How many Sufi Saudis are there

Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World

The history of Sufism is basically a success story, because Islamic mysticism has managed to spread over large parts of the world: from India to Iran, from Turkey to North Africa. Even in Europe today there are numerous Sufi orders.

On the other hand, the history of Sufism is marked by persecution. From an early age, mystics were persecuted or even killed by the rulers of Islamic countries. This was often justified with religious arguments, such as polytheism, one of the worst sins according to Islamic belief.

Indeed, the mystics recognized God in all things since, in their view, everything ultimately arises from God as the only Creator. Such utterances were wrongly misunderstood as polytheistic. In addition, some mystics, in a state of trance and provoked by their overwhelming longing to become completely absorbed in God, let themselves be carried away to utterances that were condemned as heretical. For example, the great Sufi al-Halaj, who with his saying "I am the truth" meant that he had discovered the divine in himself and was executed for it.

Split relationship with those in power

But political reasons were also decisive for the persecution. From the 12th century onwards, the Sufis organized themselves into brotherhoods, which were particularly popular and highly regarded by the simple population, so that some Sufis were even venerated as saints. The religious orders therefore possessed a high degree of spiritual and financial power as well as great influence over the population, which could make them dangerous to the real rulers.

Even today, the relationship between those in power and the Sufis is not harmonious in all countries. There are indications that the Iranian regime has been taking action against Sufi orders in Iran for some time because they are irreligious and un-Islamic, and Sufi brotherhoods are banned in Wahhabi-ruled Saudi Arabia.

In many other countries, however, the Sufis are held in high regard. For example, thanks to a proposal from Turkey, Egypt and Afghanistan, 2007 was named Maulana Year, after the famous love mystic Maulana Jallaladdin Rumi, who is also considered the founder of the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes.

High spirituality is fascinating

The fascination that emanates from Sufism is still unbroken today. The mysterious elements and the high spirituality of mysticism are attractive. The Sufi is less concerned with fathoming God on a theoretical level than with one's own spiritual as well as physical experience of his presence. The Sufi is on a path to God, or at least close to him.

Because the ultimate goal of a mystic is to remove the veils separating himself and God and to be completely absorbed in love for him. To do this, he makes use of various religious practices and exercises, such as long periods of fasting or the so-called Dhikr, a kind of remembrance of God in which certain formulas - combined with breathing exercises - are constantly repeated.

Sufis rooted in the Islamic faith

Precisely because of the idea that God can be experienced and the Sufis' practices, which initially appear to be unorthodox, Islamic mysticism is repeatedly said to be far removed from strict Islamic law. On the one hand, this is correct, since Sufism is a completely separate branch of Islam and cannot be compared with strictly orthodox forms such as Wahhabism or Salafiyya. Nevertheless, the Sufis are deeply rooted in the Islamic faith. As Muslims, they strictly adhere to the Koran and Sharia, which they of course interpret in their own way.

This close association with Islam can also be seen in the veneration of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sufis consider him to be the first ever mystic and an absolute role model for the true believer. Some Sufis, such as the great Ibn Arabi, even went so far as to elevate Muhammad to the status of a "perfect man". To regard Sufism as a softened Islam or even as un-Islamic is completely wrong.

The Sufis are deeply religious Muslims whose everyday life is determined by Islam. One must therefore regard Islamic mysticism as another of the numerous manifestations of the Islamic faith, and thus its followers are no less firmly rooted in the faith than the advocates of other Islamic forms of faith.

Inga Gebauer

© Qantara.de 2007