Struggle for the Soul of Islam

An interview with Sheikh Kabir Helminski, co-founder of the Threshold Society and author of many books on Sufism, including Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self and Holistic Islam: Sufism, Transformation, and the Needs of Our Time.

A few years ago, you took part in the first World Sufi Forum in Delhi, an international gathering of shaykhs and Sufi scholars. What was the idea behind this get-together?

The Sufi Forum was a historic event held in a place that is important to world peace, namely India. The Forum was conceived on the idea of bringing Sufis from all over the world together. Sufis exist around the globe, but they don’t know each other and haven’t yet discovered a common sense of solidarity. We usually meet in small circles and tend to think of ourselves as a minority in today’s world. But in fact there are tens of millions of Sufis around the world. I feel it is important for Sufis to know each other and learn from each other.

Who is a Sufi?

Strictly speaking, a Sufi is someone who has commited oneself to a lineage and a teacher. But we can also call those “Sufi” who are Sufi in temperament or Sufi-inclined, who are at home in Sufi thought and teaching. There are hundreds of millions of them in India and Pakistan alone. We can only guess at the number of Sufis who are actually engaged in Sufi practices in an organized way today. But we have records from 19th century Istanbul where about 10 per cent of the population had some kind of affiliation with Sufi Orders. That would mean that virtually every family had members who were practicing Sufis.

Why do we need a global alliance of Sufis today?

Today there is so much propaganda and misinformation on Sufism in the Islamic World. This misinformation has been spread through organizations associated with Salafism, Wahabbism and the Muslim Brotherhood. They have attempted to marginalize Sufism and in this process distorted what Sufism is. Adherents of these groups do not understand Sufism themselves. That is why their critique is an imaginary ciriticism of Sufism, which is based on stereotypes they themselves have invented. It is important today that Sufis themselves can offer clarification on the values and purpose of Sufism; both to combat the misinformation and distortions that have been propagated – often with the help of great financial resources – and to present Sufism as the heart of Islam, as a teaching and view of the world that unites humanity and also contributes to the development of human beings in the most important ways.

“Sufism” is a term associated with many different traditions and practices. How would you define Sufism?

Sufism, above all, is a process of human development that takes place with the support of divine grace and inspiration. Sufism views human development as a cooperation between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human. From a Sufi perspective we can only reach our full human development through higher consciousness and spiritual love. This is a message that is universal, even though the language and practice of it are essentially Islamic. The Islam of the Sufis, however, is not a narrow, but a very broad Islam.

As a shaykh of the Mevlevi Order, you have also translated from the works of Rumi. What is the importance of Rumi for Sufism?

Jalaluddin Rumi, through whom many people have come to experience Islamic spirituality, is a great example of this broad Islam. Many find his message very universal and easy to accept, because it’s a message that focuses on the most positive elements in the human being, rather than focusing on sin and punishment, as it is all too common in mainstream religion of all kinds. In Rumi, we find a creative intelligence that operates in the context of the Qur’anic revelation, but expresses itself with extraordinary creativity and freedom. Over the centuries, Islam, which began as a force of freeing the human imagination, has more and more become dogmatic and anti-imagination. Rumi is an example of how one can live creativity within the context of the universe described by the Qur’an.

How can Sufism be a force that contributes to world peace?

Those who initiate and perpetuate violence in the name of sectarianism, under any rationale, are living at a very low level of human development. They’re living in an illusionary reality in which they feel compelled to create enemies and to divide humanity. The struggle for the soul of Islam is a struggle between levels of consciousness. Any religion can be taken over and made toxic by egoism. Then it becomes a weapon and a tool for divisiveness. Sufism is about raising the consciousness of humanity and healing the hatred and fears that sometimes arise in the human ego. The remedy is love and consciousness. Sufism helps people to step out of the compulsions of hatred, mistrust and resentment. We may not be able to transform those who are the most hateful. But we can reduce their influence by helping humanity to be less suggestible, less manipulated by the psychopaths who are sometimes the loudest voices.

What kind of interfaith initiatives have you been involved in?

I make a distinction between “interfaith” and “interspiritual”. In most of the interfaith events I’ve witnessed, participants were talking about their different beliefs and practices, trying to understand and tolerate each other. Such a dialogue is usually limited to intellectual engagement. I am more interested in “interspiritual” dialogue. What I mean by “interspiritual” is a gathering practicing contemplatives from various traditions. When such people come together there are no arguments and no disagreements. There is only an extraordinary amount that we have in common. This realization is extremely rewarding. I have been at gatherings with Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Sufi spiritual practicioners. We taught together, compared our systems and experienced each other’s practices. In these gatherings I experienced how elements of Sufism were embraced by people from the other traditions. It confirmed for me that there is a completeness about Sufi teaching. It is fully integrated with life, with our humaneness.

For years we are experiencing waves of Islamophobia in the West. The refugee movement into Europe has brought bias against Islam to a new level. How can Sufis react to this challenge? Can Sufism have a role in countering these images?

First of all, if the Europeans can embrace these refugees compassionately and generously, they are doing something great for world peace both locally and globally. They become an example of altruism and contribute to peace and understanding. Some Islamophobia is based on critiquing a deviant form of Islam. We need to acknowledge that this is not traditional Islam. The values of traditional Islam are essentially in harmony with the best values of Western civilization. Islam basically teaches human brotherhood, freedom of religion and conscience, altruism, generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, compassion, truth and justice. There is a very important verse in the Qur’an: The word of your Lord is fulfilled in integrity and justice. Thus, every Muslim is called to truthfulness and fairness. So, one should not forget that Islam possesses these values. The demonization of Islam has been made possible because a deviant form of Islam has been propagated. It has grown and spread like a cancer and hopefully we will find the remedy for it. But the remedy is certainly not hatred or prejudice. Obviously, the refugees coming to Europe are not examples of this corrupt Islam. The people driving them to Europe are an example of it. This is especially true for Syrians, who are such lovely people and very friendly to the West.

This interview was originally published here:

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