By Fariba Nawa
October 12, 2016
A deep betrayal marked the turning point for “Nasruddin,” the American jihadist turned Sufi mystic. His parents had come from Afghanistan but led a secular life, and Nasruddin didn’t confront the question of faith until they were killed in a car accident when he was 14 years old. He declared himself an atheist, and for the next few years, he lived the life of a typical American teenager—drinking, partying, and dating.
But during the 1990s, the Muslim community in Houston, Texas, where Nasruddin grew up, was growing rapidly. At the time, Salafism, a conservative school of Islam that advocates the separation of men and women and generally condemns socialization with those from other faiths, was the dominant form of Islam being preached in U.S. mosques, due in large part to funding from Saudi Arabia. It was especially big in Houston. Nasruddin was introduced to Salafi Islam through Saudi engineers who worked with his brother. He was soon devout: he grew a beard, stopped partying, and started praying regularly at the mosque. Finally, an Iranian–American Salafist—an educated, multilingual biologist—convinced him that he would be a good candidate for jihad, which for him meant holy war.
“I liked [jihad]. It represented chivalry, honour, dignity, self-sacrifice, something bigger than yourself,” said Nasruddin, who is now a middle-aged engineer living in Houston. Nasruddin was soon introduced to a recruiter for Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based Islamist militia fighting against India in Kashmir. The recruiter gave him taped lectures from Salafist clerics, and further indoctrinated him into their strict version of Islam. A few months later, at age 18, he flew to Pakistan and completed intense physical and weapons training before crossing over to Indian Kashmir, ready to become a martyr.
After four months in the freezing temperatures of the Himalayas, Nasruddin met a mystic, a Sufi sheikh from the United States, who told the impressionable young man that the fighting in Kashmir wasn’t jihad. It was simply the result of a power play between India and Pakistan. The Sufi told him to go back to the United States and be a better Muslim by building homes for the homeless. Nasruddin was shaken; he headed to Afghanistan to join the Taliban, but did not fight and returned home in 1997 after six months abroad.
Upon his initial return, the FBI only conducted a quick briefing to ensure that he had not come back with any “anti-American sentiments.” But after 9/11, the authorities returned aggressively, interrogating him and threatening to have him arrested for fighting with a foreign militia. Nasruddin fled with his family to Africa, but was apprehended by intelligence officials in Senegal and ordered to return to the United States. As soon as he landed, the FBI asked him to become an informant on his fellow Salafists in Houston. Nasruddin refused. But the Salafists assumed he was already a spook—friends and imams ignored his calls and stopped inviting him to events. The fraternity Nasruddin had been promised vanished. “I felt they were cowards,” he said.
Alienated from the Salafist community, Nasruddin felt free, and began an intellectual and spiritual exploration. He read the Bible, the Hadith, and the Torah, and studied Buddhism and Hinduism—not because he wanted to leave Islam, but because he wanted a deeper understanding of humanity’s relationship with God. His lifestyle also changed. He began to sit in mixed crowds of men and women and encouraged his wife to remove her face veil; he went out to Shisha cafes to socialize; he stopped cutting out faces from the photos on cereal boxes—part of the Salafist prohibition on images within the home. He began to meditate.
Nasruddin also began to notice that, like him, other Salafists and even former jihadists were abandoning hard-line clerics, talking about mysticism, and praying at mosques that practiced a different sort of Islam, Sufism. He wasn’t alone—this was a movement.
Sufism is not a sect or branch of Islam, but rather a mystical and ascetic tradition, common to Sunni and Shiite alike, which emphasizes individual spirituality and the believer’s inner relationship to God. Sufism, called Tasawwuf in the Muslim world, first emerged in the ninth century and flourished between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Sufi fraternal orders were formed throughout the Islamic world so that members could achieve union with God through music, poetry, and prayer. Not all Sufis were peaceful—Sufi mystics led the Muslim conquest of much of modern-day Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. In the modern world, however, Sufism preaches mindfulness and tolerance toward other faiths.
Although many U.S. mosques continue to follow a conservative version of Islam, a generation of native and converted Muslims is turning to Sufism. The growth of Sufism has been gradual and hushed, in part because one of the precepts of Sufism is to remain private. Sufis in the United States, for instance, prefer to call themselves “spiritual Muslims.” Nor are they monolithic—some forego headscarves and beards while others adhere to traditional Islamic dress. But the Sufis I spoke to in the United States are all uninterested in the idea of jihad as literal warfare; they see it rather as an internal, personal struggle: a “purification of the soul.”
“The most important things in mysticism are you and God,” said Nasruddin, as he eyed his watch to see if it was time for the afternoon prayer. “All else is an illusion. Salafism is more about books and knowledge of legal definitions. It’s fascinating on an academic level, but not on a religious level. In Salafism, there’s no relationship with God. Only if you’re good enough can you go to him. Only if he’s merciful enough can you reach him in an afterlife.”
Islamic scholars say that not every Sufi is tolerant and not every Salafi is violent, but Sufism leaves room for more diversity because it favours less literal interpretations of the religion. As Marcia Hermansen, a professor of Islamic studies at Loyola University Chicago told me, “Each person has a spiritual longing and you can’t force something that’s not going to fit. The wisdom of Sufism is, understanding that diversity.”
