Let me tell you a woman’s story of how the sun of Sufism rose in the diasporic West, and how that was supposed to change something.
Once upon a time, Islamists held Sufis in a grappling chokehold. Modernists, liberals, fundamentalists, and Salafis had been smacking Sufism around as ignorant, irrational, inauthentic, and heterodox. Men were presidents and women were secretaries in organisations; men were principals and women were teachers at the Islamic schools. When the masculinity-centric Islamists were dislodged and the Sufis returned, it should have been a triumph, right?
I’m a former Islamist. But I won’t build a state-funded career across the Atlantic on that notoriety. After all, in the 1980s and 1990s, who wasn’t an Islamist? I worked at a university that was then on a list for allegedly having militants on the premises. But when the US was engaged in its proxy war via Pakistan, who wasn’t cheering along those mujahideen – excuse me, militants? When the Iranian Revolution took place, who wasn’t celebrating an Islamic republic that told a superpower where to stick their CIA?
For part of my new-found Islamic life, I was an Islamist engaged in jihad against the heresy of Sufism. For the remainder of my life, I was the Sufi punchbag. I was Chishti-Sabri – but before the big post-9/11 Sufi wave hit the US. Until that shift, I was a mostly undercover Sufi, in three continents. In North America and the UK, whether Muslim Students Association (MSA) or Federation of Student’s Islamic Societies (FOSIS), the Cambridge mosque or the Bloomington Islamic Center, Sufi was not the thing to be in the 1990s. To be engaged in mainstream Muslim causes you buried your angular edges and performed as a good, sober, Qur’an-and-Sunnah Islamist. In an American mosque, even an excess of tearful humility during prayers could be seen as immoderate. You certainly made no references to pirs – Sufi guide –andshrines. Forget Sufism: technically, in that period, music, democracy, and feminism were all officially outlawed for Muslims. How were we to live our Muslim ethics together in diverse Muslim communities? And were Muslim women part of ‘us’?