Paradoxical Legacies of the Militant Mystics
by Khaleb Khazari-El
One of the many ways in which the planetary struggle has gone through the proverbial looking glass since the 9-11 attacks is the seeming reversal in the juxtaposition of Western imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism. In the Cold War, the United States was allied with fundamentalist regimes like Saudi Arabia and fundamentalist movements like Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen against the threats of communism and radical nationalism. The US, in fact, continues to back fundamentalists—in Saudi Arabia, in Afghanistan, in occupied Iraq. But it is perceived, at least, to be protecting secular modernity from fundamentalist assault. This perception is shared by both the “neo-conservative” policy wonks and the fundamentalists themselves—at least those on the wrong end of Washington’s firepower.
If we look to the roots of Islamic fundamentalism, however, we find that it came into existence alongside another tradition which was a wellspring of resistance in the colonial era but is now largely forgotten to history. These twin traditions were two branches of the same tree: one throve, the other ultimately withered. Fundamentalism prevailed over the threats of nationalism and communism in the long 20th-century contest as to which ideology would bear the anti-imperialist mantle in the Islamic world. The other tradition did not survive to wage this struggle—but now that the contest has been clearly decided, may be worth a close re-examination. This forgotten tradition is militant sufism.
The story of militant sufism is replete with paradox. Sufism initially represented a proto-universalism, and was opposed by orthodoxy. But revolutionary sufism was, in its day, allied with fundamentalism, itself orthodoxy’s backlash against modernity. Yet, the fundamentalists today attack the surviving sufis, seeing their struggle as a unified jihad against both imperialism and heresy.
There are, however, signs that point to the potential for the emergence of a universalist yet localist and autonomist anti-imperialism embodied by neo-sufis and related esoteric or dissident Islamic traditions. As the sufis of the medieval era formed a bridge between Islam and the indigenous spiritual traditions of those areas conquered by Caliphate, today’s neo-sufis could serve as a bridge between a non-fundamentalist Islamic anti-imperialism, and more open-minded and libertarian elements of the secular anti-imperialist left in the Islamic world, which is now in danger of being completely marginalized or crushed—especially in places like Iraq, where it is needed most.
Under the pressure of 19th-century European colonialism, sufism broke with the apolitical quietism which had generally characterized the tradition. Today, surviving sufis have similarly rethought the alliance or convergence with fundamentalism which often characterized the era of militancy. It remains to be seen if the surviving secular left elements can overcome the dogmatic rejection of all spiritual traditions as either quietist opiate or fundamentalist reaction—a perception which contributes to their own marginalization, as long-suppressed spiritual thirsts dramatically re-assert themselves.
In his 1988 book The Struggle Within Islam: The Conflict Between Religion and Politics, Indian scholar and statesman Rafiq Zakaria traces the tension to the very beginning, noting that the Prophet Mohammed was both a religious and political leader. This conflict is now at the center of the world stage: a violent struggle within world Islam as to what its stance should be before the assaults of gobalization, secularism and capitalism.
A new radical sufism could offer an alternative to the actually-existing jihad of Wahhabi totalitarianism. But to understand the contemporary juxtaposition of sufism and the jihad, it is necessary to take a brief look at how the struggle between sufism and the more doctrinaire and orthodox manifestations of Islam played out…in the 13th century. We cannot understand where we are without understanding how we got here. Certainly, the 13th-century struggle against the Crusaders weighs very heavily on the mind of contemporary radical Islam; we are unwise to assume that this history doesn’t concern us.
After the Fall of the Caliphate: How Sufism Saved Islam
Zakaria calls the medieval sufis “bridge builders,” who, persecuted as heretics, paradoxically saved Islam following the decline of the Caliphate. As the scene opens, the Abbasid dynasty has fallen. Baghdad, the Caliphate’s seat, has been sacked by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, as had principal centers of learning and commerce like Aleppo. The long war with the Crusaders was followed by a shorter but far more destructive war with the Mongols and Turkic peoples displaced from the Central Asian steppes by the Mongol irruption. The Seljuk Turks, initially a military slave caste that fought for the Aabbasid Caliphate, had long since become the real power behind the throne, and now they had inherited a disintegrating realm. After 500 years and more of a unified Islamic empire which had reached heights of centralized power, culture, learning and wealth, the Caliphate (although continuing to exist in name) has collapsed into fragmented mini-states divided by sectarian strife.
The two main factions were the Sunnis and Shi’ites, but even within these broad tendencies various sects vied—Hanafis, Hanbalis, Ismailis, Kharijites. Each claimed their teachings to be the only true Islam, and seas of blood were spilled over the narrowest of doctrinal distinctions—a symptom of the general social breakdown. Local communities were run by the ulema, the body of scholars (mullahs). As long as they had local control and sharia law was enforced, the mullahs would play along with whatever faction was in power and provide young men to fight. Doctrinal rigidity, therefore, actually abetted the general disintegration.
And yet within a century, three new Islamic empires had emerged onto the world scene, and become new centers of commerce, learning and political power. The Arab world was no longer the imperial center, but the empires of the Ottoman Turks, Safavid Persia and the Moghuls of India would survive into modern times.
How did this come to pass? Zakaria credits the sufis, despite the fact that their doctrines were deemed apostasy by the ulema and nearly all of the ruling factions, and they were at times bitterly persecuted.
Sufism, Islam’s mystical tradition, stood in contrast to the ossified ulema. While the ulema split hairs (and the ruling factions split skulls) over doctrinal correctitude, the sufis offered a relaxed attitude towards form and ritual, emphasizing instead spiritual experience. The mullahs of the ulema declared that the “doors of ijtihad (free-thinking or interpretation) were closed,” and that taqlid (imitation or precedent) should rule in daily life; the sufis bypassed the debate, holding that good behavior should arise through direct experience of jabarut, or divine power. While the mullahs proscribed music and dance, the principal sufi ritual was the zikr (or dhikr)—literally “recital,” but often incorporating use of vigorous rhythmic chanting (hal) and movement to achieve a trance-like state. While the mullahs prohibited alcohol, the sufi poets often used wine as a metaphor for this state of mystical intoxication Despite the best efforts of the mullahs, the sufis attracted wide followings.
In a world of war, their often remote sanctuaries were refuges of peace. Their asceticism and simple piety were also attractive following a long period of decadence. The word “sufi” comes from the name of their tradition in Arabic, tasawuf, which in turn comes from the word su’f, or wool—a reference to their coarse woolen garments. Their basic social unit was the halka, or “circle,” a small group of brethren around a particular teacher.
In the declining years of the Caliphate, the great jurist Ghazali (1058-1111), a Persian of Central Asian birth who had become Baghdad’s most respected scholar, had sought a rapprochement between the sufis and the ulema. In his work The Savior From Error, he wrote, in a clear and courageous criticism of the ulema, that “those who are so learned about rare forms of divorce can tell you nothing about the simple things of spiritual life, such as the meaning of sincerity towards God or truth in Him.” In the implicit truce which was accepted as a result of his work, the mullhas took responsibility for maintaining form and ritual, and punishing transgressors, while the sufis concerned themselves with spiritual uplift.
The sufis were aloof from the palace intrigues and factional jockeying which were endemic in the long decay of the Abbasids. (In one grimly hilarious episode in the ninth century, the Mutazilite schism, which upheld free-thinking and disdained orthodoxy, won over the Caliph Mamun; those who dissented from the doctrine of free-thinking were purged, imprisoned and tortured!) By disdaining riches and power, rather than vying for them, the sufis won a unique moral authority.
While many sufis claim their tradition goes back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed, the first sufi is generally held to be Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), who actually waged public campaigns against corruption in high places in Baghdad. A famous saying attributed to him is: “He that knoweth God loveth him, and he that knoweth the world abstaineth from it.”
