The worldwide growth of Islam’s mystical dimension


Despite remaining as one of the most controversial and misunderstood branches of Islam, Sufism is growing fast. Omar Shahid explains why.

Whirling dervishes perform at the Galata Mevlevihane (The Lodge of the Dervishes) in Istanbul on December 18, 2013. The dervishes are adepts of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that preaches tolerance and a search for understanding. Those who whirl, like planets around the sun, turn dance into a form of prayer.   AFP PHOTO/GURCAN OZTURK
Whirling dervishes perform at the Galata Mevlevihane (The Lodge of the Dervishes) in Istanbul on December 18, 2013. AFP PHOTO/GURCAN OZTURK

I’m sitting in a large room decorated with Islamic art, on the second floor of a building tucked away on a quiet side road in Amman, Jordan. Worshippers are standing in prayer, chanting God’s name and talking quietly among themselves. But these are not just any Muslim worshippers. They are murid (disciples) who follow the mystical path in Islam called Sufism. I get talking to one who says the murid have come from across the world to live here under the tutelage of their spiritual master. The atmosphere is relaxed, peaceful and still. About 20 minutes pass when, suddenly, the door flings open. Immediately, everyone rises as an entourage of people swiftly walk in.

Heading the entourage is Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, the murid’s spiritual guide. Born in 1954 in Washington, Keller is a white American convert. Sitting at the front of the class in a light green robe, he dons a white beard and wears a relaxed face, vacant of any emotion. One glance at him is enough to gather that he seems disinterested in worldly preoccupations. Addressing the room of male disciples (his female students are in a room parallel and can hear via speakers), he speaks in a deep and unwavering tone.

Keller begins the evening with dhikr, invoking or remembering God. He slowly breathes in, then in one long, slow exhalation says the divine name “All-ll-aa-hhh” – in unison, everyone joins in. After repeating this for a minute or so, the crowd stands up. People link hands and form two concentric circles. Singers begin to read spiritual poetry and a powerful sacred dance begins, known as the hadra.

The inner circle, consisting of what seems like Keller’s more advanced students, becomes particularly enrapt in the sacred dance. The murid rise and fall in a bowing motion, repeating the names of God. Everything is in unison and nobody is out of rhythm. As it goes on, the bowing becomes faster and faster, more intense and the students begin to look intoxicated. Then something unexpected happens.

Keller rushes into the inner circle, and, in a somewhat ecstatic state, begins to jump, clap his hands and shout something as if to generate further spiritual energy. The murid respond with an equal amount of energy as they rise and fall quicker and quicker.

Suddenly, it all stops.

Everyone sits down calmly as if nothing happened. In an muffled voice, Keller, who doesn’t seem to be fully present – his mind and spirit are somewhere else – begins to deliver a talk. Everyone listens attentively before going home.

Keller, known to Muslims across the world as Shaykh Nuh, has dozens of students who live in his monastery. He is accused by his detractors of running a cult in Amman. His students, for example, must adhere to a curfew, attend several hadra every week and wear strict uniforms (all the women must wear the face veil).

Others herald him as a deeply pious Sufi Muslim and a great reviver of Islam in the 21st century. Indeed, along with other popular converts such as the Hamza Yusuf (US), Zaid Shakir (US) and Abdal Hakim Murad (Britain), Keller is widely seen as one of the Western scholars who’ve successfully promoted Sufism in the West.

“From 1995 onwards, particularly after 9/11, many young Muslims and, indeed, non-Muslims, have resonated with Sufism. Especially the intellectual form of Sufism taught by Hamza Yusuf, Nuh Ha Mim Keller and Abdal Hakim Murad. A huge tide of people have embraced it,” says Usama Hasan, a London-based Imam.

Sufism is much more than hadra. In fact, not all Sufis participate in these kinds of activities – what’s focal to their belief is the purification of the heart and stripping away of the nafs, or ego. However, many accuse Sufis of innovating many things into the Islamic tradition and engaging in all types of loony and unIslamic acts.

Often described as the inner, mystical dimension of Islam, Sufism has existed for centuries. According to Islamic scholars such as al-Hujwiri and Ibn Khaldun, Islamic mysticism existed during the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) but didn’t yet have a name. Nonetheless, Sufism remains one of the most controversial and misunderstood branches in Islam.

With the rise of more fundamentalist tendencies in Islam, such as the Salafi or Wahhabi branch, Sufism has increasingly been marginalised and criticised. Until recently, Sufism was even banned in Saudi Arabia, which tarnished its image and made it appear “unIslamic”.

Even in Britain, Sufism has been held with some suspicion among the Muslim community. After all, it’s a version of Islam British governments seem to like: in 2006, the British government backed the launch of the now defunct Sufi Muslim Council and in 2007, they helped fund the Sufi-inclined organisation Radical Middle Way, set up in the wake of the 7/7 London bombings.

Given that many British Muslims hold the government with suspicion and accuse them of being Islamophobic, the “strange” promotion of Sufism doesn’t go down too well with many within the Muslim community.

Nonetheless, despite suspicion and condemnation, the worldwide growth of Sufism has hardly been stunted. According to Islamic scholar and Oxford University professor Tariq Ramadan, there has been a revival of Sufi movements recently.[i] This is not just restricted to the West, or indeed Britain, but also worldwide. It has reemerged in places such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Chechnya, to name a few.

With intense scrutiny on Islam and Muslims post 9/11, many have veered towards the Sufi path because of its views on tolerance and love, opposing the hardline extreme views of many Wahhabis and Salafis. Others find deeper, more intellectually stimulating answers in Sufism, that resolve their doubts.

Roger Hardy, the BBC’s former Islamic Affairs analyst, points out: “What has struck me is the affinity so many young Muslims have with the likes of Hamza Yusuf and Tariq Ramadan; they’re intellectuals but speak the language of the youth.”

Social media has also opened up Sufism for the younger generation – bringing quotes from old sacred books straight to people’s newsfeeds. For example, the Facebook page dedicated to Sufi mystic and poet Rumi that has over 1.2 million “likes”. In the US, Rumi remains the country’s best-selling poet to date.[ii] That’s right. America’s best selling poet is a Muslim… from Afghanistan… whose first name is Muhammad. Ironic, isn’t it?

Perhaps it’s because the foundation of Sufism articulates a reality that many of us are unknowingly searching for. For example, Rumi’s poetry expresses divine love and dismisses the empty, worldly and materialistic love that has left many unfulfilled. Within Sufism we also find philosophical discussions on the purpose of existence and worship, which provide the intellectual stimulation that many crave and cannot find elsewhere. Increasingly, people of all backgrounds, nationalities and levels of intelligence are finding these answers in Sufism.

For the Sufis in Amman, being with their teacher and attending daily classes on Islamic mysticism outweighs a life of worldly pleasures. Sufism and hadra provides them with the spiritual fulfilment they seek in a world where spirituality is rapidly being forgotten.

[i] Tariq Ramadan, ‘Contemporary Muslims are in need of spirituality’, 24 Feb 2012, available here
[ii] Jane Ciabattari, ‘Why is Rumi the best-selling poet in the US?’, BBC, 14 Apr 2014, available here

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