Religion & Spirituality

Undercover with Britain’s Sufis

Photo by kT LindSAy (Flickr)
Photo by kT LindSAy (Flickr)

The Paris attacks have brought with them their
inevitable consequences for Muslims. It’s sad to see that, even in the midst of Britain’s largely successful multiculturalism, they are already feeling the change in the wind.

Western Muslims are up against that doubt again, the one raised by the question: is Islam a religion of peace or terrorism? It’s part of a wider anxiety about religion which wants a definitive answer to the question of whether religion is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – and is sometimes dogmatically certain it’s the latter. (The Paris attacks also generated the inevitable claims on social media that they ‘proved’, once and for all, that religion should be abolished.)

The best answer to the question about Islam is that it’s neither. It is (just) a religion: a human attempt to give concrete form to the sense of the spiritual, with the good and bad attached to all things human. Terrorism, the violent attempt to impose a puritanical, hierarchical form of Islam, represents the extreme, bad end of the spectrum.

At the other end of the spectrum is Sufism. Since they first appeared as wandering mystics in the early Muslim world, Sufis have been a challenge to mainstream Islam often persecuted for blasphemy. In modern times, in countries such as Somalia, their gentle, tolerant form of faith has made them a target for hardline Wahhabis.

In Britain, Sufis are part of the tapestry of faiths that generally go unremarked, accepted as part of the social fabric. After the London bombings, they enjoyed a brief moment in the political sun, with the claim that they made up ‘the vast silent majority’ of British Muslims. Since Sufis are a distinctive minority, it was a political longshot, an attempt to put a name and a group to the law-abiding life lived by most British Muslims.

Researching Britain’s faithscape, I wanted to explore how far the modern-day minority embodied the joyful, humane sensibility expressed by the Sufi poet Rumi. So, posing as a potential western convert, I went undercover to a variety of Sufi circles – zikrs – and gatherings.

What did I find? Yes, you’ve guessed it – a spectrum of religious behaviour, thankfully on a much narrower spectrum than that featuring terrorism. I found myself, variously, in conservative groups that segregated men and women, observing a westernised, middle-class form of Sufism, and comforted by the warmth and fellowship of immigrant Muslims.

Plus – and here you’ll have to read the book – my time with modern British Sufis brought some unexpected experiences and spiritual insights.