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The Poverty of Fanaticism

Winter T. J.

Murad Abdal Hakim


Born Timothy J. Winter in 1960, he studied at the prestigious Westminster School in London and later at the University of Cambridge, where he graduated with first class honors in Arabic in 1983. Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, he focuses his work on Muslim-Christian relations, Islamic ethics, and the study of the orthodox Muslim response to extremism. He is particularly known for his translations, especially his al-Ghazali series, including al-Ghazali's On Death and What Comes After and On Disciplining the Soul.

Murad laments the fact that extremists acting in the name of Islam threaten an end “to the story of a religion which [sic] once surpassed all others in its capacity for tolerating debate and dissent.” Though no less certain than Nasr that Muslim belief and practice are the best way to deal with the alienating pressures of everyday life, Murad calls for a self-examining accounting by all well-intentioned believers. This alone can bring about “a genuine realignment of the soul,” as the Qurān itself suggests in 13:11: “God will not change the state of a people until they change what is in themselves.” If this is not done, then what he calls “Wahhabi-style activism” and “salafi” extremism” will overwhelm the true faith. Murad believes that the modality best suited to a successful self-examination is Islamic mysticism (Sufism), which is the object of much vilification by salafi extremists, who consider it a heretical innovation (bid‘ah) that diverts one from the straight path. Murad presents the genealogy, from classical sources, for the argument that some innovations are in fact good. For example, the famous jurist, al-Shafi‘i (d. 820) mandated or commended innovations to the believers, among which were the redaction of the Qurān, the study of Arabic grammar (the better to understand the meaning of the Qurān), the development of the science of systematic theology (kalam), and the construction of seminaries.

“Blood is no argument,” as Shakespeare observed. Sadly, Muslim ranks are today swollen with those who disagree. The World Trade Center, yesterday's symbol of global finance, has today become a monument to the failure of global Islam to control those who believe that the West can be bullied into changing its wayward ways towards the East. There is no real excuse at hand. It is simply not enough to clamor, as many have done, about “chickens coming home to roost,” and to protest that Washington's acquiescence in Israeli policies towards Palestine is the inevitable generator of such hate. It is of course true—as Shabbir Akhtar has noted—that powerlessness can corrupt as insistently as does power. But to comprehend is not to sanction or even to empathize. To take innocent life to achieve a goal is the hallmark of the most extreme secular utilitarian ethic, and stands at the opposite pole of the absolute moral constraints required by religion.

There was a time, not long ago, when the “ultras” were few, forming only a tiny wart on the face of the worldwide attempt to revivify Islam. Sadly, we can no longer enjoy the luxury of ignoring them. The extreme has broadened, and the middle ground, giving way, is everywhere dislocated and confused. And this enfeeblement of the middle ground, of the moderation enjoined by the Prophetic example, is in turn accelerated by the opprobrium which the extremists bring not simply upon themselves, but upon committed Muslims everywhere. For here, as elsewhere, the preferences of the media work firmly against us. David Koresh could broadcast his fringe Biblical message from Ranch Apocalypse without the image of Christianity, or even its Adventist wing, being in any way besmirched. But when a fringe Islamic group bombs Swedish tourists in Cairo, the stain is instantly spread over “militant Muslims” everywhere.

If these things go on, the Islamic movement will cease to form an authentic summons to cultural and spiritual renewal, and will exist as little more than a splintered array of maniacal factions. The prospect of such an appalling and humiliating end to the story of a religion which once surpassed all others in its capacity for tolerating debate and dissent now seems a real possibility. The entire experience of Islamic work over the past fifteen years has been one of increasing radicalization, driven by the perceived failure of the traditional Islamic institutions and the older Muslim movements to lead the Muslim peoples into the worthy but so far chimerical promised land of the “Islamic State.”

If this final catastrophe is to be averted, the mainstream will have to regain the initiative. But for this to happen, it must begin by confessing that the radical critique of moderation has its force. The Islamic movement has so far been remarkably unsuccessful. We must ask ourselves how it is that a man like Nasser, a butcher, a failed soldier, and a cynical demagogue, could have taken over a country as pivotal as Egypt, despite the vacuity of his beliefs, while the Muslim Brotherhood, with its pullulating millions of members, should have failed, and failed continuously, for six decades. The radical accusation of a failure in methodology cannot fail to strike home in such a context of dismal and prolonged inadequacy.

