Sufis and Salafis of the West: Discord and the Hope of Unity

Last week the question of Muslim unity came up, as it often does, on the English-medium Muslim blogosphere. One of the prominent young American scholars, Imam Suhaib Webb, who is currently studying at the al-Azhar in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s most august centre of Islamic learning, commented that:

Over the last 15 yrs the West has become a waste land for the wars that have taken place between both [the Sufi and Salafi] schools. In their attempt to derive authenticity, each has staked a claim to traditionalism as defined by the parameters of their learning and understanding. The problem with both is that a monolith is eventually given birth to that allows each to, in the name of tradition and tolerance, destroy each other with words, pens and so forth. Initially, one must admit, that our salafi brethren were exceedingly rude and outrageous in their attacks upon the sufis and the asharis. Then, sometime in the late 90’s and definitely post 911 some of the Sufis were given a window of opportunity and, instead of seeking to mend fences with the (moderate) salafis they begin to launch attacks on them from every angle, questioning their ijazas, resorting to tabloid type journalism and excluding them from the discourse. There is a famous Usoli principle [in legal reasoning] that says, “An extreme will only give birth to its opposite.”

In an original posting (now deleted), Imam Suhaib declared that he had washed his hands of the traditionalist movement, provoked by a recent polemic from a Sufi scholar against Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi that Imam Suhaib thought overly judgemental and too personalised in tone. A few days later, Imam Suhaib posted a second blog saying that he would continue to work with both constructive Salafis and Sufis to further programmes of religious public education and other forms of community service. However he still wanted to distance himself from what he saw as excessive partisanship on both sides.

There has been much critical examination of Salafi partisanship by self-defined traditionalists in the West (and by reflective Salafis), which is unsurprising given the aggressive nature of the Salafi da`wa, particularly in the late eighties and early nineties. However, calling oneself to account (muhasaba) is supposed to be a Sufi trait. So perhaps Imam Suhaib’s concerns about excessive partisanship among some traditionalists in the West deserve serious consideration.

The phenomenon of rejoicing in groupthink, and claiming some automatic authenticity and superiority is common among camp-followers of any grouping and is hardly unique to traditionalists alone or even to Islam. The harm arises when this is systematically fostered by the leaders of such a movement. Yet the evidence for claiming that the leaders of traditionalism are guilty of this seems thin on the ground: in fact I’ve heard a number of them make explicit condemnations of cultishness or groupthink. How far that is taken on board is another matter of course.

There have been lapses into groupthink on traditionalist internet fora because some people are unable to handle the ikhtilaf of the ulema, and some want to defend their teachers to the hilt, taking it as a personal and not an academic dispute. Partisanship is common too because it so often derives from an excess of loyalty that is not tempered by other considerations. However learned internet sites like Sunnipath manifest loyalty to an interpretive tradition while embodying good manners and circumspection when speaking of others with whom one might have scholarly or even more serious differences in matters of religion.

Traditionalism: Definitions and Development in the West

The basic question — what is traditionalism truly? — is a perennial one. Traditionalism, used in its normative sense, refers to that approach which allows for the authentic perpetuation and embodiment of the Islamic tradition and that contains a collective system of ongoing self-correction and refinement. Historically, while traditionalism has been manifested by the recognised schools of law, theology and mysticism, it has always been clear that no one group of trained scholars among the ulema can claim to embody it absolutely without the correctives of other trained scholars should that prove necessary. Perhaps the tradition in this sense is larger even than the ulema themselves. The ulema are the inheritors of the prophets if they preserve and teach the knowledge of the prophets in each successive generation and attempt to apply the principles of that teaching when new circumstances arise that were unknown to previous generations. So in some sense, their immersion in the interpretive legacy disciplines the entire collectivity of the ulema too, as it provides the gold standard by which all scholarly interpretations are measured and checked by their learned peers and successors. In essence the mechanism of discipline is moral and intellectual peer review. It is no accident that there are similarities in the regulation of scholarly standards between the seminary (Islamic and later Christian) and the modern university, as the latter has its historical roots in the former as George Makdisi showed in The Rise of Colleges.

Some comparative religion might shed some further light on this formula of traditionalism somewhat. The concept of orthodox Judaism for instance only arose during the Jewish Enlightenment when reformers coined the term to describe the age-old Rabbinical tradition that later accepted the use of this terminology to describe itself. Its decentring caused it to be named in terms relative to other new tendencies, i.e. from Rabbinical Judaism to orthodox Judaism. Similarly the Muslim world has arguably been going through something like a Reformation since the eighteenth century (some historians argue that its genesis lies in the sixteenth century) and so traditional Islam was named when its centrality became contested. Today many now claim the right to interpret Islam besides the ulema.

Outside of its more general and normative sense, what is more often referred to in the West today as traditionalism is a particular and recent manifestation. Around the beginning of the nineties, a set of scholars in the West attempted to defend traditional Islam against the polemics of the political Islamic movements and the Salafis. For a young generation in Britain and North America, traditional Islam was in danger of losing serious ground. It was accused of being either backward, hidebound or even unorthodox and heretical. This group of scholars restored the conviction of many in this generation in the intellectual validity of traditional Islam and initiated them in the wellsprings of its scholastic and mystical traditions.

