Re-visioning Religion

Painting from Lessines

Re-visioning Religion is an effort to transform our current understanding of religion and its relation to society. It doe so by publishing a series of punkademic articles on the crossroads of religion, mysticism, and socio-political dynamics in a Medium magazine. The articles in this online magazine are predominantly written by Yunas Atlas but occasionally feature contributions by other scholars as well.


When people speak of ‘Sufis’ today, they tend to refer to adherents of a mystical branch of Islam called ‘Sufism’. Originally, however, the word ‘Sufi’ was reserved for those Muslims who showed exceptional spiritual greatness and attained a high mystical level. As such, it did not designate a particular ‘style’ or ‘branch’ of Muslims. Rather, it was used as an epithet for those who might be labeled as ‘saints’. Considering this original meaning of the word ‘Sufi’, it should become clear why the term ‘Sufism’ is inherently problematic. For this, in fact, implies that the word ‘Sufism’ could be literally translated as ‘Saintism’.

When Yunas Atlas met the Pakistani psychologist Dr. D. Latifa for the first time in 2012, he was supposed to meet her for a short interview, as part of a series of conversations with influential Muslim scholars, artists and activists. he eventually ended up staying three days at her home in Pakistan. This interview gives a peek into one of their many talks.

Originally published on the Halal Monk website, it seemed appropriate to republish the interview in light of the release of her new book.

The Pakistani Tahir-ul-Qadri (who resides in Canada these days) gladly presents himself as a great Sufi scholar. In that capacity, his hundreds of books are eagerly read by his thousands of followers from the (higher) middle classes of Pakistan. In 2010 he was abundantly praised by the international community when he published a more than six hundred page fatwa that denounced Islamic terrorism as inconsistent with the teachings of Islam. He thus received much media attention.

However, this very same Tahir-ul-Qadri also has very different dimensions attached to his persona. He's strongly linked with the shady politics of contemporary Pakistan in which he doesn't always play a positive and laudable role. Yet strangely enough, the media doesn't seem to be able to cope with the two sides of the same person and thus completely fails in its presentation of this public figure and his organisation.

Tayyip Erdoğan receives much criticism from Western media because of his conservative and repressive policies. It’s quite difficult to refer to him as a typical example of ‘Sufism’ or Islamic mysticism. Nevertheless, for a long time Tayyip Erdoğan belonged to the Naqshbandi tariqa — one of the eldest and most widely spread mystical brotherhoods in contemporary Turkey.Interestingly the Gülen movement, which, in the last few years, grew out to be one of Erdoğan’s greatest political enemies, also has a supposed 'Sufi' background. After all, the Gülen movement is led by the spiritual leader Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the US and explicitly places himself within Turkish Sufi traditions. Yet although Erdoğan’s history in the Iskenderpaşa community is seldom discussed, the ‘Sufism’ of the Gülen movement is frequently given extra attention.

Our misconceptions about 'Sufism' wouldn’t be much of a problem if they were simply some ‘misunderstanding’ based on a ‘lack of knowledge’. Yet the fact of the matter is that our misunderstandings about Islamic mysticism do not simply stem from innocent ignorance. They are misunderstandings that are closely tied to the enormous blind spots of the contemporary view on religion and they are misunderstandings that are heavily entwined with pressing political issues. For, all in all, it’s difficult to ignore: the manner in which we nowadays deal with mysticism in general and with Sufism in particular actually kindles many contemporary conflicts. And all of this isn’t so much intrinsically linked with the classical Islamic vision on mysticism but rather with the modern and Western view on spirituality and mysticism.

(Re-visioning Sufism - part 3) - The typical modern dichotomy of ‘religion’ vs. ‘mysticism’ is utterly useless to describe Islamic mysticism for what is generally called ‘Sufism’ is, in fact, a rather ‘normative’ form of the Islamic tradition. This norm only gradually started shifting because of modernist influences and contemporary geopolitics. However, acknowledging these facts doesn’t imply that one should get carried away by yet another modernist assumption when trying to understand the place of mysticism within Islam. That is to say, apart from mistakenly seeing ‘Sufism’ as a ‘marginal’ form of Islam, many a Westerner also mistakenly sees it as something that solely has to do with ‘love, peace and music’. Yet exactly because Islamic mysticism is so widespread and manifests itself in various ways, it would be all too surprising if we couldn’t find a couple of dark sides as well.

One cannot deny the fact that the varied mystical expressions of Islam were far more prominently present before than they are today and once can easily notice a strong opposition towards ‘Sufism’ in many Islamic environments. The typical portrayal of Islam also makes it seem as if this trend has always existed. Yet a thorough analysis of the aversion towards Sufism makes it abundantly clear that we are dealing with a very modern phenomenon, closely linked to the ideological developments of the last century and a half. More specifically, it’s connected with the rise of Salafism and petro-Islam.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of Islam today is the role and place of Islamic mysticism within the broader tradition. Commonly this aspect of Islam is referred to with the term ‘Sufism’. Yet the typical descriptions of 'Sufism' are full of misunderstandings and the conclusions they lead to are in great need of nuance. In a series of articles I will address these misunderstandings and bring together some material which is frequently ignored yet crucial for a thorough understanding of mysticism within Islam. This first article shows how ‘Sufism’ isn’t something on the ‘margins’ at all, but rather firmly stands in the center of the Islamic tradition.

A conversation with Michael Muhammad Knight on the fluid boundaries of religion.

Debates on the general media channels seem to take the religious motivation behind the recent attacks in Brussels for granted. Often the nuance is added that the perpetrators adhere to a specific extremist interpretation of Islam, which isn’t supported by the majority of Muslims. At the same time, however, op-eds and analyses also seem to start from the (often unexpressed) premise that something dangerous lurks deep within the tradition of Islam which forms the taproot of Daesh’s ideology. In the wake of the Paris attacks I wrote two articles in which I argued the opposite. I proposed that the current religious radicalisation is more the consequence of violence than the cause and that the theological problem of groups like Daesh (ISIS) isn’t a literalistic reading of the Qur’an but rather amilitaristic interpretation. Can these proposals still be maintained after the recent attacks in Brussels?