Recently, a Sudanese Muslim man took issue with me about the historical Islamisation of his country. He had told me that the Sudan adopted Islam peacefully, through the teachings of migrating Sufis. I mentioned the Sudanese Mahdi, who was definitely not peaceful, despite being a Sammaniya Sufi. My adversary, or so he soon became, angrily denied historical facts I brought up, including that the Mahdi was a Sufi, and refused to continue the conversation.
The problem with our argument, it seemed to me, was that Muslims seem to be entirely capable of believing contradictory things at the same time, and presumably amongFunst themselves there is no problem; but an outsider is not supposed to interfere with that alogical comfort zone. Perhaps, also, Muslims are as confused about the role of Sufis in their history as are non-Muslims. What is important for us is that the current Western perception of Sufism is of a kind of accessible mysticism, linked to Islam only loosely if at all, and most definitely “peaceful”.
Years ago, a Sudanese Sufi, when his sect was attacked by fanatics who deem Sufism heretical, told me that they “had no right to attack, as only God can know what is in our hearts”, which sounded terrific. But on a later occasion he affirmed that apostates from Islam should be killed. Contradictory sentiments? The dualism of Islam existing in one Muslim heart?
The problem with the image of Sufis lies in the fine print, as it were, the Koranic texts which no Sufi or any other Islamic sub-sect can ignore, even if they diverge a little from accepted tradition.For instance, celebrating the birthday of the Prophet, which renders them “as bad as Christians” in the eyes of their more fine-print-observing Muslim enemies.
If the people of the present Sudan were won over by Sufis centuries ago, it is doubtful that they asked to see the many written details of the religion they were joining. Perhaps the true reality of Islam came upon them slowly, bit by bit, some time after they became used to the inflexible necessities of Islamic marriage rules, inheritance rules, praying and fasting rules, and so on. In other words, those somewhat tolerable traditions which must have appeared to constitute the few changes required by their new faith.
Besides, the Pact of Omar, the document devised in the seventh century for dhimmis (non-Muslims living under Islamic rule), did not allow non-Muslims to read the Koran. Introduction to Islam was calculated on a “need-to-know” basis, on which basis wandering clerics in new areas were perfectly placed to have an effect, especially when their need for wives brought up those religious requirements. Think of it as a foretaste of the eventual all-encompassing Islamic laws.
A few days ago I attended an interfaith event, which was announced as being inspired by people who sought truth. That would be a nice change, I thought, for an interfaith meeting, considering the usual unspoken agenda which customarily sees the most clever snake-oil salesman win the day. A Sufi was one of the speakers and billed as just that, rather than as a Sufi Muslim. Indeed, the gathering included a “Muslim” speaker and a “Sufi” one.
Charming, soft-spoken and gentlemanly, he won over the attendees with his words: his lists of worthy Sufi principles; his mentions of mysticism, meditation, contemplation, charity, humility and truthfulness were seductive. “God is polite”, he said with a smile, “He invites you…”
I could almost feel for myself the warmth those long-ago people must have felt in what is today the Sudan, invited as they were to embrace this new religion which had such worthy principles, was so orderly and asked so little. Except that it did ask one quite major thing. There was the little matter of slavery, and that a certain conflict over forced and accepted servitude had resulted in a deal, part of which required several hundred slaves be sent to Cairo every year from the newly Islamised region. As no convertees to Islam could be enslaved, castrated and sent away, adopting Islam was a prudent choice, along with hunting for suitable replacement candidates for slavery from pagan areas to the south. Adoption of this dignified, spiritual Sufi Islam must have seemed a win-win situation, with enhanced status (and security) for those converted.
However, as Sudanese history shows us, Sufis, most famously the Mahdi and his successor, were able to combine mysticism with slavery and jihad and to do so to ruthless and lethal effect. The “three spiritual values” — humility, charity and truthfulness, as mentioned by the interfaith chap — and which “lead to union with God” must have been put aside from necessity as the Sufis hunted slaves and massacred those infidels who came to end the slave trade. Even non-combatant sheikhs joined in to stab the body of one prominent Englishman, making them part of the fight. But perhaps “union with God” trumped all those virtues or allowed a creative interpretation of them — or those virtues were only to be directed at fellow Muslims, rather than all mankind as in the Christian understanding of goodness, with its “Golden Rule”.
I asked the interfaith Sufi about the Koran, and he agreed that, of course, he adhered to it, so I asked how he felt about the jizya tax on unbelievers, which seemed at odds with his talk of compassion and so on. It was a tax just like Muslims paid, he said with a smile. No it wasn’t, I replied. We argued politely, until he decided that the jizya tax was simply a “payment for services” as non-Muslims were not allowed to join the army. Even a Muslim girl in the audience shook her head at that. I had no time to ask him what happened to those who rejected God’s “polite” invitation to Islam, but Osama bin Laden’s linkage to Sufi Islam might be sufficient answer in a “truthful” if not “interfaith-style” sense.
The “mystical” side of Islam there seemed to mirror the non-mystical side of Islam: whatever stripe allows words and ideas to be used in whichever way advances its agenda, justifies its actions or allows the speaker to keep face, to maintain the dignity to which he thinks he and Islam are entitled.
Only if we remain quiet do we let this dangerous farce continue. And continue it does. This weekend a Global Dawah Day is taking place — a day on which purpose-trained, purple-T-shirted Muslims are going to be out in force trying to persuade you — or more likely, your children — to convert. There need be no doubt that the “need-to-know” principle will be applied. Expect not Korans but glossy pamphlets handed out along with “polite” invitations from “God” (which is the name Muslim missionaries usually give to Allah when they are on the prowl for recruits). They will assure anyone who is interested that Islam respects women, that Jesus is a prophet of Islam, that Islam is not an extremist religion, and so on.
They are the equivalent, even in our days of mass literacy and unprecedented access to written texts, of the wandering Sufis of yore who brought a simple message of the Oneness of God and a seemingly simple path to salvation. The purple T-shirts’ slogans will ask “What’s Your Goal?” Perhaps they have calculated that non-Muslims are desperate for purpose in their miserable, godless lives, and perhaps this perception might have enough truth in it to persuade some of our young to embark on the one-way journey to Allah and His Messenger’s Sharia rules for life — to expand the generational growth of Islamic totalitarianism.
Antonia Newton is the pseudonym of a Melbourne writer whose desire for anonymity reflects her frequent travels in the Muslim world