Libya’s Sufi Character Cannot Be Erased

libya_09052012Multiple attacks on Sufi religious and historical sites last week highlight two threats to Libya’s democratic transition: Islamic extremism and the failure of the government to take action. On 25 August, Salafist extremists destroyed a Sufi shrine and library in Zlitan. The following day, Salafist extremists attacked the Sha’ab Mosque in Tripoli, which contained the graves of revered Sufi figures. In response, Libyan activists, local civil society groups, and international organizations, such as UNESCO, have protested these attacks, calling on the government to protect historical Sufi sites.

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Arabic and the Divine in South Asia

The Origins of Satyagraha


Satyagraha, loosely translated as noncooperation, was a non-violent “alternative to conventional rebellion,” that Mahatma Gandhi constructed in response to discrimination against Indian expatriate communities in South Africa. In Gandhi’s own words, “it is a movement intended to replace methods of violence and a movement based entirely upon truth” (Gandhi & Non-Violence, 19). The term was developed in South Africa in 1907. Gandhi, founder and editor of the local Indian publication Indian Opinion, announced a small prize for an alternative to the English phrase noncooperation, which described his unique methodology and distinguished it from similar methods of Passive Resistance organized elsewhere. His nephew, Maganlal “won with his suggestion of ‘sadagraha’ or ‘firmness for the good.’ Gandhi altered the prize-winning entry to ‘Satyagraha,’ or ‘firmness for the truth’” (Gandhi, 124).

Haji Habib was, in all likelihood, the world’s first Satyagrahi (practitioner of Satyagraha). On another September 11th in 1906, the Jewish-owned Empire Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, was overflowing with South Asians. The crowd had gathered to plan resistance to new regulations, mandatory registration, finger printing, and papers that were to be produced on demand for all Asiatics eight years and older. Habib, a long-time elderly resident, stood up to a crowd of eager activists to make a passionate plea for faith: “We must pass this resolution with God as witness…. In the name of God, [we] will never submit to that law.

Resolving Differences in the Desert


Bab’Aziz, the Prince who Contemplated His Soul. Directed by Nacer Khemir. Switzerland /Hungary /France /Germany /Iran /Tunisia /UK, 2005.

“Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis (sic) in the desert.”Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Whether Thoreau really understood the religious ecstasy of Sufi practice firsthand or was offering an off-hand orientalist reference may remain debatable, but what strikes one as most compelling in the above quote is the acute contrast of the simile: a bustling intellectual center and the starkness of an exotic locale.

The desert, that powerful setting, is just the type of place where contradiction, like the one Thoreau offers, seem to resolve themselves and where paradoxes shape reality. It is a landscape where the unseen is as undeniable as the awesome forces of nature that cut the extreme terrain. Nacer Khemir evokes this leviathan of the desert sea and then tries to wrestle a harness over the beast by contrasting it against an alienating modern world.

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