Sufism as youth culture in Morocco; under attack in Iran; counterpart of Islamic extremism

Wikipedia says that Sufism “is generally understood to be the inner, mystical dimension of Islam. A practitioner of this tradition is generally known as a sufi, though some adherents of the tradition reserve this term only for those practitioners who have attained the goals of the Sufi tradition. Another name used for the Sufi seeker is dervish.” […]

According to some modern proponents, such as Idries Shah, the Sufi philosophy is universal in nature, its roots predating the arising of Islam and the other modern-day religions; likewise, some Muslims feel that Sufism is outside the sphere of Islam. Wikepedia

In recent months, several writers have reported on the juxtaposition of this ‘kinder, gentler version’ of Islam vs. the hard-line Islam of intolerant, hate-filled extremists.

Some, such as author Philip Jenkins — Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University — even suggest that Sufi Muslims “could be our most valuable allies in the fight against extremism.”


Sufism as youth culture in Morocco

Morocco owes its image of a modern Muslim nation to Sufism, a spiritual and tolerant Islamic tradition that goes back to the first generations of Muslims and has sustained the religious, social and cultural cohesion of Moroccan society for centuries. Sufism provides answers to some of the most complex issues in the contemporary Muslim world, where youth comprise the majority of the population.

Introduction to Sufism

Most Moroccans, young or old, practice one form of Sufism or another. As a deep component of the Moroccan identity, Sufism absorbs all members of society, regardless of age, gender, social status or political orientation.


Moroccan youth are increasingly drawn to Sufism because of its tolerance, its fluid interpretation of the Qur’an, its rejection of fanaticism and its embrace of modernity. Young men and women find in the Sufi principles of “beauty” and “humanity” a balanced lifestyle that allows them to enjoy arts, music and love without having to abandon their spiritual and religious obligations.
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Moreover, Sufi gatherings inspire young people to engage in interfaith dialogue, highlighting the universal values Islam shares with Christianity and Judaism – such as the pursuit of happiness, love of one’s family, tolerance of racial and religious differences, and the promotion of peace.
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Sufis distance themselves from fundamentalists, whose vision of Islam is a strict and utopian emulation of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, by placing great emphasis on the community’s adaptation to the concerns and priorities of modern times. Sufis neither condemn unveiled women nor censure modern means of entertainment. For them, the difference between virtue and vice is determined on the basis of intent, not appearances.
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In addition to Moroccans, thousands of young men and women from Europe, America and Africa flock to sacred music festivals organised every summer by Sufi movements throughout Morocco to sing and celebrate their enthusiasm for life and their commitment to the universal values of peace. The scene at these festivals completely refutes the kind of image that extremists seek to convey to Muslim youth.

– Source: Common Ground News Service, via Middle East Online, Mar. 4, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Mokhtar Ghambou is professor of post-colonial studies at Yale University. He is also the founder and president of the American Moroccan Institute (AMI). This article originally appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek’s On Faith. It is distributed by the Common Ground News Service and can be accessed at GCNews.


Sufism Under Attack In Iran

The Sufi tradition focuses on the inner and spiritual teachings of Islam that are included in the so-called Mecca verses of the Koran.

Laleh Bakhtiar, the first American woman to translate the Koran into English, tells RFE/RL that there have been historic tensions between some Sufi practices and Orthodox Islam.

Bakhtiar explains that while the Sufi tradition emphasizes the love of God first, orthodox Muslims teach the fear of God and both sides accuse each other of extremism.
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Mostafa Azmayesh, an expert on Sufism in France, says the Sufi approach toward Islam was from the beginning different from that of conservative Muslims.

“[The Sufis] said the Koran says there is no coercion in religion and there is nothing mandatory — 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,” Azmayesh says. “For that reason [the Sufis] angered the lawgivers who wanted to, against the principles of the Holy Koran, use religion as a tool of repression.”

As a result a rift was created between the so-called school of Shari’a and the school of Tariqa, or the Sufi mystical branch of Islam, and it got deeper over the years.

Analysts say the current tensions between the Shiite Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi order and the Iranian establishment is seen a result of the historical differences.

– Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Feb. 26, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Sufism in Pakistan

Pakistan has a reputation as a hotspot for extremist Islam but most Pakistanis follow a gentler, more tolerant form of Islam based on Sufi mysticism and folklore.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s Sufi foreign minister, recently suggested that his religion could be used as a counter to growing fundamentalism in the country. His views echo those of western think tanks such as the Rand Corporation, who recommend the mobilisation of Sufism to counter Islamist ideology and influence.

Barbara Plett reports from Lahore, a city steeped in Sufi tradition.

Listen 6 mins

– Source: BBC Radio World Service, Feb. 24, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Barbara Plett, who filed the above report, also wrote this article for BBC News:

Can Sufi Islam counter the Taleban?

It’s one o’clock in the morning and the night is pounding with hypnotic rhythms, the air thick with the smoke of incense, laced with dope.

