It is often said that Sufis are always peaceful, a prime example of the “moderate Islam” that Western governments are so keen to promote. Sufis, however, may be mostly peaceful, but this is not always the case.
Sufism is the stream within Islam that in some ways resembles Christian monasticism, save that Sufis are only part-time monks and nuns. They have jobs and families and live mostly in the world. Their focus is on worship and ascetic practice, and they are also the guardians of the mystical tradition in Islamic theology and philosophy.
Jihadist violence is generally associated with Salafi theology, and though most Salafis are not Jihadis, most Jihadis are Salafis. As Sufi theology often differs from Salafi theology, and as Sufis and Salafis are never on good terms, Sufism is a counterweight to Salafi Jihadism. But Sufis have no doctrine of non-resistance. When circumstances lead to violence, Sufis too can be violent. The iconic image of Sufism is the “whirling dervish,” the Mevlevi in white tunic and tall hat. The same tall hats were worn by the members of the Mevlevi Order (community) who joined the Ottoman army during the First World War. They were Turks as well as Mevlevis, and what was most important as their country went to war was that they were Turks.
It does not require an event as major as a world war to persuade a Sufi to take up arms. In the pre-modern era, when the reach of states was limited, Sufi shaykhs (masters) in rural areas often acted as local governors. As well as providing religious and education services, they also provided judicial services, arbitrating in disputes and passing judgments. Occasionally, these local-government functions became more than local, with Sufi shaykhs coming to lead armies and establish states. One of the earliest of these was in 1501, when Ismail Safavi, the son of a Sufi shaykh, led his followers to conquer what is now Iran and established an imperial dynasty that would reign for over two centuries. The latest was in 1908, when Shaykh Muhammad al-Idrisi started a rebellion in Yemen against the Ottoman Empire that led to the establishment of an emirate that survived until 1930, when it was annexed by Saudi Arabia.
The most famous non-peaceful Sufis today are in Iraq, in the “Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order.” The Naqshbandi Order is a major Sufi order, one part of which was patronized and promoted by the regime of Saddam Hussein. After the fall of that regime in 2003, many Iraqi Naqshbandis remained loyal to Saddam’s former deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, and they formed a resistance army. This army is still active today.
Sufism, then, is not always peaceful. Sufis are indeed mostly peaceful, but when circumstances generate violence, Sufis, too, can be violent.