Remember the bombing of the Buddha statues carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan in north central Afghanistan in 2001? The Taliban destruction of these massive archeological monuments dating back to the 6th century has become emblematic of the cultural and religious intolerance of radical Islam.
What is less well known is that fanatical elements have done equal damage to Islam's own religious heritage. Not only have Shia and Sunni partisans bombed each other's mosques in countries like Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, but Sufi places of worship are under attack throughout the Islamic world.
Last month the world was shocked to learn that the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans had been killed in an attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya. Few heard of the other violent events in that country in September, which included the destruction of Sufi shrines in three Libyan cities.
In Tripoli security forces watched passively as militants with bulldozers leveled the shrine of al-Shaab al-Dahmani, a venerated Sufi Saint during broad daylight. In Benghazi, on the other hand, locals fought back killing three of the militants who were assaulting a holy place.
Perhaps we don't hear much about these incidents because attacks on Sufis and Sufi sites have become routine, not just in Libya, but throughout the Islamic world. This past summer, Islamic militants in Mali demolished historical mausoleums, universities and libraries in the ancient Saharan trading town of Timbuktu, several of which were on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites. Sufi worship halls have also been turned to rubble in Iran, where the Islamic government has reportedly jailed and tortured thousands of Sufi practitioners for their unorthodox views. And in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak Sufi shrines have been torched and the Sufi chanting ritual called zhikr has been banned in some locations.
The deadliest attacks to date have occurred in Pakistan, including last years bombing of the Sakhi Sarkar shrine during the annual festival of the Sufi saint in which 41 worshippers were killed. Meanwhile, in the former Soviet Republic of Daghestan the Sufi leader Effendi Chirkeisky, along with six of his followers, was assassinated at the end of August by a female suicide bomber. Chirkeisky, a critic of Muslim extremism, had ironically been working to broker peace between warring Islamic factions.
For many in the U.S. Sufism is associated with the ecstatic verse of the 13th century mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi, whose poetry in translation sells more copies than any living American poet. Rumi's popularity derives in part from the fact that he taught that religion is less a matter of external observance than an intimate personal relationship with God. This undoubtedly appeals to our American ideal of individualism and free-form seeking.
What many contemporary fans of Rumi may not realize is that Sufism in practice is more of a communal affair than a lonely quest. Moreover, the philosophy of Rumi and his fellow Sufis is very much alive today. It has spread to the distant corners of the Islamic world and beyond, and comprises many different orders, each with their own teachings and modes of practice.
Sufism historically was one of the great wellsprings of Islamic philosophy, and deeply influenced luminaries like the great Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and the thirteenth century mystic thinker, Ibn Arabi. Some have credited Sufism's open-minded approach to knowledge with the development of Islamic medicine and other sciences in the middle ages.
Sufism's influence on the literature, music, art and architecture of Islam is also immense, and it was a potent force in many of the political and social reform movements in the 19th century.
While nobody can say with certainty how many Sufis there are, they undoubtedly number in the millions in countries like Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan, and untold hundreds of millions of Muslims take part in Sufi ceremonies and festivals every year.
"In the Islamic world," according to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, "Sufism is the most powerful antidote to the religious radicalism called fundamentalism as well as the most important source for responding to the challenges posed by modernism."
This pervasive influence may be why Sufis have been targets of the fundamentalist, who see their kindler, gentler form of Islam as a standing challenge to their own rigid orthodoxy. Sufi practices, like the famous whirling of the Mevlevi dervishes in Turkey, first practiced by Rumi himself, employ music, dance and spiritual recitation to awaken the God who Sufis say is asleep in the human heart. Nothing could be further from the grim-faced puritanism of the Islamic fundamentalists who accuse the Sufis of being "idolaters" and "pagans." Sufis reply that they are hearkening back to the roots of Islam, which means "peace."
I can attest to the power of Sufi practices to provide a glimpse of the "peace which passeth understanding" which is at the core of all religious experience. For several years I attended the weekly zickr of a Turkish Sufi order in New York City. The chanting in Turkish and Arabic was coordinated with our movements and the flow of the breath to create a trance-like state which I found to be both subtler and more powerful and enduring than the drug experiences which I had pursued during college. Equally remarkable was the feeling of deep affection and fellowship which was served up along with the tea and Turkish sweets after the ceremony.
The Sufism that I know, while deeply Islamic in form, is universal in spirit. I think often of what our Sheikh, Muzzafer Effendi, told his Turkish followers when they asked him why he didn't convert more American dervishes to Islam. "There are more than enough Muslims already," he replied. "What the world needs is more lovers of God!"
I would love to say this to the extremists who are bombing holy places and attacking Sufi practitioners.