The second great sufi, disciple of the first and also of Basra, was a woman—Rabia al-Adawiyyah (d. 801), whose teachings emphasized the power of love. The idea of a woman as spiritual leader was itself an affront to the ulema, and to make matters worse, she was a former slave. Dhul Nunal-Misri (d. 861) was arraigned before Caliph Mutawakkil for espousing the doctrine of irfan—direct knowledge of the divine, usually translated as “gnosis.” Hussain b. Mansur, better known as al-Hallaj, a wool-carder, was accused of heresy and beheaded for his veneration of Jesus and his declaration “I am the truth.” His followers thereafter disavowed—and often defied—all worldly authority. The noted sufi theoretician Yahaya Suhrawardi was executed on the orders of the great Saladin for of his refusal to adhere to orthodoxy. In the face of such repression, some sufis, such as Nuri (d. 907), preached renunciation from the world.
Ghazali himself was forced to flee Baghdad following a political upset and wandered as far west as Egypt. His ideas reached Muslim Spain (ruled by the rival Ummayad Caliphate), where they influenced the jurist and physician Ibn Rushd (known to the West as Averroes) and especially the great sufi scholar and mystic Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1201), who enunciated the doctrine of wilayah (also rendered vilayat, literally “friendship”), identification of human and creator. This non-dualism was mirrored in an even more daring and prescient universalism. Al-Arabi wrote: “Beware of confining yourself to a particular belief and denying all else, for much good would elude you—indeed, the knowledge of reality would elude you. Be in yourself a matter for all forms of belief, for God is too vast and tremendous to be restricted to one belief rather than another.”
When he passed through Baghdad on his pilgrimage to Mecca, these controversial teachings won Arabi an attempt on his life. But his sojourn in Baghdad also afforded Arabi the opportunity to meet Jalaluddin Rumi, the Persian poet and perhaps the best-known of the medieval sufis today. Rumi’s masterwork of mystical poetry, the Masnavi, was held by many to be the “Pahlavi (Persian) Koran”
As sufism’s popularity grew, the schools around various teachers congealed into more formal tarikas, or orders. Ghazali’s disciple Abd al-Qadir Jilani (1077-1166), also known as Ghuath al-Azam or the “Sultan of Saints,” preached in Baghdad and founded the Qadiri Order. As the mullahs meted out death and justified war over perceived heresy, one of Jilani’s aphorisms was “Never accuse anyone of religious infidelity.” His tomb in Baghdad draws thousands of pilgrims annually. So does the tomb of his own disciple Umar al-Suhrawardi (d. 1234), who went on to found the Suhrawardi Order. Another Iraq mausoleum is that of Ahmad al-Rifa’i (d. 1183), founder of the Rifa’i Order (the Howling Dervishes). Abd al-Qadir’s own disciple Shuayab Abu Madyan became the patron saint of Algeria. The Naqshbandi Order claims a lineage back to Abu Bakr, the first caliph after the Prophet Mohammed, but its popularity among the Turkic peoples suggests a Central Asian origin, and it was likely brought to Baghdad from Bukhara by the sufi Abdul Khaliq al-Ghujdawani (d. 1179). Abu Hanifa (699-767), the founder of one of the four great schools of Sunni thought (Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafii), is held by many to also be founder of the Banna Order (the Builders), which the 20th-century scholar Idries Shah links to the origins of the Masons. Hanifi certainly propounded an activist doctrine: “Practice your knowledge, for knowledge without practice is a body without life.”
Writes Rafiq Zakaria: “It is paradoxical that though these sufis refused to bow down to authority, their teachings made the task of governments, especially in states with mixed ethnic and religious populations, much easier. Had it not been for the environment of peace, goodwill and mutual understanding that they generated, Islam would not have become so readily acceptable to non-Muslims nor would Muslim rulers have been able to run their administrations as peacefully as they did.”
This paradox became even more the case after the collapse of the Abbasids, when the very survival of Islam seemed in doubt. But the conquered converted the conquerors, and the Mongols, who had been the scourge of Islam, became patrons of Islam under the Il-Khan dynasty in Persia and Iraq and, later, under the Moghuls in India. The sufis served as the bridge that preserved the learning of the Abbasid period for the new empires that arose in Anatolia, Persia and India, bringing “a second youth to Islam”
As the new centers of Islam arose beyond the Arab heartland, it was the missionary work of sufis rather than the Muslim rulers, which spread the faith. The latter were usually content to collect the jaziya, the special tax imposed on non-believers—which actually became an economic incentive not to convert the conquered. Moreover, the sufis respected indigenous traditions and customs, and even incorporated them into their practice of Islam.
The Persian sufi Abu Yazid (also rendered Bayazid) Bistani (804-874), grandson of a Zoroastrian, traveled from Delhi to Damascus, conversing with scholars of many traditions. The Indian scholar RM Zaehneer has linked Bayazid’s concepts of whadat al-wujud (unity of being) and wahdat al-shuhud (unity of consciousness) with the Vedanta tradition of the Hindu sage Sankara. Bayazid’s concept of fana (“annihilation”—of the ego, in modern terms) has parallels in the Hindu moksha or samadhi, and the Buddhist nirvana.
Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti (1142-1236), founder of the Chishti Order, was a Persian from Khorasan, but settled among the Hindus of Rajasthan. His followers adopted the saffron color of the robes of the Hindu sages for their own coarse robes, and generally interchanged ideas and rituals with and even adopted the habits of the Hindu sadhus (mendicants). Like the sages of the Upanishads, he preached under a tree. He consciously spurned Delhi, seat of the Moghul court, for provincial Rajasthan. His disciple, Khwaja Nizamuddin Aulia, did preach in Delhi, but also shared the spirit of quietistic anarchism. He is purported to have told his devotees: “My room as two doors. If the sultan comes through one door, I leave by the other.”
Nearly a thousand years after Bayazid, the poet and saint Mazhar Jan-i-Janan of Delhi (1699-1781), who was responsible for all the sufi orders—Naqshbandi, Qadiri and Chishti—in India, wrote in a letter to disciple: “You should know that the Merciful Being, in the beginning of creation, sent a book named Ved; this is apparent from the ancient scripture of the Indians. This book is in four parts [Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda] [and is] meant to regulate the duties of the people in this world and the next through the instrumentality of the divine Brahma, who is omnipotent. Now it must be borne in mind that the Koran states: ‘And there is not a people to whom a warner has not been sent’ [35:24]; and further, ‘To every land we have sent a warner’ [25:51] Hence there were prophets in India as in other countries and their accounts are to be found in their books. How could God, the Beneficent, the Merciful, have left out of his grace such an extensive portion of the globe?”
Eventually, the rulers began to see the utility of the sufis in both keeping peace and spreading Islam. While the Qadiris and Chishtis generally remained far removed from the seats of power, the Suhrawardis and Naqshbandis became important advisors to the Moghul and Ottoman courts. The Naqshbandis, or Silent Dervishes (so known for their rejection of the vocal zikr), achieved a kind of officialdom as the favored order of the Ottoman state. Another popular Turkish order are the Mevlevi, the classical “Whirling Dervishes,” thusly known for their ecstatic dance ritual. The Mevlevi are the order most closely associated with Rumi, who is buried in Konya, Turkey.
While sufism was primarily a Sunni phenomenon, there were significant Shi’ite orders as well. The founder of the Shi’ite Safavid dynasty, Shah Ismail, embraced the sufis, although there was a backlash against them in Persia after his death in 1524. The Alevi Order took hold in Anatolia, merging Shia with ancient Turkic traditions from Central Asia. In contrast to the “official” Naqshbandis, the Alevis were more of a popular and rural phenomenon, seeing themselves the “true Turks,” who kept alive indigenous Turkish culture and folklore against the “Arabized” Sunni Ottomans.
Throughout the medieval period there had been twin manifestations of sufism’s disdain for authority: the quietist strain, which sought retreat to remote sanctuaries, and the activist tendency, which consciously challenged authority. In the 19th century, the assaults of modernism and imperialism would force the matter—giving birth to a not only activist but actually militant and revolutionary sufism.
Sufis in the Vanguard of Anti-Imperialist Struggle
After another 500 years of glory, Islam is once again on the decline as this new chapter opens. The Ottoman empire has come to rule over most of the Arab world and still claims to be the new Caliphate, but the court at Constantinople is riven with intrigue between traditionalists and modernizers, and the realm is being eaten away. Algeria falls to the French in 1830 and the far greater prize of Egypt to the British in 1882 (retaining merely nominal Ottoman suzerainty). In Persia, the fall of the Safavids in 1729 leads to a succession of lesser dynasties which allow the country to become a pawn in the imperial “Great Game,” with the south under increasing British control and the north under growing Russian sway. In India, British colonialism has completely supplanted the Moghul empire by 1868. In all cases, wealth and power are flowing out of local and Muslim hands to the new imperial centers of London, Paris, Moscow and other European capitals.
