Sufis

By far the most significant such movement within Islam is the Sufis, who are not a sect but rather a tradition of belief and devotion that is absolutely critical to the development of the majority Sunnis. Trying to understand Islamic realities, past or present, without taking account of the Sufi is like trying to comprehend Catholic Christianity without understanding the religious orders, or Protestantism without hymns.

Though in the West the Sufis are most commonly known for gentle speculative mysticism—we think of the New Age fascination with the poet Rumi—the Sufi orders (tariqat) represented the spearhead of Islamic expansion through north Africa, through south and central Asia. The Sufis were at once elite knights who led military campaigns, and evangelists and teachers who preached the faith in new lands, winning converts by both their mystical achievements and intellectual daring. The Sufis created institutional networks in the forms of brotherhoods claiming loyalty to particular founders, from whom later leaders claimed spiritual descent: such are the Naqshbandi, Chishti, and the Mevlevi. Settlements of the Sufi warrior mystics were known as murabitun, and in European history, this name gave rise to the Almoravids, the mortal enemies of legendary Christian warlord, El Cid. A generation of Westerners encountered this movement through the 1961 film of that name, in which the Almoravids are the martial desert fundamentalists who despise the tolerant faith of the easygoing Spanish Moors.6

Still, today, we cannot hope to understand political realities in much of the Muslim world without grasping the critical significance of the Sufi orders, the tariqat. This is certainly the case with the postSoviet successor states in Central Asia, the "Stans." Nor do Western media recognize the Sufi roots of the militant anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasus, especially among the Chechens. Islam survived decades of communist persecution in this region only through the resilience of the Sufi orders. Soviet authorities tried in vain to eliminate the zikristi, the Sufis who performed the ecstatic mystical exercise of the dhikr. Though loathed by the Wahhabis (and long banned in Saudi Arabia itself), the Sufis yield nothing to them in their stringent piety or, on occasion, in their political activism.7

Because of their role in Islamic expansion, the Sufis are central to religious practice in the historic frontier territories of the faith, beyond the ancient Arabic- and Persian-speaking heartlands stretching between Egypt and Iran. This is a critical fact for European Islam, which draws its numbers so heavily from exactly the greatest areas of Sufi loyalty—from Turkey and from the North African maghreb, from Pakistan and India. Sufism also has deep roots in the Islamic borderland of the Balkans, where the city of Skopje is a center for several different orders. Where Sufi traditions flourish, we find customs and practices such as pilgrimages to the tombs of saints and sheikhs, who are venerated with song and ritual dance. This devotional Sufi tradition is represented by the Brelwi movement that emerged in nineteenth-century India. The Brelwis are influential in Dutch Islam, but in Britain too, mosques have endured long conflicts between fundamentalist De-obandis and the more inclusive Brelwis. Today, Sufi societies still dominate the practice of Islam in many parts of west Africa, and Senegalese societies like the Tijaniyya and the Muridiyya are represented among African migrants to Europe. Sufi orders are widespread in Europe: Italy has three separate branches of the Naqshbandiyya order.8

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