The Myth and Truth of “Political Sufism”


“Prominent Sufi figures such as Salāḥuddin al-Ayyubi, ‘Umar al-Fūtī and ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī, for example, have led and designed armed decolonial projects and were politically involved in their respective communities, arguably not in spite of their Sufism, but because of it. For the greater part of the nineteenth century, it was Sufis who voiced the loudest criticisms of colonialism both in word and action”In my 2013 MA thesis entitled “Making Lite of Islam: Representations of Sufism in American Religion and the Public Sphere”, I devoted a chapter to the proceedings of the “Understanding Sufism and its Potential Role in US Policy” conference, as organized by the neo-conservative think-tank, the Nixon Center in Washington, DC to promote a U.S. official alliance with Sufis as “moderate Muslims.” Its keynote speakers, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani and Bernard Lewis, both praised Sufism’s “pacifism” as an antidote to “extremist thinking in Islam.” In my thesis, I spoke about the complexities that arise when the label “Sufi” becomes its own sect, or a blanket term for all those who identify with Sufism, when it is impossible to speak for all sufis given the diversity of their religious affiliations and political views, just as it is problematic when one group professes to speaks on behalf of all Muslims. I also noted a tendency among (neo)traditionalist ulama to market the “Sunni-Ashari-Maliki” weltanschauung as the “best” form of Islam, thereby creating an air of exclusion or an elitism that makes them impervious to the lived realities and challenges of everyday Muslims who are not a part of this scholarly clique.

Other writers and researchers have also written on the political appropriation of Sufism as ‘good Islam,’ such as Rosemary Corbett, Omid Safi, Mahmood Mamdani and many others. In our present historical moment, the issue is receiving more attention than ever in public opinion both among Western ‘social justice’-oriented Muslims and in the Arab world.
The issue gained steam especially after the Egyptian military revolution and the Raba’a massacre, which were publicly defended by Shaykh Ali Gomaa and Habib Ali-Jifri; notably Sufi scholars since they are known affiliates of the Shadhili and Ba’alawi turuq respectively. This year, scholars like Zaytuna College’s Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and his mentor, the respected alim Abdullah bin Bayyah have been vehemently criticized for their participation in UAE-backed religious initiatives.
On this, Dr. Usama al-Azami recently wrote: “both scholars have a long record of public engagement on religious matters in both the Middle East and the West. They both now serve at the pleasure of the UAE’s princes, using their religious profiles to sell the UAE’s notion of a programme of religious moderation to a global audience.”

Interestingly, neither Shaykh Hamza nor Abdullah bin Bayyah – publicly – ascribe to a Sufi order. Rather, it can be said that they adhere to a loosely Ghazalian, Mauritanian, close adherence to the Sunnah, and perhaps one could say that they both ascribe to the “Sufi-Maliki-Ashari” sanitized worldview I described above.

It was only a matter of time that publications from Qatar and some segments of Saudi Arabia would begin to relish the fact that world’s most notable Sufis are “sell outs” to the agendas of Arab despots and warmongers and Western imperial aims in the Muslim world. In 2015 a report by an anonymous author was published by a (now defunct) Saudi think-tank sponsored by the then Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Nayef, under the title; “Abu Dhabi’s Network of Political Sufism: And its Implications on the Security of Saudi Arabia.” It contains chapters on many Western and Sufi-leaning scholars and sheds light on their “dubious” political, normally anti-Islamist/anti-Wahhabi activity. (The ironic thing about this report is that Saudi Arabia itself brutally cracked down and critiqued political Islamists and Sufis alike in its country for decades, to this day.)

More recently and in the Arabic language, Muhammad Futooh penned an expose’ published by Al-Jazeera in Arabic, under the title “The Dervishes of Abu Dhabi: How the Emirates Seeks to Establish itself as a New Global Religious Authority” and decries how “Sufis” have “supported the coup in Egypt, backed Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya, held on to Asad’s mainstays in Syria, helped intervention in Yemen, abandoned the Palestinian cause at the behest of the ‘Deal of the Century’, wagered the future of Arab politics on the phenomena of militarization and oppressing the Arab spring.” The article lumps all “moderate”, anti-Islamist scholars as “political Sufis” and calls them “dervishes.” Such language is subjective and recycles soft-Orientalist, modernist descriptions of all Sufis as foolish ascetics.The visceral attacks on “Sufi” scholars, while in the case of the Qatari and Saudi reports above are clearly agenda-driven, they remain objectively justifiable (however unhelpful they may be as I will show in the coming paragraphs.) Influential scholars should be held accountable for their words and the potential repercussions they might have in tacitly endorsing potentially harmful policies such as illegal imprisonment of “bad Muslims,” ongoing famine or war. These scholars have done much good, and I and countless other Muslims have learned much from them and for this I am grateful. But while the classical Sunni legal edict of “obedience to the ruler” may have had important foundations in the pre-modern period, when it is wielded at a state-sponsored “Islamic”forum, it is seen as disingenuous at best and delegitimatizes the Islamic fundamental teaching and noble calling of Ihsan in making political legal rulings today.

When it is used in this day and age, this edict muddles the Islamic legal respect for authority, not absolute power as it exists today in many modern Arab states, whose rulers now get a “free pass” (stamped by well-meaning Muslim scholars) to do as they please all in the name of “preserving security and peace.” I say well-meaning, because they seem to do this as a noble (albeit misplaced) sense of duty to take responsibility for this “cancer” that exists in the world of Islam, i.e. extremism. But this cancer doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and this vacuum is not a sanitized, depolitical space. Such elitist, removed calls dwell in the realm of the “Ashari-Sufi-Maliki” scholarly imagined utopia and are not rooted in the realities and lives of Muslims and it is understandable that they are perceived to be patronizing, dubious, and tone deaf.

