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Who are the Sufis and why do Extremists see them as Threatening?
11/25/17
Religion News Service
Peter Gotschalk
(The Conversation) — Over 200 people were killed and many more injured in an attack on a Sufi mosque in Egypt’s North Sinai region on Friday (Nov. 24). The assault began with a bomb exploding as people were finishing their Friday prayers. As people fled and ambulances arrived, militants opened gunfire on them. It is the deadliest ever attack on civilians in Egypt’s modern history.
This is not the first time a cherished Sufi site and Sufi worshipers have been the target of extremists. Earlier this year, in February, a bomb exploded at the tomb of a Sufi saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in southeastern Pakistan. In 2016, combatants of the so-called Islamic State distributed images of the supposed execution of a Sufi teacher. The same year, the Pakistani Taliban murdered a popular Sufi singer of Pakistan, Amjad Sabri. In 2010 the tomb of another Sufi saint Data Ganj Bakhsh was bombed in Pakistan.
In the past, IS has claimed responsibility for some attacks against Sufis and their institutions, although no one so far has claimed responsibility for Friday’s murderous assault.
As a scholar of Muslim and Hindu traditions, I’ve long appreciated the various and influential roles that Sufis and their tombs play in South Asian communities and many communities elsewhere in the world. From my perspective, the repercussions of the deplorable violence in Egypt and elsewhere go far beyond the scores of bodies strewn around the damaged shrine and the devastated families.
Many Muslims and non-Muslims around the globe celebrate Sufi saints and gather together for worship in their shrines. Such practices, however, do not conform to the Islamic ideologies of intolerant revivalist groups such as Islamic State. On the contrary, IS finds these practices threatening. Here’s why.
Who are the Sufis?
The origins of the word “Sufi” come from an Arabic term for wool (suf). It references the unrefined wool clothes long worn by ancient west Asian ascetics and points to a common quality ascribed to Sufis – austerity.
Commonly Muslims viewed this austerity as stemming from a sincere religious devotion that compelled the Sufi into a close, personal relationship with God, modeled on aspects of the Prophet Muhammad’s life. This often involved a more inward, contemplative focus than many other forms of Islamic practice.
In some instances, Sufis challenged contemporary norms in order to shock their Muslim neighbors into more religiously intentional lives. For example, an eighth-century female Sufi saint, known popularly as Rabia al-Adawiyya, is said to have walked through her hometown of Basra, in modern-day Iraq, with a lit torch in one hand and a bucket of water in another. When asked why, she replied that she hoped to burn down heaven and douse hell’s fire so people would – without concern for reward or punishment – love God.
Others used poetry in order to express their devotion. For example, the famous 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi leader Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī relied upon themes of love and desire to communicate the yearning for a heartfelt relationship with God. Yet others, such as such as Data Ganj Bakhsh, an 11th-century Sufi, wrote dense philosophical tracts that used complicated theological arguments to explain Sufi concepts to Islamic scholars.
Sufi veneration
Many Sufis are trained in “tariqas” (brotherhoods) in which teachers carefully shape students.
Rumi, for example, founded the famous “Mevlevi” order best known as “whirling dervishes” for their signature performance.
This is a ritual in which practitioners deepen their relationship with God through a twirling dance intended to evoke a religious experience.
Some Sufis – men and, sometimes, women – came to gain such a reputation for their insight and miracles that they were seen to be guides and healers for the community. The miracles associated with them may have been performed in life or after death.
When some of these Sufis died, common folk came to view their tombs as places emanating “baraka,” a term connoting “blessing,” “power” and “presence.” Some devotees considered the baraka as boosting their prayers, while others considered it a miraculous energy that could be absorbed from proximity with the shrine.
For the devotees, the tombs-turned-shrines are places where God gives special attention to prayers. However, some devotees go so far as to pray for the deceased Sufi’s personal intercession.
A place of interfaith worship?
So, why do some groups like the so-called Islamic State violently oppose them?
I argue, there are two reasons: First, some Sufis – as illustrated by Rabia, the Sufi from Basra – deliberately flout the Islamic conventions of their peers, which causes many in their communities to condemn their unorthodox views and practices.
Second, many Muslims, not just militants, consider shrine devotion as superstitious and idolatrous. The popularity among Muslims and non-Muslims of tomb veneration alarms many conservative Muslims.
