Devotees of Sufism, the spiritual interpretation of Islam, face problems wherever they are found. In the West, many self-styled Sufis have never become Muslim, know little of the religious background of the Sufi way, and give Sufism a reputation as simply another flavor of New-Age, "weekend" mysticism. In Muslim lands, especially in the Arab core countries, classic Sufi authors may be praised while living Sufi teachers are derided as un-Islamic charlatans. And in some places, Sufis are imprisoned and murdered.
As a Muslim Sufi adherent, however, I am troubled especially by another expression of contempt very widely cast against Sufism by Islam-hating amateur experts in the West. That is the claim of Sufi irrelevance. Since the horror of Sept. 11, now almost a decade past, the identification of a moderate and contemplative form of Islam, which can oppose radical and fundamentalist doctrines, has seemed of considerable importance both for the moral health of Muslim believers and for the security of non-Muslims and Muslims alike. But the Sufi alternative to Islamist extremism is neglected or even disparaged, typically, by Muslim and non-Muslim commentators.
Western misperception of the importance of Sufis in Islamic life is complicated by lack of clarity as to who and what Sufis are. Sufis often enjoy great prestige with the mass of Muslims, based on Sufi examples of personal humility in fervor for God and Sufi preaching of love for humanity. But Sufis are not, mainly, other-worldly, exotic individuals or groups that spend all their time absorbed in semah (ecstatic turning on one foot and other forms of dance).
Some Sufis withdraw from the daily affairs of society, but others pursue satisfaction of the Creator by seeking social justice through improvement of popular education and services to the needy, such as housing of the homeless and free distribution of food. Rather than disappearing in a misty aura of meditation, numerous Sufis around the Muslim world contribute actively to defense of the victims of oppression.
Sufis may also take on the risky challenge of overt political engagement. This has been seen most strikingly in Turkish developments over the past two decades. Turkish Sufis were suppressed by the secularist regime established in the 1920s, but flourished in clandestinity, and have now emerged to lead Islamist parties and to assume positions in government. How the relations between Turkish Islamist politicians and Turkish and Kurdish Sufis will evolve remains to be seen.
Essential principles shared by most Muslim Sufis include emphasis on commonalities with other faiths and traditions, which has contributed to improved relations between Muslims and Jews, Christians, Buddhists and other non-Islamic believers. Commentators concerned to denigrate Islam altogether have asserted that Sufis, even if they embody moderation and mutual respect among people of religion, comprise no more than 5 percent of the world's Muslims. Since the importance of Sufism stands, in the minds of many Westerners, on demographic measurement, let us therefore ask: How many Sufis are found in the Muslim world?
I would first observe that Sufis are present, persistently, in every Muslim population, including those where they were persecuted the longest: Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudi kingdom prohibited and punished possession of Sufi books and the practice of Sufi observances, the country always possessed a thriving Sufi underground with access to the heights of power. Before his elevation to the throne in 2005, then-Saudi Crown Prince, and now King Abdullah, who favored Sufis, gained them the right to hold zikr (remembrance of God by vocal or silent chanting, singing and bodily movements) in their homes.
In some countries Sufism is praised as an item of a proud heritage while it is repressed in daily life. The most obvious such example is that of Iran. The clerical regime established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could not act easily against Sufis, since so many famous Sufis -- such as Jalaladdin Rumi, the 13th century author believed by many to be, currently, the most widely read poet in the West -- wrote in Persian, and Sufi texts became the national literature of the Iranians.
But while the Tehran clerics honor the Sufis of the past, they repress Sufis in the present. Sufis have most often functioned as an alternative to clerical authority in Islam, and widely represented Iranian Sufi bodies like the Nimatullahi-Gonabadi dervish order and the "hidden," Kurdish-speaking Ahl-e Haqq or "people of truth" have sustained a difficult challenge to the Iranian authorities. Iranian Sufis have been arrested and disappeared into the obscurity of the prisons, with some doubtless dealt a fatal destiny.
As certain Islamic countries are ambivalent about Sufism, in other Muslim societies we see variations in the intensity of Sufi "activism." Analyzing Islamic Sufism, I have generally divided Muslim territories between those in which Sufism has a deep but informal influence in local Islam, in contrast with those where it has a well-established institutional presence.
In the great Eurasian expanses, Islam is widely permeated by Sufi teachings and customs. From my travels, observation and participation in Muslim life, I have seen and experienced that Sufi-oriented Islam is prevalent among Slavic and Russian Turkic Muslims, dominant in Central Asia, and widely-represented in South Asia and in Southeast Asia. Across this heartland, Sufi authors are studied and throngs of pilgrims visit Sufi shrines or otherwise commemorate the lives of Sufi saints.
Elsewhere the spiritual heritage is maintained by powerful, organized orders, sometimes called "brotherhoods" although they typically include female disciples. These are prominent in North Africa, French-speaking West Africa, East Africa, the Albanian lands, plus Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Iran.
In Turkey, most Muslims are Sufi either by identification with the normative Sunnism subsidized by the state, which exalted Sufis and places the works of Rumi in all Turkish mosques, or by participation in Sufi orders as well as widespread, part-time study circles and other voluntary communities that teach an esoteric Islam. Others are involved in more singular phenomena like the Turkish-Kurdish, Shia-Sufi-shamanist Alevi movement. As a different variant in the Sufi continuum, Indonesia possesses a Sufi civic movement of national scope -- the Nahdatul Ulama (NU) organization. Returning to South Asia, organized Sufism there is enacted with a backdrop of a broader, "cultural" Sufism and is under bloody attack by radicals.
Aggregating Sufi-influenced Muslims with active Muslim Sufis from Senegal to Singapore, I believe it is realistic to claim a large plurality, at least, of the world's 1.3-plus billion Muslims. This should be a source of optimism for those who seek conciliation, rather than confrontation, between the world's religions, affecting positively both the direction of Islam and the image of Islam among non-Muslims. For these reasons, more concentrated attention on the Sufis by social-science investigators and other experts would be welcome.
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