How Sufism Healed My Islam

My love for sufism is well-known amongst my friends. But my love for it transcends beyond the customary nod to the poetry of Rumi, stories of Rabia Basri or knowing the distinction between the different Sufi orders. I think what really compelled me towards sufism and the way it communicates Islam, is that the language used, the metaphors, everything, seems more “feminine”. I feel more at home with the language of Sufism. Sufism is built on stories of radical empathy, compassion and forgiveness. It’s built on radical inclusiveness, extending welcome to people of all faiths into the house of God and your own heart.

This may be hard for muslim men to understand, but the messages and practices propagated by institutional Islam today, or at least here in Singapore, feels patriarchal. A fair number of them, in fact, are patriarchal. If from young I am only allowed to inhabit the space behind the male or behind a screen and I am told in madrasah that the good wife is one that supplements her husband’s every whim and desire — then you get a very clear and consistent reminder every day that your presence in this culture is secondary. I have struggled in my faith because of this feeling. I remember sitting in Madrasah one day and listening to my ustazah give an example of the ideal muslim wife. In the story she told, this wife sat waiting for her husband at the door, a whip in hand for her husband to punish her if he was dissatisfied with her work in the home.

It is an extreme example, and yet this extreme example was taught in class to impressionable children like me. I could only imagine what sort of ideas it gave to the boys in the classroom. Watered-down versions of that extreme example is communicated in stories, advices and social pressures to the muslim woman every day. It did not seem right to me. I know other female muslims who also faced the same struggle for the same reasons. For those who simply could not accept and live the narrative of this ideal, subservient muslim woman, it is a struggle. At times, she is viewed as a lesser Muslim for refusing to accept this narrative.

I had only really gotten out of the struggle when I came across sufism. There was this beautiful, tender, giving side to the teachings of Islam that I hadn’t seen stressed in my years in Madrasah(s)! Growing up, what was emphasized was teaching and demanding obedience through fear of consequences, fear of hell, fear of God. But they never really stressed as much to us faithfulness for the love of God, the love of other human beings and for the very joy of these actions in themselves. Sure, they taught us to do good, but it was always pre-empted with the idea that we do good because we don’t want to go to hell. We do good because we do not want to anger God. In Sufism however, and I believe in Islam itself, doing good is to be done because it is good in itself. It’s not conditional. You do good because it makes you a better person, and therefore grow more attuned to God. It did not seem right to me that this whole beautiful side to Islamic teachings (not so much Sufism but the stress on a more loving, giving, ethos as opposed to demanding obedience through fear) was swathed by the more scary, fear-inducing image I and many people I knew grew up with.

And it is not right. Because if we look to the way our prophet treated his wives, the way he shared the workload, the way he abolished laws and customs detrimental to women, the way women and men prayed side by side in mosques during his time without difference, then what’s happening right now is an aberration. I have never doubted that Islam is egalitarian and treats women with respect. But Islamic culture, the way the faith has been interpreted by humans for centuries, is a different matter. Of course it is. When you see that a majority of scholars who issue fatwas and other matters are males. How could they possibly understand things like menstruation, pregnancy, abortion, and other things that are specific to the female experience? Yet they get to speak authoritatively on such matters.

This, amongst many reasons, is why I’m a reformist. Because God should never feel alien to a woman as she is growing up. She shouldn’t feel guilty for asking questions. She shouldn’t feel like she is taking up too much space when the love of God is supposed to be limitless. She shouldn’t be told that she is dirty and that her presence is sin. She should have an equal say in matters that concern her. What I have always loved about Islam is that it is a religion devoid of mediators. Yet how many times has it been felt that the male muslim is somehow closer to God. How can it not? They’ve reserved the front seats.