Why Sufism is the antidote to extremism
TUNIS - Tunisia is often cited as the sole success story of the “Arab spring”. Commentators point to Tunisia’s free and fair democratic elections and largely peaceful transitions of power as clear indicators of success. On closer examination, however, the picture is not quite so rosy.
Tunisia is the single largest source of foreign fighters for the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, despite having a small population of just less than 11 million.
The reasons behind this frightening statistic are complex but the spread of an extreme brand of Islam hostile to Tunisia’s moderate religious tradition is a major factor. Promoting the Tunisian, Sufi understanding of Islam is the best way for Muslims to fight back against the extremism and hatred that encourage terrorism.
Islam is a great religion that rests upon three fundamental bases, all of which must be observed for the religion to be practiced correctly and all of which are present in the Sufi interpretation.
First, a belief in the creed of Islam summed up briefly as belief in the existence and Oneness of God, the prophethood of Mohammad (PBUH) and the fact that he is the last of all Prophets and Messengers.
Second, sharia law: the set of orders, prohibitions and guidelines that Allah set forth as divine law.
Finally, sensitivity: this is the science of pure deeds, good behaviour and charity.
If any of the precepts of Islam are negated, then the religion is not being practiced correctly. Creed without sharia makes Islam inapplicable to everyday life. Sharia without creed is not exalted as divine law. Creed and sharia without sensitivity leads to a corruption of creed and the turning of sharia into abuse and cruelty.
Instead of being a tool to encourage good behaviour, sharia is turned into a tool of oppression. When sensitivity is perverted, the mercy of Islam is turned into something profane and abominable that nevertheless justifies itself with reference to the divine. If creed is grasped by the heart and sharia by the head, then sensitivity is achieved through a purification of the soul. The soul is exalted through the performance of good deeds, a refining of one’s humanity and purification from the temptation to do wrong.
There are many examples in which a failure to properly observe the three bases of Islam has led to disaster and the terrorists of today fall into the same trap as their historic predecessors.
Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS) and Ansar al- Sharia all follow a brand of Islam variously described as Salafi or Wahhabi. Wahhabism is an ideology that abhors life, a version of Islam in which the basis of sensitivity has become perverted and the religion has stopped being properly observed. Sensitivity is the science of good deeds, promoting love and mercy, but in the hands of the Wahhabis life is turned into caustic hatred. Once Wahhabi ideas have taken root in someone’s mind there is nothing strange or surprising about that person blowing himself up or cutting off the head of his fellow man while invoking the name of God.
All aspects of Islamist terrorism spring from one common idea: the apostatising of the majority of Muslims and their beliefs, something that is only conscionable to someone lacking in sensitivity. Sufism is concerned with sensitivity, the performing of charity and the teaching of correct behaviour and manners. The first step in defeating Islamist terrorist thought, therefore, is promoting Sufi thought.
Luckily for Tunisians, Sufism is deeply rooted in their history, culture and understanding of their faith. The importance of Sufis in Tunisian history is clear to anybody looking at a map. Many towns and places were named after prominent Sufis such as the city of Sidi Bouzid, named after the virtuous saint Bouzid Esherif; or the city of Sidi Bou Said, named after Abu Sa’eed al-Beji who chose Jebel Al-Manar as a corner for worship and to watch the sea to protect Tunisia from pirates and invaders.
Unfortunately, Sufism and religion in general were neglected after independence in Tunisia and a kind of spiritual desertification took place. After the jasmine revolution of 2011, these conditions were exploited by Wahhabi extremists who consider Sufism, along with almost everything else, apostasy. Hundreds of Sufi shrines were burned. The Islamist authorities at the time shared the jihadist aspect of Wahhabism advocated in the writings and ideologies of both Islamist thinkers Sayyid Qutb and Mawdudi and so looked the other way.
With religious moderates now in power, the time has come for the Tunisian state to strike a blow against extremism by supporting Sufism in Tunisia and the wider Muslim world.
The tolerance of Sufism, its social depth in Tunisia, its ability to draw close to people and the way it combines the cultural with its literary, artistic and musical dimensions, Islamic Sufism contains psycho-therapies to extremism. Sufism is an antidote to the culture of death promoted by extremists. The terrorist doctrine theorises for hostility and hatred in the world, whereas the ideal of Sufism is based on love, harmony and peaceful cohabitation.
In order to save Islam from the disgraceful reputation extremists are giving it, we must act quickly. What is said about Tunisia holds true for the Maghreb as a whole; and it can be true further afield. Sufism is a cure for extremism. That is why, when extremists take over, as in Libya, Sufi imams are among the first to be killed.