“As my shaykh taught me…”

On the last post, Bebe g commented:

“…We were even taught by our pakistani sheik that all white people where naturally evil and would never convert to Islam because they naturally have dark hearts. But he was quick to marry a white woman 1st chance he had. Good thing I never believed him.. To many people who are donned leaders of the community and are followed by the ignorant non reading locals….”

Hoo boy, did that part of her comment trigger memories! Things that people’s shaykhs taught them. Or, things that people claimed that their shaykhs had taught them, anyhow. Things that people we looked up to as “scholars” and “shaykhs” taught us, and that we felt that we had to believe. Things that people claimed to know because they were following the Sufi path….

My earliest memory of that sort of thing falls into the latter category. We were visiting the family of a friend of my ex. This friend (and his family) were from the same ethnic background, but that was about where the similarities ended, because the friend (unlike my ex) was a devoted Sufi who followed a shaykh from back home. (My ex told me later that this shaykh was a charlatan who was well known for his shady financial dealings and lavish person lifestyle… but anyway.) While we were at my ex’s friend’s house, we met another of that shaykh’s murids. When the murid realized that I am a convert, he immediately wanted to know what my ethnic background was.

I replied that my mother’s side of the family is originally from X, and my father’s side from Y.

The murid loudly objected, telling me: “No, you are only what your father is, not what your mother is! Your essence can only come from your father.”


I guess that I looked doubtful, because he added emphatically that as a Sufi, he knows all about the inner truths of things. (!?!)

After we left, I thought that that was a bit odd, but put it aside as someone confusing “culture” with “Islam.” Little did I know that I hadn’t seen anything yet when it came to mystically-legitimated full frontal patriarchy. Or for that matter, essentialism run amok.

*     *     *     *     *

In the insular, highly conservative and very Sufi-oriented cult that I became involved with, we looked to our leaders for guidance on everything. And we were certainly given that… even on things that I now realize that they knew nothing about.

Essentialist generalizations and tired stereotypes were passed off as ageless, profound spiritual wisdom.

Native people had this deep spiritual connection to nature, we were told—unless they were deemed to not be “native enough” because they did things such as getting involved in groups like the American Indian Movement or using English nicknames for themselves. In other words, a Native person in the Hiawatha mold was fine, but not the likes of Leonard Pelletier.

Africans (we were told) have this innate affinity to rhythm and music, as the example of Bilal (who used to give the adhan) supposedly indicates. ( Somehow, tone-deaf Africans, or Africans who don’t like music didn’t exist.) And, African American brothers supposedly had a higher sex drive than other men.

Arabs have a god-given feeling that they are superior to all other Muslims and that they should lead the umma, we were taught. And that there’s nothing anyone can do about it, nor should they, really, because after all, the Prophet was an Arab, and he is supposed to have said that anyone who loves him should love the Arabs. Oh yes, and because the language of paradise will be Arabic.

Essentialism didn’t begin and end with ethnic and racial stereotypes—it extended to men and women (natch), as well as to people who had committed certain sins. So, we were told that a particular sister who used to smoke pot before she converted to Islam, and kept on smoking it until she learned that it is forbidden clearly had an intrinsic flaw. Because she should have naturally, intuitively known that pot isn’t allowed and stayed away from it, even before she had heard of Islam, if the integrity of her fitra hadn’t been compromised somehow.

Men in general (we were told) are “naturally” aggressive and want to dominate. And for men, sex and violence are “naturally” intertwined, and there is no way to separate them. Women in general are supposedly passive and yielding and want to follow men’s lead and are fulfilled in nurturing others—unless their fitra has been corrupted by modernity. A woman who doesn’t recognize herself in this description of what a woman “naturally” is has clearly been corrupted by modernity.

We believed that our shaykhs could interpret dreams. And that our shaykhs had unparalleled insight into people, including our own children. Our kids were labeled according to their supposedly “essential” characteristics—and this didn’t worry us, even when the labeling was mainly negative. We were grateful for having received the shaykh’s insights into what our kids “really are” and (supposedly) what they would grow up to be like, and what probably lay in store for them. We had much more trust in the shaykhs’ judgments about our kids and even ourselves than we did in our own sense of what was going on.

Sometimes we did raise our eyebrows about some of these ideas, and even meekly asked how this could be. But we would be quickly put in our place, and we acquiesced. Because we had been taught (and we believed) that God chooses certain select people, and gives them higher degrees of insight than everyone else. “Beware of the penetrating insight of the believer!” we were told repeatedly. Because this is supposedly a hadith, so the Prophet said it, and we weren’t to question it. Nor were we to ask why it is that “believer” here means shaykhs specifically. So, our leaders laid claim to penetrating insight, that could see realities that we couldn’t see, and understand things “as they really are,” while we couldn’t. Therefore, if something they said didn’t make sense to us, or didn’t jibe with our own experiences of the world, it had to be that our thoughts and experiences were wrong.

And it was also comforting in a way to believe that there was someone who knew these things, who we could ask. We might not know much ourselves, but by thinking that we had access to people who did, we felt as though we had more control over where our otherwise difficult, often chaotic, socially marginal and economically precarious lives were going.

But anyway… just thinking about all this seems mind-blowing to me now. The things we believed….

What things have your shaykhs taught you??



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  1. #1 by charmed seeker on June 3, 2013 - 12:43 am

    This is interesting because for a long time I’ve been meaning to write a piece on the problems with idolizing Sufism — pretending that it’s the all-in-all solution to the problems in Islam, and separating everything as Salafi vs. Sufi, the former being wholly bad and the latter wholly good.

    Now that we get to remember things shaykhs have told us… I was once told to change my name, because it wasn’t the best for integrating into the Muslim community and it was supposedly causing me some sort of subconscious confusion lol. He was also a Sufi and one of the deputies of a pretty popular Sufi order’s Shaykh. Apparently these Sufis have secret knowledge about how our names are affecting our subconscious.

    I felt pretty offended.

  2. #4 by kaathe on June 5, 2013 - 7:36 am

    I don’t have a sheikh-because the one sufi-group i met was-although full of very nice and open people-too sheikh orientated.
    Sheik this, sheikh that.. Not my cup of tea, i have always had problems with authorities-especially if i don’t know them personally.
    To trust someone on that important thing, i must know the sheikh-until then i’ll read and conclude on my own-ist my life&soul so i decide.
    And secondly:
    In last time they got more orthodox-now the genders pray in different rooms and a Syriann sheikh resides there. He is conservative.
    And i don’t like that.
    I am rather liberal, i liked the zikr wen both gender were in one room and a camera and stereos won’t solve that

  3. #5 by Heather on June 7, 2013 - 1:31 am

    I have severe PTSD from my experience as a Muslim especially from my limited experience with ‘Sufis’ following a particular tariqa. Thanks for all of your posts, this is helping me a lot.

    • #6 by xcwn on June 7, 2013 - 1:52 pm

      Heather—Glad to know that this blog is helping someone.
      I am still dealing with PTSD, and wondering how many other converts/ex-converts have it.

  4. #7 by rosalindawijks on March 18, 2015 - 5:13 pm

    As a convert, I have always felt drawn to Sufism, for many reasons. When I first read about Rabiah al Adaweya of Basra, I first got the feeling that Islam was something for me.

    I love the Sufi emphasis on spirituality, beauty and the amazing poetry, music, architecture and fascinating rituals that were developed and nurtured by it.

    I also realize that there are many “Sufisms” which vary dramatically. There are many kinds of zikrs and tariqats, but there is also a darker side to all of this.

    Quite a few years ago, I had dealings with an originally Pakistani Sufi-oriented sect. And what I saw there put me off. The almost blindly following, submissive attitude towards the sheikh.

    The sexism involved. (Yes, women were allowed to study and visit all meetings, but they couldn’t participate in the hadra. And while my Moroccan then-best friend and I and the male students came for the spirituality and learning, most of the women were more interesting in cooking & catching a husband.)

    The sisters gossiping about my friend. (I overheard them by accident) And the racism, because of my darker skin tone. (Many of the men and some of the women were but one tone lighter then me, but then, the the whiter-the-better idea is VERY entrenched in all Desi/South Asian cultures)

    The teacher, one of the shaykhs most important mureeds blatantly lying -in a very stupid way- to convince me and my friend to donate our yearly zakat to a charity founded by their shaikh.