It is in this context—startlingly, perhaps, but inescapably—that we must present our case for the revival of the spiritual life within Islam. If it is ever to prosper, the “Islamic revival” must be made to see that it is in crisis, and that its mental resources are proving insufficient to meet contemporary needs. The response to this must be grounded in an act of collective muḥāsaba, of self-examination, in terms that transcend the ideologized neo-Islam of the revivalists, and return to a more classical and indigenously Muslim dialectic.

Symptomatic of the disease is the fact that among all the explanations offered for the crisis of the Islamic movement, the only authentically Muslim interpretation, namely, that God should not be lending it His support, is conspicuously absent. It is true that we frequently hear the Qur'ānic verse which states that “God does not change the condition of a people until they change the condition of their own selves” (13:11). But never, it seems, is this principle intelligently grasped. It is assumed that the sacred text is here doing no more than to enjoin individual moral reform as a precondition for collective societal success. Nothing could be more hazardous, however, than to measure such moral reform against the yardstick of the fiqh (jurisprudence) without giving concern to whether the virtues gained have been acquired through conformity (a relatively simple task), or proceed spontaneously from a genuine realignment of the soul. The verse is speaking of a spiritual change, specifically, a transformation of the nafs (soul or self) of the believers—not a moral one. And as the Blessed Prophet never tired of reminding us, there is little value in outward conformity to the rules unless this conformity is mirrored and engendered by an authentically righteous disposition of the heart. “No one shall enter the Garden by his works,” as he expressed it. Meanwhile, the profoundly judgmental and works-oriented tenor of modern revivalist Islam (we must shun the problematic buzzword “fundamentalism”), fixated on visible manifestations of morality, has failed to address the underlying question of what revelation is for. For it is theological nonsense to suggest that God's final concern is with our ability to conform to a complex set of rules. His concern is rather that we should be restored, through our labors and His grace, to that state of purity and equilibrium with which we were born. The rules are a vital means to that end, and are facilitated by it. But they do not take its place.

To make this point, the Holy Qur'ān deploys a striking metaphor. In Sūra Ibrāhīm, verses 24 to 26, we read:

Have you not seen how God coineth a likeness: a goodly word is like a goodly tree, the root whereof is set firm, its branch in the heaven? It bringeth forth its fruit at every time, by the leave of its Lord. Thus doth God coin likenesses for men, that perhaps they may reflect. And the likeness of an evil word is that of an evil tree that hath been torn up by the root from upon the earth, possessed of no stability.

According to the scholars of tafsīr (exegesis), the reference here is to the “words” (kalima) of faith and unfaith. The former is illustrated as a natural growth, whose florescence of moral and intellectual achievement is nourished by firm roots, which in turn denote the basis of faith: the quality of the proofs one has received, and the certainty and sound awareness of God which alone signify that one is firmly grounded in the reality of existence. The fruits thus yielded—the palpable benefits of the religious life—are permanent (“at every time”), and are not man's own accomplishment, for they only come “by the leave of its Lord.” Thus is the sound life of faith. The contrast is then drawn with the only alternative: kufr, which is not grounded in reality but in illusion, and is hence “possessed of no stability.”

This passage, reminiscent of some of the binary categorizations of human types presented early on in Sūra al-Baqara, precisely encapsulates the re-lationship between faith and works, the hierarchy which exists between them, and the sustainable balance between nourishment and fructition, between taking and giving, which true faith must maintain.

It is against this criterion that we must judge the quality of con-temporary “activist” styles of faith. Is the young “ultra,” with his intense rage which can sometimes render him liable to nervous disorders, and his fixation on a relatively narrow range of issues and concerns, really firmly rooted, and fruitful, in the sense described by this Qur'ānic image? Let me point to the answer with an example drawn from my own experience. I used to know, quite well, a leader of the radical “Islamic” group, the Jamā‘āt Islāmiyya, at the Egyptian university of Assiut. His name was Hamdī. He grew a luxuriant beard, was constantly scrubbing his teeth with his traditional toothstick, and spent his time preaching hatred of the Coptic Christians, a number of whom were actually attacked and beaten up as a result of his sermons. He had hundreds of followers; in fact, Assiut today remains a citadel of hard-line, Wahhābī-style activism.

