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.

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