“War on terror”-style rhetoric was not always directed against Salafi jihadis. Its targets were once Sufi Muslims. It is hard to believe that Sufism, which today is associated with political quietism and docile pacifism, was seen in the colonial era as the heart of the “Islamic peril.”
Many, if not most modern military struggles in the Muslim world can be traced back to a Sufi leader or order. According to theologian Paul Heck, “Networks of Sufism (turuq, sing. tariqa) took the lead in resisting European colonial powers in the nineteenth century, for example in North Africa against the French and in the North Caucasus against the Russians. Some networks resisted post-colonial states that aggressively sought to secularize local society, for example in the early years of the Turkish Republic and in pre-1982 Syria.” It is little known that in the founding of modern Turkey, Naqshbandi groups vehemently resisted aggressive secularization policies in a rebellion which was swiftly crushed by Ataturk’s army within two months.
Of course, in the time of the Sufi warriors, the “Sufi” label was a misnomer. In the precolonial era, Sufism was simply a normative expression of mainstream Islamic belief and practice. As the respected contemporary scholar Hamid Algar writes, “in view of its practitioners, tasawwuf is coeval with Islam itself.” Just as a precolonial Muslim followed a legal school (madhab) or a school of theology (aqida), it was mainstream practice to also follow a silsila (chain) of spiritual refinement (tazkiya). Hence, the warrior Sufis of yesteryear saw themselves as nothing but regular Muslims.
The categorical severing of Sufism from the heart of Islam had a strategic aim. A harsh campaign criticizing Sufism appeared in the colonial archives first, before appearing in writings by anti-Sufi Muslims. Threatened by the power of Sufism, colonial authorities had recast Sufis as a “mystical sect,” – an aberration within Islam. This, in turn, bolstered anti-Sufi sects like Wahhabis and Salafis and normalized their rhetoric. From the early twentieth century onwards, a spiritually decimated form of Islam would become its widespread expression, relegating the world of Sufism to retreat into passive obscurity. The collective past of Muslim resistance thus became distorted, disfigured and forgotten.
Sufism’s political pulse weakened when twentieth century secular nation-states actively limited and dictated what forms of religious expression—and which “Islams”—were acceptable.
Sufism’s political pulse weakened when twentieth century secular nation-states actively limited and dictated what forms of religious expression—and which “Islams”—were acceptable. This led to the creation of a subservient Sunni clerical class, with Sufis relegated as either heretics or quietists. By refurbishing Sufism as “good” Islam and all other expressions as “bad” Islams, internal divisions among Muslims became deeply entrenched. This is one of the factors that has rendered contemporary manifestations of Sufism as weak with a resigned acquiescence to the status quo. The label evokes whirling dervishes, Rumi’s poetry and docile ascetics, rarely images of warfare. Spirituality is seen almost as an antithesis of violence.
This view stands in contrast with American popular culture, which is rife with positive associations between spirituality and combat. Think of Herbert’s Dune, Samurai masters leaping in the air, or Jedi Knights. It comes as no surprise that in the process of researching for Star Wars, George Lucas consulted a Sufi order in California which influenced him to incorporate Islamic themes in the epic saga. “The Force” as representing God’s singular, pervasive, all-encompassing power, or Yoda as a wise Sufi shaykh holds obvious Islamic symbolism. Regardless of these (arguably positive) appropriations, however, such associations between spirituality and fighting injustice rarely extend to Muslims themselves, whose struggles are seldom deemed legitimate.
This view stands in contrast with American popular culture, which is rife with positive associations between spirituality and combat. Think of Herbert’s Dune, Samurai masters leaping in the air, or Jedi Knights.
Though invisible today, a rich history of Sufi resistance murmurs behind contemporary struggles against state repression. Consider the Uyghurs. The internment and oppression they face by the Chinese Communist Party has historic roots in the Qing dynasty of the nineteenth century, when East Turkestan was ruled by Khojas, descendants of the noted Central Asian Naqshbandi Sufi teacher, Ahmad Kasani (d. 1542). We know little about figures such as Khoja Wali Khan of Kokand, who, after performing the tarawih prayers in Ramadan of 1857, attacked a Chinese garrison, killing their commander. Though Wali Khan was brutal and his reign was short-lived, the Chinese Communist Party is neither ignorant nor forgetful of this history of Sufi resistance to Chinese totalitarianism. By contrast, few Muslims have any knowledge of this today.
