Sufism may be powerful antidote to Islamic extremism
With its spiritual tradition, 'the Sufi way' is an age-old alternative for radicals and modernists alike.
Images of Islam have pervaded the news media in recent years, but one aspect of the faith has gotten little attention – Islamic spirituality. Yet thousands in America and millions in the Muslim world have embarked on the spiritual path called Sufism, or the Sufi way. Some see its appeal as the most promising hope for countering the rise of extremism in Islam.Skip to next paragraph
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In recent weeks, celebrations in cities on several continents have marked the "International Year of Rumi." Sept. 30 was the 800th anniversary of the birth of Muslim mystic Jelaluddin Rumi, who is a towering figure in Sufi literature and, paradoxically, the bestselling poet in the United States over the past decade.
In the West, Sufism has appealed to seekers attracted by its disciplined spiritual practices as well as its respect for all faiths and emphasis on universal love.
"I was searching, and the writings struck me – particularly the poetry," says Llew Smith, a TV producer in Boston who has joined a Sufi order. "It's direct and consistent about turning you away from the self, but also being connected deeply to the Divine and to other people."
Across the Muslim world, Sufism has been an influential force throughout Islamic history, though it has frequently come under attack by more orthodox Muslims. Some consider it an Islamic heresy because Sufis go beyond the faith's basic tenets and pursue a direct union with God.
Many Muslims today, however, see the spiritual tradition as the potential answer to the extremism that has hijacked the faith and misrepresented it to the world.
"In the Islamic world, Sufism is the most powerful antidote to the religious radicalism called fundamentalism as well as the most important source for responding to the challenges posed by modernism," says Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Nasr has written a new book, "The Garden of Truth," to present Sufi teaching in contemporary language.
"Its influence is immense," Nasr adds. "Sufism has kept alive the inner quality of ethics and spiritual virtues, rather than a rigid morality ... and it provides access to knowledge of the divine reality," which affects all other aspects of one's life.
But Sufi practice faces intense pressures in Islam's internal struggle. "What the Western world is not seeing," says Akbar Ahmed, a renowned Pakistani anthropologist who teaches at American University in Washington, "is that there are three distinct models in play in the Muslim world: modernism, which reflects globalization, materialism, and a consumer society; the literalists, who are reacting, sometimes violently, against the West and globalization; and the Sufis, who reject the search for power and wealth" in favor of a more spiritual path.
Feeling under siege, the average Muslim today is in turmoil, Dr. Ahmed says. To which of these answers will he or she turn? He believes that the spiritual hunger is deep and resonates widely.
Puritanical reformers revile it
While Sufism has been persecuted in Saudi Arabia, it is thriving in such places as Iran, Pakistan, and India outside the modernist cities, says Ahmed, who traveled throughout the Muslim world in 2006. During a visit to the Sufi shrine at Ajmer, India, he encountered a throng of thousands worshiping there.
"Just last week, when former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan, where did he go? To the Sufi shrine in Lahore," he adds.
But can Sufism influence or counter the political rise of the radicals? Puritanical reformers call Sufis heretics. And modernizers have often denigrated them. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey, for instance, closed down the Sufi orders, including Rumi's Mevlevi order.
A brief look at what Sufism teaches
In a new book, "The Garden of Truth," Seyyed Hossein Nasr presents the teachings of Sufism in contemporary language, drawing on his experience of more than 50 years of practice. The Sufi tradition, he says, contains "a vast metaphysical and cosmological set of doctrines elaborated over a long period...." Sufi metaphysics teach the Unity of God and the oneness of being.
"Not only were we created by God, but we have the root of our existence here and now in Him."
"In classical Sufism, the answer to the question what does it mean to be human is contained fully in the doctrine of what is usually translated as the Universal or Perfect Man ... [who] is like a mirror before God, reflecting all His Names and Qualities, and is able to contemplate ... God's creation through God's eyes."
Creation is renewed at every instant, according to Sufism's teaching, and "the whole of the material universe, no matter how extended its physical dimensions might be, is like a speck of dust before the grandeur of the world of the Spirit."