When a Sufi tomb grows in reputation for its miraculous powers, then an increasing number of people begin to frequent it to seek blessings. The tombs often become a gathering place for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and people from other faiths.
In South Asia, special songs of praise – “qawwali” – are sung at these shrines that express Islamic values using the imagery of love and devotion. In other regions, other traditions of devotion have emerged, while zikr (“litany recitation”) is widely popular.
However, despite the divergent ideologies and goals that differentiate them from one another, intolerant Islamist groups such as the Taliban and the so-called Islamic Statereject shrine worship as well as dancing and singing as un-Islamic (hence the Pakistani Taliban’s assassination of the world-famous qawwali singer Amjad Sabri). In their view, prayers to Sufis are idolatrous.
Success of Sufi traditions
Sufi customs reflect a vastly underreported quality about Islamic traditions in general. While some revivalist Muslim movements such as the Wahhabis and other Salafis see only one way of being Muslim, there are others who embrace the diversity of Islamic traditions.
Many Muslims proudly defend Sufi customs such as shrine devotions because they are so integral to Muslim and non-Muslim communities, not only in South Asia but in various regions of the world. Today, about 15 percent of Egypt’s population belong to Sufi orders or practice Sufi traditions. They play crucial roles in their locale and region. For many, Sufi sites offer an Islamic expression of what it means to love God.
In fact, historically, in many regions of the world Sufis have been highly successful in adapting Islamic theologies and practices to local customs for non-Muslims. For this reason, Sufi traditions have been credited for the majority of conversions to Islam in South Asia.
It is only with the global expansion of Islamist revivalist groups in the last century that the urge to absolute conformity has become so strong and pervasive. Even so, a majority of Muslims continues to accept a diversity of Islamic practices.
Given the popularity of Sufis, it’s no wonder the so-called Islamic State objects to such models of Islamic pluralism. The ferocity of the recent attack in Egypt and possible involvement of a suicide bomber demonstrate not only the strength of beliefs in this regard, but also how influential IS and other extremists judge both the prominence and the popularity of Sufi traditions.
 This is an updated version of a piece first published on Feb. 26, 2017.
(Peter Gottschalk is professor of religion at Wesleyan University. This article was originally published on The Conversation)
https://religionnews.com/2017/11/25/who-are-the-sufis-and-why-do-extremists-see-them-as-threatening/
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The Dangerous Myths About Sufi Muslims
11/27/17
H. A. Hellyer
The attack on Al Rawdah mosque in the Sinai last Friday, during which Islamists claimed at least 305 lives, was quite possibly the deadliest terrorist atrocity in modern Egyptian history and one of the largest terrorist attacks worldwide. Because the mosque was often frequented by Muslims linked to a Sufi order, the massacre also brought to light the deeply flawed ways Sufism is discussed—both by those who denigrate Sufism and by those who admire it.
Extremist groups like ISIS promote the idea that Sufism is a heterodox form of Islam, and then go further to declare Sufis legitimate targets. But it’s not just violent extremists who foster the heterodoxy misconception. In Saudi Arabia, for example, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman claimed on Sunday that “the greatest danger of extremist terrorism is in distorting the reputation of our tolerant religion”—yet intolerance with regard to Sufism is the bedrock of much of the purist Salafi approach that underpins the Saudi religious establishment.
That’s not to say that all those who self-describe as “Salafi” claim that Sufism ought to be met with violence. But many, if not most, deny its centrality within Sunni Islam. Certainly the vast majority of the Saudi religious establishment espouses that kind of belief, which is a massive challenge that the crown prince will have to tackle if he’s serious about his promise to spread “moderate” Islam.
The birth of the purist Salafi movement (which many pejoratively describe as “Wahhabism”) saw preachers inspired by the message of 18th-century figure Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab attacking Sufism writ large in an unprecedented way. While presenting themselves as the orthodox, these types of purist Salafis were actually engaging in a heterodox approach. Many of these figures had to ignore or rewrite large chunks of Islamic history in order to present Sufism and Sufis as beyond the pale.
Ahmad bin Taymiyya, a commonly quoted authority for Salafis, for example, was reportedly a member of the Sufi order of Abdal Qadir al-Jilani. The Sufi affiliations of many medieval authorities have been airbrushed from history in several modern editions of their texts published by Salafi printing houses. Yet, there were virtually no prominent Muslim figures who cast aside Sufism in Islamic history. When followers of ibn Abdul Wahhab attempted to do so by describing Sufis as outside the faith, they were themselves decried by the overwhelming majority of Sunni Islamic scholarship as indulging in a type of heterodoxy because of their intolerance and revisionism.