However the nineties are long gone, and the noughties have been a very different decade for the traditionalist movement in the West. There have, I believe, been two key factors here, and God knows best.

The first was 9/11. Since then, Salafism and political Islamic groups have been under continuous attack from Western politicians, commentators, academics and others for their linkages to terrorism and extremism. Leaving an assessment of this polemic aside for a moment, this critique had already been articulated in the nineties by many of the scholars serving the traditionalist movement, chiefly, as mentioned above, as a defence of their beleaguered position. There have been broadly three traditionalist responses to this changed political circumstance.

(1) Some emphasised unity in the face of the war on terror, modulating their public critique of these movements, and even moving towards some kind of public entente on occasion. They did not want to be complicit in compromising the fundamental civic and human rights of those Muslims who had been their erstwhile sectarian rivals in the nineties. However they did still largely insist on a misguided theological component to extremism while acknowledging the central role of the war on terror in exacerbating it after 9/11. The nub of their argument is that theological intolerance lends itself more readily to violence than does more tolerant theology, and for that reason alone the issue should be kept on the agenda for discussion whatever the political circumstances.

(2) Other traditionalists (not the majority I believe) saw political opportunity in aligning themselves with the war on terror and attacking Salafis and Islamists as their political star was falling. Their public rhetoric is quite similar to the more hawkish language of Western politicians after 9/11. Their schadenfreude was unsurprising (if inexcusable) given that Islamists and Salafis often used to denigrate traditionalists intellectually and presume to represent them in the name of “unity” while marginalising them politically.

(3) A significant number of traditionalists were keen to stay out of public engagement altogether for various reasons that are outlined below.

The upshot of 9/11 has been that latent political differences within the traditionalist movement have become more manifest. There are many reasons for these differences but the most important is that the traditionalist movement has made a virtue of avoiding centralised and formal mass organisation as it believes this to be spiritually deleterious. Thus, it embodies more an orientation in religious thinking that loosely links together various Sufi orders and scholarly networks through specific styles of religious education, spiritual guidance and collective devotion.

In practical terms how did these traditionalists manifest these internal tensions after 9/11? Many argued that traditionalists should stick to their core task of reviving traditional teachings in the West, a role that was defined in the nineties through deen-intensives, light-study courses, and sending Western Muslims to the great centres of the Muslim world to study and so on. Others saw an immediate need to spend time on public outreach, including interfaith, public speaking, media work, conferences, liaising and working with the authorities and so on. Many of the rank-and-file were uncomfortable with this shift and wanted to stick with what they knew, while others took it up as a necessary duty to preserve the public reputation of Muslim communities and to emphasize the need to make common cause against an extremism they saw as alien to Islam. Some of those who engaged have been politically opportunistic: after all, Islamist and Wahhabi bashing in public has become a viable career option, and not just for Muslims. This opportunism has partly been fed by a traditional deference towards political authority, which has always preferred symbolic political access and brokerage over more modern styles of democratic dissent.

The second reason why the traditionalist movement has changed in the noughties is that a large segment of young Muslims are looking for greater accommodation between their religious practice and liberal expectations within society at large. This is not merely a phenomenon to be found among traditionalists, rather such tensions can be found in nearly all, if not all, the groups and tendencies out there. But within the traditionalist movement a liberalising wing was and is manifested in three ways:

(1) Firstly the“liberal traditionalists” have put more emphasis upon the critique of political Islamic movements and Wahhabism than on adherence to the rigours of the Sharia in their personal lives. Among traditionalists, and indeed their scholars, there are significant differences over the validity of fiqh al-aqalliyat (a jurisprudence for Muslim minorities), the emphasis placed on the maqasid al-Sharia (the objectives of Islamic law), the desirability of adopting the madhhab al-taysir (the way of seeking ease in religion) and the emphasis made upon either the rukhsa (legal dispensation) or the azima (the strongest legal ruling on an issue within a legal school).

(2) Secondly many “liberal traditionalists” seek a personal ethics, a philosophy of Sufism, and have been uncomfortable with what they see as elements of cultishness in Sufi orders. It is a Sufism without spiritual guides (murshidin), spiritual initiation (bay`a) or the rigours of the mystical path (tazkiyat al-nafs). It is clear that a philosophy of Sufism may converge with individualised religion and a liberal sensibility, although this is not a given. In a different way, this philosophical Sufism shares some features in common with notions of tarbiya (moral rectification) found in Salafism and Islamism. It lacks the element of seeking to know the Divine (irfan) within tasawwuf. It is essentially the way of the jurists rather than that of the Sufis.

