By Kabir Helminski
July 13, 2015
People in the Louisville community have suggested that I respond to Siddique Malik's commentary, "Sufism not a cure for Muslim world's problems," which appeared in last Sunday's Forum section. It is unfortunate that Louisville should be introduced to this great spiritual tradition in this way.
This article repeats many inaccurate clichés about Sufism and I suspect the author has no direct experience of Sufism, nor sufficient historical awareness. The "dervish" image associated with the article, for instance, is not a Sufi but a touristic performer from a folkloric spectacle having nothing to do with the Sufi tradition. Like the article itself, it merely perpetuates an imaginary stereotype.
Sufism has been distorted primarily through the propaganda of Salafi sources—that is, fundamentalists influenced by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi sect. In their view, Sufis are unbalanced people who avoid everyday responsibilities, indulge in unorthodox practices like wild sessions of music and chanting, worshiping dead saints at their tombs, and becoming mindlessly subservient to shaikhs who are no more than cult leaders.
The truth is somewhat different. Sufism is primarily a holistic discipline for human development, which has had an immense influence on the intellectual and political life of Muslim civilizations. The tradition of the "whirling dervishes" which this article caricatures included in its membership the greatest literary and artistic figures of Ottoman civilization, including ministers of state and even some of the more progressive Sultans. Our own Mevlevi Order, as it is known, had centers from North Africa to Jerusalem and Damascus, into Asia Minor, in the Balkans as far as Sarajevo, and all the way to Baghdad. These centers functioned as mini-universities, not only offering spiritual development, but arts, languages, and practical skills, as well. Most of all, the values of the order were rooted in love and service to humanity, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Many of the visible forms of this Sufi culture, however, were traumatized by the political upheavals the 20th Century, especially the First World War. Then in the second half of the 20th Century the ascendancy of the Wahhabi cult through Saudi Arabia's immense oil revenues led to a worldwide program of propaganda that has spread its rigid, shallow, and harsh views throughout the formerly tolerant traditional Islamic cultures. Islam, after its first 100 years of expansion, spread through South Asia, Africa, and Southeast Asia largely through the work of Sufis who fed the poor, educated and inspired the masses, and introduced ethical business practices.
We should hope for a greater Sufi presence in the Islamic world, not as an imitation of the past but as a renaissance of spirituality and wisdom. Sufis have been civilization builders: Three major Islamic civilizations (The Ottomans, the Mughals, and the Safavids) originally developed from Sufi sources.
As for Sufis being impractical dreamers, heroic figures like Abdul Qadir Jazaeri in North Africa, Imam Shamil in the Caucasus, both Sufi shaikhs, led movements of resistance against colonial oppression. Last year, among the Gezi Park protestors in Turkey were even some whirling dervishes and many Sufis. From my experience, probably 90% of the professors of Islamic studies in the West are Sufi practitioners, or, at least, sympathizers. My own work includes elements of activism—currently, for instance, I'm engaged in an international program to refute the distortions of ISIS, in particular, and Islamic extremism, in general.
A few years ago King Mohammed VI of Morocco invited a 1000 Sufi shaikhs from around the world to be his guests at a conference devoted to the state of contemporary Sufism. I was among them. The King wanted to send a message to the leaders of the world that Sufis should be welcomed to do the work they do for humanity's spiritual and social development, but without being "instrumentalized" to serve any particular political agenda. It's important to distinguish between serving the needs of justice and peace, on the one hand, and being used by the "powers that be" to further their own political purposes.
Sufis are an intellectual and spiritual presence working behind the scenes without regard for personal recognition. They see everyday life and serving humanity as their spiritual path. They are more like the enzymes of the body than the limbs. They are the most beautiful hope of the Islamic world, and when the dust settles after this unfortunate period of illegal wars, tyranny, and terrorism, they will still be working for the development of the human heart and consciousness.
Kabir Helminski moved to Louisville from California three years ago. He is a translator of the works of Rumi and others, a Shaikh of the Mevlevi Order (which traces back to Jalaluddin Rumi), co-director of The Threshold Society (Sufism.org) and director/founder of the Baraka Institute (barakainstitute.org).