The Real Sufism

Enter Baghdad's leading Sufi mosque on a recent evening and the first thing that catches your eye is a man, sitting cross-legged in a corner of the courtyard. The blanket in front of him is filled with his wares, and clustered around are men young and old, busily buying, swapping and studying a bewildering assortment of pocket-sized pictures and postcards and CDs.

There's something about the whole scene that recalls a gathering of baseball-card enthusiasts. But a closer look at the curiosities on offer quickly dispels the impression. Take the fuzzy picture of a miraculous forest, the white wobbly trunks against a dark background magically forming the Arabic letters of a verse from the Qur'an. Or the photo of a black-and-white cow whose side is emblazoned with spots that form the word ALLAH. Or a painting in lurid green and brown portraying the decapitated head of the great martyr Hussein, his head impaled on a spike.

This is an interesting time to make the acquaintance of the Sufis of Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein they were an embattled minority, their community both a refuge of ancient spiritual tradition and an object of typically 20th-century intrigue. Now that Saddam has gone and American occupation has arrived, the Sufis are struggling to find a way back to their old ways--and, in the process, displaying all the ambiguous riches of their age-old religious quest. They call it tariqa, "the path," a system of esoteric "spiritual experience" that has, at various times, enraged more orthodox Muslims even as it has enticed non-Muslim outsiders attracted to its rarefied mystical techniques.

In the West, Sufism has long since broken through the trend barrier. Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun turned Muslim mystic, conquered the best-seller lists with her provocative explorations into the nature of God and her sympathetic expositions on Islam. New Agers from Hollywood to New York enthuse over Sufi approaches to trance and meditation. Edward Said, the powerful Palestinian critic of Western strategies of stereotyping of the Muslim world, recently described the Sufi poet Hafez as one of his role models. And essayist Pico Iyer took readers on a mystical journey via a hero obsessed with yet another of the Sufi literary greats.

All of which is fine enough. But to visit the Sufis of Iraq, at this strange and chaotic moment in their country's history, is to shunt aside the heavily edited enthusiasms of Western bohemians and to encounter the Islamic mystical tradition as a real and living thing, as a complex, ambiguous and sometimes rather messy affair. The religious quest on view at the Sufi's main mosque in West Baghdad seems to consist in equal parts of sublime transcendence and grass-roots obscurantism, exalted mystical theory and earthy superstition.

The word Sufi is derived from the old Arabic word for the uncomfortable woolen garments once worn by ascetic mystics. Yet the Sufis' story is not, as it sometimes portrayed in the West, solely one of outsiders. Western Sufi enthusiasts often seem to view Sufism as a comfortingly fuzzy alternative to the sternly specific demands of mainstream Islam. Yet the Sufis themselves don't see it that way at all. "Our path is the soul of Islam," says the Baghdad mosque's leader, Abdul sa'am Hussein Salih. As he explains it, the worshipers at their Baghdad mosque (known in the Sufi vernacular as a takiya) consider themselves Muslims of a particularly intense and privileged sort. Before I can attend the evening's ceremonies, Salih tells me, I must first give him the chance to convert me to Islam. (When I try to worm my way out of the challenge by saying that "we all believe in the same god," he uncompromisingly confronts me with the Muslim profession of faith--"there is but one God and Allah is his name.") After all, he explains, one of the functions of the extroverted Sufi rituals--involving chanting, drums and the public experience of ecstasy--is to demonstrate the power of Islam to those who are in search of God. Sometimes, he explains, the members of his own Sufi order submit themselves to brutal acts of mutilation in order to prove their purity to the doubters. It is their deeper faith, says Salih, that allows the Sufis to defy pain and injury. That is why, he insists, their wounds don't even bleed. (Photos of the self-mutilators are one of the curiosity-seller's most popular products: a man whose head is bristling with an embedded sword, another with a skewer through his side, staring calmly into the camera.)

