By HA Hellyer
28 November 2017
On Friday, more than 300 Muslim worshippers were murdered in a mosque, and scores more injured, by presumably extremist Islamists in Egypt. There are quite likely a few reasons why this attack took place when it did, including the rejection of radical groups by the residents of this northern Sinai village. But one reason is a deeply ideological one, which relates to the Sufi tendency of many of those massacred. That ideological component goes far beyond this particular attack – and, indeed, beyond one particular group. It is a problem that Muslim communities the world over must all tackle – a virulent strain of extremist thought that ironically rejects orthodoxy, while insisting it is the most orthodox.
In much of the international reportage around this brutal massacre, words such as “Sufi minority” were used, as though Sufism was some kind of marginalised sector cult, somehow dubiously related to Islam. That perception is not the perspective of the mainstream of Islamic thought. Historically, Sufism was regarded by Islamic scholars as being an integral part of the broader religious disciplines, and the practices of Sufis as being part and parcel of religious devotions. Celebrating the birthday of the prophet, for example, which takes place all year round but intensifies during this particular month, might be called a “Sufi practice” – but Muslims have celebrated that irrespective of whether or not they were affiliated to a particular Sufi order.
To describe Sufism as a sect, in that regard, would be akin to describing the different legal rites of Sunni Islam as “sects” – which would be rather peculiar. Of course, this is precisely what the extremists do. Extremists will often declare in their rhetoric that Sufis are guilty of shirk (idolatry) due to their bida (deviance). The irony is that while such extremists insist that they are following the most “pure” version of Islam, they have rejected a fundamental part of what actually constitutes mainstream Islamic thought.
In that regard, such extremists are themselves a sect – not those whom they attack. The tremendous majority of Islamic scholarship is deeply and indelibly influenced by Sufism, and Islam’s most famous figures upheld it as a core part of the faith. There were critics of certain excesses, to be sure – but they were also Sufis themselves.
Sitting alongside this is the incorrect narrative that Sufis are somehow the “moderate” or “peaceful” part of the global Muslim community. To declare them as such is to fall into the framing that Sufis are somehow wholly distinguishable from the broad and overwhelming majority of Muslims – they are not. The framing also suggests that the broad majority of Muslims are not peaceful or moderate, and that these “Sufi Muslims” are some kind of exception.
While some may wish to promote that kind of dichotomy, it’s a rather baseless one – the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not extreme, but are peaceful. It’s because of that reality that they, as Muslims, are the primary victims of groups such as Islamic State. Moreover, Sufis throughout history, as Muslims, have fought in martial endeavours, such as against crusader armies in Egypt or against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.
Second, it is important to be aware that it is not just extremist Islamists who deny the historical authenticity of Sufism within Islam. It is true that the likes of Isis and others have declared their open rejection of Sufism, and their media outlets have been inciting violence against Sufis for quite some time. But that rhetoric does not come out of a vacuum.
There are scores of preachers who are influenced by purist Salafi notions of what proper Islam ought to look like, who have been speaking against Sufism and Sufis for a very long time indeed. While some leading Sufi figures have often been rather uncompromising in their own views, Sufi traditions recognise the plurality of Islam, which is at the core of their own critique of purist Salafism – that the latter fails to recognise that pluralism.
It must be stated clearly: purist Salafis by and large do not preach vigilante violence and militancy, and they should not be held accountable en masse for the atrocity of Friday. But the rhetoric many purist Salafis employ against Sufism more generally, and Sufis in particular, provides a certain type of background noise that more radical extremists will quite happily exploit all over the world, for a variety of nefarious purposes.
For decades, there have been figures trained in countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, who have preached that not only is Sufism not integral to Islam, but that it is a rejection of it. Those figures are not simply on a few fiery pulpits on the Arabian peninsula – they are much further afield, in Muslim majority communities as well as Muslim minority ones. That reality is not simply true of post-1979, despite what Riyadh may now claim – rather, it goes back much further than that, and any “counter-extremism” approach needs to recognise that.
Extremism is not an intrinsically Muslim problem, and it ought not to be considered as such. But there is an extremist ideology that exists, and its manifestations are not simply to be found in the outrageous barbarism that befell Egypt on Friday.
If we are to tackle extremism in general, it isn’t a “reformation of Islam” that anyone ought to be looking for. Indeed, in a sense, that took place already, and one result of that was the extremist rejection of orthodox Sufism by many, who then claimed to be more orthodox than anyone else. Any holistic response to the challenge of extremism will need to address precisely that fallacy.
• Dr HA Hellyer is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London and author of A Revolution Undone