We towelheads were Christian long before Mo came and buggered up the Middle East. For a good time, go visit the Sufis. They always put a unique spin on Islam.
In the popular image of Islam, the Sufis1 are considered to be gentle, moderate, tolerant, spiritual Muslims in contrast to legalistic, rigid, intolerant Muslims who follow Islamic law very closely, paying no attention to spirituality. And to a degree, this may be correct.
One may say that Muslims are either spirituality oriented or legalistically oriented: the latter focus on adhering closely to Islamic law, seeing this adherence as of prime importance to one’s Muslim-hood, while the former pay attention to developing oneself spiritually, coming closer to God, delving into metaphysics, and so on. In the popular mindset, these Muslims downplay the importance of blind obedience to the law.
Indeed, some spiritually oriented Muslims divide one’s observance into four stages. The first is (شريعة, sharī‛ah) or adherence to Islamic law. This means seeking complete fulfillment of what Islamic law states, which takes considerable effort and dedication as Islamic law has something to say about everything one does from the moment he wakes up to even while he is asleep (such as what posture when one is sleeping would be recommended based on Muhammad’s example). After this comes (طريقة, Tarīqah) which refers to a technical term for a Sufi order and its beliefs and practices. This means that instead of obsessing with Islamic law, a Muslim obsesses about fidelity to a Sufi (شيخ, shaykh), including learning what truths he teaches and doing what practices he teaches. After this comes (حقيقة, Haqīqah) which means “truth,” and refers to understanding and comprehending the ineffable truths of the universe (which tend to be Neoplatonic in Islam). The last stage is (معرفة, ma‛rifah) which refers to a mystical union with God. Sometimes, some orders believed that as one ascended to a higher level, one had no need of the previous one(s). As such, one in a Sufi order need not concern oneself with Islamic law: he had outgrown its purpose. Islamic law, as such, was more for the unenlightened rabble.
This reputation for downplaying the importance of unquestioning adherence to Islamic law, and of the paramount importance of being so meticulously obedient, is not always positive. For common Muslims and non-Muslims, such a characterization certainly makes Sufism more appealing and palatable compared to orthodox Islam; but Salafis use such perceptions (or, rather, propaganda based on such assumptions) to discredit Sufism (and, by extension, practically all spirituality-based forms or practices of Islam) as un-Islamic if not anti-Islamic. Indeed, being called a Sufi is practically an accusation of heresy if not apostasy and/or willfully misleading Muslims in non-Muslim paths. Such Salafis view Sufism as a deviation from Islam, a deviation created either by the inevitable contact between Islam and non-Muslim systems, from which Muslims unfaithfully borrowed, or wholesale conspiracies by non-Muslims to seduce Muslims away from “true” Islam.
Such a characterization seems to be accurate considering what many Sufi orders have taught and how popular they are in The West. Indeed, practically every heresy possible within Islam has had a presence (or, in some cases, even an origin) in Sufism. But Sufism is certainly far more complex and nuanced for one to say it devalues Islamic law and adheres to heresy.
For one thing, Sufism has shared an antagonistic relationship with orthodox Islam. Sufi shaikhs2 were in competition, in many ways, with the orthodox clerics: the former had popular support while the latter had state support. It is no surprise, then, considering political tendencies, for both groups to discredit, devalue, or dismiss the other.
But, because they enjoyed the state’s support, the orthodox clerics were able to wipe out many heretical sects that originated from or existed within Sufism. Sometimes this involved suppressing Sufism itself. This confrontation between the two sides, and the necessity thereafter for Sufism to adopt orthodox Islam’s value of and adherence to Islamic law, created within Sufism a new strain: that of legalistic spirituality. One of the foremost figures in this movement was (الغزالي, al-ghazālī) al-Ghazali. Like the orthodox clerics, he believed that devaluing Islamic law was an unacceptable heresy. He formulated a philosophy (which did not originate with him but that was popularized by him) that as one ascended the different levels of spiritual attainment, one had an equal need to adhere to those levels behind oneself. Furthermore, spiritual work was supposed to be done in addition to adherence to Islamic law. Excellence or advancement in spirituality was no excuse for setting aside the rigid mandates of Islamic law. In a similar and more modern vein, (شاه ولى الله, shāh waliyullāh) Shah Waliullah of South Asia (A.D. 1703 to 1762) sought to emphasize Islamic law in Sufism as well as supporting Islamism over British, Maratha, and other non-Muslim dominion. He was instrumental in spreading both Islamism and Sufism among the Muslims of South Asia while the Mughal Empire began its decline. The last “great” Mughal emperor, (Urdu: اورنگزیب; Hindi: औरंगज़ैब; awrangzayb) Aurangzaib or (Urdu: عالم گیر; Hindi: आलमगीर; ālamgīr) Alamgir, died in 1707. What is significant is that Aurangzaib/Alamgir was the most Islamist Mughal emperor.
So this characterization of Sufism and Sufis as inherently moderate and tolerant is not entirely correct.
Did you know that one of (آيت الله روح الله موسوي خميني, āyatollāh rūhollāh mūsavī khomeynī) Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeyni’s academic specialties was esoteric Islam – the very issues that Sufis delve into?
Did you know that some of histories most ardent ghazis3 were Sufis?
Did you know that the fanatic band of soldiers and mystics who conquered Iran and converted it to Shiism — known in Turkish as Kızılbaş (pronounced: kəzəlbāsh) and in Persian as قزلباش, qezelbāsh, meaning “red-head” in Turkic languages — was a Sufi order?
Considering the great surge in Islamism today, opposition to it by Salafis notwithstanding, it would not do us any favors to assume that Sufis will undoubtedly be our allies against Islamists. After all, if they have to choose between supporting The West and supporting “Islam”, they will choose the latter.
- “Sufi” comes from the Arabic word (تصوف, taSawwuf), the adjective of which is (صوفي, Sūfī). These words come from the Arabic (صوف, Sūf), meaning “wool,” and is used to refer to these people because of their habit of wearing woolen clothes or cloaks as a sign of humility and renunciation.
- “Shaikh” or “sheikh” — and however it is spelled — comes from the Arabic (شيخ, shaykh), which refers to a tribal elder, religious authority, or other leader, often one whose credentials as such as popularly-based rather than official. This Arabic word is pluralized in practically every pattern of Arabic plurals: (شيوخ, shuyūkh) and (أشياخ, ashyākh) and (مشيخة, mashyakhah) and (مشايخ, mashāyikh) and (مشائخ, mashā’ikh).
- “Ghazi” comes from (غازي, ghāzī), which refers to someone who performs (غزوات, ghazawāt; singular: غزوة, ghazwah), which refers to raids or military expeditions, especially on the borders of the Islamic realm.