The moral of the story is that some five years after this acquaintance, providence again brought me face to face with Shaykh Hamdī. This time, chancing to see him on a Cairo street, I almost failed to recognize him. The beard was gone. He was in trousers and a sweater. More astonishing still was that he was walking with a young Western girl who turned out to be an Australian, whom, as he sheepishly explained to me, he was intending to marry. I talked to him, and it became clear that he was no longer even a minimally observant Muslim, no longer prayed, and that his ambition in life was to leave Egypt, live in Australia, and make money. What was extraordinary was that his experiences in Islamic activism had made no impression on him—he was once again the same distracted, ordinary Egyptian youth he had been before his conversion to “radical Islam.”

This phenomenon, which we might label “salafī burnout,” is a recognized feature of many modern Muslim cultures. An initial enthusiasm, gained usually in one's early twenties, loses steam some seven to ten years later. Prison and torture—the frequent lot of the Islamic radical—may serve to prolong commitment, but ultimately, a majority of these neo-Muslims relapse, seemingly no better or worse for their experience in the cult-like universe of the salafī mindset.

This ephemerality of extremist activism should be as suspicious as its content. Authentic Muslim faith is simply not supposed to be this fragile; as the Qur'ān says, its root is meant to be “set firm.” One has to conclude that of the two trees depicted in the Qur'ānic image, salafī extremism re-sembles the second rather than the first. After all, the Companions of the religion's founder were not known for a transient commitment: their devotion and piety remained incomparably pure until they died.

What attracts young Muslims to this type of ephemeral but ferocious activism? One does not have to subscribe to determinist social theories to realize the importance of the almost universal condition of insecurity which Muslim societies are now experiencing. The Islamic world is passing through a most devastating period of transition. A history of economic and scientific change which in Europe took five hundred years is, in the Muslim world, being squeezed into a couple of generations. For instance, only thirty-five years ago the capital of Saudi Arabia was a cluster of mud huts, as it had been for thousands of years. Today's Riyadh is a hi-tech mega-city of glass towers, Coke machines, and gliding Cadillacs. This is an extreme case, but to some extent the dislocations of modernity are common to every Muslim society, excepting, perhaps, a handful of the most remote tribal peoples.

Such a transition period, with its centrifugal forces which allow nothing to remain constant, makes human beings very insecure. They look around for something to hold onto, something that will give them an identity. In our case, that something is usually Islam. And because they are being propelled into it by this psychic sense of insecurity, rather than by the more normal processes of conversion and faith, they lack some of the natural religious virtues, which are acquired by contact with a continuous tradition, and can never be learned from a book.

One easily visualizes how this works. A young Arab, part of an oversized family, competing for scarce jobs, unable to marry because he is poor, perhaps a migrant to a rapidly expanding city, feels like a man lost in a desert without signposts. One morning he picks up a copy of the fundamentalist writer Sayyid Qutb from a newsstand, and is “born-again” on the spot. This is what he needed: instant certainty, a framework in which to interpret the landscape before him, to resolve the problems and tensions of his life, and, even more deliciously, a way of feeling superior and in control. He joins a group, and, anxious to retain his newfound certainty, accepts the usual proposition that all the other groups are mistaken.

This, of course, is not how Muslim religious conversion is supposed to work. It is meant to be a process of intellectual maturation, triggered by the presence of a very holy person or place. Repentance (tawba), in its traditional form, yields an outlook of joy, contentment, and a deep affection for others. The modern type of tawba, however, born of insecurity, often makes Muslims narrow, intolerant, and exclusivist. Even more noticeably, it produces people whose faith is, despite its apparent intensity, liable to vanish as suddenly as it came. Deprived of real nourishment, the activist's soul can only grow hungry and emaciated, until at last it dies.