Still, this is not to claim that Sufis are different from other Muslims, Salih explains: they're simply an elect--people who desire not just the pleasures of paradise after death but the loftier privilege of actually "seeing the face of Allah." "All the great thinkers of Islam were also Sufis," he claims, citing Abu Hanifa, the ninth-century founder of the Hanafi school of mainstream Sunni Islam, who is buried in a Baghdad mosque. Salih explains that his community's sheik, or spiritual mentor, traces his lineage directly back to Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. He hands me a tiny photo depicting the present sheik: a dignified gentleman with his head wrapped in a Kurdish scarf. "He lives in Sulaymaniyah," says Salih, a city in Kurdistan, in the autonomous northern part of Iraq that remained largely beyond the reach of Saddam's security forces ever since the end of the first gulf war (thanks in part to the U.S. no-fly zone enforced above it). The Iraqi Kurds, whose territory borders Syria, Turkey and Iran, were also notorious for their smuggling. Perhaps that is the source of the new-model BMW and the pricey Toyota Land Cruiser that are parked at one side of the courtyard. "I thought Sufis were supposed to be poor," mutters my interpreter, a non-Sufi Baghdadi.

Nonetheless, the fact that their spiritual leader happens to be a Kurd certainly didn't make life easier for the Sufis under Saddam. The Sufis underwent their share of persecution during Baath Party rule, though one could argue that the same applied to all religious enthusiasts back then, whether Sunni, Shiite, Christian or Jew. Before the war began, Sufis were seen mainly as participants in pro-Saddam marches, shouting bloodthirsty slogans against the Americans. The real story is complex. In at least one recent case, soon after the war began earlier this year, Saddam's security forces raided several Sufi centers around Iraq. Dozens of community members were arrested. Three Western journalists who were imprisoned in Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghurayb Prison just before the war broke out made friends with some of the imprisoned Sufis--only to learn, after the war was over, that at least 14 of the detainees had been summarily executed just before the fighting ended. Since then, sources say, it has become apparent that some Sufi orders formed an underground organization aimed at toppling Saddam from power. The connection with their brethren in the north clearly came in handy, since the Kurds were able to provide the Sufi underground with satellite phones and other conveniences.

Now that Saddam is gone, the Sufis are determined to stage a revival. U.S. forces are using members of a Sufi community in the north to provide desperately needed security for the main pipeline used to transport Iraqi oil to neighboring Turkey. Postwar Sufis have also been exulting over the Americans' destruction of the Ansar al-Islam, the Al Qaeda-allied Islamist organization. Ansar members, who governed their own enclave in the north until U.S. forces bombed them heavily during the war, destroyed the graves of Sufi holy men--figures regarded by the ultraorthodox Ansar group as "heretics" who shouldn't be considered real Muslims. (Historically, Sufis have often met with similar persecution among mainstream Muslim groups who regard them as suspect.) Asked to describe the Sufis' position on the American occupation, Salih responds dismissively: "We are not political men. We live without politics and without worldly aims." Then he offers a typically cryptic utterance. "We believe that some Muslims have committed wrong actions. But we are now beyond all that."

Does he mean the Baathists? Perhaps--but perhaps not only the Baathists. Soon the evening's ceremony begins. It starts with slow, languorous chanting from men seated around a small porch at the front of the mosque. Then, as more believers gather, they move to the courtyard, where they stand in ranks that form a square. The chanting intensifies, and soon the men in the front rank are undoing scarves and removing hats to release enormous quantities of long, black hair. Drums join in--boo boo boo boom, boo boo boo boom--and by now the men are swinging their hair in long ecstatic curves. This is the zikr, the trancelike ritual characteristic of the Sufis.

But just as you're losing yourself in the waves of movement and the pulsing rhythms of the ceremony, there's a pause. An older, somewhat paunchy man, clad in a white robe and skullcap, steps into the worshipers' midst. "We're all brothers," he declares. "I want you all to be brothers--even the Baathists among us. There were some Baathists who came here and followed our path, but only those who committed crimes or murdered people will be prosecuted by the government." A pause. "There were people who were planted here then, and there are other people planted here now. Those who come here seeking faith and belief are welcomed by us." Later, the man, who describes himself only as a "representative of the sheik," will refuse to add anything to these carefully tailored admonitions. What remains clear is that, for the Sufi, life even in postwar Iraq remains a balancing act.