In Jordan, Sufism is currently gaining ground, even attracting a wave of foreign seekers, both converts and those of Muslim heritage. In Amman, Michael Gunn encountered various interpretations of what Sufism is or can be
It starts with deep breaths and the slight bending of knees. Several dozen men form a circle, hands linked, bowing back and forth as the rhythm builds to the chant of sacred poetry. Suddenly a small group launches from the red carpet and bounces aloft, faces serene and white kaftans billowing.
This is the most distinctive kind of hadra, remembrances of God performed in Sufi zawiya (lodges) across Jordan's capital. After decades of suspicion, Sufism, tasawwuf in Arabic, is slowly gaining ground in Amman – a sign, say followers, that its emphasis on self-improvement offers a compassionate and truly Islamic approach to life in a changing city.
Different means of cleansing the heart
"Sufism is a strong and vibrant spiritual tradition," says Samer Dajani, a regular visitor to gatherings. "In today's world peoples' souls are suffering. They need spirituality and the return to the divine."
This return is the goal of Sufism, whose followers aim to bridge the distance between themselves and God via worship and good deeds. Sufis talk of three steps: Islam (obeying the five pillars), Iman (faith) and Ihsan – the art of self-perfection. The latter weaves physical exercises and dhikr (recitation) with a process of spiritual and ethical development, reaching a state where the love of God is manifest in the believer's every act.
"The Sufi is the person who places emphasis on actions and performs them in their truest forms," says Sheikh Al-Abaadila, a leader of the Shadhili method.
Oft-described as Islamic mysticism, Sufism is taught in 'ways' (tariqa), each passed down from the Prophet and realised today by revered Sheikhs. Although there are hundreds of tariqas, most agree there are no essential differences in the main branches. "All are on the hunt for truth and all are good," says Sheikh Majed, a Naqshbandi. "But they have different means of cleansing the heart and reaching the same end."
The genial nature of many of its followers (murid), combined with the scriptural emphasis on love and connection, has led many to describe Sufism as a 'soft Islam'. It's a problematic definition – Amman's Sufis lambast violent interpretations of their faith but resist attempts to define them against mainstream Islam, whether by theologians or the US-based RAND Corporation which suggested Sufism be promoted to bolster global security.
Faith and business
Nevertheless, it's the exoticism that often sparks the interest of foreign visitors. Zakarya Rahman, a student from London, visited Sufi gatherings while backpacking in Jordan this summer. "It's something I was utterly unaware of whilst growing up," he says. "It presents a more spiritual side to Islam that fits in with a 21st century life where religion is a more private affair."
Foreigners typically take recommendations from Muslim communities at home or online, choosing Amman based on a certain tariqa. That's most apparent in Kharabsheh, a northern suburb home to a sizeable community under Sheikh Nuh Keller, an American convert and Sufi scholar. His murids – many of them Western converts – respect strict codes in clothing and social interaction and have devoted years to living in his presence, learning Arabic and founding local businesses.
Sheikh Keller shuns publicity yet his writings and knowledge of Western philosophy (of which he is harshly critical) give him a global following. "As an American he is like a bridge for foreign seekers," says one murid.
Stereotypes and negative connotations
Sufism has an uphill struggle in Jordan where religious attitudes have been influenced by the Salafi and Wahhabi movements which regard Sufi practices as un-Islamic. "The word Sufi carries some negative connotations in the history of Muslims," says Dr Mohammed Rayyan, who teaches Islamic Studies at Jordan University. "When people hear tasawwuf their minds go to the stereotype." Yet many of these accusations are misplaced, say local scholars.
The vast majority of Amman's tariqas respect the generally agreed boundaries of the Sunna, maintaining sexual segregation and avoiding the use of musical instruments or dancing during the hadra itself.
Some blame Arab popular culture for propagating Sufi caricatures, others point to the misleading example set by the 'trendy Sufism' of Amman's richer youth who have focused on music and intoxication as a kind of 'hippy Islam'. The recent launch of Jordan's first Sufi TV channel aims to redress the balance.
Splendid Sufi isolation and social involvement
Sufi communities are commonly criticised for their isolation but Amman has plenty who see Sufism as an amplification of Islam's call for social involvement. Dar al-Iman, in the western area of Al-Bayader, is a waqf (welfare project) that includes a mosque, Quranic school and zawiya and runs several orphanages. A staff of around 50 is headed by Sheikh Husni Ash-Shareef of the Khalwatia order. "Sheikh Hosni teaches us not to be a slave to anything but Allah, and to give peace to everyone," says Sultan Aswad, supervisor of the institute.
Sadique Pathan, a social worker from Canada, is studying Sharia in Jordan and follows the Naqshbandi-Haqqani order. His Masters thesis is on the use of Islamic spirituality for group counselling.
"We want to reach a state where we can actualise our belief in God in every action – remove it from our own self-centred tendencies," he says. "Most people do things for their own benefit but the highest level for a human is to start doing something for a higher being." To Pathan, Sufism's removal of the emphasis on the self is key to social change, particularly to counter Jordan's ongoing acceptance of unchecked capitalism.
It's this charitable work that, more than anything else may foster a wider understanding of Sufism in Jordan. "We only show Islam by our acts – we put it before the eyes of others and they can choose to change," says Sultan Aswad. This way of spreading of the faith by example also impresses foreign seekers. In perfecting one's own character and showing compassion and good deeds, a Sufi can be, remarks Zakarya Rahman, "stronger than any preacher".
© Qantara.de 2010
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de