The soul that denies true love as its motto
Were better unborn; its existence is dishonour.
So be drunk with love, for love is all there is.
Unless you deal with love, the way to God is closed.
These words were among the hundreds of poems written by Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi apostle of love. Such was Rumi’s status in previous centuries that his epic Masnavi was called ‘the Quran in Persian’. For those who have read his verse, it’s hard to understand how anyone could despise the beauty of Sufi Islam. Considering that the Sufis always presented themselves as the loyal heirs of the Prophet Mohammad, it’s even harder to understand why Muslims should despise them. And yet over the past century, wave after wave of Muslim reform and renewal movements have rejected almost every aspect of Sufi Islam. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – whose franchises have sentenced Sufis to death in Syria and bulldozed their shrines in Libya – is only the latest of these anti-Sufis.
Here are a few reasons.
Sufism’s ideal offers leadership attained through a mystical experience and proximity to God. In reality, Sufi leaders tend to be the heirs of influential Sufi families who have held prominent social positions for generations. Like the hereditary Church families of old Europe, these spiritual dynasties formed a religious establishment. From the Ottoman Empire in the 14th to 19th centuries, through to its European successors in the 20th and 21st centuries, the prominent social positions of Sufi families often gave them a relationship to the state.
Even in the case of Iraq and Syria, both secular dictatorships overthrown by ISIS, prominent Sufi families enjoyed working relationships with those dictators. Justly in some cases, unfairly in others, leading Sufis have been accused of collaborating with the oppressor. In short, despite their claim to present an ancient and primordial Islam, compared with the old Sufi establishment, ISIS are radical upstarts. And that counts in their favour: they have all the high promise, and blank track record, of newcomers.
The economics of Sufism also help explain why ISIS, and many other Muslims, oppose it. Despite the Sufis’ rhetoric of poverty – one of their favourite sayings of Mohammad is al-faqr fakhri, ‘poverty is my pride’ – leading Sufi families were usually far wealthier than their followers. Traditionally, this wealth came through land grants and customary tithes from their followers, though in more modern times Sufis have had to diversify their portfolio into providing services their critics decry as superstition bordering on sorcery. The day-to-day reality is that many Sufis promise miracles and provide talismans in exchange for funds from followers or favours from officials. Almost every secular 20th-century moderniser shared ISIS’s enmity for the Sufis, seeing them as parasites on the credulity of the poor.
ISIS’s recruits from Europe have different reasons to distrust Sufism. Having grown up far from the Sufi shrines and circles of the Middle East, they have simply never been exposed to Sufi Islam. Reared on an online culture to which Sufis have been slower to adapt than the Salafists- fundamentalists who wish to return to the ‘pure’ Islam of Mohammad’s first followers, Europe’s young Muslims have startlingly little awareness of the varieties of Islam, including Sufism. They are likely to know as little about Sufism as an American adolescent growing up in a Pentecostal church in Kansas.
It’s not all sociology behind ISIS’s hatred of Sufis. As fundamentalists who seek to return Muslims to the basics of the faith as taught by Mohammad, they see Sufism as comprising doctrines that emerged at a later period than that of the Prophet and his first followers. In this, they are probably correct, despite Sufis’ claims that they represent the Prophet’s secret doctrine handed down orally. In seeing Sufi teachings as ‘innovations’ or bid‘ah that post-date the time of Mohammad, ISIS stands in line with mainstream Salafis, for whom the only true Islam is that practised by al-salaf al-salih, ‘the pious forebears’ of the first generation after Mohammad. In this, ISIS are following the same logic as 16th-century Christians who rejected Catholic practices on the grounds that they had no sanction in the Gospels penned by the first followers of Jesus.
Doctrinal consistency is not always a priority for fundamentalists, including ISIS. Despite their rhetoric of a return to early Islam, for example, the movement relies on the doctrine of takfir, or ‘forceful apostasy’, which emerged in the mid-20th-century writings of the Egyptian author Sayyid Qutb. According to takfir, which the Prophet Mohammed never mentioned, other Muslims can be deemed traitorous apostates deserving death. The doctrine is a powerful tactic against Sufis, and especially their potential followers, who are dissuaded from voicing support for their doctrines.
Another doctrinal weapon that ISIS wields against the Sufis is the allegation of sihr, or ‘sorcery’. This too is a crime potentially punishable by death. Here again ISIS shows itself as the radical companions of the Salafis, for whom the status of the Sufis as death-deserving apostates or mere ‘purveyors of superstitions’ (ashab al-khurafat) is a matter of debate.
This fine line between critiquing and killing brings us to the strategic dimension to why ISIS hates the Sufis. Because they live among some communities in the regions where ISIS operates, the Sufis represent deeply entrenched competition. This is all the more apparent in the nomenclature of the Sufis, many of whom carry the title of khalifa (‘caliph, deputy’) claimed by the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
As noted earlier, for centuries leading Sufi families formed a religious establishment in many regions of the Middle East. Although in the 20th century this status was challenged, in more rural communities loyalty to hereditary Sufi masters remains intertwined with ‘tribal’ and broader social structures. In other cases, in towns as well as the countryside, pilgrimages to Sufi shrines remain a mainstay of women’s Islam, since shrines provide respectable public spaces for women to socialise and at the same time receive miraculous blessings.
As a result, ISIS violence has targeted both the bodies of living Sufis and the shrines of deceased ones. Though Western news outlets have given more attention to the radicals’ destruction of pre-Islamic sites, such as Palmyra, the far more common focus of Islamist dynamite is the built heritage of the Sufis.
Ugly as it is, this is a strategy that makes good sense for ISIS. Although in the West it is more common to think of Sufis as peaceful mystics, Sufi leaders and their shrines have often been rallying points for uprisings and resistance. And just across the border from ISIS territory in Turkey, the success of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has shown the Naqshbandi Sufi order, a sharia-oriented group, as a potent behind-the-scenes force in the rise of ballot-box Islamism. Through votes or rebellions, Sufi organisations have the potential for competition that ISIS doesn’t want.
So there are strategic, doctrinal and social reasons why ISIS hates Sufism. While the conservatism of the Turkish AKP suggests that Sufi Islam isn’t the liberal antithesis of ISIS, it is an alternative and therefore a rival. And that’s something al-Baghdadi’s totalitarian ambitions won’t permit.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Author Nile Green is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book is The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London (2016).