Sufism in Modern Times

During the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the major Sufi movements in Africa and Asia were often connected to mainstream Islamic movements. The Sufis were the elite of their societies, and often led the reform movements or opposition to oppression and foreign or colonial domination. Thus, for example, they were deeply involved in political movements such as the uprisings in Morocco and Algeria against the French, and the rebuilding of society and Islamic governance in Libya, which was carried out largely by members of the Sanusi Order. In northern Nigeria, Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio (d. 1817), a member of the Qadiri Order, led the religious war against the Habe rulers who had failed to govern according to the Islamic Law, which had led to the imposition of arbitrary taxes, general corruption, oppression and the dwindling of Islamic morality both at the popular and at the courtly levels. Further eastward, Shaykh Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi (d. 1885), a member of the Tsemani Order, successfully opposed attempts at British colonial rule in Sudan. Similar phenomena occurred in the East as well. For Example, the Naqshbandi Sufis and Shah Wali’ullah challenged the British colonial power in India.

Thus the Sufis were in action in many countries during the colonial era, opposing the colonial dismantling of Islamic governance and attempting to revive and sustain original Islam. They often formed or were at the heart of strong social groupings, and had great followings in many parts of the world. What kept many of these movements coherent and strong was the fact that during the nineteenth century people were not mobile, and the control or ownership of land, together with the influence of long-established cultural traditions, played an important role in the stability of society. However during the twentieth century, the situation began to change radically and rapidly.

The Western colonization of most of the Muslim land was almost complete by the end of the First World War. After that, the advent of secular and often Western appointed or approved "client" rulers set the scene. Religious and Sufi interests and influences became of secondary importance, due to the rapid erosion of past and traditional values and lifestyles, and it became increasingly difficult and dangerous to follow the original way of Islam in its entirety in the Muslim lands. In contrast to what was happening in the East, we find many spiritual organisations and societies springing up in the West, often started by Western seekers of knowledge. The fact that many people from the Western societies embraced pseudo-religious movements, such as those of the Baha’i and Subud, as well as various branches of Buddhism, Hinduism and other minor new religions or revived versions of old ones, shows the growing thirst and interest in spiritual knowledge in the West, where the various versions of Christianity which were mind-or emotion-based, rather than ‘heart’ "based, had failed to provide any real spiritual nourishment for several centuries. More influential than these various movements were the Theosophist and Masonic movements. By the early twentieth century, we find that there was a great deal of interest in spiritualism in both Europe and North America.

The work of the orientalists who attempted to explore the spiritual dimension of the Eastern religions " albiet from within their own peculiar conceptual framework " including Islam, contributed to the increasing interest in spiritualism and the search for mystical experience in the West, by means of their writings and translations of original works on Eastern traditions, art, culture, philosophies and religions. Sufism began to arrive in the West alongside many other real or pseudo-spiritual movements. The arrival of so many Indian gurus and Buddhist masters coincided with the advent of interest in Sufism. By the middle of the twentieth century, we find quite a number of Sufi societies and movements springing up in Europe and North America, some of them founded by genuine Sufis and some by pseudo-sufis. As time went by, more information about Sufism and Islam on the whole became available in the West. The oil crisis in the West and the petrol boom in a number of Middle Eastern countries also helped in increasing contact with the Middle East and the Arabic language and information about Islam. Then came the revolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 which has, ever since then, generated a global awakening of interest in the Islamic tradition. It will not be out of context to mention here that Imam Khomeni’s former residence and the place where he gave audience to his people in the north of Tehran is itself a Sufi mosque and sanctuary. In fact Imam Khomeni concentrated on the science of Sufism and gnosis during his early years at the religious school in Qum, and his early writings were mainly concerned with the inner meaning of night vigils, night prayers and self-awakening.

It is important that we do not confuse the spiritual qualities of an individual with outer events. Imam Ali, the master of all Sufis, had only war on his hands during his years as the leader of Muslim community. Outer events can sometimes confuse the onlooker and conceal the light of such beings.

As for the state of Sufism in the West in the more recent past, we observe in conclusion that many of the groups that had accepted Sufism in order to benefit from some of its disciplines, doctrines, practices or experiences have begun to disintegrate. These groups of the "new age" movement which embraced a number of ideas derived from Sufism are breaking apart because their way of life is not in harmony with the mainstream of original Islam, and accordingly they do not have the outer protection which is necessary to protect and ensure the safety of the inner movement. Thus during the last few decades of this century, we observe that most Sufi movements in the West have either been strengthened by holding on to the outer practices of Islam, or weakened and degenerated by not doing so.