(3) Thirdly a critique of (Western) modernity, somewhat imbibed in intellectual quarters within the traditionalist movement and influenced either by perennialist, deconstructionist or conservative Christian analyses has often resolved itself into a personal philosophy. But it was held apart from the practical business of seeking to do well in the professions; in other words, this personal philosophy of anti-modernism did not harden into a practical form of isolationism. So for example, when the political crisis of 9/11 emerged, many traditionalists were aware that a concerted effort in public outreach to foster greater understanding was necessary. This outreach has involved taking up the liberal and secular language of the public sphere, in which the premises of the critique of Western modernity were, for all intents and purposes, largely submerged.

What binds traditionalism together today — with its liberalising or more conservative wings — is its commitment to the belief that the ulema retain a central role in interpreting religion authoritatively today. However, this commitment is now continually challenged by the tension between tradition and reason, empiricism and postmodernism in the West. Even our Abrahamic cousins, with longer experience, struggle with the dialectic that now faces Muslims of the West too.

Religious Authority in the Age of the Internet

The “competition for the mike”, as Sheikh Nuh Keller has pithily termed it, has been crucial in shaping religious authority among Muslims today. The mass media and the internet have changed the way in which religious teachings are disseminated and indeed how religious disputes are projected and replicated to a vast audience. This is not new but arose two hundred years ago when the ulema began to write treatises addressed to the literate constituency of the Muslim masses through the medium of print. Since then the ulema have cultivated constituencies of opinion through mass media, and thus the disagreements of the ulema have a large role in defining the disagreements of their media constituencies, although it should also be said that the Muslim masses do exert some influence of their own in terms of their looking for guidance for how to handle changed circumstances through their encountering new customs, thoughts and ideas. The ability to ask questions is the power to set the agenda, which is very often done through the mass media as well.

The tension arises because the ulema can reach a much larger number of people through the mass media rather than on an individual face-to-face basis, and they all see the benefits of doing that. The same is true for all the lay Islamic movements as well. What this means is that there is a religious public sphere out there in which scholarly (and indeed non-scholarly) disagreements now get projected. Where the internet replicates the book, e.g. through treatises, essays, legal rulings and so on, then that form of internet intervention is much more familiar to the Islamic scholarly tradition. But the point is that in the age of print there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to getting published, but now through digital printing and the internet anyone can publish on paper or electronically. Samizdat publishing has become the norm and not the exception. (In this I speak with the experience of a culprit.)

If all sorts of opinions are shaped and formed in the blogosphere for instance then how far should the ulema intervene to ask people to behave with decorum or even to arbitrate and get involved? As the ulema project their views on the internet in various ways, being a participant and a referee at the same time is a difficult dual role to play within the interactive part of the internet. Disputes take place all the time on the net between scholars, students of knowledge and those who follow scholarship and those who don’t. Disputation has gone from street corner discussions in the early nineties to all being preserved in glorious binary digital code, archived and available for retrieval and requoting. Who would have thought that?

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), seen as one of the seers of the mass media, considered that “the medium is the massage” by which he meant that all technologies were extensions of human senses and capabilities. The nature of this extension had the ability to alter the way that human beings think and act. Yet he was not a determinist either for he argued that “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (The Medium is the Massage, New York, 1967, p. 25). Until recently the mass media was mostly linear and declarative, whereas arguably it is rapidly becoming individualised, interactive, demotic and non-linear. It engages all the senses and is working towards ever more complex simulacra of real life like Second Life. Science fiction writers, most famously William Gibson in Neuromancer (1984), have imagined the future rise of a seamless machine-human interface when our cortexes would be on-line. This implies that much future social interaction will be disembodied. We still don’t understand how this will change societies over the long term. This is still a new world to which both the ulema and the Muslim masses are adjusting and attempting to formulate an etiquette for. And once a tool is available, especially one of this revolutionary power and sheer utility, people will use it. Yet legal rulings apply to the use made of a tool and not to the tool itself. It is thus through McLuhan’s “contemplation” of the nature of the medium itself that we might stave off somewhat the “inevitability” that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the future in an alternate virtual reality universe that might well become our own.

Two Approaches to Unity

Leaving aside the nature of the internet, which may indeed be a major conduit through which to promote unity (as well as disunity), what kind of overall approach ought to inform intra-faith reconciliation? Here I am referring specifically to Sufis and Salafis, although the principles invoked would seem to have wider application. There seems to have been two approaches to fostering Islamic unity, one that is tried and tested and another that seems less likely to work. And God knows best.

The less effective way is to define primary and secondary issues in legal and credal issues from one approach as constituting the centre ground. The attempt to define this as being at the centre of our tradition only results in creating a new movement. Q-News once captured this well with the ironic headline: “Unite, but follow me”.

The more effective way is to stand firm on primary issues and to educate the masses in the matter of the etiquette of differing on secondary issues. Sheikh Ali Goma’a, the current Mufti of Egypt, said that there are approximately 1.25 million matters that have been the subject of legal rulings, and about 100 of these are agreed upon by all Muslims, being matters that are known by necessity to be part of religion. Any approach at reconciliation would do well to be informed by the approach outlined by Imam al-Ghazali’s Faysal al-Tafriqa, which, as people will know, is available in English translation. It reminds us that people will not cease to differ over rulings so long as they differ over the details of the principles of interpretation, particularly in the priority given to various hermeneutic methods. The literal sense has priority and other methods are applied if there is some evidential or logical reasons why the literal sense does not stand on its own.

