Islam Revival - Part 3

Article Index

SUFISM IN THE MODERN ERA

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Islam had accumulated an amazing diversity of religious ideas and customs; several of them quite extraneous to the faith Muhammad had long before bequeathed to his followers. As we saw earlier, the acceptance of Sufism into the orthodox fold had no small part to play in this discoloration of the faith.

Accompanying this proliferation of peculiar beliefs and practices was a multiplication of bizarre ecstatics within the Sufi orders: "With the passing of time and the social decline of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, almost every pervert entered a Sufi order, and almost every madman was accounted a saint."27

Eastern historian S. Ameer Ali points out another aspect of Sufism which contributed to the decline of Islamic civilization:

To the bulk of humanity the call to abjure the world and to betake ourselves to complete absorption in the contemplation of the Divinity is an inducement to mental lethargy. The responsibility for the present decadence of the Moslem nations must be shared by the formalism of the Ash'ri [orthodox theologian] and the quietism of the Sufi Mystical teachings like the following:

the man who looks on the beggar's bowl
as a kingly crown
And the present world as a fleeting bubble
He alone traverseth the ocean of Truth
Who looks upon life as a fairy tale
can have but one result--intellectual paralysis.28

In eighteenth century Arabia, a puritanical revivalist movement known as Wahhabiya arose which has done much to turn contemporary Muslim sentiment against the Sufis. For reasons such as those mentioned above, the Sufis were blamed, not only for the pollution of the historic faith, but for the weakened political position of Islamic nations, as contrasted with expanding European imperialism. In the twentieth century Sufism has lost the political influence it once enjoyed, and, in Wahhabi-ruled Saudi Arabia, it is officially prohibited. While still tolerated in other Muslim countries, Sufism generally in the Muslim world is hard-pressed because of a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism and according to some sources, because of the activity of bogus sheikhs and Sufi orders."29

Certainly, Sufism has known better days in its native lands. However, "for the last forty years the direct and indirect influence of the East has prepared the ground in the West for the seed of the Sufi message."30 Idries Shah, the "Grand Sheikh of the Sufis," whose family has reputedly reigned in India's Hindu khoosh since 1221, has devoted his life to demonstrating the applicability of Sufi ideas and practices to today's life in the West. "He has achieved the difficult task of being accepted by the Western scholars as well as by those of the East."31

In 1916 the Sufi Order in the West was founded in London by another important Indian Sufi, Hazrat Inayat Khan. His Chishti Order master sent him to the West specifically to spread the Sufi message. Khan died in 1927, but his son, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, has succeeded at establishing 88 centers in America and 166 worldwide. Pir Vilayat, who turns 70 this year, is a frequent, highly respected speaker on the New Age circuit.

In spite of its popular acceptance, the Sufi Order is looked upon with disapproval by Shah and other more traditional Sufis. This is because, in keeping with its self-determined mission to promote unity among all religions, the Sufi Order does not insist that its members identify with the Islamic faith. It has been rightly described as "one of the most thoroughgoing syncretistic movements in history.…"32