We have noted the irony that militant sufism came into being at the same time as Islamic fundamentalism, which was orthodoxy’s backlash against modernism and imperialism. Initially, as might be expected, the fundamentalist upsurge meant a new wave of attacks on the sufis. When the followers of Sheikh Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92) took power in the Najd, the remote desert interior of the Arabian peninsula—an area claimed but never controlled by the Ottomans—sufism was brutally suppressed, orders banned, shrines and the graves of saints demolished and desecrated. The harshly intolerant Wahhabist doctrine influenced the Deobandi school in India, and the Salafists in the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. This was the groundwork for the contemporary Islamist movement.
Yet by the mid-19th century, there was a confluence of sufism and fundamentalism. The germinal pan-Islamic thinker and activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1837-97)—who agitated against British rule in Egypt and India, and against Western cultural and commercial inroads in Ottoman Turkey—was influenced by both. In India, he called for Muslim-Hindu unity against the British. He bitterly opposed Britain’s favored Muslim leader in India, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who was harshly intolerant of Hindus, accusing him of being a pawn in a divide-and-rule strategy. Although revered by today’s fundamentalists, Afghani in many ways presaged secular nationalism.
But intolerance towards Christianity—the religion of the oppressor—was inevitable, and took a toll on sufi universalism generally, laying the groundwork for the sufi-fundamentalist convergence. Rafiq Zakaria: “It is ironic that the sufis, who were originally so liberal and tolerant towards followers of other faiths, should have been in the forefront of a militant jihad against them. Yet, this was understandable because they feared that the non-Muslims were bent on destroying Islam by taking advantage of the ineptitude and weakness of corrupt Muslim rulers.”
In country after country, fuqara (dervish) armies rose to drive out the colonialists. Degrees of Wahhabi influence varied from none at all to an uneasy alliance of convenience with the fundamentalists to a conscious effort to reconcile and unite the two seemingly opposite tendencies.
The first and most successful of the sufi revolutionaries was Amir Abd al-Qadir (also rendered al-Kader) al-Jazairi (1808-1883), of the Qadiri Order, who from his base in Oran began resisting the French almost immediately upon their 1830 arriveal in Algeria. The French originally saw in him a proxy force to fight the Ottoman Turks and signed treaties granting him wide autonomy over much of the country. His followers proclaimed him Nasir al-Din, champion of the faith, dey of Algeria. France retained real control only over a few coastal enclaves. When Paris realized it had actually lost control of the land it had wrested from the Turks, the treaties were broken and new military campaigns launched. Alas, as the sufi tarikas became military orders, violent factionalism also emerged, and al-Qadir was soon waging a civil war with the rival Tijani, Tayyibi and Darqawa orders. These divisions were skillfully exploited by the French, who especially groomed the Tayyibi of Morocco as a proxy force against al-Qadir. As Tayyibi forces invaded al-Qadir’s realm from the west, French fleets arrived on the coast and colonial troops pressed inland. Fighting on two fronts, al-Qadir was forced to surrender to the French in 1847. It was France’s first counterinsurgency war on foreign soil.
In Sudan, then under Anglo-Egyptian control, Muhammed Ahmad was declared by his followers the Mahdi, or “divinely guided one.” In the 1885 Battle of Khartoum, his dervish army defeated British forces under Gen. Charles Gordon. The Mahdi died unexpectedly in the immediate aftermath of his triumph, but his successor Khalifah ‘Abd Allah (actually proclaimed caliph, as his name implies) ruled an independent sufi state from Omdurman, just across the Nile from Khartoum, and in 1888 even attempted an invasion of Egypt. The rebel state persisted until 1898, when Gen. Horatio Herbert Kitchener led a force of 8,200 British troops and 17,600 Sudanese and Egyptians up the Nile to take the city. For all this, they were still vastly outnumbered by the dervishes, but British automatic artillery won the day, mowing down the waves of sufi horsemen. British rule was restored to the Sudan.
In Somalia, where the British had also extended control, Mohammed Abdullah Hasan of the Salihiyah Order, one of the more puritanical, emulated the Mahdi’s example and launched an insurgency in 1899. Dubbed the “Mad Mullah” by the British, he succeeded in wresting a large area of northern Somalia from their control. The uprising was not put down until Hasan’s death in 1920, when a Royal Air Force squadron recently returned from action in World War I was deployed to bomb the dervish capital at Taleex.
In Libya, the last Ottoman holding in North Africa, Mohammed Ali al-Sanusi (1787-1859), the “Grand Sanusi,” established the Sanusi Order in the 1840s, which also evolved into a military order as protector of the caravan routes, and soon became the real power in the interior, with the Turks controlling only the coast in more than name.
The ferment spread throughout the Maghreb and even into sub-Saharan Africa. In Morocco, where the sultanate fell under growing French sway, the sufi Ahmad Ibn Idris (1760-1837), founder of the Idrisiya Order, attempted to reconcile sufism and Wahhabism.
The Moroccan sufi Ahmad al-Tifani (1737-1815) founded Tifani Order, which spread its message of armed struggle against non-Muslim rulers throughout North and West Africa. The Tifani militant Hajji Umar Tali (1794-1864) founded an Islamic state in Senegal, dispatching the French who had reduced the local rulers to mere proxies. This state survived until the French wrested it from his successors in 1893. Further down the coast, the black sufi Samori Ture founded an Islamic state that extended through much of what is now Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire. It lasted from 1882 until his capture by the French in 1898.
In 1885, the sufi warrior Mohammed Mustafa Ould Sheikh Mohammed Fadel—known as Ma el-Ainin (“Water of the Eyes”)—took up arms to drive the newly-arrived Spanish from Rio de Oro. He fought both the Spanish and French with aid from the Moroccan sultanate. But, angered by perceived Moroccan subservience to the French and insufficient support for his movement, he finally made his own bid for power. In 1910, his supporters rose in Tiznit and declared him sultan; he then marched against Fez, where he was defeated and killed by French forces.
In India, Shah Wali Allah (1702-62) also represented a sufi-Wahhabi convergence. One of his followers, Sayyid Ahmed, launched an insurgency against the British-protected Sikh state in Punjab. In Bengal, Hajji Sharjat Allah (1781-1840), launched an uprising against the newly-arrived British, which was put down with much bloodshed.
The ferment also extended to the Caucasus and Central Asia. The North Caucasus realms of Chechnya and Dagestan had been under official Ottoman rule but effectively independent until the armies of the Czar began their drive for conquest in the 18th century. The Naqshbandi warrior Shaykh Mansur Ushurma declared a jihad and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Russians at the Sunzha River in 1785. He was briefly able to unite much of Chechnya and Dagestan under his rule. Shaykh Mansur’s followers continued their insurgency against the Czarist forces even after his death in prison in 1793. Full-scale armed revolt resumed in 1824, this time under the Naqshbandi Shaykh Imam Shamil, who rebuilt an Islamic state in Chechnya and Dagestan before his capture in 1859.
Peace didn’t last long, but it was Russia’s own intolerance of sufism which broke it. In 1861, a Daghestani shepherd named Kunta Haji Kishiev became the first in the region to embrace the Qadiri order, which, unlike the Naqshbandis, allowed vocal zikr, ecstatic music and dancing. Initially, Kunta Haji counseled peace with the Russians. But as his popularity surged, many veteran fighters from Shamil’s disbanded army fell into his orbit—so alarming the Russians that he was arrested and exiled in 1864. That same year at Shali in Chechnya, Russian troops fired on over 4,000 Qadiri dervishes, killing scores and igniting a fresh wave of violence. Together with the rejuvenated Naqshbandis, the Qadiris rose up against the Romanovs repeatedly, hasrassing Czarist forces in the Caucasus through the Bolshevik Revolution.
