Friday, April 14, 2006

Sufis, As-hab as-Suffah, our times...

It is interesting to note that some say the word "Sufi" has its origin in the phrase "Ashab as-Suffah" (people of the platform of the Prophet's mosque) - and that many of these early seekers of knowledge, and followers of the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him and his family) were homeless.

In the "west," especially the United States - "Sufism" is by and large an upper middle-class phenomena. The myriad of tariqas in the US are filled with either mostly Whites and/or upper-middle class immigrant professionals (or, they are students well on their way to becoming part of that class). There are a few exceptions that can be pointed to, I’m sure… But these are exceptions.

The US Sufi Shaykhs themselves come from similar backgrounds, and their circle of friends, family, and acquaintances are often from this same class. This is not to say they don’t have anything to offer, they certainly do, many have a very deep understanding of some aspects of Islam. But there is a disconnect when “Sufism” separates itself from Islam’s strong emphasis on social justice, struggles against oppression, and providing a space for the most marginalized.

This is in stark contrast to Muslim majority countries, where the dargas are filled with very poor people, drug addicts, homeless, sick, and mentally ill. The larger, and more well known shrines are a place of refuge for some of the most marginalized individuals of society. But it appears that this is also changing, as “Sufism” becomes a fashion statement, and the upper and so-called “educated” classes of those societies also join the proliferating tariqas. And so, if this fad does not fade soon, we may well see dargas becoming gentrified, and "cleansing" may take on a whole new meaning: the mentally ill, the sick, the homeless will be sent off somewhere miles away - so as not to disturb the slick of the liberal rich.

Not surprising, since the upper classes of most Muslim majority countries owe their loyalty to the “west.” And , it is a part of US policy (as outlined in the infamous Rand Report) now to promote “Sufism” as an alternative “good Islam.” Supporters of the neo-cons, and the Bush regime can now even join their very own Muslims for Bush sufi group.

In the US, masajd that do work (however flawed) with, say, substance abusers, those homeless, and against inner-city violence, are primarily African-American, and located within some of the most severely impacted communities. As an imam of one such masjid said at a recent talk: that fluffy nice moderate/liberal/progressive version of “Islam” floating around has little or nothing to offer to those of us who are facing harsh realities of watching our sisters and brothers succumb to violence, drugs, and severe health problems such as HIV and environmentally caused cancer. Few, if any, of these new age Rumi lovers will step outside of their zones of comfort to face, and act in solidarity with communities that have experienced the worst of rampant Capitalism and corporate globalization.

Cultivating taqwa is not some abstract exercise, being Allah conscious means being conscious of what is around, and within us, and taking concrete steps towards changing our condition. And if “Sufism” is all about journeying towards Allah, then we might also consider this hadith of Imam Ali (AS) attributed in the Nahjul Balagha:

Go towards Allah as oppressed and do not go towards Him as oppressors.

And then there is that little business of the Abu Dharr mall... but thats another story for another time...

8 comment(s):

  • Thanks for this post, which has given context to the Sufi literature in English I have been perusing recently, much of it written by US or US-born Muslims. I was similarly concerned by its lack of emphasis on social justice.

    Then I read about Badshah Khan, a Pathan who judged people 'by the degree by which the submitted to God's will', a man close to Allah and relentless in the peaceful service of humanity. Muslims such as this are the 'real' Sufis, in my view.



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4/15/2006 03:16:00 AM  

  • aa.

    yes, it was good to be reminded that tasawwuf isn't just some airy-fairy alternative lifestyle thing for hippies. it is the soul and spirit of islam and therefore by definition must incorporate commitment to social justice.


    By Blogger Irf, at 4/15/2006 07:57:00 PM  

  • Salaam:
    An old Sufi tradition advises us to speak only after our words have managed to pass through four gates. At the first gate, we ask ourselves, "Are these words true?" If so, we let them pass on; if not, back they go. At the second gate we ask; "Are they necessary?" At the third gate we ask; "Are they beneficial?" and at the fourth gate, we ask, "Are they kind?" If the answer to any of these is no, then what you are about to say should be left unsaid.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/23/2006 03:23:00 PM  

  • Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes... i wish sometimes "Sufis" would follow their own words...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/24/2006 12:40:00 AM  

  • Salaams

    I guess all of the Sufis I know are the exception? But I don't think so. Those Western raised Muslims who don't necessarily go to rallies and marches but give so much of their time and money to the poor, the ill, and so forth? Those upper middle class professionals in training working in free clinics and the like. Today I've been working on finding treatment options for a non Sufi, non upper middle class Muslim brother who finds himself addicted to alcohol. Maybe the thing here is that "Sufis" (whoever they are) don't spend their time talking about their efforts or work because of their shaykh or tariqa's teachings about these matters (not emphasising your charity, social work, etc..) Or maybe the difference is that the "Sufis" I know follow Islam and the Shariah, not a "Sufism" devoid of any Islamic teaching, that is only about whirling around and talking in nice, flowery phrases about things like "love, and being one with all creation" or whatever?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/27/2006 02:34:00 PM  

  • You are talking about charity - that is not the same as justice.

    And since you are such a wonderful exceptional Sufi type - why do you have to insult other Sufis who don't fit your bill about Shari'a and what not. Get a grip, and stop looking down at other people, and maybe you will get somewhere on your sufi path. Or, does your exceptional Sufi path sheikh teach to insult others, and talk nonsenese about things you don't know anything about such as the beautiful whirlling dervishes.

    You are probably a white middle class sufi type - given the way you talk.

    This article makes some very interesting and valid points, maybe as a Sufi you might to ponder them, instead of throwing around insults.

    Or, better still go to your dear exceptional Sheikh and tell him (her?) your good deed for the day: insulting sufi tariqas you don't know anything about. What a hoot.

    Also where does this article talk about rallies? It describes the fact that Sufi groups in the west are not a place where poor and marginalized people are welcomed, and are primarily a place for white and upper middle class dudes and dudesses. Maybe you need to read the article, or, again go talk to your dear Sheikh who taught you insult tariqas other than yours.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/28/2006 09:07:00 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Julaybib, at 5/07/2006 04:32:00 AM  

  • It's interesting how, in analysing Muslim discourses, power and authority are seen as intrinsic to Muslim politicos, but not so much to Sufis. Yet Chittick can condemn the entire corpus of contemporary Western knowledge, Sayyid Nasr can help turn a fair section of academia against Idries Shah and Sufis and their supporters continue to proclaim themselves 'the heart of Islam'.

    This is not to denigrate the knowledge and understanding of Sufism - merely to draw attention to the fact the Sufis and their supporters contest public spaces in Muslim communities as much as anyone, whatever their claims to apoliticality or humble anonymity.



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 5/07/2006 04:35:00 AM  

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