Religious Piety and Political Engagement: Understanding Sufi Order as a New Social Movement

This paper is part of my research project entitled “The Politics of Contending Piety: Sufism and Islamic Identity in Indonesia” focusing on the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi order. It deals mainly with Islamic spirituality and the Sufi movement, which can be considered as both a religious and political movement. This paper argues that in its efforts in seeking collective religious salvation, the Sufi movement pursues, and is involved in, active socio-political engagement.


This paper tries to explain Sufi religiosity and the dynamics of the Sufi movement. It argues that political Islamism and Islamic religiosity are basically two different sides of the same coin. Both aim at achieving total Islamic piety through implementation of Islamic values and norms principally at the level of the individual ‘self’’ and if possible at the society/state level. The religio-cultural struggle of a particular Islamic group in expressing and practicing their religious interpretations is, and will always be, carried out simultaneously in an effort to control public space and influence, or shift, power relations.


The term,‘Sufi’ I use in this paper refers to a group and to particular religious norms and practices which adhere to the mystical and spiritual dimensions of Islamic belief. Sufism exists in both major Islamic traditions, Sunni and Shi’ite, and emphasizes self-purification and the deeper meaning of Islamic law or shariah. Sufi history dates back to Prophet Muhammad era in the sixth century and was passed on through two of his companions (Abu Bakr As-Shiddiq and Ali ibn Abi Thalib) though Sufi practice was not been institutionalised until a hundred years later (Trimingham, 1971). Nowadays, there are more than 40 Sufi brotherhoods spread over the Muslim world of which Naqshbandi is the largest one.


Fueled by the so-called ‘war on terror’ in the aftermath of 9/11, social and political scientists seemed to reproduce the ‘end of history’ and ‘clash of civilization’s debates by distinguishing between Islam as a political ideology and a religious doctrine. Radicalising and politicising effects within the Muslim world, which are the result of a changing global political landscape, are portrayed in terms of a ‘against us or with us’ rhetoric based on the war on terror. Islamism, for instance, becomes a specific label for those seeking power through religious manipulation. This implies that Islamism is perceived as posing a threat for the secular state/democracy and world order (Tibi, 1998; Juergensmeyer, 2000; Roy, 2004).


Meanwhile, flourishing multi-forms of religiosity are becoming common around the world; evangelist and New Age in the West, Hinduism in the sub Indian continent, Buddhism in Asia and most prominently, Islamic religiosity in the Muslim and non-Muslim world. This common trend of flourishing religiosity has been to de-legitimise ‘secularisation’ that was prophesied as the ultimate end for the modern world (Voll, 2007:282).


Islamic religiosity is a vast and complex phenomenon (in terms of its geographical scope and large number of adherents), complicated (involving many religious streams which in conflict with each other) and to some extent, even totalitarian in nature (a mixture of private/public, secular/divine world), and worldly/other-worldly orientations).


Scholarly studies on political Islamism and Islamic religiosity, however, assume that both are separate. In so doing, scholars seem to miss the potent and actual dynamics of religious movement. Sufism, for example, is simply regarded as a pure representation of Islamic spirituality without any political aspirations. As a matter of fact, the Sufi movement was successful in adapting to new social circumstances due to continuous political engagement. Previously, Sufism was a resisting force against Western colonialism and currently is becoming a natural ally against extreme and violent political Islamism.


Religion and New Social Movement (NSM)


The New social movement (NSM) refers to a new approach in dealing with various collective actions taking place in the post-industrial society in Western countries. This new collective action is a relatively loose network and tied to symbols and a particular identity, and also shares common political, ideological and cultural causes. By and large, the new social movement is seen as a response to the free market, bureaucratised- society, scientific and technological-imposed social interactions, and instrumental rationality-characterised life (Touraine, 1981; Melucci, 1989; Offe, 1985, Habermas, 1981, Pakulski, 1991).


While originally NSM was applied to such movements as anti-nuclear protest, gay and lesbian rights promotion, and environmental agitation, NSM can also be used to understand flourishing religious movements like the Sufi brotherhoods. Sufi spirituality claims to offer instant remedies to cure modern-diseases resulting from excessive hedonism and materialism. Some Sufi movements are actively involved in ideological, cultural and political struggles through preaching and lobbying activities. The movements also use modern sophisticated technology and diverse organisational umbrellas in disseminating its ideas. More importantly, Sufi spirituality derives from various symbols of religious rituals to generate common identity and cause among its followers/supporters.