    That very same mureed lecturing us about the importancy of always greeting one’s fellow Muslims with salam and not answering mine at a train station on that very same night………

    And just today I was reading a book about Sufism in practice in Egypt, Syria and the Balkan which made me connect the dots with some of the abuses you wrote about and eluded to in this and other articles. (Cont.)

  5. #8 by rosalindawijks on March 18, 2015 - 5:28 pm

    The name of the book is “Living Sufism. Rituals in the Middle East and the Balkans” and it is written by Nicolaas Biegman, a Dutch historian and expert of Islam.

    The book features an introduction, an article about Sufism and zikr in general, an article on Sufi orders, an interview with a Sufi shaykh from Egypt, a description of a hadra in Egypt, descriptions of zikrs in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo, a description of a zikr in Bosnia, a zikr in Syria and pictures from the moulid of the Prophet in Cairo.

    All articles feature beautiful pictures of the rituals. Amongst others, they were taken among Shadhilis in Egypt, Naqshbandis in Bosnia and the Rifa3iyya in Syria.

    Now that I’m writing, I realize that “Sufism” is a very complex, varied, and multifaceted “thing”. The writer frames Sufism as the “tolerant”, spiritual version of Islam, as opposed to the Salafis, Wahhabis and Deobandis.

    Anyways, he interviews a Shadhili Sufi shaykh from Egypt. Many of the shaykhs points are interesting, some beautiful, some troubling. What I personally liked about popular Sufism in Egypt, and islam in Egypt is that it is such a normal part/interwoven with daily life. (Something I’ve also seen in Italy) Devotion, spirituality and praying is a part of daily life. People talk about the God, the Prophet, the saints in very factual terms, as though they are their friends and neighbours.

    And attending jumu3a prayer in the mosque of Hussayn, which is considered the most sacred place in Egypt, was a very emotional and moving experience. I also used to stroll around Old Cairo on thursday evenings and hear the sound of zikrs and Sufi chants. And I loved hearing the adhan 5 times a day. Praying and worshipping there is ingrained in the social fabric and the energies concerning that are almost tangible and very real.

    But I also saw another face: A family man who claimed that he was a Sufi shaikh who would help me, to, well basically get in my pants. (Ofcourse, he wanted to “marry” me.) Cont.

  6. #9 by rosalindawijks on March 18, 2015 - 5:56 pm

    Back to the interview. These are the very real, troubling parts I’ve noticed.

    A Sufi on Sufism: Interview with Sheikh Zahir.

    I first asked the sheikh to speak about Sufism in general terms.
    SZ:”(…….) When a person remembers God, God’s light fills the heart. Therefore the hearts of those who know, those who have reached God, have eyes. These eyes see what others don’t see. This is the clairvoyance (basira) of the believer. Beware of the clairvoyance of the believer! He has eyes that see by God’s light.”

    Can anyone reach this state, or is it only in the grasp of the sheikh and the dervishes?
    SZ: ” Whoever is sincere with God will see. God removes from his heart the darkness, the curtains that hide the heart from God. Love of possessions, lofe of women, love of the world………all these are barriers. When a person connects with God he leaves all that begind and he does without it, on Gods path.”

    Does this happen only during the zikr?
    SZ: “The zikr is only a means, a means to reach God. “Allah, Allah, Allah” fills the heart with God’s light. And when it is filled with God’s light, the light overflows and the whole body is illuminated with God’s light, but in a human form. This is proven by what happened yesterday [as Sheikh Zahir was dozing off before the start of the zikr, and was woken up by a boy who touched him in passing] when the child touched me, I said “Allah”. A normal person wouldn’t have said this. Why? By the grace of God my heart is full of light. (…) ”

    What is the role of women in the order?
    SZ: “As you saw, ther are female dervishes, who are much respected. They sit, they are respected, but as is the case during the daily prayers, there is no mixing of men and women. They are on one side, we are on the other.”

    Do they take part in the zikr?
    SZ: “No. They sit and they remember God on their own, with full concentration, to the rhythm of the zikr. But mixing within the zikr itself? No.”

