How ‘Sufism’ stopped being ‘the norm’

Re-visioning Sufism (Part 2)
by Jonas Atlas

An abandoned Sufi shrine

Those who have a deeper look at the realities of Islamic mysticism will see how ‘Sufism’ isn’t a ‘separate branch’ at all (as is often claimed), but is in fact a very central aspect of the broader Islamic tradition and why it should rather be seen as ‘normative Islam’. Sadly enough however, one cannot deny the fact that the varied mystical expressions of Islam were far more prominently present before than they are today and once can easily notice a strong opposition towards ‘Sufism’ in many Islamic environments.

The typical portrayal of Islam also makes it seem as if this trend has always existed. Yet a thorough analysis of the aversion towards Sufism makes it abundantly clear that we are dealing with a very modern phenomenon since the suppression of ‘Sufism’ is closely linked to the ideological developments of the last century and a half. More specifically, it’s connected with the rise of Salafism and petro-Islam.

The influence of Salafism and petro-Islam

Salafism is often conflated with the ideology of terrorist and jihadist groups. In reality however, the majority of Salafis is explicitly pacifistic (because in their view Prophet Muhammad showed a preference for non-violence) and many among them are also consciously a-political (and thus, for example, choose not to vote). Even more so, many Salafi scholars are ardently opposed to terrorism, exactly because of their religious convictions.

So although there do indeed exist some Salafi terrorist groups, what binds the different Salafis together isn’t their desire to wage some sort of holy war. What truly binds them together is an amplified attempt to ‘return to the source’. That is to say, ‘Salafism’ is actually an umbrella term for a great variety of groups that try to imitate the lives of the Salafiyya, that is to say, the first (three) generations of Muslims. For in the Salafi view these formed the ideal Muslim community and devotional practices which originated later on are seen as problematic bid’a (‘innovations’) that corrupt the original and glorious Islam. To solve the problems within the Muslim world, Salafi’s therefore wish to revive the ‘pristine’ Islam — or at least wish to create an Islam that looks like their image of what they think pristine Islam might have been . They do so by adhering to a rigorous, rule oriented and patriarchal form of Islam.

On top of it, the rise and spread of contemporary Salafism isn’t a self-evident expression of the century old ‘character’, but rather, a very recent phenomenon. Historians are quite clear on the matter. Salafism only became a dominant force throughout the Islamic world through an amalgam of colonial, anti-colonial and post-colonial processes. Most importantly, because of the support Western powers lend to the newly emerged Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (as one of the many measure to ensure a decline of the Ottoman Empire), one particular and extremely strict strand of Salafism — namely Wahhabism — became dominant in certain parts of the Middle-East by the middle of the 20th century. As a result, what could have remained a typical revivalist religious movement (like many others in all sorts of traditions throughout history) eventually bloated into a strong political player simply because, as it turned out, the Middle-East was full of oil. The income this generated for the Wahhabi kingdom made it possible to export their specific form of Salafism to all corners of the Islamic world through missionary activities, educational projects, development assistance, state agreements and general business deals — hence the term ‘petro-Islam’.

Abdulaziz Bin Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia and Brittish officers

Because of its geopolitical backup, this petro-Islam could thus pressurize other experiences of the Islamic faith to conform to one specific, rule-oriented and unbalanced vision. And because of the Salafi conviction that there is such a thing as an ‘original Islam’ which should be revived by purifying the Islamic world from ‘corrupting’ ritual and cultural innovations that arose throughout the centuries, all sorts of traditions, habits and practices were and are gradually strangled.

One of the most pertinent examples thereof is Islamic mysticism. Just like like many other cultural elements, ‘Sufism’ is seen as a ‘corruption’ of pristine Islam and the rituals associated with them are denounced as haram. Even more so, some deem it necessary to add actions to their convictions on these issues. The daily expressions of normative Islam thus often receive heavy blows. Salafi influences can for example ensure that dhikr gatherings are closed, that mystical literature isn’t published any longer or that Sufi sanctuaries are destroyed.