Two decades before Wali Khan’s rebellion, another fierce Naqshbandi Sufi leader had led the Caucasian resistance to Imperial Russia. Imam Shamil (d. 1871) was known for his charisma and his unrelenting commitment to upholding the shari’a in a hostile environment. But more importantly, he succeeded in uniting groups like Dagestani and Chechen Muslims in resistance to Russian imperial aspirations in what became known as the Caucasian War. To this day, Imam Shamil is venerated by the Caucasian diaspora worldwide, and even inspired the quiet resistance of underground illegal Sufi groups in the USSR.
During the hajj of 1825, Imam Shamil met—and arguably inspired—another young leader destined for a life of armed struggle: Emir Abdul Qadir al-Jaza’eri (d.1883). The two exchanged strategies for resisting foreign threats. Five years later, France would invade Algeria and, at the tender age of 24, Abdul Qadir would find himself at the center of the Algerian resistance to French colonization. As a representative of the Qadiriyya Sufi order, which traces its lineage back to the twelfth century Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani, and as a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, he was able to unite all of Algeria to rise and take up arms against the French.
The resistance was not led by men alone: Sufi women like Lalla Fatma N’Soumer (d. 1863) led several battles against the French. Fatma N’Soumer was captured by the French and died in captivity six years later. Enraged by the sustained Algerian resistance led by charismatic Sufi men and women, French General Bugeaud blustered: “I will enter into your mountains, I will burn your villages and your harvests, I will cut down your fruit trees.”
French colonizers had also met Sufi resistance in West Africa. In what is modern-day Senegal, Shaykh Umar Futi Tal had spent 55 years teaching and founding a community for the Tijaniyya Sufi order before he was pulled into a life of military resistance by French colonial encroachment.
French colonizers had also met Sufi resistance in West Africa. In what is modern-day Senegal, Shaykh Umar Futi Tal had spent 55 years teaching and founding a community for the Tijaniyya Sufi order before he was pulled into a life of military resistance by French colonial encroachment. Legend has it that his spiritual prowess by way of his wilaya (friendship with God) was so strong that he could obliterate an enemy combatant by way of a deadly stare alone. Appropriately, his favored Tijani litany was dubbed Hizb al-Sayf (“The Litany of the Sword”) and his magnum opus is aptly entitled, “Spears of the League of the Merciful against the Spears of the League of Satan the Accursed.” The text is not a military manual as the title may suggest. Rather, it is a compendium of Sufi ethics, on building good character traits and the imperative of knowing God (ma’rifa). For Tal, the figurative weaponry possesses a metaphysical importance that far outweighs the physical weaponry of his earthly enemies. The strength of Sufi warriors like Tal came from an unyielding trust in God as the ultimate ghalib (victor). In one Hadith, God says: “whosoever shows enmity to a wali (friend) of Mine, then I have declared war against him.”
Despite their brutality, European colonizers did not sway the Sufis’ warring ethic. At the turn of the twentieth century, another North African resistance would foment in face of the Italian colonization of Libya. The Senussi order’s leading figure Shaykh Omar al-Mukhtar—dubbed the “Lion of the Desert”—organized and led the Libyan resistance to Italian colonization for nearly twenty years. In contrast to the brutal Italian campaign, which gave no quarter to their captives, Omar al-Mukhtar deferred to the Islamic jurisprudential principle of the impermissibility of killing prisoners in war. When asked by his followers why he would not kill his Italian captives, he replied: “they are not our teachers.” His moral stance was not reciprocated. Italians eventually captured al-Mukhtar and publicly hanged him in 1931.
For many of these figures, their commitment to knowledge seeking, dhikr (remembrance of God) and building community took precedence over a life of combat. But war was imposed on them and they opted for the “lesser jihad” at great peril to themselves. Consider the example of the Syrian Shaykh Izzuddin al-Qassam (d.1935), who left his zawiya in his native Syria in an attempt to defend Libya from Italian incursion, but then traveled to lead armed resistance in Palestine, where he eventually settled and established regular mawlid gatherings in Haifa. These scholars’ commitment to Islamic teachings informed their view of this life as one of trials and tests, which mirrored the lives of Prophets and the family members of the Prophet Muhammad, who, led by Imam Hussain, also faced unspeakable violence in the early days of Islam.
