Living among the locals

A closer look at the history and misconceptions of Sufism


When I was asked about what I thought Sufism was at a so-called Sufi meditation seminar a couple of months earlier in Dubai, I was surprised to be told that Sufism had nothing to do with Islam.

“The link between Sufism and Islam is a misconception. Anyone of any religion can be a Sufi,” the non-Muslim Sufi instructor patiently corrected me.
Eventually, when we moved on to the meditation practice itself, we were instructed to close our eyes, picture a closed flower in the middle of our chest, and slowly open it up by being positive and grateful towards everything in the universe.

To my disappointment, this was far from the enchanting dhikr music and whirling dervishes I had imagined when I signed up for the session. Coming from a Muslim background myself, the seminar offered a disorienting experience.

In the Middle East, Muslim ascetics were referred to as Sufi, in reference to suf or wool, the garment they commonly wore. This definition originated in the Arab region and was then introduced to the world.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, Sufi is “a Muslim ascetic and mystic,” a term that dates back to the “mid-17th century.” Wikipedia also defines it similarly saying, “Sufism or Tasawwuf … is a mystical trend in Islam.” 

It was only later that offshoots of it were exported and adopted by believers of other religions, like my seminar’s instructor.

It turned out that the South Asian instructor was not the only one with this view. A quick research showed me that the current perceptions of Sufism are, to a large extent, a product of 18th century Orientalism.

Following a research done by the Canadian-based scholars, Atif Khalil and Shiraz Sheikh, Orientalists had apparently studied Sufism through a biased lens.

Persian Sufi poets, the likes of Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) and Khwaja Shams-ud-Din Muhammad Ḥafeẓ-e Shirazi (1315-1390,) wrote poetic imagery and metaphors about being drunk on wine, love, music, and dance.

This seemed to foreign readers – those unaware of the symbolic nature of Eastern languages – dislocated from the strict rules of Islam.

Their admiration for the seemingly liberal views of Sufis was further misguided by their antisemitic notions, leading many to trace Sufi thinking to Aryan or Indo-European influences, as opposed to the Arabs. Meanwhile, other revered examples of Sufi scholars, like the Andalusian Muhyiddin Ibn-Arabi (1165-1240), were mistakenly considered to be Greek thinkers.

This led to the idea that Sufism, an indigenous outgrowth of Islam, came about as an aftermath of Greek, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian translations into Arabic. A fallacy that even I, for some time, had bought.

Thus, these foreign misinterpretations had a significant impact on the self-perceptions of colonial subjects; in other words, us.

The influence of these writings, Khalil and Sheikh point out, can clearly be sensed in regional thinkers of the time, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897). Even though he was a political activist fighting imperialism, like other young men of his age, al-Afghani admired the advanced technology and military might of the West.

Having read the Orientalists’ misinterpretations of Sufism, he was led to believe it was an alien practice and a threat to local cultures. Al-Afghani communicated these criticisms to his students, who in turn told their followers.

Ironically, those influenced by such ideas, including the Egyptian jurist, religious scholar, and liberal reformer, Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and others, went on to found anti-Sufi movements like Salafism and Wahhabism.

The eventual outcome around the region wasn’t seen until later when Saudi Arabia’s oil boom made it a pivotal regional power in the second half of the twentieth century, a shift that enabled the Kingdom to export the locally popular anti-Sufi Wahhabi ideologies. As a result, we now see a widespread attack on Sufism by contemporary fundamentalists across the region.

Indeed, in what they considered to be an effort to cleanse our societies, we saw Sufi shrines, mosques, and grave sites being demolished across North African countries like Libya, Tunis, Mali, and Egypt following the 2011 uprisings.

While Sufism is increasingly coming under siege in its birthplace, Westerners developed exoticised perceptions of enchanting dhikr music and whirling dervishes. This reflects the same ideas I had in mind when I went to the Sufi meditation seminar, confirming that Sufism continues to be overshadowed by misconceptions both at home and abroad.

Click here for an original version of this article

Yasmin Helal

About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

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