Sufi urbanism – Rumi and Marx against the idiocy of rural life…

One of the starting points of my interest in the possible linkages between Sufism and commercial culture was Sultan Veled’s couplet on how the soul becomes ‘a city, a market, a shop‘. Sufism is a thoroughly urban, cosmopolitan phenomenon – The notion that Sufism is a mere expression of rural “folk” Islam is a myth, as Martin van Bruinessen (2008) points out. The role of urbanity in the development of Anatolian Sufism (and possibly the role of Sufism in the development of Turkish urbanity) has been emphasised by Hülya Küçük in her paper on Sufi influences in Konya. Celaleddin Rumi seems to have anticipated Marx’s aversion against what he called, in the Communist Manifesto, the ‘idiocy of rural life’ – though evidently without the Orientalist twist that Marx puts on it:

‘“We are like a pair of compasses: One foot on the Religion of Islam, / the other is wandering around the seventy-two nations.” – This couplet shows that, Rūmī was not afraid of contact with other cultures. In fact the later couplet made him, in the words of a monk mourning his death, a “sun” everyone needs or “bread” that no one can live without. This couplet also demonstrates empathy, a necessary element for urban living and for globalization. In fact, all Sufi orders teach their adherents to have empathy, for empathy enhances solidarity among members. Here it should be reminded that Rūmī always favored urban life and likened rural life to “living in a grave” When he says: “Do not go to the country: the country makes a fool man, it makes the intellect void of light and splendour. O chosen one! Hear the Prophet saying: “To dwell in the country is the grave of the intellect.” If any one stay in the country a single day and evening, his intellect will not be fully restored in a month.”’ (Küçük 2007: 249)

What links Sufism to commercial culture, urban civilisation and globalisation is the creative imagination that sees the world as full of opportunities. Like the empathy seen as a core element of the commercial culture by Adam Smith (Sznaider 2000: 15)  this is not just a skill that helps the city dweller to find their way with people, to trade with them so as to secure their own existence, but also engenders an ethos of tolerant solidarity that can be the starting point of a critique of at least aspects of that same commercial culture.

Bruinessen, Martin van (2008): ‘Sufism, “Popular” Islam and the Encounter with Modernity’, in: Khalid Masud/Armando Salvatore/Martin van Bruinessen (eds): Islam and Modernity: Key Issues and Debates, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp.125-57

Küçük, Hülya (2007): ‘Dervishes Make a City: The Sufi Culture in Konya’, in: Critque: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.16, No.3, pp.241-53

Sznaider, Natan (2000): The Compassionate Temperament, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield


Antifascist globalisation – a message in a bottle from the dark

70 years ago today, Nazi “judge” Roland Freisler sentenced to death three members of the Christian resistance group Weiße Rose: Hans and Sophie Scholl  and Christoph Probst. Together with the other members of the group (among them Willi Graf, Kurt Huber, and Alexander Schmorell who were murdered after trials later in the same year, 1943) they had authored, printed and distributed six leaflets, which called up their fellow Germans to put an end to the Nazi reign of terror, appealing to their national pride as civilised people with a humanist tradition, using lengthy quotes from classical German literature and philosophy.

Coming from provincial Lutheran and Catholic middle class homes, culturally they were miles away from more hands-on resistance groups like the Edelweißpiraten  that in many ways anticipated proletarian youth subcultures of the 1950s and 60s. Further, they were, having been not even in their teens when the Nazis came to power, not able to draw on any of the democratic, liberal or socialist traditions present in the Weimar Republic. Their political analysis would therefore never reach the heights of, say, that of leftist Social Democrat groups like Neu Beginnen or Revolutionäre Sozialisten Deutschlands, whose affiliate Rudolf Hilferding authored the 1934 Prague Manifesto. So, given their insulation and cultural background, the intellectual capacity of the university students of the Weiße Rose to produce a discourse of resistance out of their engagement with classical literature and idealist philosophy is as impressive as is their courage. Hailing from the provinces, living under Fascism and locked into the fascisised institutions of the German university and  the German army (both reactionary forces already before 1933) they were thrown back to restart from the political consciousness of Germany at the time of the Napoleonic Wars when trying to get a handle on modern totalitarianism, genocide and total war. Stripping the intellectually more mature accomplices of the Third Reich (Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, Arnold Gehlen – to name only a few associated with my own discipline) of any excuse for their intellectual support for the regime, what the students of the White Rose came up with is an at once realistic and visionary concept of a post-war European political order emphasising federalism, de-centralisation, and liberal democracy; a commitment to democratic socialism and an embrace of egalitarian globalisation

‘The imperialistic idea of power, from which side it may come, must be forever discarded. One-sided Prussian militarism must not come to power ever again. Only the generous cooperation of the peoples of Europe can lay the ground on which reconstruction will be possible. All centralist power, such as that enacted by the Prussian state in Germany and Europe must be nipped in the bud. The Germany of the future can only be a federalist one. Only a federalist political order can reinvigorate Europe. The working class must be liberated from its state of lowest slavery by means of a reasonable socialism. The mirage of autarkic economy needs to disappear from Europe. Every people, every individual has a right to the goods of the world. Freedom of speech, freedom of faith, protection of the individual citizen from the despotism of criminal dictatorship – those are the foundations of the new Europe. ‘

The reference to and rejection of autarky in the name of globalisation is intriguing (especially against the background of the current turn to ideas of self-sufficiency and localism), and needs a bit of context. Nazism was, among other things, an anti-globalisation movement (and be it with aspirations to world domination). Acting on national and global level, its ideal of a good life was based on the self-sufficient village. The Nazi imagination of the global economy was, basically, one of a Jewish world conspiracy. The Nazi economic ideal was to turn the national economy into an ancient Greek oikos. And this is where the classical humanist education of these students comes in. One of the main proponents of the closed economy, Germanic autarky, was a grammar school professor of ancient Greek, Bernhard Laum. After having delivered a very clever and surprisingly plausible theory about the genealogy of coinage in the Greek temple economy in his book on “Holy Money”, sharing the anti-modernism of the academic middle classes of the Weimar Republic, 1933 he turned to reformulating what he found in Homer into an economic policy to combat what he saw as the deracination and alienation of modern civilisation (Geschlossene Wirtschaft, Tubingen: Mohr). For him a self-sufficient economy was the key to achieving the National Socialist goals of re-establishing a unity of blood, soil and faith. For the antifascist students of the Weiße Rose economic globalisation was the safeguard against murderous regimes ever getting near that vile aspiration.