The Activism Within

How should we respond to this disorder? We must begin by remembering what Islam is for. As we noted earlier, our religion is not, ultimately, a manual of rules which, when meticulously followed, becomes a passport to paradise. Instead, it is a package of social, intellectual, and spiritual technologies whose purpose is to cleanse the human heart. In the Qur'ān, the Lord says that on the Day of Judgment, nothing will be of any use to us, except a sound heart (qalbun salīm). And in a famous ḥadīth, the Prophet, upon whom be blessings and peace, says: “Verily in the body there is a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the body is all sound. If it is corrupt, the body is all corrupt. Verily, it is the heart.” Mindful of this commandment, under which all the other commandments of Islam are subsumed, and which alone gives them meaning, the Islamic scholars have worked out a science, and ‘ilm, of analyzing the “states” of the heart, and the methods of bringing it into this condition of soundness. In the fullness of time, this science acquired the name taṣawwuf, in English “Sufism”—a traditional label for what we might nowadays roughly but more intelligibly call “Islamic psychology.”

At this point, many hackles are raised and well-rehearsed objections voiced. It is vital to understand that mainstream Sufism is not, and never has been, a doctrinal system, or a school of thought—a madhhab. It is, instead, a set of insights and practices which operate within the various Islamic madhhabs; in other words, it is not a madhhab, it is an ‘ilm, a science. And like most of the other Islamic sciences, it was not known by name, or in its later developed form, in the age of the Prophet (upon him be blessings and peace) or his Companions. This does not make it less legitimate. There are many Islamic sciences which only took shape many years after the Prophetic age: jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh), for instance, or logic (manṭiq), or the innumerable technical disciplines of ḥadīth.

Now this, of course, leads us into the often misunderstood area of sunna (Prophetic custom) and bid‘a (innovation), two notions which are wielded as blunt instruments by many contemporary activists, but which are often grossly misunderstood. The classical Orientalist thesis was of course that Islam, as an “arid Semitic legalism,” failed to incorporate mechanisms for its own development, and that it petrified upon the death of its founder. This, however, is an antisemitic nonsense rooted in the ethnic determinism of the nineteenth-century historians who had shaped the views of the early Orientalist synthesizers (Muir, Le Bon, Renan, Caetani). Islam, as the religion designed for the end of time, has in fact proved itself eminently adaptable to the rapidly changing conditions which characterize this latest and most “entropic” stage of history.

What is a bid‘a, according to the classical definitions of Islamic law? Many are familiar with the famous ḥadīth: “Beware of matters newly begun, for every matter newly begun is innovation, every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in Hell.” Does this mean that everything introduced into Islam that was not known to the first generation of Muslims is to be rejected? The classical ‘ulamā’ do not accept such a literalistic interpretation. Let us take a definition from Imām al-Shāfi‘ī, an authority universally accepted in Sunnī Islam. Imām al-Shāfi‘ī writes:

There are two kinds of introduced matters (muḥdathāt). One is that which contradicts a text of the Qur'ān, or the sunna, or a report from the early Muslims (athar), or the consensus (ijmā‘) of the Muslims: this is an “innovation of misguidance” (bid‘at ḍalāla). The second kind is that which is in itself good and entails no contradiction of any of these authorities: this is a “non-reprehensible innovation” (bid‘a ghayr madhmūma).

This basic distinction between acceptable and unacceptable forms of bid‘a is recognized by the overwhelming majority of classical ‘ulamā’. Among some, for instance al-‘Izz ibn ‘Abd al-Salām (one of the half-dozen or so great mujtahids of Islamic history), innovations fall under the five axiological headings of the sharī‘a: the obligatory (wājib), the recommended (mandūb), the permissible (mubāh), the offensive (makrūh), and the forbidden (ḥarām).

Under the category of “obligatory innovation,” Ibn ‘Abd al-Salām gives the following examples: recording the Qur'ān and the laws of Islam in writing at a time when it was feared that they would be lost, studying Arabic grammar in order to resolve controversies over the Qur'ān, and developing philosophical theology (kalām) to refute the claims of the Mu‘tazilites. Category two is “recommended innovation.” Under this heading the ‘ulamā’ list such activities as building madrasas, writing books on beneficial Islamic subjects, and in-depth studies of Arabic linguistics. Category three is “permissible,” or “neutral innovation,” including worldly activities such as sifting flour, and constructing houses in various styles not known in Medina. Category four is the “reprehensible innovation.” This includes such misdemeanors as overdecorating mosques or the Qur'ān. Category five is the “forbidden innovation.” This includes unlawful taxes, giving judgeships to those unqualified to hold them, and sectarian beliefs and practices that explicitly contravene the known principles of the Qur'ān and the sunna.

