In 2012, extremist militants, battle-hardened from their fight to topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, took their booty, weapons and fervour and spilled into the no-man’s-land of northern Mali. There, they co-opted a long-running Tuareg rebellion, carving out a sanctuary and base from which to consolidate their rule.
After conquering the ancient city of Timbuktu, a once-important place of religious learning, the militants proceeded to destroy the city’s cultural sites. Numerous libraries teaming with religious, literary and scientific manuscripts were put to the torch. In their march to reshape reality to their image, the extremists also demolished several UNESCO World Heritage shrines and mosques dedicated to Sufi savants who had been key during Timbuktu’s enlightenment period. The buildings had also marked the presence of good men on earth.
Those actions, now largely forgotten, have given way to the larger and more sweeping barbarism involving ISIL that has engulfed Iraq and Syria. There too, the attacks on diversity and tolerance have become part of the violence. Beyond the persecution of minorities, ISIL has driven its tractors through Sufi sites in the city of Mosul – another ancient centre of learning. (Ironically, some of the militants in Iraq today have named themselves after one of the most famous of Sufi orders: The Naqshbandi).
Important role in Islam
The demolition of Sufi architecture may not compare in tragedy and horror to the butchering of innocents, but it is nonetheless notable. For Sufis have in fact played an important role in Islam, and far beyond.
The attacks on diversity and tolerance have become part of the violence. Beyond the persecution of minorities, ISIL has driven its tractors through Sufi sites in the city of Mosul – another ancient centre of learning.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Sufis”, penned by the late Idries Shah. This classic by one of the foremost authorities on the subject was written for a western audience caught in a vogue of Oriental spirituality cults, or an overly academic approach to Sufism. The book was designed to help readers come to better grips with what constituted genuine mysticism, and to provide a sense of Sufism’s universality, which according to Shah, went far beyond its role in Islam.
Shah asserts that genuine Sufis are followers of an age-old tradition of experiential knowledge that is flexible and ever evolving, and which aims to bring its adherents to a true understanding of the nature of reality – which the biological brain or the culturally blind mind, operating in a certain mode, cannot ascertain on their own.
Sufis, Shah says, far from necessarily being members of an Islamic sect, have always existed within different faiths and cultures, including those of early antiquity that predated Islam.
It is not a system of thought or an academic process, Shah explains, but a living state. Indeed, Sheikh Abu El Hasan Fushanji sums it up: “Formerly, being a Sufi was a reality without a name. Today, it is a name without a reality.”
In “The Sufis”, we learn of the fascinating, and little-known influence that Sufis have had on the world, including Europe and the West. We are shown, for example, how the music of the Troubadours, the writings of Chaucer and Dante, medieval chivalry, and Freemasonry, as well as many less overtly mystical cultural fruits, are linked to the Sufis of the East.
Many of the “giants” among them are household names all over the world: Jalaludin Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Saadi of Shiraz, Ibn al-Arabi, al-Ghazali – just to name a few. It is partly through their achievements that the idea of Sufis as strictly Islamic mystics is perpetuated. But Shah uses them in this book for illustrative purposes. The most famous Sufis, he suggests, are exemplars of what humans east, west, north and south can be.
Indeed, given the rather strange state of the world, the type of thinking outlined in “The Sufis”, and other books by Shah, may be more needed than ever. With its flexible and organic approach to life and its refreshing lack of exclusivism, Sufism represents a powerful counterpoint to the dogmatic and violent fixations of extremists everywhere. In contrast to the closed extremist, oblivious and often inimical to his or her context, the Sufi might be defined as one who is open, through experience and learning, to any, and all, possibilities appropriate to an ever-widening horizon of contexts.
But it isn’t just religious zealots who are caught in the throes of obsessive or fixed thinking. We live in an age of rapid technological advancement, where the tugs and levers of consumerism and the maniacal consumption of digital information turn us into dazed and anxious prisoners. We are manipulated, and often wish to be.
The Sufi road, Shah tells us, begins with the realisation, and the admission, that we are a bundle of reflexes and conditionings that steer our thoughts and behaviour, rendering us virtually automatic. The way of thinking and learning that Shah describes in “The Sufis” has an overarching purpose: to facilitate the freedom from these shackles and the idols that they bind us to, whether they be material, mental, or emotional. It is through this road, away from the fixation on forms, whether eastern extremism or western consumerism, that new and more fulfilling possibilities open up.
Journey into the unknown
The suggestion put forward in the book is that the answer lies in our own minds. “We are infinitely perfectible through attunement with the whole of existence,” Shah writes. Through a balance of the physical and the spiritual, where all of life is the means by which we are polished, we can pursue our learning – including through our mistakes.
As Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinean writer, said, “We are given mistakes, we are given nightmares, almost nightly, and our task is to make them into poetry.” Borges literally turned them into poetry because he was a poet. He was also speaking metaphorically: It is incumbent upon each of us to turn those things into whatever beauty we can muster around us.
That great inner journey into the unknown, what Shah calls “a necessary adventure”, stands in stark contrast to how we tend to live our lives today: averse to challenge and risk-taking, and absorbed in a gratifying virtual world, and its often trivial derivatives. A cult of comfort and safety is perpetuated whose hallmark is the pathological sheltering of our children from an outside world brimming with necessary lessons. This has taken the place of a formerly more consistent effort by people to try and break through their own barriers by meeting life directly.
The Sufis, by comparison, were no strangers to danger. Many of them had to fight and survive against the zealots in their midst. Rumi and his family fled the Mongols, and Fariduddin Attar was murdered by them. Scores of other lesser known, or now forgotten Sufis, were punished or put to the sword by the powers that be, in some cases for merely trying to show what exists outside of our mental labyrinths.
Classical Sufism flowered in the east, yet it is not of the east. “The place of your sitting room carpet is on the floor of your house – not in Mongolia where its design may have originated,” one saying goes. As a way of thinking, contemporary Sufism’s relevance is for today.
At this time of great disorder and confusion in the world, “The Sufis” reminds us that there is in fact a way forward towards clarity, coherence and sanity, and even more – a connection to a larger purpose. The beginning lies in an openness to this very possibility.
John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.
John Zada is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.