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Burnishing the mirror of the heart

Whirling dervishes gently spinning with arms outstretched as tourists marvel; the growing popularity of Rumi’s enigmatic poetry in the USA; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan lifting his voice in song at London’s Royal Albert Hall: there can be no doubt that certain cultural aspects of Sufism are globally recognised.

Yet, according to Dr Lloyd Ridgeon of Glasgow University, this branch of Islam remains widely misunderstood. “Sufism is often described as the mystical dimension of Islam, but this definition assumes that everyone who is Sufi is a mystic, and that’s not the case,” he says. Modern popular culture in the West has a tendency to focus on the more esoteric and mystical elements, says Ridgeon, and this can lead to a sort of de-Islamification of Sufism. “If you read the original Persian poetry by Rumi, there are many references to Muhammad, Islam and what a good Muslim should do. But when the poems are read in English translation, most often there’s no mention of Muhammad, no mention of going to Mecca to perform the Hajj – they’re stripped off their Islamic content to cater for a Western audience.”

Working with Professor Ron Geaves of Liverpool Hope University, Dr Ridgeon aims to address these misunderstandings through an AHRC-funded project to investigate the nature of Sufism in the contemporary age. This is a subject that has received relatively little academic attention. “There’s a tendency among some Western scholars to say Sufism had its golden period in the Middle Ages, and many academic publications focus on this. To some extent that’s true, in the respect that there is a wealth of literature from that time, but it would be wrong to assume Sufism is dying out,” says Dr Ridgeon. “There are active orders in the USA, continental Europe and China as well as the Middle East and India.” The project involved two major conferences that brought together international scholars, from Denmark to Dubai, Israel to Iraq, to present case studies of contemporary Sufism around the globe.

So what, then, is modern Sufism? “What defines Sufism is the belief that it’s possible to get a deeper understanding of God right here and now in this world through worship. Moreover, some Sufi texts discuss certain esoteric secrets, and through the practice of specific Sufi rituals the individual can attempt to gain access to those secrets,” explains Dr Ridgeon.

 “Today, there are many Sufi orders which have very strong and firm roots to the tradition of Sufism as it was in the medieval period. These will typically have the names, practices, ritual techniques and disciplines from hundreds of years ago. However, Sufis have also responded to the challenges that modernity throws up. Contemporary Sufis are deeply engaged in society, they’re part of the community - it’s certainly not as if they cut themselves off from the world.”

One common modern misconception of Sufism is that its practices and rituals are uniform. “In fact, there is considerable diversity. Some Sufi orders don’t particularly emphasise the mystical or ecstatic dimension of the tradition. A large Sufi order representative of that perspective is the Naqshbandi, and adherence to this order is found right across the globe,” points out Dr Ridgeon. “On the other hand, the more ecstatic orders practise dancing, for example. Many Sufi orders engage in the practice of Qawwali, which is singing traditional, spiritual Sufi poetry, but this takes different forms depending on the country. In some orders there were and are all kinds of unusual activities such as piercing the body or shaving off beards and eyebrows.”

One of the key strands of the project was exploring the place of contemporary Sufism within the wider context of Islam. “Sufis believe that one has to obey the commandments of Islam, but they say there’s something additional: the idea that certain practices can somehow, to use the terminology, ‘burnish the mirror of the heart’, so the heart is able to reflect God’s secrets,” Dr Ridgeon says. “In many ways, Sufism stands in contrast to what some might call ‘normative’ Islam, in which God is a transcendent deity, quite remote from creation.”

Indeed, Dr Ridgeon’s specific role in the project was to examine the relationship between Sufism and Salafism, a branch of Islam that, in its predominant form, emphasises a more transcendent deity. The prevailing view is that the two are diametrically opposed. While in general Sufism emphasises the need for a shaykh, or teacher, who provides spiritual guidance to find the imminent deity, Salafism generally holds that the individual has no need for an intermediary and can find all spiritual answers about the transcendent deity in the Koran and the sayings of Muhammad.

“The Salafis have a strong reliance on reason and rationality, which stands in contrast to Sufism, and this has led to tension in a wide range of countries,” says Dr Ridgeon. However, the project’s conference on this theme uncovered a more complex picture. “There are some groups of Salafis who use elements of the Sufi tradition that they find acceptable. For example, the Persian philosopher Ghazali wrote a very famous work in the 12th century that seems to bridge the gap between Sufi and rational ideas. The Salafis specifically focus on his ethical teachings about the need for prayer and fasting, for example, which is their way of appropriating the Sufi tradition and changing it to something more palatable to them. It would be interesting to see how Sufism responds to this, but it’s too early to tell.”

This strand speaks to the wider aims of the project: contributing to a greater understanding not only of Sufism in particular, but also of Islam in general. “There’s a need for greater awareness within the greater population that this sort of diversity exists in Islam,” says Dr Ridgeon. “It’s inevitable that the media focus on the aspects of Islam that will sell newspapers, but we need a more nuanced approach.”

Thus far the project has resulted in a collection of articles entitled "Sufism in Britain" edited by Rob Geaves and Theodore Gabriel, whilst "Sufism and Salafism" is slated for publication in 2015.

Article by Hannah Davies

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