Remembering the great tradition of Sufi jihadis in Muslim history

Developing Just Leadership

Fahad Ansari

Rabi' al-Awwal 24, 1429 2008-04-01

Islamic Movement

by Fahad Ansari (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 2, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1429)

In the contemporary Ummah, Sufism is often associated with apolitical, pacifist Islam of the type that the West would like to promote as “true Islam” all over the Muslim world. FAHAD ANSARI looks back at the great tradition of jihadi Sufis in recent Muslim history.

Much of the recent Western political discourse on the “war on terror” has focused on what has been called the “struggle for the soul of Islam”. Academics and scholars have discussed at length the growing confrontation between “moderates” and “extremists” within the religion, a clash which Princeton scholar Michael Scott Doran has labelled a “civil war”.

In this discourse, “moderation” has become synonymous with integration and assimilation into Western and secular values, the restriction of Islam to the private sphere, an abandonment of Islamic culture and dress, and the propagation of the over-simplistic “Islam is peace” slogan. “Extremism”, on the other hand, has been used as an umbrella label to discredit any Muslim who aims to promote Islamic values as a system of life beyond the confines of one's home. In particular, the label covers those who promote any sort of direct jihad, even that waged against oppression and injustice. So large is this umbrella that it encompasses almost every Muslim group, including Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, Hizb-ut Tahrir, Jama‘at-e Islami, and numerousjihadi groups fighting against military occupation, as well as al-Qa'ida. Despite the huge variances in thought and methodology of these groups, all are tarred with the same brush.

This raises the question of who remains. Surely every Muslim, by default, believes in the superiority of the shari'ah over every other system and in the use of force for the establishment of justice. Unfortunately, today a class of Muslims exist who, in the apparently sincere belief that they are following the sunnah of the Messenger of Allah (saw), have adopted a methodology of compromise and peaceful surrender, limiting the scope of jihad to one’s struggle with one's own nafs. Driven by a burning desire to portray Islam in a “positive” light, they have treated the deen as putty in their hands, kneading and shaping it into whatever mould is most pleasing to those elements of Allah’s creation whose wrath they fear more than they fear His. Prominent among these ‘moderates' are those Muslims who consider themselves to be “Sufis”.

So appealing is this brand of Islam to Western governments that it has been argued that it can act as a stronghold against extremism, guarantee US security and safeguard US strategic goals in other countries. Recent reports by the US thinktank RAND Corporation, entitled Civil Democratic Islam (2004) and Building Moderate Muslim Networks (2007), concluded that theUS's interests lie in making a long-term alliance with secularists and modernists, while simultaneously spreading and promoting Sufism. In Britain too, the government has repeatedly allied itself with Sufi groups such as the British Muslim Forum and the Sufi Muslim Council, misleadingly describing them as “Islam's silent majority”.

The purpose of this article is not to delve into the theological differences between the Sufis and other Muslims but to ask whether the Sufi methodology of today reflects traditional Sufi thought and action on the issue of jihad.

A good starting point in this study is to examine the views and actions of those whom Sufis themselves acclaim to be the personification of tasawwuf. According to Junayd al-Baghdadi, Ali (ra), the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad (saws), is the sheykh as regards the principles and practices of Sufism, with most Sufi orders claiming their spiritual descent from him. Much Sufi literature has discussed the noble values of Ali, his piety, his justice, his wisdom, how he would spend the night crying before Allah and beseeching His mercy and forgiveness. But no account of the life of this great Companion of Allah's Messenger (saws) can be complete without mentioning the role he played in armed jihad, his courage, his valour and his sacrifices. With the exception of the Battle of Tabuk, Ali (ra) took part in every battle for the sake of Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (saws). No ordinary soldier, Ali was the standard-bearer in every battle he took part in; at Badr alone he killed at least 20 of the enemy forces. Ali typified the ideal Islamic lifestyle of “monk by night, warrior by day”.

More recent examples of this “Sufi” lifestyle include many of the leaders of the anti-colonial resistance movements across the Muslim world over several centuries. Although some Sufis of that era hesitated to take up arms against the colonial powers and encouraged the Muslims to remain peaceful and subservient, the more widespread Sufi influence in that era was an active obstacle to colonialism rather than a building-block of subservience. Sufi leaders such as Omar Mukhtar in Libya, Abdul-Qadir al-Jazairi in Algeria and Imam Shamil in the Caucasuswere the kind of men who refused to accept the status quo and who externalised their internal spirituality as armed jihad against their oppressors.

Omar Mukhtar

Known as the “Lion of the Desert”, Mukhtar led the jihad against the Italian military occupation of Libya for over twenty years beginning in 1912. Although a teacher of Qur'an by profession, Mukhtar was not one of those about whom Allah says, “Do ye enjoin right conduct on the people, and forget [to practise it] yourselves, and yet ye study the Scripture? Will ye not understand?” (Q. al-Baqarah:44)

As a teenager, Mukhtar developed a lifestyle of not sleeping more than three hours every night in order to get up to pray to Allah in the last third of the night and recite Qur'an until fajr. A member of the Sanussiyah tariqah, Mukhtar not only taught the Qur'an but practised the teachings of the Qur'an. Sound in the belief that true submission requires us to mix knowledge with action, Mukhtar repeatedly led his small, highly alert groups in successful attacks against the Italian military. Skillfully attacking outposts, ambushing troops and cutting lines of supply and communication, the poorly armed and far smaller mujahideenbattalions left the Italians astonished and embarrassed.

