Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Beyond religious monoliths

Interesting Op-Ed piece in today's Times by William Dalrymple, historian of India, on Sufism - the mystical, ecumenical form of Islam of the would-be developer of Cordoba House. Sufism, Dalrymple argues, is the West's best ally in the fight against Islamic radicalism - or would be, if we were able to stop seeing the Muslim world monolithically.

Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors.

I hope it gains a wide reading (and not just because we're putting on a course on Sufism and its Critics next Spring, taught by a scholar forced to flee Iran because Sufism is non grata there). We need to learn to see beyond Sunni/Shia, just as we need to learn to see the majority of the Muslim world that isn't in the Middle East but in South Asia (where Sufism thrives) and Southeast Asia. But the essay is also an object lesson in the difficulty of avoiding religious stereotypes, even among the best intentioned. See how this paragraph soars above religious ideologies only to come crashing down into one of the most insidious:

The great Sufi saints like the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi held that all existence and all religions were one, all manifestations of the same divine reality. What was important was not the empty ritual of the mosque, church, synagogue or temple, but the striving to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart: that we all can find paradise within us, if we know where to look. In some ways Sufism, with its emphasis on love rather than judgment, represents the New Testament of Islam.

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