Politics and Sufism

ByFahad Ali

Associated with maritime trade


March 15, 2023

Fahad Ali talks about an
important undercurrent

Political thought in Islam was deeply affected by the growth of Sufism and it became part and parcel of intellectual history of Islam. In addition to the social power of the Islamic religious scholars and the institutional structure of the religious seminaries, a third and perhaps decisive factor in spreading the religious mentality and winning over the masses to acceptance of the Sunni way was Sufism. This came to dominate the mental activity of both elites and commoners. Islamic philosophy was itself inclined to take Sufi experiences very seriously. Though such Islamic philosophers were condemned by Sunni legalists but much less often by Sufis. It’s essential nuance was to explore self and God, though no nearer to rational enquiry as understood by western philosophers. In reply the Sufis stated that whatever philosophy knows rationally, they perceived intuitively. The tradition of Islamic philosophy therefore merged with religious intuitionism and Sufism developed enormous popular appeal. Its cognitive techniques became increasingly popular and were supported and diffused by elaborate social networks. Sufism developed institutional sinews with an entire parallel social organisation derived from a founding saint and operated through a network of hospices and teaching centres.

Crucially, Sufi teachings and practices penetrated the peasantry and the military. There were particularly strong social and spiritual alliances between Sufism and the urban crafts and Sufism shrines and tombs of holy men became focal points for village, tribe, urban district and craft guild. Sufi masters were cultivated by rulers, bureaucrats and ulema. In northern Africa, ethnic and tribal groups reinvented themselves as Sufi brotherhoods or holy clans. Sufi organisation combined informality with strict personal allegiance; the social ethos was both authoritative and fraternal. The internal organisation of orders had something in common with the familial and dynastic clan model prevalent throughout Islam. The spiritual master was a new type of religious leader to whom the disciple owed unquestioning obedience. He was often thought to have achieved a personal mystical state that brought him into direct contact with God. Thus there was an element of spiritual elitism as God has an elite conferring on them unique grace. His authority was, therefore, absolute. At the same time, Sufi organisations were relatively informal, cultivating companionship and spiritual brotherhood among themselves.

The significance of Sufism for political thought lay primarily in the doctrine of renunciation as poverty, self-humiliation and complete surrender of personality became the highest values in life. Its initial role in the religious polity appears to have been to give religious meaning to social life under absolute rulers. It flooded into the space left by political disengagement. Sufis understood the divine unity to mean loss of self and absorption in the divine being. They focused on God’s love and his relationship with the individual. They defined freedom as slavery to God. This also opened a way for syncretism with other religions such as Christianity and Buddhism which were apolitical in character so in the land of Islam these religions did not simply disappear.

Although to begin with the Sufis’ political stance was usually quietist, over time their social and political roles varied enormously. They became especially committed to helping the poor and so they became spokesmen for popular grievances. They became spiritual cement for the social order and Sufi leadership became a pathway to power. Sheikhs often became de facto local leaders, pillars of society and established order. Sufi leaders took their place alongside the ulema and were sometimes merged with them. Some branches of Sufism came to see themselves as having a role in government. Ghazi regimes in Anatolia looked for support to the wandering Turkish dervish; one warrior-ruler received the sheikh’s war-club at his installation and acknowledged him as lord. Sufi leaders aspiring to political power periodically revolted against established authority.

In the Sufi spiritual life, old political disputes and divisions changed or lost their meaning. Sufism crossed sectarian divides between different branches of Sunnism, and between Sunnis and Shias. It appealed to Sunni commoners because it opened up a spiritual world beyond legal observance and to Shias wearied with revolutionary failure. Jihad became an inward endeavour. Sufism spiritualised the theory and praxis of leadership and so provided a way by which Shias might mutate into Sunnis without losing their spiritual identity. For them, a sheikh could appear like the Shia imam, except that his position was defined without reference to historical disputes.

Sufism was of capital importance for intellectual and economic life. Its concept of knowing as direct intuition of the divine achievable by a few on their own and communicated to others by teaching, came to dominate mental life. This facilitated belief in mystical and magical phenomena, such as dreams and astrology, among both ordinary and educated people. Combined, these socially accredited forms of knowledge left little, if any, space for philosophy and science; they were claimed to be the sole legitimate ways of knowing. Thus the realms of the unknown and the unknowable, both religiously fashionable, expanded: cosmic, natural and human affairs were under an inscrutable providence. To probe this was impious.

Any innovation was heresy and each event was supposedly a discrete expression of the divine wit, unaffected by causal laws. The effect was to narrow the scope for political philosophy and political science. Intellectual energy drained away. All this affected political society, political economy and government. On the one hand, Sufism encouraged resignation, fatalism and quietism. Such attitudes fitted in with the concept of the state signifying the divinely destined choice of a given house, on grounds of merit indeed, but of merit unknowable to humans. Sufis preferred land and agriculture as vocation and it is still the noblest occupation since it is quintessentially reliant upon God. Through it everyone shares in deputyship and engaged in it from sharecropper to village headman, and strives in his capacity as the provider of daily bread. This and other productive crafts derive from a combination of skill and spiritual cognition and therefore enable their practitioners to gaze on God’s activity and work as maker. This was the reason that most Sufis preferred settling down in rural premises and later owned vast tracts of lands enabling them to vie for political power.

Kingship was presented as a form of Sufi discipleship, one way of treading the mystical path. The king will earn divine favour if he acts justly, commands good and forbids evil, secures the roads, conquers the lands, provides for the needy and the ulema and respects ascetics. Kingship provides a unique opportunity for rejecting self-indulgence and seeking instead the nearness of God. The ideal king is someone endowed with learning and prophecy and through him the dignity of religion is made manifest. While agriculture and land remain central, this is very different in spirit from earlier views on patrimonial monarchy. It shows how, in the Sufi way, religious eminence followed from the performance of duties, which could also include military and political duties. The Sufi goal is open to all though achievable only by a very few. One could deduce from this that status depends upon performance. Sufi ethics could conceivably open the way to legitimising a change of ruler or of dynasty. TW


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