The Amman Initiative, started in 2005, embodies this second approach and has the backing of a very wide spectrum of senior ulema across the world representing eight legal traditions.

There is a potential tension between affirming one’s own stance on secondary issues and indeed following an interpretative methodology in law or theology and working together for the common good with others. It is noticeable that avoiding differences can lead some to a sheer eclecticism in legal matters: this can confuse people, lending cultural credibility to a soft relativism, or the postmodern conviction that all differences are the same, i.e. they are all “just” differences. This focus leads to the avoidance of difference and controversy for its own sake and lends itself it to anti-intellectualism rather than to investigating matters whilst learning to handle a wider scope of difference.

In other words, in seeking a middle ground between Sufis and Salafis, points of agreement could be defined, but that minimum should not then define the scope of people’s commitments on secondary issues. Rather the scope for a wide variety of positions should remain. From a Sufi perspective, the fear is that if finding a common ground between Sufis and Salafis means dropping Ibn Arabi altogether then where would that leave one? Rather, Ibn Taymiyan and Akbarian approaches ought to remain fully represented and embodied and should seek to engage in a creative and genuine exchange in any process of reconciliation. They can part company civilly without necessarily agreeing but at least understanding the nature of their differences better at an usuli level. An historic example of this is the exchange between Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Ata’ullah al-Iskandari.

For the sake of unity is it right to drop practices or beliefs, which after all make up part of the spiritual methodology of Sufism, or to foster an understanding and an acceptance that others differ and not make that an issue? It can’t be that we drop positions because either ourselves or others are unable to apply the rules of ikhtilaf. Affirming one’s position doesn’t entail letting go of the possibility that one might be wrong and that the other might be right.

To put it another way. Sufis can’t be expected to endorse a position that would seek to make them agree that tasawwuf is an optional add-on, a bad innovation, or, worse, even a heresy. Rather Sufis would like anti-Sufis to accept that placing tasawwuf at the heart of our religion is a valid interpretive possibility even if they disagree with it. It can’t be ruled out of court as an interpretive possibility. Tasawwuf has enjoyed an august and widespread history of practice and support throughout the centuries of the umma’s spiritual legacy and remains a vibrant path for millions of Muslims today. In the final analysis, Muslims believe that God will inform us about our differing in the next life.

Three major issues in Sufi-Salafi reconciliation will be (i) the reclassification of some acts as fiqhi differences rather than as matters of basic aqida, (ii) the recognition that there are primary and secondary issues in credal and legal matters and (iii) that the semantic approach adopted by some scholars of the East provides a means to diffuse differences between Asharis, Maturidis and Atharis over the description of God’s transcendence and immanence.

At the very least for Sufis and Salafis of the West (and elsewhere), a moratorium on polemical exchange, particularly over the internet, should be called for, matched by a process to get religious scholars on both sides to met regularly along the lines of the Amman Initiative. A minimal goal would be to take the heat out of differing so that it becomes that beneficial form of differing that increases knowledge and does not create rancour, hatred and division. It might also open up a way to work together towards common interests and goals that are shared in common. There is increasing recognition that there are structural challenges facing Muslim communities that are best met together. At the very least forging unity involves the recognition that Sufi polemics against the Salafis have taken on very different implications after 9/11 that should now be taken into account.

These reflections are designed to provoke a debate. May God accept this essay as an act of love for traditionalism, and written in the hope that we may aspire towards a greater unity of purpose but not towards a greater conformity of viewpoints. And God knows best. To that end I would welcome any constructive comment, corrections and criticisms on this essay to be posted up here. Most of all we need to define positive ways to go forward.


Filed under Internet, Media, Religion, UK Muslim Politics, Umma, war-on-terror

22 responses to “Sufis and Salafis of the West: Discord and the Hope of Unity

  1. Yunus Yakoub Islam

    Salaams Yahya – in these various debates to establish a common ground upon which all Muslims agree, the one thing I want to argue for is the right of individual Muslims to say, “Hello, I have integrity, I testify to the shahadah, but the life I’m living demands my own din.” There has to be that get out clause, even if it is abused, otherwise there will be no justice for the mustad’af. That’s my two minutes on the mic. 🙂

  2. Dear Yakoub, wa s-salam,

    Sufyan ibn Abdullah, may God be pleased with him, narrated this story:

    I said, “O Messenger of God, tell me something about Islam which I can ask of no one but you.” He said, “Say: I believe in God and thereafter be upright (thumma’ staqim).” (related by Muslim)

    As for your question, dear Yakoub, then I’m no mufti! But this is a foundational prophetic narration collected by Imam Nawawi in his collection of forty two traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) which were designed to highlight some foundational points about our deen.

