FOUR FACES OF ISLAM
Part 4 of 4
By Andy and Berit Kjos
February 19, 2003
"We must make all people one with us. The Prophet Muhammad explained, but some of us who came to the world forgot... We must learn to wash away our separations and become one again. That is true Islam."
Mystics and poets. Sheiks and scholars. Saints and shamans. Warriors and whirling dervishes. These words have all been used to portray the multiple roles of the mysterious Sufis. But the first and the last titles point to their most familiar image.
While Moderate and Folk Islam tend to focus on the practical needs of life, Islamic mysticism has traditionally been linked to spiritual experience and the pursuit of oneness with the Divine. The esoteric Sufi would look beyond this world in his quest for an intimate, mystical union with Allah. The Lonely Planet's Guide to Central Asia describes him well:
"The original Sufis were simply purists, unhappy with the worldliness of the early caliphates and seeing knowledge of God through direct personal experience.... There never was a single Sufi movement; there are manifestations within all branches of Islam. For many adherents, music, dance or poetry about the search for God were routes to trance, revelation and direct union with God." 
Their traditional woolen dress symbolizes the ritual dress and dance that inspired their popular names. "Sufi" means "wool-weaver" or "wearer of wool," and "whirling dervishes" points to the swirling movements that supposedly link the worshipper to the Divine. The article, "A Glimpse at Sufism in the Balkans," offers a peek at their trance-forming whirls:
"One by one, the dervishes entered the chapel, bowing profoundly at the little gate of the enclosure, took their places on the mat, and, bending down, reverently kissed the ground; and then, folding their arms meekly on their breasts, remained buried in prayer, with their eyes closed and their bodies swinging slowly to and fro.
"The dervishes, slowly rising from the earth... commenced their evolutions. ... [F] or five minutes they continued twirling round and round, as though impelled by machinery, their pale, passionless countenances perfectly immobile, their heads slightly declined towards the right shoulder, and their inflated garments creating a cold, sharp air in the chapel, from the rapidity of their action."
Sufism has left a lasting imprint on Islamic poetry, philosophy and academics as well as dance. It has also served as a cultural link between Asia and the Middle East, since some of its mystical beliefs have more in common with Buddhist monism (all is one) and pantheism (all is God) than with either Christian or Islamic monotheism (one God):
"All Muslims must believe that there is no absolute reality but God, but only the Sufi carries this doctrine to its ultimate conclusion.... God alone is, whence the term 'oneness of being.' The doctrine of the oneness of being, which Western scholars term monism, is expressed by several verses of the Quran, such as 'Wheresoe'er ye turn, there is the face of God.'"
Here Sufi mysticism blends with medieval "Christian" mysticism as well as with Buddhism and other forms of mysticism. For example, few spiritual teachers have done more to blend the biblical meaning of sacredness with eastern mysticism than Thomas Merton, the popular Catholic author who died in Asia searching the depths of Tibetan Buddhism. His little book, Ways of the Christian Mystics, published by Shambala, a prolific producer of occult literature, tells of a "sacred journey" with "origins in prehistoric religious cultures and myths." It echoes the Sufi theme of universal oneness.
"Our pilgrimage," wrote Merton, is "to the stranger who is Christ our fellow-pilgrim and our brother." He mentions some of his spiritual brothers: the Inca, Maya and aborigine who is "no other than ourselves, which is the same as saying that we find Christ in him."
Of course, what Merton describes is not Biblical Christianity. In contrast, mystics in search of spiritual union -- whether in the name of Allah or an impersonal pantheistic force or a New Age "Christ" -- may well invoke spiritual forces that are anything but gentle and peace loving. The ritual trance of the Sufi opens doors to the same spiritual realm as does the ritual trance of the shaman. That's one reason why the innocuous mysticism of the Sufi has often assumed a more militant stance. This excerpt from: "Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union" shows other reasons:
"...in Central Asia, and in those areas where Russian conquest was met by massive popular resistance, Sufi brotherhoods played a primary role in inspiring, organizing and leading the fight. Partly as a result of its role in popular resistance, Sufism in these regions never acquired the same elitist character as it did elsewhere.....
"British scholars are fond of looking for Hindo-Muslim syncretism in Central Asia Sufism, while the Turkish error lies in presenting Sufi brotherhoods as heterodox (Shi'a extremist) organizations.... Pre-Revolutionary Russian scholars often emphasized the shamanist background of the Sufi orders....
“We can also speak of an 'Iranocentric' view of Sufism among some scholars, which consists of reducing Sufism in Central Asia and the Caucasus to fundamentalism 'a la Khomeini’.”
Remember, the militant Wahhabi movement -- funded by Saudi Arabia and now identified with the Sunni branch of Islam -- grew out of an eighteenth century Sufi attempt to reform both Islam and Arabia. After years of religious synthesis and cultural adaptation, many Muslims had lost sight of Muhammad's original doctrines.
More recently, a deadly conflict in Dagestani, Russia, between Wahhabis and local Sufi orders led to two deaths, according to a report by Bruce Pannier. Titled "Dagestan's Religious Tensions -- Analysis," Penner offers these additional insights:
"The Wahhabis advocated an orthodox view of Islam, one which refuted the inventions of the religion after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Wahhabism rejected 'magical rituals,' and the veneration of Saints or any human being, something which had become commonplace among Sufi orders.
