There was a fascinating concert of Sufi music by the Al-Kindi Ensemble at Singapore's Esplanade concert hall this past weekend. Those lucky enough to witness the show were enthralled by the spectacle of a black turbaned Taliban like Syrian male screaming prayers to Allah as melodically as Steven Tyler and the Aerosmith of old.
If Islam had rock stars then Sheikh Ahmed Habboush would be in the Rock Hall of Fame. The good sheikh may even find himself in multiple halls, as a religious scholar in his own right he may also find himself inducted into the Ulema Hall of Fame.
Accompanying the Sheikh on vocals was the Grand Imam of the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul. A total of twelve performers, dervish dancers and musicians (percussion and string) rounded off the ensemble. In case Muslim religious zealots did not already have enough to fume about, throw in the ensemble's colourfully dressed female percussionist and a radical online sermon by a jihadist mullah is virtually guaranteed.
|The Fatih Mosque located in Istanbul, was completed in 1470|
Sufism is not a sect within Islam. The reach of Sufi philosophies cuts across geographies and sects (Sunni and Shia Islam). Many of Islam's great theologians have been drawn to its mystic appeal, including Al-Ghazzali, Bayazid Bastami and Abul Hasan al-Shadhili.
Ibn Khaldun, a respected fourteenth century Islamic historian, described Sufism as "... dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone."
Sufism unifies and purifies. Sufi philosophy assumes a personal spiritual path to God – not a collective path forcibly imposed by the state through laws.
In this respect, it would have been nice if the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) or Singapore's Minister for Muslim Affairs had graced the concert in a high profile manner. (Perhaps they did attend the event, though without any fanfare, there was no political symbolism attached.)
The reason: attendance by either 'state religious representative' symbolically denotes acceptance of the heterogeneous nature of Islam in Singapore. An announced presence will have legitimated the notion that Malay Sunni Islam is not the only Islam 'certified' in Singapore. And that Singapore embraces, at least in theory, more than only the Shafi school of Islamic law.
The mausoleum (gongbei) of Chinese Sufi Ma Laichi, also known as Abu 'l-Futūh Ma Laichi in Linxia City, China
Despite Sufism's significant role in spreading Islam across the world, orthodox Islam's aversion to Sufi practices is deep rooted. Two centuries after Islam's birth in the early 900s, Sufi saint Mansur al-Hallaj was imprisoned eleven years for heresy. Ultimately, Al-Hallaj faced a gruesome death engineered by Islamic orthodoxy: torture and finally death by dismemberment.
Wahabi (or Shafi) Islam has as much a monopoly on righteousness as a rose controls the market for beauty. Undoubtedly, Sufism will continue to inspire Muslims around the world as they search for their unique identity in today's troubled world.
"O Lord! You are the guide of those who are passing through the Valley of Bewilderment. If I am a heretic, enlarge my heresy."
- Mansur al-Hallaj