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.

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.

Dschalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad ar-Rūmī; Foto:
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

© 2016

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

More on this topic
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.