Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education

The Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education (NFIE) is a non-profit, tax exempt, religious and educational organization dedicated to serve Islam with a special focus on Tasawwuf(Sufism),

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sufism, Salafism and the phenomenon of ISIS by Shaykh Dr. Muhammad bin Yahya al-Husayni al-Ninowy الشيخ د. محمد النينوي. July 2016

SYRIA, Sufism, Salafism and the ravaging sectarian war..."The dictatorships and family dynasties ruling the Middle East for a long time now, the power of the internet and media, the profound desire of the Syrian people for a better and more democratic Syria coupled by the strong regional and international militarization and financing of the movement for a change of/in regime in Syria, and pro-violence Islamist clerics all contributed in one way or another to the exploitation of the Syrian people’s genuine democratic aspirations robbing them from their dream for a better Syria and led instead to the destruction of life, history and civilization and yielded multinational extremist organizations preaching hate and violence against all “others”. The consequences are tragedies on multiple levels, and the disastrous ramifications are yet to be seen.
The Syrian people who have genuine aspirations for democracy were moved by the daring calls in early 2011 to reform the oppressive regime, have been robbed of any meaningful chance to have their aspirations realized once the regional powers decided to move decisively with the plan to heavily militarize and finance the movement in Syria and open the “gates of hell” onto the small middle eastern country and across its landscape hoping for a swift regime collapse. I say the “gates of hell” because the only way to change a regime that lasted 40 some years, then more than a year after the movement started, despite the heavy media campaigns, was either direct invasion of big powers or an aided implosion of the regime. The latter can only be done realistically by soliciting into Syria all kinds of Frankenstein’s (monsters) and turn as many locals into some as well along the way. The means is religion, Islam to be exact. Exploiting intra-Islamic sectarianism was enough to mobilize the masses on all sides, especially with the wide presence of ideologues and extremism prone clerics on all sides. The Syrian president Assad belongs to the “Alawite” sect; a 12’er Shia offshoot, who constitute about 6% of Syrians. The Alawite sect in Syria has been historically largely areligious and secular. The Syrian regime also happens to be the closest ally in the world to the Iranians; a 12’er Shia State, and to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah Lebanese militias classified as a terrorist organization by the Dept. of State. Hezbollah militias are also 12’er Shia. The US led invasion of Iraq led to the division of the country with the Sunni Kurds on the verge of declaring independence of their own country, and the Arab Sunni and Shia fighting over control of the rest of Iraq. However, the destruction of the pro-nationalist Ba’th party of Saddam Hussain's regime and the rise of many pro-Iranian 12’er Shia Iraqi leading politicians handed Iraq to Iranian influence. Now, you have a whole crescent starting from Iran, to Iraq, across Syria, to Lebanon where Hezbollah controls a great deal. From the past, there still remnants of a long lost friendship with the Russians and their soviet days. In order to break such “unholy” alliance, Syria was the de-linking point, and an implosion of the regime requires an internal conflict with regional backing. As usual, nothing is more convenient than cloaking political and economic interests in religious rhetoric. It also happens to be the easiest way to mobilize the masses. This necessitated activation of the historical arch enemy of all Shia sects; none other than the Salafist groups. Hence, you see ideologues on both sides; the Salafists and the 12'er Shia's, passionate about fighting each other on Syrian soil.
