamic point of view nor from the perspective of intercultural relations.

Currently the trend of submission, in the sense of submitting to God, remains very weak. These Muslims believe that, in the midst of globalisation, there is a need to reassert the essence of Islam. And that is its universalism, its inclusiveness, its accommodating attitude, its capacity to change and to adapt, while retaining the essence of faith.

In other words, faith is something that is truly ecumenical and universal. You will find adherents to this trend in almost every Muslim country, yet it remains on the margins.

Disarming the bomb

We all talk about nuclear disarmament, but what if someone were to tell us that there is a bomb stronger than the nuclear one, ticking away menacingly every second and that is the bomb of total depravity. When individuals stoop to the lowest rungs of human nature, they become more dangerous than the wildest of animals. And when the virus of ″selfish contumacy″ (stubborn rebellion against authority) infects their being, they become more volatile than the most explosive device.

The mystic approach invites us to consider disarming humanity. Only by active engagement can we defuse all the weapons at the terrorists′ disposal. As Jimi Hendrix wisely said:

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”

It is time for Muslims all over the world to take a united stance against political interpretations of Islam and initiate a process of reform. Likewise, the religious education system also needs a thorough overhaul, since it provides the breeding ground for all terrorist organisations.

Reading the Koran in the Sehitlik Mosque in Berlin (photo: dpa/picture alliance)
Terrorism has no religion: "Muslims need to counter Islamist ideology with a peaceful and tolerant interpretation of Islam. Together with the international community, it is imperative that Muslims fight against this political ideology, which has caused so many of their fellow believers unprecedented harm", writes Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

Muslims need to counter Islamist ideology with a peaceful and tolerant interpretation of Islam. Together with the international community, it is imperative that Muslims fight against this political ideology, which has caused so many of their fellow believers unprecedented harm.

Orient-Occident discourse

The prevention of extremism is not something we will achieve overnight. We have to build a strategy that transcends generations. Security is the first duty of all governments, but hard power alone has never and will never be the whole answer. In the ongoing debates over how to respond to extremist Islamism, too little attention has been given to the vast and deep repertoire of Sufi philosophy, rituals and even artistic works, which accompanied the most enlightened centuries of ″Muslim civilisation″.

If anything, the initial efforts on the part of mainstream Muslim theologians to respond to literalist interpretations of scripture have implicitly accepted extremists′ insistence on reducing the religious tradition to a single set of texts.

Laudable and necessary as such responses are, there is something disconcerting about the Grand Mufti of Egypt rejecting extremist interpretations of Koranic verses because they do not represent ″true″ Islam – as if there really were only one authentic way to be ′truly′ Muslim.

The potency of Sufism may lie in its ability to remind Muslims (and non-Muslims) that, more than the literal words of a holy text, Islam has for fifteen hundred years been a lived experience, with all the cultural and intellectual variation that implies. There are 15 million Sufis worldwide, with Damascus and its Grand Umayyad Mosque as their capital. They need to be promoted at schools and in mosque pulpits, given prime access to television networks worldwide.

Protests in Lahore against the terror attack on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda (photo: Reuters/M. Raza)
Time for joint action: events in France, Turkey and in Belgium, not to mention the recent terrorist attacks in Lahore, Pakistan are surely a wake-up call. East or west, the truth is: fighting terrorism remains a mammoth task

Necessary synergies

There are three important modalities. Firstly, we cannot ignore the fact that this is a struggle about ideas that are based on a perversion of religion. In this battle, the only lasting solution can be one that fully understands, addresses and uproots the ideas themselves. Secondly, in the understanding that this is a generational challenge, we need to implement reform now so that the next generation has the understanding and skills necessary for building resilience to extremist ideas.

Finally, we should not underestimate the need to fight this problem together.

The difficult but necessary decisions herein addressed and the associated policy options are not unrealistic and take the full spectrum of challenges into account. We must recognise what works and whenever there is a positive impact, we must seek to replicate it.

Strategic action is needed quickly to implement solutions that are both long-term and characterised by continuity and consensus. Terrorism has no religion. The western and eastern educational systems need be updated with the credo of ″Sufi Islam”, which advocates universal teaching about humanity.

Governments in the east and west will need to work hard to build coalitions for this work, not just within society, but also at a trans-governmental level. Preventing extremism is one of the greatest challenges facing this generation and the next. Unless we counter it together, with urgency, our future as a global community looks very bleak indeed.

Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

© MPC Journal 2016

Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi is an independent researcher-cum-writer based in Pakistan. His research focuses on conflict prevention, international law, war studies and other major issues relating to South Asia, Middle East, the European Union, the United Nations and US foreign policy