Isil, iconoclasm and Sufism
Sufism offers a humane alternative to fundamentalist intolerance, writes ALLEYN DIESEL
IN the aftermath of the massacres in Tunisia, Kuwait and France June 26, Islamic State announced its intentions to step up the “jihad” against “heathens” during the holy month of Ramadaan.
David Cameron’s insistence that the actions of Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) have nothing to do with religion is simplistic. They have everything to do with fundamentalist intolerance; another example of religion being misused, becoming a frightening coercive force, causing untold suffering and destruction. For this reason, one of the most effective ways of dealing with this could be to employ the tenets of a different branch of Islam — Sufi mysticism — which represents the opposite of militaristic, iconoclastic intolerance; far more likely to convince adherents to adopt a more peaceful, gentler, humane way of expressing and reclaiming their faith than that offered by this extremist group.
The Islamic Institute in Mannheim, Germany, regards Sufism as particularly suited for interreligious and intercultural dialogue, describing Sufism as a symbol of tolerance and humanism — nondogmatic, flexible and nonviolent. Others, too, have recognised Sufism as the greatest hope for pluralism and democracy within Muslim societies.
Many watching TV news will also have been distressed to see the advancing armies of Isil threatening to destroy the World Heritage Site of GrecoRoman Palmyra near Damascus, Syria. These majestic ruins inhabited since c.2000 BCE, are considered by this extremist, fundamentalist Islamic group as the objects of idolatry, “unIslamic”: contrary to the tenets of Islam.
Other iconoclastic attacks by Isil include the destruction of mosques in Mosul, Iraq, belonging to the same religion: Islam.
Iconoclasm literally means the rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical — attacking, often destroying, the cherished beliefs, or objects of others, denouncing them as pernicious.
Another recent example of iconoclasm by the Taliban, closely related Muslim fundamentalists, is dynamiting the monumental standing Buddhas (c.507 CE), in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan. And during 2012, radical Islamic militia destroyed Sufi shrines in Timbuktu.
Some Western scholars have perceived a long tradition of violent iconoclastic acts as being characteristic of Islamic society.
This erroneous assumption disregards the fact that the Christian tradition is replete with examples of intolerance and iconoclasm, featuring in Christian history since at least the eighthcentury movement in the Byzantine Church.
The most violent iconoclasm in Christianity belongs to the Protestant Reformation, when reformers such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli condemned the use of religious depictions, encouraging their destruction and removal from churches, based on the Commandment forbidding the practice of idolatry. Starting in 1560, violent riots, the Beeldenstorm — “Statue Storm” — broke out in Dutch, Swiss, Danish and German cathedrals and churches, destroying exquisite stone statuary and artworks on which generations of illiterate worshippers had depended for the enrichment of their faith. In certain areas, Protestantism was forced on whole populations with varying degrees of persecution.
What does iconoclasm down the ages, in various religious traditions, have in common?
In all instances quoted, a puritanical, fundamentalist reforming zeal, based on literal interpretation of scripture, admonishing austerity to abolish perceived laxity of religious practice, strict adherence to doctrine, condemnation of “selfindulgence”, creates intolerance, allowing no dissent; all inimical to human wellbeing.
Characteristic of Christian Puritanism, this is also embodied in Wahhabism, propagated by Ibn Abd alWahhab in Medina (170392) aiming to strip Islam of all nonMuslim, “idolatrous”, accretions. Also known as Salafism, it has become the state religion of Saudi Arabia, influencing much of the Islamic world.
Its promotion of austere, legalistic religion has caused conflict with the far older, pacifist Sufi movement, associated with mystics such as Rumi of Anatolia and Rabi’ah of Basra, who sought direct approaches to divinity through the passionate, ecstatic devotion to poetry, music, dancing, allowing glimpses of Paradise — also practised by the whirling Dervishes. Sufis emphasise the richness of divine love, transcending creed, caste, race and gender.
Rahman Baba wrote: “I am a lover, and I deal in love. Sow flowers, so your surroundings become a garden. Don’t sow thorns; for they will prick your feet. We are all one body — Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.”
Wahhabism condemns this tolerant approach, denouncing the Sufi Masters, accusing them of promoting idolatry.
In Saudi Arabia, strict Shariah laws control the role of women, banning them from driving, and the Taliban in Pakistan have banned girls from formal education.
The line between puritanical, intolerant fundamentalism, and extremist iconoclastic violence in all traditions is often alarmingly thin. Ruthless fanaticism is capable of great cruelty, destroying life and beauty if it perceives these as thwarting divinely ordained goals.
This fear of Sufi mysticism appears to offer the key to opposing iconoclastic attitudes in all fundamentalist traditions.
Icons are symbolic sacred images, venerated as material embodiments of spiritual significance and power, linking sacred and secular — a function of much authentic art.
If, as monotheistic faiths proclaim, the divine is omnipresent, then an im age, a building dedicated to worship, a stone, pieces of bread, other foodstuffs, even wine, can be regarded as vessels of deity. Who is to decide which material or spiritual manifestations are more sacred than others?
The timeless beauty expressed in artworks such as the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Pieta, Handel’s Messiah, the mystical Sufi poetry and Qawwali devotional music, exquisite temples, churches, mosques, monasteries and shrines, embody a vitality capable of lifting and expanding the human spirit. Great literature, painting, sculpture, architecture and music inspires a profound sense of devotion, hinting that this mysterious universe is greater than the sum of its parts. Cultivating reverence for beauty, whether natural or humancreated, is surely a powerful ethical and spiritual disincentive to the urge to crush, destroy, and indulge in inhuman iconoclasm.
The holy man who refused to smell a rose for fear of committing idolatry, is the epitome of those who are unable to respond to the myriad forms of loveliness surrounding us every day.
William Dalrymple maintains: “... Sufi Islam with all its borrowings from the indigenous religious traditions … may yet be able to act as a powerful homegrown resistance movement to the Wahhabis and their jihadi intolerance of all other faiths.” (Nine Lives, p. 141) We won’t redeem the dehumanised with bombs and bullets.
Damaged relief statues in the Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht. Starting in 1560, violent riots, the Beeldenstorm, broke out in Dutch, Swiss, Danish and German cathedrals and churches, destroying exquisite stone statuary and artworks on which generations of illiterate worshippers had depended for the enrichment of their faith.
A recent example of iconoclasm by the Taliban is dynamiting the monumental standing Buddhas (c. 507 CE), in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan.