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.
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.
Yet, according to a survey Ahmed took of some young people in Turkey last year, their top choice as a role model is a Sufi intellectual, Fetullah Gulen, who has built a large system of schools and is known for his promotion of interfaith dialogue.
Sufis lead reform movements
Historically, Sufism has had greater impact in the Muslim world than have Jewish and Christian mysticism in their communities, says Marcia Hermansen, an expert on Sufism at Loyola University in Chicago.
Not only has it pervaded Islamic art, literature, music, and architecture, but in the realm of political life, several Sufi orders became ruling dynasties, reshaping the map of the Muslim world.
"Some of the greatest reform movements in the 19th century were carried out by Sufis," says Nasr. "Amir Abd al-Kader, the national hero of Algeria, was a Sufi master."
No reliable statistics exist for numbers of Sufis practicing today, as both Sunni and Shiite Muslims may also be Sufis. But many Sufi orders, in which serious students follow a master teacher, have become international in scope. (In the US, Sufi movements vary considerably, and a few have taken on New Age elements and are not directly related to Islam.)
Llew Smith joined the Nimatullahi Order, which has 10 houses of Sufism in the US, but whose teacher – Dr. Javad Nubakhsh – resides in London. Mohammad Nooraee, one of his students, came to the US from Iran 30 years ago and now acts as a spiritual counselor in the house in Boston's South End neighborhood. The local group gathers for meditation twice a week, which sometimes involves music or poetry. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Nooraee's name.]
The only requirement for an initiate is that he be a sincere seeker, to "feel thirsty for God," he says during an interview. "In Sufism, we call it 'pain of seeking.' "
The initiate makes the confession of faith to Islam, "submitting your heart to God," but no other rules are required. "The seeker now becomes a disciple, and the teacher walks him or her through the path, what we call tariqah," Mr. Nooraee says. It is a path toward the truth through love, and involves techniques to get close to God.
"One technique involves how to meditate," he says, "focusing attentively on the names of God and negating your ego; the second is service, how to provide selfless service for others without any expectation of return. Once the disciple does both, then he or she starts to experience God. From then on, you see God with the inner eyes of the heart."
Mr. Smith came to this order because he was moved by one of Dr. Nubakhsh's books, and has stayed with it for 20 years. Growing up in a very religious African-American family, he says he might have stayed with Christianity had he found such a deep contemplative dimension that enabled him to work with a teacher. He has visited and corresponds with the master. Meditating with the group in Boston, he finds "a lot of energy of support for the interior spiritual work we are striving to do."
Of course, the real work begins when you go out into the world and live it, and fail, and have to correct yourself, he says, with a laugh. But it has changed his life.
"It's made me recognize how much of a veil the ego is, and how important it is to set it aside," says the TV producer. "And when I get panicked about the world, it has helped me find greater faith in humanity as a manifestation of God."