    In the commentary on this, thumma’ staqim is also said to mean “go straight”, in other words keeping on the straight path (sirat al-mustaqim), avoiding what is forbidden and doing what is obligatory. The commentary also refers to verses in the Qur’an on the same theme: Hud: 112, Fussilat: 31.

    Take care, and I hope that the sheikh is well, wa s-salam, Yahya

  3. Omar Sayyid Shah

    Very well written masha allah. Many “traditionalists” reacted to Imam Suhaibs piece with an almost tribal denial of all that it contained. This is alhamdullilah a measured and rational analysis of some of the problems hihglighted by the piece.

  4. Salam

    I don’t think I have anything to say that might be important, I just felt like commenting.

    On a quick read of your entry, it seems that mentioning Marshal McLuhan is apt. Gibson’s Neuromancer, lol, although making a valid point, is a bit too science-fictionish. I don’t understand what you meant by the ‘unified madhab of the future’. Are you referring to the Samizdat democratic use of the net?

    You mentioned three points with regard to “Liberal Traditionalists”. It seems to me that there are a few who, while apparently promoting a personalized Sufism, also call for dissent in their works in the various media. This dissent is not just against the Government, but also against cultural imperialism and false universals. In fact, the very dissent is tied into the framework of a personalized ethic, i.e., dissent is a valid personal religious goal. This would mean that all the three conditions you mention are not necessarily simultaneously characteristic of these scholars. Also, some of those who apparently promote a personalized Sufism, upon closer examination, seem to have direct links and authorization from well-known Sufi scholars. Your point about the lack of emphasis on Ma’rifa under the guidance of a Shaykh is noted.

    You mention that it would be a good idea for the scholars of different sects to meet to define common goals. However, this seems to me very unlikely. The more conservative among the Traditionals might view this as conferring legitimacy to the leaders of other groups. The Amman Declaration was possible only due to the extreme distaste of most people for takfir, and even that has caused controversy in some circles. So, this new ‘proposal’ seems unlikely to me. I feel that it might be possible among some circles in the United States and Britain, but probably not in the east.
    Thank you for your frank muhasaba.


  5. Dear Faramir,

    As-salamu alaykum,

    Sheikh Google’s unified madhhab of the virtual umma, a simulacrum that might very well become our own one day (see Luis Borges’ short story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” for a literary imagining of this) would be protean, individualised, samizdat, postmodern, unregulated and without any agreed standards in interpretive techniques. Its main channel is or would be the Web. Of course such a madhhab will probably never exist in perfect form and this is a piece of rhetorical license on my part to drive a large point home. I’m not against encouraging multiplicity in interpretation, but I think demotic forms don’t encourage the development of the kinds of expertise necessary to produce internally self-consistent and well thought out interpretations in dialogue with the interpretive legacy. This doesn’t mean that this trend won’t increase in any case whatever measures are put in place to encourage scholarly expertise and to project it on the Web. And God knows best. The reference to Gibson was a bit of joke, but with a point to it, I hope.

    Your point is well taken about the value of cultural and intellectual forms of dissent, which I hope I did allude to in the piece (in the critiques of Western modernity), which I hope would not be read as a valourization of the “political” over “cultural”, “intellectual” and “spiritual” domains. In fact none of these three stances ipso facto lend themselves to personalisation of religion but they also lend themselves to the possibility at the same time. And some have availed themselves of that opportunity. This is a phenomenon to be discussed and evaluated dispassionately I hope. Interiority in one’s faith is no bad thing in pursuing the science of sincerity, but at the same time there are other implications that ought to be considered. One such consideration would be that this shift has elements of real viability.

    You are right to point out that the three elements are not necessarily interlocking, that is quite obviously true, but I don’t think I claimed that they did necessarily come together as a package.

    Finally the Amman initiative may seem modest, but I think we would be hard pressed to name any process in the last hundred years that has brought together such a wide spectrum to uphold three basic and foundational principles. It is also a statement of good will and intent, for instance in the observation that in matters of usul eight schools hold more in common than about which they differ. The Initiative offers a basis to go forward. Whether people actually do so or not is a question of leadership. No one could claim that it is easy, but it is possible and it is highly desirable.

    wa s-salam, Yahya

  6. Mamnun Khan

    Assalamu’aliakum, JazakAllah for a well written and noble intended article. One of the greatest question I think traditionism faces is how to deal with the “opening up of discussion around Islam in the public”. I’ve come across a number of research articles on this and have been quite taken back by the magnitude of the challenge. The entropic drive towards this is obvious as a result of the plethora of mediums through which Islam/ opinions can be projected: internet (blogs, sites, video-streaming, web 2.0), DBS bradcasting, leaflets etc. etc. I think the likes of your article are beginning to uncover the religious behavioural mechanisms that underlie such problem space, and the more we engage to understand ourselves (from diverse perspective – sociological, theological) – our affiliations, aspirations (polyhedral interests) – the better placed we will be to deal with the issues. Meausred and concillatory voices/ approach have a pivotal role in this.


  7. Haroon

    For any kind of meaningful ecunemical discourse to take place between the two streams, the traditionalists must maintain – and be seen – to be occupying the moral high ground.