"Sufism was the major vehicle for spreading Islam to countries outside Arabia. Though Islam had spread north into the Caucasus and Central Asia during the Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries, Sufism penetrated Central Asia in the 12th century and into the northern Caucasus in the early 18th century. Its success was in great part due to its ability to adapt some local beliefs or customs into Islam."
"For example, set down in the Koran are the five pillars of Islam. As the religion spread from Arabia, it was recognizable that one of these pillars, the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to the holy site in Mecca, was beyond the means of most of the faithful.... In place of the Hajj, many Sufi orders substituted pilgrimage to the tombs of saints, who were usually the founders or inspiration for the various Sufi orders."
Conclusion to the four-part series
Pilgrimage, revered tombs, homage to saints... You might argue that these supposed paths to holiness parallel the divisions and compromises seen within cultural Christianity -- as contrasted with Biblical Christianity -- through the centuries. Human nature has always sought man-made shortcuts to sanctification, and Islam is no exception. Its four main expressions have followed this same natural bent -- each in its own way. [Charts: Five Types of Religious Expressions]
The two Islamic expressions most likely to echo the global call to unity are, strangely enough, the two that seem most divergent: Militant Islam and Mystical Islam. Militant Islam would bring unity by force, while mystical Islam or Sufism would most likely seek unity through spiritual rituals, disciplines and education.
The contemporary ideals of mystical Islam match the UN vision for global solidarity. But militant Islam would not fit. It clashes with the new "enlightened" views of spiritual unity and global solidarity. Outlined in UNESCO's Declaration on the role of religion in a culture of peace, this vision has already colored the world's media-trained consciousness. Based on an international criteria, it lumps Biblical Christianity together with radical Islam and denounces all who cling to old-fashioned absolutes and refuse to join the march toward global oneness.
Frank Johnson, who writes for the British Daily Telegraph, seems to share this postmodern view. Analyzing the Islamic assaults on America, he blames, not militant Islam, but all religions that refuse to conform to liberal idealism:
"The airwaves fill with voices, Muslim and otherwise, warning that we should not blame Islam. That is so. We should blame religion.... Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ascribed that decline and fall to "the triumph of barbarism and religion." Thus Gibbon perhaps even regarded the two as synonymous....
"New York fell victim to religion as understood and dreaded by Gibbon, a man of the Enlightenment. In the West, the Enlightenment is the force for which -- perhaps paradoxically -- we should thank God."
Mr. Johnson has no real intention of thanking God for anything. He doesn't know God; nor does he understand Christianity. He doesn't realize that our God is a God of love who sends His true friends into distant and dangerous lands to share His compassion, care for the sick, and give their lives to bring hope to the oppressed.
Few demonstrate such lives of faith and love more courageously than former Muslims who have converted to Christianity. A 1992 issue of Voice of the Martyr, tells about "Asif", a young Pakistani who gave his life to Jesus Christ after a painful accident. When he began to tell others what Jesus had done for him, his landlord became enraged. "Why are you preaching the gospel?" he demanded. "These are Muslims people. Why are they accepting Jesus?"
Since Asif refused to deny his Lord, he was beaten severely. The landlord and others stomped on him and broke his leg. "You dog!" they shouted. "You are a low-class person! Why did you come here and make our people become Christians."
Asif cried out to God for strength and began to pray for his tormentors. Realizing, as Jesus did on the cross, that "they know not what they do," he became all the more eager to bring others to the God He loved. Later, when asked what Bible verses encouraged him during the trials he faced, he quoted Philippians 1:29: "For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for his sake."
Asif's fearless mission is an example for us all. Here in the West, it's hard to understand this spiritual battle and the persecution that has pursued His faithful ones through the centuries. [See Chronology of Conquests in the Name of Allah] But, in a world that increasingly equates "hate" with Christianity and sees Islam as a peaceful religions, that may soon change. Will we be ready?
1. M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, Islam & World Peace - Explanations of a Sufi (Philadelphia: Fellowship Press, 1987), page 98.
2.Central Asia (Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2000), page 70.
3. A Glimpse at Sufism in the Balkans at http://www.britannica.com/frm_redir.jsp?query=whirling+dervishes&redir=
4. Encylopedia Britannica, Vol 21 (Chicago: William Benton, 1968), page 373.
5.Thomas Merton, Ways of the Christian Mystic (Boston: Shambala, 1994), pages 1, 49-50)
6."Sufism in Chechnya," an excerpts from: "Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union" X, Alexandre Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush, C. Hurst and Company, London, 1985.
7. Bruce Pannier," Dagestan's Religious Tensions -- Analysis," Radio Free Europe, http://www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/dstanpannier1905.html
8. Frank Johnson, "We can only hope for an Islamic Enlightenment," The Daily Telegraph, September 15, 2001.
© 2003 Berit Kjos - All Rights Reserved
Berit Kjos is a widely respected researcher, writer and conference speaker. A frequent guest on national radio and television programs, Kjos has been interviewed on Point of View (Marlin Maddoux), The 700 Club, Bible Answer Man, Beverly LaHaye Live, Crosstalk and Family Radio Network. She has also been a guest on "Talk Back Live" (CNN) and other secular radio and TV networks. Her last two books are A Twist of Faith and Brave New Schools. Kjos Ministries Web Site: http://www.crossroad.to/index.html