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Islam made nice

Religion | The mystical tradition of Sufism is thriving in the United States

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

Islam is a growing presence in American cities. In the past 15 years the number of mosques in New York City has increased from 20 to 140; nationwide, the estimated increase is from 1,000 to 2,000. Since Sept. 11, 2001, many mosques have been under almost continuous police surveillance, and justifiably so, given the angry proclamations of Wahhabi Sunni spokesmen. But few Americans are familiar with a brand of Islam called Sufism.

Masjid al Farah, the "Mosque of Divine Ease," is sandwiched between two bistros on West Broadway in downtown Manhattan. Worship at this mosque differs from the conventional Sunni or Shia variety with its straight lines of men. Every Thursday night devotees-black and white, male and female, Arab and South Asian-gather for a five-hour religious service that climaxes with a zikr, a joyous dance in which participants link hands, chant, and "whirl" themselves into a throbbing frenzy. All this takes place in a room with plush Persian carpets and brilliant white walls splashed with swirling black and gold Quranic script.

The spiritual leader of this Sufi mosque is Sheikha Fariha al-Jerrahi, a 60-year-old white woman from Houston, Texas, who converted to Islam from Roman Catholicism. She says that "love, intimacy, and constant remembrance are the glorious way. Essentially, love, love, and more love." One devotee, who has been attending this zikr for seven years, said that the goal of worship is to "lose yourself and become one with everything. . . . The overwhelming feeling for me is love. Love for myself, love for Allah, and love for the world around me."

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Sufism is Islam's mystical tradition, developed in the 12th century as an alternative to the legalism and rigidity of Shariah law. Although Sufism is banned in Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sufi circles are thriving in America. They attract sophisticated and prosperous urbanites who seek a tolerant, relaxed form of Islam. Mosques like al Farah share neighborhoods with bars and other playgrounds for young and fashionable singles on the erotic hunt.

Sufis are organized around a spiritual leader, or sheik, and Sufi poetry uses language of physical love or drunkenness to describe union with Allah. Sufi mystics interpret jihad not as an external struggle against infidels but as an internal struggle against egotism in the pursuit of oneness with Allah. A report by the RAND Corporation recommends that American policymakers enlist Sufis as allies in hostile Muslim environments.

Today, Sufis and Saudi-sponsored Wahhabis are competing for the hearts and minds of New York's 500,000 Sunni Muslims. Although the Saudi government is an American ally, Saudi Arabia's religious establishment is implacably hostile to both American culture and moderate forms of Islam. Wahhabis insist that Wahhabism is the only authentic form of Islam, but Sufis express their faith through thousands of different orders and communities, and Sufis tend not to make claims to exclusivity. Wahhabis view democracy as a rejection of Allah's rule, but Sufis thrive in democratic and pluralistic settings.

Over the past 30 years, Saudi financiers have poured over $1 billion into America to promote the spread of Wahhabi Islam. Sufi scholar Hisham Kabbani testified before Congress that most American mosques are under Wahhabi control, and New York City's 15 madrassas (Islamic day schools) use Saudi texts that demean Christians, Jews, and Sufis. The Grand Mufti of Uzbekistan, citing the growth of Wahhabism in America, warns, "You have allowed a gun to be put on the table in America-and it will be used against America."

So far, Islam in the United States has differed from that in Europe, where many religiously committed Muslims are alienated, angry, and unemployed. A national survey of Muslim Americans conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Muslim Americans are highly assimilated and politically moderate. Most Muslim Americans say that America is an excellent or good place to live where hard work enables people to succeed. Muslim American income and education levels mirror those of the general public.

-Robert Carle teaches at 
The King's College, New York City


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