Islamic extremists have one thing in common with many American media outlets: they don’t understand what Sufism is. Often referred to as “liberal Islam,” even major reputable news sources attempt to boil down an integral part of Islamic tradition into a single, ambiguous word. A growing number of Islamic extremists accuse Sufis of idol worship, or shirk, and have recently taken to violence, destroying Sufi shrines and killing Sufi worshipers in the name of purifying Islam. These extremists understand neither Sufism nor Islamic law justifying the killing of humans, and are part of an increasingly large group of both non-Muslims and Muslims that characterize Sufism in a way that benefits them.
Major media outlets, as this Newsweek piece points out, rarely provide any level of depth or context to a story or concept, and their characterization of Sufism isn’t any different. (For context on Sufism, see this.) “Liberal,” “moderate,” “peaceful,” “hippie,” “colorful,”and “different“are just a few of the terms commonly used to describe Sufism. The American media in particular uses Sufism as a counter to the violent extremist elements within Muslim communities, creating a “Good Muslim”-“Bad Muslim” dichotomy. The world is far from black and white, and Sufi Islam is no different.
Many people often associate Sufism and Sufis with whirling dervishes, spiritual trances, and the poetry of Rumi. While all of these are important cultural markers and/or contributions to Sufism, they are only a few aspects that make up this multilayered Islamic tradition.
So what is Sufism? Described by many scholars as the heart or spiritual essence of Islam (similar to the role of Kabbalah in Judaism), Sufism attempts to cleanse the heart and beautify the self through attaining and enacting praiseworthy traits–charity, compassion, humility, honesty, and justice. Sufis cite the various manifestations of one’s nafs, or ego, as the the cause of individual suffering and the world’s ills, and believe salah (prayer) and dhikr (meditation and the remembrance of God) are foundational to purifying the heart and understanding attaining tawhid, or oneness of with God, the ultimate goal of Sufism.
Sufis of all orders agree that the combination of knowledge, love, and action is necessary for the seeker to come close to God in this world and to prepare for the next. All Sufis are Muslims and adhere to Islamic Law. Being Sufi does not affect other aspects of one’s faith. One can be Sunni or Shi’a and Sufi at the same time.
This mystical tradition is Islamic in origin, and while there are many who follow Sufi principles and Sufi sheiks, or leaders, as non-Muslims, one cannot be a Sufi without being a Muslim. However, nearly all of the principles of Sufism are universal in nature and are shared by almost every faith tradition. Perennial Sufis, or those who see all religions as illuminating the same core truths, understand the Universal (as it’s called) to manifest in different ways in various contexts.
Any complex system of acquiring knowledge and wisdom, whether purely intellectual or spiritual (Sufism requires intellect, love, and action) cannot be done justice with a one-word summary. Sufism is no different. While the core Sufi principle of love is easy to digest, the metaphysical foundations of the tradition do not warrant the “liberal” categorization. Sufism and its followers are diverse and numerous in their beliefs and it’s time for the media to start acknowledging that reality.
For more information on Sufism, see Inside Islam’s recent interview with Dr. Syyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at The George Washington University, and his thoughts on non-Muslims embracing Sufi principles.