More “orthodox” Muslims active in these reform and renewal movements have often accused Sufis of passivity and quietism with regard to surrounding social and political realities, and this charge has a ring of truth to it. But while it is true that Sufis by definition are preoccupied with the “greater jihād,” in which case it is often thought that the exercise of political power is incompatible with or not conducive to a proper spiritual life, their participation in the “lesser jihād” is not uncommon, having led armed opposition to European colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Consider, for example, the “politicization” or political awakening of a group of Sufis in Senegalese history:
“[T]he European colonial conquest of Africa would also play a role in the evolution of Islamic brotherhoods in Senegal. As the French colonial government curtailed much of the Islamic activity that had previously been enjoyed, Muslims in Senegal reacted and there was a backlash to the restrictions of the colonial government. Mbacke says this led to a rejection of ‘all forms of collaboration with the colonizer.’ Spearheading this opposition to the French was Shaykh Ahmad Bamba, who would be the founder of the Mourides. Shaykh Ahmad Bamba presented a threat to the French regime, which exiled the leader in 1895 and again in 1903. By the time of Shaykh Ahmad Bamba’s final return to Senegal in 1907 he had amassed an enormous following and would be the founder of Senegal’s largest brotherhood.” (From a review of Khadim Mbacké’s book, Sufism and Religious Brotherhoods in Senegal, 2005; see too Babou 2007)
“The most important of the militant movements of resistance to colonial expansion in Muslim lands were led Amir ‘Abd al-Qādir against the French conquest of Algeria, ‘Umar ibn Sa‘īd al-Fūtī against the French colonial expansion in Senegambia, and ‘Abdille Hasan against the British occupation of norther Somalia. These were all remarkable leaders, but as Sufi shaykhs they were all upstarts when assuming the leadership of resistance to European colonial rule in their lands.” (Abun-Nasr, 2007: 202)
But such anti-colonial militancy proved to be the exception to the rule as the shaykhs in a majority of the Sufi orders found a host of reasons, some practical and politically prudent, others principled and renunciatory, for “seeking to maintain their credibility as authoritative spiritual guides of their Muslim communities by avoiding close identification with it” (Abun-Nasr 2007: 214).
For their part, Muslim rulers often indulged in an “accommodating attitude” to the more well-known shaykhs of the centralized Sufi orders by way of enhancing their political legitimacy:
“After the collapse of the institution of the caliphate, Muslim rulers could no longer legitimise their political authority with nominal tokens of submission to the reigning caliph, such as having his name mentioned in the Friday prayer. In most cases they themselves had no credible claim to the religious leadership of their societies, and the religious legitimacy they derived from the endorsement of their political authority by the officeholders in their religious establishments was nebulous, and it carried no weight with Muslims in rural regions where these urban dignitaries had no influence. Hence the interest they had in securing the goodwill of the influential Sufi shaykhs of these regions by granting them favours, such as exempting their property from taxation, making donations for the construction of their zāwiyas [technically, zawāyā], and responding favourably to their intercession on behalf of political offenders. The Muslim rulers who departed from this pragmatic method of dealing with the influential Sufi shaykhs were usually the ones who claimed to themselves the supreme religious leadership of their societies.” (Abun-Nasr 2007: 171)
Finally, it’s interesting to recall that Hasan al-Bannā’, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, was himself once a murīd (‘aspirant-seeker’ under the guidance of a Sufi shaykh) in the Hassafiyya order (although by the 1940s, younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood, those whom Bannā’ often admonished as ‘hasty and anxious,’ purged all vestiges of Sufism from the organization). Indeed, Bannā’ had characterized the Ikhwān as “a Salafiyyah message, a Sunni way, a Sufi truth, a political organization, an athletic group, a scientific and cultural link, an economic enterprise, and a social idea,” a comprehensive formula that encompasses a socio-religious vision and practical social progam not unlike what Gandhi was attempting to put into practice during the same period on Indian soil (albeit of course within the greater ambit of different worldview) with his notions of sarvodaya (social or common good; public interest; universal welfare) and swadeshi (‘patriotism,’ with the connotations of ‘self-sufficiency’ and ‘self-reliance’ befitting the collective self-determination of geographically bounded polity); although Gandhi invoked a karma yoga spiritual path and the āśramic (monastic) ideal (albeit in an unconventional sense) by way of “purifying” conventional power politics. Nothing strictly follows from the above characterization of the Brotherhood that dictates social and political activity should assume as its principal form “party politics” in particular or electoral politics generally (in point of fact, Bannā’ himself was ardently opposed to ‘partyism’), which is not to insinuate that alternative kinds of political praxis should utterly ignore such politics.
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Image: Mor Gueye. Amadou Bamba taming the lion, 1996 (reverse-glass painting). It is found in Roberts and Roberts 2003: 99. From the book:
“The stages of Amadou Bamba’s life are meaningful to Mourides everywhere. An image like this one of Bamba taming the lion by Mor Gueye hangs in a shoe repair shop in Dakar. Of the image, the shopowner explains: ‘Of all the trials of the Saint, there is one event that is unique. The colonials put him in a cell with a hungry lion. They wanted to make life very difficult for the Saint. Eventually the lion received the divine power of a holy man and became a taalibé [follower or disciple, cf.: tālib, tilmīdh, and murīd]. This is why people love this image. They say they cannot spend five minutes without saying his name. It is impossible. I will never be in an environment that does not have the image of the Saint.’”