Posted by Joshua on Sunday, May 20th, 2007
A Syrian friend who lives in Damascus wrote the following note to me about Ash`ari Islam, which he explains is the mainstream interpretation in Syria. He describes how the establishment shaikhs deal with both Sufism and takfiri Salafism. He asked to remain anonymous.
This is part 3 in our on-going series of posts on the question of Salafism and Sufism among Syrian Muslims. The last part is here.
Ash`ari Islam Predominates in Syria: Its tensions with Sufism and Salafism
Thank you for your question about Sufism. It so happens that I have had enough time to read some of the major works of Ibn Arabi; however, I am afraid I can be of little help on the question of Sufis today.
The teachings of the great Sufis (Al-Hallaj, Ibn Arabi, Al-Roumi etc) are full of tolerance and acceptance of others' beliefs. However, many who consider themselves students these great Sufis do not really understand their teachings. It is difficult to understand Ibn Arabi's works without a proper knowledge of the great Greek philosophers, the great "Mu'utazilah" thinkers, Gnosticism, and Christian theology. Therefore, it is doubtful whether an ordinary religious student or a simple Sufi follower really understands the theory of Ibn Arabi about the "Unity of Existence", "Wihdat Al-woujoud.”
Sufism received support during Ottoman rule due to two factors:
· It enjoins tolerance, which is very important in ruling an immense empire with a wide variety of ethnicities and religions;
· It discourages political activism, much as Christianity does, by distinguishing between the mundane and divine worlds.
The accommodation of Sufism and Sunnite-Asha'arite belief has been reached at the expense of Sufism. It has not been easy to change orthodox public attitudes toward Sufis. During much of the 20th century, Sufism was looked at as an infidel practice by orthodox imams and Sunni scholastics. In order to give Sufism a “new look” and gain widespread acceptance of Sufis as “true believers who express their faith in a peculiar manner,” mainstream Sunni scholars have watered down Sufi texts almost beyond recognition. Great Sufi works have been re-interpreted to make them acceptable by the broad Sunni-Asha'ari public. A very bland interpretation of Sufism prevails among the majority of ordinary Sunnis and Sufis today. Sunni scholars not infrequently lecture on Ibn al-Arabi, while disregarding the obvious and apparent meaning of Ibn al-Arabi’s message – which would be real blasphemy. Ironically, Sufis themselves used interpretation as a powerful tool to produce alternative readings of the holy Koran. The popular interpretation of Sufism, which reduces it to a set of shallow practices, in contrast to the "savant" version, represents the historical revenge of Asha'arism.
Asha'arism represents the prevailing doctrine among Sunni Syrians. Both Sufism and Salafism represent threats to Asha'arism. Sufism represents an "external" threat because it contradicts Asha’ari beliefs on a doctrine level. Nevertheless, Sufism shares a quietist approach to political power with Asha’ari Islam. Both assert the necessity of supporting, or at least coexisting with, existing political authorities so long as they are broadly Islamic and not foreign or non-Muslim.
Salafism represents an "internal" threat to Asha'arism. It shares the same orthodox doctrine as Asha’arism but is much more radical. Salafis opposed the Ottoman state in the past as they do the Syrian state today, because both states encouraged a loser definition of Islam and supported compromise between Asha’arism and Sufism. Salafis also refuse any compromise with Sufism on the doctrinal level. They have become overtly political in full contradiction to traditional Asha'ari practice.
Refusing the practice of "takfir" is one of the most important principles of Asha'arism. Historically, takfir was embraced only during the rule of Caliphate Al-Ma'moun, influenced by the "Mu'utazilah." This period in Islamic history is vociferously condemned by Asha'aris. It is referred to as the "Mihanh” or calamity. The sentence of life-in-prison that was imposed on Ibn Taymiyya was due to the fact that his teachings were tainted with the dangerous doctrine of takfir. Naturally, Asha'arism opposes this practice as long as it is thought of as an "Inquisition" – or a way to impose the death penalty on those expressing a variant of Islam. It should be added that Asha'aris have not always been reluctant to issue "takfir fatwas" themselves, when requested to do so by rulers eager to go to war against political foes.
I have drawn a fairly stark distinction between Salafism and Asha’ari Islam, which is the version of Islam that predominates in Syria today. This is a bit simplistic. There is a battle being waged in contemporary Syria over the meaning of Salafism. Takfiri-Salafists constantly try to radicalize Salafism, whereas, Asha’aris try to pacify it and denounce violent political activism. Many Syrians call themselves Salafis in an effort to define themselves as more puritanical or orthodox than the average Syrian even though they reject takfir in principle. Salafis who reject takfir are tolerated by the Asha'ari authorities. We might call them “tamed” Salafis in much the same way that most Sufis have been tamed. The Asha’ari imams are constantly seeking a middle ground, pulling Sufis away from radical ecumenicism and departure from orthodox practice and pulling Salafis away from jihadist doctrine. For many Syrians, Salafism is no longer the fire breathing Islam of Ibn Taymiyya or that of the Saudi Wahhabis.
The end of the Ottoman role and division of the Middle East into modern states under the British and French Mandates had a profound impact on relations between Asha'arism, Sufism, and Salafism. Inspired by western thought, new calls to modernity found it easy to criticize Sufism. Modernists blamed Sufism for the backwardness of Muslim societies. However, much of this criticism, coming, as it did, from critics "outside" of Islamic circles and thinking, designated both Asha'arism and Salafism as potential threats to Islam as well. The rules of the game were changing due to foreign influences.
In this light, it is easy to understand Hassan al-Banna’s definition of the Muslim Brotherhood. He sought to combine the “Sufi truth” and “Salafi massage,” as he stated it. This was his way of building a political party with an Islamic ideology that could combine the existing tendency among Salafists to become political, while at the same time putting an end to the destructive war that had been waged by Salafists on the Sufis. He had to find a way to end the internecine struggles that kept Muslims from uniting against the “real enemy,” the materialism and secularism represented by the West. Hassan al-Banna did not adopt "takfir," as a strategy, as many of today’s more radical Salafists have. He did, however, approve of resorting to violence for political purposes.
Let us now move to your original question: should the US administration support NSF in its struggle against the Syrian regime? Personally, I think that there is no final answer this question. Moreover, I am quite sure that the question about the relation between Salafism and Sufism in Syria cannot provide a suitable background for finding an answer to the original question. It all depends on whether the US administration can adopt a clearer strategy as regards the issue of democratization. Such a strategy should express US support for peaceful democratic change in Syria.
This strategy should be reflected in policies that express US willingness to deal with all concerned parties including the Syrian regime. For example, US officials, when talking to Syrian authorities, should insist also on the issue of human rights, freedom, and democracy building. It is important that the US always take a clear stand that democratic change remains the responsibility of the Syrian people no matter what tensions exist between the US and the Syrian regimes. There should be no more talk of the "liberation" of the Syrian people. Any conflict with the Syrian regime should be portrayed as an opportunity for Syrian people to claim more democratic rights, but never as an endeavor to enforce democratic change.