Despite the fact that Muslims comprise only 1% of the American population, Islam is a topic we frequently encounter in the public sphere: we hear it in discussions about our foreign policy, about the ongoing European refugee crisis, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so on. But rarely are we exposed to the religion in an apolitical sense — in a context divorced from any headlines . Its presence in our current dialogue does not reflect the more theological or even philosophical aspects of Islam.
There is, however, one slight but extremely important exception. The American public is exposed to Islamic theology, just of a specific kind: the type that motivates the political extremism that characterizes Wahabis, Salafis, and so on. These movements are typically based on a strictly literal interpretation of the Quran and sunnah (life of the Prophet), and emphasize adherence to doctrine over rational deliberation. As a result of highly motivated characters, the only Islamic theology that is visible to the American public are the literalist interpretations underlying political extremism. This is an artifact of media coverage: we are exposed to Sharia law in the context of death and killing, never in banalities like court rulings about alms-giving (to name just one example).
This is highly problematic. It puts an undue prominence on hard-line, textual conceptions of Islamic theology, whose dominance is a product of historical contingencies. It perpetuates the idea that Islam is innately more prone to extremist interpretation: a hypothesis which, again, cannot be separated from the specific line that Islaimc theology took in its historical unfolding. Religious fundamentalism therefore becomes the average American’s heuristic for Islam. It becomes, in the mind of the average America, “all Islam is and ever could ever be”. Can we even blame them, then, when their impression of Islam is on the whole negative?
In opposition to this perspective, and in opposition to the hardline literalist theologies which we see in the news, in this weekly series I want to introduce readers to a more metaphorical, even mystical tradition: that of the Sufis. This is a tradition which does not inspire political action, nor any real adherence to a set ritual or activity, and is therefore never present in our news media and therefore in contemporary discussions of Islam.
Instead, it puts emphasis on a path of self-introspection which is called the tariq (path) or the Work. Whereas orthodox Islam emphasizes following rules, Sufism emphasizes an individual’s process to getting to know God, leading to a state of God-consciousness known as ilm or knowledge.
Sufism proliferated in the aftermath of the Islamic expansion, when Islamic theology began mixing with the local spiritual systems like Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism. It has been described by some Sufis as ‘the only religion’. What this characterization indicates is that Sufis regard themselves as custodians of the authentic religious experience, a connection with the transcendent which underlies the spiritual rigor of every other religion.
How many Muslims are actually inspired by Sufism? Very few; perhaps not enough. But I hope that by shedding light on the Sufi tradition, I can come to discuss theological topics from an Islamic perspective, comment on their relationship with other religions, and — in due time — show that a hard-line literalist interpretation of the Quran is not the only one possible.