The above classification of bid‘a types is normal in classical sharī‘a literature, being accepted by the four schools of orthodox fiqh. There have been only two significant exceptions to this understanding in the history of Islamic thought: the Ẓāhirī school as articulated by Ibn Ḥazm, and one wing of the Ḥanbalī madhhab, represented by Ibn Taymiyya, who goes against the classical ijmā’ on this issue, and claims that all forms of innovation, good or bad, are un-Islamic.

Why is it, then, that so many Muslims now believe that innovation in any form is unacceptable in Islam? One factor has already been touched on: the mental complexes thrown up by insecurity, which incline people to find comfort in absolutist and literalist interpretations. Another lies in the influence of the well-financed neo-Ḥanbalī madhhab called Wahhābism, whose leaders are famous for their rejection of all possibility of development. In any case, armed with this more sophisticated and classical awareness of Islam's ability to acknowledge and assimilate novelty, we can understand how Muslim civilization was able so quickly to produce novel academic disciplines to deal with new problems as these arose.

Islamic psychology is characteristic of the new ‘ulūm which, although present in latent and implicit form in the Qur'ān, were first systematized in Islamic culture during the early Abbasid period (750–945). Given the importance that the Qur'ān attaches to obtaining a “sound heart,” we are not surprised to find that the influence of Islamic psychology has been massive and all-pervasive. In the formative first four centuries of Islam, the time when the great works of tafsīr, ḥadīth, grammar, and so forth were laid down, the ‘ulamā’ also applied their minds to this problem of al-qalb al-salīm. This was first visible when, following the example of the second generation of Muslims, many of the early ascetics, such as Sufyān ibn ‘Uyayna, Sufyān al-Thawrī, and ‘Abdallāh ibn al-Mubārak, had focused their concerns explicitly on the art of purifying the heart. The methods they recommended were frequent fasting and night prayer, periodic retreats, and a preoccupation with murābaṭa: service as volunteer fighters to defend the border castles of north Syria. This type of pietist orientation was not in the least systematic during this period. It was a loose category embracing all Muslims who sought salvation through the Prophetic virtues of re-nunciation, sincerity, and deep devotion to the revelation. These men and women were variously referred to as al-bakka’ūn, “the weepers,” because of their fear of the Day of Judgement, or as zuhhād, ascetics, or ‘ubbād, “unceasing worshipers.”

By the third century, however, we start to find writings which can be understood as belonging to a distinct devotional path. The increasing luxury and materialism of Abbasid urban society spurred many Muslims to campaign for a restoration of the simplicity of the Prophetic age. Purity of heart, compassion for others, and a constant recollection of God were the defining features of this trend. We find references to the method of muāsaba: self-examination to detect impurities of intention. Also stressed was riyāḍa: self-discipline.

By this time, too, the main outlines of Qur'ānic psychology had been worked out. The human creature, it was realized, was made up of four constituent parts: the body (jism), the mind (‘aql), the spirit (rūḥ), and the self (nafs). The first two need little comment. Less familiar (at least to people of a modern education) are the third and fourth categories.

The spirit is the rūḥ, that underlying essence of the human individual which survives death. It is hard to comprehend rationally, being in part of Divine inspiration, as the Qur'ān says: “And they ask you about the spirit; say, the spirit is of the command of my Lord. And you have been given of knowledge only a little” (17:85). According to the early Islamic psychologists, the rūḥ is a non-material reality which pervades the entire human body, but is centered on the heart, the qalb. It represents that part of man which is not of this world, and which connects him with his Creator, and which, if he is fortunate, enables him to see God in the next world. When we are born, this rūḥ is intact and pure. As we are initiated into the distractions of the world, however, it is covered over with the “rust” (rān) of which the Qur'ān speaks. This rust is made up of two things: sin and distraction. When these are banished through the process of self-discipline, so that the worshiper is preserved from sin and is focusing entirely on the immediate presence and reality of God, the rust is dissolved, and the rūḥ once again is free. The heart is sound; and salvation, and closeness to God are achieved.

