Professor delves into Muslim mystical sect

Before a group of about 50 students, professor religious studies Carl Ernst discussed Sufism, which is relatively unknown in the Western world, but can be somewhat controversial.

In a 45 minute lecture to kick off Islam Awareness Week at Penn the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor described Sufism as a spiritual approach to Islam that he termed “controversial in some Muslim circles” today.

He described Sufis as “devoted to … [the prophet] Muha-mmed as a spiritual figure in every way.”

Sufism has its origins in the founding years of Islam and evolved over time into “communities of [common] knowledge and practice” that existed among the Muslim elite, Ernst said.

Ernst cautioned Americans to avoid adopting Judeo-Christian standards in analyzing Sufi mysticism.

“Our society is deeply permeated by Protestant Christian thought” that historically rejected mystical experiences as a Catholic heresy, Ernst said.

Americans should not think that spirituality and mysticism are “sort of like religion, but … sound cooler,” he said.

Ernst also disagreed with what he feels is the media’s sectarian characterization of the conflict in Iraq. Instead of viewing different groups in Iraq through a prism of religious difference, he said, it would be more productive to examine political and tribal reasons for the violence taking place there between Muslims of different sects.

While most students in attendance seemed to agree with Ernst’s characterization of Sufism, one woman disagreed strongly.

Reem Kanaan, a post-doctoral researcher at the School of Medicine, characterized Sufis as a small minority of the population of practicing Muslims. They represent only “2 percent of the Islamic population,” she said.

Kanaan said that all the smaller divisions of Islam are incorrect in their interpretation of the Quran. Sufism and other sects like Shiism “make a section” out of what should be a unified religion, she said.

Asad Kudiya, a first-year student in the Law School, questioned whether presenting a lecture on Sufism was a wise way to begin Islam Awareness Week. The lecture, though interesting, was “not a great introduction,” Kudiya said, because it was a missed opportunity to inform non-Muslims about more mainstream versions of Islam.

Members of the Muslim Students Association, which is hosting Islam Awareness Week, defended their choice of speaker.

Mokerrum Malik, MSA Islamic education co-chairman and a College junior, said that — besides speaker availability — the MSA scheduled Ernst first because it wanted to provide a spiritual introduction to Islam that would seem interesting to non-Muslims. She added that Islam Awareness Week will feature a diverse set of events, from public prayers on College Green to a speech given by a journalist held captive for 10 days by Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.

Islam Awareness Week has occurred annually for the past six years, said MSA President Amir Memon, a senior in the College and Wharton. Its goal is to provide Penn with a “resource for understanding Islam,” he said.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Daily Pennsylvanian, USA
Sep. 28, 2005
Anthony Campisi

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday September 29, 2005.
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