Quantcast
Connect with us

Who are the Sufis and why does ISIS see them as threatening?

Published

on

On Feb. 16, 2017, a bomb ripped through a crowd assembled at the tomb of a Sufi saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in southeastern Pakistan. Soon thereafter, the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The Conversation

In recent times, such attacks have targeted a variety of cherished sites and individuals in Pakistan. These have ranged from the 2010 bombing of the tomb of another Sufi saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh, to the murder of a popular Sufi singer, Amjad Sabri, in 2016.

ADVERTISEMENT

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. From my perspective, the repercussions of such violence go far beyond the scores of bodies strewn around the damaged shrine and the devastated families in one geographical region.

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 the Islamic State.

Here’s why they find them threatening.

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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. 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

Special songs of praise – “qawwali” – are sung at these shrines that express Islamic values using the imagery of love and devotion.

However, Islamist groups such as the Taliban reject shrine worship as well as dancing and singing as un-Islamic (hence their assassination of the world-famous qawwali singer Amjad Sabri). In their view, prayers to Sufis are idolatrous.

Success of Sufi traditions

Sufi traditions 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 observing Islam, there are others who embrace its diversity.

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 throughout the world. For many, these sites offer an Islamic expression of what it means to love God.

ADVERTISEMENT

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. Even then, a majority of Muslims accept such divergent Islamic practices.

Given the popularity of Sufis, it’s no wonder IS objects to such models of Islamic pluralism.

By Peter Gottschalk, Professor of Religion, Wesleyan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

ADVERTISEMENT


Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Lindsey Graham promises Fox viewers a new investigation into Andrew McCabe despite the Justice Dept clearing him

Published

on

Appearing on the Fox Business channel with host Maria Bartiromo, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) promised viewers he fully intends to use his position as the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee to launch his own investigation into former Deputy Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Andrew McCabe despite the former law enforcement official already having been cleared by the Justice Department.

Complaining that the controversial Steele dossier was based on " a bunch of bar-talk and hearsay," Graham said he plans to call -- at the very least -- McCabe and former FBI Director James Comey in to be grilled by his committee.

Continue Reading

Facebook

MSNBC guest goes off on Chris Matthews for comparing Sanders to Nazis: ‘He had kin murdered in the Holocaust’

Published

on

Time magazine editor Anand Giridharadas criticized MSNBC host Chris Matthews over the weekend for his alleged bias against Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Giridharadas remarks came after Matthews compared Sanders' win in Nevada to a Nazi invasion.

"Last night was a historic win that I think a lot of us are still struggling to understand," Giridharadas explained. "It's historic because we may be seeing that we are paddling through a bend of a river in history here. Something is happening in America right now that actually does not fit our mental models."

Continue Reading
 

2020 Election

‘Kiss Florida goodbye’: Voto Latino head warns Democrats of coming 2020 debacle

Published

on

Appearing on MSNBC's "AM Joy," Voto Latino CEO María Teresa Kumar said Democrats should not count on taking Florida's 29 electoral votes in the upcoming 2020 presidential election if Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is the at the top of the ticket.

During a fairly contentious panel discussion on the viability of Sanders as a candidate due to self-identifying as a democratic socialist, Kumar claimed that would not play well Florida's Latino community.

"All I can think about when David [Corn] was unpacking it for us, we can all agree is you can kiss Florida goodbye," she explained. "I say that, Floridians -- Latinos that have fled socialism, they have fled and they are in Florida and they have sensibilities that are different from the rest of the Latino community."

Continue Reading
 
 
close-image