Sufism, the true Islam?

Sufism is gaining ground. Embraced by the West and united in a desire to present a peaceful, democratic picture of Islam, this group of Muslims is expanding in many countries. Simon Stjernholm from Lund University has studied one of the most successful Sufi movements in the 21st century in his thesis Lovers of Muhammad: A Study of Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufis in the Twenty-First Century.

In the mid-20th century many predicted that Sufism, with its Islamic mysticism, was dying out. It was thought that whirling dervishes, prayers at the tombs of saints and other traditional rituals would have no place in a modernised Muslim society. But Sufism didn’t die. Instead, it gained new strength in the wake of 9/11. Sufi Muslims are proponents of love and peace and, in the fight against terrorism, politicians in the US, Europe and Central Asia chose to make alliances with Sufi Muslims in various countries.

In his thesis, Simon Stjernholm has focused in particular on one of the fastest expanding Sufi orders. They have headquarters in London and Cyprus, but have managed to become established in wide-ranging groups in various countries and have thus united followers across both ethnic and cultural boundaries. Following the 2005 bombings on the London transport system, their spokesman Shaykh Kabbani succeeded in bringing together many different Sufi orders and the Sufi Muslim Council was established. Kabbani criticised existing Muslim organisations harshly at the time of the terrorist attacks and a struggle is now underway within Islam on who is to be the spokesperson for the religion.

“Many Sufi Muslims are frustrated at how the image of Islam has been kidnapped by what they view as extremists. They want to form an alternative image.”

The Naqshbandi-Haqqani movement has been unusually successful in communicating its message, both to politicians and the media and within the Muslim community. Simon Stjernholm’s study includes extensive field studies of the life of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani movement. He has studied both the members’ everyday lives and how the shrewd group close to Kabbani has managed to unite people and give Sufis a voice in British society. Kabbani has also overseen the production of a large number of books over the past decade, including translations of well-known Sufi works. Over the ages, Sufism has had many major artists and literary heroes. These aesthetic dimensions of Sufism continue to reach new audiences in Europe and the USA, among others.

“My conclusion is that there is an ongoing global trend. Instead of dying out, Sufism is growing and gaining a greater say. I have seen public figures such as politicians, religious leaders and artists holding up Sufism and traditional Islam as the true Islam.”

It is difficult to say if Sufism is gaining more followers, but it has gained more attention in recent decades for a number of reasons.

“Sufism’s ideas and rituals have been taken up by New Age and ‘alternative’ religion; poetry and art featuring aspects of Sufism continues to gain new audiences; and all the negative attention that has been focused on Islam and Muslims in connection with wars and conflicts has led many to seek alternative images, which they find in the idealised images of Sufism”, says Simon Stjernholm.

Sufi orders with roots in Muslim societies have also become established in Europe and North America, partly through targeted missionary work and partly because the movement’s members have become more mobile.

However, Simon Stjernholm says that the West’s embrace of the Sufi movement is not without complications. It is not necessarily the case that Sufi groups are more democratic than other Muslim groups; the social context determines how Sufism is practised.

“In general, Sufi Muslims advocate peaceful methods and solutions, and often focus on spiritual and social activities rather than political or militant ones”, stresses Simon Stjernholm. “However, the Sufi tradition is multi-faceted and complex. On the one hand it can represent tolerance and peace-seeking, which is appreciated by the current political climate in Europe. Yet on the other hand the movement can be used to defend or legitimise repressive actions. In the eagerness to seek out alternative images of Islam to counter extremism, Sufism is sometimes described in unwarily positive and progressive terms.”

The fact that Sufis advocate love and tolerance, engage in intensive prayer rituals and appreciate poetry doesn’t necessarily mean that they are devoted to democracy, women’s rights or liberal values. In some cultural and social contexts, Sufis can take a very conservative view of gender issues and believe in an autocratic rather than a democratic society.

Text: Jenny Loftrup and Bodil Malmström

Photo: Kennet Ruona

Published: 2013

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