Shaykh Daoud’s Blog

Sufism, Wahhabi-ism, and Imperial Antics

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The word “Sufism” is an Anglicism. Specifically it is the Englishing of a word, der Sufismus, invented by 19th Century German Orientalists – maybe Ignaz Goldziher or Gustav von Grünebaum – to render into their contemporary thought the Arabic word tasawwuf. This word itself is a kind of back-formation. It is an abstract verbal noun made up from sufi, meaning the kind of things Sufis do. And Sufi has an obscure etymology – in other words nobody knows what it came from. There have been various theories advanced, although there are three main ones.

One claims that it is an arabicisation of the Greek word σοφíα, meaning ‘wisdom’, though in this case the ‘s’ sound should be spelt with a ‘sin’ not a ‘sad’; another that it comes from the Arabic word souf, meaning ‘wool’, supposedly referring to the woollen garb they affected; the third suggestion would have it derived from the root verb safa (sad-fa-waw), ‘to become clear, unpolluted, pure’, though the verbal noun from this would properly be tasfiyya.

This last throws up the interesting cognate that gives the Aramaic nickname applied by Jesus to Simon bar Jonah – “Simon called Peter” – that is, Cephas, namely safwa or sifwa, meaning ‘the best’ or ‘choicest friend’, and by a typical semitic play on words safwa also means ‘rocks’ (πετρο∫ ‘petros’ being the Greek translation).

Naturally many latter-day Sufis opted for this last; though most academics prefer the ‘wool’ derivative. Whichever it came from, it seems to have been originally applied as a nickname, pejorative or otherwise, and eventually adopted by the people themselves.

An analogy for this comes from British-Irish-American-Canadian political history. In the 17th Century, about 1679, the English opponents of the succession of the Duke of York (later James II) to the throne, a group led by the 1st earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), were derisively termed Whiggamores (shortened to Whigs) from whiggamor, a cattle driver. This was originally a term of abuse used for Scottish Covenanters earlier in the century.

In the 18th Century they in turn capped this by calling their political opponents Tories (from the Gaelic tóraidhe ‘outlaw, robber, footpad’ from the verb tóir ‘to pursue, chase after’). By the final quarter of that century, each political group was apparently quite happy to use its own nickname to refer to itself. Today, although Whig is no longer used, the Conservatives usually call themselves Tories.

However, for most of their existence Sufis have not called themselves Sufis, nor their way tasawwuf. They have normally used the Arabic terms faqir (poor man), salik (traveller, seeker), ahlu-t tariqah (follower of the Way), or the Farsi darwish (supplicant, beggar).

Detractors often make a big thing out of the novelty of the term Sufi, along the lines of “it doesn’t appear in the Quran” or “it doesn’t appear in the hadith”. However, it is not alone in this. There are other words and phrases in common use that don’t either: tajwid, fiqh, seerah, siyar, madrassah, qanoun, dawlah, madh’hab, for example. And a number that are used in a different way from that of the Quran or hadith: e.g. Shi’ah, Sunnah (as the shorthand term for the beliefs of the ahlu-s sunnah wa-l jama’ah), or salaf. These terms are in common use, and have been for centuries, because they are handy epistemological tools – they neatly describe the thing being talked about so that the hearer or reader knows exactly what it is that is being discussed.

Many of the major figures of Islamic history and jurisprudence would be described, were the describer to be consistent, as “Sufis”. Included among these would be Abu Hurayrah the Companion (who stated that he had received ‘two cups of knowledge’ from the Prophet: “the contents of one you know; if you knew the contents of the other, you would kill me”), Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, Imam Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr, Imam Malik, Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali, or Imam ibn Hazm, for example.

Interestingly, considering their influence on the modernising movement known awkwardly as “Islamism”, one would have to include in this list Taqiyuddin ibn Taymiyyah, who was a follower of ‘Abdul Qadir al-Jaylani, Muhammad Rashid Rida, who was a Naqshbandi, and Hasan al-Banna al-shahid, who was a Shadhili-Hasafi.

There are, in essence, two ‘phases’ in the development of what would be called ‘Sufism’. The first would be up to the Mongol Invasions of the early to late 13th Century, and the second would be the period after that to the present day. The first was marked by individual seekers after wisdom, some of whom attracted pupils. Many are familiar with such names as Sari al-Saqati, Al Hasan al-Basri, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyyah, Imam al-Junayd, and the like. Then came the catastrophic invasion of Khorasan, Fars, Mesopotamia, and the Levant by Hulagu Khan and his Mongol Hordes, which was followed by the Ilkhanids, and the Timurids, and others. The societal collapse that accompanied these, led to people seeking out centres and personages around which to rebuild communities. Thus the importance of mashayikh, zawaya, and tara’iq developed out of this chaos as a vehicle for restoring order, learning, and trade.