The rise of Sufism is hard to quantify, since even the exact number of Muslims in the United States is disputed—studies of Muslim–Americans count anywhere from 2.5 to 7 million. Yet according to Zain al-Abedin from the Sufi Islamic Studies and Research Association, the growth is apparent in the rising number of Sufi retreats and events, from a handful in the years before 9/11 to 300 last year. As more people gather at these retreats to listen to speeches and perform music, more Sufi literature has been translated into English, and Sufi scholars and websites have become more visible. For instance, in 2010, the Sufi-leaning Zaytuna College in Berkeley became the first accredited Islamic college in the United States, and one of its founders, Hamza Yusuf, has been one of the most prominent commentators on Islam in the United States. Even the Houston-based Al Maghrib Institute, a former Salafi centre run by Yasir Qadhi, has become more accepting of Sufi mystics.
Of course, not everyone has welcomed the rise of Sufism. Hardcore Salafists see Sufism as heretical, and disapprove of the music, litanies, and commemoration of Milad, or the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, which Sufis, along with many other Muslims, celebrate. Sheikh Naeem Abdul Wali, a Sufi cleric and former Salafist, said that he’s banned from speaking at most mosques in Houston, home to at least 100,000 Muslims. Some critics accuse Sufis of believing in magic and worshipping clerics, thereby committing idolatry.
Partly, that’s because Sufism may be eating into Salafi territory. According to Naima Mujadedi, a former Salafist from California, during the 1980s and 1990s Saudi-backed Muslim student associations in U.S. universities taught Salafism as the only true version of Islam. She said organizers distributed multilingual literature and invited Salafist imams to speak at universities.
“It was embedded in the university system at that time,” said Mujadedi, 43, a Muslim–American who went to university in California. “That’s what I thought Islam was because it was so one-sided. I truly believed I was going to hell if I didn’t follow the rules. You become neurotic. It put me in a state of panic.”
Nasruddin even claimed that among Houston Muslims that he knew, reactions to 9/11 were mixed. “There were smaller circles… who were pro-bin Laden. Saudi money was pouring in at this point. They said America had it coming, and this was the beginning of the end.”
But among the former Salafists I spoke to, most said they had drifted away because Salafism was too extreme, too literal, and didn’t appeal to their emotions. Religion, they said, must address their feelings and spirituality, and Sufism covers both.
Religious scholars say that the shift has also been driven by the changed political landscape after 9/11. Saudi propaganda urging violent jihad toned down in the United States after 9/11, and Salafism and more conservative interpretations of Islam became synonymous with violent radicalism among young Muslims who wanted to avoid those connections. Sufi mysticism appealed to Muslim–Americans who embraced their Muslim identity, but also wanted to interact with other faiths, mingle with the opposite sex, and be more accepting of homosexuality and atheism. Converts, meanwhile, often prefer Sufism for its tolerance of outsiders and its willingness to let people maintain their old identities.
The growth of Sufism, according to a number of political analysts, has not been entirely organic. Just as the U.S. government encouraged conservative interpretations of Islam during the Cold War in order to fight against communism, so too, according to Hatem Bazian of the University of California, is it promoting Sufism today. In 2007, a U.S. government-backed study by the Rand Corporation resulted in the report “Building Moderate Muslim Networks,” in which the authors advised policymakers to enlist Sufism as a more moderate version of Islam and support its followers through the media and religious institutions. Now interfaith groups include more Sufis, and Sufi scholars receive more government funding and greater coverage in the media.
Bazian criticized attempts to promote Sufism to meet policy objectives, which reinforces a “good Muslim, bad Muslim” narrative that splits the Muslim world into “good” moderates and “bad” extremists. Omid Safi, a scholar of Islam at Duke University, points out that Sufis should not be understood as apolitical, since they have historically been “fully engaged in both challenging political powers and alternately legitimizing political power.” The blowback that resulted from U.S. funding of the Mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, moreover, should be a glaring reminder of the danger of unintended consequences. Yet Alan Godlas, an Islamic scholar and practicing Sufi from the University of Georgia, was more circumspect. He said the State Department has consulted him more since 9/11, but not for any sinister gains. “The United States should cultivate an appreciation of values that would contribute to a peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic world, not simply for its economic and political gains,” he said. “It just happens that Sufism is the primary cultural institution for cultural diversity and human growth.”
Sufism’s appeal, therefore, is not simply a product of government funding. Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, a Syrian Sufi who often speaks in the United States, has seen his followers increase rapidly since the rise of Islamic State (ISIS). Last fall in San Jose, over 300 men and women packed into a banquet hall in the Double Tree hotel to listen to him speak about Sufism; at least 800 attended his talk in Chicago in November 2014.
“Extremism has been exposed. People are trying to find other alternatives, and Sufism is the traditional backbone of Islam,” said Yaqoubi. The cleric, who is a descendant of Sunni Sufis, lives in exile in Morocco.
Speaking to me after Yaqoubi’s talk in San Jose, a number of Muslims identified themselves as former Salafists who had embraced Sufism. They said it was a personal choice and had little to do with government intervention. Even for Nasruddin, it was his solo study of scriptures, and his desire for a different kind of religion, that led him to Sufi mysticism. “There’s a greater awakening of Muslims globally who are questioning, and [who] prefer love and mercy in Islam rather than anything else,” he said. “Love and mercy are mystical.”