By Robert Carle
Jul 21 2017
Abd al-Malik grew up in Neuhof, a bleak
housing project outside Strasbourg, France. In Neuhof, hoodlum culture competed
with resurgent Islam to give French minority youth a sense of self-esteem and
belonging. “[Islam] is what was going on where I lived,” Malik said. “For
someone who had spiritual needs, it was much easier and more natural to find an
imam than a priest.”
In 1994, after living as a drug dealer and
a thief, Malik joined the grim Tablighi sect of Islam, which taught a rigid
moral code that helped lift him out of drug addiction and crime. Malik grew a
beard, donned a white djellaba, and set out on a mission to “Islamize
everything around us.” The Tablighis preach non-violence, but they have
theological precepts that echo those of Jihadis. In 1995, two militant
“brothers” invited Malik to help them bomb the police headquarters in
Strasbourg. He refused.
Malik left the Tablighis after his “emir”
(leader) suggested that he give up rap music. In 1999, Malik took a pilgrimage
to a remote Moroccan village, where he met the Sufi saint Sidi Hamza. Malik
felt himself “transported into an ocean of love.” This prompted Malik to
embrace Sufism, a brand of Islam that eschews politics and stresses an
interior, mystical realization of faith. Malik considers his previous
interpretation of Islam to be restrictive and sexist.
Today, Malik and his wife share childcare
and homemaking responsibilities. Although Neuhof seethes with anti-Semitism,
Malik’s new consciousness prompted him to visit Auschwitz. Following September
11, Malik made a CD about how the attacks on the World Trade Centre made him
ashamed to be a Muslim. “Neither fundamentalism nor extremism,” he sings. “Me,
I don’t mix politics and faith.”
In 2004, Malik published the first of many
autobiographical books, May Allah Bless France!, a rebuttal to the extremist
pamphlet “Allah Curse France.” In 2008, Malik was named a Knight of the Order
of the Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. In 2014, Makik
turned May Allah Bless France! into a film, which won the FIPRESCI Discovery
Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Sufi orders formed in the ninth and tenth
centuries as spiritual movements to bypass the legalism of the Ulema and the
worldliness and luxury of the caliphate. At a time when Islam was becoming
dogmatic, claiming that Muhammad’s religion was the only true faith and that
the Qur’an was the only valid scripture, Sufis saw God everywhere, even in
pagan traditions. At a time when the Ulema had closed the gates of Ijtihad,
regarding revelation as complete, Sufis sought new revelations from God. At a
time when the Ulema preached a God of law, Sufis spoke of God as love.
Islam’s first Sufis were itinerant mystics
who travelled through the caliphate seeking intimate knowledge of God. Sufis
wore coarse woollen garments (sufs), the clothing of the poor. Sufis eschewed
involvement in politics, preaching that “if you cannot change kings, then
Sufis developed a tradition of devotion to
Jesus. The Qur’an mentions Jesus’ virginal conception and his miracles, but
otherwise tells us little about the person of Jesus. Sufis, however, preserved
and transmitted a great variety of stories about Jesus. Like a Sufi, Jesus
valued spirituality above material things, practiced asceticism, and taught his
disciples to prepare their souls for doomsday.
According to one Sufi tradition, “the day
that Jesus was raised to heaven, he left behind nothing but a woollen garment
(suf), a slingshot, and two sandals.” One of the pioneers of Sufism, Mansur
al-Hallaj, was executed after being accused of secretly practicing a brand of
The thirteenth-century Sufi Persian poet
Rumi held that all existence is a manifestation of the same divine reality.
Rumi stressed not the performance of the five pillars, but the quest to find
God through the gateway of the heart. In an imperfect yet memorable analogy,
William Dalrymple writes, “Sufism, with its emphasis on love rather than
judgment, represents the New Testament of Islam.”
Sufis became Islam’s best evangelists,
carrying Islam to Central and East Asia, Indonesia, India, and sub-Saharan
Africa. As Sufi seekers grew in number, Sufi brotherhoods (tariqas) set up
lodges where mendicants could gather together and learn from each other. By the
eleventh century, these lodges had become sophisticated schools of mysticism.
In India and Indonesia, Sufism absorbed
many of the traditions, rituals, and habits of pre-Islamic religions. Today,
these traditions are passed on in staged events in which musicians lead massive
crowds of devotees in ecstatic songs of devotion (the Zikr, Mawlid, and the
shalawat). These movements bear some resemblance to charismatic and Pentecostal
revivalism within Christianity.
Islamists have always seen Sufis as their
greatest adversaries. When the Wahhabis came to power in the Arabian Peninsula,
they implemented a puritanical regime that outlawed traditionalist practices
such as veneration of the Pirs, commemoration of religious holidays, the
rhythmic repetition of the names and attributes of Allah (Zikr), and devotional
acts centred on the Prophet Muhammad (Mawlid).
When the Wahhabis conquered Mecca and
Medina, they destroyed the tombs of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions,
including pilgrimage sites that marked the birthplace of Muhammad and his
family. The Wahhabis banned music and flowers from the sacred cities, and they
forbade Sufi and Shi'i Muslims from participating in hajj.
Throughout the Islamic world, the
theological heirs of Wahhab are attacking Sufi ceremonies and places of
worship. In Pakistan, since 2005, Taliban militants have attacked dozens of
Sufi shrines, killing thousands of worshipers. Last June, the Taliban
assassinated beloved Sufi poet and singer Amjad Sabri. In Mali, Islamist
militants have demolished Sufi mausoleums, universities, and libraries in the
ancient Saharan trading town of Timbuktu. In Egypt, militants have torched Sufi
shrines and attacked Sufi Zikrs.
