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Is Sufism The Antidote To Extremism?

An ISIS-affiliated extremist group operating out of Egypt has released ghastly images purporting to show the execution of two leading religious figures from Sinai Egypt.

The 98-year-old blind Sufi, Sheikh Sulaiman Abu Haraz was abducted two weeks ago from his farm south of the peninsula's town of el-Arish. In a video released by Daesh, the frail elderly prisoner Sheikh Sulaiman Abu Haraz was dragged to an executioner's block in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and then beheaded. The second gentleman was identified as sheikh Said Abdel-Fattah, a high-ranking Religious Endowment cleric abducted a month ago.

These executions have, once again, caused an uproar, anxiety and repulsion for the fanatic death cult Daesh (ISIS) that is accusing sufi scholars of practising un-Islamic things- "practicing witchcraft" and committing "shirk" (associating others with Allah Almighty) - and thereby brutally murdering them.

These executions come nearly a week after the suicide bomber attacked a Sufi shrine of Shah Bilal Noorani in Balochistan, Pakistan, massacring at least 52 people and injuring 100 others.

In an attempt to promote its twisted and violent ideology, Daesh has directed its wrath against sufism. In recent years, hundreds of sufi scholars have been imprisoned, flogged, brutally murdered, hanged and beheaded; their shrines have been wrecked by extremist groups in the Middle East and Indian sub-continent. Even in Britain, earlier this year, a jury heard how two ISIS supporters murdered an imam in Rochdale because they viewed his practice of Islamic healing as "black magic". The British Muslim communities found this despicable act utterly abhorrent and contrary to the teachings of Islam. Such vile acts are also an attack on one's freedom of religion.

British Muslim Scholars are dedicating the Friday sermons on 25 November to highlight the inclusive, compassionate message of Sufism, the authentic practices of Sufism and the incredible work of Sunni Sufi Scholars over the centuries in service of humanity.

What is Suffism?

Sufism (known as Tasawwuf) is not a new phenomenon in Islam but it is a branch of Islamic knowledge which focuses on the spiritual development of a Muslim. Contrary to popular perceptions, sufism is not about religious hymns, chants, poetry, ecstasy and miracles. Instead, sufism encourages its adherents to not only perform outward rituals of Islam but also to strive to experience the Divine presence through the gateway of the human heart. Accordingly, Tasawwuf is the soul of Islam. Its function is to purify the heart from the lowly bestial attributes of lust, anger, malice, jealousy, love of the world, love of fame, etc. At the same time it aims at the adornment of the heart with the lofty attributes of perseverance, gratefulness, fear of Allah, hope, love, sincerity, brotherhood etc. Sufism, according to the spiritual king of India Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, is a path to maintaining moral excellence which one must observe towards all creatures in the interest of peace and welfare of all creatures. No wonder centuries after his passing away, the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is visited by people of all faiths and backgrounds.

Sufis open their hearts and doors for everyone, making Islam accessible to the learned and lay people, the faithful and nonbelievers. Modern day extremists (known as 'Khawarij' in Islamic terminology) find such tolerant, pluralistic and compassionate approach to the world challenging. Historically, 'takfir' (forceful apostasy) was the hallmark of the Khawarij. The Khawarij's readiness to excommunicate other Muslims (takfir) on the basis of allegation of 'shirk' or 'black magic' is something that is now being practiced by Daesh affiliates. The historical distaste is now bleeding over into full-scale barbarity against Islamic scholars and their followers.

Sufi styles and practices dominate in the non-Arab Muslim world: from Indian sub-continent to Indonesia, Nigeria to Turkey, Britain to Chechnya - the peace-loving Muslims have been influenced, to varying degrees, by spiritual aspect of Islam. As sufis emphasize on Islamic spirituality, they are sometimes seen as quietist, withdrawing from the world. Another reason is the general Sufi reluctance to become heavily involved in politics.

Do Sufis believe in pacifism?

That does not mean that sufism teaches Muslims to be submissive to political elitism. Rather, in the past whenever Islam has been under threat, or there has been state oppression or political tyranny, it has been sufis who lead the resistance movements. Sufism does not call for top-down structural changes in the absence of moral development. It is only through the moral reform of an individual that social and political institutions can be revitalized. The expansion of Islam outside the core areas of the Middle East is above all a Sufi story. The intellectual and peaceful mystics once reigned in both Damascus and Baghdad during Ottoman times. Sufi leaders and orders led the armies that conquered lands in Central and South Asia, and in Southeastern Europe; through their piety and their inclusive, compassionate and pluralistic approach they won the local populations over to Islam.

The sufi's open-mindedness and compassionate attitude towards humanity contrasts with the much rigid views of the puritans, or khawarij. Hence, they allege that sufis are not practicing Islam. The ideological struggle between the two groups is now resulting in open violence, when khawarij are attacking sufi practices and their centres in an attempt to 'purify' Islam.

Nobody can pretend that sufism has not been corrupted by those who are using sufi practices for their own material gains. Fraudulent, lazy imposters are propagating superstitions to dupe Muslims out of their money. Imams are already speaking out against such un-Islamic practices to ensure that tenets of Sufism are preserved, and malpractices are stamped out. Everyone has the right to critically assess sufi practices, or challenge them but none has the right to take anyone's life, as ISIS affiliates are doing.

Can Sufism help prevent extremism?

ISIS ideology cannot be defeated through military power alone. Sufism embraces myriad alternatives and with its message of universal love has the capacity to change hearts and minds. Reviving Sufi traditions provides an effective bastion against extremism, radicalisation, disaffection and disenfranchisement of young poeple. The disaffection of young Muslims is one of the key reasons for radicalisation and spiritual and mystical dimensions of sufism can play a role in giving hope and reviving faith in young people. According to sufism, the quest for peace is not achieved by picking up a gun or becoming a suicide bomber, rather returning to the faith's deepest roots through brotherly love and fluttering hearts.

Some of the underlying values of Sufism are love, harmony and generosity. Hence, Islamic scholars from across the world gathered this year in India and Chechnya to re-focus on the message of sufism to defeat violent extremist ideologies. Sufism is not the solution to the extremism problem but it definitely offers a viable alternative to the current violent political ideology promoted by terrorists.

The prevention of extremism is one of the greatest security challenges facing this generation and the next. Sufism can offer part of the antidote due to its universalism, its inclusiveness, its accommodative attitude, its capacity to change and to adapt, while retaining the essence of faith. ISIS see Sufi leaders and their shrines as a threat for them because Sufis have often been rallying points for uprisings and resistance against distortion of Islam, tyranny and violence. Sufi imams are often on the front line against violence, destruction and mayhem. Sufi leaders risk their lives for their tolerance and propagation of peace. So there are strategic, doctrinal and social reasons why ISIS detests Sufism. Sufi symbolism and traditions have shaped religious identities of Muslims across the globe; authentic and credible sufis must be supported to play their part in reviving the true spirit of Islam amongst the followers of Islam.