A burning Sufi Shrine

These realities are so evident that few serious scholars will deny them — except maybe those on the pay-roll of petro-Islam. Yet what scholars and academics often overlook in the discussions on Salafism and the way it influences contemporary evolutions in the Islamic world, is its connection to Islamic Modernism. As such the true origins of contemporary conceptualizations of Sufism are frequently dismissed.

Salafism and Islamic Modernism

Islamic Modernism was a movement that sprang from the ideas of certain leading scholars (mainly from British India, Egypt and the Maghreb) who, from the middle of the 19th century onwards, wished to revive Islam. However, they did not aim to do so by banishing all elements of the modern world from their lives and by returning to more traditional forms of Islam. On the contrary they were highly critical of the traditional structures. They reengaged with the classic texts in order to advance new, modern interpretations. Just like Western intellectuals of those days they had a strong focus on rationality. They pleaded for a modern constitutional state, they wished to strengthen civilian rights and they emphasized scientific and technological progress. Yet, contrary to Western intellectuals, they wished to do so from within their religion.

Western and Islamic modernism thus showed much overlap, except for this one crucial point: Muslim modernists did not wish to banish religion from society, the judiciary or politics. Through a return to the original charisma of Islam, they wanted to use their religion as the basis of their struggle for rights.

As such it immediately becomes clear why Muslim Modernists are related to Salafis. They too were strong proponents of the ‘back to the source’ idea that captivated large parts of the Islamic world during colonial times. Even more so, the Islamic Modernists were the first to introduce the term ‘Salafism’. In earlier Islamic texts, the ‘salafiyya’ was used as a reference to the first generations of Muslims, yet as a reference to a ‘current of thought’ or a particular ‘strand’ of Islam, it was first used by the protagonists of Islamic Modernism (such as Djamal al-Din Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida). The publications of the Islamic Modernists therefore kicked of the current common use of the term.

Muhammad Abduh

Of course, the more progressive Islamic Modernism differed in several ways from the hotchpotch of conservative, puritan strands of Islam that are lumped together under the term ‘Salafism’ today. Sometimes Islamic Modernism is thus called ‘Modernist Salafism’ to separate it from the more reactionary, anti-Western, anti-modern forms of Salafism. Nonetheless, Islamic Modernism and contemporary Salafism can’t be completely decoupled. No matter how much they differed, in many respects they could often relate to one another. Convinced as they were of the idea that the problems in the Islamic world were due to some sort of moral corruption of Islam and that, as a result, the ‘original’ Islam had to be recovered, offered them more than enough common ground.

Modernist and anti-modernist Salafis concurred, for example, in their common wish to rid the Islamic religion of wrong additions of and innovations. Both groups criticized century old cultural elements as deformations of the ‘real’ and ‘pure’ Islam. So even though Muslim Modernists pleaded for a more analytic and metaphoric reading of the Qur’an and even though they fought for greater social equality between man and woman, in their tendency to describe particular expressions of Islam as ‘not truly religious’, they aligned with the more conservative voices.

That was amply clear in the way several elements of traditional Islamic mysticism were rejected by progressive modernists as well as conservative Salafis. In the eyes of many Muslim Modernists, the teachings of the Sufis and the rituals of mystical folk Islam were impurities one had to abandon in order to properly practice Islam. Just like Wahhabi’s they opposed flamboyant and passionate expressions of faith which, for various reasons, they considered to be decadent, dangerous or haram.

To be honest, certain Islamic Modernists wrote quite positively about Islamic mysticism. A good example is someone like Muhammad ‘Alama’ Iqbal. He’s one of the greatest ideologues of the Pakistani state, yet placed himself in the line of mystics like Rumi. Nevertheless, in general one could perceive a slow development within the circles of Islamic Modernists. Whereas some modernists (such as, for example, Mohammed Abduh) still flirted with certain forms of Islamic mysticism in their younger years, their criticism often became stronger as they grew older, thus offering support to the more rigid, conservative strands of Salafism in which the puritanical exclusion of Sufism were often more explicit — and above all more directly enforced.

