The dark side of Sufism

Re-visioning Sufism (Part 3)
by Jonas Atlas

The typical modern dichotomy of ‘religion’ vs. ‘mysticism’ is utterly useless to describe Islamic mysticism for what is generally called ‘Sufism’ is, in fact, a rather ‘normative’ form of the Islamic tradition. This norm only gradually started shifting because of modernist influences and contemporary geopolitics. However, acknowledging these facts doesn’t imply that one should get carried away by yet another modernist assumption when trying to understand the place of mysticism within Islam. That is to say, apart from mistakenly seeing ‘Sufism’ as a ‘marginal’ form of Islam, many a Westerner also mistakenly sees it as something that solely has to do with ‘love, peace and music’. Yet exactly because Islamic mysticism is so widespread and manifests itself in various ways, it would be all too surprising if we couldn’t find a couple of dark sides as well.

The pitfalls of folk mysticism

Certainly in the more daily and ‘folklore’ expressions of Islamic mysticism, these ‘dark sides’ often become amply clear. No matter how fantastic it might be to witness certain colorful trance rituals, the devotion of folk mysticism certainly isn’t free from every sin. For example, many scholars (among which, most notably, many Salafis and Islamic Modernists) have justly criticized the passivity of the faithful who completely immerse themselves in all sorts of woolly spiritual practices and have no concern for the social inequities which pervade their society. The large quantities of drugs, which are often taken throughout some pilgrimages to holy places or during certain mystical rituals at Sufi shrines, are quite telling in this respect.

Sharing a joint at a Sufi gathering (Source:

Of course, the usage of certain types of drugs certainly doesn’t have to be problematic. For many millennia the use of drugs has been an accepted part of different religious rituals such as, for example, more shamanistic practices in which one undertakes a ‘journey of the soul’ through the use of drugs. In various cultures and societies drugs thus had an appropriate place. On top of it, drugs can sometimes offer an existential valve or lead to interesting mind altering experiences. In that sense the use of drugs only puts some extra emphasis on the fluidity of Pakistani folk Islam.

Yet when drug experiences gain the upper hand, they can become destructive and overgrow any deeper spirituality. However, this doesn’t just apply to drugs. Mysticism in general — and certainly when it’s related to mass gatherings — can sometimes corrupt into a pure flight from of reality. That’s also why it’s not unusual in mystical environments (Islamic as well as others) to come across dubious devotement and pseudo-magical rituals.

Another example of the pitfall of folk mysticism is the manner in which the status of ‘mystic’ is sometimes exploited. Some of the most flagrant examples thereof are related to wandering ‘pirs’, ‘faqirs’ or ‘dervishes’ who don’t just preach spiritual messages but also often offer their services as supernatural healers. Without any medical knowledge, they try to solve psychological problems as well as physical illnesses with all sorts of rituals and prayers. It should not wonder that their ‘skills’ often don’t alleviate the problem but sometimes even make it worse. And it becomes extremely grim when some of them turn to criminal behavior.

Let it be clear however that these forms of charlatanry and shameful abuse don’t prove that all mystical healers are cheats. Many of them have an important role to play within the social, psychological and medical frame of their culture and community. But, of course, it also doesn’t help if we act as if Islamic mysticism, through some incomprehensible miracle, remained completely devoid of every sort of perversion.

Just as well, Islamic mysticism isn’t free from the more subtle power plays that can arise when a master-pupil relationship becomes unhealthy. Spiritually speaking, guidance by a master can often be very necessary but because the master-pupil relationship has such a very central place within Islamic mysticism, the sheikh can sometimes demand unquestioning obedience and restrict his pupil in pernicious ways.

Such types of misconduct most certainly aren’t limited to Islamic mysticism. Neither do they show that every mystical brotherhood is corrupt. Quite the contrary. Both the historic and the contemporary expressions of Islamic mysticism are full of beautiful examples of deep spirituality. But it simply doesn’t help to superficially describe ‘Sufism’ as nothing but a nice, light and open version of Islam because it happens to have a taste for mysticism.

