The Salafi war on Sufism


Shail Maryam in The Hindu:

On my last day in Tunis I was finally able to perform my ziyarat (pilgrimage) to the mausoleum of the great Sufi, Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadhili, popularly known as Imam ash-Shadhili or Sidi Belhassan. It was an overwhelming experience. An all-woman zikr was in progress when I entered the hall. The men had been relegated to an outer room and the inner hall reverberated with women’s voices singing a song about the saint. Zikr (dhikr) has many meanings ranging from prayer to recitation to repetition of an expression of praise. Here it culminated in a trance-generating incantation of ‘Allahu Akbar’ with the repetitive ‘Akbar, Akbar, Akbar’ becoming like an ‘Om’ or a Buddhist chant. I had come to Tunis to participate in a panel at the World Social Forum 2015, part of an initiative of the South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy, to engage in a larger global debate on Islam and democracy. My presentation focussed on the philosophical contribution of Sufi brotherhoods such as Chishtis, Qadiris and Madaris as also of independent qalandars in the Indian subcontinent. The Chishtis and Qadiris are close cousins of the Shadhili (Shazili) brotherhood, which was important in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Sidi Belhassen was a Shadhili Sufi who came from Morocco and established his first zawiya in Tunis in 1227. In India, the Chishti order had already been established by Muinuddin Chishti from Chisht, Afghanistan. Some Shadhili and Chishti Sufis are authors of philosophical treatises.

The big question, of course, is why the antipathy between Sufis and Salafis is becoming a civil war in Islam. Indeed, the war itself is fairly one-sided, as the other side is the victim of the attack and has no strategy for a concerted counter-attack. But without romanticising either Sufism — any ‘ism’ is problematic — or the “good Muslim”, we only have to peruse early Sufi medieval texts to see how Sufi philosophies provide major sources of resistance to Salafist and other exclusionary ideologies. They go back to a period when religion and philosophy were not yet divorced. These philosophies also suggest Islam’s civilisational dialogue with Greek and Hindu-Buddhist philosophies.

A few years ago, in Pakistan, I had visited the mausoleum of the great Sufi Abul Hassan Ali Hajvari, popularly called Daata Sahib (990-1077), now behind barbed wire after its bombing in 2010. Abul Hassan Ali Hajvari is the author of Kashf Al Mahjub or The Revelation of the Veiled, a text in Persian that the philosopher Ghazala Irfan teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. I had also made another pilgrimage to Pakpattan where the mausoleum of Baba Farid, one of the great Chishti Sufis, had been similarly attacked.

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