The modern Salafi view on Sufism

It is not the intention here to present Islamic Modernism as the eventual boogeyman who ‘persecuted’ Islamic mysticism. The contemporary anti-Sufism that arose in many places is above all a result of the economic and political-ideological force of petro-Islam. However, what the aversion of Islamic Modernism towards ‘Sufism’ does show, is the fact that a couple of concurrent intellectual and ideological tendencies in the Islamic world strengthened one another in their ‘heretization’ of several facets of daily expressions of mysticism.

On top of it, what it also reveals, is the fact that these tendencies were themselves reinforced by very Western modernist ideas about religion. This becomes clear when we have a deeper look at certain underlying aspects.

First of all, we can see a categorization of ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’. In a traditional view, Islam did not occupy a ‘separate’ place. It was more some sort spiritual-cultural-moral-psychological-social-political fabric that bound the whole of society together. Salafis (both modernist and conservative) on the other hand, see religion as a specific dimension of society. Contrary to the Western modernist paradigm, they didn’t see this dimension as something dangerous that should be pushed to the private sphere, neither did they discount it as something ‘old fashioned’ but actually deemed it to be the most important dimension of society. Yet the basic dualistic premise remains the same. That is to say, Western modernism as well as Islamic modernism and conservative Salafism assume that the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ aspects of society can be clearly separated. The difference between Western modernism and Salafism only resides in the choice to describe one or the other part of the duality as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Secondly, we can see the description of ‘the religious’ as something rule based, principled and ‘dogmatic’. In their search for a ‘pure’ Islam, Muslim modernists as well as conservative Salafis tried to discover the principles and convictions of ‘pure’ Islam by mainly focusing on the textual aspects and historic facts. Their frantic effort to unearth the essence of Islam thus made them strongly delineate the concept of ‘religion’ within the modernist frame of religion as a series of rules and creeds which are independent of the personal spirituality, the history, the culture and the social context of the believer.

Finally, we can also see the modern split between religion and mysticism, for in the eyes of Muslim modernists Sufism wasn’t a ‘real’ form of religion. In this matter they were even directly inspired by the works of Western Orientalists of the 19th century who described Sufism as some sort of separate and bizarre anomaly, detached from ‘authentic Islam’ (since, according to their modernist convictions, that authentic Islam based itself above all on texts, rules and stubborn convictions). Once can thus notice a similar pattern: both groups make use of the same dichotomy, but with differing appreciations. Orientalists, just like many contemporary Westerners, heavily praised Sufism because it wouldn’t be ‘real’ religion whereas Islamic Modernists rejected it for the very same reason. In their anti-colonial efforts to restore the glory of their religion, Islamic Modernists saw mysticism as one of the great causes of the demise of the Islamic world compared to the Western world.

A return to which source?

All in all then, puritan forms of Islam like Wahhabism eventually do not receive their legitimacy from the broader Islamic tradition or the classical structures of faith transfer. In other words, even though Salafism starts from a persistent effort to ‘return to the source’ one can wonder which source we’re talking about.

When petro-Islam is given much legitimacy, this is largely the result of its geo-political power, its coincidental financial input and the symbolic fact that this form of Islam is largely spread from Mecca. It is therefore striking how this unbalanced exaggeration of rule based Islam is presented as ‘real’ Islam.

Yet the fact of the matter is that our prevailing modernist frames ensure that we take the self-declared ‘authenticity’ and ‘correctness’ of petro-salafis for granted. Because the modernist and secular outlook starts from the premise that religion — and most certainly Islam — is a matter of archaic rules and suffocating structures, the most dogmatic and oppressive forms of religion are described as ‘truly religious’ and fundamentalists are spontaneously perceived as the guardians of ‘orthodox’ Islam. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we thus give them a measure of authority they do not genuinely deserve. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we thus see their view on Islamic mysticism as the ‘official’ view and support its marginalization. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we thus continuously aggravate the modern tendency to shift the norm.

In other words: yes, Salafism has much to do with the changing attitudes toward ‘Sufism’ in the Islamic world but the Modernist West can’t really wash its hands in innocence either. Not only was contemporary Salafism inspired by the Modernist West in its conceptual approach to religion, the Modernist West also keeps on repeating that very same conceptual approach and thus continuously endorses the Salafi view.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.