    Can they reach the same spiritual stage?
    SZ: “Certainly. Rabiah al Adaweya reached it. A woman can reach it by prayer, by recitation.”

    And here is some more, about a mixed moulid in Cairo.

    “The Prophet’s Birthday. (Cairo)

    The participation of women in mixed zikrs used to be costumary in certain orders, but these days it is rare, certainly in Egypt. Women do perform the zikrs, but usually this happens in a separate place unseen by men. In 2008 I came across a zikr where women were participating alongside men on the birthday of the Prophet, mawlid al-Nabi.”

    Interesting is also this youtube video of a zikr at a moulid, probably in Old Cairo. It was posted by (probably Egyptian) Salafis to show how wrong and ungodly etc. Egyptian popular Sufism is/was, but all I can think now is: “Heck, these people are rejoicing in God, the prophet and the saints and are having a whole lot of fun. What’s wrong with that?”

  7. #10 by rosalindawijks on March 19, 2015 - 10:31 am

    And come to think of it, neo-traditionalist mystical-oriented patriarchy can be even be more dangerous then the Salafi approach, because of the sugar coating.

    Salafi, Wahhabi and Deobandi misoginy is fully clear, out in the open, so it can clearly be recognized. But all this talk about God’s Jalal aspects being “male” and the Jamal aspects being “female” and complimentarity etc……..can sometime work out even worse.

  8. #11 by rosalindawijks on March 19, 2015 - 10:42 am

    These quotes by you basically say VERY much.

    “Little did I know that I hadn’t seen anything yet when it came to mystically-legitimated full frontal patriarchy.”

    “(5) Spiritualize it. No man can be a wife or a mother or a daughter or a sister. So we should focus on shining at those unique and wonderful roles that God has graciously bestowed on us. After all, these roles reflect God’s beautiful (jamaali) attributes—such as love and mercy and compassion and nurturing—in the world. God has both majestic (jalaali) and beautiful (jamaali) attributes, and together, these attributes make up existence. Both are wonderful, both are absolutely necessary, and in fact, it is the jamaali attribute of mercy that is stronger in the end, because as the hadith says, God’s mercy overcomes His wrath. Therefore, women should not feel that their roles are in any way less than men’s. Nor should women worry about the social vulnerability that trying to live out such rules might put them in.” (From https://sobersecondlook.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/rereading-status-of-woman-in-islam-vi/)

  9. #12 by rosalindawijks on March 19, 2015 - 10:50 am

    Remember the shaikh of the Pakistani cult I posted about previously. When we were on an Islamic study trip in beautiful Oxfordshire, there was a Q&A. One of the brothers present asked how he should handle the fact that he was very tired.

    (There was a morning program from (9 AM untill 1 PM, a lunch and then maybe 2 hours to rest, an evening program and then there was maghrib isha and dhikr and then a few hours rest and then fajr)

    And what did the shaikh say? That people only need 6 hours of sleep (!), which can be spread throughout the day. This ofcourse is utter crap, especially when one is a morning person, like me for instance.

    He also promoted the old Sufi adage “Qillit ilkalam, qillit ilta3am wa qillit ilmanam”, which translates roughly “little talk, little food and little sleep”. So if one wants to progress spiritually, one should barely eat, talk and sleep. (3 of the most lovely things in life)

    Sleeping and eating little and performing hefty spiritual rituals in which strong energies manifest can make on vulnerable for all kinds of diseases – espcially mental ones like psychosis, depression, epilepsia, pannick attacks. So it’s a very bad idea, medically speaking.

    And ofcourse the idiotic notion that a shaikh who MIGHT be well versed in spirituality and jurisprudence, would know everything about every part of life.

  10. #13 by rosalindawijks on March 20, 2015 - 3:45 pm

    And yes, here Hamza Yusuf also claims that “males, by their nature, have agressive tendencies”…….which is, ironically, basically a sexist statement.

