There is much to compliment in the New York Times feature about one of the more mysterious and complex streams of Islam, a story that ran under the headline, "Sufi Sect of Islam Draws ‘Spiritual Vagabonds’ in New York."
The story clearly states, as fact, that many Muslims reject Sufism and its willingness -- in some settings, at least -- to edit or mold Islam into forms that appeal to spiritual seekers in the early 21st Century, even in some of the edgier corners of New York City.
The the big idea of this piece is perfectly obvious, as stated in this summary statement well into this long story:
... For all its liberal trappings, Sufism cannot be detached from Islam. “Sufism isn’t just a label you wear; it’s a state of being,” said John Andrew Morrow, an Islam scholar and author. “You can’t pick and choose parts of Islam, and you can’t mislead sincere people, drawing them into Sufism without telling them this is fundamentally linked to Islam.”
That's the big question: Can you pick and choose?
The story does not hide the fact that people are, in fact, picking and choosing. There are clear elements of Islamic doctrine that have gone missing, as the Sufi converts in New York City have embraced this faith.
Again, the story does not hide this. In fact, it celebrates it. Take Annmarie Agosta, for example, who is said to have explored Paganism, Wicca and Buddhism became becoming a Sufi in 2009.
“I feel a deep responsibility to stand for the true message of Islam, which is peace, tolerance, and compassion,” Ms. Agosta said. “This is the message of Sufism.” As a lesbian advocate for gay rights and a member of a congregation in TriBeCa, she led a service to honor those killed in the Orlando, Fla., massacre this summer.
Many Americans anxious about domestic terrorism, however, are not interested in the nuances of various branches of Islam. And paradoxically, Sufis are often shunned by conservative Islam -- the sect is dismissed as a diluted version of the faith, prioritizing the esoteric over the orthodox.
This where the story falls short. It does include the voices of experts, academics for the most part, who can critique some elements of Sufism and its Big Apple variants. But readers never really hear traditional Muslims talk about the essentials of their faith and what happens when people mold them to fit a new culture.
So how does one make decisions about what parts of Islamic doctrine and life are essential and must be saved and what parts can be trimmed? Who has the authority to do that?
This background material is crucial:
Often caricatured as kumbaya hippies, Sufis seek divine love and connection, but their practices encompass strict worldly rules and commitments: long services, dawn and night prayers, rigorous meditation and frequent fasting -- in addition to the common Islamic practices of five daily prayers, the hajj pilgrimage and abstention from alcohol.
Sufis cluster into tarikas, or spiritual orders, that are headed by a grand sheikh who may live in Cairo, but are led day to day by a local sheikh who could live in Queens.
While few reliable estimates exist of the number of Sufis in America, Islam over all is rapidly growing. The Pew Research Center estimates that by 2050, Muslims will become the second-largest religious group in the United States, after Christians, totaling over eight million people.
Discussing that growth, Khalid Latif, chaplain of the Islamic Center at New York University, said that in the city, “there’s an absence of spirituality and stillness,” and that even in times of heightened anxiety in the West about Muslims, the center saw a steady stream of the curious. He said that for many Americans, Sufism was an appealing first step.
Also, in New York City, there is a charismatic figure who has played a crucial role in helping this happen:
Visitors, once they have removed their shoes, enter a prayer hall with a high ceiling and ornate green and gold Arabic calligraphy spelling out the Prophet Muhammad’s name decorating the walls. Books and prayer rugs are strewed about, and a table is laden with sweet Turkish tea and dates. A woman’s voice drifts across the hall, performing the public call to prayer -- a role traditionally reserved for men.
What makes the order most unusual is that its local sheikh is a woman: the former Philippa de Menil, 69, part of Texas oil aristocracy. She became a Sufi in the 1970s, and, now known as Sheikha Fariha al-Jerrahi, has led the Nur Jerrahi order since its founder’s death in 1995.
Wearing a flowing white gown, her hair half-wrapped in a blue turban, Sheikha Fariha completes the call to prayer and summons the group’s members to stand side by side, avoiding the more orthodox Islamic practice of positioning men up front.
There is more:
The order has no dress code and no rules on sexual orientation. Indeed, the order is so liberal that some members don’t even label themselves as Muslims.
This kind of unorthodox approach, said Marcia Hermansen, director of the Islamic world studies program at Loyola University Chicago, is both the root of Sufism’s appeal and its weakness. Charismatic leaders like Sheikha Fariha have spurred Sufism’s growth in America, she said, with New York in particular attracting “loosey-goosey liberal Sufism.”
Once again, the Times story does not hide this fact about the New York converts.
So what is missing? What's the problem?
Well, where are the voices of ordinary Muslims or even Sufis who disagree with some of these edits in the basic faith? Where are the traditional believers, including traditional coverts to Islam?
Try to imagine a story on Christians who want to call themselves Messianic Jews, and make major changes in the faith to make that fit, without the voices of traditional Jews.
Try to imagine a story on conservative Episcopalians who now choose to ignore their denomination's new doctrines on marriage, gender and sex, only without the voices of mainstream liberal Episcopalians defending their doctrines.
If one of the main points of the story is that one cannot pick and choose which parts of the Islamic faith to accept, why not interview some traditional Sufis and other Muslims to discuss all of this New York City picking and choosing?