Is Sufism the solution? – Frontline

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The noted scholar Iqbal S. Hasnain’s book Fault Lines in the Faith: How Events of 1979 Shaped the Islamic World highlights one year and two pervasive fault lines in the “Muslim world”. The year is 1979, which, the book rightly notes, marked “three pivotal turning points” in the political trajectory of Muslim peoples: the “Islamic Revolution” in Iran, the Juhayman shootings in Makkah (when an attack on the Kaaba by a cult of ultra-orthodox Muslims induced the House of Saud to embrace an even narrower version of its enabling religio-political ideology of Wahhabism), and finally, of course, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Fault Lines in the Faith: How Events of 1979 Shaped the Islamic World 

By Iqbal S. Hasnain

RupaPages: 320Price: Rs.395

All three events, as the book illustrates, had roots in the past and sent powerful tentacles into the future. The Islamic Revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to be welcomed by three million Iranians, had to do with the Shah’s inability, under pressure from Iran’s larger middle class and its professional and educational aspirations, to accommodate Western petro-corporations as much as Saudi Arabia could. Shia-Sunni tensions would be exacerbated by this rise of a populist, anti-monarchical regime in Iran, viewed with great suspicion by the Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the US, and Israel.

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Wahhabism, with its roots in Salafist traditions, was the founding ideology of the Saudi monarchy, as Hasnain records. It was nipped in the bud by the Ottomans when it first came up in the early 19th century, but the subsequent decline of the Ottoman empire and the colonial swashbuckling by the British in the early 20th century saw its resurgence and the creation of Saudi Arabia. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—with millions of dollars pumped by the US into the creation of Islamists, via Pakistani generals and Islamic madrasas—needs hardly be mentioned in the subcontinent, though Hasnain gives a fascinating account of it and its US and Saudi-enabled imbrication with Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and, finally, ISIS.

The year is 1979, which, the book rightly notes, marked “three pivotal turning points” in the political trajectory of Muslim peoples.
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By Special Arrangement

Actually, Hasnain stops with the impact of 1979 on Muslim societies, but the year, to my mind, seems to have been particularly vicious all around. Margaret Thatcher’s term as the Prime Minister of the UK began on May 4, 1979, and soon she initiated a systematic dismantling of trade unions and welfare schemes in the country, with ongoing rippling effects in Europe. Ronald Reagan announced that he would be running for the Republican party nomination for the American presidency in November 1979 (and won the next year). Gorbachev, probably the only Russian or American leader to date to (bravely or naively) step beyond the Cold War mentality, became a member of the Soviet politburo in 1979, thus paving the way for the rise of the US bloc as the only “pole” in the world today. Even General Zia-ul-Haq, who drove the final Islamic nail into Pakistan, came to power late in 1978. One can even argue that, though the gold standard had been abandoned in 1971, it is only around 1979-80 that rampaging neoliberalism moved into high gear. If one could go back and erase a year from the historical calendar, my choice  would be 1979.

This, however, is not Hasnain’s option. He is more pragmatic, and points out, sometimes with repetitive details, the two “fault lines” that have determined the rise of Islamism in recent years. The first is, obviously, the Sunni-Shia divide, with Saudi Arabia positioning itself as the champion of Sunnis, and Shia-Iran kept in check by the Saudis, the US, and Israel. The second is the tension that has existed between Salafist-tinged Islamic traditions and Sufism-tinged Muslim traditions, at least from the 14th century downwards.

Hasnain accurately depicts how the Saudi use of Wahhabism, a Salafist ideology, was both encouraged (knowingly or unknowingly) by the US and how it spread with Saudi money and prestige across Islamic schools and mosques globally, including in the West, and continues to form the core of intolerant Islamist ideologies. Although he notes with a degree of approval that the current Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has tried to mitigate the harder sides of this stream of fundamentalism, Hasnain rightly points out that Wahhabism is not only antagonistic to Shias but also violently opposed to the tolerant, holistic, and undogmatic Sufi traditions in Muslim societies.

The book ends with a chapter calling for the revival of Sufism-influenced traditions in Muslim societies and states, framed as an antidote to Islamic fundamentalism. It also strongly recommends keeping an eye on the indoctrination provided by Saudi-funded organisations across the world, especially in the West, where experiences of racial and cultural discrimination and the isolation afforded by digitalisation can add to the radicalisation of Muslim youth.

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This is a fascinating book, despite its tendency to repeat points in different chapters. Its prescription is also an apt one, but I am not sure it will suffice on its own, for one element that the book does not delve into is the “baffling” failure of US policymakers to realise that many of the sources of Islamist extremism emanate from their close ally, Saudi Arabia. But this failure is not “baffling” if one focusses on the US policy need to deal with captive elites, which US regimes prefer to populist movements, whether religious or political. The only exception to this has been Zionism in Israel, but that is so because Israeli regimes are entirely dependent on US support in any case.

American democracy is sustained internally by the immense wealth of its “global” corporations, and for that other nation states need to be pliable. Any national popular movement, reactionary or progressive, is unlikely to be pliable to US financial interests, or would be pliable only if it shares in those financial gains, financially or through state treaties, like NATO, and handouts, like the four billion dollars in military gifts the US supplies to Israel every year. 

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

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