  11. #14 by Sarah on March 21, 2015 - 6:35 am

    What I think that many people don’t know is that a lot of the popular Salafism that arose in many Muslim countries wasn’t because “random crazy purists from Saudi descended upon us and lost the True Islam” as it’s often painted. It arose as a reaction against exactly what you ladies have described – the blind, blind cults full of veneration of sheikhs and absolute twaddle passed off as Islamic. Very often these groups were also hand-in-hand with ‘traditional’ scholars – read mathhabs (much easier to just tell people to esotericize away their problems). Shame that it’s taken people so long to realize. When my family members talked against Sufism, they were never talking about asceticism or ethics or spirituality or whatever historical interpretations (that are so easily upheld and whitewashed as ‘the true Sufism’ in the West). They’re talking about exactly these problems.

    • #15 by xcwn on March 22, 2015 - 6:57 pm

      True enough.
      These Sufi-ish cults in North America often arose in reaction to Salafi purism—or at least, tried to capitalize on the fact that Salafis alienated some people with their blinkered severity, and presented themselves as an “authentic” and “wholistic” alternative. It will be interesting to see which way the pendulum swings next… especially if more less-than-flattering tales about life in these cultish groups surface.

  12. #16 by rosalindawijks on March 23, 2015 - 9:05 am

    Yes, it’s true, neither Salafism or Sufism in theory and practice are only bad or only good. I detest cults and blind reverence of shaikhs, scholars and imams. I also detest spiritually void false literalism.

    But I’m much more drawn to the beauty & spirituality of Sufism, as I already stated earlier. However, that doesn’t mean that any & every Sufi practice is good.

    But to be honest, when I hear Yusufs discourse, it is indeed a bit less severe and black and white then the Salafis, but it doesn’t even come close to the spirituality, lovelyness and non-judgmentallness of for instance Ibn Arabi, Rumi and Bulleh Shah.

    However, sometimes mystically-oriented patriarchy can work out/be even worse, because of the sugar coating false sweetness of it. It leas with the Salafis, one knows that they’re misogynistic and they don’t really try to cover it up.

  13. #17 by rosalindawijks on March 23, 2015 - 9:09 am

    Oh yes, and thanks for the interesting historical context/info, Sarah.

    Xcwn, are there any reliable websites/books around about the darker side of mystically-oriented neo-traditionalist cultish groups? I’m very interested in how beliefs like Yusufs work out in practice, especially for women. Ofcourse, you tell quite a few things about it.

    But I want to know more about it, to also develop a more nuanced view beyond the Salafi/Sufi dichotomy.

  14. #18 by Sarah on April 13, 2015 - 2:32 am

    Salafism gets a lot of hate, but I honestly think that as a movement it’s a crucial one. It endowed people with power, for one thing – the power to interpret, to present daleel or evidence, was suddenly absurdly simple to get your hands on since the Quran is so widespread. Suddenly things like FGM and ultra-seclusion of women and blind worship of shaykhs could be challenged as absurd and unbased and gotten rid of. Think about that – if it weren’t for the various types of Salafis over the past century, we would still be having the mathahib defending FGM. Salafism’s methodological approach is also pretty much the one used by ‘progressive’ thinkers – there’s a very interesting article on this here:


    Overall I appreciate the method of Salafism because it is brutally honest and pretty logical, even if the movement itself is basically highly culturally limited and influenced by many ‘isms’ (Yasir Qadhi’s article on this was well-written, and I think that Jonathan Brown has also written well on the topic). Whereas I could totally strangle myself when I see how people use Sufism to gaslight moral and theological questions. What I see happening in the future is that basically people are in a critical space where none of the past ‘isms’ are good enough, and all of their collective influences must be combined to find new answers, because you can’t hide the Quran and its logic, and you simply cannot hide from the sheer violence of people like ISIS anymore by doing something like saying “oooh Sufism and Ash3arism” or “oooh Quran and Sunnah” or “oooh Mu3tazilism and progressivism” – it’s just not good enough.

    • #19 by xcwn on April 19, 2015 - 2:04 am

      Yes, it had/has the potential to give people power… but all too often the reality was that it primarily gave certain men power, which they did not hesitate to wield.
      As far as I know, many madhahib-following scholars still defend FGM if their madhhab has historically promoted it, at least in some parts of the world where it has long been part of common practice. And since certain hadiths speak of it, some Salafis accept it or refuse to condemn it. Unfortunately.

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