In 1930, having failed in a massive offensive against Mukhtar's forces, the Italians initiated a plan to transfer the local people (about 100,000 persons) to concentration camps on the coast and to close the border with Egypt from the coast at Giarabub, thus preventing any foreign help from reaching the fighters and breaking up the solidarity of the population. From the beginning of 1931, these measures took their toll on the mujahideen. Muhammad Asad relates that when he visited Libya at the bequest of the great Sanussi leader, Sayyid Ahmad, to advise Mukhtar to leave temporarily for Egypt to regain his strength, Mukhtar stubbornly refused: “... how could we abandon our people and leave them leaderless, to be devoured by the enemies of God?” Mukhtar told him, “We fight because we have to fight for our faith and our freedom until we drive the invaders out or die ourselves. We have no other choice. To God we belong and unto Him do we return.”

Finally, on 11 September 1931, Mukhtar was ambushed and captured. Despite his old age (70), Mukhtar was shackled with heavy chains from his waist and wrists because of the Italians' fear that he might escape. His resilience impressed his jailers, who later said that they were overwhelmed by his steadfastness. His interrogators stated that Mukhtar looked them in the eye and recited verses from the Qur'an as he was tortured and interrogated.

When asked by the Italian general, Graziani, whether he would give up fighting if released, the Lion replied, “I shall not cease to fight against you and your people until either you leave my country or I leave my life. And I swear to you by Him who knows what is in men's heart that if my hands were not bound this very moment, I would fight you with my bare hands, old and broken as I am.”

Mukhtar was eventually hanged on September 16, 1931 in front of his supporters in the concentration camp of Solluqon.

Abdul-Qadir al-Jazairi

Abdul-Qadir was an Islamic scholar and a political and military leader in Algeria who led the struggle against the French invasion in the mid-nineteenth century. Having memorised the Qur'an in his childhood, Abdul-Qadir became a member of the Qadiri order, from which he gained his spiritual guidance. Just prior to the French invasion in 1930 and almost as if to prepare him for the lengthy battle he was about to begin, Allah caused Abdul-Qadir to meet with Imam Shamylof the Caucasus, another Sufi military leader, while on Hajj. The two men, although they were fighting three thousand miles away from each other, were very similar both in their scholarly interests and in their methods of war, and shared ideas on military strategy.

For almost twenty years Abdul-Qadir led the jihad against the French, achieving many victories and gaining a notable reputation for chivalry; on one occasion he released his French captives simply because he had insufficient food to feed them. Abdul-Qadir showed himself to be a leader of men, a great soldier, a capable administrator and a persuasive orator. He ultimately failed to defeat the French because of the refusal of the Berber tribes to unite with the Arabs against the French, despite the invaders resorting to scorched-earth methods in a final desperate attempt to defeat the resistance.

Forced into exile by the French, Abdul-Qadir eventually moved to Damascus, where in 1860 he died and was buried next to the Ibn Arabi, a famous and venerated Sufi.

Imam Shamyl

One of the greatest Muslim warriors of the nineteenth century, whose name evokes images of courage, valour and chivalry to this day, was Imam Shamyl, a Sufi member of the Naqshbandi tariqah. Acclaimed by the Muslims of the Caucasus as al-Imam al-Azam (“the greatest imam”), Shamyl was known for his enjoinment of good and forbidding of evil from an early age. Under the guidance of Muhammad Yaraghli, Shamyl realised that his own spiritual purity was not enough and that only after the shari'ah became supreme over the pagan laws of the Caucasian tribes would Allah give them victory over the Russian occupiers. Imam Shamyl was a leading example of the use of tasawwuf as a means to empower to soul to repel aggression in both spiritual and physical ways, and taught his soldiers to engage in religious chants at times of war. The most familiar of these to the Russians was the Death Song, heard when a Russian victory seemed imminent and the Chechens tied themselves to each other and prepared to fight to the end.

Shamyl led his people in battle against far superior Russian forces for more than thirty years and has been recognised by historians as a military tactician of the highest order. Having dedicated his life to instilling in his people honour in a time of humiliation, Allah (swt) honoured Imam Shamyl by taking his soul while he was in Medina in 1871 and allowing him to be buried in al-Baqi alongside many Companions (ra) of Allah's Messenger (saws) and warriors of the Ummah.

Mukhtar, Abdul-Qadir and Shamyl are just three examples of how tasawwuf was not regarded as an obstacle to armed jihad but as an inspiration for it. There are countless other such examples from around the Muslim world, including Shah Waliullah and Shah Abdul-Aziz in the Indian subcontinent, Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio in Nigeria, al-HajjUmar Tal in Senegal, and Sayyid Muhammad Abdille Hasan in Somalia. Contemporary Sufi thinkers and scholars must reflect on the tradition they claim to uphold and ask themselves what is lacking in their understanding of tasawwuf that they have failed to become the Lions of the Ummah that their predecessors were.

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