Re-visioning Religion

Painting from Lessines

Re-visioning religion will is a series of articles by Jonas Yunus Atlas, which will delve deeper into the many misunderstandings surrounding the concept of religion, spirituality and mysticism. These articles are gathered in a Medium magazine.


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.

The first article of this series explained how ‘Sufism’ isn’t a ‘separate branch’ at all (as is often claimed), but is in fact a very central aspect of the broader Islamic tradition and why it should rather be seen as ‘normative Islam’. Sadly enough however, 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 since the suppression of ‘Sufism’ is 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?

It’s a much heard proposition that fundamentalist Islamic groups take their Qur’an literally. This would be the theological and scriptural backbone of their violent acts. Such an idea is voiced by critics of Islam and Muslims alike. There are, however, quite some good reasons to doubt this seemingly self-evident idea.

No matter how much adherents of Daesh (IS) make use of Islamic rhetoric, their violent reign and attacks can’t be disconnected from many other motives that are deeply linked to broader geopolitical realities. And some of the strongest motives aren't religious scriptures, but the remembrance of previous violence perpetrated by secular entities.