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Sufism Offers Spirituality Traditional Muslim Trends Don’t And Keeps Young From Turning To Extremism – OpEd

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Sufism, the mystical trend in Islam, can be an ally of Muslim mullahs and imams and even the Russian state, by attracting young Russians to it and thus protecting them from the baleful influence of radical “pseudo-religious extremism,” Ildar Safargaleyev says.

The head of the Islamic research department of the Moscow Institute for CIS Countries says that some Muslim leaders in the North Caucasus and many elsewhere as for example in the Middle Volga do not accept this idea because they see sufism as undermining the legal principles of the faith (materik.ru/analitika/sufizm-v-rossii-kak-deystvennaya-alte/).

But in fact, for centuries, Muslims have accepted Sufism as a trend that creates spiritual leaders capable of winning over the young and even have insisted that those trained in regular Islamic medrassahs or universities study with a Sufi sheikh after completing their formal Islamic educations.

In Russia, however, because of the propensity of the authorities to model other faiths on the basis of Orthodox Christianity, both Soviet and later Russian Federation authorities bought into the idea that a regular formal Islamic education was enough and that Sufism was something threatening rather than supportive of the faith.

In 2016, things began to change when an international Islamic conference in Grozny, Chechnya, adopted a resolution stressing that Sufism was an integral part of Sunni Islam and that those who studied to be imams, mullahs and alims should acquire direct knowledge about Sufism.

Such knowledge could be gained either through the inclusion of Sufi-led courses in normal medrassahs and Islamic universities or by having the graduates of those institutes attach themselves for a time to Sufi sheikhs who could introduce them to the provisions of this mystical trend so popular with young people, Safargaleyev says.

Far more needs to be done in this direction, the Islamic specialist says. In the North Caucasus, there are many Sufi sheikhs ready, willing and able to provide instruction to mullahs and imams but elsewhere, including in the Middle Volga, there are fewer and they are less prominent in the community.

For Muslims, simply studying in an Islamic educational institution “be it a medrassah or even an Islamic university, for example, Al-Azhar” is “insufficient to become a spiritual guide.” Only a Sufi sheikh can provide such people with those skills, and so early contact with these Sufi leaders should be encouraged rather than discouraged.

Up to now, unfortunately, “not so much is said about this practice,” Safargaleyev says, adding that in his view, “the roots of the illness of pseudo-religious extremism is precisely in this fact.” If the imams and mullahs of traditional Islam had a better understanding of Sufism, they could prevent young Muslims from heeding the siren song of extremist groups.

Safargaleyev is not the first Russian Muslim expert to urge an expansion of attention to and use of Sufism to counter extremism – seewindowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/07/sufism-better-than-state-as-bulwark.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/10/sufism-most-effective-means-to-counter.html – but he is well-positioned to promote his view.

Indeed, given his ties to political leaders close to the Kremlin, it is almost certain that his argument in this article will be taken seriously by many who up to now have viewed Sufism as an enemy ever bit as dangerous as Islamist radicalism. They may be pushed to change their view, and the role of Sufism may consequently rise in the North Caucasus and elsewhere.  

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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