Meghan Markle (so I get your attention!)… and Sufi Islam and the dangers of religious illiteracy
Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

One of UnHerd’s foundational themes is religion. As we say on our religion theme page…

“We do not argue for religion, but for politicians, diplomats, the military and the media to take religion seriously.”

However, it’s hard to take something seriously if you don’t understand it. For instance, this was the London Evening Standard trying to explain to its readers “why Meghan Markle will need to be baptised before she marries Prince Harry”:

“Meghan will begin the process of becoming a UK citizen and will also need to be baptised and confirmed before the ceremony as she is currently a Protestant.”

I dare say this will come as some surprise to the many Protestant members of the Church of England, not least the Archbishop of Canterbury and Her Majesty the Queen. Suffice it to say, Protestantism per se is not a barrier to getting married in an Anglican church.

In his podcast interview for UnHerd the former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron MP discusses the dangers of not beginning to understand the faith that still drives so many people today – especially from ethnic minority communities and, writing for the Atlantic, HA Hellyer identifies a more serious example and consequence of religious illiteracy within the West. The context was last week’s horrific attack on a mosque in Egypt, which claimed over 300 lives:

“Because the mosque was often frequented by Muslims linked to a Sufi order, the massacre also brought to light the deeply flawed ways Sufism is discussed—both by those who denigrate Sufism and by those who admire it.

“Extremist groups like ISIS promote the idea that Sufism is a heterodox form of Islam, and then go further to declare Sufis legitimate targets.”

For secular liberals, concepts like Sufism and Salafism may seem esoteric, but in many places the distinction between them is a matter of life and death.

It doesn’t help when westerners portray Sufism as an exotic form of Islam:

“While some who portray Sufis as heterodox do so with malicious intent, many fans of Sufism in the West seem to agree that Sufis are heterodox—it’s just a type of heterodoxy that they prefer to the normative mainstream of Islamic thought, which they seem to think is different from Sufism. Ironically, the well-meaning nature of this misinformed perspective echoes the fallacy that extremists promote.

“And it is an extraordinary fallacy… Indeed, the very label of an Egyptian ‘Sufi minority’ being bandied about since the mosque attack is a peculiar one: Sufism isn’t a sect—it’s integral to mainstream Sunni Islam.”

To speak of Sufism as a separate sect of Islam makes about as much sense as speaking of Christian mysticism as a separate sect of Christianity.

That said, one must be careful not to draw exact parallels between different religions – any attempt to do so can be seriously misleading. An especially egregious example is the notion that Islam needs a ‘reformation’, which rather ignores the centuries of conflict and intolerance that followed the Reformation, 500 years ago. Besides, as Hellyer argues, Islam underwent its own ideological convulsion in the early modern era – one that has profound consequences to this day, not least for the Sufis:

“The birth of the purist Salafi movement (which many pejoratively describe as ‘Wahhabism’) saw preachers inspired by the message of 18th-century figure Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab attacking Sufism writ large in an unprecedented way. While presenting themselves as the orthodox, these types of purist Salafis were actually engaging in a heterodox approach. Many of these figures had to ignore or rewrite large chunks of Islamic history in order to present Sufism and Sufis as beyond the pale.”

Hellyer makes it clear that “not… all those who self-describe as ‘Salafi’ claim that Sufism ought to be met with violence.” But he adds that “many, if not most, deny its centrality within Sunni Islam.”

Whether one is a believer or not, religion still matters in the modern world. For secular liberals, concepts like Sufism and Salafism may seem esoteric, but in many places the distinction between them is a matter of life and death.

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