The Shi’i government in Iran has also
attempted to suppress Sufis. The Iranian government has imprisoned thousands of
Sufis and bulldozed Sufi mausoleums and meeting houses. Sufism is nonetheless
also growing rapidly in Iran, as young Muslims adopt a liberal and liberating
spirituality that is entirely different from that of the mullahs. In 1979, Iran
had 100,000 Sufis; today there are millions.
Mostafa Azmayesh, an expert on Sufism in
France, says the Sufis believe that “religion is the way of the heart and it is
not something that can be imposed forcefully, by flogging or by an army and
invasion. For this reason [Sufis] angered the lawgivers who . . . use religion
as a tool of repression.” Pakistani Sufi Jamil Ahmed says, “The Sufi shrines
belong to everyone including Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and transgenders, and
that is why the militants linked to [the Islamic State] label people coming
here as heretics . . . to be killed.”
An Antidote to Terror
Muhammad As’ad is a PhD candidate in
Islamic Studies at Radboud University in the Netherlands. As’ad is writing his
dissertation on how Indonesian Sufi practices are an antidote to terrorism.
As’ad is doing his fieldwork in Solo,
Indonesia, a town in Central Java that has a history of incubating radicalism.
Abu Bakar Bashir, who spearheaded the 2002 Bali nightclub bombers, which killed
over 200 people and injured 200 more, was from Solo. The current moderate
Muslim president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, is also from Solo.
As’ad’s thesis is that people who
participate in the Sufi-inspired Banjari worship are unlikely to commit an act
of terror. Banjari is an Indonesian word for tambourine, and it refers to a
local, traditionalist practice that emphasizes cultivating a love for God and
other people through song, dance, and chanting. Many forms of Sufism require
training in a Tariqa, but Banjari is open to all people. The Wahhabis
(Salafists) consider Banjari an innovation (bid’ah), and they are trying to purge
Indonesia of all Sufi practices.
As’ad explained in an interview that
Islamic radicalism in Indonesia is a post-1998 phenomenon. When General Suharto
was president (1966-1998), he kept a tight lid on religions, and Salafists were
not allowed to organize. When Indonesia democratized in 1999, radical groups
began to form and flourish. “Before 1999, there was no hatred between Muslim
and Muslim,” As’ad said. “Freedom of speech and freedom of religion has led to
the growing influence of Salafis.”
Indonesia has had a series of terrorist
attacks since 2000. Secular universities are the incubators of Salafism. On the
other hand, Islamic universities and pesantren (madrasas) provide a
traditionalist theological education that inoculates students against Salafism
In Java, Banjaris draw audiences of
thousands. After a series of chants, the music starts, and people sing and sway
to tunes played on kendhang (hand drums) and metallophones as they stretch
their hands out to heaven. During the four-hour worship session, there is
always a sermon that critiques the Salafi discourse on the Banjari and reverses
it by saying that the banjari is a lawful and edifying Muslim practice.
Many sermons stress the danger of Islamic
radical groups who use violence in an effort to change Indonesia into an
Islamic state. As’ad’s hypothesis is that banjari is a form of “cultural
resistance against Islamic radicalism and the growing teaching in Salafism in
A Dangerously Inadequate Response
For too long, Western intellectuals have
interpreted Islamic terrorism simplistically, in terms of class warfare, a
concept that is peripheral to the educated and often affluent men who carry out
acts of violence. The followers of jihad gain recruits by addressing an
enormous human problem—spiritual, cultural, political, and ethical alienation.
Too often, the West responds with vague promises of self-actualization, social
security, and sexual fulfilment, often tinged with cynicism and nihilism.
This is no answer to terrorists. As Paul
Berman writes in his study of Sayyid Qutb, “The terrorists speak insanely of
deep things. The anti-terrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep
things.” Thoughtful Sufis speak sanely of deep things. They are eloquent
advocates for a pluralist Islam, and in many parts of the Muslim world, they
lay down their lives for their beliefs, just as persecuted Christian do.
The good news is that Sufism, though civil
and eclectic, is also irrepressible. William Dalrymple quotes a woman at the
shrine of the saint Lal Sal Shahbaz Qalandar in the town of Sehwan, “Today in
our Pakistan there are so many of these mullahs and Wahhabis who say that to
pay respect to the saints in their shrines is heresy. Those hypocrites! They
sit there reading their law books and arguing about how long their beards
should be, and fail to listen to the true message of the prophet.”
For the Sufis of Pakistan, the
seventeenth-century Sufi poet-saint Rahman Baba, whose shrine the Taliban
destroyed in 2009, has a compelling rebuttal to purveyors of terror. He wrote:
I am a lover,
and I deal in love. Sow flowers,
surroundings become a garden.
thorns; for they will prick your feet.
We are all one
another, wounds himself.
None of this is to suggest that Sufis are
perfected human beings or irreproachable allies of the West. Sufism is
doctrinally diverse, and there are illiberal Sufis and jihadi Sufis. There are
also among Sufis charlatans and predators. Pew Research Center polls find
growing support in the Muslim world for strict Islamic punishments against
adulterers, blasphemers, and apostates, even among Sufis.
In Muslim-majority countries, constantly
shifting alliances and competing strands of Islam pervade every sector of
political life, eluding facile definitions such as “peaceful,” “violent,”
“moderate,” or “extremist.”
Despite these complexities, Sufism remains
one of Islam’s best resources when it comes to building civil, free, and
pluralist societies in Muslim contexts. Westerners must not overlook it.
Robert Carle is a professor of theology at The King’s College in
Manhattan. Dr. Carle is a contributor to The American Interest, Public
Discourse, Society, Human Rights Review, The Federalist, Academic Questions,
and reason.com. In May, Dr. Carle led a Media Project venture to Tebuireng
Pesantren in Jombang, Indonesia.