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Religion Library: Sufism

Modern Age

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Today, there are numerous Sufi orders in Europe and the United States, as well as throughout the majority-Muslim world. Many of these are tariqas  that have branches in the Muslim world and that adhere to the principles of mainstream Islam. In other cases, some Western orders encourage non-Muslims to study mysticism, although they maintain the connection to a shaykh.  Regardless of how open, most Sufi orders today continue to promote the idea of a silsila going back to the teachings and authority of the Prophet. The Banu Alawi tariqa, also known as the Habaib, is one such group that calls itself a "Sufi spiritual path leading to Allah as shown by the blessed descendants of the Holy Prophet in the Ba 'Alawi family from Hadramawt in Yemen and Hijaz in Saudi Arabia." This description of the Habaib is actually taken from their Facebook profile page, demonstrating the technological acumen with which contemporary Sufism operates. The Habaib's Facebook page alone has nearly 3,000 members from all over the world.

Sufism appeared in Europe in the early 20th century, in a Swiss branch of an Algerian tariqa known as the Alawiyya. From there it spread to France, England, and the United States. The Naqshabandi order is well established in the United States. Other popular orders include the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and the Helvati-Jerrahi Order. With continuous chant available online, biographies of the order's shaykhs, and links to articles with teachings and databases of multimedia sources, it is a premier example of contemporary Sufism. It even features its own social networking site called the Haqqani fellowship. An interested disciple may even make the official oath of allegiance, the bay'a, to this order online. Underneath a photo of disciples undergoing the oath of allegiance, the instructions read:

For those people who cannot reach one of our authorized representatives, the Shaykh has granted permission to take initiation by reciting the baya` text along with this recording.

Clearly, Sufi groups in the U.S. have made themselves comfortable in the world of social networking and the latest technology. This is not to say that opponents of Sufism don't exist in the modern world. For many Islamic reformers whose roots lie in the late colonial 19th century and postcolonial 20th, Sufism is an aberration. This is especially true of the Wahhabis who originated in Saudi Arabia and whose puritanical brand of Islam deems most of Sufi practice heretical innovation. For these modern Muslims, Sufism is not legitimately Islamic.

Secularism was the opponent of Sufism in the case of Turkey, when Ataturk outlawed the practices and organization of Sufi tariqas in 1925. Some Sufi retreats, called tekkes (a term occasionally translated as "lodges," though they do not serve as permanent residences for all members), in Turkey were closed down or turned into museums. Practitioners were forced to carry on their group prayer and dhikr sessions in secret.

Sufism has now become a universal phenomenon, with a spectrum of representative tariqas that range from the strictly orthodox to the universalistic and non-Islamic. Like mysticism in other traditions, the Sufi dimension of Islam endures. It continues to exert an influence on the music, art, and popular practice of millions of Muslims all over the world, and no matter how controversial or marginalized by establishment Islam, Sufism remains the mode of millions of everyday practitioners who also consider themselves fully within the boundaries of orthodoxy, whether Sunni or Shi'i.

 
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