Cuddly Sufis versus aggressive Salafis

Once again, the topic of promoting “Sufism” as a means of countering the aggression of “salafi”-inspired jihadist movements, as in Pakistan presently, has come up, thanks to the establishment of a seven-member “Sufi Advisory Council” in Pakistan. The council, according to Ali Eteraz in Foreign Policy, is headed by a former minister in the Zia-ul-Haq government who has called for Sufi Muhammad, one of the leaders of the Swat “Islamist” uprising, to be charged with mutiny. Eteraz writes:

The usual response by supporters of the Sufi solution is that thanks to the extremists, Islam has already been politicized, and therefore propagandist measures promoting Sufism are the only way to fight back. But that’s precisely the problem: Propaganda is inherently discrediting. Besides, state-sponsored Sufism (which the SAC is) gets everything backward: In an environment where demagogues are using religion to conceal their true political and material ambitions, establishing another official, “preferred” theological ideology won’t roll back their influence.

The problem with using Sufism for this purpose is that it makes the usual mistake about what Sufism actually is. Sufism is not folk Islam or the circuses of “dhikr dancing” which are found in some Muslim regions, let alone the cults which develop around the graves of some deceased shaikhs. If you promote that kind of religion with a huge open-air concert, you are basically giving the extremists something to bomb. However, it will not make any dent in the attraction of the extremists to their target audience, many of whom regard these circuses as degenerate already - all the more so when they are being promoted by the government or by the west.

Sufism is a disclipline, an Islamic science, concerned with deepening one’s connection with and understanding of God, and although the shaikhs which teach it do (sometimes) write poetry which is often sung at the gatherings of their students, these gatherings are not the main purpose of Sufism. It has nothing to do with the kind of geopolitical designs which various western pundits have for it.

The differences between “Sufism” and “salafism” or “Wahhabism” also have nothing much to do with politics, but with certain matters of theology and the legitimacy or otherwise of certain types of intercession, and certain other matters which most non-Muslims would not care for very much. The stereotypes about aggressive “salafis” versus pacific Sufis do not stand up to much scrutiny, because the original Taliban were nominal Sufis as were many of those who fought the Russians in Chechnya (although not the foreign fighters). The Deobandis, generally perceived as a conservative, if not reactionary, school of Indian Muslim scholarship, are very deeply into it. Meanwhile, the mainstream of western “salafism” as found in many of the urban Muslim communities in the UK and USA eschew political activism and have publically condemned not only al-Qa’ida but all of the Islamist movements. They do not do so from the same standpoint as the commentators who promote “Sufism”, but they do so all the same.

In fact, the promotion of popular “Sufism” could have some negative social effects, given that “Sufism” is associated with feudalism in some parts of Pakistan and some of the grave-cults are associated with ugly phenomena such as mentally retarded people being used to beg around them, and at one site a fertility cult in which a “saint” supposedly bestows children on those who go to him, but the first is microcephalic and “belongs to the saint” (this account puts the phenomenon down to the prevalence of cousin marriage in Pakistan). Promote old-fashioned, traditional popular religion, and you could end up with a backward-looking, superstitious society, even if a peaceful one - something like mid-20th-century Ireland.

This is not to say we should welcome the senseless destruction by the Taliban of religious sites, including shrines; I have heard that one positive response to the wave of destruction and violence has been the cleaning-up of some of them and a drive against un-Islamic practices associated with them. However, popular Sufism is no answer to this kind of extremism; it is nothing more than entertainment, and holding a qawwali circus while Pakistan is under threat from the Taliban is no more than a latter-day equivalent of fiddling while the city burns!

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