Paying Attention to the "Other Islam"

The moderate voices of the Sufi tradition

Book cover of "The Other Islam: Sufiism and Global Harmony" by Stephen Schwartz.
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Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U. S. efforts to identify and support moderate voices within the Islamic world have been inconsistent and fumbling. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the long-term success in fighting terrorism will depend far more on the result of Islam's own internal debate than on the outcomes of the fighting in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

To the extent that it can influence that debate, the next U. S. administration might consider paying closer attention to followers of the Sufi tradition, a mystical and philosophical current within Islam. ("Sufi" itself as a term may have derived from the Arab word for wool, in reference to the simple, rough cloak worn by early Muslim ascetics).

In his new book, The Other Islam: Sufism and Global Harmony, Stephen Schwartz, a journalist and executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, D.C., argues that Sufism "offers the clearest Muslim option for reconciliation between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds, as well as fulfillment of the promise that Islam shall be a religion of peace." U. S. News spoke with the author, himself a convert to Islam. Excerpts:

What is Sufism?

Sufism is the esoteric, metaphysical, and mystical tradition within Islam, similar to and influencing [Jewish mystical] kabbalah and Catholic spirituality. It is the tradition in Islam that looks behind the sacred texts, behind the practice, behind the outward manifestations of the religion, seeking the inner truth, the truth of the heart. When and where did Sufism emerge within Islam?

Sufis say that Sufism begins with Islam itself. There is the famous concept that the Creator was a hidden treasure who wanted to be known. And almost all Sufis trace their lineage back to Caliph Ali, who was a relative and fourth successor [caliph] of Muhammad. The first Sufis are generally considered to be the Basra school in southern Iraq in the first century and a half after the death of the Prophet, and actually the first famous one is a woman, Rabiya Al-Adawiyya. She was the first person to speak eloquently of divine love and love for God and God's love for creation and humanity. Of the some 1.2 billion Muslims today, approximately how many are Sufis?

Husain Haqqani, who is now Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, had a conversation with me about this, and he said that we were pretty legitimate in saying that half of the Muslims in the world either are Sufis or consider themselves to be pretty much under Sufi influence or in some ways follow Sufi precepts. When you start breaking it down demographically and look at large Muslim societies like India, Indonesia, Egypt, Morocco, French-speaking west Africa, Turkey, and some parts of Central Asia, that figure of about half makes sense. I've developed the proposition that you have two kinds of Sufism. You have a kind of generally diffuse Sufism in Muslim societies where basically the Islam of the whole society is very saturated with Sufism. Indonesia is one specific example of this. Then, overlapping with that, you have societies with the organized tariqa t [orders], where Sufism is a social institution. In countries like Morocco, Kosovo, Turkey, Sufism is really belonging to a movement, going on Tuesday or Saturday night to dhikrs [ceremonies devoted to remembering God]; it's having a sheik and going to regular lectures, and participating in some of the social-welfare activities. Taking a complicated case such as Iran, would you say that its deep Sufi tradition could potentially be a counterweight to the political-ideological Islam that now dominates?

I would say in Iran, and also in Saudi Arabia and to a less visible extent in Iraq, Sufism represents the main cultural, social, and religious alternative to the ideological forms of Islam that have recently dominated. In Iran, the situation is very complicated because of the obstacles to reporting on what is really going on inside the country. Part of the argument of my book is that in both Saudi Arabia and Iran the Sufis can provide the basis for a transition away from the model of ideological Islamic governance toward a more normal type of society in which religion plays a large role, just as it does in Mexico or Poland, but a normal role.