Revitalised Sufi Spirituality and Seeking for Salvation


To some extent, rising Sufi spirituality is an unexpected phenomenon due to deep impact of modernisation in the Muslim world. Islamic revivalism, decolonisation, and economic development supposedly resulted in decreasing influence of Sufism in the Muslim world. On the contrary, Sufism has not only survived; it has flourished quite remarkably. Revitalised Sufism in particular and Islamic religiosity in general show creative adaptation carried out by Muslim and Islamic community in dealing with challenges of secularism and modernisation (Mardin, 1989; Gilsenan, 1992, Ewing, 1997; Sirriyeh, 2004:104-27; Westerlund, 2004; Werbner 2003; Weismann, 2007; Howell and Bruinessen, 2007).


Both old and new Sufi movements believe in salvation as the ultimate goal of existence. At a personal/individual level, Sufi spirituality provides methods of achieving self-purification and religious manual of daily-life ethics and norms, while at collective level, Sufi spirituality envisions a divine order that is characterised by religious moderateness/tolerance, peace, and justice. The former is achieved through continuous religious exercises and the latter is mainly (but not exclusively) gained through ideological and political struggles. In other words, Sufism maintains that the divine order requires cultivation of good character and individual piousness in the first place.


The Case of Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order


Naqshbandi-Haqqani is a variant of the Naqshbandi Sufi order which is named after its founder, Maulana Syekh Nadzim Adil Al Qubrusi al Haqqani. Syekh Nadzim himself currently lives in Lefke, Cyprus from where he leads his disciples. The order is currently perhaps the largest transnational Sufi movement in the world. It is spread over 25 different countries. In the 1950s and 1960s, the order spread in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordania. Between the 1970s and 1980s, Syaikh Nadzim began to preach in Europe and the Far East. The movement became a global Sufi network after one of Syekh Nadzim’s deputies, who is also his son in-law, Syekh Hisyam Kabbani, moved from Lebanon to United States in 1991.


Syekh Hisyam Kabbani established 21 zawiyah (Sufi meditation centre) across US and Canada with the largest one located in Fenton, Michigan. Nowadays, Naqshbandi-Haqqani is one of about dozen Sufi orders which are currently active in North America. Unlike other Sufi orders which exclusively focus on spiritual training, Haqqani has established various affiliate organisations in United States such as ISCA (Islamic Supreme Council of America), ASFA (As Sunnah Foundation), and Kamilat Muslim Women’s Organisation. It has had an influence in the establishment of WORDE (World Organisation of Resource Development and Education), Unity One, and The Muslim Magazine. The Haqqani also maintains high-profile public appearances through its well-maintained websites, print publications, radio, television broadcast, and videos.


The Haqqani is reportedly to have brought over 60,000 converts and is responsible for about 2 million disciples around the world. This figure seems an exaggeration due to the looseness in Sufi order’s membership. However, it is fair to say that the Islamic spirituality offered by Haqqani and other Sufi orders, is the main reason for religious conversion in the west and the rising Islamic religiosity among members of the urban middle and upper class in the Muslim world. In Indonesia for example, Haqqani has successfully attracted followers mainly in large cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, Semarang, Jogjakarta, Batam, Balikpapan, Pekalongan, and Solo.


The Haqqani’s success seems to have provoked strong opposition from within Muslim community itself and this opposition has intensified after Syekh Hisyam Kabbani’s speech in the Open Forum of the State Department on 7th January 1999 in which he warned both the government’s agencies and Muslims of the imminent threat posed by the so-called Salafi/Wahabi-inspired Islamic extremism on US soil. A negative campaign and boycott put pressure on the Haqqani and Syekh Hisyam Kabbani has been personally isolated among major Islamic organisations in the US. Facing this, the Haqqani seems to become involve in all-out battle, on the one hand, by maintaining the validity of Sufism within the Islamic tradition and on the other hand, by denouncing Salafi-Wahabism as a splinter sect of Islam. Interestingly, this effort has been carried out not only through intellectual debates and the exchange of religious discourse within Muslim community but also as a religio-political struggle in the form of high-level lobbying and promoting inter-faith dialogues.


To sum up, the Haqqani case shows that Islamic religiosity and political Islamism are different sides of the same coin. However, as shown by the Haqqani case, both are carried out not for instrumental purposes of collecting material gain but for collective salvation in establishing the divine order.

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