Schwartz on Sufism

Stephen Schwartz has had yet another article published in his favoured online magazine, David Horowitz’s FrontPageMag.com, on the subject of Sufism which he promotes as the friendly side of Islam. He starts off with the funeral of Shaikh Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki, who passed away unexpectedly last year. He notes speculation that the large following his funeral attracted might have been a “muffled demand for political reform” or an expression of loyalty to the Maliki madhhab (school of law); Schwartz advances the view that the sentiment being expressed was really that of support for Sufism. The presence in the Hijaz of imams from various parts of the world with an affiliation to Sufism is long-established. Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhlawi, the author of the Tablighi Jamaat’s well-known text Faza’il-e-A’maal and the teacher of the founder of the Islamic academy at Bury in northern England, retired to the Hijaz, and was affiliated with four schools of Sufism; and while Schwartz’s assertions that “clandestine Sufi meetings have become commonplace in Jeddah” and that young people are turning to Sufism may give the impression that this is a recent phenomenon, it’s not new at all. The Hijaz has long had a large Hadrami presence, and “Kerim Fenari” (really Abdul-Hakim Murad) noted in his essay of 1998, The Wahhabi Who Loved Beauty, that such gatherings were taking place at that time.

Schwartz gets into even stranger territory when he starts associating Sufism with “Islamic pluralism”:

If, at one end of the continuum, we find the fanatical creed of Wahhabism, cruel and arbitrary, more an Arab-supremacist state ideology than a religious sect, at the other end we find the enlightened traditions of Sufism. These stress not only intra-Islamic dialogue, separation of spiritual from clerical authority, and teaching in the vernacular, but also respect for all believers, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or other. Sufis emphasize, above all, their commitment to mutual civility, interaction, and cooperation among believers, regardless of sect.

This is, in fact, falsehood from beginning to end, and hints toward linking Sufism with the false ideology of perennialism which Shaikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller has made much efforts to distance his field from. Sufism is an Islamic discipline and encourages “separation of spiritual from clerical authority” only in as much as one has to be qualified in Sufism to be a Sufi shaikh, and in other Islamic disciplines to be a shaikh of those. Wahhabis in the west teach in the vernacular, while a lot of traditional Sufi-oriented teachers continue to teach in Urdu (“vernacular” for India, but not for here). He should be aware that “believers”, in Islamic parlance, means Muslims, not followers of other religions. Furthermore, the tariqa groups among Ahlus-Sunnah do not accept followers who are not Sunnis, since one cannot progress along the Path if one clings to offensive beliefs (such as that some of the Companions of the Prophet, upon whom be blessings and peace, were corrupt or are in Hell). So Sufism teaches the primacy, and exclusive claim to validity, of Ahlus-Sunnah, that is, the mainstream orthodox Muslim community, and its beliefs.

So a Sufi cannot be Sunni or Shi’a, as he falsely claims in his next paragraph. There are some Shi’ites claiming to be Sufis, and even some Hindus, but Sufism originated among Sunni Muslims. The “hundreds of different orders and communities around the globe, none pretending to an exclusive hold on truth” are, in fact, one community, with a large number of different methods. In fact, one shaikh’s methodology may differ from his own shaikh’s, because of the different circumstances of his students. For example, most tariqa groups have a wird, or litany, which is recited at given intervals (such as twice daily). Some recite silently, some recite out loud. Some shaikhs insist that their students wear a certain type of clothing, such as the turban. Others don’t. Others accept followers who seek only “the blessing” of the wird, rather than to become travellers (saalikeen) on the Path. Others don’t. I know of one group whose shaikh follows the Hanafi school, as do all his followers. Another is Shafi’i, and his followers follow different schools.

Sufis follow teachers … but they resist the notion that religious authority should be based on titles and offices. Rather, Sufi teachers gain acceptance and support by their insights and capacity for transmission of enlightenment to their students.

This is simply wrong. A shaikh is known as a shaikh not because of the insight he imparts, but by authorisation from an existing shaikh. Someone cannot follow someone claiming to be a shaikh, however pious he appears, if he claims “authorisation” in a dream or through some preternatural source. Only a verifiable authorisation from a shaikh is acceptable.

The history of Sufism is filled with examples of interfaith fusion, in contrast with the rigid separatism of the Islamic fundamentalists. Balkan and Turkish Sufis share holy sites with Christians. Central Asian Sufis preserve traditions inherited from shamans and Buddhists. Sufis in French-speaking West Africa adapt local customs, and those in Eastern Turkestan borrow from Chinese traditions such as Confucianism and Taoism, as well as martial arts. In the Balkans, Turkey, and Central Asia, Sufis have accepted secularism as a bulwark against religious intolerance and the monopolization of religious opinion by clerics.

Holy sites are shared with followers of other religions in many places, but these places are usually associated with Muslim saints and with such people as Old Testament Prophets (peace be upon them), who are revered by members of both religions. One must also guard against confusing the practices of common people (like the supposed borrowings from shamans and Buddhists he talks of) with Sufism. Some Sufis in Turkey have been very critical of Turkish secular policies, and the repressive policies of some of the régimes of central Asia are extremely well-known. Even if we strongly disagree with someone’s political affiliation, we do not advocate boiling someone to death, or extracting confessions by threatening to rape his mother in front of him, both methods associated with Islam Karimov.

Further on, he alleges that among western students of Islam, Sufism is often dismissed as “folk Islam”; but again, a lot of the popular practices around the tombs of Sufi saints are just that. The Path is about perfecting one’s Islam; some of the common people’s practices around tombs are, in fact, not appropriate. (It is, however, true that there are Islamic Studies departments at certain western universities which take funding from Wahhabis in the Gulf region (not just Saudi Arabia), which do not teach Sufism or hire teachers known to be interested in Sufism.) Later on in the piece, he appears to promote an alcohol-drinking pseudo-Sufi group in the Balkans. The Bektashis are the butt of numerous jokes in Turkey for their notoriously lax attitude to religion, and anyone who says that the drinking of alcohol is permitted ceases to be Muslim. The prohibition on intoxicants is a “necessarily known” part of Islam; even a child knows this.

I can’t disagree with his statement that ‘attempts at direct cooptation or subsidy of a “Sufi alternative” to radical Islam should be avoided’, but I fail to see how this can be consistent with frequent visits to local Sufis by American diplomats and businessmen. Apart from the fact that many Sufis shun the contact of “worldly” people, becoming associated with politicians or with western political or business interests can lead to such figures being seen by local Muslims as tainted. Having a “defender” such as Schwartz writing for a magazine like FPM does not do the reputation of Sufism any favours either. While Sufis (like all followers of mainstream Islam) would condemn the terrorist tactics associated with al-Qa’ida, it doesn’t follow that they care about the US’s geo-political interests. Local Muslims with Sufi affiliations would as readily fight an American invasion of Syria as they did the French occupation of Algeria, or indeed, as they fought in the Turkish invasion of the Balkans.

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