Liberals and new-agers love the Sufis like they do the gnostics, but it’s misleading to hold up Sufism as a peaceful version of Islam. What distinguishes Sufism is not a supposed rejection of the militant teachings of the Qur’an and hadith; on the contrary, most Sufis are Sunni or Shi’ite. (Sufism is less a sect and more an affiliation of brotherhoods.) Sufism is distinguished by its mystical doctrine — its focus on gaining direct knowledge of God through ecstatic worship.
One of the earliest Sufis, Al-Hallaj (858-922), was killed for such mystical beliefs, and presuming to be one with Allah. But he didn’t oppose jihad warfare. Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was one of the most influential Sufis, and he took great pains to urge jihad and the humiliation of unbelievers. This is what he said (and note that this is from Islam’s so-called “Golden Age”, the myths about which I dealt here):
“One must go on jihad raids at least once a year. One may use a catapult against the unbelievers when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them. If a person of the Ahl al-Kitab [People of The Book, meaning Jews and Christians] is enslaved, his marriage is automatically revoked. One may cut down their trees. One must destroy their useless books. Jihadists may take as booty whatever they decide. They may steal as much food as they need.”
“The dhimmi (non-Muslim subject) is obliged not to mention Allah or His Apostle. Jews, Christians, and Majians must pay the jizya (the poll tax). On offering up the jizya, the dhimmi must hang his head while the official takes hold of his beard and hits the dhimmi on the protruberant bone beneath his ear. They are not permitted to ostentatiously display their wine or church bells. Their houses may not be higher than the Muslim’s, no matter how low that is. The dhimmi may not ride an elegant horse or mule; he may ride a donkey only if the saddle-work is of wood. He may not walk on the good part of the road. Dhimmis have to wear an identifying patch on their clothing, even women, and even in the public baths. Dhimmis must hold their tongue.” (From the Wagjiz, 1101)
The point is that Sufism doesn’t oppose the basic tenets of Islam. It adds to them, and in ways that are deemed heretical by many Muslims, but heresy doesn’t encompass all the things we like as modern critics of the orthodox. Liberals tend to view Sufism like they do gnosticism, through fuchsia-colored glasses.
Sufis like Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) said that sharia law should be “fostered through the sword”. Shah Wali-Allah (1703-1762) said that unbelievers “should be reduced to a state of humiliation and treated with utter contempt” and he commanded Muslims to “not be negligent in fighting jihad”, for “by taking up the sword to make Islam supreme and by subordinating your own persona needs to this cause, you will reap vast benefits”.
This has been just as true in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Shi’ite Sufi Tabandeh (1915-1980s) wrote a nasty treatise against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As recently as 2009, leaders of the Sufi order Naqshbandiyya met with a leader of Hamas, praised the Hamas jihad, and boasted of their own jihad attacks against Americans in Iraq. The Muslim Brotherhood has ties to Sufism, especially to the Tijaniyya order. Al-Qaeda itself betrays Sufi influence: its members take bayat (an oath of allegiance) to their sheik Bin Laden, which is the Sufi ritual of accepting one’s sheik as the special leader of the brotherhood and coming under the protection of the order’s lineage.
Naturally there are Sufis who have no use for holy war and sharia law. It’s a no-brainer that many Muslims are peaceful. What is not true is that Sufism on whole represents a strain of Islam that is benign and thus tragically overlooked in debates about “Islam as a religion of peace”. There are many Sufi orders, most of which are movements within the Sunni or Shi’ite sects, some of which are not, but all of which acknowledge the clear example of Muhammad and the authority of the Qur’an. There are many peaceful Muslims, but no peaceful version of Islam.