So this second ‘phase’ becomes marked by the prominence of “Sufi Orders”, especially in the East and Central Asia, such as the Qadiriyyah and Naqshbandiyyah. And it is noteworthy that the chains (silsilah) of transmission of these Orders include the prominenti of the ahlu-s salaf: Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, Imam Qasim b. Muhammad b. Abi Bakr, Abu Hurayrah, Salman al-Farsi, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, and the Prophet Muhammad himself. The Naqshbandiyyah, for example, state that the first halqatu-dh dhikr took place in the Gharu-th Thawr during the Flight from Mecca involving the Prophet and his Companion Abu Bakr.

Among the criticisms directed at the Sufis are that they are an innovation, and that they are escapists spending all their time in the mosques and zawiyas and not engaging with the world. These are, however, difficult to sustain. The Naqshbandiyyah have frequently challenged the detractors to identify which of their dhikrs and practices are innovations without receiving any substantial indications. The Naqshbandis’ challenge remains open. General assertions are insufficient: which specific practices are innovations?

And given that all the anti-colonialist struggles of the later decades of the 19th Century and early 20th Century were led and conducted by Sufis the putative ‘otherworldliness’ is difficult to find: Imam Shamil in the Caucasus against the Russians in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s; Emir Abdel Qadir against the French in the 1830s in Algeria; the Banten Revolt in Java in 1888; Abdel Karim al-Khattabi in the Rif against the Spaniards and French in the 1920s; Omar al-Mukhtar against the Italians in Libya in the 1930s; and most of these leaders were acknowledged mainstream scholars and, in a couple of cases, judges.

The Basmachi Revolt against the Russian Communists in Central Asia from 1919 until about 1936 was almost entirely the work of the Naqshbandis. It is possible to see their influence in Sultangalievism, and it was certainly they along with the Qadiris (which the Soviets referred to as “the alternative religious leadership”) who kept Islam alive in Central Asia during the Communist hegemony. Many Sufis served in the Ottoman Armed Forces in World War 1 – in some cases whole battalions were manned by the followers of particular tariqahs.

It could be said that even with this history of resistance, they maintained a dialogue with the colonialists aimed at keeping the independence as far as possible, but certainly the integrity, of their peoples under foreign occupation, while learning as much as possible that was good and beneficial from the new power. They stood for continuity and tradition back to the Prophet, but with organic change and development, and the mitigation of the damage to their communities done by exposure to the colonialists.

It could be said that their methodology was that of a grudging retreat through a series of last ditches against the onslaught, relinquishing at each as little as possible while teaching and preserving the possibility of bouncing back to some status quo ante when the colonialists left, as they believed they would.

In marked contrast are the figures associated with the misnamed Salafi Movement.

The Salaf is the term used to describe the three generations of the Companions of the Prophet (the Sahabahs), the generation that followed them (the Followers, or Tabi’een), and the generation that followed that (the Followers of the Followers, or Tabi’eenu-t Tabi’een). In these three generations are to be found the ‘founders’ – or, more accurately, the eponymuses – of the four major Schools of Sunni jurisprudence (the madh’habs of the Malikis, Hanafis, Shafi’is, and Hanbalis) and many of the early Imams of the Shi’ah. It makes little sense, therefore, in the pursuit of a claim to be trying to restore the Salaf that these madh’habs should be rejected. Where else would one look for the Way of the Salaf?

This rejection can only be subversive of the structure of Islamic society, given that the madh’habs form the basis of Muslim communities across the world from west and north Africa to central China and South East Asia. And this is the role played by Wahhabi-ism since its inception.

Each of the major ‘names’ of this Salafi Movement is associated with ideas and practices that could only serve the interests of those alien powers that had the emasculation and reduction of Islam and Islamic communities as an aim of policy.

These names are Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792), Jamaluddin Afghani (Sayyid Muhammad bin Safdar Husayni Asadabadi)(1838-1897), Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), and Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935); of whom Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab is the key, hence the movement is often, and perhaps more accurately, called Wahhabi-ism.

He was born at Uyayna in the Najd (hence he is often called the Shaykh of the Najd) in the Banu Tamim tribe in 1703. His father, Abdul Wahhab al-Tamimi was a scholar at Medina and his brother Sulaiman eventually was a qadi (judge). Muhammad seems to have been taught at home and by attending the classes of certain other scholars in Medina, one of whom was the famous Jawi shaykh who became the Mufti of Mecca, Ahmad bin Zaini Dahlan. It was he who expelled Muhammad from Medina and the Jazeera as having severely heretical views, a decision that was endorsed by the man’s father (who disowned him) and brother.