In the revolutionary years, a Qadiri-Naqshbandi movement led by Shaykh Uzun Haji battled both the White and the Red armies to create a “North Caucasian Emirate.” The intransigent Uzun Haji—whose tomb remains a pilgrimage site for Chechen Muslims—purportedly said: “I am weaving a rope, to hang engineers, students and in general all those who write from left to right.” His movement was crushed in 1925, but the Soviets, branding the sufis “bandits,” “criminals” and “counter-revolutionaries,” continued to arrest, execute and deport the “zikrists.” In World War II, Stalin accused the sufis of still-unproven collaboration with the Nazis, and in 1944 forcibly relocated six entire Caucasian nationalities, including the Chechen and Ingush, to camps in Central Asia. More than a million Caucasus Muslims were deported.
In Russian-controlled Tartarstan, Bahal Din Vaishi (1804-1893) launched an unarmed and peaceful movement of non-cooperation with the Czarist forces. He was nonetheless arrested, declared insane and interned in an asylum. His followers were deported to Siberia, and many were tortured.
In far Xinkiang, Chinese-ruled Central Asian homeland of the Turkic and Muslim Uighur people, these dynamics were also felt. Naqshbandi sufis led repeated Uighur uprisings from the 1820s onwards against China’s reigning Manchus, who were under the increasing sway of Western and especially British imperialism. Finally, the sufi warrior Yaqub Beg succeeded in driving out the Manchus and establishing an independent Uighur state, dubbed East Turkestan, which lasted for ten years from 1867. A second short-lived Eastern Turkestan Islamic Republic was declared in Kashgar in 1933, and a decade later, a third such republic was proclaimed near Yili, surviving as an autonomous zone loyal to Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang until the Communists took over in 1949. There were precedents elsewhere in China, where Ma Ming-hsin (d. 1781) had launched an Islamic revival movement in the 18th century. In Yunan, the warrior Tu Wenshin, inspired by his teachings, had driven out the Manchus and established a Muslim state, declaring himself “Sultan Sulayman.”
In short, virtually no part of the Islamic world was untouched by the surgence of militant mysticism. But the movement ultimately represented a final rebellion on the part of an old order that was inexorably passing away. The next and ultimately more successful anti-colonialist surgence, especially gaining ground in the post-World War II era, would embrace rather than reject modernity—seeking to harness rationalism and nationalism against the hegemony of the very European societies which had given them birth. Perhaps the key moment of transition was the formal abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 by the Turkish nationalist leader Kemal Ataturk, who came to power after the Ottoman empire collapsed at the end of World War I.
But when nationalism’s successes were sullied by military defeats and political reversals, it would be fundamentalism that would reap the backlash—this time with the Wahhabis in clear ascendance, purged of any taint of sufi apostasy. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was for the Arab nationalists a grave humiliation; for the fundamentalists it was an abomination before God, and the failure of the ruling nationalists to destroy it a sign of their godlessness. Perhaps more intrinsic to the rise of the fundamentalists was the increasing accommodation of the nationalists to the structures of neo-colonialism—the IMF, World Bank and, later, the World Trade Organization—providing a level of social misery and rage for the fundamentalists to harness.
Nationalism vs. Fundamentalism: Post-Sufi Anti-Imperialism
The militant sufi upsurge was waning by the dawn of the 20th century, but it laid an important groundwork for the national liberation struggles of the post-World War II era, and there is often a direct lineage linking the two.
A key turning point was the 1925 Syrian revolt against French mandate rule, which historian Michel Provence sees as the formative moment in the forging of an Arab nationalist consciousness. The revolt began as a Druze uprising in the mountainous hinterland, but was soon joined by the Sunni Arabs of Damascus. As Druze and Bedouin guerillas marched on Damascus from the countryside, a coordinated urban insurrection was organized. The French responded with aerial bombardment of the city. In a key moment in the rise of secular nationalism, the pro-independence forces mobilized brigades to protect the city’s Christian and Jewish enclaves from reprisals. Interestingly, the leader of this effort was Said al-Jazairi, grandson of Amir Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi, the Algerian sufi resistance leader who had been exiled to Ottoman Damascus after surrendering to the French. Wrote the British consul in Damascus: “These Moslem interventions assured the Christian quarters against pillage. In other words it was Islam and not the ‘Protectrice des Chrétiens en Orient’ which protected the Christians in those critical days.”
The revolt was suppressed by the year’s end, and Syria would not gain full independence until 1946. But re-emergent sufi universalism arguably played an important and generally unacknowledged role in the transition to a secular anti-imperialism.
The failed Syrian revolt was a taste of things to come. In 1954, when the revolution against French rule in Algeria was launched, al-Qadir was acknowledged as an important forebear. But the National Liberation Front was socialist and secular; its nominal embrace of Islam was more as a symbol of unifying nationalism, devoid of real religious fervor. Independence was won after a long struggle in 1962. Similarly, the “Mad Mullah” Hasan was looked to as a symbol of national pride when Somalia achieved independence in 1960, without any embrace of his ideology.
The sufis played a more direct role in Libya, which was taken by the Italians in World War I. The Sanusi Order continued to have real control of the desert interior, and in 1917 loaned assistance to the Tuareg revolt against the French in what was then French West Africa to the south. When armed struggle against Italian rule broke out in Libya following Mussolini’s ascension to power in 1922, Sanusi dervishes led the insurgency. After independence in 1952, following a period of joint Anglo-French rule, the head of the Order, Sayyid Amir Mohammed Idris (grandson of the Grand Sanusi) became King Idris I. Col. Mommar Qaddafi’s coup of 1969 brought a distinctive Islamic-tinged Arab nationalism to power, and his followers were also adherents of an anti-monarchist wing of the Order.
In Spanish Sahara, the former Rio del Oro, the heirs of Ma el-Ainin fought on into the 1930s, when they were finally subdued by combined French and Spanish forces. Resistance re-emerged as the struggle for Algerian independence was intensifying in 1958. That year, the French intervened to back up Spanish forces with air power in crushing a rebellion by Sahrawi desert tribes. But veterans of that struggle passed the torch to the Polisario Front, which launched its guerilla struggle against the Spanish in 1973. (Now known as Western Sahara, the territory was occupied by Morocco when Spain pulled out in 1975, and is considered Africa’s last colony.)
At least from 1926, when Abd al-Aziz b. al-Saud united most of the Arabian peninsula under his rule as Saudi Arabia and imposed Wahhabism as the state religion, through the mid-1960s, the struggle in the Islamic world appeared to be between Western-backed conservative monarchs (who made oil available on relatively easy terms) and modernizing, secular nationalists—who tilted to the Soviet Union, sought to nationalize oil resources and tended to be OPEC “price hawks,” seeking to use petro-dollars for programs of social uplift. But the perceived failure of the nationalists would redefine the terms of the struggle.
The case of Iran is instructive. When the popularly elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq nationalized the British-owned oilfields in 1952, British intelligence and the CIA organized a coup that ousted him and restored the Shah to near-absolute power. The conservative and authoritarian US-backed monarchy persisted until Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution of 1979—which installed an even more conservative and authoritarian but bitterly anti-US fundamentalist state, in which the mullahs had veto power over all legislation. This was the first contemporary Islamist state—but something of a special case due the official supremacy of Shia in Iran.
It was Egypt that really set the template for the new struggle. In 1952, a nationalist military coup ousted the monarchy that had been installed thirty years earlier. A republic was established and in 1954 Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as its uncontested leader. In 1956, he seized Suez Canal from the joint British/French company that controlled it, precipitating war with Israel. That same year he granted independence to Sudan, which had remained under lingering joint Anglo-Egyptian rule. Nasser turned to USSR for aid following a break with the West, and became a leader of the world non-aligned movement. In 1958, he united (albeit briefly) with Syria to form a United Arab Republic. That same year a Nasser-inspired revolution unseated the British-installed monarchy in Iraq. Many others would emulate (and envy) Nasser, including Libya’s Qaddafi.
However, within Egypt, contradictions were becoming evident in his system. Nasser’s rule was periodically confirmed by election, but he consolidated an authoritarian political machine. Islamist opposition emerged, influenced by Wahhabi/Salafist fundamentalism; Sayyid Qutb, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, was executed in an alleged plot on Nasser’s life in 1966. Nasser charged—perhaps with reason—that the Muslim Brotherhhod was being covertly aided by the CIA to undermine his regime. But Qutb would become the iconic martyr and, posthumously, the founder of the new Islamist movement.
