Irish identity · Islam

The Fusion of Sufism and Irish Identity

An abandoned home in the mystical Irish countryside (Photo credit: David Brooks on Upsplash)

An excerpt from Chapter 5: “The ‘good Muslim’/’bad Muslim’ dichotomy” in Islam, Race, and Pluralism in the Pakistani Diaspora (Routledge, 2017) by Craig Considine

What do we know of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and its links to Irish mysticism? To put it simply, not much. ‘Mysticism’ is a type of spirituality aimed at union with the divine through deep meditation or contemplation. Mystics believe in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension that are central to being and directly accessible by intuition (American Heritage Dictionary, 1980). Sufism can be viewed as ‘the esoteric or inward aspect of Islam in which direct contemplation of spiritual or divine realities provides individuals a connection to a particular phase of humanity’ (Burckhardt, 2008, p. 3). While there is disagreement amongst religious scholars and Sufis themselves about the origins of Sufism, the traditional view is that it had its beginnings in the first centuries following the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In her comprehensive book on the mystical dimensions of Islam, Schimmel (2011) describes Muhammad as a deeply pious and spiritually earnest man, a man who not only desired union with God, but also experienced a direct connection to a higher power.

Around the same time that Prophet Muhammad received his revelations, Celtic Christians in Ireland were practising their own form of mysticism. Beginning in the late fourth century, the Celts had developed their own unique style of Christianity, which praised mysticism and poetry and promoted a deep respect for the feminine. Irish mythology reveals that the ancient people of Ireland believed in a spiritual and invisible world and that these beliefs had been brought to the island long before the coming of Jesus Christ (Wilde, 1888). Christian mysticism in the Irish context has been explained as ‘the instinctive belief in the existence of certain unseen agencies that influence all human life’ (ibid.). While Christianity and Islam are typically known for focusing on the external practice of religion through rituals and adherence to strict observations in everyday life, both these religions have strong traditions of ‘internal experience’ which is more personal and devoted to the soul.

Despite the basic similarities between Sufism and Irish Christian mysticism, few scholars have examined what these two realms of religious belief and practice might further have in common. While a thorough analysis of the links between them is beyond the scope of this book, we can nevertheless explore the connection through Maliq, a thirty-five-year-old, second-generation [Pakistani] Sufi that I interviewed in Dublin.

Born and raised in Ireland, Maliq had grown up in a working-class neighbourhood. Urdu had been his first language, because his parents and grandparents had not been able to speak English or Irish upon arriving in Ireland in the 1960s. At primary school he had found it difficult to learn English. Subsequently, he’d had even more difficulty learning Irish. When Maliq and I met in a cafe on the campus of Trinity College Dublin, his speech often alternated between English and Urdu. He also used Arabic words when speaking about his experience as a Muslim living in Ireland. This made me think about the concept of mixture, and that Maliq had used the ‘third space’ to form a hybrid identity that combined Irish mysticism and Sufism.

At the time of our interview in the autumn of 2013, Maliq was operating both a restaurant and a small shop in Dublin’s city centre. I met him at his restaurant and immediately observed his elaborate clothing, which was dotted with silver, gems and elaborate Islamic calligraphy. Classical Sufis have been characterised as ascetic, and Maliq is no different. From the restaurant we went to his mosque, where we were to attend a dhikr, a devotional act during which worshippers absorb themselves in the rhythmic repetition of the name of God or God’s attributes (Oxford Dictionary, n.d.). Upon entering the prayer space, I quickly noticed that the Sufis around me were preparing for a spiritual experience. The room was very quiet, and the lights were turned off. Men were greeting each other with the sign of peace. One young Sufi was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the prayer area, meditating in total silence. This type of dhikr is identified as ‘silent’, or dhikr khafi. When the communal dhikr started, all the Sufis came together and formed a big circle. Drums started beating, and participants began chanting in Arabic in unison. This type of dhikr is called dhikr jail (vocal). All the men present started swaying back and forth, from left to right, as if they were one entity. Meditation turned into prayer. The chants, singing, and use of musical instruments were unlike anything I had ever seen in a mosque. After all, in Muslim circles, Sufi practices are controversial, and indigenous Sufism in Pakistan is being supplanted by the more intolerant and outlandish Wahhabism.

Participation in the dhikr was personally rewarding for me. This ritual engendered a state of spiritual experience and brought me closer to my own beliefs in divine power and the unity of our existence as human beings. The making of music and the aesthetic practice of performing dhikr created a space where I could relate to my higher sense of self. I left this ritual with a sense of having been spiritually cleansed, a topic which Maliq spoke about passionately during our subsequent discussion over chai tea, a popular drink amongst Pakistanis and other South Asians.

Rehmat, an Urdu word meaning ‘blessing’, is a term that Maliq used frequently, especially when our conversation turned to the topic of Irish identity. According to him, being Irish was a ‘blessing’, and he added that the word ‘Irish’ alone is a ‘special word’ with ‘mystical powers’. However, like several other participants in Ireland, Maliq used the ‘old Irish’/’new Irish’ binary to explain his definition of Irish national identity. According to him, Irishness ‘is not what it used to be’, and he identified the Celtic Tiger as having fundamentally changed the ‘heart’ of Irish society. Maliq proceeded to define ‘old Irishness’ by using words like ‘mystical fairies’ and ‘mystical stories’. Ireland, he posited, used to be ‘a very poetic country’ whose people created ‘otherworldly’ music. Maliq remembered his childhood days, when Catholic women had worn veils, and seemed to yearn for more modesty in Ireland. ‘Sex is an open market’, he stated. ‘It’s ruthless. Where has it come from, this evil thing?’ Like other interviewees in Dublin, Maliq viewed the Celtic Tiger as having had a negative influence on Irish society. In ecclesiastical circles, these developments are attributed to secularisation and the Irish people’s loss of faith.

