A convert’s guide, written with a convert’s zeal, to the millennium-old Sufi tradition within Islam.
Ask an al-Qaeda operative to name the Great Satan, and you may hear America or Israel—or, suggests Schwartz (The Two Faces of Islam, 2002, etc.), you may hear Sufism, a doctrine much hated, and for reasons that are not immediately obvious, by radical Islamists. This clearly pains Schwartz, who opines, “I believe the world needs Sufism. It is God’s most deeply hidden treasure, another Islam, a miraculous sanctuary.” Ecstatic, mystical, recondite and inclined to tolerance and even ecumenicalism, Sufism has been characterized by the U.S. State Department, among other sources, as “folk Islam,” perhaps because it incorporates pre-Islamic elements. Yet, Schwartz continues, the country-bumpkin sentiment implicit in that term is inaccurate, inasmuch as in some Islamic countries Sufis constitute the elite and, moreover, “in some regions of the Muslim world Sufis are more often than not extremely cultivated in their reading and worldview.” In passing, perhaps for the benefit of those State Department operatives, Schwartz also warns that Sufism, though a hallmark of moderate Islam, is “the path to God” and not a policy line. Schwartz’s narrative is a somewhat straightforward history of Sufism, whose tenets, he reckons, are broadly accepted in places such as Bosnia, Central Asia, Malaysia and “French West Africa.” On matters factual, Schwartz is unobjectionable, though that narrative is punctuated by small, impatient outbursts that appear intolerant, particularly when he lights into “God-haters” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and when he writes of Sufism’s most popular interpreter after the poet Rumi, namely Idries Shah, as “a curious person of Afghan origin…very little of [whose] work is well founded.”
A useful introduction to Sufi doctrine and history—but prepare for a sermon, too.