Renewed war with Israel resulted in loss of Sinai Peninsula in 1967, a bitter humiliation for Nasser and the ideology he represented. Upon Nasser’s death three years later, his heir-apparent Anwar Sadat succeeded to power. A new war on Israel in 1973 failed to win back Sinai, although US-brokered talks following the war lead to an Israeli withdrawal. The 1978 Camp David Agreement resulted in formal peace with Israel. Sadat shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Israel’s Menachem Begin, but Egypt was expelled from Arab League, which moved its headquarters from Cairo. Sadat was assassinated in 1981—symbolically, while overseeing a military parade celebrating the 1973 war (which Egypt officially if illogically claimed as a “victory”). Islamist militants who had succeeded in infiltrating the parade opened fire and hurled grenades as they passed the reviewing stand. In addition to killing the president, they injured 20, including four US diplomats.
Sadat was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, who tilted strongly towards the West. The Islamist opposition gained strength in reaction. Egypt was restored to the now more moderate Arab League in 1989. That same year, a coup d’etat brought the Islamist movement to power in Sudan. Egypt participated in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991. A “dirty war” against an increasingly violent Islamist movement followed. The harsh crackdown saw the use of indefinite detention, military tribunals, torture; hundreds were imprisoned, and over 50 executed. The Islamist movement was largely crushed in Egypt—even as it re-emerged strongly in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In the ’90s, as the Algerian regime turned post-socialist and came to be dominated by a “mafia” of corrupt generals, the new populist mantle was likewise assumed by the Islamic fundamentalists. Their electoral victory in 1992 only prompted the regime to annul the elections and declare military rule—which in turn prompted the Islamists to take up arms, precipitating nearly ten years of civil war in which 200,000 Algerians lost their lives. The struggle in Algeria today is largely one between corrupt post-socialist pseudo-nationalists on one hand and fanatical, reactionary Salafists on the other.
Within Palestine itself, the supplanting of Fatah, the old Palestine Liberation Organization leadership, by the fundamentalist Hamas symbolized the same transition.
History has appeared to be repeating itself in Chechnya over the course of the long and brutal wars which have ensued there since Russia crushed the new separatist state in 1995. Even the feared and honored name Shamil has been resurrected in the rebel warlord Shamil Bassayev, who continues to lead the resistance movement. But unlike his 19th-century namesake, this Shamil embraces hardline Wahhabi fundamentalism, not sufism.
The Uighur separatist movement in Xinkiang has also revived since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) one of the latest additions to the US State Department “foreign terrorist organizations” list. Again influenced by Wahhabism, the ETIM has maintained a low-level insurgency in the region, separatist unrest and Chinese repression fueling each other in a vicious cycle.
India and Pakistan witnessed the potential for a universalist Islamic anti-colonialism in the struggle against British rule, when Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1889-1988), dubbed “Badshah Khan” (the king of chiefs) and the “Frontier Gandhi”, organized non-violent resistance among the Pashtuns of the rugged tribal lands along the Afghan border. A friend and ally of Mohandas Gandhi, he joined him in championing Muslim-Hindu unity and opposing India-Pakistan partition after independence was won in 1947. But of course it was separatism that won the day—and so, ultimately, did fundamentalism.
The puritanical Deobandi school gave rise to the Jamiat-i-Islami (Society of Islam) founded by Maulana Maududi (1903-1979) of Hyderabad—who, although said to be a direct descendent of that exemplar of sufi universalism Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, emphasized a harsh and intolerant puritanism. His ideas came to dominate the Islamic resistance in India-controlled Kashmir, sponsored by the Pakistani state—and then, ironically, the increasingly militant opposition within Pakistan itself, including the contemporary resistance to Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship.
Maududi’s ideas also held sway over the Jamiat-i-Islami militia in Afghanistan, the powerful ethnic Tajik wing of the Mujahedeen insurgency that resisted the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s, with massive aid from the CIA. It was during this long campaign that Osama bin Laden, the contemporary face of the jihad, arrived on the scene, organizing a clearing-house for Mujahedeen volunteers from throughout the Islamic world in Peshawar, the Pakistani city from where the insurgency was coordinated.
It should be noted that among the profusion of sectarian and ethnic militia that made up the Mujahedeen, there were two that were led by sufis—the National Islamic Front, led by Pir Sayed Gailani of the Qadiri Order; and the Afghanistan National Liberation Front, led by Sibghatollah Mojadeddi of the Naqshbandi Order. Gailani was a loyalist of the exiled king, Zahir Shah—which by the standards of 1980s Afghanistan made him a moderate, practically a liberal. Mojadeddi was briefly appointed interim president by Rabbani when the Russian-backed regime fell and the Mujahedeen took Kabul, the capital, in 1992—but he was shortly removed for confronting Rabbani over human rights abuses. Rabbani, of course, subsequently arranged to have himself declared president by the victorious warlords in an Islamic Jihad Council. Both Gailani’s and Mojadeddi’s factions were, predictably, isolated by the Mujahedeen’s American, Saudi and Pakistani underwriters, and therefore remained marginal. The dominant factions—principally the Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami and the Pashtun Hezbi-Islami—embraced unrestrained brutality and rigid fundamentalism.
The Mujahedeen factions quickly collapsed into civil war, with the Jamiat-i-Islami clinging precariously to power in Kabul. In 1994, the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban, which recruited among the teeming Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, invaded the country, pledging to restore order. Adhering to the strictest interpretation of Wahhabism yet witnessed, the Taliban took Kabul after a two-year war. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia recognized the Taliban regime, alone among the world’s nations. Where the medieval sufis had sought links between Islam and Buddhism, the Taliban denounced as idolatry and ordered destroyed the giant stone Buddhas of Bamiyan—world cultural treasures dating to the Greco-Buddhist Kushan empire (130-420 CE). All music, dance and (of course) sufism were harshly suppressed.
But it was only the 9-11 attacks that prompted the US to intervene. Washington once again turned to the Jamiat-i-Islami and its leader Burhanuddin Rabbani as proxies—this time against the Taliban. Rabbani, still officially recognized as Afghanistan’s president by the UN, now emerged as leader of a loose federation of warlords, the Northern Alliance, which, backed up by US air-strikes and special forces, drove the Taliban from power.
On Dec. 1, 2001, the New York Times ran a photo of Naqshbandi dervishes dancing ecstatically at a Kabul shrine for the first time in years. But the Jamiat-i-Islami and its Northern Alliance partners only seemed liberal by comparison; the situation for women, Shi’ites, secularists and sufis alike would improve but marginally in “liberated” Afghanistan. The showdown between the Taliban and Northern Alliance revealed how degraded the struggle in the Islamic world had become: the conflict was now fundamentalist versus fundamentalist.
This whole horrid history now seems to be repeating itself in Somalia, which has been without an official government since the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed in 1991. In June 2006, after 15 years of nightmarish warlord violence, an ultra-fundamentalist cleric-led militia, the Islamic Courts Union, seized power in the capital, Mogadishu. The warlords, in turn, have banded together in an Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism—a name obviously chosen in bid for support from the West. The bid seems to be working, as newspaper accounts indicate the warlord alliance has been receiving aid from the CIA. Upon taking the capital, the Islamic Courts Union elected a new leader—Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is officially listed as an al-Qaeda suspect by the US State Department.
US troops in neighboring Djibouti have been poised for action in Somalia since the 9-11 aftermath, when the State Department added a Somalia-based group, al-Itihad al-Islamiya, to its official list of terrorist organizations. The US appears to be again playing sides in an intra-fundamentalist civil war. Few have noted that the atmosphere also seems to have given rise to ascetic Islamic movements that reject coercion and militarism. A 2002 overview of Somali factions in Janes Defense Weekly noted that one “leading Islamic group in the country is the Pakistan-based Tabliq. This group recruits missionaries willing to espouse strict adherence to the Islam of the Koran. In Somalia, these wandering preachers have not engaged in any militant activities, and are widely perceived as something akin to pacifists.”