In the words of Professor Muhammad Fadel as shared on his Facebook page, “we don’t suffer from a lack of democracy because of religious extremism — we could handle that. We lack democracy because despots don’t want to share power with the governed. And their refusal is tied to their immediate and tangible interests, not a difference of opinion rooted in conflicting philosophical or religious views. They are, in the terms of Ibn Khaldun, acting solely out the most primal and primitive kind of will to dominate (mulk tabi’i), tempered neither by religion nor reason, where power is exercised only to further their own private good.” These forums don’t help to counter extremism, in fact, their support for state-sponsored tyranny only exacerbates extremist thinking.
The solution to the above, however, is certainly not to reject “political Sufism.” In fact, it can be said that the image of disengaged, docile, apolitical Sufism in the narrative of Muslim modernity for the greater part of the twentieth century is what caused this dysfunctional shift to the opposite end of the spectrum, from having naive state-subdued Islamists in the twentieth century, to morally-compromised state-sponsored Sufi ulama in the twenty-first, post-Arab spring reality. The solution is not “just add Sufism” – nor “keep Sufis out of politics.”

The solution, to start, is to remember the words of pre-modern ulama themselves. For example, who better than the likes of Shaykh Hamza’s most beloved twelfth century scholar, the great sage Imam al-Ghazali who warned against the effects of mixing with rulers in his work, Oh My Beloved Son: “do not to mix with the princes and Sultans and avoid seeing them; for seeing them and sitting with them and mixing with them is great mischief; and if you are impelled to do this, avoid praising them and commending them, for Allah the Exalted is angered when an oppressor and an impious man is praised and whoever has called for the lengthening of their lives has delighted that Allah be disobeyed in his land.” If mixing with problematic rulers is deemed necessary and pragmatic by some ulama, then why the need to praise them? Why do these forums only discuss “peace” but not justice-seeking? Why only discuss harmony and anti-radicalization but not the root causes of anger and collective pain inflicted on these communities by these governments and their powerful friends?

Many Sufi scholars would warn of the toxic effects of mixing with despots, but this was not a call for apolitical docility or pacifism. In fact, the great West African scholar Amadou Bamba, who founded the Muridiya Sufi order, as well as led a nonviolent resistance against French colonial forces, also penned poetry against the adulation of rulers:

قَالوا لي اركَنْ لأبواب السّلاطينِ

تحُزْ جَوائزَ تُغني كلَّمَا حينِ

فقلتُ حسبيَ ربي واكتفيتُ به

ولستُ راضيَ غيرِ العلم والدينِ

ولستُ أرجُو ولا أخشى سوى ملكي

لأنهُ جلَّ يُغنيني ويُنجينِي

أَنَّى أُفوّضُ أحوالي لمن عَجزُوا

عنْ حالِ أنفسِهمْ عجزَ المساكينِ

And they said to me, dwell at the doors of the Sultans:

“You will receive enriching bounties every now and then.”

And I said: God alone suffices me and I am content with Him.

I only covet knowledge and my Din.

I plead not nor fear except my King

Because only He Almighty can enrich me and save me

I refer my conditions to those who were defenseless

At the alter of themselves, in the manner of the Wretched Lowly ones.

The suggestion that so-called Sufi teachings are or should be impervious to political participation or that traditional ulama have been unconcerned with social issues and questions of justice and politics is preposterous. Nowadays, the suggestion that certain “sufis” or neotraditionalist ulama are sponsoring despotic policies is something that must be discussed critically – though they are by no means the only Islamic scholarly group who do this. While undoubtedly many of these initiatives are done with best interest of the Ummah in mind, they don’t stem from listening to the Ummah’s concerns. To remedy this, an honest, intra-Muslim conversation that is informed by the past is needed. To ensure its integrity, such a debate should not be sponsored by any official state entity. Historically speaking, Sufi-leaning ulama have been fully engaged in both challenging and legitimizing political power. Prominent Sufi figures such as Salāḥuddin al-Ayyubi, ‘Umar al-Fūtī and ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī, for example, have led and designed armed decolonial projects and were politically involved in their respective communities, arguably not in spite of their Sufism, but because of it. For the greater part of the nineteenth century, it was Sufis who voiced the loudest criticisms of colonialism both in word and action.The dilemma these so-called “political Sufis” face today, (many of whom I still respect and love) is one of moral and ethical consistency with their spiritual forefathers and listening to their detractors with more empathy and humility. Polemical critiques of misguided Muslims/extremists cannot come at the expense of turning a blind eye to injustices wrought by state-sponsored autocracy and military pillaging. The problem with “political Sufism” today therefore, is not that such a phenomenon exists (poor semantics aside), it is how it manifests. In these politically precarious times, perhaps it is more characteristically Sufi to first listen to the calling of the soul of those “whose hair are disheveled and bodies covered with dust and who are pushed away from the door due to their apparent wretchedness” (Hadith, Sahih Muslim) rather than vying for the approval of those spinning webs of tyranny, sitting in their gold-clad mansions. This is not a call for boycotting conferences or revolutions. It is not a call for a type of simplistic utopia where tyranny doesn’t exist. It is simply a call for a higher standard of moral political engagement.
*Note: I must make it clear that I myself do not endorse the term “political Sufism.” I deploy the term only in response to two specific reports written about the political stances of some “traditionalist” ulama, but don’t agree with the term’s usage. Rather, this article is a critique of the term. I also note that it is problematic to quarantine Sufism as its own sect. I am not in the business of creating rifts or defining people as Sufi, moderate, traditionalist or Salafi..etc. If you think this is the intention of the article, then you missed my key point entirely.

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