More than 300 worshippers died in an ISIS attack on an Egyptian mosque at the end of the November. CBS News reported that the “attack targeted a mosque frequented by Sufis, members of a mystic movement within Islam. Islamic militants, including the local affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), consider Sufis heretics because of their less literal interpretations of the faith….”

How ironic to hear Sufism described as a “heretics,” when most scholars recognize Sufism brought major concepts to Islam’s early development. Within Islam, Sufism emerged at the beginning of the tenth century CE and flowered in the 1200s.

Best known for their whirling dervishes, who spin in place as a form of prayer, Sufis are also renowned poets and musicans. Their art is credited with spreading the word of Islam throughout Persia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

Sufism has also entered the Western canon. Sufi poets and storytellers such as Rumi, Hafiz, Nasrudin and (Maronite Christian but Sufi-influenced) Kahlil Gibran are widely credited with spreading Islamic ideas in the West as well as the East and Middle East. 

Who does not know Persian poet Rumi’s verses from The Rubyiat of Omar Khayyam, translated and published in the 13th century?

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

According to Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi’s biography on the British Sufism website, “The name Rumi stands for Love and ecstatic flight into the infinite. Rumi is one of the great spiritual masters and poetical geniuses of mankind and was the founder of the Mawlawi Sufi order, a leading mystical brotherhood of Islam….His influence on thought, literature and all forms of aesthetic expression in the world of Islam cannot be overrated.”

Rumi was contradictory in many ways: he was an ecstatic Muslim who wrote about the glories of drinking wine although Islam forbids alcohol; an ascetic who indulged in beauty and fleshly pleasures; a mystic who became a university professor at 24. He was firm in his faith even as he constantly tested its restrictions.    

In short, Sufis are on the free-thinking end of the spectrum of Muslim denominations, in both the Shia and (experts say) the Sunni denomination groups. If we compare Sufis to Christian denominations, their outreach philosophy would be similar to the United Church, or even the non-Christian Unitarians. Sufi history inclines them to good works rather than grand mosques.

“Sufis often enjoy great prestige with the mass of Muslims, based on Sufi examples of personal humility in fervor for God and Sufi preaching of love for humanity,” writes Stephen Schwartz, Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, and a Muslim Sufi adherent. He estimates that about five percent of all Muslims are Sufis and that Sufis are present in every Muslim population. 

Schwartz notes that nonetheless, many Muslim governments regard Sufis as potential rivals for public authority. The Iranian Revolution, for example, was based on orthodox Islam, whereas “Sufis have most often functioned as an alternative to clerical authority in Islam.”

Given that Rumi wrote in Persian, though, the Revolution had no option but to claim him. Since then, says Schwartz, the Ayatollahs have had an often-challenging relationship with the two Sufi political parties.  

While Sufism flowered during the ancient Persian Empire’s 200 years of glory, it grew and expanded under Turkey’s 600-year rule, as the Ottoman Empire stretched across the Middle East and Eastern Europe, including Greece and Hungary. No wonder then that Turkey is homeground for what may be the world’s most troubled government-Sufi relationship.  

After the attempted coup against him in 2016, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed followers of former imam Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is founder of what’s popularly known as the Hizmet (Service) movement, which Wikipedia estimates includes three to six million people in Turkey, including “an empire of affiliated banks, media, construction companies, and schools, especially those providing primary and secondary education.” Gulen has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 2000. 

In the first month after the coup attempt, reported the New York Times, “Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have launched the largest political purge in Turkey’s recent history, with at least 35,000 people detained and 75,000 public servants dismissed, suspected of infiltrating state offices on the orders of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom government officials blame for masterminding the attempt….”

A year later, in July 2017, Peter Kenyon of National Public Radio reported, “There’s been about 140,000 people fired, businesses worth some $11 billion seized, more than 50,000 people facing charges. We have seen some coup trials finally get underway recently. But more people are still being detained all the time.”

Most recently, Erdogan has been in the North American news because one of the charges against Donald Trump’s former (briefly) Chief of Staff Mike Flynn is that Erdogan allegedly offered Flynn $15 million to abduct Fethullah Gulen and to convey Gulen to Turkey to be tried for a third or fourth time.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s authoritarian domestic policies have led EU countries to shun him. And a current New York trial involving Turco-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, accused of using Turkish banks to get around financial sanctions against Iran, is divulging damaging evidence of Erdogan’s involvement in massive corruption.  

As Melik Kaylan reports for the New York Times, “the trial judge has admitted as evidence the splendidly histrionic recordings leaked in 2013 of Erdogan telling his son Bilal to get rid of tens of millions of dollars in the house because of a corruption investigation…. In one recording he asks his son if it’s all been cleaned out and the son replies whining ‘all but 30 million euros.. we haven’t managed to deal with that”–much to his father’s disgust….”

Canadians feel the effects of Erdogan’s policies too. Last July, the Toronto Star reported that “The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada says asylum claims from Turkey shot up to more than 1,300 during 2016–close to five times as many as the year before–with about 398 claims accepted, about four times as many in 2015.” For 2017, the Board had already seen 590 cases by July, and approved 298 of them.  

We don’t need to re-invent the wheel here. Canada already has a Sufi network, the web of independent Intercultural Dialogue Institutes, active in the GTA, Waterloo, Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, Hamilton, Montreal, and Vancouver, often associated with universities.

Local IDIs frequently host public events, such as day-long conferences on citizenship; or free invitation-only dinners to honour people like Public Heroes (first responders), or successful immigrants. They celebrate International Women’s Day, and invite outsiders to share Ramadan Iftar dinners–the feast that follows day-long fasting. The GTA IDI recently presented CBC radio host Matt Galloway with a Public Service Award for providing the voiceless with a platform on his show.

In Calgary, I happen to know, the IDI is active in receiving Turkish refugees and helping them re-settle. These are often highly skilled artisans or poets, dismissed civil servants or other professionals, whose careers have been ruined because of their religion and their political beliefs. They start over as dishwashers and cooks, as drivers and janitors.

These are the Sufis, as I know them and have known them for more than a decade. Just as the Yemen war is a proxy war, allowing Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran to battle indirectly, so I worry that the secular split could shift in other directions and set up the Sufis as scapegoats.

Canada could do more to help this embattled minority. Faced with Turkey’s crackdown on Hizmet and the Gulen movement, I’d argue that we urgently need to recognize Sufis as an oppressed religious minority and grant them refugee status.

Canada could adopt one of Rumi’s most famous poems, one that’s sung in countless churches every Sunday: “Come, come, whoever you are!” 

Image: Flickr/pmorgan

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Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...