The most ghastly irony is, not surprisingly, in Iraq. Saddam Hussein, whatever his real and horrific abuses (and acts of genocide against the Kurds and Shi’ites), represented to many a last hold-out of intransigent but secular Arab nationalism until his ouster in the US invasion of March 2003. Today, his Ba’ath Party may play some small role in the armed resistance against the US occupation in Iraq, but it has overwhelmingly been supplanted by the fundamentalist jihadis. The US is backing a regime led by Shi’ite fundamentalists against an insurgency of Sunni fundamentalists. Having invaded Iraq in the name of a “war on (Islamic) terrorism”, it has (if unwittingly) turned Iraq precisely into a haven for Islamist terrorism.
The Contemporary Struggle
Scholars generally view sufism as a quaint and irrelevant anachronism in the contemporary world. J. Spencer Trimingham wrote in his classic work, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford 1973): “The older sections in a changing society feel a nostalgic longing for elements of the past. The poetry and humanism of a Rumi influence many new men too. But these must be placed within the whole setting of the secularization of society. These are ‘survivals’ from an old way of life; they are no longer the ruling forces in men’s lives.”
But Trimingham could not have anticipated the voluble fundamentalist reaction against secularism which the Islamic world has witnessed since he wrote those words. Sufism, like related deep-rooted doctrines of Islamic universalism, is under violent attack by ascendant fundamentalism today. Meanwhile, a vulgar Islamophobia holds ever-greater sway in the West, especially represented in the US by the so-called “neocons” who have charted the Bush administration’s hyper-imperialist adventures. While spectacular jihadist attacks in New York, London and Madrid make global headlines, the far more frequent manifestations of what is essentially a violent struggle within Islam are buried in the back pages.
On March 19, 2005, up to 50 worshippers were left dead and twice as many wounded in a bomb blast at a shrine to the 19th-century sufi saint Pir Rakhel Shah at Gandhawa in Pakistan’s conflicted province of Baluchistan. The bomb went off as pilgrims at the shirne had lined up for a meal and were being served food. Although the shrine is at a Shi’ite mosque, it is revered by Sunnis as well. The explosion left a two-foot-deep crater at the shrine. Thousands of pilgrims who had arrived to commemorate the death of the saint fled the area, overwhelming local bus service. “Everyone comes here, even Hindus. There is no distinction here between a Shi’ite and a Sunni,” said the shrine’s caretaker, Syed Sadiq Shah. “God’s curse be on those who did this. They have killed innocent people.”
On May 27, 2005, at least 25 were left dead and some 200 wounded in a suicide bombing at the Bari Imam sufi shrine at Nurpur village outside Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Thousands of devotees were attending the last day of a five-day festival at the time of the explosion. Worshippers had been waiting for a prominent Shi’ite cleric to address the gathering when the bomb went off. “Today was the annual festival of Bari Imam. Devotees had come from all over Pakistan. Shi’ites and Sunnis were praying together. As soon as prayers started, there was a blast. Many devotees were martyred and many more injured,” said Qamar Haider, a Shi’ite imam.
The popular shrine to Bari Imam, who helped bring Islam to region in the 17th century, is visited by both Shi’ites and Sunnis and has traditionally been seen as a symbol of harmony between the two communities. But both sects claim the shrine, which has been controlled by Sunnis for the past two decades, and it had recently been subject to growing tensions. The Sunni custodian of the shrine and two other people were shot dead near the compound in February 2005.
The urs, or festival, marked the death anniversary of Bari Imam, who was born Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi in 1617 in Jhelum, and traveled widely to learn with scholars of various schools, visiting Kashmir, Badakhshan, Bukhara, Mashhad, Baghdad, Damascus and Mecca. His spiritual master Hayat-al-Mir (Zinda Pir) gave him the title of Bari Imam. He went on to convert thousands of Hindus to Islam, and the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir is said to have come there to pay respects at at Nurpur. Bari Imam died in 1705 and was buried at Nurpur Shahan, where his urs is held every year with great fervor.
The sufi shrines are likely targeted precisely because they are venerated by Sunnis and Shi’ites alike in a Pakistan, which has witnessed a bloody dialectic of terror between Sunni and Shi’ite fundamentalists. In October 2004, 36 were killed in a car-bomb attack on a Sunni congregation in Multan, Punjab province. A bombing of a Shi’ite mosque in Sialkot, Punjab, earlier that month killed 19 people. In March 2004, 46 were killed and 160 injured in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province, in an attack on Shi’ite pilgrims. Gunmen sprayed bullets and lobbed grenades at crowds of pilgrims gathered in the city for celebrations of Ashura, marking the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. In April 2002, a bomb exploded near midnight at a Shi’ite mosque at Bukker, Punjab, killing 12 worshipers, all of them women and children. The explosion went off in the women’s section of the mosque, where thousands of Shi’ites had gathered from around the country for the Ashura festival. In February 2002, 11 were killed when gunmen fired on worshipers at a Shi’ite mosque in the northern city of Rawalpindi.
The sectarian violence continues. In February 2006, a suicide bomber struck in Hangu, near the Afghanistan border, at a festival marking the opening of the Ashura holy period, triggering a riot that left the town in flames and leaving a total of at least 37 dead. In neighboring Afghanistan that same week, hundreds of Shi’ites and Sunnis clashed in the western city of Herat, hurling grenades and burning mosques. At least five people were killed and 51 wounded.
Nor is the sectarian strife confined to Pakistan. The Ashura celebrations in Iraq occasioned massacres in 2005, when a string of suicide attacks left 74 worshippers dead, and in 2004, when over 140 pilgrims were killed in attacks by suicide bombers and gunmen with mortars and grenades at the Karbala shrine to Imam Hussein. By 2006, terror attacks on Shi’ite civilians at public markets and shirnes had become a nearly daily affair, inevitably sparking retaliatory attacks on Sunni civilians—including by elements of the official security forces, which heavily overlap with the Shi’ite fundamentalist Badr militia. The violence reached a climax in the February 22, 2006 explosion that destroyed the gold-domed sanctuary at Samarra that holds the tombs of two of Shia’s 12 imams, the 10th, Ali al-Hadi, and the 11th, Hadi al-Askari. Since then, of course, the sectarian carnage has only escalated.
There have been some glimmers of hope. In a gesture of goodwill, Sunnis in Samarra organized brigades and went to work to help rebuild the Golden Mosque in the wake of the attack. There have also been joint Sunni-Shi’ite protests calling for unity against the US occupation. But such gestures require ever-greater courage in the escalating atmosphere of sectarian hatred.
Sufis, of course, are also coming under attack in Iraq. On June 2, 2005, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a gathering of sufis north of Baghdad, killing 10 and injuring at least 12. The attack took place at a house in the village of Saud, near the northern town of Balad as the dervishes gathered for zikr. Ahmed Hamid, a sufi witness, told the AP: “I was among 50 people inside the tekiya [sufi gathering place] practicing our rites when the building was hit by a big explosion. Then, there was chaos everywhere and human flesh scattered all over the place.”
In Iran, which appears to be next in US imperialism’s crosshairs, sufism is also under attack. On Feb. 13, 2006, security forces in the Iranian holy city of Qom used fired tear gas to break up a gathering of sufi followers who had converged in front of their house of worship to prevent its destruction by the authorities. Up to 1,000 were arrested. Officials said the sufis had illegally turned a residential building into their tekiya, and had refused to evacuate it. They also charged that some of the dervishes were armed with knives and stones. But representatives of the dervishes denied the accusations, asserting they were targeted due to the increasing popularity of sufism. The regime did not fail to imply the sufis were agents of imperialism. Qom’s governor Abbas Mohtaj told the newspapers: “The arrogant powers are exploiting every opportunity to create insecurity in our country and [the sufis’] links to foreign countries are evident.” The previous September, Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani openly called for a clampdown on the sufis of Qom, calling them a “danger to Islam.”
