Abd al-Malik grew up in Neuhof, a bleak housing project outside Strasbourg, France. In Neuhof, hoodlum culture competed with resurgent Islam to give French minority youth a sense of self-esteem and belonging. “[Islam] is what was going on where I lived,” Malik said. “For someone who had spiritual needs, it was much easier and more natural to find an imam than a priest.”
In 1994, after living as a drug dealer and a thief, Malik joined the grim Tablighi sect of Islam, which taught a rigid moral code that helped lift him out of drug addiction and crime. Malik grew a beard, donned a white djellaba, and set out on a mission to “Islamize everything around us.” The Tablighis preach non-violence, but they have theological precepts that echo those of jihadis. In 1995, two militant “brothers” invited Malik to help them bomb the police headquarters in Strasbourg. He refused.
Malik left the Tablighis after his “emir” (leader) suggested that he give up rap music. In 1999, Malik took a pilgrimage to a remote Moroccan village, where he met the Sufi saint Sidi Hamza. Malik felt himself “transported into an ocean of love.” This prompted Malik to embrace Sufism, a brand of Islam that eschews politics and stresses an interior, mystical realization of faith. Malik considers his previous interpretation of Islam to be restrictive and sexist.
Today, Malik and his wife share childcare and homemaking responsibilities. Although Neuhof seethes with anti-Semitism, Malik’s new consciousness prompted him to visit Auschwitz. Following September 11, Malik made a CD about how the attacks on the World Trade Center made him ashamed to be a Muslim. “Neither fundamentalism nor extremism,” he sings. “Me, I don’t mix politics and faith.” In 2004, Malik published the first of many autobiographical books, May Allah Bless France!, a rebuttal to the extremist pamphlet “Allah Curse France.” In 2008, Malik was named a Knight of the Order of the Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. In 2014, Makik turned May Allah Bless France! into a film, which won the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Sufi orders formed in the ninth and tenth centuries as spiritual movements to bypass the legalism of the ulama and the worldliness and luxury of the caliphate. At a time when Islam was becoming dogmatic, claiming that Muhammad’s religion was the only true faith and that the Qur’an was the only valid scripture, Sufis saw God everywhere, even in pagan traditions. At a time when the ulama had closed the gates of ijtihad, regarding revelation as complete, Sufis sought new revelations from God. At a time when the ulama preached a God of law, Sufis spoke of God as love.
Islam’s first Sufis were itinerant mystics who traveled through the caliphate seeking intimate knowledge of God. Sufis wore coarse woolen garments (sūfs), the clothing of the poor. Sufis eschewed involvement in politics, preaching that “if you cannot change kings, then change yourself.”
Sufis developed a tradition of devotion to Jesus. The Qur’an mentions Jesus’ virginal conception and his miracles, but otherwise tells us little about the person of Jesus. Sufis, however, preserved and transmitted a great variety of stories about Jesus. Like a Sufi, Jesus valued spirituality above material things, practiced asceticism, and taught his disciples to prepare their souls for doomsday. According to one Sufi tradition, “the day that Jesus was raised to heaven, he left behind nothing but a woolen garment (sūf), a slingshot, and two sandals.” One of the pioneers of Sufism, Mansur al-Hallaj, was executed after being accused of secretly practicing a brand of Christianity.
The thirteenth-century Sufi Persian poet Rumi held that all existence is a manifestation of the same divine reality. Rumi stressed not the performance of the five pillars, but the quest to find God through the gateway of the heart. In an imperfect yet memorable analogy, William Dalrymple writes, “Sufism, with its emphasis on love rather than judgment, represents the New Testament of Islam.”
Sufis became Islam’s best evangelists, carrying Islam to Central and East Asia, Indonesia, India, and sub-Saharan Africa. As Sufi seekers grew in number, Sufi brotherhoods (tariqas) set up lodges where mendicants could gather together and learn from each other. By the eleventh century, these lodges had become sophisticated schools of mysticism.
In India and Indonesia, Sufism absorbed many of the traditions, rituals, and habits of pre-Islamic religions. Today, these traditions are passed on in staged events in which musicians lead massive crowds of devotees in ecstatic songs of devotion (the zikr, mawlid, and the shalawat). These movements bear some resemblance to charismatic and Pentecostal revivalism within Christianity.
Islamists have always seen Sufis as their greatest adversaries. When the Wahhabis came to power in the Arabian peninsula, they implemented a puritanical regime that outlawed traditionalist practices such as veneration of the Pirs, commemoration of religious holidays, the rhythmic repetition of the names and attributes of Allah (zikr), and devotional acts centered on the Prophet Muhammad (mawlid). When the Wahhabis conquered Mecca and Medina, they destroyed the tombs of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions, including pilgrimage sites that marked the birthplace of Muhammad and his family. The Wahhabis banned music and flowers from the sacred cities, and they forbade Sufi and Shi'i Muslims from participating in hajj.
Throughout the Islamic world, the theological heirs of Wahhab are attacking Sufi ceremonies and places of worship. In Pakistan, since 2005, Taliban militants have attacked dozens of Sufi shrines, killing thousands of worshipers. Last June, the Taliban assassinated beloved Sufi poet and singer Amjad Sabri. In Mali, Islamist militants have demolished Sufi mausoleums, universities, and libraries in the ancient Saharan trading town of Timbuktu. In Egypt, militants have torched Sufi shrines and attacked Sufi zikrs.
