Monday, January 05, 2009

Muslim "Heretics"

Turns out they're more widespread that we knew.  

Click up top for a drop-dead fascinating Economist report on the prevalence of Sufism in South Asia, particularly Pakistan.  The article, while solid, may be a little confusing to some readers, mostly because of some sloppy editing near the beginning.  We'll try to say plainly what the article gets to eventually. 

Sufism, of course, is the mystical strain of Islam.  Like many mystical traditions, it is sometimes at odds with the upholders of rigid orthodoxy -- but not, by any means, always.  And there is in Sufism a sharp division between the "official" and "popular" versions of the religion.  (The same division exists in Christianity, as famously in the distinction between magisterial teaching of the role of the saints, and popular reception of same).  It is to the latter that the Economist gives most of its attention, and in which flourish practices which would make not only the mullahs but even the proper Sufis shudder.

Whether official or popular or something in between, Sufism is fascinating.  Western readers went ga-ga some years ago over Coleman Barks' delightful, but un-scholarly, translation of poems by the great Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi.   We are no less excited about Fakhruddin 'Iraqi, a contemporary of Rumi's, whose Divine Flashes have been translated in a very fine edition from Paulist Press.  Sufi poetry appeals because it is, as the lit-crit types like to say, transgressive.  Union with God is presented in the language of sex and drunkenness -- think about an entire religious movement that speaks like Charles Bukowski.  Or anyway Arthur Rimbaud.

The Economist captures the popular expression of these transgressive impulses in its descriptions of the urs, or saint's-day celebration, at a town called Sehwan:  a "three-day orgy of music, dancing and intoxication, literally and spiritually ... one of the best parties in Pakistan, or anywhere."  Or this account of "a traditional family celebration" in a Sufi household: 

a dance performance by a visiting troupe of prostitutes. To the uninitiated, this splendid occasion is not obviously religious. The men of Mozafir Ali’s house sit in proud silence, as prostitutes straddle its courtyard, thrashing their long hair and kissing these hereditary notables’ knees. The women of the house rain rupee notes down on the dancers from a balcony discreetly above. A drummer shouts: “Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar duma dum mast!”

Makes you want to join up, doesn't it?

Geopolitical strategists are interested in Sufism for political reasons, since it cuts across the Sunni-Shia divide, and stands largely over against the rigid legalism of the Taliban.  This is foolish.  We shudder at the thought of RAND Corporation eggheads, who may barely grasp the complexities of their own religions, trying to manipulate the subtleties of another.  

But -- and it is a but worthy of Sir Mix-A-Lot's attention -- that doesn't mean Sufism is irrelevant to the political calculus.  Pakistanis, no less than Muslims in India, no doubt already realize that the Islamist version of their religion is an alien import from the Arab countries, a form of cultural imperialism far more dangerous to their traditions than, say, McDonald's is to French agriculture.  And sooner or later, without the misguided efforts of outside agitators, it is likely that this conflict will come to the surface.  They are only waiting for their own José Bové to emerge, and lead them in defense of their own tradition.

And then?  Bin Ladin versus Bukowski, in the cultural smackdown of the new century.  A guy can dream, anyway.


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