While some who portray Sufis as heterodox do so with malicious intent, many fans of Sufism in the West seem to agree that Sufis are heterodox—it’s just a type of heterodoxy that they prefer to the normative mainstream of Islamic thought, which they seem to think is different from Sufism. Ironically, the well-meaning nature of this misinformed perspective echoes the fallacy that extremists promote.
And it is an extraordinary fallacy. Until relatively recently, it would have been unthinkable for students in Muslim communities to consider Sufism anything other than an integral part of a holistic Islamic education. The essentials of theology, practice, and spirituality—that is, Sufism—were deemed basic, core elements of even elementary Islamic instruction. And religious figures known for their commitment to Sufism would not have been considered a minority; they would have been by far the norm. Indeed, the very label of an Egyptian “Sufi minority” being bandied about since the mosque attack is a peculiar one: Sufism isn’t a sect—it’s integral to mainstream Sunni Islam.
Sufism never betrayed Islamic orthodoxy; if anything, it is Islamic orthodoxy in its purest form.
The most famous Sufi in the West, as shown on Amazon bestseller lists, is Rumi, Afghan poet extraordinaire. Another renowned figure is Ibn Arabi, a Spaniard of the 12th century. But few in the West seem to realize that such figures, while indeed Sufis, were very much within the Islamic mainstream. Rumi, for example, was an author of fatwas and a specialist in an orthodox rite of Sunni Islamic law (the Hanafi school); Ibn Arabi was even more steeped in Sunni legal expertise, to the point where he was described by many medieval authorities as being capable of forming his own school of law.
That doesn’t mean that Sufis were never singled out for criticism in traditional Islamic scholarship—they were. Those criticisms were issued by Sufi scholars themselves, much as expert jurists criticized what they saw as shoddy attempts in jurisprudence, and specialized theologians critiqued amateurish forays into theology. One modern critic, a famed Sufi of the Comoros, said, “If we were better Sufis, everyone else wouldn’t think we are anything but good Muslims.”
Another myth is that Sufis are generally apolitical or eschew any martial activity. Historically, that certainly was not the case. Sufi figures like Abu-l-Hasan al-Shadhuli and Ibn Abdal Salam (the latter a famous jurist of his time) were at the forefront of campaigns to defend Egypt from the armies of King Louis of France. The Libyan struggle against the Italian fascist occupation was led by Sufis of the Sanusi order of Sufis, including the famed Omar al-Mukhtar. Shaykh Abdal Qadir al-Jaza’iri was a militant opponent of the French invasion of Algeria in the 19th century, while Imam Shamil of the Caucasus fought against the Russian incursion into his own land. But while they most certainly believed in that martial endeavour, and called it jihad, it was a jihad that meant that the likes of al-Jaza’iri fought to protect Christians; a jihad that meant that al-Mukhtar refused to mistreat prisoners of war; in other words, a jihad that was constrained by the mainstream understanding of Sunni Islam. 
This activist trend among Sufis remains in existence today. In my own research over the years, I came across teachers of Sufi texts like Shaykh Seraj Hendricks of South Africa and Shaykh Emad Effat in Egypt. The former was detained for activism against apartheid, while the latter was killed in the midst of protests in late 2011. This is to say nothing of the scores of members of Sufi orders in Syria who participated in the Syrian revolutionary uprising against the Assad regime, as well as against ISIS. It is also true that some Sufi figures engaged in actively supporting autocrats and repressive governments—which other Sufis critiqued for what they saw as inconsistency. That critique has everything to do with what such Sufi figures see as orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the Islamic tradition.
It’s too easy to cast Sufis as a quasi-sectarian group that is somehow detached from Islam. Sufism never betrayed Islamic orthodoxy; if anything, it is Islamic orthodoxy in its purest form. Both those who denigrate Sufis, like ISIS and the Saudi religious establishment, and those who admire Sufis, like Rumi-loving Westerners, would do well to finally recognize this. Otherwise, we all risk betraying Islamic history.
H.A. HELLYER is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/11/airbrushing-sufi-muslims-out-of-modern-islam/546794/ 

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