Sufism is a mystical tradition within Islam, though it is not an Islamic sect; rather it represents a mode of worship that seeks to transcend the differences between different sects. Traditionally, Sufi worshippers use prayer, music, and dance to achieve a closer union with the divine. Sufism is therefore less ideologically rigid than many of the better-known and more influential forms of islamic worship. It focuses more on the internal than the external, more on contemplation than action. The cultivation of the soul is held in higher esteem than the correct following of rules.
Originating around 632 CE, Sufism quickly spread around the newly forming Islamic world. Since then, Sufism has influenced art, literature, music and many other cultural expressions from Indonesia to the Middle East, from West Africa to Bosnia, often drawing upon existing cultural traditions rather than imposing itself as an external ideological influence. In the 12th century, Sufism developed “Turuq” (paths of worship) around a “Murshid” (spiritual guide), alongside the concept of “Dhikr” (the practice of devotional acts).
Many characteristics of Sufism will be familiar to readers. Many people may think themselves unaware of the unique Dhikr performed by the Melevi Tariqah, for instance, which encompasses the sacred ceremonial dance of “Sama” (“listening). Yet most will have heard of the Whirling Dervishes who take part in this unique ceremony. Likewise, while many might think it difficult to name a famous Sufi, most have heard of the celebrated, world-renowned 13th century Persian poet Rumi (1207-1273), who was a Sufi mystic. In fact, Rumi’s works are more popular in the US than those of any other poet.
Some prominent Sufi clerics argue that a lack of understanding of Sufism is common among both Muslims and non-Muslims. Sufis are often violently targeted by islamist extremists, who accuse Sufism of idolatry – because of its reverence of saints, which some fundamentalists maintain represents a deviation from belief in the one true God. Sufis are also accused of blasphemy for seeking to access the divine directly, in this life, through their rituals, rather than using their existence as a preparation for the afterlife.
Despite this, many Sufis dispute that there is any contradiction between their practices and scripture. Scholar of Islam Annemarie Schimmel wrote in her book Mystical Dimensions of Islam that, “The early Sufis lived under the threat of the Last Judgement, as described in the terrifying words of many sūras, until they discovered [that the Koran also contains] the promise of mutual love between God and man.”
In recent years, extremists have resorted to murderous rampages against Sufism. In 2017 an attack on a Sufi mosque in Sinai killed 311 people. The same year, ISIS raided a Sufi shrine in southern Pakistan, killing 83. It is against this troubling background that Sufism is preaching peaceful means to assert its place at the heart of many Islamic cultures. The movement is a global phenomenon, expanding rapidly from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic and Pacific.
In Iran, the rebirth of Sufi mysticism has drawn the ire of the ruling orthodoxy, representing as it does a challenge to their strict Shia fundamentalist worldview.
In Iran, the rebirth of Sufi mysticism has drawn the ire of the ruling orthodoxy, representing as it does a challenge to their strict Shia fundamentalist worldview. In Elisabeth Kiderlen’s words:
“The tensions between Sufis and the orthodoxy have now escalated into tangible enmity . . . . Over and over again in the past few years, Sufi prayer and meeting rooms have been shut and sometimes, as in the cities of Qom and Isfahan, razed to the ground with bulldozers. The Sufis themselves have been beaten and thrown into prison. Their popularity causes competition anxiety among the clergy; it eats into the terrain of the religious scholars. The Sufis’ very existence undermines the close link between politics and religion.”
At a time when calls for secularism and other forms of political change are on the rise in Iran and across the world, Sufism further undermines the power of the ruling Mullahs. “Sufism offers a way for people to practice their Islamic piety without accepting the ruling regime,” writes Kiderlen.
Beyond the practice of Sufism as a tool for challenging the current regime, many people in modern Iran find consolation in its mysticism, especially in light of increased US hostility against their homeland.
Beyond the practice of Sufism as a tool for challenging the current regime, many people in modern Iran find consolation in its mysticism, especially in light of increased US hostility against their homeland. Iran has been largely cut off from the global finance system and international oil trade, as a result of massive US-imposed sanctions. After a string of incidents in the Gulf, military confrontation between the US and Iran is looking more probable than ever (while still unlikely, since any confrontation would be catastrophic for the region).
To make matters worse, Iran was hit by massive floods in March, which affected around a third of the country. “Without the Sufis, I would never be able to stand everything that’s going on here,” one Iranian told Qantara. “[Iran] stinks of war . . . . At least the Sufis allow me to forget my fear for a little while and think about something really important and comforting, and not just focus on the rate of inflation and stare at the news.” He continues, quoting Rumi: “’Find joy in your heart when the time of trouble comes.’”
The Sufi renaissance is also strong at the other end of the Muslim world, in Morocco. A new museum of Sufism is opening soon in the Ksar Al Agafy in Marrakech. Al Agafy, a magnificent traditional Riad in the heart of the old medina, already acts as a recording studio and last year produced the first Sufi album to be recorded on a world music label, ARC Music.
At the same time, organizations such as Al Munia and projects such as Al Maghreb Blues are working to promote the culture of Al Andalus, which has a prominent Sufi streak. Moroccan Sufi singers are now in the mainstream charts, and it seems the tradition is staking a claim to a place in the popular culture of North Africa once again. At a time when the ideological gap between the generations in Morocco is larger than ever, younger Moroccans are looking for less rigid ways to live and express their culture. In this context, Sufism is ripe for an awakening.