Why do most Muslims not practice Sufism

How we misunderstand the Sufis

In the West, Sufism is seen by many as the "good" face of Islam, which is otherwise largely perceived as negative. This oversimplified view is misleading and in some ways even dangerous.

Once again, Muslims fell victim to the murderers of the so-called Islamic State, over three hundred in number. The terrorist attack in Sinai at the end of November again showed how inaccurate the idea is that the IS terrorist attacks primarily hit the West. The appalling imbalance in Western reporting was also revealed once again: If thirty people are injured on the underground in London, it fills the front pages for days, but hundreds of deaths in a Muslim country are little more than a side note for many local media.

The attack occurred in a mosque frequented by Jaririya Sufis. The Jaririya Order, which originated in the 1940s, is one of the most important Sufi communities in the Sinai Peninsula. Even if no one has officially admitted to the massacre, the approach suits the IS fighters: they see Sufis as “infidels” and thus fall into the same category as Christians or Shiites.

As after similar attacks in Pakistan, analysts in the world press tried to explain who the Sufis actually are. Most of the time, Sufis are described as a moderate sect within Islam whose followers are somehow more tolerant and peaceful than most Sunnis and Shiites. This superficial characterization, which has long since become an empty phrase, is not only misleading, but also dangerous.

Not a separate sect

First of all, Sufis never saw themselves as a sect that existed separately from the broader Muslim community. Rather, Sufis are Muslims with a spiritual tendency, an inward religious outlook. Nevertheless, Sufis are Sunnis or Shiites who, as a rule, conscientiously follow the most important religious commandments. Above all, her inner attitude, the interpretation of the rituals, makes her Sufis. When Sufis pray or fast, they do so with a heightened awareness. From the outside, however, they are not necessarily always recognizable as Sufis.

Of course there are also independent practices that are cultivated in the brotherhoods of the Sufis, such as that zikr, the ecstatic recitation of mantras and God's names, or the connection to one sheikh, the spiritual master. But the sharp classification of Sufis in a tailor-made “ism”, as the term “Sufism” suggests, is essentially a concept from European research on orientalism and has little to do with reality in the Islamic world.

If you look at Islamic history, the demarcation of the Sufis as a sect can be maintained even less. For centuries, Islamic theology, philosophy and science have been permeated by the spirit of the Sufis. Whether in Muslim Andalusia or in Medieval Persia - mystics and philosophers such as Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, Jalaluddin Rumi and Omar Chayyam determined the cultural flow of Islam everywhere. “Sufism” was simply Islam, to a large extent.

Sufis from the great mystical orders were among the most important Islamic scholars, they interpreted the Koran and defined what belongs to a good life of faith. Even if there were always tensions between different religious interpretations, no distinction was made between “orthodox” and “mystical” Islam. This comparison, which is now repeated so often, is a modern invention that contradicts the essence of Sufi practice.

Widespread

The influence of Sufi culture on the development of Islamic civilization is so great that until two hundred years ago the majority of Muslims in the world followed a Sufi attitude. To this day, popular Islam is based on Sufism in many Muslim regions. In Egypt, over seventy different Sufi orders determine the religious life of millions of Muslims. In Pakistan and India, the majority of Muslims practice an Islam shaped by Sufi traditions, even if they do not formally belong to a Sufi order. They would not call themselves Sufis, but simply Muslims.

Although Sufist forms of belief - like other interpretations of Islam, by the way - have been challenged again and again in history, the categorical condemnation of Sufis as unbelievers is a new development. Due to the influence of Islamist ideologies such as Wahhabism, Sufis are now branded as un-Islamic in many of their home countries. IS sees Sufism as one of the essential "diseases" in Egypt that must be fought.

Same mistake in reasoning

Ironically, Islamic fundamentalists use similar categories to justify their violence as poorly informed observers in the West: they distinguish between an orthodox Islam, which they consider to be the "true" one, and a mystical one, which they consider to be "misguided". The underlying thinking error, which is based on a paradigm of division, is - even if it leads to contrary assessments of Sufism - the same.

The American professor of religious studies Omid Safi calls the western version of this paradigm a “good Sufis, bad Muslims” scheme. Ultimately, according to Safi, this pattern of thought is just another attempt to support the vague term “moderate Muslims”, which is often conjured up in discussions.

When we separate the Sufis from Islam, we unknowingly not only confirm the extremists' argumentation, but also discredit the rest of the Muslims. To consider only the Sufis to be tolerant and peaceful implies that the rest of the Muslims are not tolerant and peaceful. Such subtle prejudices sometimes lead to a terrifying indifference to the Muslim dead, as is reflected in the media coverage of the attack in Egypt or, for example, in the extensive disregard of the civilian casualties caused by the US-led drone war in Afghanistan.

In addition, Sufis are not per se more peaceful or apolitical than non-Sufis. In many Islamic countries, Sufis were at the forefront of revolts or were important pillars of ruling regimes. In Egypt, Sufis cooperated with the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s and then supported his successors Sadat and Mubarak. In Iraq, after the US invasion, an armed militia emerged from the Nakshbandiyya order, which committed itself to protecting the Sufis and then fought against the Iraqi national army, among other things.

Rumi deprived of roots

Even great Sufist poets of the Middle Ages, such as the Persian Jalaluddin Rumi, are not spared the misunderstandings that arise from Western prejudices against Islam. Rumi, for years the most widely read poet in the United States, is robbed of his Islamic roots in the English translation and made palatable to a New Age audience hungry for meaning. For this, all Islamic symbolism is usually erased from his poems. Readers who value Rumi's verses about love and generosity will be amazed when they are told that Rumi was an Islamic theologian and preacher at a young age. His famous volume of poetry, the «Masnavi», contains thousands of direct quotations from the Koran.

These "adjusted" editions suggest that it is difficult to perceive someone like Rumi in an Islamic context. This is based on the systematic reduction of Islam to a long-lasting reproduced picture of what this religion is all about. Even if many of us understand that “not all Muslims are terrorists”, the dominant narratives about Islam in the West have become so ingrained that even the well-meaning educated citizen can hardly get rid of them. Muslims everywhere suffer from this, including the Sufis.