In light of all of this, it’s also of the utmost importance that the Sufis themselves were very conscious of these kinds of abuses, perversions and problematic expression of Islamic mysticism. The truly great mystics often criticized the thoughtlessness of certain rituals in folk Islam, the lawlessness of certain wandering preachers and the dubious teachings of certain sheiks. However, these criticisms differed strongly from the general and categorical rejection of ‘Sufism’ as we can encounter today. The classical scholars never voiced criticism on ‘Sufism’ as a separate strand of Islam, but simply voiced their concerns about the hypocrisy of specific people. They considered the mystical aspect of religion as self-evident (which highlights the normativity of that aspect yet again), but they did oppose those who didn’t genuinely strive for the mystical essence of Islam.

Those who feel inspired by ‘Sufism’, however, often prefer to ignore the tensions between theory and practice. Because of the modern division between religion and mysticism, hypocrisy and deception are associated with religion. Mysticism, on the other hand, seems free of such things. As a result, contemporary spiritual meaning seekers often remain blind to the dark sides of Islamic mysticism. Because of their deep wish to only see radiating beauty they remain oblivious to these aspects of ‘Sufism’, even though the Sufis themselves have been recognizing and condemning them for centuries.

Despite all the beautiful and sincere forms of Islamic mysticism one can discover in various places, it’s of great importance therefore not to lose track of the dark sides. Because when we conceptually try to free Islamic and other mysticisms of all darkness, it perpetuates our defective contemporary views on religion. It makes us incapable to grasp the relevant dimensions and underlying dimensions of it all — even when we’re standing right in front of them and when we’re a part of them ourselves, such as, for example, in the case of ‘tourism Sufism’.

Tourism Sufism

When people travel as tourists to some Islamic country, they’re often welcomed by all sorts of photoshopped tourism Sufism. Hotel managers in Turkey, for example, will often present their guests a range of cultural excursions among which a visit to a sema is by far one of the more popular since it offers the opportunity to see the classic icon of whirling dervishes come alive in front of one’s eyes. A dozen men in stately white robes start revolving around their axis to the tunes of solemn and contemplative Ottoman music. Their skirts flow like elegant circles, they raise up their hands and with characteristic steps keep themselves in a seemingly endless whirl.

Whirling Dervishes (Source: Creative Commons — Vladimer Shioshvili)

One doesn’t even have to go all the way to Turkey to encounter such rituals. They’re often performed outside of Turkey as well. In European or American concert halls and churches, for example, one can sometimes witness a sema. Yet those who take hold of such an opportunity have to keep in mind that the dancers they’re watching, generally speaking, aren’t real Mevlevis. Together with other Sufi-orders in Turkey, the Mevlevi order was disbanded by law in 1925. The classical structure thus ceased to exist. Their places of study and worship were closed, sheiks were removed from their position and for decades it was forbidden to perform the rituals. From the fifties onwards, exceptions were allowed specifically for the sema ceremony, but only because of their folkloric value, not because they were truly religious gatherings.

So to hear and see how a sema once upon a time used to be executed through such a staged performance can of course be fun and informative yet it always remains what it is: an interesting performance. All in all, it’s a form of ‘fast food spirituality’. Not too expensive, calmly watched from a distance and easily digested.

It’s just a little strange that spectators often presume they’re truly witnessing a religious-spiritual phenomenon in a museum, tourist venue or concert hall. Suppose a Turkish tourist would attend a performance of a choir in a cultural center of, let’s say, the All-Night Vigil of Rachmaninov and suppose this Turkish tourist afterwards, with an elated expression on his face, says: “It was amazingly beautiful to see all those monks pray so intensely!” Obviously, such a statement would come across as very bizarre.

