The Characterization of Sufism as a Separate Sect Within Islam Is Inaccurate and Problematic

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 - 1:20 pm
Men pray in the Eyup Cultural Center mosque which has a large number of Uzbek and Turkish worshippers from the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn on November 3, 2017 in New York City.

The Characterization of Sufism as a Separate Sect Within Islam Is Inaccurate and Problematic

There are endless versions of the good Muslim/bad Muslim game. The end result is almost always the same. A handful of Muslims get to be the “good Muslims” only if they are willing to go along with the vicious game of throwing all other Muslims under the bus. The “good Muslim” has to criticize the brutality of extremist Muslims (which we all should, and we do) but be silent about the racism, materialism, and militarism of the United States. The “good Muslim” does not actually speak with other Muslims but addresses a majority non-Muslim audience.

From time to time, different Muslim reformers have been cast as the “good Muslims,” Muslim leaders who are willing to promote an agenda set by the State Department, Muslim feminists who (contrary to all fact and reason) attribute to Muslims moral responsibility for the Holocaust, Muslims who lead programs to Israel to normalize the occupation of Palestinians and more. Playing the “good Muslim” brings with it a lucrative platform. But lacking credibility in the community and any real engagement with Islam as a tradition, there is no legitimate possibility of reform here.

The latest version of the good Muslim/bad Muslim game has to do with the mystics of Islam, the Sufis. Sufis represent a historic dimension of Islam that seeks to meet God face-to-face, here and now. The Sufis know that it is love that brought us here, love that sustains us, and it will be love that will deliver us back to God. This is personal for me. It’s the Sufi teachings that inspire me in life and move my heart. And because it is personal, seeing it appropriated in this moment for malicious political purposes is hurtful to me.

The good Muslim/bad Muslim game took on a new twist in light of the catastrophic terrorist attack on an Egyptian mosque in the Sinai region which claimed the lives of 305 people, including dozens of children. The devastating attack did not receive the same level of media attention that less deadly attacks in London, Paris, Brussels, and other European attacks had received.

But what was distinctive about this, a terrorist attack where the victims were Muslims, was that much of the coverage presented the victims not as Muslims, but as Sufis, as if they represent a different religious community than the very Muslim tradition that they belong to. The site of the attack was described as a “Sufi mosque,” rather than simply an Egyptian mosque where many of the followers were drawn to a spiritual and devotional practice of Islam.

Here are some reasons why the media coverage’s characterization of Sufism as a separate sect within Islam is inaccurate and problematic:


Sufism has always functioned as a tendency, an aesthetic, a set of teachings and practices within both Sunni and Shi’a Islam. It is not a separate sect. Sufis always emphasize that their own experience is rooted in the legacy of the Prophet’s ascension to meet God face to face. The greatest of the Sufis, Rumi, was deeply connected to the Muslim scriptures. In fact, he called his masterpiece (the Masnavi) the “Unveiler of the Qur’an.”


It recapitulates the myth the Sufis have somehow been above/beyond politics, and thus potentially co-optable into supporting the authoritarian regimes or hegemonic colonial interests of the West. Think tanks like the RAND Corporation have specifically advocated this. In their own words, they specifically sought to “assertively promote the values of Western democratic modernity” through a commitment to “build up the stature of Sufism.”

Another clear example of this was President Trump — who has demonized Muslims at every turn over the last two years — not even being able to name the victims as Muslims, but only referring to them as “worshippers,” and immediately using the death of Muslims as an occasion to reiterate his callous call for a Muslim ban and a wall. It is as if, in Trump’s Manichean worldview, there is no space for Muslims to actually be victims, or for that matter fully human. The notion that Sufis should be promoted in order to promote “Western” interests is profoundly cynical and should be avoided.


