Egyptian Sufis

Abd al-Malik grew up in Neuhof, a bleak housing project outside Strasbourg, France. In Neuhof, hoodlum culture competed with resurgent Islam to give French minority youth a sense of self-esteem and belonging. “[Islam] is what was going on where I lived,” Malik said. “For someone who had spiritual needs, it was much easier and more natural to find an imam than a priest.”

In 1994, after living as a drug dealer and a thief, Malik joined the grim Tablighi sect of Islam, which taught a rigid moral code that helped lift him out of drug addiction and crime. Malik grew a beard, donned a white djellaba, and set out on a mission to “Islamize everything around us.” The Tablighis preach non-violence, but they have theological precepts that echo those of jihadis. In 1995, two militant “brothers” invited Malik to help them bomb the police headquarters in Strasbourg. He refused.

Malik left the Tablighis after his “emir” (leader) suggested that he give up rap music. In 1999, Malik took a pilgrimage to a remote Moroccan village, where he met the Sufi saint Sidi Hamza. Malik felt himself “transported into an ocean of love.” This prompted Malik to embrace Sufism, a brand of Islam that eschews politics and stresses an interior, mystical realization of faith. Malik considers his previous interpretation of Islam to be restrictive and sexist.

Today, Malik and his wife share childcare and homemaking responsibilities. Although Neuhof seethes with anti-Semitism, Malik’s new consciousness prompted him to visit Auschwitz. Following September 11, Malik made a CD about how the attacks on the World Trade Center made him ashamed to be a Muslim. “Neither fundamentalism nor extremism,” he sings. “Me, I don’t mix politics and faith.”

In 2004, Malik published the first of many autobiographical books, May Allah Bless France!, a rebuttal to the extremist pamphlet “Allah Curse France.” In 2008, Malik was named a Knight of the Order of the Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. In 2014, Makik turned May Allah Bless France! into a film, which won the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Muslim Hippies

Sufi orders formed in the ninth and tenth centuries as spiritual movements to bypass the legalism of the ulama and the worldliness and luxury of the caliphate. At a time when Islam was becoming dogmatic, claiming that Muhammad’s religion was the only true faith and that the Qur’an was the only valid scripture, Sufis saw God everywhere, even in pagan traditions. At a time when the ulama had closed the gates of ijtihad, regarding revelation as complete, Sufis sought new revelations from God. At a time when the ulama preached a God of law, Sufis spoke of God as love.

Islam’s first Sufis were itinerant mystics who traveled through the caliphate seeking intimate knowledge of God. Sufis wore coarse woolen garments (sūfs), the clothing of the poor. Sufis eschewed involvement in politics, preaching that “if you cannot change kings, then change yourself.”

Sufis developed a tradition of devotion to Jesus. The Qur’an mentions Jesus’ virginal conception and his miracles, but otherwise tells us little about the person of Jesus. Sufis, however, preserved and transmitted a great variety of stories about Jesus. Like a Sufi, Jesus valued spirituality above material things, practiced asceticism, and taught his disciples to prepare their souls for doomsday.

According to one Sufi tradition, “the day that Jesus was raised to heaven, he left behind nothing but a woolen garment (sūf), a slingshot, and two sandals.” One of the pioneers of Sufism, Mansur al-Hallaj, was executed after being accused of secretly practicing a brand of Christianity.

The thirteenth-century Sufi Persian poet Rumi held that all existence is a manifestation of the same divine reality. Rumi stressed not the performance of the five pillars, but the quest to find God through the gateway of the heart. In an imperfect yet memorable analogy, William Dalrymple writes, “Sufism, with its emphasis on love rather than judgment, represents the New Testament of Islam.”

Sufis became Islam’s best evangelists, carrying Islam to Central and East Asia, Indonesia, India, and sub-Saharan Africa. As Sufi seekers grew in number, Sufi brotherhoods (tariqas) set up lodges where mendicants could gather together and learn from each other. By the eleventh century, these lodges had become sophisticated schools of mysticism.

In India and Indonesia, Sufism absorbed many of the traditions, rituals, and habits of pre-Islamic religions. Today, these traditions are passed on in staged events in which musicians lead massive crowds of devotees in ecstatic songs of devotion (the zikr, mawlid, and the shalawat). These movements bear some resemblance to charismatic and Pentecostal revivalism within Christianity.

Islamists have always seen Sufis as their greatest adversaries. When the Wahhabis came to power in the Arabian peninsula, they implemented a puritanical regime that outlawed traditionalist practices such as veneration of the Pirs, commemoration of religious holidays, the rhythmic repetition of the names and attributes of Allah (zikr), and devotional acts centered on the Prophet Muhammad (mawlid).

When the Wahhabis conquered Mecca and Medina, they destroyed the tombs of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions, including pilgrimage sites that marked the birthplace of Muhammad and his family. The Wahhabis banned music and flowers from the sacred cities, and they forbade Sufi and Shi'i Muslims from participating in haj