So those who buy a ticket to see a group of hip and trendy whirling dervishes on a stage, generally speaking do not get to see a traditional brotherhood which is led by a spiritual leader. On the contrary. They’re above all led by a manager. And that manager is the ministry of tourism in Turkey. This ministry all too happily organizes such shows both abroad and at home to make the religious heritage and culture of Turkey attractive to the general public.[*]

This brings us to another strange aspect of ‘Sufism’: Sufism of the state. In this case it’s a rather innocent aspect of the cultural policy of a government that uses mysticism as a touristic attraction for Westerners with a soft spot for exoticism. But the interweaving of mysticism and politics can go quite far.

Sufism of the state

Since Sufism isn’t something in the margin but a central thread that runs through the whole tradition and takes different shapes in all layers of society, it was, throughout history, also connected to the political reality in various ways. Some Sufis advocated for the battles of the authorities, others, in contrast, were thorns in the side of the powerful. As a result, within the Islamic world, one can find all sorts of examples of mysticism being the driving force against suppression or, on the contrary, of mysticism being taken up in the established ‘state structures’.

Senussi on to fight 1915

Examples of ‘political Sufi resistance’ can easily be found in the turbulent struggles and political revolutions of decolonization. The Senussi brotherhood fought the French expansion in the Sahara and the Italian colonization of Libya in the first decades of the 20th century. In Indonesia strong Sufi resistance was led by ‘Abd al-Samad al-Palimbâni who called for jihad against the Dutch rulers and based himself on the mystical teachings of al-Ghazali and ibn-Arabi. And the Naqshbandi sheikh Said of Palu, who mixed mystical teachings with Kurdish-nationalist elements, stormed the city of Diyarbakir in 1925 together with thousands of followers (yet without much result).

Map of Safavid Empire in 1610

Neither does one need to look very far to find examples of established power structures that based themselves on Islamic mysticism. In the Ottoman Empire, among others, various Sufi tariqas were supported both financially and ideologically by the sultans, which, in return, assured the loyalty of many sheiks. Another example is the Safavid Empire, one of the important dynasties in Persian history, which was in power between the 16th and the 18th century. Its ‘state view’ on Islam also had a mystical outlook since it based its ‘chain of authority’ on the sheiks of the Safaviyya tariqa.

Today as well, Islamic mysticism is often interwoven with politics. And sometimes in quite unexpected places, such as the Iranian government. Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, encouraged Michael Gorbatsjov to read the works of classical mystical philosphers such as Ibn Arabi, Ibn Sina and Sohrawardi.

To conclude

Of course, our usual image creation can’t fathom such a mix of religion, spirituality, mysticism and politics. The dichotomous manner in which we think about these topics makes us either completely ignore such realities or makes us singularly focused on those elements that confirm the dichotomy of ‘religion’ vs. ‘mysticism’ — even though it makes no sense in a religious tradition like Islam.

As such, this article only amplifies the conclusions of the first two articles in this series. And it should thus become clear that the misconceptions about Islamic mysticism aren’t simply some small mistake or some innocent ignorance. Much more is at stake. These misconceptions are, in fact, part and parcel of the contemporary ‘politics of mysticism’, which will be more clearly explained in a following article.



[*] It has to be remarked however that some did retain the tradition. The ceremonies were still held in closed circles away from the watchful eye of the Turkish state and continued by some musicians (such as Elvi Erguner and his son Kudsi). A couple of people, who could claim a familial link with Rumi (such as Celaleddin Çelebi) or whohad still been members of the order before its dissolution (such as Süleyman Loras Hayati Dede), also made a transfer of the teachings possible within certain spiritual circles. Because of the specific Turkish situation, these new Mevlevi groups — such as ‘The Treshold Society’ en ‘The Mevlevi Order of America’ — grew above all in the UK and the US. Yet because one can often come across the already discussed expectation among Westerners that religion and mysticism should be separated, these groups often don’t stress the specifically Islamic spirituality of the Mevlevi and often take on a more ‘universalist’ (and sometimes quite New Age) approach. However, the sema retained an important place within their gatherings. In these groups one can therefore be initiated to learn its movements and partake in the communal ritual. Of course, such performances of the sema are not the same as performances of touristic and cultural ensembles.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

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