Lifting the lid

Many Western devotees of Sufism view it as a more liberal brand of Islam. That is a misunderstanding. An essay by Stefan Weidner

From the early 18th century until well into the 20th century, Islamic culture enjoyed a good reputation. Scarcely a trace of this high regard remains. Only Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, seems to still enjoy a modicum of esteem.

Goethe himself was keen to highlight the positive aspects of Islamic mysticism. While the Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall translated the classic works of the Persian author Hafez as besotted love poems, Goethe ascribed to Hafez a "mystical tongue".

Under the sway of Spinoza's pantheism, Goethe had an affinity for the interplay between spirituality and worldliness that Hafez had honed to a masterful degree. The Islamic mystic with his amorous poetry has been regarded in the West as a welcome antipode to orthodoxy and religious parochialism ever since.

This not entirely incorrect and yet one-sided image has persisted to this day, finding its way back to the Islamic world. The movement initiated by the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen likes to make reference to its borrowings from Sufism, thus concealing its otherwise quite orthodox religious orientation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames Gulen for the coup a few weeks ago and is relentlessly pursuing his real and alleged supporters. But the two men were once like-minded companions. For some time Gulen and Erdogan are said to have frequented the Sufi master of the Naqshbandi Order, Sheikh Nazim, who was active in the Turkish-speaking part of Cyprus. It is rumoured that Sheikh Nazim did not share Erdogan's neo-Ottoman visions, however, so the two soon parted ways.

What is also of interest in this story is that Sheikh Nazim's influence later shifted westward, his mystic order finding many followers in Germany, among both Germans and people of Turkish origin.

Since Nazim's death in 2014, the more rigid political climate in Turkey has also had an impact on the order's various subgroups. The conflict is mainly between the more conservative Erdogan supporters and the members of the order with progressive leanings, such as Nazim himself is said to have espoused.

One of the questions under dispute is in which form the many female supporters should be allowed to take part in the so-called "dhikr", the ritual community remembrance of Allah, which often culminates in ecstatic states.

A Sufi order is not a monastic order – it's more like a political party

The above example shows that Sufism means more and usually something quite different than that which Christians understand as "mysticism". A Sufi order is not a community that secludes itself from the world, like a Christian monastic order. Membership is more like belonging to a sports club or a political party, only with a religious orientation. A big attraction for many people in the West is the above-mentioned shared spiritual experience of the dhikr, which once a week spirits adepts far away from their daily cares.

By integrating their members in a community and offering them spiritual guidance, the Sufi orders carry out an important socio-political function. It was once thought that they would be ideal for taking in mentally unstable people indoctrinated with Islamist thought who seemed receptive to the terrorist propaganda of the so-called Islamic State. Unfortunately, however, the attraction of Sufism is fading in the Islamic world, while the Salafism financed with Saudi money is increasingly laying claim to spiritual leadership.

Sufism and Salafism have a long history of competition. In the 18th century, Mohammed Abdul Wahhab founded Wahhabism, the especially fundamentalist form of Islam that is the state religion today in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Wahhab and his successors desecrated the graves of Sufi saints on the Arabian peninsula and in Iraq – even in the Prophet's own town of Medina.

Today as well, many of the numerous assaults perpetrated by IS and al-Qaida are directed against the Sufi tomb cult, particularly in Pakistan, where the Sufis have traditionally been very influential and where some saints are venerated by Muslims and Hindus alike.

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