In the North Caucasus, sufis are caught between both sides in the ongoing war—although there are recent signs of change. On May 24, 2006, the New York Times carried a story on the revival of the Kunta-Haji sufis in Chechnya—with the unlikely encouragement of the Russian authorities. The writer attended a zikr at a newly-opened mosque named for Akhmad Kadyrov, the Russian-backed Chechen president who was assassinated in 2004. The reporter could not refrain from a condescending description of dervishes’ chanting as “grunts,” but correctly noted in the headline that the sufi revival has “unclear implications.” In an implicit acknowledgement that their harsh repression of Islam in the North Caucasus is backfiring, the Russian authorities are embracing the indigenous peaceful sufi tradition as an alternative to the violently intransigent Wahhabism imported from the Arab world. But this could also backfire—as the sufis themselves likewise seek independence from Russia, even if they aren’t willing to blow up civilians to achieve it. Meanwhile, the fact that they are now tolerated by the Russians will leave them open to the inevitable charge of collaboration.
Other Islamic tendencies with ethics of peace and universalism are meeting with repression in the growing atmosphere of intolerance. In January 2004, the government of Bangladesh banned all publications of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat, an unorthodox Islamic sect—one day before the deadline of an ultimatum by fundamentalists to declare the sect “non-Muslim.” The demands came from the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), a partner in the government’s ruling coalition, and its affiliated Hifazate Khatme Nabuwat Andolon (HKNA), fundamentalist organizations that consider the Ahmadiyya movement heretical. Abdul Awal of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Bangladesh, said: “We are shocked. The government has bowed down to religious terrorists.” IOJ/HKNA calls for Ahmadiyya mosques to be shut down, and is accused of contributing to an atmosphere of terror. On Oct. 8, 1999, a time bomb exploded at the Ahmadiyya mosque in Nirala during Friday juma prayers, leaving seven worshippers dead and 27 injured. Sale, publication, distribution and posession of Ahmadiyya literature was banned under the new decree. “The ban was imposed in view of objectionable materials in such [Ahmadiyya] publications which hurt or might hurt the sentiments of the majority Muslim population of Bangladesh,” said a Home Ministry press release—although the government stopped short of actually declaring the Ahmadiyyas “non-Muslims.”
The Ahmadiyyas are regarded as heretics by orthodox Islam because they believe their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet—contradicting the orthodox dogma that Mohammed was last prophet. Additionally, their teachings see links to other faiths, rather than rejecting them as mere infidelity. Ahmadiyyas hold that the Lost Tribes of Israel are the contemporary Afghans (Pashtuns), and that Jesus survived the crucifixion, resumed his ministry after escaping to the East and is buried in Srinagar, Kashmir. Like the medieval Chishtis, they also view the Hindu Vedas as divine scriptures, seeing a concordance between many Vedic and Koranic verses. Their spiritual leader Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, fourth successor to their prophet, died in 2003 in London, where he had been exiled since in 1984 because of government persecution in his native Pakistan.
Iran’s Bahai religious minority report that the government has intensified a campaign of arrests, raids and propaganda aimed at eradicating their faith in the country of its birth. On May 19, 2006 in Shiraz, 54 Bahais who were involved in a community service project were arrested, many of them in their teens and early 20s. They were mostly released without charge days later. It was the largest mass arrest of Bahais since the 1980’s, when thousands were imprisoned and more than 200 were executed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime.
Bahais also face persecution elsewhere in the Islamic world. In May 2006, judicial authorities in Egypt overturned a ruling to allow official recognition of the Bahai faith. Dubious charges of Bahai background were recently used against Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas by his political opponents.
With an ethic of universalism which holds that all faiths and prophets are derived from the same divine source and that humanity is evolving towards world unity, the pacifistic Bahais are successors to the Baba movement declared in 1844 by Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-1850), also known as the Bab (the gate). Declaring himself a prophet, the Bab was executed on orders of the Shah, and many of his followers, known as Babis, were massacred. The Baba movement evolved into Bahai when Husayn-Ali (1817-92), the Bab’s successor, declared himself Baha-Ullah, or “The Glory of God,” in 1852. Baha-Ullah also faced long years of prison and exile, but his followers brought the faith to Europe and America, and it now claims five million followers worldwide.
Another schism viewed as heretical by jihadis are the Ismaili Shi’ites. A scion of the sect’s hereditary leadership, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, was a leader in what is called the “international community,” and held to a higher ethical standard than many of such privilege. A descendent of the Prophet Mohammed and a wealthy private philanthropist, he held several UN humanitarian posts, and died in May 2003 at the age of 70 in Boston. He was both the youngest and longest-serving UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and spearheaded UN responses to the wars in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Uganda at the UNHCR. He also headed humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan from 1988 to 1990, and following Operation Desert Storm. Holding French, Swiss and Iranian passports, and considered himself a “citizen of the world,” and his famous motto was to keep a “cool head and warm heart without getting cold feet.” Sadruddin was son of Sultan Mohammed Shah, or Aga Khan III—spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims—and later became the uncle of Karim Aga Khan IV, the current Ismaili leader.
But even as Prince Sadruddin tread the corridors of power, Ismailis in remote parts of Central Asia and Afghanistan faced persecution and far worse. In Afghanistan’s remote and mountainous central Bamiyan province, the Hazara ethnicity—said to be the descendents of a remnant of Genghis Khan’s Mongol army—constitute one of the world’s largest Ismaili populations, and were, of course, targeted for extermination by the Taliban. Some 20,000 Hazaras are believed to have been massacred as heretics under the Taliban, and over 100 mass graves were exhumed in Bamiyan after the Taliban’s fall. But Hazaras still face a precarious situation. Hazara warlords resisted Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani when he was president in the mid-1990s. Hazara militias later joined the fractious Northern Alliance against the Taliban, but also battled the Northern Alliance’s Tajik and Uzbek militias—who now control northern Afghanistan. It should also be said that whatever the liberal proclivities of Prince Sadruddin, the Hazara militia Hizb-i-Wahdat generally shared the Mujahedeen’s brutal and reactionary consensus.
The Ismailis of Pakistan are in a particularly ironic position. They inhabit Hunza, Gilgit and Baltistan—Himalayan enclaves, now collectively known as the “Northern Areas,” that India charges were arbitrarily separated from Kashmir by Pakistan so as to exclude them from negotiations over the divided territory. Pakistan, in turn, maintains it did so to give these enclaves local autonomy in response to the desires of the populace, who are ethnically and religiously distinct. Bizarrely, Hindu nationalist publications and websites (and, we may assume, political groups) are supporting Ismailis in the Northern Areas who, not content with autonomy, seek actual independence from Pakistan. The Ismaili separatists call the Northern Areas “Balawaristan,” and hope to establish it as an independent nation. The Ismaili separatist struggle hasn’t reached the point of open war, but it is headed in that direction. January 2005 saw deadly riots in Gilgit following an armed atttack on a local Ismaili leader that left him wounded and his two bodyguards dead. This is definitely a case of strange bedfellows: Hindu nationalists supporting Islamic separatists because they share a common enemy in Pakistan. The Ismaili separatists of Balawaristan should beware that they could easily outlive their usefulness to the Hindu nationalists: if they ever achieve their aim of an independent state, the inclusion of the Northern Areas in negotiations over the future of Kashmir would be a more remote possibility than ever.
The Ismailis differ from mainstream Shia in recognizing seven imams (or successors to the Prophet) rather than twelve, and waged a resistance struggle against the caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad for centuries before establishing their own caliphate under Egypt’s Fatimid dynasty in 909. The Ismaili Fatimids led the struggle against the Crusaders until being overthrown by Saladin’s Sunni armies in 1171. In addition to Bamiyan and “Balawaristan,” small Ismaili communities survive throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and India.
Turkey’s Eastern Anatolia, long the scene of a brutal counterinsurgency war against the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is home to a profusion of small ethno-religious minorities—who reject either Turkish or Kurdish identity, and see themselves as caught between both sides. Among these are the Yazidis, whose highly esoteric beliefs contain echoes of Zoroatrianism, Manichaeism and Gnositicism. They have fared poorly in the war, which has been at a lower level since the capture of the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. There were 22,632 Yazidis in Turkey by official count in 1985; today there are 432. The Yazidis were especially singled out for terror by Turkish Hezbollah, an armed Islamist group that was groomed by the Turkish state as a proxy force against the PKK.
