Muslims love titles. We love to create nisbas for everything (adding an “ee” sound to a location or characteristics. Hence Wahhabi, Sufi, Salafi, Sunni, Shi’i, Farsi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi, Hanbali, Naqshabandi, Mevlevi, Qadiri, Khariji, Deobandi, Maghribi, Sharqi, Ifriqi, Faranji, Arabi, Turki, etc…. Add that “i” and VOILA!! You have created another group or divide. We like group titles and nisbas so much that you’d think we added the “ee” to crazy. Muslims love nisbahs as much as Americans love “isms.” Communism, Capitalism, feminisism, traditionalism, protestantism, Catholicism, fascism, socialism, communalism, liberalism, conservatism, republicanism, humanism, pragmatism, etc…. I have read debates in blogs and online forums. I have read articles and critiques of various scholars and groups where nisbahs are used like curse words. People often use nisbahs to essentialize other groups in order to assert their superiority. Often, we may take a nisbah for ourselves in order to mark ourselves as distinct from those “other” Muslims. Those “other” Muslims don’t have the right Islam. They are deviant. They miss the spirit of Islam. They are extreme. They are too lax. They are irrational. They are too backwards. They are too westernized. They are too cultural. They don’t have a Muslim identity. They are too nationalistic….etc. Give a group a nisbah and those generalized traits that we have ascribed to that group apply for all eternity. When we attach a nisbah to an opposing group, it is sort of a way of dehumanizing them and invalidating their point of view.
Lax Muslims often think they have risen above this. But I will take a case of a lax Muslim to show how they contribute to the problem. I will focus on the lax Muslim woman whose enthusiasm for practicing has petered out. This lax Muslim may have been disillusioned. Somehow, she may have thought that by praying, fasting, attending the mosque, and replacing clubbing and movies as entertainment with Friday and Saturday night lectures and talks would solve all her problems. She may have thought that by practicing she could find a good husband and financial stability. She may have thought that by practicing, life would be easier and less complicated. But after a few years of floating in the community, this Muslimah begins to tire out.
She may have been frustrated with the neurosis running through her particular community. She may have been put off by some halaqa that may have told her how evil she was for plucking her eyebrows and growing out her fingernails. She may have felt excluded from the mosque politics dominated by men who want to keep women from sitting on the governing board. Or maybe they only allow one token woman. She may have felt burned by some fierce competition over some hot male Muslim brother. That hot Muslim brother may be some rising super star on the lecture circuit. She may hear the call of the dunya and really miss having careless fun. The call of the dunya may be too enticing. She may miss dancing on a Friday night at the local night spot. She may want a T-bone steak, as opposed to devouring some spicy halal paki food. This lax Muslimah may be a muhajabah who wants to feel feminine and not feel the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment. She may even want to wear hijab and curse out the jerk who cutt her off on the Freeway while not feeling like she mis-represented Islam. She may be pissed off for representing the Ummah while the brothers get to be all ambiguous or even be cool and Muslim. Said former muhajabah may resent the fact that Muslim men develop relationships with non-Muslim women. She may resent the double standard. The former pride she took in reppin’ the Muslims dissapates. Former Muhajabah may still like men and wants men to affirm her self-worth. Maybe more than anything else, she wants to feel like a regular girl on the streets.
But said former Muhajabah still wants to be Muslim and would like respect from at least some of the Muslims. But for the most part, the Muslims who practice think she’s wack. Former Muhajabah is angry that the pious Muslims she knows now judge her. Perhaps, they even talk about her behind her back. Former Muhajabah begins to question her faith, but still feels as if Islam is part of her identity. She may go to different scholars looking for dispensation for certain requirements. Maybe hijab is a hardship and even though her life is not in danger, she is tired of funny looks from her possible employers. She doesn’t want to feel guilty, weak, or like a failure.
In her anger and frustration over the way she has been treated, miss former muhajabah lax Muslim begins to curse all the practicing Muslims. She calsl them hypocritical for judging her. Former Muhajabah may begin to find all sorts of faults in the Muslims who follow the sunnah. Practicing Muslims then become the worst people on Earth. She may sound like a mouth piece for Fox News as she generalizes about the Muslims. They are fundamentalists. They are extreme. They need to get with the real world and real world issues. They are isolationists. They are backwards. They are superficial…etc…..
As she moves more and more into a comfortable place of laxity, she begins to take a new-agey version of Islam. She may even call it Sufism, although this is such a general category that can mean a lot of things. Spirituality becomes her primary concern and she doesn’t consider the practicing Muslims spiritual at all. She creates a false dichotomy between purification of the heart and outward practice. Instead, lax Muslim Former Muhajabah thinks of herself as spiritually superior and even more advanced than her practicing counterparts. She may consider herself superior because she read an incomprehensible Ibn Arabi text all by herself. But she’s still reliant upon Chittick to provide his tafsir. While her own personal morality falls within the grey zone, she sees the others as misguided.
I provided this little story to talk about one of the traps that many lax Muslims fall into. Lax Muslims can sound awful self-righteous. But if we are truly sincere, then we will be humbled by our shortcomings and should admire those who maintain their integrity and preserve upright practice. Instead, lax Muslims feel threatened by difference especially when the difference highlights our moral laxity. They may be paranoid about meeting other Muslims, especially practicing Muslims. They may project their own insecurities and think that every devout Muslim judges them. In that process they may become just as judgmental and intolerant as the people who judged them–if not more so.
Many struggling Muslims take on the title of Sufi without really committing to tasawwuf (purification of the heart). I have met numerous pious and sincere Sufis. Last night, the Stanford community held an event with the Mevlevi order and it is was enriching. I have been to Naqshabandi dhikr circles. I have listened to Sufi tapes and Sufi Music. I have spent time at the shrine of Ahmad Tijani in Fes. I came upon my research topic by my experiences in Fes where I saw women from Mali and Senegal praying side-by- side with Fesi women. I realized that the zawiya can facilitated inter-ethnic communication. I do not consider myself a Sufi because I am not in a tariqa, nor have I given bayyan to a sheikh. As an academic, we tend to enjoy difference and the various ways people express Islam. I sort of take an anthropological approach and accept difference. I don’t mind a little flair and innovation is not a bad word. Importantly, I recognize the difference between Islamic ideals and what people do. But I have noticed the ways American Muslims deploy Sufism. Many lax Muslims are drawn more to “spirituality” rather than following the rigors of practice that forces you to do some real self work.
The Sufis I know, the responsible ones, the ones who were Sufi before Sufi became cool are often just as devout as non-Sufis. In the post-9/11 world, Sufis became cool. Real cool. Many of the people in tariqas are often welcoming and kind, but I do not think that they would consider many of those who are picking up books and claiming the Sufi nisbah to be people who are following that tariqah (narrow path). Sufis may just be nicer to a lax or wacked out Muslim, and their motivations for doing so may be numerous. They may be forgiving because it is better to attract flies with honey, than let’s say vinegar.
These lax Muslim Sufi title holders need a nisbah so that they can feel as if they are doing some real self-work instead of backsliding. They take on the label of Sufi, or another such as Progressive Muslim, order to hold on to something. Real self-work is painful and it takes lots of discipline. Unfortunately, many so-called Sufi Muslims have bought into some New Age beliefs about spirituality which outside the traditions. These New Age beliefs reflect a Western phenomena of bastardizing spirituality (whether Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Kabbalism, etc…). People simplify it, commodify it, and wrap it up for mass consumption. Just like it becomes a trend to eat Tofu and sushi, do yoga, drink Lattes, or bubble tea, Sufism becomes that trendy thing over-intellectualized and simplified and devoid of its cultural and historical context.