Powerful: “Sufi philosophies provide major sources of resistance to Salafist and other exclusionary ideologies.” Picture shows the Dargah of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer.
The Salafi War on Sufism
By Shail Mayaram
May 27, 2015
Many would read the global war on terror as a Samuel Huntingtonian self-fulfilling prophecy; witnesses would most likely identify it as a tragically wrong hypothesis. There are clearly many fault lines within Islam, some of which are deepening dramatically. One, there are attacks on Muslim intellectuals, attempts to suppress dissent. Two, there is polarisation between the Shias and Sunnis, primarily due to the Sunnification of Islam that has been continuing since the early 20th century.
The emerging civil war, however, is between Sufis and Salafis. This began in the 19th century when Wahhabis attacked tombs in Arabia (the Wahhabis distinguish themselves from the Salafis). It has intensified in the last two decades with the multiplication of groups that claim to be Salafi or “early Muslims”. These groups profess an Islamic creed that is pure and uncontaminated by accretions.
Sufis under Siege
In the last few years, I have visited several Sufi sites that fall roughly in the territories of the former Ottoman and Mughal empires. All over this vast terrain, there are signs of Sufis under siege. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, Sufi sites have been targeted in various ways.
Most recently, during a visit to Tunis, I visited the mausoleums of Sidi Bou Said and Sidi Manouba, that have been subject to attacks. Adjacent to Tunis-Carthage is the neighbourhood which is named after the Sufi Sidi Bou Said, and is celebrated for its spectacular architecture in white and blue. Tourists, domestic and foreign, flocked to its market on the sunny Sunday afternoon that we were there. Only a few visited the mausoleum and khanqah (hospice) of the Sufi. But this was precisely the place I had been searching for. Ovais Sultan Khan and I climbed up the stairs to find a small shrine over which a woman mujawar or ritual specialist presided — most unusual for a Sufi shrine. Another woman guided us to the small mosque just across.
Tunisia in 2015 is a post-colonial society, dominantly Muslim, struggling to democratise in the aftermath of the revolution against the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali. It is also deeply haunted by the spectre of Islamism, as the bombing of the Bardo museum indicates.
On my last day in Tunis I was finally able to perform my ziyarat (pilgrimage) to the mausoleum of the great Sufi, Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadhili, popularly known as Imam ash-Shadhili or Sidi Belhassan. It was an overwhelming experience. An all-woman zikr was in progress when I entered the hall. The men had been relegated to an outer room and the inner hall reverberated with women’s voices singing a song about the saint. Zikr (dhikr) has many meanings ranging from prayer to recitation to repetition of an expression of praise. Here it culminated in a trance-generating incantation of ‘Allahu Akbar’ with the repetitive ‘Akbar, Akbar, Akbar’ becoming like an ‘Om’ or a Buddhist chant. I had come to Tunis to participate in a panel at the World Social Forum 2015, part of an initiative of the South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy, to engage in a larger global debate on Islam and democracy. My presentation focussed on the philosophical contribution of Sufi brotherhoods such as Chishtis, Qadiris and Madaris as also of independent qalandars in the Indian subcontinent. The Chishtis and Qadiris are close cousins of the Shadhili (Shazili) brotherhood, which was important in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Sidi Belhassen was a Shadhili Sufi who came from Morocco and established his first zawiya in Tunis in 1227. In India, the Chishti order had already been established by Muinuddin Chishti from Chisht, Afghanistan. Some Shadhili and Chishti Sufis are authors of philosophical treatises.
The big question, of course, is why the antipathy between Sufis and Salafis is becoming a civil war in Islam. Indeed, the war itself is fairly one-sided, as the other side is the victim of the attack and has no strategy for a concerted counter-attack. But without romanticising either Sufism — any ‘ism’ is problematic — or the “good Muslim”, we only have to peruse early Sufi medieval texts to see how Sufi philosophies provide major sources of resistance to Salafist and other exclusionary ideologies. They go back to a period when religion and philosophy were not yet divorced. These philosophies also suggest Islam’s civilisational dialogue with Greek and Hindu-Buddhist philosophies.
A few years ago, in Pakistan, I had visited the mausoleum of the great Sufi Abul Hassan Ali Hajvari, popularly called Daata Sahib (990-1077), now behind barbed wire after its bombing in 2010. Abul Hassan Ali Hajvari is the author of Kashf Al Mahjub or The Revelation of the Veiled, a text in Persian that the philosopher Ghazala Irfan teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. I had also made another pilgrimage to Pakpattan where the mausoleum of Baba Farid, one of the great Chishti Sufis, had been similarly attacked. Baba Farid also visited Jerusalem. Around the site of his meditation an Indian hospice has come into being, beautifully memorialised in Navtej Sarna’s recent book, Indians at Herod’s Gate: A Jerusalem Tale.
What cannot be destroyed by arson or attacks, however, are the powerful ideas of some of these Sufi masters that contest annihilatory Salafist ideologies. In India, after a series of celebrated Sufis including Moinuddin Chishti, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Hamiduddin Nagori, Nizamuddin Auliya and Nasiruddin Chiragh Dehlavi, the Chishti lineage was taken southwards to the Deccan by Khwaja Syed Shaik al Islam Syed Mohammed al Husaini, popularly known as Banda Nawaz Gesu Daraz (1321-1422). His powerful philosophical text, Ma’arif al awarif, is a commentary upon a foundational text of the Suhrawardi Sufi order. It articulates, among other ideas, the ethical idea that one cannot love god and not love all the creatures he has created. Only the first volume of this text has been recently published by the Da’irat’ul-Ma’arif’il-Osmania, Hyderabad, edited by Mohammed Mustafa Shareef. This is similar to the Shadhili teaching that god is everywhere and one can see his face in all creation elaborated in the mystical teachings of Al-Shadhili
This then is the undeclared civil war in Islam. Except that one side is largely armed only with the theology of love.
(Shail Mayaram is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.)