Yazidi leaders still protest that their children are forced to study Islam in school by local village authorities—that a practice a letter of protest posted to the Internet charges is part of the “Turkish state’s assimilating policy against other ethnic and religious groups in general and Ezidis [sic] in particular.” The writers charged: “The Turkish state is demanding many cultural rights for Turkish citizens who are living in Europe including religion, mother tongue courses etc. On the other hand, it is not allowing any rights for Kurds, Ezidi Kurds, Alevi Kurds or any Christian groups living within the borders of Turkey. So, how can the Turkish state integrate with the modern world?”
The Yazidis sect was established by a 12th-century Lebanese-born Arab mystic, Sheikh Adi Musafir. They have traditionally been derided by their Muslim neighbors as “devil-worshippers,” although it is more accurate to say that they revere angels—as discussed by the famous Greek-Armenian mystic GI Gurdjieff in his autobiographical Meetings With Remarkable Men. They are mostly ethnic and linguistic Kurds, and their heartland largely overlaps with that of the Kurds, straddling eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. The largest Yazidi town of Bashiqa and holy site of Lalish (where Sheikh Adi is buried) are both near Mosul in Iraq.
The Yazidi sect is led by an hereditary prince and has no written text, but keeps its historical memories alive through elaborate rituals interwoven into daily life. These rituals especially recall centuries of bloody campaigns to exterminate the sect by the Ottoman Turkish authorities. The Yazidis eat no lettuce in remembrance of massacres carried out by Turkish troops in the lettuce fields that covered much of northern Iraq in the 19th century, and the wearing of blue is taboo during religious festivals in remembrance of the uniforms of Ottoman military units.
The Alevi sufis of Eastern Anatolia are both Turkish and Kurdish, but recently many so-called “Alevi Kurds” have been rejecting that label, asserting a distinct ethnic and linguistic identity, the Zaza. In 1917, the Zaza took up arms against the Turks and briefly declared an independent state. Resurgent Zaza ethno-nationalists are seeking to rebuild an independent Zazaistan in the area of Erzurum and Sivas. The Zaza are generally known to historians as the Qizilbashi (“red-heads”), a Turkish pejorative. In the long wars between the Ottoman empire and Persia, the Qizilbashi served as mercenaries for the Safavid shahs against their mutual Turkish enemy. The Zaza/Qizilbashi began their career as a semi-autonomous martial caste for the Persian empire when they revolted against the Ottomans, expelling them from their lands. The Ottoman-Safavid border went back and forth through their territory over the centuries, and some of the Zaza/Qizilbashi seem to resettled in Persia when their homeland was re-taken by the Turks. The British later inherited this tribal fighting force as Persia fell under their influence in the nineteenth century, and moved them still further east for imperial policing in Afghanistan. There are still scattered Qizilbashi communities in Afghanistan, left over from the Anglo-Afghan Wars—and because of their historical association with the British they have faced persecution.
Some contemporary Zaza of Anatolia consider themselves the inheritors of the ancient Sassanids—the last great Zoroastrian dynasty of ancient Persia (c. 100-637 CE), which briefly extended its rule to Jerusalem and Egypt before being overrun by the Arabs under Caliph Umar. The modern Zaza language is closer to Kurdish than Persian, but the ethno-linguistic differentiation may have been less advanced in the Sassanid period. The postulated cognate relation between Zaza and Sassa-nid bears further study.
It is instructive to note that these submerged peoples are equally threatened by nationalism (Turkish, Kurdish or Arab) and fundamentalism (Sunni or Shi’ite), as well as by the very globalization the fundamentalists ostensibly reject. Whether they realize it or not—and many doubtless do—they are part of a struggle for the soul and future of the Islamic world. The dead of 9-11 were ultimately casualties of this same struggle.
There is really a three-way civil war underway throughout the Islamic world. The three inter-related conflicts are: 1.) Sunni v. Shia, 2.) fundamentalism v. secularism, and 3.) national liberation v. imperialism. The sad irony is that it is the social iniquities that underly this last contradiction that provide the raw material of endemic rage—which is increasingly exploited, siphoned off as it were, into the prior two. Fundamentalists conflate secularism and imperialism (given a propaganda boost by their neocon enemies, who do likewise), and pose the only alternative as a purified, hegemonic Islam which must, of course, crush internal heresy.
A further tragic irony is that sufism, once in the vanguard of anti-imperialist struggle, is now rejected as heresy or, worse still, conflated with imperialism by the new jihadis.
From its origins, sufism was a populist tradition that drew the disaffected who distrusted the leaders of the day as too worldly and corrupt, and sought something more spiritually pure. In its embrace of local and even pre-Islamic traditions, it arguably represented a certain proto-universalism, even pro-secularism. The contemporary Indian spiritual thinker Maulana Wahiduddin Khan actually traces the roots of the Western Enlightenment to the Islamic revolution of the seventh century, in which the successors of the Prophet overthrew the shirk (idolatry) of the absolutist Persian and Byzantine empires. The possibly pseudonymous American writer Hakim Bey has even credited sufism with a kind of proto-anarchism, in its extreme suspicion of and often outright opposition to authority, both political and religious.
Sufism continued to be a wellspring of populist sentiment right through the anti-colonialist struggles—yet somewhere along the way, the situation was reversed. Today it is Wahhabism—ironically, the official state doctrine of that most worldly and wealthy of all the Muslim states, Saudi Arabia—which has assumed the mantle of populism and resistance. All over the Islamic world, the disaffected flock to Wahhabism and related doctrines as the alternative to the corruption of official leaders and their supine stance before imperialism and globalization. And because imperialism and globalization have appropriated the mantles of secularism, pluralism, tolerance, universalism—these are also being rejected. This final reality has much to say about why it is Wahhabism rather than sufism that now provides the wellspring of resistance.
Is the situation reversible? The glimmers of hope lie in the possibilities for the de-coupling of the notions of imperialism and universalism. Contrary to current depressing dogmas of global polarization, a “clash of civilizations,” indigenous Islamic dissidence to both fundamentalism and imperialism does exist. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan rejects the terrorist “jihad” as fasad (error, illegitimacy) and poses a “true jihad” of non-violent activism that embraces rather than rejects pluralism.
Progressive in the West can aid this de-coupling by loaning solidarity to threatened indigenous traditions and micro-ethnicities. Instead, too many so-called “progressives” have been led into an idiotic and unseemly tail-ending of the very fundamentalist jihadis who would love to exterminate them as apostate Marxists and feminists. The equal and opposite error is to view the brave new ultra-imperialists as the lesser evil, neo-Napoleons bringing the light of modernity by military force—and the body-count be damned.
Further challenges lie in the possibilities for remnant secular left forces in the Middle East to build broad fronts against both imperialism and fundamentalism—fronts that could include dissident and liberatory Islamic currents. And, finally, in the possibilities for the re-emergence of a political, activist sufism—this time allied with secularism rather than fundamentalism, but equally clear in its anti-imperialism.
These admittedly look like long shots. But the only alternative, ultimately, is apocalypse.
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From our weblog:
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“Yazidis in the news,” April 9, 2005
“Pakistan: more sectarian terror,” May 27, 2005
“Iraqi ‘resistance’ blows up Sufis,” June 3, 2005
“Hindu nationalists support Pakistan’s Ismaili separatists,” July 6, 2005
“Next: Free Zazaistan?” Sept. 26, 2005
“Ashura violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan,” Feb. 10, 2006
“Iraq: Samarra’s al-Askari dome destroyed,” Feb. 22, 2006
“Iraq: another Shi’ite shirne bombed,” Feb. 27, 2006
“Iran: police attack women’s day march, crack down on Sufis,” March 14, 2006
“Chechen Sufi revival–between Russian occupation and Wahhabis,” May 24, 2006
“Iran: Bahais under attack,” June 1, 2006
“Somalia: Afghanistan redux?” June 9, 2006
“Al-Qaeda suspect to lead Somalia,” June 25, 2006
“Eastern Anatolia: Iraq’s Next Domino” by Sarkis Pogossian
WW4 REPORT #115, November 2005
“Jihad Revisited” by Hakim Bey
WW4 REPORT #99, June 2004
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, July 1, 2006
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