As we see the world of Islam shaken to its foundations by rising fundamentalism, one wonders if it is forgetting its Sufi tradition that we need to think about as a counter. However, the rise of fundamentalism has been linked to doubts about Sufism, and towering figures who have been coopted by fundamentalists have also seconded some of these doubts. Some suspect Sufism to be a politically complacent ideology that helps dilute resistance to oppression. Some think it is sponsored to serve the interests of a particular nationalist discourse. Some say it is simply business. Some emerging schools, both Salafi and modernist, have been successful in spreading the notion that Sufism is a deviation from pristine Islam. Advocates of Sufism can’t dismiss these criticisms without conceding abuses of Sufism throughout history.
Let us note that critics (though not rejectors of its spirit) of institutional Sufism include in recent history such important names as Iqbal, Shariati, Syed Moududi, Syed Qutb, G A Pervez, Dr Israr, Fazlur Rahman, Javed Ahmed Ghamedhi etc. All of them have a point, and that can be stated in these words: Institutional Sufism today suffers from serious problems. Mizaj-e-Khanqahi has done great damage. Quietism, recourse to abstractions and philosophization in place of living experience of God, beggary in shrines, loss of faith in oneself, degenerate occultism, faith healing business instead of healing souls by faith, fatalism, political servitude are, among others, elements of a syndrome somehow legitimized from Sufism, that is eating the vitals of the Muslim world.
None of these charges can be ignored and none of them can be shown to be integral to Sufism and all of them can be shown to be abuse of it. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
A few comments to clarify the charge sheet against Sufism:
It is no secret that Sufism has been part of the establishment in certain places in history. It is also no secret that colonialism has been attempting to co-opt Sufism to further its agenda. It is also easily demonstrable that Sufism has mostly been misused or misappropriated especially in later times in its history – so much so that a Sufi went to the extent of saying Sufism existed only in name, without there being any reality or spirit of it. And incidentally, this remark has been made many centuries ago, when Sufism was far more productive for Islamic culture than it is today. Today, when everything traditional is in decadence, how could Sufism escape this effect of time?
Let us not forget that just as we can’t relinquish Islam because it has been, or is being, abused, we can’t relinquish Sufism for the same reasons, as, without it, we can’t understand Islam’s deeper spiritual or metaphysical ground and the glorious heritage of traditional sciences, arts, crafts (try to imagine history of Islam minus Persian mystical poetry, minus Ghalib and Iqbal, minus the Taj and the Mosque of Cordova) and in fact the beauty that has been the hallmark of Islam as a civilizational force. Nothing in Islam makes sense except in light of this spiritual dimension. Anti-Sufi rhetoric is modernist heresy. It is good to censure excesses and perversions and misuses of Sufism in Kashmir but to reject the esoteric in the name of literalism and supposed fidelity to scripture is quite unacceptable. Sufism is the metaphysical face, or even the basis, of Islam. The history of Islam is largely the history of its saints and philosophers and mystically oriented ulama. The most illustrious thinkers of Islam have been influenced by Sufism. Islamic art and architecture is incomprehensible without the knowledge of Sufi symbolism.
Sufism is the best antidote to communalism and sectarianism. Communal violence does flare up occasionally. But it is ironic to note that the religious group playing the card of mysticism (Barelvis) is also the most dogmatic in certain issues and highly rejectionist and exclusivist.
Mysticism is a million dollar industry, according to critics. Of course, abuse of mysticism is a huge industry in itself, but we need to note that mysticism contributes significantly to the Muslim world’s, including Kashmir’s, economy. Shrines are amongst the most visited tourist spots. Local tourism is largely concentrated on shrines. Much donation money is with the Awqaf. The Awqaf has other resources as well. It could finance thousands of welfare projects if steps are taken in this direction. Prayer food culture is a huge industry in Kashmir that contributes to cohesion of social bonds as well.
There is a pir class, an occultist class and the class of so-called majzoobs that largely exploit the name of mysticism and contribute to discrediting it in the eyes of many. A large number of social drop-outs and parasites support their living by masquerading as mystics. The Salafi onslaught against the abuses of mysticism is not quite unwarranted. Illiteracy and gullibility of local people contributes to their exploitation at the hands of many dabblers in the spirit business, black magic and the like.
We may conclude that a lot of issues are muddled up in dismissing Sufism (and in dismissing Islam by its critics). We need to distinguish, in Socratic fashion, between opinion and truth to clearly see the issue.