Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defence, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World
SUFIS AND ANTI-SUFIS – Book Sample
About the Book – Sufis and their Critics Before the lmpact of Europe
The eighteenth century has commonly been viewed as a dark age for the world of Islam, a time of political, economic and cultural decline in the three great Islamic states: the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Iran and Mughal lndia.
Writing İn the early 1970s, Marshall Hodgson lamented: ‘Though the eighteenth century was not without its interesting and creative figures, it was probably the least notable of ali in achievement of high-cultural excellence; the relative barrenness was practically universal in Muslim lands.’ 1
Yet from the viewpoint of religion, and more especially of the Sufi spiritual tradition, it was not all dark and barren. There was a widespread sense of decline and concern over the debasement of Sufism among the masses, sunk in superstition and entranced by the extravagant claims of wonder working charlatans.
But this apprehension led also to vigorous reform efforts, both by individuals and mass movements, gaining momentum into the nineteenth century. Such efforts would have far-reaching results for the revitalization of Islamic spirituality within the central lands of Islam.
They would also work for the spread of the faith into those peripheral areas only superficially Islamized and, in some cases, not previously reached: İn Africa South of the Sahara, South East Asia and on the northern borders İn the Caucasus and the steppes of Central Asia and across İnto China.
Most of this struggle for religious renewal would come from within Sufi ranks, whether from scholarly shaykhs noted for their intellectual achievement’s in other branches of Islamic learning or from those noted solely for their devotion to the spiritual life, or indeed from the many ordinary members of Sufi tariqas that espoused the reforming cause.
Occasionally, however, discontent with the prevaİling abuses of Sufism ran too deep for any reform of the orders to constitute an acceptable solution. Virulent anti-Sufism then erupted, taking its most famous organized form İn the Arabian movement of the Wahhabis, ideological forerunners of many modern Muslim opponents of the Sufis.
SUFIS AND ANTI-SUFIS
it is proposed here first to note the nature of the anxieties about Sufi decadence in this period before examining some of the attempts to counter it. After exploring the contributions of two pivotal figures in the Sufi reforming thought of the eighteenth century, there follows an examination of mass reform within the Sufi orders with special focus on nineteenth century Africa, before a final consideration of the Wahhabi radical rejection of the tariqas.
The Mood of Decline
in 1950 A. J. Arberry launched a savage attack on the later manifestations of Sufism, but especially that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.2 He strenuously denounced the decay in Egypt and generalized beyond it across the world of Islam.
The picture presented is one of outrageous violation of the Sharta, open immorality and fraudulent opportunism. Witchcraft is remarked as taking the place of reason with the calculated aim of deluding and exploiting the ignorant masses.
Every village or group of villages acquired its local saint, to be supported and revered during his lifetime, worshipped and capitalized after his death. Few indeed were the voices that dared protest against this ruinous order of things, for politician and theologian alike feared to oppose the true masters, and found it easier and more profitable to share in the swindle. 3
The ‘true masters’, the Sufi orders, are thus categorized as a vicious power in Egypt, conspiring to defraud the people, with the understanding that the same situation prevailed everywhere. Arberry proceeds to quote a ‘brave spirit of the eighteenth century’, al-Badr al ljijazI, but suggesting that his criticism is an isolated case:
Would that we had not lived to see every demented madman held up by his fellows asa “Pole”. 4 Their ulema take refuge in him; indeed they have even adopted him as a Lord, İnstead of the Lord of the Throne;
For they have forgotten God, saying, “So-and-so provides deliverance from suffering for all mankind.” When he dies, they make him the object of pilgrimage and hasten to his shrine, Arabs and foreigners alike: Some kiss his grave, and some the threshold of his door, and the dust -. 5
SUFIS AND THEIR CRITICS BEFORE THE IMPACT OF EUROPE
Allowing for the exaggerations of Arberry’s account, he, nevertheless, reflects the concerns of Sufism’s critics of the period, who were somewhat more numerous than he seems to suggest. The poet was by no means alone in his distress at corruptions to the faith through popular innovations (bidac), especially those associated with local pilgrimages to the tombs of supposed Sufi ‘saints’, ‘God’s friends’ (awliya’ Allah).
The image of the mad ‘saint’ (majdhub), robbed of his sanity by an overwhelming experience of the Divine, would become all too familiar to eighteenth and nineteenth century European travellers. The concerns about the exaltation of such men and belief in their powers of intercession were indeed widespread among Muslims, whether Sufi or non-Sufi.
Among those who felt particularly deep revulsion were the Arabian Wahhabis, who shared a passionate conviction of the urgency of purifying and revitalizing the faith. The voice of the Wahhabis’ founder, Mul:ıammad b. cAbd al-Wahhab (1703-92), is one of the earliest and most strident, seeing his own age as another ]iihiliyya, but darker and more decadent than the pre-lslamic age of ignorance of true religion:
The idolaters of our own time are worse in their idolatry than the ancients because the ancients were worshipping God in times of affliction and associating others with Him in times of prosperity, but the idolaters of our own time are always guilty of associating others with God whether in prosperity or affliction. 6
Not only were they guilty of association, but there was even greater harın and sinfulness in the act because those that they associated with God were immoral and corrupt Sufi shaykhs. lbn cAbd al-Wahhab’s son, Shaykh cAbd Allah, expanded on the disastrous state in mid eighteenth century central Arabia before his father’s reforming campaign.7
Criticizing exaggerated popular devotion to Sufis, he noted that, for the masses, attendance at Sufi gatherings had become more important to them than regular prayers and that they flocked to saints’ tombs, decorating them with gold and silver and marble, while avoiding the mosques.
Listening to Sufi poetry, they wept with emotion, but recital of the Qur’an was treated casually by them and aroused no such feelings. Some even told stories of calling upon God in vain, but calling upon a dead Sufi and being answered and assisted. False Sufism had even corrupted their view of the Prophet and relationship to him. Such….
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