Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Britain's Sufism

By Ahmed Ibrahim, IOL Correspondent


Ali attributes the popularity of Sufism to a rising trend to "see the beauty of Islam" away from any "extremist influences."

LONDON — At St. Peter’s Church Hall in Maida Vale, West London, you can hear spiritual musical chants that have nothing to do with Christianity.

The name of Allah is changed by dozens of people who meet every week to attend a Sufi circle at the rented church.

It is one of many Sufi circles held around the country, in what many observers see as a sign of the rise of Sufism in UK.

The specific number of Sufi followers among Britain's estimated 2.6 million Muslims is not available.

Howwever, Mohamed Ali, a Sufi activist of a Pakistani origin, says Sufism is getting very popular in the European country.

"I can tell by the sheer number of people who attend Sufi circles and by mosques which are packed out to attend circles chaired by a Sufi Sheikh."

Muslim scholars have divided Sufism into two broad categories to determine its compatibility or not with Shari`ah.

Firstly, genuine and authentic Sufism, practiced by Sufi masters such as Junyad Al-Baghdadi and Abu Sulayman Al-Darani, which is in perfect agreement with the Qur'an and Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

Secondly, pseudo-Sufism which includes those who advocate cultic practices or customs that are contrary to the Sunnah and those who have mixed Sufism with speculative mysticism/Neo-Platonism.

Scholars consider those to be charlatans and impostors.


Free food is offered to attendees at each circle.

Ali, the Sufi activist, attributes the popularity of Sufism to a rising trend to "see the beauty of Islam" away from any "extremist influences."

That is the same reason why the government has decided following the 7/7 London bombings to back Sufi trends.

Two years ago, politicians from the main parties attended the launch of the Sufi Muslim Council (SMC) at the House of Commons.

Ruth Kelly, then Secretary of State for Communities, also showed up and praised the council's "core principles condemning terrorism in all its forms."

The SMC makes its mission clear: Facing extremism and staying away from any politicized representation of Islam.

On its website, it criticizes classical scholars and groups such as the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas.

"Our focus is on British Muslims who follow Sufism," says Haris Rafiq, a co-founder of the council.

"There are many organisations that do lobby on foreign policy and what is happening in Palestine or Iraq."

Indeed, politics was absent at the Maida Vale Sufi circle.

The night began with Sufi followers performing religious chants before sharing a meal as is the custom.

"We are only involved in dhikr (remembering Allah)," Amjad Patt, one of many immigrants who had come to Britain from the Indian subcontinent where Sufi orders are widespread, told IOL while attending the St. Peter’s Church circle.

"…that is what Allah asked us: do dhikr and do not involve in politics," he argued.


"Muslims cannot stay away from politics as Sufism asks them to do," insists Dr. Abdullah. (IOL photo)

However, the spread of Sufism has been met with strong opposition from the main Muslim organisations and community members.

"Sufism does not work in the UK, as it only appeals to older people, who make a small number of youth-dominated Muslim community," says Dawoud Abdullah, deputy secretary general of the umbrella Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).

"Muslims cannot stay away from politics as Sufism asks them to do. They have their own concerns – either internal or external – that can be only handled via politics."

The MCB, the largest Muslim community body in the UK with hundreds of affiliated groups, has been outspoken against the government’s foreign policies in the Middle East.

It also helped organize the biggest demonstration against the government before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

Domestically, the MCB campaigns against what it sees as discrimination against British Muslims.

Azzam Tamimi, a community activist of Palestinian origin, is equally critical of Sufi orders.

"The government supports Sufi orders only because they are closer to its policies," he charged.

"… because these orders do not criticize the government, … because these orders generally encourage the separation between life and religion."

Ali, the Sufi activist who uses his skills as webmaster to spread the word on Sufism through articles and inviting people to circles, fires back.

"Unfortunately, those opponents – from a Wahhabi extremist school - have a stronger voice, because they are backed by the Saudi government which has a lot of money," he claims.

"Islam is based on Rahma (mercy), which means that it allows for different forms of Islam, including Sufism, to be there. Isn’t it?"


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