At some point in his education Muhammad had developed some strange ideas, this may have been while travelling in Basra (where he also studied), Baghdad, and other places.

He resurrected the teachings of Taqiyuddin ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), an obscure scholar from Mongol times who was noteworthy among his contemporaries for espousing the doctrine of tashabbuh (that is that the attributes of God are physical ones, so that when the Quran says “God’s hand is above them” it means that literally). His contemporary namesake, the Shafi’ite jurisprudent Taqiyuddin ibnu-s Subki stated that because of the extent of his knowledge ibn Taymiyyah might just save himself from the Fire, but any who followed him were in danger of it.

It seems unlikely that Muhammad would have come across this figure unaided, and so it’s probable that he was being schooled with the ideas he eventually became notorious for. Who had been doing this remains conjectural.

After his expulsion from the Jazeera he went to Basra and Kuwait, where the Honourable East India Company had a factory that also served as an agency for the Intelligence Section of the Maritime Service of the Company. He received significant support from the Factor, acting on orders from Bombay, and Muhammad was eventually reinserted into the Jazeera to his birth place at Uyayna in 1740. But he was expelled from the place later that year, and invited to settle at Dar’iyyah (now Riyadh) by Muhammad ibn Saud, a client of the HEIC.

It is almost certain that the HEIC had spotted the opportunity for disruption and trouble-making in Ottoman domains, though it is unlikely that it realised at the time just how disruptive and corrosive Wahhabi-ism would prove to be.

The Banu Saud proved to be powerful partners, and eventually – nearly 200 years of bloody strife and chaos later – took over the whole peninsula making Wahhabi-ism the official religion. Oil wealth enabled them to spread the doctrine world-wide, buying control of access and the teaching of Islam in favour of Wahhabi-ism. They now teach that Muhammad’s father and brother recanted and accepted his doctrine, which is unlikely short of force majeure.

The Ottoman authorities then, and later during the 19th and 20th Centuries, pronounced with sound argumentation that Wahhabi-ism was a dangerous heresy and zandaqah.

After a lot of fighting, the Ottomans eventually regained control of the Arabian Peninsula from the Saud and Wahhabis, but not before those had massacred the populations of Taif, Mecca and destroyed many of the graves of the Companions in Medina. At one point the Ottoman rearguard during the withdrawal from Medina in 1813 was commanded by a Scot (Thomas Keith, sometime armourer with 78th Highlanders, the Ross-shire Buffs), known as Ibrahim Agha. For a while the Wahhabis were driven out. Some of them found a refuge in British India, others in Qajar Iran.

Later, towards the middle of the 19th Century, Sayyid Muhammad Safdar Husayni Asadabadi (known as Jamaluddin Afghani, and identified by the British as a Russian agent), who had been brought up in Iran as a Shiah, became influenced by Wahhabi-ism probably during his sojourn in Kabul. In 1868, while travelling at a leisurely pace from Kabul to Istanbul via Cairo, he met and inspired Muhammad ‘Abduh, who later became the Rector of Al Azhar University where Muhammad Rashid Rida from Tarablus in Syria (now Lebanon) became his pupil.

Afghani also introduced Abduh to the thinking and teachings of European revolutionary socialism associated with the Risorgiamento, Giuseppe Mazzini, and the Giovine Italia (“Young Italy”) movement. Giovine Italia became the blueprint for the Young Egypt and Young Turks movements. Abduh spent some time in Paris, where he published the newsletter Al Manar, before returning to Cairo and Al Azhar, where he eventually became Grand Master of the Cairo Masonic Lodge. Afghani died in Istanbul in an Ottoman prison.

Wahhabi-ism has proved to be a corrosive influence in the Muslim World, working solely for the interest of alien powers, and with their encompassing of the downfall of the Ottoman Empire during World War 1 there remains no political or religious authority to stem its spread or to check its constant mutation into more extreme and destructive forms of takfir.

As the hadith states, “from the Najd comes fitnah (turmoil) and nifaq (hypocrisy) [or in a variant “in that place are earthquakes (zalazil), and seditions (fitan)], and in that place shall rise the devil’s horn [qarnu-sh shaytan].”

The Wahhabis have tried for some time to claim that the Najd referred to is not in the Jazeera but in Iraq, and have attempted to flood reference works with this. However this claim of theirs doesn’t stand up to informed analysis, and even their hero Taqiyuddin ibn Taymiyyah was quite clear and categorical that the Najd was in the Jazeera and was quite different from Iraq.

© D Rosser-Owen 2009 All Rights Reserved


Written by Daoud Rosser-Owen

June 7, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. I found very informative. The article is professionally written and I feel like the author knows the subject very well. keep it that way.

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    June 26, 2009 at 6:22 pm

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