Re: religious singularity?

From: Greg Burch (
Date: Mon Oct 08 2001 - 08:44:04 MDT

Only time for a quick reply this morning . . .

----- Original Message -----
From: "Amara Graps" <>
Sent: Sunday, October 07, 2001 9:30 AM

> From: Greg Burch (, Wed Oct 03 2001
> >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.
> I would be interested in any sources you can point my way.

Last night I finished "Islam: The Straight Path" by John L. Esposito, which
I highly commend as a good introductory text on Islam by a recognized
scholar who does not seem to "take sides" in his writing at all.

> >First factual tidbit: Consider that the word "assassin" comes from the
> >practice of one particular Sufi sect.
> This is a word game... We can find many life-oriented words from the
> Sufis as well.

Yes, agreed. I didn't mean to offer these "tidbits" of proof of anything
except that the reality of Sufi history and practice might be different from
the distilled, essential "best" that gets presented to sympathetic

> >Second factual tidbit: Sufism is "guru-oriented"
> This isn't my observation or experience, though. Where did this come
> from?

Here's some quotes from Esposito's book, mentioned above:

"Organizationally, Sufi orders built on the already established relationship
of master (*shaykh* or Persian, *pir*) and student or disciple. Sufi
masters drew their authority from their illustrious predecessors. As the
authority of traditions [in mainstream Islam] was based on a system of links
dating back to the Prophet, so too a similar system of linkages of pious
predecessors was established going all the way back to Muhammad. Spiritual
pedigree or lineage was the source of a master's religious authority,
teachings, and practices. Because of his piety, reputation for sanctity,
and often miraculous powers, the master was viewed as especially near to
God, a friend of God. He served as a spiritual guide and a model to be
emulated. Hist followers wished to be near him both to benefit from his
teaching, advice and example as well as to receive his blessing, the product
of his spiritual power. Over time the teachings of masters were passed on
through their disciples to future generations." [p.105]

"The focal point of a Sufi order was the domed tomb of its founder, who was
venerated as a saint (*wali*, friend) of God. The tomb became a center for
pilgrimage as visitors came to appeal to the saint for assistance. His
spiritual power and intercession before God could be invoked for a safe
pregnancy, success in exams, or a prosperous business, and offerings were
made in thanksgiving for answered prayers." [p.107]

[Regarding the actual practice of Sufism:] Awareness of the divine presence
in all of creation became a justification for the assimilation of saint
worship, fetishism, and all manner of magical and superstitious practices.
A movement that had emphasized poverty and asceticism became weighed down
with shayhks, whose playing on the credulity of poor and ignorant followers
rather than sanctity won them followers and financial fortune. The *faquir*
(mystic/mendicant) became the faker; the spiritual heads of medicant orders
were transformed into dispensers of amulets, becoming wealthy feudal
landlords." [p.109]

> >(as is most of the actual practice of Islam)
> Hmmmm. I need to think more about this.
> >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.
> There are extremists in any group, though.

True, but the truth that for obvious reasons remains unspoken by Western
political leaders and the popular press is that what we would call
"extremism" is far, far more widespread in the Islamic world than most of us
realize. Wahhabism is the official religion of Saudi Arabia. There are
tens of millions (at least) of people throughout the Islamic world that
would by Western standards be called violently evangelical fundamentalists.
Try to imagine a world in which Jerry Falwell would be considered a
moderate. Now imagine that his political party has power in many countries.
That exercise will give you a clue as to what the West is facing. I
challenge anyone who disagrees with this characterization to cite evidence
to the contrary.

> I assent to the links between Islam and Sufism though- they are
> stronger than I thought previously, because I discovered that the
> Arabic language has some special qualities for the Sufis that other
> languages don't have, plus the Koran codifies some of the Sufi ideas
> more compactly than other religious documents (probably) do.

I'm not sure I know what you mean by this last comment. Since I've
reluctantly consigned myself to a course of Islamic studies, I'd be curious
to better understand your meaning.

> One concept that I find useful from the Sufis is to present ideas to
> people using a multilayered approach. For example, with the stories,
> each reading presents something (often totally) new. Also, words in
> Arabic provide incomplete-but-useful maps to the Sufi ideas. If one
> begins with the Arabic root of the word, one can produce more words
> that provide some of the map of Sufic thought. (But this a word game
> too..)

It is, and an old friend of mine who was an Islamic scholar in his youth
(and is now a psychiatrist) recently wrote to me about the extreme ambiguity
of Arabic, compared to English, a quality that lends itself to poetry but
not, I'm afraid, to rational discourse.

Greg Burch
Vice-President, Extropy Institute

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