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Transnational Communities Programme

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Ethnicity, politics and transnational Islam: A Study of an international Sufi order

Short summary/ long description

Principal Researchers
Prof. Jorgen S. Nielsen
Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations
Selly Oak Colleges
Birmingham B29 6LQ
Dr Galina Yemelianova
Centre for Russian and East European Studies
University of Birmingham
Birmingham B15 2TT
Dr Martin Stringer
Department of Theology
University of Birmingham
Birmingham B15 2TT
Prof. Jorgen S. Nielsen
tel. +44 (0)121 415 2278
fax. +44 (0)121 415 2297
Duration of research
October 1998 – March 2001

Report of visit from Professor Landa, Head of the department of Islamic Studies of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow


 Short summary

Aims and objectives

The main aim of this project is to broaden our understanding of how Islam functions across boundaries of states, communities and ethnic groups. While contemporary research attention on Islam has concentrated on its political expressions, the Sufi tradition continues to be important for the majority of Muslims. Through a hierarchical chain of adherence to the spiritual leader, or shaykh, the Sufi orders (tariqas) link local communities across many different regions. One of the more ubiquitous of such contemporary tariqas is that led by Shaykh Nazim al-Qubrusi al-Haqqani. With roots in the Ottoman empire and especially in the Caucasus, it now has centres in North America, Britain and most of western Europe, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia. The tariqa has had particular success in attracting converts from outside Islam and among young educated professionals in the Muslim world. Communications play a significant role in maintaining the cohesion of this transnational network and the tariqa makes extensive use of all forms of media publication including a notable presence on the Internet managed from the US. Through fieldwork and a detailed analysis of texts the project aims to develop an understanding of how and with what degree of success a form of Muslim organisation, which is central to traditional Islam, is able to adjust to rapidly changing contemporary environments, to establish the significance of modern electronic communications relative to more traditional media, and to up-date and refine our knowledge of how Sufi forms of Islam function locally and transnationally.

 Methodology/study design

The project will be based on ethnographic and anthropological fieldwork running concurrently in three locations. In parts of the northern Caucasus, the tariqa exists in a more or less traditional form, which is now relating actively to the post-Soviet weakening of the central state and general economic and political instability. In Lebanon, the tariqa has grown significantly in the years following the end of the civil war and, with fast-growing telecommunications links, could be seen as being in a state of transition. In Britain, the tariqa has a number of centres some with a mainly ethnic minority following, others with a multi-ethnic composition including significant numbers of converts. Texts in a variety of media forms will also be gathered in the three locations together with a regular survey and recording of materials on the Internet. These will be analysed in terms of content, audience and the circumstances of their production and in relation to the fieldwork results.

 Academic and policy implications

The interdisciplinary nature of such study of religious organisation is likely to raise a number of theoretical issues to do with the interaction between ideas and organisation and how far a shared community can function with different discourses. The project will contribute to a broadening of our understanding of contemporary transnational Islamic organisations and thus assist policy makers, the media, and agencies working with Muslim communities in reaching better informed policies and practices.


 Ethnicity, politics and transnational Islam: A Study of an international Sufi order

Long description

The Sufi tariqas have historically been one of the most important channels for the social expression of the transregional nature of Islam. Through a hierarchical chain of adherence to the Shaykh, they constituted a network linking local communities across geographical, political and ethnic boundaries. Having traditionally found their membership through social networks of trade, profession and clan, the tariqas went into apparently irreversible decline with the economic and social upheavals associated with colonialism and global economic integration. However, during the last two to three decades it has become clear that the decline has been reversed. Tariqas have re-established themselves and are thriving both in traditionally Muslim regions and among the more recently settled Muslim communities of western Europe and North America. In the process they have changed and are continuing to do so. They have adapted to new state structures constructed over the last century and, in that sense, have become transnational. They are redefining their relationships with the communities in which they live, possibly redefining communities with reference to themselves, as well as creating new communities which are sometimes radically different in constitution and structure from the traditional ones. They are in some areas making use of modern communications technologies, which impacts on the lines and nature of authority within the tariqa. Throughout they appear to be able to preserve roots in the communities of believers, distinguishing themselves from the more publicly visible ‘fundamentalist’ movements whose programmes tend to be heavily political in character.

One of the more widespread tariqas is the one led by Shaykh Nazim al-Qubrusi al-Haqqani (born 1922). Part of the larger Naqshabandi tradition it differs from the mainstream, which traces its antecedents to Central Asia, by finding its roots via the eastern parts of the Ottoman empire, especially the Caucasus, in the Indian Mujaddidiyyah branch of Shaykh Sirhind. Shaykh Nazim was sent by his shaykh, Abdullah al-Dagestani, to London in the early 1970s to establish the tariqa in the West. His active following is now among the largest and most international of the Sufi tariqas, with centres in North America, Britain and most of western Europe, the Middle East, South and South East Asia. The tariqa has had particular success in attracting converts from outside Islam and among educated professionals, men and women, within the Muslim world.