There were also other inspirations. Ascetics such as Ibrahim ibn Adham (d. 778) and Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak (d. 797) “provided the principal models for depicting Sufis as bold mujahids,” according to Harry Neale, who authored a book on early Sufi warrior saints. Taking cues from these past exemplars, the Muslim warriors of the nineteenth century knew that however dire the repression under colonial rule, the unjust never truly win. This conviction animated their view of injustice and fueled their resistance to oppression.
Sufi anti-colonial movements were prevalent in nineteenth century South Asia, too. Figures such as Fazle Haq Khairabadi (d. 1861) issued a fatwa declaring jihad against the British in 1857 and Titu Mir (d. 1831), a seasoned gymnast and wrestler, trained his fellow countrymen in Bangladesh to fight the British using lathi (bamboo sticks).
Sufi anti-colonial movements were prevalent in nineteenth century South Asia, too. Figures such as Fazle Haq Khairabadi (d. 1861) issued a fatwa declaring jihad against the British in 1857 and Titu Mir (d. 1831), a seasoned gymnast and wrestler, trained his fellow countrymen in Bangladesh to fight the British using lathi (bamboo sticks). Influenced by Syed Ahmed Barelvi’s jihad rhetoric, he is known for recruiting thousands of farmworkers as fighters and building a large bamboo fortress to resist British encroachment. Despite their valiant resistance, the humble bamboo fort gave way to the bludgeoning British canons and Titu Mir and hundreds of his men were bayoneted to death. But saints, networks and shrines continued to pose a threat to British imperial domination. Sufism possessed the ability to include divergent strata of South Asian society, thereby defying the system of colonial categorization along religious, ethno-linguistic and cultural lines.
However, the principled resistance under the banner of Sufism did not always result in the use of violence. In fact, violent self-defense was considered “the lesser jihad” compared to the jihad of the soul, and the jihad of the pen and tongue. There is a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad states that the “the best form of jihad is to tell a word of truth to an oppressive ruler.” In a far cry from that ideal, many iconic Sufi figures today serve at the pleasure of Middle Eastern tyrants and see no problem with being used as tools of soft power by Western governments and their allies.
For most Sufi warriors, their combat is unseen. The best modern exemplar to this is represented by Shaykh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke (d. 1927) who terrified the French colonial forces in Senegal without ever shedding a single drop of blood. He founded one of the largest Sufi orders in Senegal, the Muridiyya order, and led a non-violent resistance to colonialism despite spending most of his life in exile and under house arrest. Ever the erudite scholar, he is known for penning “Seven Tons” worth of scholarship and poetry. In a famous poem in Arabic, he writes:
You have exiled me, accusing me of jihad […]
Well, your words about me are true […]
For verily for the sake of Allah the majestic, I am struggling.
For Bamba and other Sufi warriors, the site of the toughest battle is within one’s own soul. But they knew that if that inner struggle does not translate into any tangible defiance of worldly evil, then it is hypocritical.
There are many more such stories of principled Muslim warriors across history, whose actions came from a place of profound moral conviction. Through scripture and ma’rifa (knowledge of God), they understood that the Pharaohs and Yazids of history represent timeless, cyclical archetypes, thus affirming the Qur’anic promise: that God can multiply the few, fortify the weak, and grant victory to the oppressed.
Contemporary Sufi groups have largely dissociated their consciousness from this history, even though it presents a powerful antidote to both Islamophobic and Muslim attitudes towards justice-seeking in Islam. For these sagely warriors, their commitment to principled resistance came about because of their commitment to Sufism, not in spite of it.
Farah El-Sharif is a research scholar and historian of modern and contemporary Islamic thought. She received her PhD from Harvard University’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department where she focused on the Islamic scholarship of 19th century West Africa. She earned her MA in Islamic Studies from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, where she worked on representations of Sufism in American religion and the public sphere.Farah received her bachelor’s degree from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is currently the Associate Director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University.
 Algar, Hamid. “A Brief History of the Naqshbandi Order.” In Naqshbandis: Cheminements et situation actuelle d’un ordre mystique musulman, edited by Marc Gaborieau, Alexandre Popovic, and Thierry Zarcone. Istanbul and Paris: Editions Isis, 1990.
*Cover image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
**The original essay was updated on February 1, 2023 to reflect the addition of a brief sentence by the author.