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Sufism — mystical practice of Islam — often neglected in Western media

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

LAWRENCE — While terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida in recent years have garnered much attention and a negative perception of Islam, this view neglects the mystical dimension of Sufism, responsible for spreading the religion across Africa and Asia.

Sufism focuses at its core on the attitude of love as practice of a divine life, which is at odds with the more legalistic or ritualistic practice that terrorist groups tend to grasp onto, said Majid Hannoum, a University of Kansas associate professor of sociocultural anthropology and editor of the book "Practicing Sufism: Sufi Politics and Performance in Africa."

"One core tenet of Sufism is if God and creation are one, everything is a manifestation of God," Hannoum said. "If that's the case, the world is inclusive, and their views are inclusive."

The book, which contains essays on Sufism from scholars including Jacquelene Brinton, a KU associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies, is aimed at providing a context to talk Islam with the history and experience of Sufism, which is at odds with most popular media coverage of the religion, Hannoum said.

Sufism's origins are traced back to 9th century Iraq, and it spread into Northern Africa and then Asia, where it is the most popular practice of Islam on both continents. Though at first the region of northern Africa was taken by conquest in the 7th century, it was Sufis who "Islamized" it by the 16th century. This process was rather peaceful across both Africa and Asia.

"For them, Islam is an attitude of kindness and inclusiveness," Hannoum said. "They practice love as a religion, an attitude that made them win the minds and hearts of people at that time."

The book offers case studies on several countries with a strong Sufi presence, including Morocco, Algeria, Senegal, Egypt, Sudan, Mali and Nigeria.

The emphasis of mystical elements in Sufism will likely surprise readers who aren't familiar with it or who don't have a deep understanding of Islam, Hannoum said.

"It's very ecumenical. That can be quite surprising," he said. "It allows one to be whatever one wants to be, and it doesn't put constraints on you. It preaches, love, kindness and acceptance of other people because all are manifestation of the divine."

Sufism also shares certain characteristics that are popular in other religions such as respecting saints in Catholicism.

"In some other doctrines of Islam this would be quite scandalous," he said.

Other essays in the book focus on the cultural performances and history rooted in Sufism. Several African countries now sponsor festivals celebrating Sufism.

The book stems from a 2007 conference organized by the Kansas African Studies Center.

Photo: Whirling dervishes from Turkey. They belong to a Sufi Islamic sect called the Mevlevi, founded by the philosopher Mevlana. Image via Wikicommons.

Expert instruction in Arabic, Kiswahili, and Wolof at the beginning and intermediate levels will be offered over eight weeks in June-July 2018.

Foreign Language & Area Studies Fellowships

The Kansas African Studies Center has received $140,000 in funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to launch public discussions, community programming, and the creation of educational resources in local communities to discuss the challenges and opportunities surrounding recent demographic changes in the region. Visit to learn more. 

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