When I was asked about what I thought Sufism was at a so-called Sufi meditation seminar a few weeks earlier in Dubai, I was surprised to be told Sufism had nothing to do with Islam.
To my disappointment, this was far from the enchanting dhikr music and whirling dervishes I had imagined when I signed up for the session.
Coming from a Muslim background myself, the seminar offered a disorienting experience.
Following a research done by the Canadian-based scholars, Atif Khalil and Shiraz Sheikh, Orientalists had apparently studied Sufism through a biased lens.
Persian Sufi poets, the likes of Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) and Khwaja Shams-ud-Din Muhammad Ḥafeẓ-e Shirazi (1315-1390,) wrote poetic imagery and metaphors about being drunk on wine, love, music, and dance.
This seemed to foreign readers - those unaware of the symbolic nature of Eastern languages - dislocated from the strict rules of Islam.
Their admiration for the seemingly liberal views of Sufis was further misguided by their antisemitic notions, leading many to trace Sufi thinking to Aryan or Indo-European influences, as opposed to the Arabs.
Meanwhile, other revered examples of Sufi scholars, like the Andalusian Muhyiddin Ibn-Arabi (1165-1240,) were mistakenly considered to be Greek thinkers.
The influence of these writings, Khalil and Sheikh point out, can clearly be sensed in regional thinkers of the time, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897.)
Even though he was a political activist fighting imperialism, like other young men of his age, al-Afghani admired the advanced technology and military might of the West.
Having read the Orientalists’ misinterpretations of Sufism, he was led to believe it was an alien practice and a threat to local cultures.
As a result, we now see a widespread attack on Sufism by contemporary fundamentalists across the region.
Indeed, in what they considered to be an effort to cleanse our societies, we saw Sufi shrines, mosques, and grave sites being demolished across North African countries like Libya, Tunis, Mali, and Egypt following the 2011 uprisings.