Syria before the movement or “revolution” was an orthodox Sunni society in general with no visible Salafi influence. In fact one can comfortably say: Sufism was well and thriving in Syria continuously for centuries now. Salafism considers other Sunni Muslims who disagree with its methodologies as people of evil innovations (Bid’a) at best. To Salafi’s such kind of Bid’a often amounts to blasphemy (Kufr), hence necessitating death punishment wherever and/or whenever possible. The non-Salafi Sunni groups includes the Sufi’s and the majority of Sunni Muslims who happen to belong to the Ash’ari or Maturidi schools of theology, all of which sharply contradict the Salafist views and methodology in creedal, not just ritualistic matters. Most certainly non-Sunni Muslims such as all Shia sects, etc.. are largely called non-Muslims or silently believed to be as such by the lately changing rhetoric of West-based Salafi’s, in general. Sufi’s, Ash’aris, and Maturidi’s who constitute the bulk of Sunni Muslims worldwide may also be included in the non-Muslim (Mushrik/infidel) category according to all Takfiri Salafi’s for various reasons (Sufi's for Shirk due to Tawassul and Ash'aris/Maturidi's for Shirk due to not affirming literalism/anthropomorphism) and are all definitely people of evil innovations (Bid'a) and borderline blasphemy (Shirk) to all Salafists in general. Despite the shift in adopting Sufi rhetoric by various West-based Salafists, anathematizing other Sunni Muslims remains key. There is a “perceived pressure” in the US and in the West in general that: since Salafism has been the ideological home of all terrorists doing it in the name of Islam in recent history, Sufism is the preferred way to governments, western societies, etc.. depicting Salafism as a martyr of the "enemies of Islam " on one hand. On the other hand, you will increasingly see Salafists departing from their pre 911 rhetoric and increasingly adopting Sufi rhetoric. This rhetorical change would be great if coupled by written reviews about urgently needed dogma reform and documentations resolving the essence of the problems that separate all groups claiming Sunni Islam leading to the final stop of anathematization and the practice of “intellectual terrorism” by Salafi’s against other Sunni Muslims. Surely the "perceived pressure" that somehow Salafism is specifically not liked by governments and states is just that. Perception. Especially in the west, where there is a complete separation between state and religion. The claim that governments support Sufism is just as sick of a joke as Salafists pretending that Al-Qaida, ISIS and the like are not the brain child of the Salafism. This is not to say that every Salafi is ISIS in progress or a violent extremist, for this would be neither accurate nor truthful. Salafism has many different shades, and modern Salafism can be categorized into 3 major groups with distinct but essentially similar ideology: political/activist Salafism, ilmi Salafism, Jihadi Salafism. Indeed, the reason for the softening of the West-based Salafist rhetoric in public maybe the shift of the mood of the masses to becoming a more open one and the suspicion in Salafism that violent extremism generated in the mind of the average West-based Muslim. The shift in tone maybe strategic to adapt to the audience market attitudinal changes and weathering the current political climate. This should not be understood as an cheap "Sufi" attack on Salafi's and Salafism in a time where the "perceived pressure" is mounting. It is definitely not. We have been saying these same things for the past 3 decades in America, and warning that an ideological monopoly, marginalization of different schools of thought, and "intellectual terrorism" are never healthy for our West-based Muslim communities, but all to deaf ears. I personally have learnt from some senior Salafi scholars and have benefited from many of their academic input, and pray that God grants them and all of us His Forgiveness, Grace and the highest levels in Jannah. I do not believe in intellectual terrorism against theological opponents, regardless. It is time to represent the others as they truly are from their own sources and articulate their points as well as one articulates one's own. Some Sufi' groups have recently shown a plunge into non-violent extremism and hate speech, though this isn't common and defies what Sufism is all about, nevertheless, it does exist unfortunately. While others who claim Sufism have nothing or very little to do with the Sunnah, unfortunately. However, in general we have not had one incident of violent extremism in the West where Sufi's were implicated in any way. This is a call to review and reflect, especially on the point that violence brings no good.
Back to the violence in Syria: Salafi ideology was and still is instrumental in the Syrian conflict in both its imported model (ISIS) and the locally developed one (J. Nusrah and the like) against the official Syrian army. Both groups constitute the fiercest fighters and the ideologues who have no problem in killing a boy for uttering a wrong statement that he doesn’t know the meaning of or blowing up shrines that the Sufi “infidels (mushrek)” used to go to and beseech The Creator through or at. The slight difference is that the ISIS Salafism is much more puritan and uncompromising in some practices than the rest. Little by little junior Syrian clerics started renouncing their old ways of (non-Salafi) teachings and adopt the conveniently present, forcefully injected model of Salafism during the past years of war. The beautifully printed Salafist books and dogmatic literature were flooding Syria just like the weapons, ammunition and money. Conversion from an Ash’ari Sufi Sunni Muslim into a Jihadi Salafi one was not proven difficult in war torn Syria. The mere sight of the bloodshed and destruction would cause almost anyone to reject all calls for wisdom, peaceful resistance, tolerance and continuing co-existence.