These characterizations further play into the good Sufi/bad Muslim game in which only ordinary, mainstream Muslims are unmournable unless an external media/government entity deems them worthy. In this process, ordinary people are stripped of their inherent human dignity as the basis of their worth. We should always reject this and insist that human beings have worth and dignity because of their God-given quality, not because they fit into a particular government’s agenda.


This framework overlooks the role that Sufis have historically played in both supporting regimes (there are many studies on this about groups like Naqshbandis, Mevlevis, and others) and standing up to tyrannical regimes (including anti-colonial ones like ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri and Omar Mokhtar). Sufis, as historical agents, have not escaped politics.

This is true for the al-Rawdah Mosque, the site of the terrorist attack. The spiritual guide of this community, Shaykh Mansur Eid Abu Jarir, who passed away in 2014, was not some apolitical figure. He was well-known for his part in the resistance against the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula.


A more subtle point, easily misunderstood, is that it is insufficient to simply argue that Sufis are somehow “orthodox” or “Shari’a-compliant.” Many Sufis confidently assert their own path to God, alongside or even apart from the Shari’a, that is based on poetry, music, love, devotion, etc. It is more accurate to recognize how different Sufi groups have their own path, their own methodology, and their own aesthetic. Simply citing a learned authority on the compatibility of Fiqh and Tasawwuf from one context (as persuasive as it is to devotees from that context) does not exhaust the vast variety of Sufi teachings across centuries, paths, and geographies. What is needed is a more robust, generous, accurate, encompassing notion of the full spectrum of Islamic thought and practices. In other words, it is the very notion of “orthodoxy” that has to be expanded and opened up to encompass love mystics and spiritual seekers, rather than ceding it (exclusively) to the discourse of jurists and theologians.


Until the middle of the 19th century, a majority (or close to that) of the world’s Muslims shared in practices, devotions, and understanding that we would characterize as Sufi-ish, regardless of whether they belonged to formal Sufi orders. Simply put, there is no history separating what constituted mystical, mainstream Islam from something demarcated as “classical” or “orthodox” Islam. Attempts to do so are accepting Salafi (or even worse, Wahhabi) critiques of Sufism as factual. Previous to the rise of these movements, particular Sufi practices or doctrines were debated (as were all Muslim practices), but there was no notion of the whole of Sufism being un-Islamic.

Ultimately, the good Sufi/bad Muslim construction is yet another attempt to carve out a notion of moderate Muslims, which has nothing to do with the prophetic model of “best of affairs being the middle,” but rather with producing politically domesticated, pacified consumer subjects.

The image below is of the great anti-colonial Ibn ‘Arabi Sufi scholar, Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri. He is a wonderful example of a mystic who stood in the tradition of the greatest of Muslim sages and yet took on the task of confronting the injustices of French colonialism.

(Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri)

Why should this be a surprise? We know this from so many other traditions. We know Abraham Joshua Heschel, that most tender voice of Judaism in the 20th century, reminds us that as long as there is racism, church and temple are forbidden to us. We know from Brother Martin that “one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”

A Sufi friend of mine, Pir Zia, who serves as the spiritual beacon of the largest Sufi community in North America, once told me that the reason there is so much fake gold in the world is because the real thing is so valuable. It is precisely because the real Sufi teachings are so precious that we should be on guard when they are appropriated, watered down, and weaponized. Love is too precious, too sacred, to be allowed to serve the business of empire.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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  • Amor Fati

    I love the teachings of the mystics of all religions. Their teachings reach right to the core and talk about ancient truths. “It is love that brought us here, and love that sustains us, and it is love that delivers us home to God.” There is nothing more beautiful and true than this quote. This is all we need to know.
    Thank you for patiently educating us about your beloved Islam. I always look forward to your column every week. It is food for my soul.

    • Omid Safi

      dear Amor, i am deeply grateful to you. It is truly an honor to share these teachings. <3

      • Amor Fati

        Thank you so much, dear Omid. I believe we are all brothers and sisters in this world and beloved children of God. Blessings to you.