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Sufism Under Attack In Iran

Different orders of dervish use various rituals to cleanse their minds and open their hearts to God.
Different orders of dervish use various rituals to cleanse their minds and open their hearts to God.
Lawyer Farshid Yadollahi was 18 years old when he had a spiritual dream that led him on a search for the truth and resulted in his becoming a Sufi.

Seventeen years later, Yadollahi says that whatever he might say about his dream would belittle it.

"It's not describable and it's not understandable for the outer world," he says. "It's like if someone says, 'Molecules are made of atoms, now show me the atoms.' Would that be possible? No. It's the same with Sufism; it's because of it that [Sufi poet] Hafez says, 'Alas! One cannot discuss dervish principles. Otherwise, I would have had a lot to tell you.'"

Sufism is a spiritual cleansing process, a journey toward God. The Koran says God is closer to humans than their jugular veins.

Sufis believe one can reach a direct union with God. They use different methods and means, including music, dance, poetry, and the recitation of God's divine names.

The origins of Sufism are traced back to the beginnings of Islam and Sufis believe Prophet Muhammad was the first Sufi master.

'Mecca Verses'

The Sufi tradition focuses on the inner and spiritual teachings of Islam that are included in the so-called Mecca verses of the Koran.

Laleh Bakhtiar, the first American woman to translate the Koran into English, tells RFE/RL that there have been historic tensions between some Sufi practices and Orthodox Islam.

Bakhtiar explains that while the Sufi tradition emphasizes the love of God first, orthodox Muslims teach the fear of God and both sides accuse each other of extremism.

"[For Sufis] the Orthodox Muslims are out of the pale of Islam in the sense of insisting that the criminal punishments be implemented and so forth, whereas the Sufis would say until you don't have social justice then you don't implement the criminal punishments of Islam," Bakhtiar says. "The orthodox consider the Sufis outside the pale of Islam because they do extra practices -- for instance, the Sufis become inspired through their remembrance of God liturgy, and may do some kind of a Sama or a dance. The Sufis have traditions that relate to the time of the Prophet that says this was allowed."

Mostafa Azmayesh, an expert on Sufism in France, says the Sufi approach toward Islam was from the beginning different from that of conservative Muslims.

"[The Sufis] said the Koran says there is no coercion in religion and there is nothing mandatory -- religion is the way of the heart and it is not something that can be imposed forcefully, by flogging or by an army and invasion," Azmayesh says. "For that reason [the Sufis] angered the lawgivers who wanted to, against the principles of the Holy Koran, use religion as a tool of repression."

As a result a rift was created between the so-called school of Shari'a and the school of Tariqa, or the Sufi mystical branch of Islam, and it got deeper over the years.

Analysts say the current tensions between the Shiite Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi order and the Iranian establishment is seen a result of the historical differences.

The Politics Of Apolitics

The Nematollahi order is Iran's largest Sufi order, with reportedly over 2 million members across the country, including in major cities such as Tehran and Isfahan. Its members have come under increasing state pressure over the past four years; three of their houses of worship have been demolished. Officials accused the Sufis of not having building permits and of narcotics possession -- charges the Sufis reject.

One of several places where Gonabadi dervish houses of worship have been destroyed recently in Iran
Dervishes say they're being targeted because of what they describe as the growing popularity of Sufism and also because they're considered a potential challenge to the power of Iran's clerical establishment.

Some conservative clerics have called the Sufis a danger to Islam. Ayatollah Hossein Nuri Hamedani, a high-ranking cleric in Qom, said in 2006 that by not interfering in politics, Sufis weaken Islam. Hard-liners have also accused the dervishes of being used by foreign powers to create discord in Iranian society.

In 2007, a letter was published by a group describing themselves as seminarians of Qom in which they warned against the "dangers" of Sufism and called on authorities to deal with it "more firmly." They added that the "Hizbullah nation of Iran" is ready to cooperate and assist officials.

According to Azmayesh, who is the representative of the Gonabadi dervishes outside Iran, the demonization campaign against the Sufis began with the publication of several books in 2005. He says the books argued that Sufis should be treated as second-class citizens because they don't believe in the principle of "velayat-e faqih" (the Iranian regime's principle that the supreme Shiite jurist should be the nation's political leader) and they follow their own spiritual leaders.

"[Sufis] shouldn't be allowed to have government jobs. If they do have government jobs, then they should be identified and fired; this is what is written in the books," Azmayesh says. "These books started being written and published [a few months] before Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power. After he became president, the contents of these books were gradually implemented."

Singled Out?

Iran's Sunni dervish orders, such as the Qhaderi dervishes, do not seem to be under state pressure.

Analysts point to several reasons.

Jalal Jalalizadeh, a former Kurdish legislator, says some of the sheikhs of the dervishes in Iran's Kurdistan have ties to the establishment.

"The government supports them and uses them against intellectual religious movements," Jalalizadeh says. "Sometimes it even incites them against those who interpret religious issues in a new way in Kurdistan -- they call them Wahhabis and the dervishes stand against them."

Azmayesh says the government believes dervishes can prevent extremism in the eastern areas.

"According to a decision by Iran's National Security Council, [officials] don't act against the dervish orders in the Sunni-populated parts of the country because they say the dervishes prevent Al-Qaeda from growing in these areas," Azmayesh says.

A Sanandaj-based activist who did not want to be named tells RFE/RL that the government does not interfere in the affairs of the Qaderi dervishes in the Kurdish areas for fear of unrest in a region already under heavy social and political restrictions.

Different dervish orders use different rituals to cleanse their mind and open their heart to God.

The Qhaderi dervishes use chants and rhythmic dance to get into a state of trance.

The ceremonies of the Gonabadi dervishes in Iran include prayers and poetry reading by some of Iran's great Sufi poets, such as Rumi and Hafez.

Yadollahi, who with his fellow dervishes performs the rituals three times a week, says Sufis are determined to continue their path despite the increased pressure.

"[Sufi] beliefs are part of Iran's culture," he says. "Unfortunately some people, because of their backward way of thinking, have become enemies of Sufism. They want all people to share the same belief and think the same way even though it is against the International Declaration of Human Rights, Iran's constitution, and man's greatness."

Sufism, he says, is an answer to religious extremism. It teaches tolerance.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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