Yet Maliq saw himself as a Muslim who could reinvigorate the faith of Christians by encouraging people to care more for their souls. Nourishing souls, in his mind, started with renouncing material comforts and selfish desires for the sake of God. Maliq did not want Irish Christians to convert to Islam. Despite what people often mistakenly believe, Islam does not demand the conversion of non-Muslims. Sufis, meanwhile, are called to love and respect the dignity and integrity of others. Maliq’s selfless love of humanity in all its manifestations led him to build a bridge between Irishness and Sufism.

For Sufis, music has historically been a popular means of spiritual development (Khan, 2011, p. 32). The Irish too have used music as a way to define their nation. From traditional folk tunes to modern rock, Irish musicians have always drawn on the spirit, culture, and history of Ireland. The harp, in particular, is a symbol of Irish identity dating back to ancient times when chieftains employed harpists. According to Maliq, the harp is a ‘holy instrument’. Maliq also employed mythology when he explained how the bodhrán, or Irish drum, had come to Ireland when Muslims had arrived in Europe in the eight century:

About a thousand years ago, Irish music came out of Arabic music. Like the bodhrán drum… it came from a tribe in North Africa… Cork was a major city and stop for the Muslim spice traders and other labourers. That’s how the music came. They travelled from North Africa and evolved into the culture… You can see that in the kind of dark features of the Irish in the West… That music is soothing for the soul. Just listen to it. It’s so nice. It feels nice. That is the integration of the Celtic, Irish, and Arabic music.

Whether there is any historical evidence linking Irish music with a Arabic music is beside the point. The important point is that Maliq imagines a certain kind of synergy between Irish identity and Islam. In effect, he made a bridge between cultural worlds not only through music, but also through the concept of the soul. ‘Music dances inside of you’, Maliq commented passionately. ‘Every one of us… needs some source of food. The soul needs food!’ At this point in our discussion, he claimed that Wahhabis, Salafists, and Deobandis are un-Islamic because they consider music to be haram, or forbidden. ‘Music comes from the heart’, said Maliq. Pakistani Sufi music, in particular, had deep meaning for him because it had helped him erase his ego. Sufi singers like Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parvin, he noted, ‘sing from the heart. It’s out of this world’. Maliq’s love for qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia, particularly in the Punjab and Sindh regions, linked him culturally and spiritually to the ‘homeland’, but he had no desire to live in Pakistan due to its political corruption.

Maliq believed that Irish people had recently had their ‘souls damaged’ due to the Celtic Tiger’s embrace of materialism. His views are supported by a series of psychological studies which showed that as people become more materialistic, their well-being (including good relationships, autonomy, and a sense of purpose) diminishes (Kasser et al., 2014). Specifically, he hoped that people in Ireland would return to the ‘older ways’, which to him meant Irish mysticism. Maliq offered a fable which provided more insight into his views on the connection between Irish identity and religion:

As we go back in the Dark Ages, there was a plague in Ireland. There was a snake in Ireland, the plague. The snake was inside the heart. The snake was a demon. God sent the shepherd, Saint Patrick, over from Wales… God has mentioned in the Quran and the Bible that people will face dangers and threats and that he could choose anyone. Irish people were idol worshipping, evil worshipping. They were pagans, worshipping statues… When Saint Patrick came and cleaned this plague, he changed the holy culture of the Catholics, and today, after 1,700 years, half of the world celebrates [Saint Patrick’s Day].

Maliq also referred to Saint Patrick as a ‘friend of Allah’. He had visited Cruach Phádraig (Patrick’s Stack) on several occasions. This mountain is an important site of pilgrimage for Christians and served as a symbol to Maliq of the ‘old Irish’ identity based in spirituality. He continued, ‘[The Irish] are really, really losing the religion… They need the soul, the guidance. They either become a sick man, a drunk man, or a pornographic man. Otherwise, you find the spiritual side’.

Croagh Patrick (Irish: Cruach Phádraig, meaning “(Saint) Patrick’s Stack”),[1] nicknamed the Reek,[2] is a 764 metres (2,507 ft) mountain and an important site of pilgrimage in County Mayo, Ireland (Courtesy: Ezequiel Mastrasso Photographie)
After we finished our interview, Maliq embraced me with a long and firm hug. He called me his brother and referred to me as a ‘kindred spirit’. Unlike Haq, the Salafist in Dublin whom I had met a few weeks earlier, Maliq never once tried to convert me to Islam. Maliq simply hoped that more Irish people would embrace mysticism and spirituality. Towards the end of the interview, he commented, ‘I’m not asking anyone to convert to Islam. All I’m asking is to sit down and do meditation for Allah. See the heart. Talk to it’.

Maliq himself had tried to touch the hearts and minds of Irish people through compassion and good deeds. For the last three years he had worked with a Sufi mosque to feed the homeless during Ramadan, Islam’s holy month. ‘Allah has given us that ability to be good and kind to everyone… I think that is something that Sufism… [and] the Prophet has given us’. These words have a poignancy, considering that Islamophobia is on the rise in Ireland.

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