By Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander, New Age Islam
03 February 2020
Islam in the contemporary age is construed as being synonymous with everything vice. Most of these vices that include violence, terrorism, casteism, apartheid, gender discrimination, patriarchy have existed since time immemorial in all traditions and religions. But now these particularly violence and terrorism are being attributed to Islam. Islam and its history do not establish it as a pacifist religion nor do construct it as a violent one. It has both these attributes that render it open to variegated interpretations.
Islam as the media misconstructs is not a monolith. It has various strands, under currents and schools of thought. One of the important schools of thought that developed in Islam over these centuries is popularly known as “Sufism”. As the term apparently ends in “ism” it often sends a wrong message that “Sufism” in itself is a different religion. That gives critics within the Islamic tradition right to attribute it to alien and antagonistic ideologies, pagan beliefs and different religions that again is a distortion of factual realities.
Sufism is an indelible part of Islamic tradition that has basis in the concept of Ihsan. The term Tasawwuf is synonymous with what is termed as Sufism. The term Tasawwuf or Sufism is derived from the word “suff” that according to one theory is coarse material used by mendicants and monks to drape themselves as a cloak to experience induced and self imposed poverty against the materialism and worldly pursuits. According to another theory Tasawwuf or Sufism is derived from the term sophists and has roots in philosophy. One who adopts such a way of life is termed as Sufi.
Anyways without indulging in epistemological debates Sufism and Sufis are those individuals who experience transcendence and spirituality as a dominant part of religion as compared to the theologians who emphasize on strict adherence to law, theology and rituals. It is not to brush aside the fact that Sufis do not follow rituals. Sufis do adhere to some rituals strictly but they can be altogether different from what is prevalent in the mainstream.
As Islam is not a monolith, so is the case with Sufism. Sufism too has different schools of thought and strands characterized as Silsilas (paths). The ultimate goal of Sufism is to experience the divine through various practices. The basic practices that are common to most Silsilas are rigorous meditation and service to humanity. To serve humanity is to serve God. It is for this reason that most Sufis indulge in social work that include community kitchens (langars) where people can eat for free. The Khanqahs (hospices) serve multi dimensional purposes that include spiritual training (Tarbiyah), boarding, lodging, meal services and education.
The basic concept of Ishq (Love) both for God and humanity drives most Sufis towards experiencing the transcendental trance. Sufis are distinct from other mystics because they are not only concerned about individual spiritual enlightenment but also helping the masses to experience the same. Love makes them transcend the barriers of region, religion, caste, race and gender. It is for these very reasons that Sufis of different Silsilas do not clash with each other as compared to theologians and doctors of divinity who regularly tag the antagonistic group as deviated from the Sirat ul Mustaqeem (The straight path). They issue defamatory Fatwas (religious opinions) against each other to defame and delegitimize the other. Many times it leads to sectarian violence and killings.
The legal interpretations and theological definitions of religions not only lead to inter religious but intra religious divide too. These divisions certainly have been responsible for the unending group violence. Sufism or mysticism can help bridge the divide among people. But Sufism and its discourse have a flip side to it, which does not receive the requisite attention or is brushed under the carpet without being critically engaged.
After the 9/11 events, Sufism and Sufis have been engaged particularly by the state as an alternative to Islamism and political Islam. This engagement has given rise to a sharp negative reaction against Sufism. Sufism has been constructed as a state discourse and alternative to violent Islam. But in reality Sufism too has its contribution of violence. Sufis have opted for violence particularly during the anti colonial movements in the Muslim world. So to paint Sufism as completely pacifist is wrong. Further the adoptions of Sufism by political regimes that have a worst record of human rights and invasions on Muslim countries have defaced the sanctity of Sufism among Muslim masses. To add insult to injury those who endorse Sufism or represent it have little credibility among the Muslim masses. Unless real credible role models of Sufism are lacking, the problems will continue escalating.
The violence, sectarianism and terrorism in the name of religion can only be fought once religious texts and different schools of thought are engaged critically and reinterpreted in the changed circumstances. Sufism offers a range of discourses that can help in reining the vices like terrorism and violence. The Sufi texts need positive engagement and Sufi values need to be inculcated and practiced only then can Sufism once again become a vibrant discourse. The alternative to violent political Islam is pacifist Sufism that brings out and implements the real values of Islam.
M.H.A.Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir
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