Rebelling against the rituals

The recalcitrant Islam of Sufism

Mural depicting the ascension of Mohammed, on the back of a mystical animal called Buraq.

Door Vincent Bongers

To become closer to God, Sufis meditate, drink and dance. A book by Asghar Seyed-Gohrab examines this mystic movement within Islam, a movement that even influenced fundamentalists like Ayatollah Khomeini.

(Nederlandse versie hier)
“I was living in Teheran when the city was bombed and targeted by missiles”, recalls Asghar Seyed-Gohrab (1968), an assistant professor teaching Persian Literature. “It was horrendous. Nights were often code red: we could be hit at any time. I would think ‘this might be my last night’ and I would go and see my family. That way, at least we would die together.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran was founded after the revolution of 1979. The Shah (king) was deposed and fundamentalist Shiite priests, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seized power over the country. “My father was actively engaged in politics and opposed the regime. He fled to the Netherlands in 1980. I fled in 1986, because of the war with Iraq (1980-1988). I was eighteen and I didn’t want to fight. Human smugglers guided us through Kurdistan across the Turkish border. We walked for eleven days. They kept saying ‘Tomorrow we’ll have crossed the mountains and then we’ll be there.’ But the mountains went on and on, day after day.”
Nowadays, Seyed-Gohrab is a lecturer and researcher at the university where he enrolled in 1990: Leiden. Last month, he published the book Soefisme, een levende traditie. [Sufism, a Living Tradition]. “I’m an atheist, but it annoys me when people don’t realise there are different movements and groups within Islam. It causes so many misunderstandings. For instance, everyone thinks that Islam says that Mohammed should not be portrayed. Yes, according to some groups it’s true: pictures are not allowed. But the Quran doesn’t forbid it. In Iran, you can see murals portraying Mohammed’s ascension to heaven on the back of Buraq, a mythical creature with the face of an angel, the legs of a gazelle and the body of a horse. I want to show people how many directions and interpretations there are within in just one movement of Islam. There are many ways to be a good Muslim. If young Dutch people could only see that, it would prevent them radicalising.”
But what is Sufism? “Sometimes, they say: if Islam is a shell, Sufism is the pearl. You can’t get closer to God with just the Quran and sharia. From the twelfth century onwards, every Islamic society was full of different versions of Sufism. The Sufis have many alternatives for all Islamic concepts. The Quran is very cryptic: there’s no single correct interpretation. To continue the analogy of the shell: the intellect is a means to reach the sea, but if you want to find the pearl, you have let go of your intellect and let your intuition guide you.”
You can let go of your intellect by going into raptures through meditation, alcohol or dancing. You can also grow closer to God by rebelling against sacred rituals, as illustrated by San’ân, the most respected and learned sheik of his era. “He felt a lack of universal love and fell in love with a Christian girl. She said she would love him on four conditions: he must drink wine, kneel before an idol, burn the Quran and renounce Islam. When he had done all that, his wife taunted him even more: she wanted San’ân do what a Muslim detests most: he had to keep pigs. “He could only grow in religiosity when he had rid himself of his false piety, by which the Sufis mean that mystic love cannot be trapped in dogmas and established rituals. It exceeds the terms of human thought.”
There is a huge body of mystic poetry with an abundance of imagery and metaphors from much older secular literature about things like homo-eroticism and drinking wine. “A famous example is a poem by Hâtef, in which he exalts other faiths rather than Islam. He describes a meeting his beloved, a young Christian man, in a church. The poem contains stanzas like: ‘He opened his delightful mouth while a honeyed smile played around his lips.’”
Those texts have a purely mystical content and should not be taken literally. Nonetheless, some Islamic movements regard Sufism as heresy. “To fundamentalists, Sufism is like waving a red rag to a bull while Sufis claim ‘We’re truer Muslims than orthodox theologians.’ The two parties have been fighting each other since the very beginning and Sufis would do better to steer clear of IS, who view Sufis as lapsed Muslims. IS think Sufis are worse than Christians and Jews, who at least follow a religion with a book.”
Even so, the relationship between orthodox Muslims and Sufis is complicated. “It’s very schizophrenic. In Iran, there are very many orders of Sufism; they are officially illegal and often subjected to harassment. Still, a good many books are published on mysticism.”
Ayatollah Khomeini, whom everyone regards as a fundamentalist, was interested in mystic notions as a young man back in the twenties. “He had years of private lessons on Sufism and later, he taught it too. You can see it in his political beliefs: the absolute power of the priest stems from the Sufi idea of the perfect man who is constantly in touch with the divine. Khomeini believed he held that mystic status.”
The ayatollah was a very productive writer, penning 149 love poems for starters. “His work follows the medieval tradition of the qalandar, wandering vagabonds who thought that Muslims who only went to the mosque for appearance’s sake were hypocrites. The qalandar believed that social status was the most dangerous trap on the path to mysticism and responded by sinning and provocation. They often went about half-naked, wrote homo-erotic poetry, drank wine and had pierced ears, noses and genitals. This recalcitrant attitude was a shield to protect their piety. “Khomeini quotes them in his poetry, writing things like: ‘Wine bearer! Pour rose-coloured wine into my cup: this full wine barrel is the reason for our honour.’ Of course, he was using the qalandar as a metaphor; he wasn’t really wasted when he read the Quran. However, he did think himself above everything else, including good and evil – which meant he was allowed to do anything.”
A compilation of Khomeini’s work was published in 1989, just after his death. “It’s interesting to see how people reacted to his work. His opponents were very surprised and many parodies appeared, depicting the ayatollah reading the Quran while sipping wine. Of course, the conservative fundamentalists emphasised the leader’s hypocrisy: ‘we told you so: he wasn’t to be trusted!”
Similar imagery and mystical poetry was used to motivate soldiers in the war against Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s regime. “It’s both appalling and fascinating. The young men who went to war were described as God’s lovers; the soldiers offered their lives to become one with Him. Slogans and propaganda referred to them as ‘moths that are drawn towards the light and throw themselves into the flame.’ The flame represented the explosion of an Iraqi bomb.
“Boys as young as thirteen and fourteen were leaving to fight on the frontline. The social pressure to join up was huge, which is why I eventually fled.”

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