Sufi vs. Salafi: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam

by Sam Buntz

Islam is so diverse as to utterly defeat the attempt to describe its various divisions in a mere blog post.  Fundamentalists often claim that Islam is a singular entity, and assert that they possess the purest form of it—but every honest scholar knows that this is wrong.  Nonetheless, we can see roughly three big trends or movements within contemporary Islam (as I discovered in a number of my college religion courses—to give credit where it’s due):  the fundamentalists (or Salafists and Wahhabists), with their popular movements, their crudely harnessed mob-strength, and their ridiculously narrow interpretations of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s traditions; the progressive reformers, who want to adapt Islam to a Western Enlightenment approach, to make its claims subject to the believer’s reason; and finally, the traditionalists, who live in accordance with a wide variety of Islamic legal schools, who support the classical tradition of Islamic learning, who often practice forms of spirituality and mysticism that date back to Islam’s origins (yet are considered heretical by fundamentalists), and who side with many of the cultural and artistic values that characterized the Islamic World’s periods of renaissance.

The first and the last of these groups are the most numerous—though, unfortunately, the fundamentalists seem to have more manpower and zeal on their side.  If they aren’t numerically superior—and they may or may not be (I don’t know)—they are, at least, far more vocal than the traditionalists, who often take a quietist approach, continuing to do what they intend to do, but remaining politically invisible.  Yet it is the traditionalists who likely hold the key to defeating  fundamentalism, because they possess Islam’s sources of strength: it’s classical tradition, its ideas—the Spirit that speaks through its greatest artistic and cultural productions belongs to them (or, they belong to it).  If Nietzsche was correct when he said that “the greatest ideas are the greatest events”, the tide of history may well lie with these apostles of Islamic Renaissance—provided they can transfer their ideas into the realm of action.

The fundamentalists treat the Qur’an as though it were a magical tome that somehow interprets itself.  It is not—nor is any holy book (the question of divine inspiration aside).  It requires interpretation, and interpretation is the moment when power is exercised—the moment when the individual interpreter wrestles the maximum amount of meaning out of the text. The traditionalist Sufis (mystics) and others who embrace the elements of Islamic Renaissance—who adopt a humane understanding of the book and the Prophet’s sayings, and who practice a religion open to joy, open to the arts, open to music and dance (open to a religion that doesn’t consider stringed instruments to be more some sort of abomination, for one thing)—these free-spirited Muslims, actually have the weight of tradition distributed on their side of the balance.  Their interpretations are stronger—they know which sayings of the Prophet are more authentic and have a more advanced pedigree, than do the fundamentalists.  And their strength is, in large measure, provided by a spiritual respect for the Human, for the divine qualities visible in men and women, created both in the Image of God.  This gives them an edge and fuels their arguments, because it is a respect and a reverence that they share with Islam’s greatest luminaries: intellectual titans like Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Arabi, ecstatic poets like Rumi and Hafiz, and, of course, the Prophet Muhammad himself.

To get a good idea of what this looks like in practice, you only need to read or listen to an activist like Ed Husain—himself a Sufi—his compatriot, Maajid Nawaz, or a great scholar and preacher like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (born Mark Hanson), or to look up a Youtube video of the great Sufi singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Facing the rise of fascism and communism, W.B. Yeats observed, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”—but such spirits as these are not lacking in moral courage, conviction, or “passionate intensity.”  Husain frequently makes fascinating points—for example, demonstrating convincingly during a debate with the estimable critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, that the fundamentalist argument for executing apostates is actually quite weak, and can be rectified by a more thorough understanding of the tradition.  As someone who had formerly been a fundamentalist and an extremist, Husain understands the mindset of many of the young converts to such causes, and he is able to craft his arguments in ways that directly and even devastatingly undermine the fundamentalist claim to a more accurate interpretation of the scriptures—in ways that would catch the attention of someone who had initially been seduced by those claims.

Husain, Nawaz, and their cohorts see the attempt to defeat radical Islamism through violence as being ultimately counterproductive—Islamism being like the hydra that sprouts ten new heads every time you cut off one.  Obviously, the U.S. is far better off relaxing from any prospective large-scale military crusades against world Islamism—the war is primarily a war of hearts and minds, a war of intellectual attrition, a war fought with the pen, the camera, the human voice.  It may be that the most effective thing the U.S. can do to help the traditionalists, the Sufis, and the scattered Islamic rationalists would be to fund more cultural programs and schools—things we’re already doing to some extent.  But we could find more ways to use the private sector to counter the oil money that the Saudis are using to get their own noxious Wahhabist fundamentalism into American and European mosques—and countless mosques further abroad—instead funneling cash to the defenders of Renaissance.  For example, Coca-Cola funds what might be Pakistan’s most popular TV program—“Coke Studio”, a showcase of traditional religious music, most often inspired by Sufism.

