Since 9/11, and even earlier back to the Iranian Revolution, Western journalists have served as oracles for the mass public, decrypting the ethnographic confusions of the Islamic world. There are many subtle shadings which no doubt can’t make into finite copy. But I get really exasperated when extremely basic factual misinformation makes it into the pages of The New York Times. I know, I shouldn’t, but it is the “paper of record.” It is made all the worse when the piece is an analysis which attempts to do more than report the straight facts, but rather place events in a broader context. A Libyan Fight for Democracy, or a Civil War?:
Even one religious leader associated with Sufism — a traditionally pacifist sect something like the Islamic equivalent of the Quakers — lamented his own tribe’s lack of guns for the fight.
Exactly what Sufi Islam is is a matter for doctoral theses. But I can assert with 100% surety that one could agree that in terms of how Sufi Islam is practiced in the real world it does not resemble a “pacifist sect” like the Quakers at all (there are similarities in terms of language used to describe Quaker and Sufi religious experience, but that sort of mysticism is very general, and not specific to just these two traditions). This is blatant misinformation, the kind of stuff you might hear in Sedona, but could be debunked with a very superficial understanding of the history of the Muslim world.
For example, the Safavid dynasty of Persia, which made Shia Islam synonymous with the Iranian nation in the 16th century, began as a militant Sufi order. King Idris of Libya was head of a an Islamic order which has been characterized as Sufi and engaged in violent rebellion against Italian colonialism. And here’s an article which explicitly addresses the question of Sufi Islam’s purported pacifism:
Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed killer of Salmaan Taseer, is said to be associated with the Dawat-e-Islami, a non-violent, non-political, Sufi-inspired group of the Barelvi school of thought. The Barelvis are mainly pacifists, having little or no militant tendencies, while most jihadists and militant groups, with few exceptions, believe in a more puritanical version of Islam where veneration of Sufi saints and rituals and devotional music and dances at their shrines, are considered apostasy.
In 1240, Baba Ilyas-i-Khorasani and Baba Ishaq, two popular Sufi sheikhs, mobilised nomadic Turkmen against the Seljuk rule in what is modern-day Turkey, demanding a revival of ‘pure’ Islam. And in the 15th and 16th centuries, several Sufi masters led armed uprisings in the Ottoman Empire against the ‘lax’ official Islam.
In modern times, most rebellions, led by Sufi masters, were targeted against the British, French and Italian colonialists. The Sanusiyya — a Sufi order widespread in Libya, Egypt, Sudan and the Sahara — fought against the Italian colonialists. And the Muridiyya order, founded by Amadu Baba, fought the French in Senegal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sufis from Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya orders fought jihad against ‘godless’ Russian tsars and the Soviets.
In the region now called Pakistan, Sufis, dervishes and mullahs pioneered several millenarian and revivalist movements directed against British colonialists. Mirza Ali Khan, better known as the ‘Faqir from Ipi,’ a hermit from the Waziristan region, led his disciples in a successful rebellion against the British. And the Hur movement of the late 19th century in Sindh was also mobilised by a saintly figure, Sibghtullah Shah Badshah.
Religious orders which have a militant side are pretty common across history, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. The Buddhist warrior monks of Japan and the Christian military orders are examples outside of Islam. Since 9/11 there has been a quest in the Western media to break Islam apart into “good” and “bad” dichotomies. So, Sufism = good. Salafism = bad. “Moderate Muslims” = good. “Fundamentalist Muslims” = bad. The necessity of this for the reading audience is obvious, but the reality is all too often all that occurs is that terms get invented, distorted, and reality bent out of shape to fit a particular narrative.