The Significance of Tasawwuf [Sufism] in Light of Contemporary Global Issues And the Methodology for its Promotion

by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz

Transmitted to the International Sufi Conference

New Delhi, India, 17-20 March 2016,

Hosted by the World Sufi Forum

[In the author’s absence, on account of illness. Please remember me in your duas.]

Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim,

Distinguished members of the All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board, who proposed this meeting, esteemedshuyukh, students of tasawwuf, Muslim believers, and guests representing other faiths.

I bring you selamaleykum warahmetallahuh wabarakatuh from the United States, that part of the West where the traditional Islamic wisdom of the Sufis has most penetrated. May Allah subhanawata’la be well pleased with your discourses and actions at this historic gathering as you address the most dramatic and difficult modern problems presented to the Muslim ummah.

Muslims and non-Muslims alike have been horrified by the successive crimes of radical groups like the Taliban, inspired by the Deobandi sect, Al Qaida, driven by Saudi Wahhabi ideology, and most recently and hideously, the so-called ‘Islamic State,’ which reflects a metastasized Wahhabism. The assault by these fanatics on Muslims and non-Muslims has created a global crisis and fostered fear and repulsion toward the faith of Islam.

To which we may say, astaghfirullah! May we as Muslim faithful be saved from the criminal deviations of the extremists!

But it would be insufficient to call for the internal help of belief and commitment in confronting the Wahhabis and others who would destroy our traditions and shrines, while taking our lives and those of our families and colleagues. As Qur’an teaches, ‘Allah will not change the situation of a people until they change what is found within their hearts’ (Q: 13:11). And changing hearts through divine love is the essence of Sufism.

Few in the West, which dominates the thinking of global media and academia, are aware of the common Wahhabi origin of Al Qaida and the so-called ‘Islamic State’. Yet fewer know what the content of Wahhabi doctrine may be.

Above all, the fewest among educated Westerners recognize that the Wahhabi bid to control Islam worldwide always begins with attacks on the spiritual and metaphysical Sufis. This is true no less in the snowy mountains of the Balkans and Caucasus as in the Indian subcontinent. While the Deobandis, recognizing the power of Sufis in India, pretend to accept tasawwuf within their practice, in reality they discourage such common Sufi observances as mawlid, the celebration of the birthday of Muhammad, peace be upon him, and pilgrimages to the shrines of the Muslim saints.

We must defend our beliefs, our institutions, our shrines, and our very lives, from the homicidal aggression of the Wahhabis and their allies. We cannot do this alone. We need the assistance of pure-hearted members of other faiths, as well as the secular governments that now dominate the world.

First, however, we must demonstrate to other faith leaders and the global political class that as Sufis we represent a form of Islam committed to pluralism, respect for other faiths, and peace. If at times, as when we are attacked by the terrorists, we cannot maintain peace, it remains our goal.

The world Muslims as well as non-Muslims is hungry for a truly ‘peaceful Islam’ even as Muslims are called to combat against the Khawarij of our times. We cannot offer the truth of Islam to a world shocked by bloodshed and outrageous cruelty in its name.

We must therefore begin by reinforcing the Sufi principles of our Islam among the Muslims with whom we live and worship, and by introducing the same body of precepts to non-Muslims. We must not fail to preach and teach tasawwuf at every opportunity, in every masjid, and from every media forum. We must keep everydergah, turbe, khanaqah, Sufi medresa, or similar structure open and active as a centre for the interreligious and intercultural public, in every country we inhabit. We must prevent the usurpation of any such edifice by radicals.

We must donate and work unceasingly for the translation and publication of the works of the great Sufis, beginning with Al-Ghazali and Muhyid’din Ibn Arabi, in all the world’s major languages. In the United States is it often claimed that Mevlana Jalal’ad’din Rumi is the best-read poet in English today. Whether that is true or not, the assertion itself shows that the Western public is eager for the classics of tasawwuf.

We must support academic study of tasawwuf at Muslim universities but also in the Islamic Studies Departments of the leading Western and Far Eastern universities.

Where possible, as in the example of the many-million member Nadhlatul Ulama movement in Indonesia, we must provide social services and education to the impoverished masses.

We must show that every programme and action we undertake is grounded in Sufi traditions and Sufi works, and that none of these achievements may be nullified by the ignorant fatawa of the Wahhabis and those like them.

Put bluntly, we must restore to the Sufis the role in global society that they enjoyed under the great Islamic polities the Uthmaniyya, the Safaviyya, the Indian Muslim states, and the Central Asian Muslim states. In all of them the Sufis provided spiritual and material help to those in need throughout their lands.

As we reach out to the world, offering our da’wa based on tasawwuf, we must also emphasize the common heritage we share with other faiths.