    In the past few months we have seen a chorus of applause for a blatantly opportunistic, self-serving and agenda-driven “ex-islamist” writer from traditional quarters by people who should know better.

    The plethora of tabloid-style, sensationalist exposes from Channel 4 were similairly treated like tablets from Mount Sinai instead of being treated with the token measure of caution that one would expect whenever muslims appear on the silver screen. The message is pretty clear – the ends really do justify the means. A charge that was frequently levelled at their own salafi detractors.

    For those that doubt that salafi and sufi can never progress any further than a weak handshake, the possibilities are only constrained by the limits of your own imagination:

  8. SN


    This is an excellent piece of writing. Very fair. It captures the different issues between sufis and salafis and is very balanced on both sides. The piece about liberal sufis was much needed to be spoken about. There are extremes on both sides and inshaAllah with efforts like this, and things like the “Amman message” will inshaAllah lead the Ummah to a healthy future.


  9. SN


    To be honest, I had never heard of you before this piece, and then I had to do some research about you (power of google mashaAllah). This piece seemed to grow on me. I feel the honesty in this piece. Sufis and salafis bother me to no end. The constant fighting and corporate style politics between each other. In this context, the sufis might even be worse than the salafis, b/c of their deep tradition in “selflessness.” I always felt the fight was about “market share.” MashaAllah, keep up the good work. Keep it real! May Allah (swt) save all people from the punishment of the grave and the hellfire.

    Kind Regards,

  10. SN


    Sorry for doing this three times. Perhaps, there can be youtube debate, like presidential debates in the US, set up between highly eloquent salafi scholars and sufi oriented scholars (Sh Hamza, Sh Yaquobi, Sh Hakim Murad, Sh Abdullah Adhami) in English. And brother Yahya can be a moderator. LOL. Clothing should be Western (no silk tie and must have a proper jacket) but one can have a kufi and/or prayer beads as an exception. The topics can be “light” in nature. The debate does not have to get into esoteric details, etc.

    Simple questions and the Muslims/non-Muslims can expect simple answers back without our intelligence being insulted.

    MashaAllah, keep up the good work.

    Kind Regards,

  11. Yasir Qadhi

    Salaam Alaikum

    Jazak Allah khayr for a much-needed article.

    Expect to hear something soon…the vision that you have so eloquently expounded on is shared by many du’aat, and the process has already started.

    Wa bi-Allah al-tawfiq…


  12. Omar

    ‘Unity’, obviously at the price of integrity and self-respect.

    And please stop the intellectual masturbation. It sickens.

  13. Omar

    And, above all things, those who clamour for ‘unity’ should remember that these groups do differ on the usul of their Religion.

  14. shems noor


    Sidi Yahya,

    Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful view on the salafi-sufi debate.

    There seems to be too many groups/movements in UK who are fighting for their share of the market in terms of getting followers to their cause, getting access to the media and to get attention of the government.

    The post-911 trend is one of, condemn/criticise/ostracise organisation or groups that are either salafi and/or movement orientated (e.g.. MAB, MCB, Jamiat-Islami, HT etc). These attacks from the “sufi” or “traditional” side can be seen from individuals such as Ed Hussain and his ilk’s or the Sufi Council of Britain etc. To me, it now seems that members of the Muslim community has gone from one extreme to another. The main problem with so called traditionalist is that they believe they have a monopoly on Islam as they espouse tasawuf, which is/was one of the main problems with the salafis, who too claim to have a monopoly of Islam by rejecting tasawuf and madhabs. It seems the one needs the other and vice-versa to find a identity and meaning.

    The media and to some extent the government has joined this band wagon by allowing air times to extreme salafis and extreme traditionalists. And who can blame them? This is a story that fascinates and frightens the non-Muslim British public.

    We must remember that the so called traditionalists are not united themselves, for e.g. look at the Barelvi-Deobandi divide that has and is causing un-necessary strife in a community that has got far bigger problems such as educational under-achievements, drugs, poor housing, employment, etc. There is also the differences between say the “Q-news movement” (is it allowed to use such a phrase???) and the supporters and students of Shayk Muhammad al-Yaqoubi (as was seen on a certain website a while back) or the Murabitoun movement or the the works of Shaykh Nazims supporters and students. To me the worst aspect of the traditional camp must be the Sufi Council of Britain which is working with the neo-conservatives in the US to push a Islam that to me is not Islam but more Zen Buddhism. In a recent TV show their chairman stated that their magazine does not talk anything about issues facing Muslims outside the UK such as in Palestine or Iraq as this might make the youths turn in to militants!!!! This is just utter none-sense. How can we not be concerned about problems that is facing the Ummah especially as the UK is very closely involved in the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st century: Iraq.

