Although under pressure from militant Islam, Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, continues to show resiliance.
That was one of the conclusions of a paper on the current status of Sufism in the Arab world delivered at the conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Toronto. Mark Sedgwick of American University in Cairo noted that Anti-Sufi stereotypes developed over more than a century, and the movement today is often considered to be archaic and obscurantist.
“Sufism is generally seen by educated Moroccans and Egyptians as a deviation of Islam.” Most students from the elite classes know nothing about Sufism, “although “many of their great-grandparents were surely Sufis.”
The growth of a rationalistic world-view, the influence of nationalism and socialism, and, more recently, the Islamic revival have all served to repress Sufism. Salafism, a reform movement from the 19th and 20th centuries which considered Sufis as “backward” and constituting an obstacle to reform, has been taken up by “neo-Salifis” today, many of whom are “more resolutely anti-Sufi than the original” movement, partly due to influences from Saudi Wahhabi thought.
Paradoxically, reactions of Westernized elites toward political Islam tend to include negative views of Sufism as well, due to a general suspicion torward all forms of Islam, which means Sufis have found themselves under fire from two sides. However, a few Sufi groups have made relatively successful attempts to adjust to those new circumstances.
Sedgwick offered a case study on the the Budshishiyya, a Moroccan order. In contrast with a number of other Sufi groups, “by the year 2000, perhaps half of the order’s membership of at least 25,000 were ‘educated’ Moroccans.” It included a number of recruits from the Islamic Studies departments at Moroccan universities, “a remarkable achievement, given the prevalence of neo-Salafism and Islamism in such circles.” The Budshishiyya has also developed outreach activities.
The order’s success may be due to its ability to adjust to new situations. Some standard aspects of contemporary Moroccan Sufism, such as visits to tombs of saintly people, are not encouraged by the Budshishiyya. It has also shown an ability to build networks that correspond to other preexisting networks (i.e. among people of similar backgrounds). However, “the Budshishiyya, from the inside, differs little from a classic Sufi order. From the outside, it looks unthreatening, modern and tolerant, and very different from the standard anti-Sufi stereotype,” concludes Sedgwick.
— By Jean-François Mayer