Stefan Reichmuth's Sufism: Inexplicable States and Political Links

By Sabah Zwein

Stefan Reichmuth, professor of Islamic Studies, was one of the speakers at the international workshop-panel titled "The Early Period of Ottoman Rule in Syria - Internal Exchange, Integration with the Empire, Ties With Europe" held in Beirut under the auspices of the German Orientalist Institute. In his presentation, "The Integration of Sufi Traditions in the Ottoman Middle East (17th and 18th centuries)," Reichmuth addressed Sufi organizations and movements in Syria during the Ottoman rule, highlighting their interactions with the state, their literary contributions, and their intellectual and political activities.

What and where do you teach?
I teach Islamic Studies and History of Islam at Bochum University in Germany. My primary interest is on the modernist period starting in the 16th century, and specifically the comparative study of Islamic regions with particular emphasis on Islam in Africa. My general interest, however, is teaching the history of Islam in the various Islamic regions, and hence my interest in Sufism.

In your lecture you mentioned that Sufism flourished in Syria during the Ottoman Period.
I would say that Sufism flourished in all parts of the Ottoman Empire, as well as in Anatolia and Egypt, in addition to Syria.

What were the reasons for this prosperity?
The reasons differ depending on the region. The way I see it, Sufism is a kind of civic organization, allowing people who are outside the circles of political power to organize their lives according to Sufi principles. They do this to create collective and regional boundaries that are independent of the political establishment.

Did the Sufis aim to weaken the Ottoman authority?
No, but it was an organization, as is the case in any society, where various groups or religious congregations based on friendship are formed. I see Sufism in this sense. Often there are organizations that are formed by immigrants to keep the memory of their home-cities or their homeland close to heart. In such a role, Sufis formed a bridge between the various institutions and the immigrants and, as a result, were able to perform certain difficult social tasks.

Since this type of Sufism confines itself to being a social organization, why did they not remain faithful to early Islam?
Islamic society did not have many varieties of social organizations. Sufism was one such social organization that prospered in various countries and against various historical backgrounds, and especially prospered under the rule of a foreign authority. As such, and to a certain degree, it represented a type of opposition although in most cases this opposition was not clearly defined.Often times the conqueror adopts the beliefs of the conquered and prays to the same saints. This is what the Mamluks did, and also the Ottomans.

Do you mean that the Ottomans had Sufis?
Sufis had a great influence on the Ottoman authority. The Mevlevis (a Sufi group) had a semi- official stature. For example, they were always present during coronations. It is true that Sufis faced opposition from the authorities, but at the same time they enjoyed a reasonable degree of power within the Ottoman ruling class.

Was Sufism in those days considered a deviation from the doctrine of Islam?
No, not at all. At that time, Sufism was the true Islamic religion. That is how it was regarded, and Islam could not have continued or prospered without its spirit. It was the legacy of al-Ghazzali, who was very popular among the Ottomans and Arabs. If, on the other hand, Sufism appeared at times to be outside the dominant religion, that was mainly for political reasons, for after the 18th century it became a source of power and many of its leaders took over governments, such as what happened in the Sanusiyah and Libya. Another example is Abdul Qader in Algeria who fought against the Europeans. In this fashion they gained power in political circles and gained knowledge of the important issues, a fact that made the public authorities, which had friendly associations with the official religious authorities, fight these peripheral movements that functioned outside their control. This was the case with the Ottomans as it was later with the Arab governments. But the most severe criticism of Sufism came during the Wahabi period, which led to the present opposition against Sufism throughout the Islamic world.

Does the Sufi movement still exist today?
There are Sufi groups that are powerful and popular, not only in Egypt but throughout North Africa and also in Indonesia, India, and other Islamic countries.

What was the reason for al-Hallaj's prosecution?
It is a complicated story. His problem with Islamic religion was his "identification" with God, and his unification with Him so that they became one. He was criticized because he exaggerated his experience declaring that he was so lost in God that he had become part of Him. However, we need to keep in mind that a lot of political considerations had a role in his indictment, which had undermined his story.

Was he the only one who promoted such a Sufi practice?
Others did not go that far. For example, al-Ghazzali remained within the bounds of traditional Sufism, or at least he would not have gone as far as al-Hallaj.

What is the Sufi doctrine in the first place?
Its primary emphasis is cleansing the heart and mind so that the Sufi becomes a receptacle for God's blessings and is empowered to have knowledge of Him. It calls for the elimination of any obstacle that would prevent an encounter between man and God, and for becoming oblivious to anything that is not God. In other words, it is the act of emptying the heart of everything and refilling it only with God.

But it seems that this would place the Sufi on the same path that was followed by al-Hallaj.
I cannot be sure. I am not a Sufi. At any rate, we have a vast body of Sufi literature where we find what is calledshathat (roaming or changing states), which are inexplicable, contradictory, and strange states experienced by Sufis. Some prefer to remain silent about these and not to divulge their secrets.

Is it a question of secrets they do not wish to reveal, or is their silence caused by not being able to find the appropriate words to describe such extraordinary states?
It is true that these are inner experiences, and it is not proper for them to blather about them without guidance.

Did many Sufis write about their inner experiences as al-Hallaj did?
Most of them did not write, but the movement left a great literary legacy in modern times. In the 16th century we notice a lot of autobiographical writing. These accounts of personal experiences became a popular literary genre. In Turkish Ottoman literature there was also a tendency towards autobiography and travel narratives. Furthermore, Sufism embraces poetry, complex poetry in particular, and thus we find Sufi poems in many languages in the Islamic World. For example, in the Hindu culture we find a great deal of Sufi literature written in Urdu, and similarly in Farsi.

Why is India so prominent in the Sufi literature, especially when it is not an Islamic culture?
We find some Islamic roots in India, which, although it did not belong to the Islamic civilization, had interacted with a variety of other civilizations. Furthermore, the general environment in India is predisposed to such intellectual and psychological tendencies, and these are supported by religious leaders irrespective of their religious affiliations. At any rate, it is difficult to clearly identify in Sufism what is Islamic and what is not, but the framework and the structure are always Islamic.

Is every Sufi in India a Moslem?
Yes. There is a body of Persian literature that has been influenced by Sufism through the writings of Indian Sufis who wrote in Urdu to spread Islam.

Have there been any Sufi Hindus?
We find in India many holy figures, whose affiliation to one religion or another is difficult to discern. They may even be affiliated to more than one religion at the same time. The same situation applies to the scholars. They may be Hindu, but they also embrace Islam. Honoring saints in India is a multifaceted issue. Even here in Lebanon, there are Christian holy burial grounds that are visited by Muslims.

Translated from the Arabic by Basil Samara

This article appeared in Vol. 8, no. 38 (Winter 2002).


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