Is Sufism under threat?
In the tenth century, a Persian Sufi master known as Abu l-Hasan Fushanji lamented that "today Sufism is a name without a reality. It was once a reality without a name". About 300 years later, Rumi warned his students about charlatans and immature sheikhs in his great work, the Masnavi. In short, the impression that Sufism is no longer what it once was already existed at a time generally considered to be the golden age of Muslim spirituality and learning.
As a matter of fact, the danger of a dilution of Sufism and of false masters is one of the most frequently recurring themes in Rumi's book, generally considered one of the greatest classics of spiritual world literature. As with all spiritual paths, the Sufi tradition is not immune to the risk of abuse: after all, a serious student has to surrender completely to the guidance of his sheikh without questioning his instructions.
For his part, the master provides customised stimulus for the growth of the student that should derive from a profound understanding of the student's mental state. The authority of the Sufi teacher stems from the fact that he knows, from personal experience, all the pitfalls along the spiritual path, all the devious tricks of the ego, which repeatedly tries to divert the student from his path.
If, however, the teacher himself has some blind spots and if his personality is not sufficiently mature, the consequences for the student can be highly destructive. The Persian national poet Hafez frequently warned in his biting criticism of religious hypocrisy that it was too easy to clothe oneself in the robes of the Sufis and to adopt their manner of speaking with a view to leading seekers astray.
Alienation from the spiritual, intellectual culture of earlier generations
The political persecution of Sufis at the hands of fundamentalists and modernists in many Muslim countries has led to an interruption of the initiation chains of Sufi masters. In many places, this has resulted in a distortion of the teachings or a loss of spiritual authenticity. In addition to human weaknesses and pitfalls, Sufis and their sheikhs now face a host of other challenges.
Global capitalism with its promise of salvation in the form of happiness and satisfaction has almost completely permeated the so-called "Islamic world". The alienation of entire generations from the spiritual, intellectual culture of their ancestors is a creeping tragedy for societies from West Africa to East Asia. After all, mystical movements from Morocco to Indonesia have always been a cradle of science and the fine arts. Today, all that remains in many places are the meagre remnants of bygone eras.
The culture of fun, entertainment and diversion, largely imported from the West, has resulted in a lack of will to surrender to the discipline of the Sufi character school. On the other hand, many feel alienated from an Islam that has become rigid with dogma. Because instead of a subtle, nuanced understanding of religion that looks inside, people nowadays seek rapid certainties (a comparable trend in the West is the unquestioning acceptance of science as an absolute that has been raised to the level of a religion).
The yearning for simple orientation in an unequal, unsafe world has fostered ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam such as Wahhabism and Salafism in many Muslim countries. The anthropologist and Sufi researcher Juergen Wasim Frembgen describes the link between injustice and extremism in the context of Pakistani culture in his book Sufi Hotel:
"With their claim to the absolute truth, their feverish delusions and strict moral codes, these entirely self-assured Wahhabis and Salafists – not to mention the supporters of IS, many of whom are radicalised on the Internet – know astonishingly little about their faith. But the breeding ground for their twisted fantasies of redemption with all their strictness and prudery is the massive injustice and lack of opportunities for leading a decent life that have for decades been a tangible reality from North Africa to South Asia."
He goes on to say that "the main blame for unequal economic development lies with the neoliberal ideology of the affluent West with its self-satisfaction, unhesitating exploitation of resources and support for repressive regimes. Today, with its individualised religion of consumption, it plunders – just as it did before in the age of colonialism and the slave trade – and ruins the livelihoods of people, thereby fostering radicalisation".
Radical religious fanatics – whether it be the Taliban, Salafist movements, or the terrorists of IS – are attacking Sufism. The breeding ground for these attacks was created by a fundamentalist discourse that centres on the dream of restoring the allegedly one "true Islam".
In the course of this development, a number of Sufi orders have radicalised. In Pakistan, some Sufi movements have in recent decades become more politicised, with their supporters regularly drawing attention to themselves by making accusations of blasphemy and not shying away from violence. Time and again, such highly politicised defamation leads to violent conflicts, murders or court proceedings that are in violation of human rights.
At the same time, Sufi teachings have over the past century been exported from a variety of countries in the Islamic world to the West. In 1914, the mystic and musicologist Inayat Khan, who was initiated into four Sufi orders in India, moved from northern India to London, where he founded the International Sufi Order. The "Inayatiyya" practices a form of universal Sufism and unites in its teachings elements of the mystic traditions of various religions.
Similarly, another movement emerged from Turkish dervish orders and spread westwards: the Jerrahi Order, which has been based in the Istanbul district of Fatih since the eighteenth century, has a branch in the United States and centres in New York, California and Chicago. Today, the Mevlevi teachings, which go back to Rumi, are spread by the work of Kabir Helminski, who has passed on the teachings of the thirteenth-century saint in the United States with faithful translations of Rumi's poetry.
The adaptation of Sufi traditions to Western mentality has given a new hue to Islamic mysticism in Europe and North America. Robert Frager, for example, an American therapist and representative of the Jerrahi Order, has merged the Sufi teaching of the transformation of the soul with Western psychology.
While conservative Sufis criticise the fact that many orders in the West do not require their followers to convert to Islam, the ongoing development of Sufism would appear to be moving forward above all in the West. The balancing act between the preservation of tradition and an opening up to new ideas will continue to define the development of Islamic mysticism in the future.
Ultimately, an assessment of what the future holds for Sufism seems to depend on our perspective: if we look at Islamic mystics primarily in their outer identity as a vulnerable group within Muslim society whose mode of practicing their religion is under repeated attack, we should quite rightly be worried.
If, however, we see Sufism essentially as a path of that search for the truth that is inherent in each and every human and can be found deep inside, then Sufism has survived centuries of political upheaval and continues to find ever new forms of expression despite all adversity. It make sense that a growing number of people are searching for meaning and spiritual fulfilment in a world that is increasingly shaped by internal and external conflicts. With its nuanced view of the way the human personality develops, Sufism can provide answers to the timeless, existential questions posed by humans.
When asked about the fate of Turkish Sufi orders in the years after they were officially shut down by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1925, Hayat Nur Artıran, a Sufi teacher from the Mevlevi tradition and president of the Sefik Can International Mevlana Education and Culture Foundation in Istanbul replied that "Sufism is a knowledge that leads to self-knowledge. It is a way of being close to God. This door cannot be either opened or closed by the government. No one can impose boundaries on this search."
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan