The Politics of Mysticism

Re-visioning Sufism (Part 4)
by Jonas Atlas

When the concept of ‘Sufism’ is discussed, the abundance of misconceptions is quite impressive. It’s predominantly seen as a ‘marginal branch’, while it’s actually a central aspect of Islam; it’s often said to be heretical according to ‘mainstream Islam’ even though brandishing ‘Sufism’ as heresy is a thoroughly modern phenomenon; and it’s often solely linked to ‘love, peace and music’, although it certainly carries quite some dark elements within. Whether we find ourselves among New Age meaning seekers or among academic experts, in general, we can easily notice how the same misconceptions abound.

This wouldn’t be much of a problem if it were all a simple ‘misunderstanding’ based on some ‘lack of knowledge’. Yet the fact of the matter is that our misunderstandings about Islamic mysticism do not simply stem from innocent ignorance. They are misunderstandings that are closely tied to the enormous blind spots of the contemporary view on religion and they are misunderstandings that are heavily entwined with pressing political issues. For, all in all, it’s difficult to ignore: the manner in which we nowadays deal with mysticism in general and with Sufism in particular actually kindles many contemporary conflicts.

And all of this isn’t so much intrinsically linked with the classical Islamic vision on mysticism but rather with the modern and Western view on spirituality and mysticism.

The modern view on spirituality and mysticism

In our contemporary worldview spirituality and religion are often treated as distinct and separate concepts. From pubs to TV shows we can hear all sorts of people say things like “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” For example, a small poll among 1200 millennials in the US shows that 72% of them use such a self-description. Just how widespread this idea has become, also becomes clear in popular bestsellers. One quite explicit example thereof is ‘Waking Up. A Guide to Spirituality without Religion’, a book of the American TV personality Sam Harris. The title itself is telling enough. Another example are the works of the popular French philosopher Alain de Botton and his concept of ‘Atheism 2.0’:

As such, one can find numerous examples of the manner in which spirituality and mysticism are today predominantly described in terms of some sort of inner connection with an undefined transcendent reality. Even many atheists see it as an essential dimension of their lives. At the same time people distance themselves from every religious institution or what they call ‘organized religion’. They see the established orders as outdated institutes which are suffocating in their armor of doctrines and dogmas.

However, such a vision is rife with modernist premises that aren’t quite as self-evident as they are mostly presented.

To start with, such a dichotomy starts from the modern duality between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’. Because of the emphasis that is put on the importance of ‘reason’ in that opposition, the standard premise states that ‘faith’ should be a private matter as much as possible. The more faith externalizes itself in concrete actions and practices, the more we see it as an archaic and dangerous expression of religion.

This quickly leads to the second categorization between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’: religion is seen as an institutional world full of official dogmas that limit personal freedom of faith while spirituality and mysticism are described as legitimate searches for individual self-development. In opposition to religion, therefore, concepts like ‘spirituality’ and ‘mysticism’ are given a more positive connotation for, even though such concepts certainly aren’t taken for granted in a worldview that is dominated by science and reason, they do comply much more to the modernist expectations than the concept of ‘religion’. ‘Real’ spirituality is seen as an inner and individual matter. The more ‘external’ it becomes, the more it’s seen as ‘imposed’ and the more it makes people think of dangerous rules and power balances. Not only does it thus seem difficult that religion and mysticism can go together, but religion even seems to be an inhibiting factor to experience one’s own spirituality.

Yet this conceptual duality completely defies reality. Most religious traditions do not contain a centralized institution which defines a list of dogma’s for ‘the faithful’. And those ‘faithful’ seldom saw spirituality and mysticism as a separate dimension of the religious and mythological fabric they felt connected to. Those who look at religion from a modernist point of view thus force spirituality and mysticism into a conceptual frame that’s sociologically, historically as well as theologically inadequate. As was explained in the previous articles in this series, this certainly extremely problematic in the case of Islamic mysticism.

The same problematic distortion can most certainly be witnessed in the modern approach to many great religious traditions. In the case of Islam, however, it also gives rise to a very destructive ‘politics of mysticism’.

Unveiling the politics of mysticism

Even though people often think a grave danger lurks within religion itself, our narrow way of looking at religion adds much more fuel to current conflicts. The modern distinction between religion and spirituality and the caricature it makes of a concept like ‘Sufism’, undeniably leads to an exaggeration of an enemy image which doesn’t only determine our global geopolitical tensions but eventually lies at the root of convictions which legitimize wars.

Because of our contemporary (and quite commercialized) vision that spirituality is something personal and always easily digested, we describe Sufism as the ‘open’, ‘tolerant’ and ‘free’ version of Islam. Yet when we describe it as such, we’re in fact saying that the more rigorous interpretation is the norm. Differently put: even though Sufism is often presented as ‘a different and nice side’ of Islam, exactly by calling it ‘a different side’, we only confirm the idea that ‘real’ Islam is ‘intolerant’, ‘unspiritual’ and ‘strict’.

By doing so again and again, we actually support the vision of rigid fundamentalists. They as well present ‘Sufism’ as an outgrowth, as something that doesn’t belong to ‘normal’ Islam. They as well claim their rigorous rule-focused and narrowly scripture-based interpretation is the only ‘real’ Islam. They as well ignore that the mystical expressions of faith in all its shapes and forms — and with all its cultural mixtures — is the daily reality in large parts of the Islamic world. (Or at least, was the daily reality until very recently.)

Of course, there’s a difference in terms of appreciation. For modernist secularized minds, religion is something inherently problematic. For conservative fundamentalists, on the other hand, religion is the complete solution to their problems. The former wants to get rid of it as much as possible; the latter wants more of it. Yet the underlying vision on religion is essentially the same: religion is portrayed as a boxed package of rules, customs and convictions that legitimize patriarchal aggression. The various more flexible, undefined, spiritual and mystical aspects are placed outside of it — even though they’ve been the norm for centuries.

In other words, fundi’s are extremely useful in the current geopolitical context. They help to paint a picture of Islam as inherently dangerous and problematic, thus ensuring goodwill for our political actions against Islamic countries. The opposite is true just as well: to portray the West as an atheist and anti-religious block which doesn’t allow Muslims to practice their religion in ‘purity’, helps fundi’s to create a following.

Thus we get stuck in a vicious circle. What used to be the exception is hailed as the norm ever more strongly — even though it’s contradicted by the facts. And what used to be the norm is portrayed as the exception ever more strongly — even though it’s omnipresent. Because of the growing conviction (on both sides) that ‘standard Islam’ is a suffocating religion of shrieking men with beards and bombs, people feel surprised every time another image is presented.

Hence it all becomes quite absurd. First we banish all mystical thinking from our world view (or at least we make sure it’s ‘privatized’) and subsequently we’re completely amazed when it turns out to be a traditional and established part of some society.

To conclude

The contemporary ‘politics of mysticism’ should thus be clear: to incessantly describe Sufism as something ‘separate’, ‘marginal’ or ‘unislamic’ above all helps to maintain a philosophical, political and social-psychological enemy image. Those who are aggressive, supposedly are ‘real’ Muslims, while those who are mystical, are seen as ‘moderate’. Those who are Sufi, supposedly keep their religion private while those who want to convince others of their faith, are considered to follow Islam. This type of nonsensical and utterly wrong dichotomies don’t just stem from our modernist frame of thought, they also constantly reinforce that frame, they amplify the common idea of the supposed ‘clash of civilizations’ and they legitimize contemporary conflicts.

In the East as well as the West, this type of shortsightedness makes sure the space for deeply rooted spirituality and every day mysticism shrinks at an incredibly fast pace. For the contemporary ‘politics of mysticism’ bring about a double destruction: it’s brandished as heresy and obliterated by one side, it’s set apart and hollowed out by the other.