Dorothy Klement: Relevance of Sufism in our Modern World

The relevance of Sufism in today’s modern context is best understood when looking to understand its persistence or lack thereof in a) Muslim nations, and b) Western culture. To understand the Sufism of the modern world, it is also important to recognize the pluralism within Sufism, and that not all Sufis follow the same doctrines. Geoffrey points out that the Sufism of the past is not an exact with the Sufism of today. Along with the pluralism and growth and spread of Sufism, there grew brotherhoods and large masses of followers who did not follow the most core principle of mentorship, but instead implied that there was a horizontal relationship between Sufis (Geoffrey, 195). These were not followers of the original Sufi path. And today, modern culture in both the West and the East is not considered conducive to true, traditional Sufism, and the practices are simplified, the relationship between master and student less crucial to every day life (197).

Western powers saw Sufism as a more fundamentalist, extremist Islam and considered the politically active orders as the main vehicle of resistance against colonialism and Christianity; perpetrators of hatred for developed civilization. (Sirriyeh, 27) They believed that once colonialists had grabbed hold of power in the Muslim nations the Sufi orders would dwindle out and die due to the conversion of institutions from Islamic to Western, and a new standard of western education. They believed that the only people who would still be drawn to Sufism were the illiterate and urban lower class. Western education, they believed, would prevent any learned, well-educated man from learning and following Sufi thought and philosophy. They predicted a demise of Sufi leaders. This belief was again, shared by many Muslim intellectuals who were touched by western traditions and found privilege in the international community during the time of post-colonialism as newly free Muslim territories attempted to reconstruct their governments and build up their power once again since the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

Within Muslim nations Sufism is relevant but also, in some regions, heavily despised by leadership and the public for perceived grievances against Sufis during the time of colonial expansion. Since the end of the Cold War there have been many reformist-minded Muslim critics of Sufism who saw Sufis as the main vehicle of an “impure” Islam that was to blame for the Islam-Colonial interactions that ultimately allowed for the downfall of Muslim Kingdoms. In other words, Sufis were used as a scapegoat to place the blame on for the ‘Islamic Peril’ (Sirriyeh, 28). Sufis were construed, by reformists, as the enablers of colonialism.

In current times, even since the large revival of Sufism worldwide, and especially in the Arabo-Muslim world, the survival and presence of Sufism varies from region to region. In areas such as Sudan and Senegal, Sufism has experienced a pretty strong comeback, allowed for by specific socioeconomic, historical, cultural, and religious factors. Orders in these nations remained strong and were able to provide for their members, services and a community that in other nations did not exist.

For example, in Egypt, Sufism did not resurge to such an extent. The Islamic Brotherhood lead by Hasan al-Banna is an example of a radical reformist group that encouraged extreme anti-Sufi attitude by the 1949. Even during a resurgence of apolitical Sufism in Egypt (tripled numbers of Sufis from 1970-85), it was a Sufism that lacked the political sway and communal respect of the past orders. The Shadmli School thrived through encouraging intellectual elite to come together and reawaken the traditional spiritual approach to inner self-searching.

In Turkey where there had been a large anti-Sufi sentiment following WWII due to both “practical power conflict as well as ideological incompatibility”, only started to see a resurge of Sufi orders in 1950 after the collapse of the one-party system controlled by the Republican People’s which lead to collaboration between political parties and Sufi orders in an attempt to “accommodate Islam within a secular state” (Sirriyeh, 156).

Today, Western Muslims have really clasped onto the spiritual humanism that exists in certain Sufi orders, easily seen in works by Ibn ‘Arabi, Emir ‘Abd al-Qādir, and Rumi (works by whom have been translated into English and sold in the billions all around the Western World). Factors of this revival and acceptance of Sufism in western society include the post-modernism movements, neo-liberalism, and a rather new trend towards more spirituality-based approaches to religion rather than organized law-based and institutionalized approaches. It is especially popular on the east coast of the US and Sufism is studied heavily within higher education. It is frequently observed that after periods of violence, individuals are drawn to Sufism. The spectrum of followers is still highly varied and the paths taught by scholars and mentors are plural, to say the least (Lecture, 3/9).

 

 

Work Cited

 

Geoffrey, Eric. Introduction to Sufism: The Inner Path of Islam. World Wisdom Inc. (2010) Ch. 5,

Conclusion: 189-203.

Mahallati, Jafar. “The Orders: Saints, Lineages, Authority, Practices and Institutions”. Oberlin

                College, Oberlin OH. March 9, 2016.

Sirriyeh, Sufis and Anti-Sufis, Ch. 1-5, pp. 1-85 and “Contemporary Sufism and Anti-Sufism,”