The way of turning the religion into a weapon of war in Syria was facilitated primarily by regional media outlets with an army of media experts and Salafi clerics enticing the youths and issuing Fatwa’s of killing against Syrians who do not share their militant “revolutionary” views, including religious scholars, politicians, civil government employees, members of the military and police, etc... Among such casualties was the iconic Shaykh al-Buti (who has a long documented history of being vehemently and absolutely opposed to any violent uprising to overthrow a sitting regime), who sustained intense smearing first, then a limitless attempts to distort his long standing documented views after being killed. Others went to the point of calling to “al-Nafir al-Aam” (religiously mandatory draft of every man and women regardless of age -as long as they can- carry a weapon and use it, to do so, affirming the religious duty to kill or conquer the designated political enemy). In this case, the designated political enemy was the sitting Syrian regime, from its president to its lowest supporter; regardless of “sectarian or religious background” as most of them are actually Sunni Muslims due to the facts of Syrian demographics. Calls for “al-Nafir al-Aam” are calls to mandate killing, and must be distinguished to the laymen from calls to defend one’s self and property if and when attacked (Daf'u as-Saa'el). Salafi influx of fighters and Jihadist poured from all over the world to take part of this “holy” fight to kill the “Alawite Shia” president of Syria and all those supporting him/them which was and still is a good portion of Syrians. Non-scientific estimation puts the regime supporters at around 25-30% of the population including a probably majority Sunni Muslims who do not participate in the theory of “changing a tyrant regime by force" simply because of backing promises from neighboring and regional dictatorships. But those can all be dismissed as pro-Alawite or pro Iran, or so, and if they are secular they can dismissed as anti-Islam or anti-freedom, or pro the devil, etc.. The media worldwide played a key role in indirectly mobilizing and encouraging young people to "do something" about the situation in Syria. The Muslim communities worldwide showed a great empathy to the suffering of the Syrian people and helped a great deal financially. A lot of such financing did not necessarily reach the needy Syrian refugees, as evident in many cases in regional refugee camps. Some people decided to join the bigger fight and took up arms, especially from the Salafi circles, thinking this is Armageddon or the dream “Rashida” caliphate finally returning (which is a weak Hadith by the way!!). Such outcome could have been easily guessed based on the dogmatic teachings of some groups. Media images, Salafi and some violence-prone “Sufi” clerics were calling everywhere for the regional and international powers to intervene with violence and send weapons or just bomb Syria.
What such clerics did not realize that once you call for violence (whether by soliciting international or regional powers to intervene or by encouraging the locals to carry weapons and kill. Both of which was done sufficiently) to achieve a political change, you cannot stop it. They did get a moment of glory before TV screens demonstrating their bravery to make such calls, while living in the safety of a distant, peaceful and comfortable environment. Bravery is not starting a violent conflict or soliciting wars onto people you disagree with, but bravery is to save people, ALL people (regardless of background) from bloodshed and suffering at any cost. Violence will breed violence and the only outcome is more bloodshed and destruction. No one wins in such violence, but all lose. This is because the very belief in violence and killing political opponents or religious opponents destroys the very fabric of the human being.

I still recall some people, almost a year after the Syrian movement started back in 2012, trying to assign government positions or speculating about them (the day after Assad), while the Assad regime was still sitting in Damascus continuing to commit its atrocities. Whether it was wishful thinking, unorganized popular movement that was taken over by regional and international powers, or otherwise, the end result is disastrous on all levels.
For Syrian Christians and other minorities, soon after the movement started taking a military route, they demonstrated a lack of interest in the movement in general despite their acknowledgment of the dictatorship of the regime in Syria. Militarization and the over-tuned Salafi Islamic rhetoric ensured that such minorities either stayed silent or aligned themselves with the Assad regime, in general. Once the militarization of the “revolution” was complete, they needed no further convincing, for many if not most of the militias fighting the regime were committing more atrocities than the regime itself, ranging from hiding in densely populated intercity areas turning people into human shields, to ideological killings, destruction and blowing up of public buildings and national assets, etc.. Shortly after the militarization of the “revolution” there was little talk about “freedom”, “democracy”, “human rights”, etc.. except on TV screens. This is now a full fledge revolution against the "Alawite, Shia, etc.." rule to restore the "Islamic" ruling to the land of the Levant.
