Last month, Inside Arabia told the story of Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald’s journey from American college student to Moroccan Sufi mystic. Fitzgerald grew up in California in the 1950s and 60s. Today, he lives in Marrakech, where he ran the Center for Language and Culture for many years.
When Michael Fitzgerald converted to Islam around 1970, it was a very different time for Muslims in America. In our previous piece, he told Inside Arabia about his parents’ relatively relaxed reaction to the news. He does not believe that his parents’ attitudes were particularly out of the ordinary for the time.
“When I became Muslim, Islam was just about unknown in the United States,” he said. “I think the attitude throughout the 70s and into the 80s was: ‘as long as the Arab countries keep supplying petrol so that we can drive our cars for a dollar a gallon, they can do what they want.’ That was the American dream!”
Fitzgerald spoke of the drastic change in America’s relationship with Islam following 9/11. “Unfortunately, I think for a lot of Americans, that would have been the first time they heard about Islam,” he said, adding: “A bad start.” In Fitzgerald’s view, things have only escalated since then: “If you think of the situation today, with the president of the United States talking about banning Muslims from the US, while at the same time sitting down with the leaders of the place where Osama Bin Laden learned his trade . . . It’s madness.”
Saudi Arabia, the country in which Wahhabism and Salafism originated and which continues to be the most significant financier of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
Fitzgerald elaborated on this, opining about the deeply hypocritical relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, the country in which Wahhabism and Salafism originated and which continues to be the most significant financier of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
“As a professor at the University of California once told me: when money appears, all heads are bowed,” Fitzgerald added with a wry smile.
When we spoke about the fact that the US funded the birth of radical Islam across the Middle East throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, as Washington planners believed it could be used as a wedge against the Soviet Union, Fitzgerald shrugged and remarked: “We create our own Frankenstein’s monsters.”
Fitzgerald is now a follower of Sufism, a mystical tradition within Islam that developed early in the religion’s history and describes himself as an “adherent to the Sufi way.” He believes that Sufi traditions and practices provide an ideal antidote to Islamic extremism. “In every religion you have the literalists whose minds don’t allow any interpretation of the sacred texts,” he said.
“Sufi traditions and practices provide an ideal antidote to Islamic extremism.”
Sufism does not play the literalist game. Instead of simply arguing that fundamentalists should horizontally exchange their literal interpretations for other literal interpretations, Sufism allows room for giving an alternative that is not only different, but deeper. This sidesteps one of the main trapdoors in moderate religious thinking – the fact that the extremists often have the superficial interpretations of religious texts on their side.
“Sufism is the only antidote,” Fitzgerald told Inside Arabia. “The way it seems to a young person is that if they don’t want to be with an extremist group, they will either interpret that as saying that they are less Muslim for not wishing to be that extreme, or conclude that, if that’s what’s expected of them, the religion is too hard for them and they just give up the whole thing – this is also not very healthy for young Moroccans who are raised with this religion in their bloodstream, as it means giving up an important part of their identity.”
One of the main things that attracted Fitzgerald to Morocco was the way Sufism is protected and celebrated in the country.
One of the main things that attracted Fitzgerald to Morocco was the way in which Sufism is protected and celebrated in the country. “The official Islam in Morocco, if you go to the website of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, is made up of three things: one is Akida (creed/belief), another is Fikh (how to act/jurisprudence), and the third thing is Tasawwuf (Sufism),” Fitzgerald explained to Inside Arabia. “So this has been the official, default form of Islam in Morocco since before the Saadi times in the 1500s.”
At the same time, Fitzgerald is critical of much of the representation and practice of Sufism in Morocco today and bemoans the fact that “in practice, Sufism can sometimes be reduced to little more than performance art.”
Underlining the contrast between Saudi-pushed fundamentalism and Sufi spiritual traditions, Fitzgerald continued: “This dichotomy has been around since about 1750, when Morocco had its first problem with pilgrims going to Mecca and Medina and encountering Wahhabism, which was new at that time – Mohammed Abdu Wahab was still alive. Their mission was to remove the Sufi traditions related to saints and things like that. A lot of leaders in Muslim countries at that time, including the king of Morocco, sort of invited it in. They sort of agreed that these traditions were not really part of Islam.”
This is a narrative which continues to this day, as the Saudi regime uses its immense wealth and influence to advance extremism around the world. Morocco has not been immune to this process; a fact that Fitzgerald was willing to tackle head on.
Young people are now looking back toward their own traditions for guidance in their faith.
“The problem we have had is the influence of Saudi Arabia and Saudi money coming into Morocco and bringing with it this Wahhabi, Salafi movement that did attract some interest,” he told Inside Arabia. “Now, slowly, that is fading away. Young people are now looking back toward their own traditions for guidance in their faith. I think our young people see where all of that led – suicide bombings and endless war – and it’s not very appealing to them. One way in which this rejection of extremism has been encouraged is by promoting the Sufi orders.”
Fitzgerald counts among the members of the Qadiriyya Boutchichiyya Sufi order (known as Tariqa, plural:Turuq)), of which Hamza al Qâdiri al Boutchichi was the spiritual guide until his death in 2017. Fitzgerald spoke warmly of the way in which the order, which he referred to as Tariqa Boutchichiyya is well supported by the Moroccan government. He regards this as emblematic of the deep importance afforded to Sufism in the country.
Today, the order meets once per week. “It is through the lens of this order that I see how young people are led astray,” Fitzgerald explained to Inside Arabia. “Someone, a Salafist, say, comes along and says: ‘this is how to be a true Muslim,’ and a young person might say ‘okay, I will do it like that.’ But I have seen people who were involved in that way of thinking come back from that and be transformed.”
As an expert on Sufism, Fitzgerald has been involved in the translation and publication of several books, largely in collaboration with the US publisher Fons Vitae. He spoke enthusiastically of his work translating the writings of Al-Ghazali, one of the most famous Sufi thinkers.
Children studying in Islamic schools in English would be exposed not just to the rules of the religion but also to the spirituality of it.
“Fons Vitae is run by an American Muslim woman called Aisha and it was she who had the idea of making the thoughts of Al-Ghazali somehow accessible to children, so that children studying in Islamic schools around the world in English would be exposed not just to the rules of the religion (‘don’t do this, don’t do that’) but also to the spirituality of it. So around five years ago she started the Al Ghazali for Children project,” Fitzgerald told Inside Arabia.
Through this project, Fitzgerald is able to channel his own passion for Al-Ghazali’s work; a passion that he made abundantly clear during our interview. “Al Ghazali’s work in Arabic is beautiful – probably the first book I ever read about Islam was one of his works that had been published in Pakistan,” he recalled.
“So Fons Vitae asked my friend Fouad and I to work on translating the first four books of Al Ghizali’s magnum opus “Ihya’ Ulum al-Din” (which translates to ‘The Revival of the Religious Sciences’) into English. These are the books in which he explains the prayer, fasting, and so on, but also provides the spiritual dimension of all those things. The idea was to have a good English translation so that they could base children’s books on the work, and they’ve done it!” Fitzgerald beamed. “And it seems to be succeeding. It’s had quite a bit of success at schools in the States, in South Africa, and we have high hopes for Europe too,” he said.
His journey has been long and varied, but one thing has remained constant for Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald. From the Hippy scene of 1960s California, to the Hindu Kush, to Marrakech, his is a story of a life dedicated to spirituality, teaching, and learning. As part of the latest wave of Sufi masters, he has found his place in an ancient and ongoing tradition that has much to offer today and for many generations to come.