Apr 24, 2010

Contra Sufism

Aziz Ali Dad

"People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does."

-Michel Foucault

Amar Jaleel wrote a wonderful article 'Antithesis of Sufism' in this newspaper on April 8. He laid bare the hypocrisy of those who pretend to be Sufis but act contrary to the principles of Sufism. But there is another dimension to Sufism, which is what it does to people who sincerely follow its tenets. After the tragedy of 9/11, Sufism is being flaunted as panacea for religious fundamentalism among Muslims. This article is an attempt to explore the issue of repercussions of following Sufism and its viability in addressing the modern age challenges especially when it gets entangled in power relations.

Nobody can deny the role of Sufism in creating syncretistic tradition in Islam by molding itself according to local cultures and practices. Also, mysticism is an essential element of human psyche. Mysticism in Islam helped in spiritual and moral uplift of the community, but it has essentially remained a subjective domain which could not cater to the challenges emanating from objective world or exogenous factors confronted by Islam in its formative phase.

The emergence of the Mu'tazilite school of thought in the eighth century was necessitated by failure of jurists and Sufis of the time to provide rational answers to some philosophical questions. For example, Wasil ibn Ata parted ways from his Sufi mentor Hasan al-Basari on the issue of free will and determination and sought answers in philosophy. By doing so, he paved the way for the first rational school of thought among Muslims – the Mu'tazalites. It was the enquiring mind and intellectual courage of the Mu'tazilites that enabled them to face squarely the intellectual challenges posed by other religious and philosophical schools of thought. Had they remained in the cocoon of Sufism and dogmatic enclosure of clergy, they would not have been able to engage with philosophical questions of their time.

It is a common practice among liberal Muslims to attribute the current intellectual poverty of Muslims to the clerical class. True that the clerics have become thought police, but Sufism is also a culprit to some extent. Historians of Muslim intellectual thought agree that it was Imam Ghazali who ended the conflict between Sufism, scholasticism and jurisprudence and made these acceptable to Muslims by rejecting philosophy and robbing it of legitimacy in the Islamic discourse of knowledge. The Ghazalian standardisation resulted in intellectual impoverishment of Muslims. Although, philosophy survived for a century after Ghazali, it gradually disappeared from Muslim societies.

Philosophy flourishes in a culture of critical reasoning in which people dare to challenge received wisdom. What it means is that when a society has full confidence in itself, it raises questions. Thereby produces philosophy. Those who lack the confidence take refuge in the dogmatic enclosure of orthodoxy and cocoon of mytho-poetic subjectivity of mysticism. Sufism in Islam emerged in a particular historical context. It played an important role in Muslim history, for it provided a framework of meaning for Muslims in the time of crisis. But the current Sufism is shorn off its historical context and cultural ambience. Under the pressure of modernity Sufism lost its organic link and got entangled in the modern power relations. Existence of large number of successor pirs in the political arena testifies it.

The current vogue of Sufism among secular Muslims is connected with the power politics of our time. It is propagated that in the post 9/11 period Jalal ud Din Rumi has become one of the best-selling poets in America. The emergence of the Rumi phenomenon for 'spiritual consumption in the United Stated' has deep affinity with the propagation of Jihadi Islam in the decades of 1980s when the Afghan mujahideen were declared as "the moral equivalent of America's founding fathers". During this period, Sufism did not get support from power because it was not conducive to the power politics of the time.

After 9/11, the tectonic plates of power politics shifted and brought drastic changes in every sphere of life, including sociology of the production of knowledge. As a result, Sufism is being picked as a viable instrument to curb the rising tide of extremism among Muslims. The former president Gen Pervez Musharraf employed Sufism as a tool to serve the interest of power. Therefore, it can be said that the current support to Sufism is not necessitated by its essence but by the changing requirements of power politics in the world.

I am a fan of Sufi poetry, music, art and dance. What I am against is the employment of Sufism by power, in the words of Antonio Gramci, to maintain its dominance by securing consent through manufactured consensus on the one hand and total reliance of Muslims on Sufism at the expense of critical and philosophical thinking on the other. The latter has created bad faith among Muslims, which in turn causes Muslims to evade some of the intractable issues of philosophical discourse of modernity and post-modernity.

Some people may object to these views about Sufism on the basis that it disseminate message of love, and anything against it is tantamount to hatred of humanity. I think this is symptomatic of the mentality which has failed to cope with the challenges of the world and wallows in the ecstasy of subjectivity. Frederic Nietzsche finds origin of such attitude in the resentment of those who fail to change their world and develop an attitude that dubs antithetical action as bad. Philosophy has been coerced to remain in permanent exile from Muslim societies precisely because it was deemed against jurists, mystics and clerics. To get rid of intellectual poverty, it is the need of the hour to embrace philosophy as a legitimate knowledge to bring about a paradigm shift.

Sufism can still be relevant for us in the domain of art and aesthetics. At the same time we need to diversify our means of knowledge to comprehend the increasing complexity of the modern age. Unfortunately, philosophy has been stifled by the Muslims who are at home in certainties of jurisprudence, Sufism and scholasticism. Employing hundreds of years old ethos and tested formulas will not work in the post modern age. When Wasil ibn Ata got dissatisfied with his mentor's answer he sought answers in philosophy. Instead of learning from Wasil we are reverting to Sufism for the solution of our current problems. This shows failure of the imagination of Muslims to address contemporary challenges with new paradigm.

In order to get out of the current intellectual impasse, it is imperative for intellectuals in our country to get engaged with the philosophical discourse of modernity and post-modernity. Remaining in trance of mysticism will make us idles whose minds are disconnected with the world but hearts throb in it. Keeping our minds philosophically disengaged will make us intellectually poor, leading to cognitive dissonance. It is this which causes failure of the Muslim world to make sense of the modern order of things.

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