This situation doesn’t only apply to Christian Syrians, but to many average Syrians as well, and this is how the Syrian regime was able to get back its momentum gaining a large segment of people back to stand with it, regardless of background.
Eventually some violence-prone "Sufi" clerics who called for violence against the regime and its supporters ended up calling for Jihad against ISIS as well, and indicated that killing them is also equally "Jihad" religiously obligatory. This isn't because the theoretical end goal of this "Jihad" is different, but because it shouldn't be done/led by "this kind of" Salafists, or that ISIS started prosecuting Sufi beliefs/practitioners/shrines, or because the level of violence they practiced exceeded the level of violence expected!!, etc. It is, however, a theological fact that ISIS/Nusrah and similar Salafist-based organizations are not "Khawarej" in ideology nor practice, despite the popular notions especially the one using the forged Hadith about "black flags, long hairs, etc... I think it is not just erroneous to call ISIS "Khawarej but also misrepresentation of the truth and an injustice to Khawarej, who keep sustaining the use of this term as a slur against their largely peaceful version of Islam today. (What Sunni Shia Muslims call Khawarej are those who split from Ali's army during the battle of Siffin 657 CE, denouncing both Ali and Muawiyah and carrying out some violence then. Those Muslims are called Ibadi''s and constitute most of the population in Oman and a significant part of Algeria, Southern Libya, etc, and are largely peaceful, practicing Muslims). The term Khawarej is more of a political label used by Sunni and Shia Muslims alike as a slur to indicate extremism, violent and non-violent. The misapplication of some Prophetic Hadiths onto that group of people (Ibadi's) historically, continues until today. The Ibadi Muslims (the theological remnants of "Khawarej"- though they reject this label) are neither Sunni nor Shia, yet claim to the follow the Qur'an and Sunnah in their own ways. Both Sunni's and Shia disagree with the Ibadi's on many theological issues.There is no doubt, however, that the ideology of ISIS and the like is not Islamic, if we mean mainstream Sunni (Ash'ari/Maturidi/Madh'habi/or Sufi) Islam, and as for practice there is no doubt about their method utilizing terrorism as a practice, deterrent and strategy. But the theological fact remains that neither ISIS, nor Nusrah or the like formulated and produced their own dogma and theology, but indeed draw all their dogma (theory and practice) entirely from mainstream Salafi literature and sources, old and new. They just happen to actually practice a puritan form of Salafism without pragmatism, unlike other Salafists. Such literature and sources are widely printed and available today everywhere. The FSA (free Syrian army) and other secular factions who are seen as traitors, even apostates and puppets of regional and international powers by ISIS, Nusrah and the like, have taken it to declare Jihad against ISIS but not Nusrah (a more pragmatic Jihadi Salafists). The move was more theoretical and on a limited scale in action. Salafist groups -in general- did not declare Jihad to fight and kill ISIS despite some rifts between ISIS and other Jihadi Salafi groups in Syria, in contrast to some Sufi' Fatwa's and some FSA action.
In my view; I do not see the permissibility of violence at all, in an absolute way. ( I have outlined that clearly in my book: Non-violence; a foundational Islamic Principle). The only exception is when it is absolutely necessary to one's own self-defense (Daf'u as-Saa'el) in the face of an absolute imminent life-threat, and the reaction must be absolutely limited to it, and even then, one is obligated to try to avoid resorting to violence at all cost shorting of losing one's life, and even then it is better -theologically- to be the killed than the killer. I also view that the fight and violence that has been happening in Syria is not Jihad -from a theological point of view-, but "Qital Fitna" (a fight based on erroneous judgments that does more harm than good and should be avoided), and Allah Ta'ala knows best. Having said that; I pray that Allah Ta'ala grants His Mercies and Forgiveness to all souls and all people who passed on and all those still suffering and everybody, regardless. For I am not the Judge over anybody, and this my understanding based on my limited knowledge, but Allah Ta'ala knows best as always. And as far as politics, I am not a politician nor an expert in politics -thank God for that- and my political reading could very well be way off. Regardless, my Islam teaches me to mean no harm or malice to any, and pray for all people's divine guidance, life, liberty, peace, and happiness, regardless of backgrounds. I believe unity does not mean conformity, and therefore I do not see it contradictory to offer unconditional compassion, love, and prayers for those I disagree with theologically, politically or otherwise. May God guide, protect and bless all the people of the world always.
