Sufis will outlast Salafis, Islamists

From The Economist: “The Islam of the Taliban is far removed from the popular Sufism practised by most South Asian Muslims”.

This is true in most of the Muslims world. There are few places (aside from the obvious ones) where the practice of Islam at all resembles that of the Taliban, especially as far as traditional Islam is concerned. The reformist and Salafist movements have attempted to do away with Sufism and Sufi orders — sometimes on nationalist grounds (accusing them of facilitating foreign domination), other times on theological ones (considering them decadent, degenerate and pagan), and still others on simple power calculations (they allow for the growth of alternate power centers based around the brotherhoods which can compete with central/government/urban control schemes). The colorful and well written Economist piece would do well to more explicitly mention that mysticism and Sufism are not eastern phenomena alone: They are present in all Muslim societies and tradition in one form or the other.

The article gives a glimpse into the rich mystic heritage of South Asia, which that part of the world shares with the rest of the world Islamic community. The article’s purpose, though is to allay fears about the popularity of Islamist radicalism in India in light of the recent terrorist attacks there, and it therefore contrast South Asia’s practices specifically with those of the Taliban. Still, it seems to feed a popular narrative that casts “eastern” mystical and Sufi practices — from India, Iran or the Turkic lands — with the grouchy, arid and stiff Arab practice, which one often hears writers describe as infecting the rest of the Muslims (here I speak of certain American convert writers, V.S. Naipaul and those sorts). The hard-line Islamist movement really is at odds with Muslim practice generally, which explains its scowl peddling radicalism. (It is not unlike those Christian evangelicals who claim that “practicing” or “true” Christians are in the global minority according to their very clear, very simple, and very rigid standards in this way.) To the extent that the Islamists, in their many forms, have been able gain sway, they have either met stiff or quiet resistance, indifference or direct challenges from traditional Islam. The Sufi brotherhoods are still active in North Africa, Iran, Sudan, South Asia and elsewhere despite opposition from official and populist sources, and they will likely out last both as the Economist article well shows.

4 thoughts on “Sufis will outlast Salafis, Islamists

  1. Thanks for the link. I was amused, though, by the writer’s description of “a gentler, more tolerant faith, in which pre-Islamic superstitions are still evident.” In other words, even while writing an article about how the mainstream of Islam is gentle and tolerant, the writer couldn’t help but remind us that this tradition is somehow at war with Islam itself, somehow a pagan remnant of something un-Islamic. Superstition, indeed. He’ll quote people saying that “Sufism is Islam and Islam is Sufism,” but the need to think of anything good as intrinsically anti-Islamic is so strong, that he can’t help but implicitly reinscribe the Islam=Taliban equation so beloved of our media.

  2. I think a distinction should be made.

    The majority of South Asian Sunnis are not Sufi as in formally apart of a specific order but have a Sufic-lean to the typical Hanafi Islam.

  3. I seem to remember reading that Deobandism (the main influence on the Taliban’s brand of Islam) actually regards itself as as a form of Sufism (albeit an ultra-reformist variety aiming to purge Sufism of all sorts of alleged accretions and syncretic elements), unlike salfism and wahabbism which consciously operate outside and against Sufism. Perhaps I’m mistaken, though the wikipedia entry for Deobandism has a vague reference to Salafis disapproving of Deobandism for “believing in Tasawwuf.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deobandi). Obviously it is not what comes to mind when most people think of Sufism.

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