THE BLOG
05/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Islam 2.0 May Be on the Horizon

Remember the Lord so vividly that you forget yourself.
Let the one who calls and the one who is called blend together,
lost in the Great Call itself.
--Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century Sufi mystic

Come now, whoever ye may be,
you who wonder, you who seek to worship, it matters not who you be.
Ours is not a gathering of fear or despair.
Come alongside us, even if you have failed a thousand times,
still come, come alongside us.
--Rumi

Even in an era when Hindu nationalists in India have angled for chances to clobber Muslim rivals, the Indian export of yoga has given Hinduism a wonderfully positive image within the West.

Islam certainly needs a makeover of its own. I'd argue for something ancient and something new - mainly, a greater emphasis on Sufism and psychology.

Muslims in South Asia may seem to be an ornery bunch in recent years. But few Westerners realize that the mystical, group-hugging Sufis are more indigenous to the region than the kind of grim Talibani fundamentalists. This brand of fundamentalism was pressure-cooked by Wahabis who were imported from the Middle East by Saudi and Pakistani and American officials in the 1980s, precisely because their angry resolve made them unrivaled commie-killers in Afghanistan.

But the Sufis, symbolized by Rumi, they tend to see a magnificent blurring of the boundaries between Creator and Created, and within Creation itself. That tends to make them all-embracing, tolerant, respectful and good-humored.

A few months ago I watched a Pakistani Dawn Television broadcast during the holy month of Ramadan, when good Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown. I sipped coffee and watched a Western-dressed mullah discuss the proper manner in which a Muslim should give his obligatory charity (an annual tax of 2.5% of all possessions, called the zakat). "One must remember that the condition of the heart is what matters," he said. "The Sufis note that one must make a zakat, or sacrifice, of not just one's money, but one's heart, one's patience, one's commitment to serving others."

This is an Islam that not many Westerners see. It's an Islam that captures the crucial balance, just as does every great form of spirituality, between the state of the internal heart and the external actions of one's hands.

And that balance is difficult: Jesus' great reforming work consisted of reminding pious, conservative Jews that their fasting and charity amounted to nothing if they were just done for external show, without the proper spirit. And yet the Christians who followed him managed to ignore such advice as they concocted theological formulas for salvation and killed one another over minor deviances from the theologically correct standards of the moment.

Islam has generally been a rules-oriented religion. But its Sufis, like Jesus and the apostle Paul, remind us that the letter of the law matters less than the spirit. That's why some of them can rationalize a gin and tonic, and that's why they don't sweat every last edict. Like Augustine, they believe that a person should "Love God, and do as you please."

Augustine didn't mean that you should constantly be drunk and incontinent. He meant that if you genuinely love and enjoy God, you'll do the right thing by and by, without nervously sweating the details in the manner that so many Southern Baptists, Catholics and Muslims do. The Sufis get that. And if more Muslims begin to get that again, Islam will mellow and adapt in ways that benefit its adherents and others.

Psychology can also help the process of mellowing and adapting. Islam will increasingly be informed by Westernized Muslims who delve into contemporary theories of human behavior and emotional health--and this can help demonstrate where certain religious edicts reflect solid values and where they reflect mere hang-ups and cultural foibles.

As a Sufi woman once told me, "Many of the rules that distinguish one religion from another are just examples of obsessive-compulsive behavior." Now that's an intriguing concept: Think of the obsessive hand-washers who work in your office. Notice that they seem to get sick more often than everyone else anyway. Think of many religious rules as ritual hand-washing, literally or figuratively.

A little psychology is increasingly important to Muslims in non-Muslim nations. It's hard enough for moderates to avoid running into pork products in their daily lives. Strict interpreters further avoid gelatin or chicken or beef that's not strictly halal. A more psychological approach allows a believer to worry less about the letter of the law, with its exhausting rituals and restraints, and focus more on the often life-giving spirit of the law.

Islam 2.0 can allow the nobler aspects of classical Islam's character to come again to the fore, and the more peculiar and divisive offshoots of Islamic extremism to wither. And come to think of it, a little Rumi could be as beneficial to the West as a whole as the current yoga craze.

Rob Asghar is the author of Lessons from the Holy War: A Pakistani-American Odyssey.