Blind Orthodoxies

It’s always dangerous to declare generalised love for a movement or school of thought – including Sufism, because Sufism can be subdivided into spirit and tradition, into various orders and popular customs, into the sober and the drunk, the vocal and the silent, the revolutionary and the tame. Still, I’ll say I love it for its symbolic, illogical, individualist challenge to literalism and the obsession with rules, and because it smiles, and for its openness and tolerance, and its music and poetry; because, as Adonis says: “Sufism has laid the foundations for a form of writing that is based upon subjective experience in a culture that is generally based on established religious knowledge.”

My own Islam is closer to deep agnosticism than to literal belief; it’s more spiritual (when I manage it) than religious. As time goes by and political events unfurl I have less and less sympathy for rigidly exclusive forms of Islam, whether modernist or traditional, less sympathy for certainty, and more and more dislike for current Islamic political movements, which are state-obsessed, and divisive, and which seek to reinforce the stultifying, censorial aspects of Muslim cultures. So I happily defend those who shake and shout and dance as they pray, or who remember the names in silence alone, and I defend them more fiercely every time the orthodox tell me I shouldn’t.

But when Westerners assume the Sufis are automatically cuddly or, alternatively, progressive, they make a blanket mistake. The ‘Sufi’ Barelvis in Pakistan cheered the murder of Salman Taseer as much as the purist Deobandis. And there’s nothing progressive about hereditary holy men, backward superstition, or the false structures of authority that have adhered to some schools like rust to polished metal. There’s nothing good about the Islamo-hippies who wish for peace at any cost with Zionism and imperialism.

A couple of years ago a friend and I attended a zikr session held in a Unitarian Church not far from Notting Hill. It was a great session, attended by a small multi-cultural group of men and women. We chanted and moved and breathed and worshipped. I felt very light by the end.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the same people instructing me to support the return of the Senussi monarch to rule over Libya. There were no Libyans or Arabs at the zikr I attended. What the Libyans are hoping for is a democracy, not a monarchy. Personally, I hope the democracy will be nationalist enough to resist overbearing European involvement, leftist enough to do a good job of redistributing Libya’s wealth, and Arab enough to support Palestinian liberation and the struggle of other Arabs against their domestic tyrannies. None of these are religious positions.

I replied to the email, saying that I wished the group would stick to zikr and refrain from unwise monarchical interventions, particularly as the Libyans are not agitating for monarchy. I signed off ‘salaam and best wishes.’ The response I received said, “Devil take you!”

I replied again – “What about al-adab al-islami?” (Islamic manners). The response this time was: “Learn some! And learn love! Love the noble ones and the saints!”

Sufis have their blind orthodoxies too. What a sad world we live in, with almost no space in it for honest exploration.

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