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Islamic Ideology ( 28 Jul 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Between Salafism and Sufism, a Search for Modern Islam


By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam

30 July 2012

The argument between Islamism and its detractors from within the fold is quickly turning into a conflict between two different approaches to the faith: the Salafi way, and the Sufi way. At stake is not just the meaning of Islam as a religious doctrine but also how everyday Muslims perceive themselves and their place in a shrinking world.

The Salafis want to take Islam back to how it was practiced in its early days, specifically among the first three generations of Muslims who lived in the period of Salaf, or the initial 300 years of the Islamic calendar. They propagate a literal interpretation of the Quran and Hadees, believing that the doors of Ijtihad―the Islamic method of self-reform and modernisation―were closed by the end of Salaf. They want common Muslims to more or less limit their lives to following the five pillars of Islam: belief in the first kalima (unity of Allah and prophethood of Muhammad), namaz (praying), Roza (fasting), hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and Zakat (charity).

The Sufis claim to have a more spiritual approach to religion. For them, the ritualism of praying five times a day and fasting one month of the year during Ramzan is not enough, and sometimes of no consequence at all. Islam, they believe, is a matter of communion with Allah, the way Prophet Muhammad himself achieved it during revelation. They often seek such communion through singing, dancing and chanting the names of Allah, and sometimes even with the help of drugs and chemical stimulants. Various Sufi ‘orders’ trace their teachings and principles all the way to Muhammad through either Hazrat Abu Bakr or Hazrat Ali, the first and fourth caliphs. A number of Sufi saints and poets have emerged all through history all over the world, and they continue to be reverred by common Muslims today.

Meanings Change

If history teaches us one lesson, it is that nothing remains what it started out as, or was meant to be. For classical Sufis, the purpose of their approach, the whole idea of communion, was to turn themselves away from everything but Allah. In effect, it meant not just reciting the first kalima but realising it in their heart and soul. Process, however, overtook purpose and Sufism for many became not the search for communion but only the singing, dancing, chanting and drugs that went with it. In many parts of the world, particularly South Asia and North Africa, common Muslims don’t just rever but pray to dead and buried Sufi saints, believe that these saints have mystical powers and make offerings of flowers and money at their shrines. They are often joined by non-Muslims too.

This metamorphosis has spawned a clerical class made up almost entirely of the progeny of dead saints, who have co-opted their legacy and now project themselves as mediators between common Muslims and Allah. Indeed, the perversion of Sufism has reached such levels in some societies that pseudo-Sufis go around claiming power over fame and fortune, disease and death, cheating gullible, illiterate folk and making a mockery of their faith. Sufism was meant to turn a believer’s heart away from everything but Allah; it degenerated into a culture of clerical corruption and moral decay.

When Salafism began taking roots in various post-mediaeval Muslim societies, it was partly in response to the growing influence of European culture and partly as a revolt against such degenerate ‘Sufi’ practices. Salafis urge Muslims to shun shirk―equating others with Allah or believing that they have divine powers. They see their work as mirroring that of the Prophet himself, who rid the Arab world of the rampant paganism of its pre-Islamic days, known as Jahiliya (period of ignorance). But they don’t just stop there. By wanting to take Islam back to the period of Salaf, Salafis effectively want to purge the religion of almost its entire 14-centuries-old history, which is not just undesirable but―short of inventing a time machine―patently impossible.

In the process, Salafism has turned into a euphemism for cultural atavism and Arabisation, or more precisely ‘Saudisation’. Wahhabism, the Saudi version of Salafism, has taken over. But right from the outset, Wahhabism was less a religious doctrine and more an instrument of political power. The House of Saud initially wielded it to gain control over the Arabian Peninsula, and in recent decades to extend its reach across the Muslim world and into Muslim pockets in Europe and the Americas.

The Wahhabi-Saud alliance uses the moral authority of religion to crush political dissidence and the call to return to Salaf to impose cultural homogenisation in Muslim societies―which in turn also serves its political ends. That the alliance has always been hands in glove with Western imperialism―initially British colonialism and now American ‘post-colonialism’―speaks for itself.

But that is not all. Salafism in general and Wahhabism in particular has caused some of worst excesses that Muslims have had to put up with. This instrument of political power has never simply been ideological―violence has always been inherent to it. In the earliest days of the alliance, Wahhabi armies led by Muhammad ibn Saud used to destroy entire towns and villages in central Arabia to punish them for ‘polytheistic practices’. Thousands of innocent Muslims were massacred during the capture of Riyadh in 1773 and Karbala in 1801.

The Muslim Brotherhood of the 1960s and 1970s and the Al Qaeda and Boko Haram of today are true legatees of the Salafi way, carrying forward its time-honoured tradition of murder and mayhem. Alongside, they have refashioned Islam into an absolutist, puritanical faith bent on blowing up the world, and Muslims into objects of suspicion, fear and hatred―not just for non-Muslims but, ironically, for Muslims as well.

Another Way

A number of Muslim religious scholars and social scientists, as well as writers and journalists, have now begun to challenge Salafism on doctrinal and ideological grounds, exposing its geopolitical and imperial underpinnings and the role of petrodollars in its promotion. Many often resort to arguing that the Salafi way has never been the roads commonly tread by Muslim societies. They point out the Sufi heritage of these societies, its amalgamation with local non-Islamic cultural mores, and present it as evidence that Islam has historically been a liberal, inclusive and peaceful faith.

In doing so, however, they ignore one crucial reason why Salafism has found so many adherents in modern Muslim societies―including among engineers, doctors and other young professionals and students. That reason is the corruption of the Sufi way, its degeneration into disparate cults of superstitious absurdity and pseudo-mystical gobbledygook. Muslims endowed with education or even modern-day common sense rightly look upon chanting and praying at graves and offering money and flowers to weirdly-clad men mouthing drivel as a complete travesty of their reasoning faculty; they cannot seriously consider it to be religion, particularly one that claims to be monotheistic and anti-idolatry.

In an era of extraordinary social and cultural churn and moral atrophy, the Salafi way holds a natural appeal for such Muslims. Its absolutism serves as the perfect anchor for their needs of faith and identity, its puritanism helps separate morally white and morally black without leaving anything morally grey. The promise of returning to the Golden Age of Salaf, when Muslims were the kind of Muslims Allah, the Prophet and the Quran wished them to be, is the perfect escapist fantasy. What is more, Salafism’s horror for praying over the graves of men long dead to bring worldly desires to life makes it seem a lot more rational, even scientific.

While politics and petrodollars have paved the Salafi way, many Muslims have strayed on to it because of the bumps and ditches of anachronism that pockmark the Sufi way, making it a difficult path for men of reason to traverse. Burning incense sticks at graves cannot be the only alternative to detonating bombs inside buses. If modern, educated Muslims are to be asked to step off the Salafi way, then they have to be shown a path that does not reduce religion to holy claptrap and divine exploitation, a path that appeals to their rationality and respects their common sense.

Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.




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