Posted by Joshua on Friday, May 11th, 2007
This is the second article in a series on Salafi and Sufi influences on Islam in Syria. Article one is here.
Itzchak Weismann is the best authority on Sufism in Syria during the 19th and 20th centuries. He is a professor at the University of Haifa and has written, Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus (Leiden: Brill, 2000)
Weismann writes: Here are a few lines about this complex issue of Salafi-Sufi relations in Syria.
As long as one views Sufism as excessive reverence to the shaykhs, popular practices at saints’ tombs, etc., then it is possible to assert that Salafis are anti-Sufi. These forms of Sufism are not absent from the Syrian scene, although they have lost much of their vigor in the face of modernity. However, in the last two centuries the Syrian Sufi scene has been dominated by another type of Sufism, which stresses its commitment to orthodoxy and is active in the public sphere. This is mostly the case of the Naqshbandi, but also Shadhili and Khalwati brotherhoods.
Similarly, as long as one identifies the Salafiyya with the radical brand of Islam, then Salafis are undoubtedly anti-Sufi. The group that led the uprising of the 1970s and early 1980s belonged to this radical camp and was inspired by the teachings of Sayyid Qutb. But this is the minority among Islamists. Most Syrian Salafis, from their arrival on the scene in the late 19th century to the present, have been moderate Islamists and respectful of “correct” Sufism. [JL adds: This was the case of Said Hawa, one of Hama's most important Islamists in the post WWII era, about whom Weismann has written two great articles. Hawa disapproved of the warlike wing of the MB, arguing that Jihad could not be carried out against the unbelieving regime until Syria society had been properly educated and was prepared to push it aside. To this end, he argued that Sufism had an important role to play in mobilizing the Syrian people. Its tariqas needed to be used to provide an alternative network of schools to promote activism, resistance against the un-godliness of modern society, and orthodox belief. He accused the anti-Sufi Salafists of dividing Syrians and Islamic society. To unify Muslims, Hawa argued, the Muslim Brotherhood must be inclusive and unite all the important Islamic movements of Syria under one organization.] (Photo of Muhammad Abdu)
Moreover, and this is the main point, in Syria the Salafiyya has been usually allied with orthodox Sufism and with ulama who adhered to this type of Sufism. The early representatives of the Salafi trend in the Syrian cities originated in an orthodox Sufi background; many of them remained loyal to Sufism, though they wished to remold it into the spiritual-ethical aspect of Islam. The Muslim Brothers, too, were under strong Sufi influence, and particularly the northern branches of Aleppo and Hama were actually founded by activists affiliated with the Naqshbandiyya. In a way, they transformed the tariqa into a social movement in line with the requirement of the modern situation. They were thus more loyal than their Egyptian colleagues to the legacy of Hasan al-Banna, who kept Sufism part of the Muslim Brothers’ call.
As for today, the present head of the Syrian Islamic opposition, ‘Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni, comes from such a Sufi orthodox background. On the other hand, Ahmad Kuftaru, who faithfully served the regime for more than four decades, was also a Sufi shaykh of the Naqshbandiyya. But Kuftaru showed himself ready to adopt the Salafi discourse to the point of giving up most Sufi practices, and even the mere concept of Sufism. It would perhaps be correct to say that the Salafi discourse is the hegemonic religious discourse in today’s Syria, but this is an inclusive Salafism that has ample room for Sufism. Best, Itzchak. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are four articles written by Weismann that I have posted to the web. All are excellent and reveal different aspects of the long relationship between Sufism and Salafism in Syria. I have also added a recent article by Oliver Scharbrodt that explains Muhammad Abduh's Sufi beginnings in Egypt. Abdu, along with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, was the founder of the modernist Salafi movement that began in Egypt and was expanded in Syria by his student, Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935). It is a wonderful article and demonstrates the intellectual creativity and plasticity of Sufi thought, a plasticity Abdu was forced to renounce later in life in order to conform to the orthodoxy of Salafism.