  • The regional powers who were the main backers of the "revolution" have drawn many redlines against the regime throughout the years now, mobilized and assured the naïve and skeptical Syrians at the beginning of the movement over and over again about the imperativeness of taking up arms, for the rosy beautiful future of Syria is just a few weeks away, and that -as neighbors- they will be with them till the absolute end. Yet those neighbors and regional powers have already and will in the future continue to re-draw their redlines, because in politics there are no constant redlines. Regional powers and backers were interested the least in the Syrian citizen being free and having a prosperous future. All of the neighboring and regional backers of the "revolution" are tyrannies and/or dictatorships (totalitarian/authoritarian regimes) or semi' authoritarian/dictatorship with no exceptions. If they had thought that full freedom and absolute democracy are good for the Syrians, they would have worked hard to afford it to their own citizens first and be transparent with the rest of the world. But they have been walking a very destructive role in the region by being encouraging more bloodshed based on ethnic, sectarian and political orientation, thus dismantling the very fabric of the human being there and destroying the psyche and culture of people. This kind of cycle will only lead to unprecedented illogical results, erasing of all kinds of norms, and hence it is not sustainable in the long run, and all catalysts of such violence will have to have a facelift or depart eventually. But building what has been destroyed (most importantly the human being) will take lots of educated generations and decades, however. Such is the extent of the tragedy. Some regional powers who were the main backbone of the “revolution” have promised to pray at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus as victors in the first against the sitting regime. But while it seems that they may do so, it will not be as conquerors but as a state guest of the very regime they convinced the Syrian people to fight till the end of its days and asked them to give up everything for the "Jihad" fight!!!

Now and after 6 years of mass bloodshed, vast destruction and spread terrorism, the musical chairs show is about to finish. The cheerleaders of the war are about to end their singing and dancing for a more permanent course, be it stability or instability. The “unexpected” strength of the oppressive Syrian regime, the support of the Iranians, and finally the Russians, to name a few reasons have eliminated any chances left for a regime change by external force. Things seem to be going back to the same way they were, with a possible "Afghanization" of Syria leaving war lords to control various territories or a leaving it as is now; a destroyed country with the same or little change in the regime ruling a weak state that is set back to the Stone Age!!.
The fact rather than fiction that we have is:
1- About half a million innocent people killed in Syria mostly for reasons they didn’t know.
2- Depleting the country from its most valuable asset; human resources. From physicians to engineers, technicians, industrialists, University professors, business people, etc.. have left Syria for a safer society.
3- 6 years of no education for Syria’s children.
4- 4-5 million Syrian refugees around the world. (Heard that the Turkish government will offer its nationality to “qualified” Syrians living in Turkey currently).
5- Vast destruction of the country’s national establishments, oil industry, gas industry, and many other industries, public buildings, airports, parks, schools, streets, bridges, highways, and homes of millions of people.
6- An estimated million people wounded and/or handicapped.
7- Orphans.
8- Psychological scars and trauma due to war and violence.
9- 1000's and maybe more of well trained militants are getting ready to leave Syria once they realize that the aiding of regional powers will stop. They will take their mandate wherever they go in the world. So may God guide, bless and protect America and everybody else. However, Europe will probably be more affected unfortunately, may God protect them and all people as well.
But because governments have certain policies, procedures, strategies, and their own bureaucracies, Muslims - minority or majority- must work with the people of the land, not just the law of the land to build bridges, remove suspicion and cooperate for good. They cannot rely on governments to make people aware of what Islam and Muslims truly belief or represent a balanced image of Muslims, for this may never happen, as governments have long lists of priorities and are also influenced by lobbyists and interests in an environment where the voiceless is not known. Muslim minorities in the West must watch out for misguided hate-speech or divisive hate preaching and call it out before non-violent extremism turns violent.