This sounds simple enough. However, the early Muslims taught that such precious things come only at an appropriate price. Cleaning up the Augean stables of the heart is a most excruciating challenge. Outward conformity to the rules of religion is simple enough; but it is only the first step. Much more demanding is the policy known as mujāhada: the daily combat against the lower self, the nafs. As the Qur'ān says: “As for him that fears the standing before his Lord, and forbids his nafs its desires, for him, Heaven shall be his place of resort” (79:40). Hence the Sufi commandment: “Slaughter your ego with the knives of mujāhada.” Once the nafs is controlled, then the heart is clear, and the virtues proceed from it easily and naturally.

Because its objective is nothing less than salvation, this vital Islamic science has been consistently expounded by the great scholars of classical Islam. While today there are many Muslims, influenced by either Wahhābī or Orientalist agendas, who believe that Sufism has always led a somewhat marginal existence in Islam, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the classical scholars were actively involved in Sufism. The early Shāfi‘ī scholars of Khurāsān; al-Ḥākim al-Nīsābūrī, Ibn Fūrak, al-Qushayrī, and al-Bayhaqī, were all Sufis, who formed links in the richest academic tradition of Abbasid Islam which culminated in the achievement of Imām Ḥujjat al-Islām al-Ghazālī. Ghazālī himself, author of some three hundred books, including the definitive rebuttals of Arab philosophy and the Ismā‘īlīs, three large textbooks of Shāfi‘ī fiqh, the best-known tract of uṣūl al-fiqh, two works on logic, and several theological treatises, also left us with the classic statement of orthodox Sufism: the Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn (The Revivification of the Religious Sciences), a book of which Imām Nawawī remarked: “Were the books of Islam all to be lost, excepting only the Iḥyā’, it would suffice to replace them all.”

Imām Nawawī himself wrote two books which record his debt to Sufism, one called the Bustān al-‘ārifīn (Garden of the Gnostics), and another called al-Maqāṣid. Among the Mālikīs, too, Sufism was the almost universally followed style of spirituality. Al-Ṣāwī, al-Dardīr, al-Laqqānī and ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Baghdādī were all exponents of Sufism. The great Mālikī jurist of Cairo, ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha‘rānī, defines Sufism as follows:

The path of the Sufis is built on the Qur'ān and the sunna, and is based on living according to the morals of the prophets and the purified ones. It may not be blamed, unless it violates an explicit statement from the Qur'ān, sunna, or ijmā’. If it does not contravene any of these sources, then no pretext remains for condemning it, except one's own low opinion of others, or interpreting what they do as ostentation, which is unlawful. No-one denies the states of the Sufis except someone ignorant of the way they are.

For Ḥanbalī Sufism one has to look no further than the revered figures of ‘Abdallāh Anṣārī, ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, Ibn al-Jawzī, and Ibn Rajab.

In fact, virtually all the great luminaries of medieval Islam—al-Suyūṭī, Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī, al-‘Aynī, Ibn Khaldūn, al-Subkī, Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī; tafsīr writers like Bayḍāwī, al-Ṣāwī, Abu’l-Su‘ūd, al-Baghawī, and Ibn Kathīr; doctrine specialists such as al-Taftazānī, al-Nasafī, al-Rāzī—all wrote in support of Sufism. Many, indeed, composed independent works of Sufi inspiration. The ‘ulamā’ of the great dynasties of Islamic history, including the Ottomans and the Moghuls, were deeply infused with the Sufi outlook, regarding it as one of the most central and indispensable of Islamic sciences.

Further confirmation of the Islamic legitimacy of Sufism is supplied by the enthusiasm of its exponents for carrying Islam beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world. The Islamization process in India, black Africa, and Southeast Asia was carried out largely at the hands of wandering Sufi teachers. Likewise, the Islamic obligation of jihād has been borne with especial zeal by the Sufi orders. All the great nineteenth century jihādists, ‘Uthman dan Fodio (Hausaland), al-Sanūsī (Libya), ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jazā’irī (Algeria), Imām Shāmil (Daghestan) and the leaders of the Padre Rebellion (Sumatra), were active practitioners of Sufism, writing extensively on it while on their campaigns. Nothing is further from reality, in fact, than the claim that Sufism represents a quietist and non-militant form of Islam. However, it has always been utterly different from modern, wild extremism, in that it is rooted in mercy and justice, forbidding the targeting of civilians, and conforming to the ethical ideal of the just war. Sufism forms no part of modern terroristic radicalism.

