Can Sufism curb Salafism?

Sunday 19/06/2016
A 2012 file picture shows a man looking at damage to the burned-out Saida Manoubia shrine in the western La Manouba suburb of Tunis.

In the Muslim world, there are two diametrically opposed schools of thought: Salafism and Sufism.

The radical form of Salafism, which receives a lot of attention, emerged about ten years ago. It is referred to as jihadist Salafism. It claims to combat apostasy and advocates change by force even if that means killing others.

This form of Salafism aims at political rule and not spiritual attainment. It espouses a literal and selective interpretation of the sacred texts in total disregard to their context. This school of thought is espoused by al-Qaeda and its offshoots, such as Ansar al-Sharia in the Maghreb.

Radical Salafists committed more than 40 attacks against Sufi shrines in Tunisia between 2011 and 2014. The most prominent among them were the arson fires at the highly symbolic shrines of Saida Manoubia and Sidi Bou Said near Tunis.

Attacks on Sufi shrines aim at undermining the bases of Sufi Islam, which are deeply anchored in the daily practices and traditions of the Tunisian population. Through acts of destruction, Salafist extremists want to spread fear and impose their interpretation of the faith.

Violence is ingrained in many strains of Salafism as this ideology bills itself as a reaction to outside aggression even though its violence is now exerted against fellow Muslims and innocent foreigners alike.

Salafism highlights the threat of colonisation and Western hegemony to the Muslim world. It invokes the spectre of external threat and calls for a return to a strict and literal application of the sacred texts.

That particular narrative attracted followers drawn to the concept of war against invaders. The bellicose ideology eventually shifted from battling “outside invaders” to fellow Muslims, declaring the latter apostates and legitimising their murder. Through all means they seek to impose their will through a reign of terror.

Sufism at the opposite shuns violence as it tries to convince through good words. In Sufism, there is no punishment and no forced form of behaviour.

The secret behind the development and wide dissemination of Sufism among all classes of Muslim society is also its accessibility; it is in no way an elitist school of thought.

Sufism peacefully advocates the purification of the soul and an intimate relationship between man and God.

It boasts a rich literature based on the works of Sufi philosophers, including many treatises on love. Landmark works on the subject include Ibn Arabi’s Treatise of Love and Imam al-Ghazali’s The Book of Love.

Among Sufis, rites are held to glorify the love of God. Poems, songs and literature contribute to spreading the message among followers. It is from this perspective that Sufism advocates individual fulfilment, seeks love and not hatred of others.

The marabout, or the saint, is central. He is the devout, the symbol of the symbiosis between man and God, not only in the speech but also, and especially, through exemplary behaviour.

True jihad, for Sufis, prompts the love of God and of others and in this regard it is the opposite of Salafism.

This explains why the message of Islam has so easily spread to many parts of Asia and sub- Saharan Africa. Today, Sufism is deeply anchored in the customs and practices of Maghrebi and African populations.

It is time today Sufism, as the best rampart against Salafism, held its rightful place and gave life again to the culture of peaceful co-existence between believers.