As a Muslim, one of the questions my western friends always ask me – sooner or later – is “What current of Islam are you from?“. My answer, quite brief is always “sunni“. Mostly, they then ask what is the difference between sunni and shia (I prefer to ignore the ethnical part of the answer and focus on the theological difference between sunni and shia). As the conversation goes on, there is always a time when the various interpretations of Quran and Sunna and the various currents of thought of Islam we are discussing lead my friends to ask “And what about sufism?“. As an experience, I always ask what do they know about sufism. Basically, the answer can be summerized as follows: “Sufism is a peaceful current of Islam, focusing more on the inner faith and love than on the outer appearance. It is opposed to literalist and violent currents of Islam like Salafism that advocates Djihad, Sharia and Niqab.”.
Of course, this is a very schematic answer I give mixing all answers I got, but it represents pretty well what we could call the “Manichean Paradigm on Islam“: Sufi is seen as being the Islam of the “good guys”, Salafism as the Islam of the “evil guys”. Sufism would be apparently about whirling derviches, philosophy and Arabian Nights; Salafism about terrorists, politics and Middle-Age mentalities. Like any other Manichean representation, this paradigm on Islam is essentially wrong. It is driven not only by medias who give to western citizen a skewed image of Islam, but also was thought long ago as a solution by some think tanks (see for example the american neo-conservative think tank RAND, endorsing sufism and secularism as a solution to counter the increasing influence of Islam as an opposing force to american imperialism).
The truth is totally different: Sufism, as a current that existed since almost the first years of Islam and that originated in Sunnism before to influence Shia doctrine, is far from being this “trendy New Age” Islam that is promoted nowadays. If it is true that Sufism fights ostentation in favor of a richer inner spiritual life, it was originally not opposed to outer signs of affiliation (like beard or veil), but to too visible wealth and pride about a high social level. Some early sufi were imprisoned for criticizing the excess of luxury goods acquired and ostensiously shown by princes. If it is true that Sufi have always given a high importance to mediation, ascetism and prayer, they yet were advocacing for applying sharia very strictly (meaning: without any dispensiation for the mighty people, but also without neglecting any aspect of sharia). Sufi are not “muslim buddhists” like people tend to think today, some where yet more peacefull than other (like in any current), but there is nothing in Sufism that intrinsically makes of the faithful person a “good guy” (nor a bad one). A lot of people nowadays self-proclamed Sufi are in fact very far from origins of Sufism, and should be considered like “Neo-Sufi“: an ideology not for a peaceful Islam, but rather for a weak Islam, an Islam of inaction. Islam is not making war, but Islam is not either looking at the state of the world and feel satisfied enough to call for no change. Of course this “Neo-Sufi” definition do not include the real Sufi of today, that still exist, especially in Pakistan and India.
On the other side, the mirrored misconceptions about Sufism are found in the modern image we have of Salafism; like Sufism, Salafism is rather a methodology of understanding the Holy Quran and Sunna than anything else. Salafism (from the arabic word Salaf referring to the Prophet Mohammad (SWS) and his companions) is based on the idea that studying the behaviour of the Prophet (SWS) and his companions in different situations give a pretty good idea on how a muslim “should” behave. A person keen to be gentle and peaceful in nature would find easily through the Salafi methodology proofs that the Prophet was a very soft and calm person, that even refused to harm beasts or trees during wars, while a tormented person would find their way through violence, the same way they could find it in reading the Communist manifesto by Marx or the newspaper in the morning. So no, Salafism is not Islam for “bad guys” (nor for good ones). To be noted that like the “Neo-Sufi”, there exists also a “Neo-Salafism“, represented by sectarian movements that aim in things that never even existed in Islam like racism and apology of suicide-djihad (which is totally unacceptable in “orthodox” Islam). Continuously referring to the West and non-Muslims, they show only how much they are obsessed by their hatred to the outer world.
Representing Islam in the globalized 21st century world as being binary (“moderate” soft Sufism vs. “integrist” hard Salafism) is thus a trickery: there is not really opposition between these two currents, nevertheless they are both incompatible with the “Neo-Sufism” and the “Neo-Salafism”, invented not really by Muslims themselves but rather shaped and promoted through a very efficient communication strategy for serving interests of limited groups. The existence of worldwide Neo-Sufi organizations (like the International Sufi Movement) and Neo-Salafi (like the Jaish Ansar As-Sunna) in itself totally strange in Islam, where the absence of religious institutionalized hierarchy is kind of a “trademark” of islamic philosophy. Another caracteristic of both movements is the existence of highly mediatic Neo-Sufi and Neo-Salafi preachers (using the same technics than the evangelist TV-priests) that tend to attack verbally each other: as far as one can go in History of Islam, there always has been civilized debates and intellectual divergences of interpretation of texts between muslim true theologists that always respect each other’s points of view, but the mutual attempts to discredit others in order to gain more members in their own group that we are currently witnessing in the Neo-Sufi and the Neo-Salafi currents is clearly something out of the traditions of Islam.
Thankfully, the very majority of the 1.5billion Muslims worldwide are so far from being Neo-Sufi or Neo-Salafi, that the failure of these two artificial movements is only a matter of years; indeed, although the amount of investment for promoting these movements, they haven’t succeeded at all in gaining the heart of the Muslims. For Muslims themselves don’t want to be imprisoned inside this Manichean Paradigm on Islam.