In the middle of the 1900s, many people felt that Sufism, with its mystical rituals, would disappear as Muslim societies became modernised. Sufism can be described as Islamic mysticism, the spiritual, inner dimension of Islam as a complement to Sharia, the outer dimension. Its focus is on self-improvement and the quest for direct contact with the divine. Rituals with whirling dervishes and visits to holy shrines are part of the Sufi tradition.
But Sufism did not die; instead it became a force to be reckoned with. In the war against terrorism, after the attacks against the World Trade Center, politicians in a number of different countries including the USA, Europe and Central Asia, chose to form alliances with Sufi Muslims. But the embrace of the Sufi movement by the West is not uncomplicated, according to Simon Stjernholm.
“The West tends to idealise Sufism – it includes a longing for freedom and focuses less on strict rules. But what is often missed is that Sufi groups are not always more democratic and peace-loving than other Muslim groups. How Sufism is practiced depends on the social context.”
Simon Stjernholm has particularly studied one of the fastest-growing Sufi orders in his doctoral thesis Lovers of Muhammad: A Study of Naqshbandi-Haqqanis Sufis in the Twenty-First Century. They have their headquarters in London and Cyprus but have managed to establish themselves in broad groups in various countries, thereby uniting Sufi disciples over both ethnic and cultural boundaries.
“Within Sufism, there is great frustration over the way in which the image of Islam has been hijacked by extremists; they want to offer a contrasting image, and the Naqshbandi-Haqqani movement in particular has been clever at communicating this message, both to politicians and the media and within the Muslim community.”
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the London underground in 2005, Naqshbandi-Haqqanis spokesman Shayk Kabbani laid the blame on other Muslim organisations. Reactions were swift and the Sufi movement was strongly condemned by its opponents.
The criticism focuses on the way Shayk Kabbani has appointed himself to speak on behalf of Islam, whereas other Muslim organisations maintain that he cannot represent Islam in any way.
In spite of this, the charismatic Shayk Kabbani has succeeded in linking other Sufi orders to himself by getting Sufi Muslims to unite around a common goal: to give Islam a face that has nothing to do with violence and extremism. After the terrorist attacks in London, a skilled group worked around Kabbani to build networks at various levels, bringing teachers and disciples together with their peers. This led to the creation of the Sufi Muslim Council, which was applauded by the government and by British politicians.
Kabbani has also produced a large number of books over the past decade, including translations of known Sufi works. Sufism through the ages has had many great artists and literary heroes. In this area, British and American converts have played an important role as translators.
“My conclusion is that a global trend is underway, Sufism is growing and will have an increasing role rather than dying out. An important sign of this is that more and more influential, learned Muslims claim to represent ‘traditional Islam’ with strong ties to Sufism.”
On 30 May, Simon Stjernholm will publicly defend his thesis Lovers of Muhammad: A Study of Naqshbandi-Haqqanis Sufis in the Twenty-First Century.