10- Horrific images and incidents of violence have a profound impact on people on all sides, even if they're not directly involved. It doesn't just affect their psyche, but impacts people in way that leaves them in awe, lost for logic, and feeds their aggression instincts.
11- The double tragedy for Muslim minorities in the West especially is that not only the mass news depicts Islam behind any violent extremist actions as inherently culpable thus moving to incriminate all Muslim minorities for being Muslim by painting everyone in the same brush, thus practically disenfranchising a segment of society , but more importantly Muslim minorities suffer the serious and long-lasting backlashes of post terrorism. Such suffering is not only in matter of policies, profiling, but serious physical threats to lives and long lasting psychological trauma and scaring, especially in children.
All in all, Such massive bloodshed of innocent people everywhere comes with spiritual retribution and price on all involved. There is one redline Islam teaches us as redline; bloodshed. All life is sacrosanct. Violating that will have consequences on all who shed human blood. This is what religion tells us and this is what human history has shown us.
For the Syrian people, they are paying a heavy price for regional and international power struggle, a struggle they mostly did not choose to participate in, but mostly was forced onto them.
Political Islamists must be treated like any other politician in demanding a track record, clear agenda, and not have the “islamic” cover, cover people’s eyes and ears. Political Islamists or “political scholars” Sufi, Salafi, Shia, Sunni, etc.., are not the Prophet. They are neither the Qur’an nor the Sunnah. They are human beings with ambitions; religious, political, economic, personal and otherwise. If they want to be involved in the political process or call for political change, they need to be treated like any other political candidate and present their full plan/agenda. Their abuse of religion must stop, and must stop now. Enough suffering in the name of religion. Enough killings in the name of religion. Enough hate preaching and divisive teachings in the name of Sunnah and religion. Let those "religious clerics" focus first on building the human being, spiritual, moral, ethical, and character building of all. Let them be creative in unifying people, spread love, forgiveness, and unconditional compassion among all. This is their mandate according to the Qur'an and Sunnah, as a priority. It is the very abuse of religion that is killing people today in places like Iraq and Syria, under the very name of religion. The abuse of religion must stop. Today there is a polarization; a Sunni political ideology and a Shi’a political ideology. Both use the religion to attain political changes, and religion is usually the casualty in both scenarios.
In my view; Islam did not come to establish a theocracy. The struggle between political Salafism and political Shi'ism is credited for prolonging the war, violence, suffering and destruction in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and other places, with ordinary people paying the price for the extremism of the ideologues!!.
On a non-political level, isn't it time for various Islamic groups and sects to agree to disagree, even if its forever, rather than utilizing violent and non-violent extremism to counter each other!. Can the minds disagree and the hearts still have mercy for each other and compassion?!! or this is just opened for non-Muslims?!
Extremism, in both forms; violent and non-violent, must stop, and must stop now. This requires lots of hard work, re-train the trainers, review of some methodologies and not just mere change in rhetoric, and identifying problem areas for treatment. Preachers who preach intolerance and hate need to be called out, and a new wave of preachers must be educated to spread the Prophetic message the way it actually is; hope, mercy, growth, and opportunity for all.
In my view: Islam did not come to build a political state, principally, but came to build the human “state” and perfect it. Humans are encouraged to perfect their humanity and build their perfect political state and work to constantly improve it. Most certainly, the Prophet –sallallahu Ta’ala alayhi wa aalihi wa azwaajihi wa sallam- started his reform at the religious and spiritual level, then moved to social reform, then moved to political reform. I have written about this back in 2013 under: Spring or Fall? See:…/…/
Right and wrong are not words young children affected by war understand well. But what we can and must do is: go back to our Islamic basics by rejecting all calls for violence, verbal and otherwise, regardless what name or label it is under, and then pray for the few millions of souls lost and still in pain in Iraq and Syria and everywhere due to wars and violence".
Translated excerpts from the book: Sufism, Salafism and the phenomenon of ISIS by Shaykh Dr. Muhammad bin Yahya al-Husayni al-Ninowy الشيخ د. محمد النينوي. July 2016


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