Sufism an antidote to Islamic extremism: A timely lesson for Bangladesh

Monday, 25 June 2012

Mahboob A Khan from California, USA
The current wave of Islamic extremism has its roots in an ideology known as Wahabbism. The Al-Qaeda, Salafis, Taliban and other radical groups are setting off suicide bombs and killing innocent civilians to make political statements. In Iraq, Pakistan and other places these groups are killing anyone who they consider part of their opposition, especially, Sufis and moderate Shias who are traditionally peace-loving Muslims.
An examination on Sufism might shed some light on the current situation. Under the Umayyad rule, when Muslim communities were rife with schisms, bloodshed, and fanaticism - a group of pious companions, such as Ahle Suffa, who used to sit on the benches (suffa) and were known for their ascetic life, decided to move out of this politicised atmosphere of the cities and go into rural areas to devote themselves to Allah and Islam. They were the early Sufis but they did not call themselves Sufis as yet. Among them are Hassan Al Basri, Rabia al Basri, Imam Jafar Al Sadik, Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafi, Imam Malik, Imam Abu Hanifa (May Allah be pleased with them all). They were also the theoreticians of the Traditional Islam, as Abu Hanifa mentioned above.
Some of the more remarkable qualities of these people included loving and humanitarian attitudes toward fellow human beings irrespective of race or religion, humility, living an ascetic life -- and spending most of their time in prayer, Zikr (reciting Qur'an, chanting the names of God), and contemplation. They also had a strong love for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), his illustrious family, companions and the saints among them. They learned higher spirituality from and gave their loyalty to a Sufi Sheikh (or Pir in Persian/Indian languages). Thus, unlike the city people who wore silk, they would wear coarse woolen (Arabicsuf) clothes. Soon, from this humble dress, they got their distinctive name, Sufi, and their meditative and contemplative practice, Tasawwuf in Arabic or Sufism in English.
Sufism became the dominant Islamic practice with the advent of Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Following his extensive travel, contemplation, and spiritual experience with Sufis, he came to the conclusion that only Sufis are on the right and safest path that leads one to Allah and allows one to live a truly Islamic life. When he returned, he dedicated his life to writing on his findings and prescribing ways to live an orthodox, yet intellectual life. He not only subscribed to the Traditional Islam of Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat, but also strengthened it. His influence was so extensive and long lasting that to this day it is said that we are still in the Ghazalian Era.
Thus even after the end of the classical Islamic Era following Mongol invasion of Islamic lands, Sufism influenced Islam both in private and public spheres. This is evident from the historical fact that the three glorious empires of the later Islamic world were completely fashioned by Sufism: Mughal India, Safavid Persia, and Ottoman Caliphate in Turkey, the Middle East, and Europe.
In the eighteenth century, the moderate version of Islam was interrupted by Wahabbism. A man named Muhammad bin Abd al Wahab of Najd in modern-day Saudi Arabia started to preach that Islam was corrupted by centuries of writings and various traditional interpretation of Islam by Islamic scholars, either Sunnis or Shias. He noticed that people in his area, who were ill-reputed for moral and religious laxity, had heterogeneous beliefs. For example, they believed that certain date trees had occult power and, in their ignorance, used to worship them. He linked them to the Sufi practice of veneration for Awliya (saints).
So, Abd al Wahab started a reform movement, and like throwing the baby out with the bath water, he and his followers not only wanted to uproot the practices of the superstitious Najdis, but they also wanted to do away with Sufism completely. They accused Sufis and Shias of committing Shirk (polytheism or associating God with people) - the most abominable sin in Islam, and therefore they deemed them apostates. They declared an all-out war on Sufis, Shias, and non-Muslims unless they would submit to their doctrines. Thousands of innocent traditional Muslims, both Shias and Sunnis, were massacred, their villages burnt down and terrified Muslims fled from the marauding Wahhabis. The Ottoman Caliphate had to send in troops to stop their massacres and the associated terror. Wahabbism also considered the Ottoman Caliphs to be non-believers since they practiced Sufism. However, the Caliph was a ble to subdue them eventually but not before thousands of individuals perished, their mosques, graves, and households vandalised. Detailed accounts of their atrocities were recorded by Ottoman officials and generals.
Most Muslim scholars and lay people, including Abd al Wahab's father and son, rejected this teaching. This led the Wahhabis to kill any scholar who would disagree with them. There is only one interpretation, and it is theirs. All the traditional writings during the twelve centuries before them were burnt.
Thanks to Ottoman intervention, Wahhabis remained a fringe group, but soon they made alliances with powerful tribes like Al Saud family through intermarriages. With the fall of Ottoman Caliphate, Al Saud took over Najd and the Hejaz where Mecca and Medina are situated, and what now constitutes Saudi Arabia. Wahabbism has got official recognition in Saudi Arabia.
Over time and especially since the last century, because of acquiring bad reputation, Wahhabis adopted different names to their organisations to push their ulterior agenda. These neo-Wahhabis adopted names like Salafi, Muhaddhithun, Ahle Hadis, etc., to add legitimacy and establish organisations throughout the world. They receive Saudi patronization.
Adherents of these ideologies are called Literalists since they interpret Islam literally and out of context in contradiction to the traditional contextualised interpretation of Islam and Sharia. Traditional Islam, starting from Imam Abu Hanifa, emphasises that only well-established Islamic jurist-consultants, and consensus of the scholars (Ijma) may interpret the Qur'an and Islam. But the Literalist leaders like Abul Ala Maududi of Jamaat-e-Islami and Syed Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood became the religious scholars for these Literalist movements.
While Al-Qaeda and Taliban are patently radical in their pronouncements and actions, the not-so-strident Literalists are more nuanced in their approach but remain essentially the same. When push comes to shove, these so-called mild Islamists will act out - no holds barred. Recent history, whether in 1970's Bangladesh or 1980's Syria and Egypt, proves this point.
Now, how Sufism can help moderate extremism in the terrorism-plagued Islamic world? If we scan the landscape of the Islamic world, we can notice one continuing pattern: in all the violence and terrorism in the world, practising Sufis are conspicuously absent. This is a sufficient justification to encourage Sufism and sponsor Sufi institutions.
Sufis - unlike the Literalists - emphasise the spiritual side of Islam. While believing in Islam and practising the Sharia they work on the purification of the heart by controlling their ego. Following a teacher and doing various spiritual practices such as zikr - a meditative chanting - is the hallmark of Sufis. Throughout Islamic history, Sufis brought millions - monarchs and paupers - to Islam as they did in Bangladesh by conveying the tolerant and inclusive message of Islam. Some Sufi orders like Naqshbandi had a pivotal role in bringing Islamic perspective more in line with Islam and Sharia, such as Mughal India.
Bangladesh has a long history of religious tolerance thanks to its practice of Sufism. Now this tradition will be disturbed if the Literalists are allowed to flourish. We can see how Pakistan is imploding as a result of allowing such groups to co-opt politics. This is enough of a warning. Freedom of expression is one thing, but allowing a potential extremist ideology to take roots is another thing. Religious extremism has no place in Bangladesh's long tradition of Sufism. Once anti-Sufi ideologies take hold in Bangladesh society, the tide will overpower the quiet and gentler version of Islam and the land will become a theatre of terror. This warning should be heeded urgently and steps should be taken to nip it in the bud.
The writer, of Bangladeshi descent, now lives in the USA. He is an engineer and a mathematician and has been doing research on Islam. [email protected]