The Sufi orders in Algeria and Libya fought against the colonial powers

The Islamic orthodoxy and the Salafists accuse the Sufis of practising polytheism with their many saints. These saints are in fact venerated much like those in Christianity, a practice which, together with the ubiquitous belief in the miracles they perform, would have to be regarded by an enlightened person as tantamount to superstition. No matter how strange it may seem from a Western perspective, Salafism thus sees itself as the more enlightened of the two movements and for that reason campaigns against Sufism.

The Sufi orders were also a thorn in the side of the Western colonial powers, because the germ cells of the anti-colonial struggle often came from their midst. For example, the Sufi emir Abdelkader organised the first large-scale military resistance against the French in Algeria in the 1930s. And the Senussi order rose to great power in the latter half of the 19th century in the Eastern Sahara, from present-day Libya to the Sudan. The last king of Libya, deposed by Gaddafi in 1969, was the head of this order.

After the Turkish Republic was founded, Kemal Ataturk banned the Sufi orders – and even the famous whirling dervishes that can be traced back to the poet Rumi. Ostensibly, this was done because they had no place in the modern society Ataturk wanted to create. But Ataturk also saw in the orders subversive elements that, unlike the official Turkish Islam he had developed (and which Erdogan invokes today), opposed the absolute claim to power of the new secular state.

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (photo: Wikipedia.de)
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

Handke, Troyanov, Kermani – many authors have flirted with Islamic mysticism

The image of Islamic mysticism as an adversary of Salafism and orthodoxy is hence more complex than it would at first appear from a Western perspective. Sufism is neither apolitical nor progressive in the Western sense.

Salafists can be found even among Sufis and other mystic brotherhoods have risen to achieve almost official state significance. Many Islamic rulers have allied with the Sufis and promoted the cult of saints' graves. As a case in point, the Damascus mosque housing the tomb of the Andalusian mystic Ibn Arabi was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century to enforce their claim to power over Syria and still exists today. At the same time, the mosque served to ensure the loyalty of Ibn Arabi's many followers.

In India, the link between power and mysticism was celebrated with the help of miniature painting, which often showed the mogul rulers in the company of dervishes. In Sudan, the Mehdi movement successfully fought the British for many years and, even during the Second World War, the specialists from the German Wehrmacht saw the Messianic movement, which resembled a Sufi order, as a serious threat to the European claim to hegemony. Apart from that, however, the Orientalists of the German Reich regarded Islam as harmless.

Today, it seems by contrast as though Islam were the threat and Sufism the salvation – not just for Islam (to save it from itself), but also for the spiritual impoverishment of the Western world. Many present-day German authors make no secret of their affinity for Sufism – Ilya Troyanov, Christoph Peters, Navid Kermani and Peter Handke are only the best known among them.

Is genuine dialogue still taking place with the mystical tradition?

That the inspiration brought by Sufi texts and world views has enriched literature is something not only Goethe was aware of. But other questions must be asked of the Western followers of Sufism, as well as those interested in the practising orders (membership of which invariably means a profession of Islamic faith) and the cultural fad for Sufism: does this interest constitute a genuine dialogue with the mystical tradition, or does a penchant for Sufism merely serve to embellish or stabilise one's own frail psyche, without having any serious implications for one's way of life and world view?

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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