The Shi’i government in Iran has also attempted to suppress Sufis. The Iranian government has imprisoned thousands of Sufis and bulldozed Sufi mausoleums and meeting houses. Sufism is nonetheless also growing rapidly in Iran, as young Muslims adopt a liberal and liberating spirituality that is entirely different from that of the mullahs. In 1979, Iran had 100,000 Sufis; today there are millions.
Mostafa Azmayesh, an expert on Sufism in France, says the Sufis believe that “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. For this reason [Sufis] angered the lawgivers who . . . use religion as a tool of repression.” Pakistani Sufi Jamil Ahmed says, “The Sufi shrines belong to everyone including Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and transgenders, and that is why the militants linked to [the Islamic State] label people coming here as heretics . . . to be killed.”
An Antidote to Terror
Muhammad As’ad is a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at Radboud University in the Netherlands. As’ad is writing his dissertation on how Indonesian Sufi practices are an antidote to terrorism.
As’ad is doing his fieldwork in Solo, Indonesia, a town in Central Java that has a history of incubating radicalism. Abu Bakar Bashir, who spearheaded the 2002 Bali nightclub bombers, which killed over 200 people and injured 200 more, was from Solo. The current moderate Muslim president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, is also from Solo.
As’ad’s thesis is that people who participate in the Sufi-inspired banjari worship are unlikely to commit an act of terror. Banjari is an Indonesian word for tambourine, and it refers to a local, traditionalist practice that emphasizes cultivating a love for God and other people through song, dance, and chanting. Many forms of Sufism require training in a tariqa, but banjari is open to all people. The Wahhabis (Salafists) consider banjari an innovation (bid’ah), and they are trying to purge Indonesia of all Sufi practices.
As’ad explained in an interview that Islamic radicalism in Indonesia is a post-1998 phenomenon. When General Suharto was president (1966-1998), he kept a tight lid on religions, and Salafists were not allowed to organize. When Indonesia democratized in 1999, radical groups began to form and flourish. “Before 1999, there was no hatred between Muslim and Muslim,” As’ad said. “Freedom of speech and freedom of religion has led to the growing influence of Salafis.” Indonesia has had a series of terrorist attacks since 2000. Secular universities are the incubators of Salafism. On the other hand, Islamic universities and pesantrens (madrassas) provide a traditionalist theological education that inoculates students against Salafism and Wahhabism.
In Java, banjaris draw audiences of thousands. After a series of chants, the music starts, and people sing and sway to tunes played on kendhang (hand drums) and metallophones as they stretch their hands out to heaven. During the four-hour worship session, there is always a sermon that critiques the Salafi discourse on the banjari and reverses it by saying that the banjari is a lawful and edifying Muslim practice. Many sermons stress the danger of Islamic radical groups who use violence in an effort to change Indonesia into an Islamic state. As’ad’s hypothesis is that banjari is a form of “cultural resistance against Islamic radicalism and the growing teaching in Salafism in Indonesia.”
A Dangerously Inadequate Response
For too long, Western intellectuals have interpreted Islamic terrorism simplistically, in terms of class warfare, a concept that is peripheral to the educated and often affluent men who carry out acts of violence. The followers of jihad gain recruits by addressing an enormous human problem—spiritual, cultural, political, and ethical alienation. Too often, the West responds with vague promises of self-actualization, social security, and sexual fulfillment, often tinged with cynicism and nihilism.
This is no answer to terrorists. As Paul Berman writes in his study of Sayyid Qutb, “The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The anti-terrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things.” Thoughtful Sufis speak sanely of deep things. They are eloquent advocates for a pluralist Islam, and in many parts of the Muslim world, they lay down their lives for their beliefs, just as persecuted Christian do.
The good news is that Sufism, though civil and eclectic, is also irrepressible. William Dalrymple quotes a woman at the shrine of the saint Lal Sal Shahbaz Qalandar in the town of Sehwan, “Today in our Pakistan there are so many of these mullahs and Wahhabis who say that to pay respect to the saints in their shrines is heresy. Those hypocrites! They sit there reading their law books and arguing about how long their beards should be, and fail to listen to the true message of the prophet.”
For the Sufis of Pakistan, the seventeenth-century Sufi poet-saint Rahman Baba, whose shrine the Taliban destroyed in 2009, has a compelling rebuttal to purveyors of terror. He wrote:
I am a lover, and I deal in love. Sow flowers,
so your surroundings become a garden.
Don’t sow thorns; for they will prick your feet.
We are all one body.
Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.
None of this is to suggest that Sufis are perfected human beings or irreproachable allies of the West. Sufism is doctrinally diverse, and there are illiberal Sufis and jihadi Sufis. There are also among Sufis charlatans and predators. Pew Research Center polls find growing support in the Muslim world for strict Islamic punishments against adulterers, blasphemers, and apostates, even among Sufis. In Muslim-majority countries, constantly shifting alliances and competing strands of Islam pervade every sector of political life, eluding facile definitions such as “peaceful,” “violent,” “moderate,” or “extremist.”
Despite these complexities, Sufism remains one of Islam’s best resources when it comes to building civil, free, and pluralist societies in Muslim contexts. Westerners must not overlook it.
Robert Carle is a professor of theology at The King’s College in Manhattan. Dr. Carle is a contributor to The American Interest, Public Discourse, Society, Human Rights Review, The Federalist, Academic Questions, and reason.com. In May, Dr. Carle led a Media Project venture to Tebuireng Pesantren in Jombang, Indonesia.