    It seems we have a very short memory as in the 19th and early 20th Century, the biggest “terrorist” organisations and individuals for colonialist governments were sufi brotherhoods and sufi shaykhs for e.g. in Dagestan it was the Naqshabandi shaykh Imam Shamil against the Russians, in Algeria, Shaykh Abdul-Qadir against the French, in Libya, it was Omar Mukhthar and the Sanusiya against the Italians, in Palestine it was Shaykh Izzadine Quassem, who WAS a sufi against the British and Zionist. To the colonialists Tariqas and Sufi Shaykhs were the ultimate enemies to the spread of colonialism in their respective lands.That is one of the reason why orientalist, who were supported by Western govt, were working hard to prove that Sufism is not part of Islam to de-legitimise the above said figures and others from the wider Muslim community.

    And anyway, one of the things that “traditionalist” forget is that Sufism is NOT for everyone. If it was for everyone then we would have been told this by the Prophet (upon him be peace). We all have to accept and respect this. Imam Rabbani, the great Naqshabandi Sufi shaykh of the Indian sub-continent made this clear in one of his letters when he wrote that one will gain paradise if they follow the shariah even if they don’t practice tasawuf as the shariah is supreme.

    Whatever we are, we all must remember that we are united on one level as we are all Muslims. And on the same hand we are different as we are all working towards different goals and objectives. We all are strands that make up the rich tapestry which is beginning to be called “British-Islam”.

    The only way to move forward on the tortuous path of a salafi-sufi “unity” is to focus on areas of shared interests and to avoid contradictory steps that add to the wall of mistrust . This has already started with for e.g.. JIMAS working with Q-News.

    And I pray Allah unites us all both in the earthly and heavenly realms.

  15. asad khan

    dear yahya,
    brilliant piece written ,but a question hovers,unity etc for what,sufis and salafis one abhorrent of temporal authority the other one aspirant to the same and denigrating the spiritual authority,the differences are evolutionary,
    having a look at the origins of both the dichotomy becomes apparent,
    the recent sufi etc initiatives inherent show the bug of the pulpit eating into so called sufi shayukh,seeking limelight,its the betrayal of the original tradition,as for the salafist brethren takfir is a driving part of their ideology since inception,they derive their quest of relevance by designating of the OTHER,
    what kind of common ground is anyone seeking,theological eschatological,you are vague on that aspect,you are suggesting a kind of a blogger armistice,with the heavily dynamic western atmosphere where post 9/11,a strange supermarket attitude among so called sufis has taken hold,being part of establishment initiatives,sufi council in u.k. etal,what is the hope,dont know what is next in offing a sufi mardi gras i suppouse,
    and other groups and clerics too vying for public space by indulgent mediocre discourse,the inherent lack of scholarship in terms of achievement is seen bursting at seams,
    to find a scenario where mutual appreciation is possible is difficult,its better to let go,and like what has been there for years in the muslim world ,zones of exclusion where everyone adheres to his practice should be followed,let everyone evolve in their own way freely,the differences and rancour are theological and political and that too due to subjective interpretation not social,
    it will need a lot of scholarship and opening of closed minds to analyse with clarity,and bridge any gaps and take the polemic out of a admixture of personal and public domain,but that will require people without personal agendas to be on the forefront,not necessarily on pulpits,that is unlikely for sometime to come.

  16. As-salamu alaykum,

    Thanks to everyone for their messages of support. The careful fostering of unity is definitely a general good. As I’ve argued this is best pursued by recognising diversity and defining the essential minimum, as the Amman Initiative does.

    Shems Noor: Iraq is not the worst humanitarian crisis of the twenty-first century. That bloody mantle is laid upon the deeply tragic conflict that has been going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An estimiated 3.8 million people have died since the conflict began there in 1996. It has almost no press coverage and less outside aid than any other conflict.

    Asad Khan: I think I have referred to some basic points of departure for a process of greater unity in the piece rather than spelt them out. First is the Amman Initiative, which recognises eight schools of Islamic law (4 Sunni, 2 Shiite, the Zahiris and the Ibadis) and that Sufis and Salafis are true Muslims. In their interpretative methodologies they have more in common than what they differ on. They affirm the five pillars, the six articles of faith and what is by necessity known to be part of religion. The Initiative forbids takfir and its associated violent and unlawful practices. And it states that the eight schools adduce substantial scholarly requirements for issuing a legal opinion. More details can be found at their website.

    The second indication is Imam al-Ghazali’s Faysal al-Tafriqa, which set out the intellectual priorities when it comes to understanding why different intepretations emerge and how to define some minimal standard to these processes while avoiding rampant takfir (a problem in Ghazali’s time as in ours).

    The third indication are practical measures. Creating bridging mechanisms of dialogue and joining together to promote good works for the benefit of society at large and strengthening Muslim communities as well.

    I don’t think these are vague: they are just not spelled out in detail. If you are interested, then you can follow the details up elsewhere.

    Kind regards, Yahya

  17. Reza Ahmed

    Salaam brother Yahya,

    I have recently started following your blog and it is good to see some balanced comment on the blogosphere for a change.

    I read this piece with interest, and there are certainly some profitable avenues for conciliation between the various groups here in the UK, some of which you have outlined.

