In the years since 9/11 and 7/7, Britain’s Muslims have tended to be categorised into one or other groups – either as dangerous religious extremists or ordinary British citizens much like the predominantly secular population. But when I went undercover to explore the world of the British Sufis, I found a way of living and being that occupied a spiritual-political elsewhere, a place in-between the polarities.
Sufis belong to an ancient mystical tradition which has always had an ambiguous relationship to orthodox Islam and who have often been treated as dangerous subversives by the authorities. Today, in countries such as Pakistan, they still are persecuted by followers of hardline Islam.
The religiously-tolerant atmosphere of Britain enables a
variety of Sufi groups to quietly flourish, both westernised forms of Sufism and a range of Asian groups from those which separate men and women to the liberal and pluralistic. I went undercover into gatherings of each of those types.
When I say ‘undercover’, I don’t mean a big operation with all the paraphenalia of deception – I just didn’t tell people that my main reason for being there was to research a book. In the groups with close connections to mainstream Islam, I did, on advice, wear a headscarf and, by default, feign an interest in conversion. My intention was to use the stance of insider-observer to gain an understanding of that world; I also wanted, rather like the Ship of Fools’ ‘mystery worshipper’ to test the warmth of my welcome as a westerner.
I heard, in the course of my research, that some Sufi groups tend to be politically conservative – even, one person insider told me, to the point of supporting authoritarian regimes. But through the months I attended Sufi circles, I never found it so.
In the end, I found a group as right for me as any could be for a cultural Christian with pagan tendencies commited to religious pluralism. It would be unwise for a non-Muslim to try and pin down their relation to Islam, but I can say that I found them to be a most faithful people who quietly subvert the stereotypes afflicting religion in Britain today.
Sufi Circles is out when the moon declares Eid.