The Threat of “Salafi Sufism”: An Opportunity for Regional Cooperation in Central Asia

S
ufism, a philosophy whose most distinctive feature is tolerance, and its followers have been always known for their forbearance. It has been accepted and respected over time by people, groups, and even governments. At the same time, regardless of the political and apolitical functions of this intellectual movement or the historical background of some of its leaders and followers who have played significant roles in various political junctures, the spread of Sufism is often regarded only as a consequence of political shrinkage and/or social dormancy.

This is too limiting and inaccurate. Thankfully, Sufist movements have recently attracted much scholarly attention. A growing research literature is emerging and multiple analyses have been made about its socio-political capacities. As it so happens, Sufism forms a part of the most traditional layers of social life in many Muslim communities. But why have the potential capacities and influence of Sufist movements been taken more seriously only in recent years? The answer centers around the rather unique spread and adaptations of this movement over recent time and space.

Central Asia has become the central arena of important Sufist movements, including Yasawiyya, Kubraviyah, Naqshbandiyah, Qadariyya, Chishti order, and even Zinyya. The region has served as the geographical hub for the emergence of well-known elders such as Khawaja Ahmad Yassawi, Sheikh Najmuddin Kubra, Sayeed Amir Kalal, Bahauddin Naqshbandi, Khwaja Allahyar Sufi, and Khwaja Ubaidullah Ahrar. (Pakatchi, 2013). During the domination of Tsarist Russia and then Communism, Sufism did not lose its traditional position and even in the middle decades of the twentieth century served as a mobilizing force under the command of Basmachi movements such as Junaid Khan (Qurban Nazar Serdar). The Soviet central planning system and communist propaganda policies failed to drive Sufism out. In addition, the independence period for Central Asian republics provided one of the most appropriate contexts for the revitalization of Sufism, what with the ideological and identity vacuum caused by the Soviet collapse, along with heavy social, political, and economic problems. Thus, Central Asia once again became an arena of prosperity for Sufist thought and practice, with widespread public acceptance of its teachings. But something is happening today in the religious life of Central Asia in that there is a discernable difference between the quality of contemporary Sufism and its historical precedent. In other words, despite the relative awareness of the etiquette and emergence of Sufi orders, it seems that sometimes there is distorted knowledge about the true history and accumulated experience of the formal Sufi school. This can serve as a turning point for Sufist movements in the life of modern Muslim Central Asian communities. But that turning point can bring about both wanted and unwanted developments.

In recent years, Sufism in Central Asia has been raised as a serious object of study in many think tanks. It is arguably the only viable rival for regional political leaders to create an alternative socio-political system to the more prominent and worrisome “political Islam.” Consequently, influencing and co-opting strong Sufist movements became executive policy for many Central Asian governments. Simultaneously, Sufism, with great ability to mobilize followers, has received much attention from regional and transregional actors. But to achieve full political capacity and social influence, Sufism’s inherent spirit of tolerance and humility was counter-effective: its ability to absorb other ideas and its potential rapid penetration of external teachings, along with its hierarchical structure and compliance system of Sufi orders, allowed for some degradation of fundamental Sufi principles. This resulted in the mobilization of some ‘Sufi’ orders that were deprived of “tolerance” and equipped with “Takfiri” teaching. This trend prevents such modern Sufi movements from realizing their maximum political and social capacities.

In this new era, various leaders and groups in Central Asia, including “Ibrahim Hazrat” in Buwayda, Uzbekistan, (a charismatic Naqshbandi Sufi), “Sheikh Ismatullah” in Kazakhstan (the leader of the Sufi group of Jahriyah which represents a legacy composed of Yasawiyya and Qadariyya teachings), “Sheikh Zaharuddin Ghori Shahrikhany,” another influential Naqshbandi figure in Uzbekistan, “Ismail Abdul Wahab Zadeh” in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, (known as Sufi Qadariyya), “Sheikh Qurban Ali” in Kazakhstan, “Haji Ismail Pir Mohammadzadeh” a Naqshbandi leader in Tajikistan, and “Davoud Khan Ghori Artykev” in Namangan, figure most prominently. According to Olcott (Olcott, 2007), the revival of Sufism in this area began in two main ways: first in the form of active political movements and then in the form of a conscious denial of political participation. Davoud Khan Ghori Artykev in Namangan and “Adil Khan” in Andijan led groups supporting political activity, while denial of political participation is led by Ibrahim Hazrat and his followers. Addressing the unique details of diverse Sufi movements in Central Asia requires more opportunity and support for better research. What I address here is an aspect of Central Asian Sufist modernity that, so far, has received less attention: namely, the creeping conflation of many of these movements’ teachings with Takfiri and Salafist beliefs.

Furthermore, the 21st century spread of Salafist and Wahhabist movements in Central Asia is well-known. It is interesting that some Sufi leaders have received their religious training in non-Central Asian countries such as Pakistan and have experienced a coexistence in such countries with an embracing of Wahhabism. Recently, clear signs of change have been seen amongst the various Sufi orders in Central Asia - both in appearance and social behavior - that in most cases are copacetic to Salafist and Wahhabist teachings. In addition, different inter- and intra-Sufi groups compete in the region, thus increasing the severity of this detrimental conduct. Sufist leaders have often expressed severe criticism towards each other and some attacks (often in the form of calling others heretical and claiming that they are not on the true path of Islam) are made by these leaders toward other Sufis.

These conditions create an environment that can be classified as very close in style and character to radical Islamist and Takfiri movements. Thus, it seems Central Asia could very well gradually witness the rise of Salafism and Wahhabism under the formal cover of Sufism. This must be dealt with by trying to intensify and institutionalize the formal Sufist movements, maintaining their traditional socialization practices and deepening their epistemological teachings. The Sufi leaders of Central Asia need to be better acquainted with the accumulated experience of historical virtue and power in Sufism. This goal is best achieved through regional cooperation amongst countries that already enjoy more moderate, rational Islamic institutions. This can even serve as an introduction for visualizing multilateral diplomacy in Central Asia that comes from the common need to combat extremism and develop true cooperative diplomatic initiatives. Thus, Sufism in Central Asia seems to have two potential future pathways. One leads to rationality, tolerance, and diplomatic cooperation. The other leads to fallacious teachings, intolerance, and judgmental condemnation. Hopefully the former path with win out over the latter.

Behrouz Ghezel

Behrouz Ghezel is a fellow at The Institute for Iran-Eurasia Studies (IRAS), in Tehran, Iran and a PhD Candidate in Central Asia & Caucasus Studies within the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the University of Tehran.

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