The tariqa is organised in the form of local or regional centres, each led by a khalifa, or deputy to the Shaykh. However, the organisational structure is loose with varying levels of active membership, and individual khalifas have been known to exceed the bounds of their authority. Doctrinally, Shaykh Nazim particularly emphasises the personal struggle with the ego, which may account for some of his appeal to a western audience which has been familiar with the mystical discourses of theosophical traditions. Shaykh Nazim lays great emphasis on the coming of the mahdi as a warning of the imminence of the last days, a theme which has regularly provoked controversy within the tariqa and with its opponents. Some aspects of the teaching, especially in the West, suggest connections with elements of the New Age movement. The legal tradition (madhahb) of the movement is an unusual integration of the two main traditional law schools, so followers regularly have to look to the Shaykh for guidance. There are implications here for a comparative sociology of religion in terms of the tensions between an individual commitment and a collective commitment to a religious community.

The coherence of such a tariqa would be expected to depend on a number of elements. These should include adherence to the authority of the Shaykh and the shared teaching and rite. On the other hand, Sufi tariqas have survived major changes over the centuries by being flexible and able to adapt. The extreme variety among the following of Shaykh Nazim is evidence of this. Communications play a significant role in maintaining this cohesion, and the tariqa makes extensive use of all media possibilities, including audio- and videotapes, leaflets, posters, magazines and books. Some parts of the tariqa maintain an internet presence which is regularly attacked by opponents.

The project plans to seek answers to the key questions by researching the tariqa in three of its centres of activity:

In the northern Caucasus Islam has been dominated by Sufi tariqas since the 15th century. The Naqshbandis became pre-eminent in a society which continues to exhibit the characteristics of traditional segmentary ethnic and kinship networks. Before and after the Soviet era, the tariqas have played a significant role in defending local interests against Russian intrusion, whether by resistance or by cooperative manipulation. Tariqas today are closely associated with the revival of local ethnic politics in a region where the centralised state has become weak and where alternative trends of Islam are being actively propagated.

In Lebanon Sufi tariqas traditionally played a significant role in linking the urban commercial and rural landowning sectors with particularly strong bases in the coastal cities. With increasing integration into an interregional cash economy and the growth of the financial and service sectors, especially in Beirut, the orders lost much of their influence. The collapse of the Lebanese state during 15 years of civil war, coinciding with the regional resurgence of Islam, gave the tariqas a new lease of life as a focus of order and stability. Post-war developments have encouraged further growth in which Shaykh Nazim’s tariqa has also taken part, and one of the shaykh’s sons-in-law are Lebanese. With the modernisation of telecommunications, Lebanese participation in the tariqa’s internet presence is growing.

The tariqa is relatively new in Britain dating from Shaykh Nazim’s arrival here in the early 1970s. It has a strong presence in London, Birmingham and Sheffield, with smaller centres elsewhere. The London centres have attracted a multi-ethnic following with significant numbers of converts, including many women, who tend to combine traditional Naqshbandi ideas with those from theosophical spiritual traditions and elements of New Age. The Birmingham centre is primarily an ethnically based group attracting a Pakistani British following.

In each of these areas the project will need to investigate how the tariqa manifests itself. This will involve relating its history and membership. Local research will need to determine how the tariqa defines itself and is defined in relationship to its environment and to other Muslim groups locally as well as more widely. How does the tariqa, itself experiencing significant growth, relate to the phenomenon of international Islamic resurgence and ‘political’ Islam? This is a question which needs to be viewed from both a local and an overall perspective. The research team expects to be working with the local fieldwork evidence and the textual evidence of published materials, including that published electronically, to find answers to further questions. How do the internal communications work? How do practices differ from theories of organisation and structures of authority? What is the meaning and content of membership of the tariqa for its adherents?

The project will be concerned with content, context, and process, so the methods for collection and use of data will be qualitative rather than quantitative. Data collection will take three forms. Field work involving in-depth interviews with representative participants, key personalities and observers, will be supplemented by analysis of texts and recording of contemporary events. The interdisciplinary nature of the research and the experience of applying this to a religious group will raise issues of theory and methodology.

The research team has been constituted so as to facilitate access and combine the various skills required both for the field work and for the theoretical parts of the project. Apart from the principal researchers, the team includes two people responsible for the field work in Britain, one of them on a full-time basis, while two part-time researchers have been recruited locally for the research in the northern Caucasus and in Lebanon. As part of the management of a complex project, an advisory group has been appointed selected to represent the main academic interests, religious organisations, the press, international cultural and development policy as a well as a member nominated by Shaykh Nazim.



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