NEW YORK – In 2001, Afghanistan’s Taliban government ordered the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two sixth-century statues carved into the side of a cliff in central Afghanistan. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader who ordered the statues’ demolition, declared that, “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them.” The incident has become emblematic of radical Islam’s cultural and religious intolerance.
But such fanatical forces have damaged Islam’s own religious heritage as well. Shia and Sunni partisans have bombed each other’s mosques in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere. And Sufi places of worship are under attack throughout the Islamic world. Indeed, recent incidents have called into question Sufism’s ability to survive in its increasingly dangerous neighborhood.
Westerners’ knowledge of Sufism is often limited to the writings of the thirteenth-century Afghan mystic Jalaluddin Rumi. A highly trained Islamic scholar, Rumi settled in Konya, Turkey, where he taught religion. Gradually, under the guidance of his friend and mentor Shams of Tabriz, he turned away from orthodoxy, and decided to pursue a path of introspection and ecstatic worship instead.
One of America’s bestselling poets, Rumi represents for many New Age Westerners a vague non-religious religion and free-form spiritual quest. But Rumi and Sufism play a different role in the Muslim world, where they have inspired moderation and religious tolerance for centuries.