Why Sufi Muslims, for centuries the most ferocious soldiers of Islam, could be our most valuable allies in the fight against extremism
By Philip Jenkins, Boston Globe, January 25, 2009
THIRTY YEARS AGO this month, the collapse of the Shah's government marked the launch of Iran's Islamic Revolution, and since that point the topic of Islam has rarely been out of the headlines. All too often, we hear about Islam in the context of intolerance and, often, violence -- of Al Qaeda savagery, of Taliban misogyny, of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and perhaps in Iran itself. Even in Europe, many fear the growth of a radical Islamic presence. For three decades, Western observers have worked fervently to comprehend Islam's global power and appeal, its ability to inspire the poor and to topple governments. But in all that intense attention, most observers have missed a crucial part of the story: a global web of devout religious brotherhoods that by all logic should be a critical ally against extremism.
Sufis are the power that has made Islam the world's second-largest religion, with perhaps 1.2 billion adherents. Not a sect of Islam, but rather heirs of an ancient mystical tradition within both the Sunni and Shia branches of the faith, Sufis have through the centuries combined their inward quest with the defense and expansion of Islam worldwide. At once mystics and elite soldiers, dervishes and preachers, charismatic wonder-workers and power-brokers, ascetic Sufis have always been in the vanguard of Islam. While pushing forward the physical borders of Islam, they have been essential to the spiritual and cultural fullness of the faith. Today, the Sufi tradition is deeply threaded through the power structures of many Muslim countries, and the orders are enjoying a worldwide renaissance.
To look at Islam without seeing the Sufis is to miss the heart of the matter. Without taking account of the Sufis, we cannot understand the origins of most contemporary political currents in the Middle East and Muslim South Asia, and of many influential political parties. We can't comprehend the huge popular appeal of Islam for
women, who so often seem excluded from Muslim life. Sufis are central to the ability of Muslim communities to survive savage persecutions -- in Chechnya, in Kosovo -- and then launch devastating insurgencies. They are the muscle and sinew of the faith.
And, however startling this may seem, these very Sufis -- these dedicated defenders and evangelists of mystical Islam -- are potentially vital allies for the nations of the West. Many observers see a stark confrontation between the West and Islam, a global conflict that entered a traumatic new phase with the Iranian revolution. But that perspective ignores basic conflicts within the Muslim world itself, a global clash of values over the nature of religious practice, no less than overtly political issues. For the Islamists -- for hard-line fundamentalists like the Saudi Wahhabis and the Taliban -- the Sufis are deadly enemies, who draw on practices alien to the Quran. Where Islamists rise to power, Sufis are persecuted or driven underground; but where Sufis remain in the ascendant, it is the radical Islamist groups who must fight to survive.
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