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Religion Library: Sufism

Vision for Society

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Sufism continues to be a growing and vibrant presence in the contemporary Islamic world. In spite of the fact that some modern reformist movements, especially Wahhabism, have attacked the legitimacy of Sufism, claiming that it is blasphemous to revere saints' tombs or to play music or to sing as part of religious ceremonies, its appeal and impact continue to spread through Muslim majority and Muslim minority countries, including the United States. The broad appeal of Sufism's egalitarian approach to an individual's personal and inner journey toward God continues to resonate within the mainstream Muslim world.

Saints and Sufi orders continue to exist in the Islamic world, from Sudan to Egypt to Senegal and Muslim India. Longstanding orders such as the Qadariyya, Shadhaliyya, and Naqshabandiyya are still popular. All of these orders continue to emphasize zuhd . Yet this type of asceticism need not manifest as abject poverty, and not all Sufis throughout history have emphasized literal poverty. Many wealthy Sufi orders endowed lodges, schools, mosques, hospitals, pilgrims' hostels, and other charitable endowments.

The principle of zuhd, of being unattached to the world, is often described by Sufis as the maxim "Die before you die." This implies that one is no longer attuned to the transient earthly life, but has turned all of one's attention to God, to the Divine Face. The Sufi practices a discipline aimed at the purification of the soul, tazkiyat al-nafs. This is not to say that Sufis are always insular in their communities. A Sufi ethic has always been concerned with playing a role in society at large. Festivals, saints' days, and religious holidays in communities with Sufi lodges tend to center around the lodge itself, which serves as a site of pilgrimage for all Muslims, whether or not they are Sufi practitioners themselves.

In this way, Sufism is not entirely an inner or theoretical practice. Its moral dimensions can be found enacted in relationships with society's downtrodden and unfortunate. Many Sufi lodges are attached to hospitals, soup kitchens, or schools funded exclusively by pious endowments called awqaf. The medieval Sufi Al-Junayd characterized Sufism as "feeling the hunger of the needy, the abandonment in the desert of the homeless, the pain of the ill and injured." This emphasis on the poor and indigent contributed enormously to the proliferation of Sufi charitable foundations, including schools, mosques, and public fountains.

All of these types of institutions serve the wider public, as did the old institution of the ribat, a fortress frontier outpost in which Sufi missionaries and members of conquering armies resided in the early medieval period. In fact, it was the ribat that gave way to the eventual establishment of more generic Sufi lodges, which served the small Sufi community that lived in them as well as provided educational and residential services for the broader community. Sufism has long been characterized by the dual purposes, therefore, of retreat and engagement, of inner spiritual development and outer charitable works. The Sufi's detachment from the world consists, therefore, not in denying the world in order to transcend it, but in learning how to engage with the world properly.

 
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