In recent years, the dominant image of Islam in the minds of many Westerners has been one loaded with violence and shrouded with fear. The figures commanding global attention — be they al-Qaeda’s leadership or certain mullahs in Tehran — preach an apocalyptic creed to an uncompromising faithful. This may be the Islam of a radical fringe, but in an era of flag burnings and suicide bombings, it is the Islam of the moment.
And that is why some lament the decline of another, older Islam, an Islam of openness and tolerance and, most important, peace. For centuries, many of the world’s Muslims were, in one way or another, practitioners of Sufism, a spiritualism that centers on the mystical connection between the individual and the divine. Sufism’s ethos was egalitarian, charitable and friendly, often propagated by wandering seers and storytellers. It blended with local cultures and cemented Islam’s place from the deserts of North Africa to the bazaars of the Indian subcontinent. (Read “An Islam of Many Paths.”)
Yet amid the hurly-burly of 19th century empires and the rise of modern nation-states, Sufism lost ground. The fall of Islam’s traditional powers — imperial dynasties such as the Mughals and the Ottomans — created a hunger for a more anchoring, muscular religious identity than that found in the intoxicating whirl of a dervish or the quiet wisdom of a sage. Nationalism and fundamentalism subdued Sufism’s eclectic spirit. If considered at all now in the West, Sufism usually provokes paeans to an alternative, ascetic life, backed up perhaps by a few verses from Rumi, a medieval Sufi poet much cherished by New Age spiritualists. But there was nothing fringe or alternative about it. “In many places, Sufism was a commonsense language — the way whole populations expressed their Muslim identity,” says Faisal Devji, an expert on political Islam at Oxford University. “In South Asia, Sufism was the norm.”
Some analysts think that historical legacy can still be exploited. A 2007 report by the Rand Corp., a U.S. think tank, advised Western governments to “harness” Sufism, saying its adherents were “natural allies of the West.” Along similar lines, the Algerian government announced this month that it would promote the nation’s Sufi heritage in a bid to check the powerful influence of Salafism, a more purist, orthodox strain of Islam that is followed by al-Qaeda-backed militants waging a long-running war against the country’s autocratic state. The authorities now want to promote traditional Sufi brotherhoods on radio and television.
But while Sufism is no doubt fascinating in its diversity and complexity, can it really bend terrorist swords into plowshares? The question is most urgent in South Asia, home to more than a third of the world’s Muslims and the historic cradle of Sufi Islam. Shrines of Sufi saints are ubiquitous in India and Pakistan and still attract thousands of devotees from all sectors of society. Yet the Taliban in Pakistan have set about destroying such sites, which are anathema to their literalist interpretation of the Koran. “Despite our ancient religious tradition,” says Ayeda Naqvi, a writer and Sufi scholar from Lahore, “we are being bullied and intimidated by a new form of religion that is barely one generation old.” (See pictures of the Taliban on LIFE.com.)
Still, she and other academics are wary of any government using Sufism to fight its political battles. As in the past, foreign meddling would likely do more harm than good. “What is needed today, more than the West pushing any one form of religion,” says Naqvi, “is a propagation of the underlying values of Sufism — love, harmony and beauty.” There is no easy way to achieve this, especially in Pakistan, where poverty, corruption and the daily toll of the global war on terrorism simmer together in a volatile brew. Set against this, the transcendental faith of Sufi mystics seems quaint, if not entirely impotent.
But there is more to the allure of Sufism than its saints and sheiks. In 2001, one of the first things to happen after the Taliban were chased out of Kabul was that the doors of the Afghan capital’s Bollywood cinemas flung open to the public. The language of cosmic love and yearning that animates all Bollywood music and enchants millions of Muslims around the world, even if sung and acted out by non-Muslims, is a direct legacy of centuries of Sufi devotional poetry. At Sufism’s core, suggests Oxford University’s Devji, is an embrace of the world. “It allows you to identify beyond your mosque and village to something that can be both Islamic and secular,” he says. “It’s a liberation that jihadis could never offer.”
Nevertheless, it has also been Sufism’s fate to fall afoul of more narrow-minded dogmas — now, under the bombardments of the Taliban, and during an earlier golden age. The tomb of Sarmad the Armenian, one of the more storied Sufi saints, sits close to Old Delhi’s Great Mosque. Sarmad taught his disciples the similarities between Muslim and Hindu theology, and would famously walk the streets of Lahore and Delhi naked, denouncing corrupt nobles and clerics. In 1661, he was arrested for heresy and beheaded under the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, a ruler much admired now by Pakistani hard-liners for his championing of a very orthodox Islam and the destruction of hundreds of Hindu temples. As Sarmad was led to his execution, Aurangzeb’s court chronicler reportedly heard him mutter lines of poetry: “There was an uproar, and we opened our eyes from eternal sleep,” intoned the Sufi. “Saw that the night of wickedness endured, so we slept again.” For many, Sufism’s slumber has lasted far too long.