The founder of psychoanalysis once said something peculiarly relevant to this struggle.  At the end of Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud predicted that “Thanatos”, the death-impulse—humanity’s urge to deface itself and its creations, as represented, in his day, by Fascism and Stalinist Communism—would find itself challenged once again by “Eros,” the impulse for life and love: “The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of the communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction…And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers,’ eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary.  But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”

It remains to be seen whether Islam can defeat many of its adherents’ own death-impulses—cancerously eating away at it from within—and re-affirm its own joyful and exuberant tendencies, its native love of life and its moods of devotional ecstasy.  This question is just as up-in-the-air as it was when Freud posed it with regard to his own historical situation—and it cannot yet be answered.  The situation is, no doubt, dire—but Fascism fell, and Soviet Communism fell.  The radicals who support a perverted though widely popular version of Islam may find their own aims suddenly overturned—the tide of history astonishingly reversed.  You never know when the dying embers of a Renaissance might suddenly be re-kindled to glowing life…


Audio of Ed Husain debating Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the proper response to Islamic Fundamentalism:

Audio of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan performing “Tumhen Dillagi Bhool”, a transcendent example of qawwali music:

Video of Maajid Nawaz on his experiences:


4 thoughts on “Sufi vs. Salafi: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam

  1. Interesting. However, you seem to be saying that most traditionalists are Sufi, but that doesn’t make sense in my head when I think about the small number of Sufis around the world. You also imply Hamza Yusuf is Sufi, and to my understanding he rejects this (although he affirms that it is a common misconception). Perhaps I am misinterpreting. Do you mind clarifying? You would know better than me.



    • Hey Lux,

      Thanks for commenting. I did imply that all traditionalists were Sufis, which, as you noticed, isn’t true — I was kind of condensing my argument and ended up doing that (though I guess you could make the reverse generalization and say that most Sufis are traditionalists, and it wouldn’t be all that wrong.) And yeah, you’re right about Hamza Yusuf saying he’s not really a Sufi. But I do see the Sufi association with arts and culture as permeating well beyond Sufism’s own borders — even though Sufis aren’t at all in the majority now, I think that Sufi practices colored the devotional life of most Muslims in India and Pakistan up until this past century, really (or, at least, William Dalrymple says so), and back in the day, there was a time when most people in the Islamic world had some sort of affiliation with a Sufi lodge, even if it was just nominal (I think I read that in an Annemarie Schimmel article). Obviously, that isn’t the case today — but I was thinking that, back when it was true, it was something that coincided with the other intellectual and cultural developments of the Islamic Renaissance, and became entwined with them to a really profound degree. I take it that there are still plenty of Muslims today who wouldn’t say they were Sufis, but they participate in practices that are, basically, pretty Sufi in nature. So the influence isn’t just confined to the people who call themselves Sufis, and runs through that traditionalist tendency — but, anyway, I would’ve thrown in some more qualifications and caveats, in retrospect.

      Sorry — that was a long response!



  2. Interesting points. Being a muslim who have learned both two (Salafi first, then Sufi teachings), I can attest this. Not all traditionalists are Sufis by title, but all traditionalists will acknowledge tasawwuf or sufism as a branch of knowledge in Islam to develop spirituality and harmony with creations. Some people want to point out that Sufism and Islam are two universes away, that’s not true. The Qur’an and Hadiths are ALWAYS the heart of Sufism. For thousands of years, traditional muslims always recognize Sufism not as a sect, but as a valid branch of Islamic knowledge just like jurisprudence, science of Hadith, or Arabic linguistic. This is only until the rise of Salafi movements trying to divorce Islam from its inner spirituality.

    Even the father of Salafi, Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah himself, wrote an extensive book about Sufism and he praised some Sufi scholars though he also criticized/ despised others. But now we got the todays Salafis condemn sufism totally and slander it, attribute the actions of some Pseudo-Sufis to paint the same brush to all Sufism as deviant. They want to “purify” Islam, but all they do is making Islam barren, dry, and narrow. Rejecting the inner heart of Islam and teachings of Prophet to be merciful, most of Salafis I know are lacking of spirituality and filled with harshness.

    But even for their similarity (i.e. veneration to Ibn Taymiyyah and modern Saudi shaykhs like Ibn Uthaymeen etc), Salafi people themselves are divided each others. I’ve met some Salafis who verbally supporting killing of random civilians, then there are some other Salafis who condemns Osama and the like of him, some Salafis who only spend their time badmouthing muslims other then their sect as misguided, and some moderate/ modernist Salafis like Shaykh Yasir Qadhi.

    /Rant ^_^

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