All around India is evidence of the common cultural legacy of Islam with Hinduism, notwithstanding outbursts of Hindu radicalism, and Buddhism, notwithstanding our heartbreak at the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims of Burma. We must seek to use this common cultural environment as the foundation of peacemaking.

With regard to the other classically monotheistic religions, the Jews, notwithstanding the problem with the Arabs in Palestine, have a distinguished history of the study of the Islamic spiritual classics. Their legacy reflects much of the past influence of what the historian Bernard Lewis called ‘the Judaeo-Islamic tradition’.

Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians maintain practices and doctrines influenced by or evolving parallel with Sufism.

We must also assess clearly the status of governments with which Sufis can reasonably form partnerships to bar the spread of radical ideology. Such governments must be democratic in essence and must not discriminate among the different Sufi trends. While the United States government remains completely outside the bounds of religion, prevented from either promoting or hindering any such observance, other states are faced, as we are, with a critical need to mobilize against extremism. Some of these states have Muslim-majority populations, from Morocco to Indonesia. In others Muslims are a minority, as in India, in the United Kingdom and in the other Western European democratic states.

We must be prepared to defend the rights of Sufi and other Muslims who are victims of authoritarian regimes, like the Uighurs of Turkestan under Chinese rule. Uighur protests are condemned by the Chinese as terrorism, but the preponderance of evidence shows that the Uighurs are Sufis in their understanding of Islam, and want merely to gain autonomy in their ancient lands.

To non-Muslim but legitimate governments, we must instill traditional Islamic loyalty in our fellow-Sufis and among Muslims at large. But if we can be allies to governments, we cannot be mercenaries either to Muslim or non-Muslim rulers. We remain fully Islamic and autonomous. Our Sufism is not borrowed from other traditions and is not liable to dilution or revision as a form of ‘new age Islam’.

Islamic Sufism therefore offers a great deal to a world in crisis. I have observed directly how the Sufi orders in the Albanian lands and other Balkan areas fulfill a civic and secular no less than a sacred function. In countries like Albania and Kosova, where Islam is completely European, Sufis have been prominent in defending the integrity of their nation, and, most importantly, in securing national unity among the Sunni majority, and the Shia, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish minorities. The Sufis have led the way in popular education, the equality of women, and informed political participation.

The Muslims of the Balkans, aside from a few led astray by Wahhabi agitators, have assumed a role similar to that of Sufis in India. This similarity in two so-distant and unlike geographical areas illustrates the universality of the Sufi mission to society as a whole.

Sufism may be described in secular terms as a metaphysical psychology born of Islam and appropriate for addressing the maladies afflicting the present-day world. Believers who have turned away from faith may find their religious commitment renewed because of good examples provided by notable individual Sufis andtariqat.

Terrorism is rife in the modern environment for the same reasons that ‘ordinary’ crime and corruption are prevalent: believers lack the reassurance that would bring them closer to Allah subhanawata’la.

In educating Muslims and non-Muslims alike regarding the doctrines and methods of the Sufis, we should take up the forms of communication that appeal to the widest audiences: television and radio da’wa, cinema, and social media. Dhikr, mawlid, performances of Sufi music, and other observances in contemporary media may benefit the Muslim and non-Muslim public.

Above all, however, we must press our case to be recognized by religious and secular authorities as legitimate representatives of Islam, in no way inferior to radical ulema. We can function alongside the recognized, traditional ulema, united with them in protecting Islam.

In addition, to support such an activity, we must appeal to all Islamic Sufis in every country to form liaison networks between their tariqats. In the history of classical Islam, the Sufis were never isolated, and they must not be marginalized now.

In several countries where I have worked or where the Centre for Islamic Pluralism has correspondents, such bodies have been established from the Balkans to the fine example presented by the AIUMB. While the tariqats are typically trans-national, unity among them is limited, and must be enhanced.

To conclude: As I have written for some years, the world needs Islam and the world needs Sufism. Islam cannot be restricted to local customs or the agendas of national ulema. This is not a global-supremacist view. As Sufis in particular, and as I have outlined, we respect the other faiths, and those of no faith who do not commit aggression against us. The world needs the message of mercy and compassion which Islam comprises. But to save Islam and the world from the horrors of terrorism, the Muslim ummah needs to return to the Sufis.

Religious movements were crucial to the defeat of fascist and communist totalitarianism. Similarly, Sufism can contribute significantly to the defeat of totalitarian Wahhabism.

I say that the tasks before us as Sufis continue our traditions through the centuries. We were always friends of the oppressed, nourishing pluralism in Islamic thought and positive relations among Muslims and with non-Muslims. With the foundation of the World Sufi Forum, let us go forward to achieve more for these motives.

With many selams.

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