I’m squeezed into a corner of the upper courtyard at the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal in Lahore, famous for its Thursday night drumming sessions.

It’s packed with young men, smoking, swaying to the music, and working themselves into a state of ecstasy.

This isn’t how most Westerners imagine Pakistan, which has a reputation as a hotspot for Islamist extremism.

But this popular form of Sufi Islam is far more widespread than the Taleban’s version. It’s a potent brew of mysticism, folklore and a dose of hedonism.

Now some in the West have begun asking whether Pakistan’s Sufism could be mobilised to counter militant Islamist ideology and influence.

Lahore would be the place to start: it’s a city rich in Sufi tradition.
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At the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh Hajveri, musicians and singers from across the country also gather weekly, to perform qawwali, or Islamic devotional singing.

Qawwali is seen as a key part of the journey to the divine, what Sufis call the continual remembrance of God.
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But Sufism is more than music. At a house in an affluent suburb of Lahore a group of women gathers weekly to practise the Sufi disciplines of chanting and meditation, meant to clear the mind and open the heart to God.

One by one the devotees recount how the sessions have helped them deal with problems and achieve greater peace and happiness. This more orthodox Sufism isn’t as widespread as the popular variety, but both are seen as native to South Asia.

“Islam came to this part of the world through Sufism,” says Ayeda Naqvi, a teacher of Islamic mysticism who’s taking part in the chanting.

“It was Sufis who came and spread the religious message of love and harmony and beauty, there were no swords, it was very different from the sharp edged Islam of the Middle East.

“And you can’t separate it from our culture, it’s in our music, it’s in our folklore, it’s in our architecture. We are a Sufi country, and yet there’s a struggle in Pakistan right now for the soul of Islam.”

That struggle is between Sufism and hard-line Wahhabism, the strict form of Sunni Islam followed by members of the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

– Source: BBC News, Feb. 24, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

Why Sufi Muslims, for centuries the most ferocious soldiers of Islam, could be our most valuable allies in the fight against extremism

All too often, we hear about Islam in the context of intolerance and, often, violence — of Al Qaeda savagery, of Taliban misogyny, of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and perhaps in Iran itself. Even in Europe, many fear the growth of a radical Islamic presence. For three decades, Western observers have worked fervently to comprehend Islam’s global power and appeal, its ability to inspire the poor and to topple governments. But in all that intense attention, most observers have missed a crucial part of the story: a global web of devout religious brotherhoods that by all logic should be a critical ally against extremism.

Sufis are the power that has made Islam the world’s second-largest religion, with perhaps 1.2 billion adherents. Not a sect of Islam, but rather heirs of an ancient mystical tradition within both the Sunni and Shia branches of the faith, Sufis have through the centuries combined their inward quest with the defense and expansion of Islam worldwide. At once mystics and elite soldiers, dervishes and preachers, charismatic wonder-workers and power-brokers, ascetic Sufis have always been in the vanguard of Islam. While pushing forward the physical borders of Islam, they have been essential to the spiritual and cultural fullness of the faith. Today, the Sufi tradition is deeply threaded through the power structures of many Muslim countries, and the orders are enjoying a worldwide renaissance.

To look at Islam without seeing the Sufis is to miss the heart of the matter. Without taking account of the Sufis, we cannot understand the origins of most contemporary political currents in the Middle East and Muslim South Asia, and of many influential political parties. We can’t comprehend the huge popular appeal of Islam for women, who so often seem excluded from Muslim life. Sufis are central to the ability of Muslim communities to survive savage persecutions — in Chechnya, in Kosovo — and then launch devastating insurgencies. They are the muscle and sinew of the faith.

And, however startling this may seem, these very Sufis — these dedicated defenders and evangelists of mystical Islam — are potentially vital allies for the nations of the West.
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– Source: Philip Jenkins, Boston Globe, Jan. 25, 2009 — Summarized by Religion News Blog

See Also
Teachings of Sufism Carl W. Ernst “In Carl Ernst’s well-received Shambhala Guide to Sufism, he laments the scarcity of traditional Sufi texts in English. In Teachings of Sufism, Ernst sets out to make amends. His reach is broad, spanning three languages, 10 centuries, and numerous countries and cultures. He divides his brief texts into sections such as Spiritual Practice, Mastery and Discipleship, and Lives of the Saints, with special attention given to his section on listening to sacred music, which “becomes a way of transporting oneself back to that moment of harmony with God in pre-eternity.” Also included are selections on lives of Sufi women and the prominent role of the Qur’an in Sufi mysticism. A scholar first, Ernst never himself crosses the line into sectarianism or proselytizing in his introductions, but the unflagging devotion that imbues the pages of his translations is enough to attune anyone’s ear to the divine music of life.” (Amazon.com review)
The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony Stephen Schwartz, a journalist and convert to Islam, offers Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, as an aid to the United States’ efforts to fight extremism.

Apologetics Index research resources on Sufism

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