Peace, one and all…
I spent yesterday evening teaching my AS Level Islamic Studies class. The topic of last night’s class was mysticism. Specifically, we were looking at Islamic mysticism – or Sufism, in other words.
The class itself is made up entirely of 17 year olds, all of whom are Muslims. It was therefore an interesting session insofar as it offered a kind of barometer reading of popular Muslim thought (or at least that seemingly evident in Cardiff).
Their reactions to the Sufism were interesting. Most of the class seemed utterly unfamiliar with the topic – to the point that some even doubted its wider relevance to the course. Most knew little about Sufism itself (even to the extent of being seemingly unaware of some of the practices associated with it in the popular Muslim imagination). Those that had heard of the subject before were (broadly) divided into two groups. The first group argued that Sufism, as a whole, represented a going to extremes, a movement in some sense beyond the pale. This group argued that Sufi ideas were, at best, suspect and at worst, outright heresy. However, these opinions were based on seemingly little information/experience. That is, such practices were dismissed out of hand before we had even really begun to explore them. We had much the same response earlier in the course when we looked briefly at the different legal schools and at Shi`a Islam. In other words, there seemed to be a broad and largely unchallenged assumption that what we might call ‘background Salafism’ was the default Islamic position, so to speak. This is not to disparage Salafi thought. Rather, it is merely to describe the views of the class as a whole.
The second (much smaller) group was more favourably inclined towards Sufism, being more broadly aware perhaps of its influence in Muslim history. However, even here, it was interesting to note that this group felt a need to defend itself and its views regading Sufi practices (‘music’ in particular).
What did strike me as revealing was the idea that there was only one correct orientation towards Islam – all others being somehow limited, derivative and essentially heretical. Not that there was unanimity regarding the nature of this rarified Islam – far from it in fact. In previous sessions, this idea of theological and ritual uniformity was linked to the concept of the Ummah, or to unity in other words. I have offered a few thoughts on this topic elsewhere.
Perhaps such ideas and ways of looking at the world characterise the very young. Perhaps this grasping for external certainty is a feature of teenagers. At any rate, I can certainly remember feeling this way when I was younger.
And my response to all this? Well, I don’t think it is my task to unravel their assumptions completely – to do that would be to directly challenge their emerging identities (and their foundations). Rather, I think it is task to set up boundaries within which these ideas can be discussed safely and to gently suggest that there are other possibilities, other potentials, other ways of being Muslim.
And, as in all things, what they choose to do with those potentialities is up to them.
And may God bless them all in their choices.