Spiritual Colonialism

Rehman Anwar

Sufism is one of the most misunderstood and misused dimensions of Islam. It has been subjected to various interpretations, both by Islamic and non-Islamic interpreters, in different eras. Interestingly, it wasn’t just Islamic theologians and jurists who created and promoted those misunderstandings. One of the most dangerous interpretations of Sufism was carried out by colonial intellectuals and orientalists. Their deliberate attempts to separate the intellectual and human values of Sufi teachings and philosophy from mainstream Islam perpetuated negatives stereotypes about Sufism.

The process of separating and occupying the spiritual dimension of Islam has a long history. Arguably the very first scholars to write on Sufism were Sir William Jones (1746-1794) and Sir John Malcolm (1769-1833), both part of the East India Company. Having some knowledge of the Persian language, they found Sufi philosophical ideas fascinating. However, they were least interested in exploring their Islamic connection. Therefore, their work, for the most part, remained focussed on associating Sufism with various other religions, beliefs, and traditions prevalent in India, instead of exploring its deep-rooted Islamic heritage. Parallels were drawn between Sufism and Hinduism, Indian Yoga, ancient Greek philosophy, Christianity and Buddhism, leaving Islam out of the equation. Another English orientalist, E.H. Palmer (1840-1882) even suggested: “Sufism is the development of the primeval religion of the Aryan race.”

A vast majority of those orientalists relied on secondary sources instead of going back to explore the real origins of Sufism. A huge amount of work was undertaken to translate Dabistan i Mazahib (School of Teachings), a 17th-century Persian treatise on all the religious teachings existing in India, written by Mohson Fani, a follower of the esoteric Zoroastrian movement of ‘Azar Kayvan’. The irresponsible and inaccurate translation of Dabistan by David Shea (1777–1836) and Anthony Troyer (1769–1865) also reinforced many common Orientalist stereotypes of Sufism, including its lack of connection with Islam. Ironically, instead of reading Ibn-e-Arabi, Ghazali, and other credible work undertaken by Muslim philosophers on Sufism, most of those orientalists relied on controversial sources. By projecting Sufis as free souls who did not associate themselves with any organised religion, they promoted the already existing anti-Sufi sentiments in certain Islamic circles.

It is deeply flawed and naive to consider Sufi doctrine in contradiction to Islam as projected by those colonial intellectuals. It may be true that the Sufis’ approach to religion is slightly different from a rather superficial version of Islam presented by the Islamic clerics. However, the entire structure of the philosophy of Sufism is based on Islam and nothing in their teachings is antithetical to Islamic values. The colonial approach adopted to explain Sufism was in fact counterproductive and damaging, as Nile Green comments in his Sufism: A Global History:

“For by the early twentieth century, both the disparaging and apologetic dimension of the colonial construction of Sufism found echoes among anti-Sufi reformists on the one hand and modernising Sufi revivalists on the other.”

The uncoupling of Sufism from Islam is not just a past phenomenon, it still exists in present times. The erasure of Islamic references from Rumi’s poetry by contemporary interpreters like Coleman Barks and Deepak Chopra is pretty much in line with the legacy of spiritual colonisation started by Edwardian and Victorian intellectuals. Just as William Jones in the 18th century failed to realise the in-depth philosophy behind the poetic work of Rumi, Sa’di and Hafez, Barks and Chopra have also taken the classic poetic imagery of Rumi at face value. In the context of Sufi poetry, wine-drinking, love and dance are more symbolic than real. In fact, Jones and other orientalists just introduced Sufi poetry to the West… but it was expanded on a large scale by the likes of Barks and Chopra who have very successfully sold Rumi’s poetry to their western audiences after carefully removing the Islamic elements from them. Rumi’s work, who himself wrote about his ‘Masnavi’ as ‘roots of the roots of the roots of religion’, is being portrayed as the work of a free-thinking poet who had no connection whatsoever with any organised religion. In the words of Fanklin D. Lewis:

“Rumi did not come to his theology of tolerance and inclusiveness by turning away from traditional Islam, but through an immersion in it.”

We live in interesting times: the times when a lot of emphasis is given to remain true to the original vision of poets and authors when it comes to translating their work; times when misusing or misrepresenting someone’s work is hugely discouraged; and times when we take or at least pretend to take people’s religious and cultural sensitivities seriously. However, there seems to be no justice for the great Sufi philosophers and poets whose work was always been stolen, misrepresented, and sold for purely commercial purposes.


Rehman Anwer was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan. He studied Human Rights at Kingston University, London. He is an activist and has been working on several human rights-based campaigns in the U.K. Rehman is currently serving as a public servant focussing on promoting community cohesion and tackling hate crime.

His published writing has primarily highlighted human rights violations and societal issues. The Fundamentals of Sufism, his first book, was published by Broken Leg Publications.

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