With all this, we confront a paradox. Why is it, if Sufism has been so respected a part of Muslim intellectual and political life throughout our history, that there are, nowadays, angry voices raised against it? There are two fundamental reasons here. Firstly, there is again the pervasive influence of Orientalist scholarship, which, at least before 1922 when Louis Massignon wrote his Essai sur les origines de la lexique technique, was of the opinion that something so fertile and profound as Sufism could never have grown from the essentially “barren and legalistic” soil of Islam. Orientalist works translated into Muslim languages were influential upon key Muslim modernists—such as Muḥammad ‘Abduh in his later writings—who began to question the centrality, or even the legitimacy, of Sufi discourse in Islam. Secondly, there is the emergence of the Wahhābī da‘wa. When Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, some two hundred years ago, teamed up with the Saudi tribe and attacked the neighboring clans, he was doing so under the sign of an essentially neo-Khārijite version of Islam. Although he invoked Ibn Taymiyya, he had reservations even about him. For Ibn Taymiyya himself, although critical of the excesses of certain Sufi groups, had been committed to a branch of mainstream Sufism. This is clear, for instance, in Ibn Taymiyya's work Sharḥ futūḥ al-ghayb, a commentary on some technical points in the Revelations of the Unseen, a key work by the sixth-century saint of Baghdad, ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī. Throughout the work Ibn Taymiyya shows himself to be a loyal disciple of al-Jīlānī, whom he always refers to as shaykhunā (“our teacher”). This Qādirī affiliation is confirmed in the later literature of the Qādirī ṭarīqa (order), which records Ibn Taymiyya as a key link in the silsila, the chain of transmission of Qādirī teachings.

Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, however, went far beyond this. Raised in the wastelands of Najd in Central Arabia, he had inadequate access to mainstream Muslim scholarship. In fact, when his da‘wa appeared and became notorious, the scholars and muftīs (judges) of the day applied to it the famous ḥadīth of Najd:

Ibn ‘Umar reported the Prophet (upon whom be blessings and peace) as saying: “Oh God, bless us in our Syria: O God, bless us in our Yemen.” Those present said: “And in our Najd, messenger of God,” but he said, “O God, bless us in our Syria; O God, bless us in our Yemen.” Those present said, “And in our Najd, messenger of God.” Ibn ‘Umar told that he thought he said on the third occasion: “Earthquakes and dissensions (fitna) are there, and the horn of the devil shall arise in it.”

And it is significant that almost uniquely among the lands of Islam, Najd has never produced scholars of any repute.

The Najd-based da‘wa of the Wahhābīs, however, began to be heard more loudly following the explosion of Saudi oil wealth. Many, even most, Islamic publishing houses in Cairo and Beirut are now subsidized by Wahhābī organisations, which prevent them from publishing traditional works on Sufism, and remove passages in other works considered unacceptable to Wahhābist doctrine.

The neo-Khārijite nature of Wahhābism makes it intolerant of all other forms of Islamic expression. However, because it has no coherent fiqh of its own—it rejects the orthodox madhhabs—and has only the most basic and primitively anthropomorphic theology, it has a fluid, amoeba-like tendency to produce divisions and subdivisions among those who profess it. No longer are the Islamic groups essentially united by a consistent madhhab and the Ash‘arī or Māturīdī doctrine. Instead, they are all trying to derive the sharī‘a and doctrine from the Qur'ān and the sunna by themselves. The result is the appalling state of division and conflict which disfigures the modern Wahhābī condition.

At this critical moment in our history, the umma has only one realistic hope for survival, and that is to restore the “middle way,” defined by that sophisticated classical consensus which was worked out over painful centuries of debate and scholarship. That consensus alone has the demonstrable ability to provide a basis for unity. But it can only be retrieved when we improve the state of our hearts, and fill them with the Islamic virtues of affection, respect, tolerance, and reconciliation. This inner reform, which is the traditional competence of Sufism, is a precondition for the restoration of unity and decency in the Islamic movement. The alternative is likely to be continued, and agonizing, failure.

Bibliography references:

From Joseph E. B. Lombard, Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition (Indiana: World Wisdom, Inc., 2004), pp. 283–95.

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