Why Blondes Love Sufis

A new novel about America’s love for Sufism gets it wrong.

Book cover

In Pico Iyer’s new novel, Abandon, a character laments the poor turnout for a lecture on Islamic theology. If the lecture’s listing had used the word “Sufi,” he thinks to himself, “there’d have been blondes in the back row.” Sufism is Islamic mysticism, and if it hasn’t yet hit the Hollywood set the way Jewish mysticism and the cabala have, its best-known spokesman, Rumi, is nonetheless an American best-seller. Rumi, a 13th-century Persian-language poet, whose collections are usually highly visible at your local independent booksellers, is the central presence in Iyer’s novel. He’s not a character per se, but his poetry permeates the book, and, in the spirit of mysticism, a Sufi is never more present than when he’s absent. In the United States and non-Muslim Europe, Sufism has become a kind of New-Age amalgam of spiritual practices, but its roots reach back to the earliest days of Islam. As the early Muslim conquerors took their faith to different lands, Sufism began to borrow from different traditions, including Greek and Hindu philosophy and Christian theology. Hence, many of the early Sufis believed that all faiths were equal, and that to privilege one religion was to deny the existence of the divine elsewhere. As Ibn al-’Arabi, another 13th-century Sufi, writes in his collection Stations of Desire, beautifully translated by Michael Sells:

My heart can take on
any form:
for gazelles a meadow,
a cloister for monks,

For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur’an.

I profess the religion of love.
Wherever its caravan turns
along the way, that is the belief,
the faith I keep.

Sufism has always had a powerful literary tradition. Part of Iyer’s novel deals with Sufi manuscripts smuggled out of Iran after the ‘79 revolution—which is a useful metaphor for Sufism’s modern-day transformation. Paradoxically, fundamentalism has popularized Sufism in the Islamic world while diluting its more esoteric elements. It’s true, for instance, that in Egypt during the last 20 years the ranks of the Sufi orders have swelled. But that’s not because of a renewed interest in mystical theology as such. Rather, everyday Muslims looking for an alternative, any alternative, to militant Islam have found it only in Sufism. Conversely, throughout Islamic history, fundamentalism often arises as a corrective to what it perceives as the excesses of Sufism.

Historically, there are a couple of things about Sufism that rankle the fundamentalists. One is that Sufism, many feel, encourages a kind of fatalism and withdrawal from the real world. The second is that Sufism looks a little like Christianity. Sufis believe in intercessors (in Arabic wali or auliya’)—people with special spiritual access, who can help a person’s prayers be heard by Allah. Mainstream Islam, never mind fundamentalism, rejects intercessors, since it holds that every Muslim is equal before God. (Even the prophet Muhammad is not prayed to but prayed for.) Furthermore, the tombs of important Sufi figures and intercessors—such as that of the mystic and poet Ibn al-’Arabi in Damascus—have become shrines for Muslim pilgrims. But contemporary mainstream Islam asserts that there are only three major shrines—Mecca, Medina, and Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem—and that revering others is tantamount to idolatry, which is forbidden in Islam. That Sufism does resemble Christianity in many regards may be one reason that it has attracted so many Western spiritual adventurers. Sufism holds that all men embody the divine—a notion that liberal humanists presumably find at least as appealing as the creed that one man, Jesus Christ, is a part of God. Other attractions are Sufism’s poetic legacy, of which Rumi and Ibn al-’Arabi are the premier examples, and its rich tradition of music and dancing.

In Abandon, the two main characters find themselves at a Sufi dance ceremony in a remote California spot and are deeply moved by both the frenetic energy of the dervishes and the still, quiet center of the spectacle. Iyer’s novel somewhat idealizes Sufism by highlighting the noblest aspects of its intellectual history and doctrine of self-abnegation. Unfortunately, in the contemporary Islamic world Sufism is seldom as philosophically generous as the major figures in its past—or even as the spiritually restless Americans whose Sufism is an avenue into another culture. I recently got a sense of this in Cairo when I spent some time with a Sufi group, or tariqa (a word derived from “way” or “path”), as part of an ongoing quest for a genuinely moderate or liberal trend in Islam.

“Sufis don’t believe in jihad,” my friend Ahmed, a philosophy student writing on Sufism, reassured me. “We’re different from other Muslims.” Sufis interpret the Quran much more liberally than other Muslims, indeed sometimes metaphorically. Thus unlike the vast majority of Muslims who hold that jihad is both a holy war fought to defend Islam and an offensive one to spread its reach, Sufis believe that jihad is only about the internal battle that all human beings must wage against their own worst impulses.
“Sufis want peace with everyone,” said the leader of the tariqa, Sheikh Mokhtar. “Sufis don’t want war with Israel.”

Sufis don’t usually express political opinions; as this opinion doesn’t challenge the government’s peace treaty with Israel, it’s safe. Sufis are generally focused on their own spiritual betterment, which has its good and bad points. It’s good, on the one hand, that the Sufis don’t want to destroy Israel; bad, on the other, that in Egypt, a country with very high rates of poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy, the Sufis feel little obligation to help others. In a sense, Sufis have turned an inward philosophical stance into a justification for ignoring the ills of their society. Or, as one Sufi told me when I asked why more Muslims didn’t practice Sufism: “Thank God they don’t. We don’t want heaven to be as crowded as Cairo.”

This is the kind of sentiment that has made it easy for the fundamentalists to win wide popular support. Egypt’s professional elite, which comprise many of the Sufi groups, by and large, despise the underclasses for their ignorance and poverty; the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt’s and the rest of the Arab world’s best-known fundamentalist organization, does social work in poor neighborhoods.

Sufism as self-improvement tends, like many religious enthusiasms, toward competition. Secret knowledge is a significant part of all mystical traditions and Sufi wisdom, issuing as it does from the heart and not the mind, comes in stages. Not everyone is equally advanced. I was told that as a guest I wasn’t going to get any “secret knowledge.” I said that as an outsider I probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish what was secret and what wasn’t anyway—still, what kind of secret things did they mean? One member of the tariqa told me that Sheikh Mokhtar, a roundish man in his early 50s, knew everything. He’s a wali. That fact didn’t quite register with me until after the meeting, when I saw Muslim men reaching out like Romans to touch the sheikh’s blue suit. Ahmed and I got to meet with him briefly.

Ahmed excitedly told the sheikh that he was writing his philosophy dissertation about the differences between Sufi tariqat. Sheikh Mokhtar was furious. “There are no differences between Sufis!” he shouted. (We learned later that Sheikh Mokhtar was in the middle of a fight with his brother, another Sufi wali who led a tariqa of his own. Their argument had degenerated so far that the two brothers had accused each other of apostasy—a charge that in Islam frequently leads to a death sentence.) Ahmed was red with public shame. The sheikh, still in a rage, told me that if I wasn’t Muslim, there was little for me in Sufism.

I wasn’t expecting anything from Sufism. It was worse for my crestfallen Muslim friend, who had wanted to abandon himself to something like the philosophy of his ancestors, Ibn al-’Arabi and Rumi, who had built a part of that world.