Re: religious singularity?

From: Greg Burch (
Date: Wed Oct 03 2001 - 08:32:22 MDT

From: "Amara Graps" <>
Sent: Wednesday, October 03, 2001 6:15 AM

> From: Greg Burch (, Sun Sep 30 2001:
> >Interestingly, the radical monotheism of Islam has given rise to the
> >pantheism that naturally follows from a rigorously unitary notion of
> >god -- in Sufism. Unfortunately, this has then also been coupled with
> >the radically totalitarian vision of shariah, so that the
> >all-pervasive notion of Sufistic pantheism then doubles back on itself
> >to return to the kind of obsessive social universalism we see in all
> >facets of Islam. As my study of Islamic thought and history deepens
> >and widens, I keep looking for signs of the kind of moderating
> >influence that the 18th century deists had on Christianity, but to no
> >avail. The history of Sufism is a good example of why.
> Greg, this paragraph totally confused me. Your use of 'Sufism' makes
> no sense to me. Yes, Sufis tolerate worship of all gods of different
> creeds, cults, or peoples indifferently, but I don't follow the
> 'doubling back' part or why you appear to be equating Sufism with
> Islam. Could you please describe what you mean by Sufism? I will
> tell you what I know about Sufism, from by own books and from personal
> experience and perhaps we can reach an understanding.

[snip description of Sufi ideas]

Amara, with respect, I think you're falling prey to what I used to call "the
fallacy of the best" when I was spending a lot of time studying Buddhism and
also pursuing a formal course of East Asian studies in the 1970s. I'm sure
folks of my generation recall the flood of books about Buddhism available to
curious Western students during the 1960s and 70s. I've got a bookshelf
full of them, both of the popular variety (Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, Babba
Ram Das/Richard Alpert etc.) and of the more scholarly kind (a couple by
Bhikshu Sangharakshita being among my favorites from the time, I see from
the well-thumbed and marked-up pages). What I discovered as I read these
kinds of books, while at the same time studying the over-all history of East
Asia and specifically the reality "on the ground" in particular places, was
a significant disparity between what I found in the books about Buddhism
available to Western students -- and the kinds of people who were going
about the work of explaining Buddhism in the West -- on the one hand, and
the actual practice and perception of Buddhism in East Asia on the other.
In the material being studied in the West, I saw sophisticated, in-depth
exposition of the original history of Buddhism and the powerful and
meaningful concepts that one could find in that history. The reality on the
ground was quite different: In practice, for the vast majority of people in
East Asia, Buddhism tends to be a fairly shallow, syncretistic melange of
magical thinking and practices, ranging from the deified Buddha and pantheon
of boddhistava-saints worshipped in much of Southeast Asia, blending off
into simple animistic magic in the Sinitic world.

How to account for that disparity? I concluded that in the West only
specialists in cultural anthropology and comparative religious studies were
interested enough in the actual practice of Buddhism to find out what the
reality of belief and practice was. For the vast majority of Westerners
with an interest in Buddhism, the exposition of the best ideas and practices
found in the work of the popularizers was both sufficient and satisfying.
Thus, "the fallacy of the best".

Anders, in the post that just popped into my inbox as I'm writing this
points to another, related factor, that we might call "the fallacy of the
interface filter". By this I mean 1) that people are almost always only
exposed to those "xenogenic" ideas that are actually carried across from a
foreign culture into their own, 2) that the ideas that get carried across
the boundary are the ones that "translate" the best into terms
comprehensible in the receiving culture and 3) that the specific individuals
who serve as vectors of cross-cultural communication tend to be ones who are
not "centered" in their own culture, but rather have a more cosmopolitan
view capable of perceiving multiple cultural viewpoints. All of these
factors go together to make the view of some specific foreign cultural
phenomenon more or less distorted from the reality of that phenomenon in its
native cultural setting.

> OK, I hope that I've described to you my understanding of some
> of the Sufi ideas (there are many more, and I'm far from expert).
> My personal experience with some Sufis occurred in 1989/1990 via some
> close friends that were volunteering their time doing office work and
> computer programming for a local Bay Area Sufi organization. Through
> them, I participated in a festival in Fort Mason, San Francisco, that
> winter, where a group of Afghanis were holding a festival, in order to
> raise money to buy goods, supplies, agricultural products (especially
> seed to replant their crops), in order to rebuild Afghanistan after
> the devastation wrecked by the Soviets. During the festival, they were
> selling handworks, music, you could participate in a many-course meal,
> and then at the end of the day they performed some plays of Mulla
> Nasrudin stories. I was a stage-hand, backstage, taking care of the
> props, while my friends were acting the stories. Not once throughout
> that day did anyone there ask me my religious beliefs or impose their
> own religious ideas upon me. I found this group of Afghan Sufis to be
> one of the warmest, deepest, and most interesting groups of people
> that I have ever encountered.

I don't doubt at all that the people to whom you were exposed were as
open-minded and tolerant as you describe. However, I think you may have
been seeing an example of "the interface filter" at work. The folks with
whom you were dealing were self-selected for a fairly high level of
intercultural communication ability and cosmopolitan tolerance for life in a
foreign society. Assuming that you don't speak Arabic or Pushtun or
whatever language your friends absorbed their native culture in, consider
that all of your exposure to their ideas came through the filter of THEIR
language study and the considerable inter-cultural experience that any
person who had made their way from Afghanistan to San Francisco must have
developed. Consider also that these people were specifically working to try
to build sympathy in their audience, therefore consciously or unconsciously
engaging in the work of being "filters of the worst".

With all that said, I'm sure that there is a core of cosmopolitan syncretism
in the best of Sufi thought. However, based on my own studies to date, I
think the historical reality of Sufism is quite different from what comes
through the filters working on most of what gets through to Western
intellectuals about Sufism. First factual tidbit: Consider that the word
"assassin" comes from the practice of one particular Sufi sect. Second
factual tidbit: Sufism is "guru-oriented" (as is most of the actual practice
of Islam), encouraging the same kind of deference to the ulama that we see
in extreme forms in the much wider-spread influence of Sunni Wahhabist
fundamentalism in the Islamic world today.

Finally, to return to the fairly "compressed" text of my original post upon
which you comment, I'm seeing in my current studies that Sufism has
continually been seen as a target of fundamentalist reform. The means of
that reform has been to stress the primacy of the sunnah (i.e. "orthopraxy,"
as Western scholars of Islam seem to call it) in essentially shaming the
more syncretistic forms of Sufism back into the fold of mainstream Islam.
As a matter of historical fact, this dynamic results in a division of Sufi
practice into two strains: Those that cycle back into mainstream Islamic
fundamentalism and those that don't. The latter become the targets of
repression, often violent, since the vast majority of Muslims see the more
extreme forms of Sufi syncretism as the worst kind of heretical apostasy
(apostasy being the absolute worst sin any Muslim can commit).

But I DO think that Sufism offers one of the very few leverage points for
moderating Islam. Thus it is a very worthwhile subject of study.

Greg Burch
Vice-President, Extropy Institute
Message to the Taliban: "Give up the terrorists or we'll send your women to
college" (seen in a cartoon yesterday)

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