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Pragmatic studies of Sufism: colonialism and sociology

The colonial administrators were worried about rivals to their power, and they thought that the Sufi brotherhoods could be dangerous instruments to mobilise the population against them. Some of these ideas were based on academic ideas that we came across earlier: Muslims being inherently hostile to ‘progress’, irrational, fanatical and decadent.56 Knysh points out that part of these fears were also based on nineteenth-century fears of ‘secret societies’. They were ‘privileging Sufism as a motivating force over all the other pieces of the historical puzzle’.57 Therefore the colonial administrators asked researchers to investigate these brotherhoods, in order to devise an adequate policy to deal with them. This research has been characterised as ‘a cross between the assembly of police dossiers and the analysis of dangerous cults’.58 They saw the brotherhoods as backward, irrational and dangerous (in line with the earlier depictions of the dervishes and the fakirs), and viewed them with ‘a combination of condescension and alarm’.59 The leaders were seen as exploiting their followers, and as such it was only a religion for the lower classes. Octave Depont and Xavier Coppolani call the relationship between shaykh and follower ‘a slavery both material and moral which is spread from one end of the Muslim world to the other’.60

Edmund Burke III shows how, in the French colonial structure, there were different types of researchers with different goals. First he mentions the officials of the Arab Bureaus, who started to work after 1844 and were linked with the royalists and aimed to protect the tribes and the Muslims by basing French policy on facts rather than ‘colonial fantasy’. They displayed a rather paternalistic attitude. There also were the amateurs and explorers who supported the Republicans and the French settlers in the colonies. In general they were quite hostile to the people of the Arab Bureaus and they gained the upper hand between 1870 and 1900, but there were also instances where they worked together. The French sociologists were not interested in North Africa until the 1870s, after which they mainly focussed on folk practices of the ‘natives’.61

The British researched the brotherhoods in India, Egypt and the Sudan for the same reasons and with similar prejudices about Muslim fanaticism. In Somalia, for example, the Sufi Sayyid Muhammad Hasan, who rebelled against British rule in 1899, was called the ‘Mad Mullah’, and depicted as irrational and antisocial.62 We also see the Russians analysing the miuridizm movements in the Caucasus. They thought that the Sufi leaders exploited the blind fanaticism of their followers. These groups were seen as detrimental to the Russian imperialist project, and the studies legitimised the Russian conquest of the region with the aim of civilising the people.63 After 1917 the study of Sufism was embedded in the Communist view of history and religion, with its focus on class issues, and Sufism was seen as a reactionary force. Knysh points out that these ideas were also influenced by French works on Algerian Islam.64

As Knysh also pointed out, the distinction made between the philologist ‘armchair academics’ and the pragmatic colonial sociologists is too rigid.65 First of all, the concrete policy adopted towards the brotherhoods shows that the colonial officials might have a more nuanced view. Depont and Coppolani advised to suppress the brotherhoods’ resistance.66 But there was also the policy of co-opting the brotherhoods into the state structure.67 This option shows that they did realise that not all brotherhoods were fanatical, anti-colonialist and antiWestern. Later, the Sufi brotherhoods came to be seen mainly as quietist, closely linked to the (colonial) government, and as ‘a form of escapism which was incapable of providing solutions to political, social and economic problems’.68

Also, several of these ‘armchair academics’ were actively involved in their countries’ colonial projects. At the beginning of his career, Massignon worked for the colonialist infrastructure. Later, however, he realised that the Europeans were abusing this hospitality and he became a supporter of the Algerian movement of independence. Similarly, E.G. Browne - who thought that Sufism was a Persian import into Islam - supported the constitutionalist revolution in Persia.69

The best example of a scholar who bridges the divide between armchair academic and practical colonial researcher is the Dutchman Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936). He stayed in Mecca for a year, and in Indonesia for seven years. These experiences made him aware of the fact that Islam is very different in different parts of the world. He saw the Sharia not so much as a law but as ‘an ideal system of social morality, an influence on practice and a court of appeal “when times are out of joint”’. He also acknowledged how the Sufi brotherhoods participated in upholding this system of social morality: ‘More important than the strict letter of the law, as an influence on the lives of people of Mecca, is the teaching of the Sufi brotherhoods in regard to practice, moral discipline and meditation leading towards a sense of the presence of God.’70 Snouck Hurgronje appreciated that Sufism and Sharia are not mutually exclusive and that both work to form different versions of Islam in different societies.

Snouck Hurgronje occupied a research post in the colonial administration at Batavia. Hourani says that he ‘used what influence [he] had in favour of a more sensitive and understanding attitude towards those whom [his] nation ruled’.71 He hoped that the natives would eventually consent to associate themselves with the colonial regime, and in Islamic mysticism he saw ‘a perfect forum for dialogue with other religious traditions’,72 not just from the organisational perspective of the brotherhoods, but also from the perspective of Sufi teachings. This paternalistic attitude came to be characteristic of the Dutch colonial Ethical Policy. Thus Snouck Hurgronje helped perpetuate Dutch rule, and his understanding of Sufism played an important part in this.

Hourani thought that the Orientalists were mainly motivated by a will to knowledge, and that they felt the ‘responsibility for the way in which their governments exercised power’.73 This attitude showed empathy, but was strongly paternalistic and supported the colonial effort. As Knysh points out, the link between the ideas of the scholars and the colonial practices is not straightforward, although in most of their thought there is the idea of ‘progress’ which can be used to justify these practices.74 I think that in the example of Snouck Hurgronje we can see how the representation of Sufism as a universalist trend within Islam supported this paternalistic attitude.

In the second half of the twentieth century scholars found a paradigm to combine ‘classical’ Sufism and the ‘living’ Sufism of the brotherhoods. According to this paradigm, ‘classical’ Sufism was reformed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into what came to be called ‘neo-Sufism’: a less intellectual and more activist form of Sufism than ‘classical Sufism’. According to Knysh, this paradigm underwrote the idea that the essence of Sufism is ‘immutable across time and space’ but that its expression changed over time.75 This paradigm has been heavily criticised, especially by R.S. O’Fahey and Bernd Radtke, who argued that the changes in Sufism were not sufficiently great to warrant a new term.76

We have seen how the philological studies of Sufi poetry have misrepresented Sufism as un-Islamic and degenerating, and how this combined with ideas on mysticism to add to the development of linguistic and racist theories which justified colonialism. The sociological studies of the Sufi brotherhoods were partly motivated by colonialist goals and led to a focus on their rebellious, fanatical and anti-social attitude, and led to the pacifying of the brotherhoods by force or co-optation. We have seen, however, that this distinction is not as clear as is sometimes presented, and that there were scholars who realised the link between poetry and the brotherhoods.

The question that arises is how useful the work of all these Orientalists really is: how much is the knowledge they generated really worth, taking their theoretical background into consideration? Knysh points out that they ‘laid solid textual and factual foundations for the study of Sufism’, but he also follows Burke in questioning how useful the facts were that they found.77

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