Damascene Sufism, the antidote to ISIS

When the Islamic State stormed the city of al-Mayadeen in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zour along the Euphrates River, they struck with particular vengeance at the homes of Syrian Sufis. Members of the Sufi order were arrested; their clerics were flogged, their spiritual corners torn down. Sufism, after all, is the exact opposite of ISIS and its distorted interpretation of Sunni Islam. Both are Muslims of course, just like Hitler and Churchill were Christians. If allowed to run society, Syrian and Iraqi Sufis can probably rally millions, crafting a wide power base for themselves that exposes the religious flaws and deficiencies of ISIS.

Only Sufis have the religious tools, intellectual skills, and political cunning to dismantle ISIS. That is precisely why they are excommunicated by ISIS, seen as far more of a threat than Christians, Alawites, and Muslim Shiites. Warplanes and smart bombs alone will never succeed at eradicating ISIS and nor will God-loving Sufi clerics armed with nothing but religious hymns, chants, and copies of the Holy Quran. Hand-in-hand, however, military might and spiritual Sufism might—just might—spell out the physical and ideological destruction of ISIS.

Sufism is an order of peaceful mystics that once reigned in both Damascus and Baghdad during Ottoman times. It discards ISIS Salafism as un-Islamic and bases all of its teachings on the Sunni Muslim version of Islamic History. Sufi Mujtahids(diligent scholars) have wide authority to interpret religious issues, and take action when not otherwise explicitly mentioned in the Holy Quran. Among those things is how Muslims ought to pray five times a day. Even the form of prayer is debatable for Sufis; connectivity to God can also be done through spiritual dance and music. In ISIL-land, music and dance are a capital offense, punishable by death.

The Sufis are an all-loving order, strictly banning the killing of any person who believes in one God. ISIS slits the throat of those who don’t utter the shahada: “There is only one God and Mohammad is his Prophet.” Christians and other minorities are by no means excommunicated—takfiri thought is fully banned in Sufi Islam. The rules of where jihad applies are extremely strict and case-sensitive, making Sufism very non-violent. Like all Muslims they too believe in a caliphate but this caliph, they claim, needs to come “through brotherly love and fluttering hearts”—rather than big swords and long beards.

While ISIS refer to it as an Islamic State, Sufis call it “Dawlet al-Arwah“ or a “State of (Good and Loving) Spirits.” God is everywhere to be found within this state and He needs to be loved not feared. Forcing anybody into Islam is strictly banned and so is any monopoly of the faith and how to reach God. The name of God is chanted in hymns—rather than shouted when slitting throats.

Throughout history Damascus and Baghdad were the breeding ground for Sufism. Because of their Sufi past, neither city produced fanatic clerics and nor did they absorb Salafi Islam or its offspring, Wahabism. Although ISIS stands at both their doorsteps today, it has been unable to penetrate either city. During Ottoman times, the Sufi clerics of Damascus mentored Sultan Abdulhamid II. So influenced were the Ottomans by Sufism that they toyed with the idea of elevating it into an official sect of Islam and making it the official hallmark of the Ottoman State.

Some of the Muslim World’s finest men were Damascus-related Sufis. One was the Damascus-based 8th Umayyad Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul-Aziz (682-720), who withdrew his Muslim army from faraway lands and said that no more conquests would follow for the Umayyad Dynasty. Peace, rather than conquest, was on his mind. Another Sufi was the Muslim Sultan Saladin, who after defeating the Crusaders and entering Jerusalem, refused to destroy a church or kill a Christian. He too lived and died in Damascus. A third was the Damascus-based Algerian Prince Abdulkader El Djazairi, who saved sixteen thousand Christians from a stampede of nineteenth century fanatics in 1860, taking them as refugees at his home.

Last weekend one of his grandchildren—also a Sufi who heads a foundation named after him—issued a statement saying that the victims of the Paris Attacks, especially Christians among them, are martyrs and should be mourned as such by Islam. Other prominent Sufis include Rumi, Persian poet Shams Tabrizi, Libyan resistance leader Omar Mukhtar, and Abdul Qadir Geilani of Baghdad, whose Sufi order, al-Qadriyya.

Damascus was once home to two extremes—the spiritual founder of Salafism Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) and the “Great Teacher” of Sufism, Ibn Arabi (1165-124). Both figures are iconic to their religious following and both were buried in Damascus. ISIS holds Ibn Taymiyya in high esteem; the Damascenes speak very little of him. Contemporary clerics shunned his views and quarantined him in society and he was constantly locked up for his views at the Damascus Citadel. No street is named in his honor, certainly no neighborhood. They did create one for Ibn Arabi, however, on the slopes of Mount Qassioun next to his mausoleum, and they swear by his name until present. Ibn Arabi was seemingly tailor-fit for the Damascenes, peaceful, spiritual, practical, and non-violent.

Unable to find a wide audience in Damascus, Ibn Taymiyya’s influence traveled to the desert, where it survived the harsh winds of Arabia and laid foundations of the modern Saudi Kingdom. His words were rough and rigid, just like the desert. The Sufis were soft and flexible, just like Damascus.

There are 15 million Sufis worldwide, with Damascus and its Grand Umayyad Mosque as their capital. They need to be promoted at schools and mosque pulpits, given prime access to television networks worldwide. This campaign needs to go hand-in-hand with a systematic de-Sunnification of ISIS; telling the world that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his thugs represent neither Sunni Muslims nor Islam. Only then will the world come an inch closer to actually defeating ISIS.

Huffington Post, 24 November 2015