The "Overview" article is a survey of Sufi orders, explaining which have survived the great changes of the 20th century and which have not. It also places the new Qubaysi tariqa for women, begun by Munirah al-Qubaysi, which has received so much attention, in context. (On the Qubasiyyat, read Ibrahim Hamidi and Katherine Zoepf
Abstract of THE POLITICS OF POPULAR RELIGION: SUFIS, SALAFIS, AND MUSLIM BROTHERS IN 20TH-CENTURY HAMAH, Itzchak Weismann, International Journal of Middle East Studies (2005), 37: 39-58
With the advent of the 20th century, Sufism found itself under increasing attack in many parts of the Muslim world. In previous centuries, mystical movements had played a prominent role in the struggle for the revival of Islam and occasionally, where governments were weak or nonexistent, also in actual resistance to European encroachment. In the wake of the increasing consolidation of the state and the spread of Western rationalism, however, Sufis came to be regarded as a major cause of the so-called decline of Islam and an obstacle to its adaptation. In the Arab world, this anti–Sufi feeling was generally associated with the Salafiyya trend. The Salafi call for a return to the example of the forefathers (al-salaf al-salih) amounted to a discrediting of latter-day tradition, which was described as cherishing mystical superstition as well as scholarly stagnation and political quietism. Under the burden of this critique, and as a response to the general expansion of education and literacy, Sufism has been forced to assimilate new ideas and to make room for a new form of organization; the populist Islamic association. These developments culminated in the establishment of the Society of the Muslim Brothers.
On the splintering of the Muslim Brotherhood following Hama read Chris Kutschera,Wither the Syrian Muslim Brothers?, 1988.
Addendum: Bernard Haykel, a professor at New York University, who is also working on Salafi movements, writes this on the relationship between Sufism and Salafism:
As a rule of thumb, Salafis of the Wahhabi/Hanbali theological variety are anti-Sufi because they consider Sufism, in both its beliefs and practices, to consist of reprehensible innovations (bida`, sing. bid`a).
Unlike Salafis, the Muslim Brothers have historically not been doctrinaire about theological matters–but rather what I would call "broad mosque opportunists"–and therefore can be accepting of Sufism (as well as others, including Shiites). However, those Brothers who have adopted Wahhabi views, and a good number have done so, are likely to be theologically doctrinaire and opposed to Sufism and Shiism.
The Brotherhood types who are in the Wahhabi fold evince hatred and animosity to both Sufism and Shiism of the 12ever/Imami kind, and there isn't even a debate about the Alawi-Nusayris who fall beyond the pale of Islam as far as the Wahhabis/Salafis are concerned.
The Salafis of the Muhammad Abduh variety no longer exist, as far as I can tell, and certainly are not thought of by others as Salafis since this term has been appropriated/co-opted fully by Salafis of the Ahl al-Hadith/Wahhabi variety. In short, Salafis (if understood to be staunch Ahl al-Hadith/Wahhabi types) are viscerally opposed to Sufism and most forms of Islam that are not identical to their own–how many openly practicing and self-identifying Sufis are there in Najd? I know of one in Ha'il. Having said this, these staunch or doctrinaire Salafis are not of one kind, but rather come in different types with respect to questions of strict madhhab affiliation and political engagement or quietism.
As you can see, the answer is complicated. I would not agree that Syria's Sunnis are all Sufis today, nor are they all or even 50% Salafi–besides what do these labels really mean when it comes to politics? I would hazard that inasmuch as Sufism has been allowed deliberately to flourish by the Asad regime, those who choose to oppose Bashshar al-Asad are likely to be anti-Sufi and possibly, but not necessarily, identify as Salafi. Not sure if any of this helps answer your question. Best wishes, Bernard (Joshua responds: "Yes it does. Thanks.")
Joshua Landis will be in Paris for 5 days at a conference and will not be able to post until after May 17, alas.