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September 11, 2014

Sufism is the key to understand Islam, not the Islam of ISIS

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

More by this author...

Today, many of the best-selling books and published op-eds on Islam present a version of Islam, which is very different from the one I know. Worst still, news coverage highlights the Islam practiced by terrorists and extremists.

No wonder many Canadians don't know which Islam is the true Islam?

But what about the Islam practiced by millions of Muslims the world over including the vast majority of those in Canada?

Why only Muslims who use violence to achieve their political aims are getting the media attention and are rarely Muslims noted for their tolerance, kindness, love, understanding and working hard for public good?

Statistically, for the last 1435 years vastly more Muslims were perhaps good global citizens than any other religious group and they are more representative of Islam than not.

Today there are over 1.2 billion Muslims. Even if there are 1,200 of us who mange every year to commit heinous crimes, as ISIS does today, this is just like Canada producing some 30 hard-core criminals every year. This is hardly the statistics one needs to blame Canada for breeding criminals.

But how we Canadians should understand Islam and Muslims?

For better or worse, in Islam there is no “Church” or single source of authoritative interpretation. Muslims, however, at the very most consider certain scholars are better qualified than others to interpret Islam.  No one, however, is so well qualified that his or her interpretation is exclusively binding forever.

This situation might be expected to result in anarchy, but has not. 

This is because there is general agreement on the legitimate sources in Islam: the word of God recorded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the divinely-inspired instructions and comments of His Prophet, recorded in voluminous collections and studied by scholars and the pious ever since.  There is also a general respect for the past consensus of the community of Muslims, in practice usually the consensus of the scholars among it. 

For example, the Qur’an forbids the drinking of wine. The consensus of the community has been that other alcoholic drinks are much the same thing as wine.

There has, however, been disagreement about coffee, tobacco, and hashish.  The final consensus was that coffee was allowed.  There has been periodic disagreement about the status of tobacco, and so in the absence of a consensus it remains possible to hold either view; much the same is true of hashish.

Disagreement among Muslim scholars is generally limited either to details such as these or to very broad questions of interpretation and significance, such as whether it is more important to ensure that a ruler is just or to avoid civil strife. 

Whatever views they may hold on particular matters, most Muslims and their scholars are in agreement about most of Islam, and this large area of general agreement may be regarded as the ‘core’ of Islam, or even as ‘Islam.’ 

The Sufi emphasis on Islamic spirituality, which is most needed today, is one reason why Sufis are sometimes seen as quietist, withdrawing from the world.  Another reason is the general Sufi reluctance to become heavily involved in political activity.

For most Sufis, the objective is to be withdrawn from the world while living in it, to participate in life while not being the slave of material concerns and desires.

The term Sufism has come to designate those who seek a way toward inner awakening and enlightenment. The term was not current at the time of the Prophet, but came to be used only two centuries after his death.

After the Prophet's death, most of the basic tenets of Islam were being ignored, giving way to cultural and ethnic habits.

So some Muslims started devoting their lives to prayer and the discipline of inner purification. These Muslims turned their energy against the evil within themselves.

Another important point: It is unfair to attribute today’s conditions of a given Muslim society, socially, politically or economically to Islam.

Take the whole question of gender in Islam. Muslim women generally being seen in the West as oppressed and suffering.  Some Muslim women do undoubtedly suffer, but it is incorrect to see Islam as oppressive to women.

The sufferings of Muslim women do not derive from Islam, but from economic or political circumstances, or from an individual’s cruelty or stupidity, as elsewhere.  Women suffering may also derive from cultural factors independent of religion. 

The culture of Islamic societies should in theory derive purely from Islam, but in practice many other factors have influenced the development of these societies, and the practice of a particular society on a particular point may often have little to do with religion, and sometimes even directly contradicts religion.

But understanding Islamic spirituality is one of the best available routes into an understanding of Islam itself: not of the political ramifications of Islam, but of Islam as a lived religion, of the reality which lies at the heart of Islamic societies past and present.

And Muslims has excellent opportunity to practice Islamic spirituality right here in Canada, to teach it to their children and to share it (not to preach it) with their neighbors.

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