    One point is that your essay details a rapprochement based on theological grounds, i.e. what should be the Islamic/creed basis for any common understanding and constructive working relationship. However, is there not also a more pragmatic alternative that does not rely on agreement being reached on some impossibly thorny issues?

    Namely, there is a strong case for Muslim groups in the UK putting aside their differences and simply working towards common interests, e.g. defending Islam from media attacks, lobbying government, providing a unified front against extremism, etc.

    There is an article arguing for this on (, which seems to be in response to the recent attacks on Deobandis in the Times, attacks which many Barelwis are no doubt trying to maximise for their own sectarian reasons.

    At the end of the day, the petty opportunism that you alluded to where one group tries to profit from any adverse publicity affecting its rivals has to stop for the sake of all of us. If we can’t stop washing our dirty laundry in public then how can we make progress on more intractable theological issues?

    Lookforward to hearing your thoughts.

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  19. Asalaam Alaikum

    I worry about how this unity between Sufi and Salafy is meant to come about. I have over the years noticed a tendancy amongst some Sufi scholars to water down Sufism to make it more acceptable to Salafis and some Salafis adopting again a watered down Sufism which consists only of elements of tazkiyyah. However key issues of Aqeedah continue to divide us: e.g. the definitons of Tawhid and Shirk.

    I also have serious reservations about those who under the banner of Sufism and Traditionalism promote their own agendas which are usually secularist and apologetic and use this cloak they are hiding under as a means to attack the Political Islamic groups (i don’t like this term Islamist). The danger with the later is greater in the sense that many do not seem to be able to distinguish the two — genuine traditionalist scholarship and pseudo-sufism.

    There was a time in the not so distant past when all the leaders of the major groupings would met and share the same platform when it came to political issues from the Ayodha Mosque to the Satanic Verses. However when the Gulf War happened and the word out of Saudi was for the Salafis to support KSA that unity was broken even until today.
    Out of those meetings was born the Muslim Parliament which doubtless had serious problems especially the dominance of Kalim Siddiqui and the MCB which succeded it had no input from the traditional schools but was rather a gathering of Ikhwanis.

    The only real unity we can expect and is ultimatly vital at this time is a political one, the various Islamic political groups are already well on their way to doing this. The bridge now has to be crossed to incorporate the traditionalists who sadly seem to keep quiet when attacks are made on the concept of Khalifa and Shariah or openly attack other Muslims in the public domain.

  20. As-salamu alaykum,

    Ismaeel and Reza Ahmed: you both I think are making essentially the main point that uniting on political issues is a more practical approach than a theological one.

    My point is that we have to change our expectations about what constitutes unity. We have to admit that we have had problems with takfiri attitudes in the past or at the very least an ill-disguised contempt. This has not by any means been the sole preserve of the Salafis. This could be lessened I belive with the various approaches I indicated but did not spell out in the post. This would aid not hinder dialogue and cooperation of political issues or other matters of common concern.

    Ismaeel: My understanding of the Rushdie Affair was that there was not that much co-ordination between the Barelwis, the Jamaat Islami influenced groups, or indeed the Muslim Institute as it then was. Things were relatively orderly until Khomeini issued his fatwa, which put everyone else who hadn’t wanted matters to get that far on to the backfoot.

    Additionally we have to consider the long term impact the Rushdie Affair had. It created a Muslim political identity in Britain but it also put into train, over the long term, an increasing disenchantment with multiculturalism and a general distrust of Muslim political action among those in the British establishment. It was a moment of protest where Muslims marched alone and not in alliance with others. That was the single most important poltical fact on the ground: this was not an issue that made sense outside of Muslim circles. This protest was poltically unintelligible. This I would suggest has never been the cause of entended reflection on the community’s part. What kind of politics did or do we as British Muslim wish to engage in?

    Wa s-salam, Yahya

  21. Abdullah Rayan

    assalamu alaykum, its really simple, its not rocket science… there is one true islam, and that is ahl assunnah wa al jamaa’ah, the majority have always been the asharis and maturidis in creed, the four schools in fiqh, and the sunni sufis and their tariqas… this has been the way since the time of the salaf… the problem is not tradition, its the fitna of the salafiyya and wahabiyya and the only way for unity is when the salafiyya and wahabiyya realise that they have gone astray by rebelling against the majority… until then we let them be and leave them alone and work towards uniting the ranks of ahl assunnah.

  22. Abdullah Rayan

    assalamu alaykum,

    and besides salafism is dying out, many of them are becoming sufis, this is just a temporary fitna that will vanish, it has happened before with the khawarij, mutazillah, etc.

    and it is not sufi vs. salafi, its sunni vs. salafi cause salafis are not sunnis, how can they be when they reject asharism and maturidism?!… sunnism’s heart is these 2 schools of creed, that is what make a sunni a sunni… when all muslims start to see the power of sunni islam then they will leave their sects… this might happen when the saudi wahhabis run out of oil to fund their fitna…hahahaha… but that won’t happen for a while! Imagine if Sunnis had that oil!!!… we be having deen intensives on the moon!

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