Embattled Saints: My Year with the Sufis of Afghanistan

Embattled Saints: My Year with the Sufis of Afghanistan

Kenneth P. Lizzio
Wheaton: Quest, 2014. xi + 231 pp., paper, $18.95

Embattled Saints is a "must read" for anyone with the slightest interest in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. The book is at once the author's memoirs of his year as a disciple of Pir Saif ur-Rahman, a Naqshbandi shaikh (master), and a well-informed historical and social overview of Afghani Sufism. It is also an extremely helpful analysis of the complex tensions between traditional Sufism and various reformist and Islamist movements of central and southeast Asia.

The book's subtitle is rather paradoxical, as Lizzio never actually sets foot in Afghanistan itself: his extended stay with the Pir and his numerous disciples takes place in the Khyber Agency, a district in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, to which the Pir had been forced to flee by the wars and conflicts in Afghanistan.

Lizzio first encounters the Pir while stationed in Peshawar in 1990 as a director of a U.S. project to help poppy farmers find viable alternative crops. Noting Lizzio's interest in Sufism, a local colleague takes him on visits to several sheikhs, culminating in the visit to the Pir, who has a reputation as a powerful dispenser of baraka (reputedly the grace of Allah channeled through the Naqshbandi lineage and transmitted to aspirants as a mysterious kind of transformative energy). Shortly after their meeting at the shaikh's compound, Lizzio's project loses its congressional funding, and he is forced to leave Pakistan.

It is not until 1996 that Lizzio is able to return, this time with the aid of a Fulbright research grant. On his original visit, the Pir had bid Lizzio adieu with the invitation to return only if he was prepared to become a Naqshbandi initiate and aspirant. This is no trifling requirement, as the Naqshbandi order's tradition is one of strict adherence to sharia (Islamic law) and sunnah (customs emulating the behavior and practices of the Prophet Muhammad). Lizzio, who has heretofore been a scholar of Islam and Near Eastern studies, makes the momentous decision to embrace Islam as a Muslim and an initiate in the Pir's branch of the Naqshbandi.

And so the author's journey begins. I will not steal his thunder by describing the remarkable phenomena ascribed to the Pir's baraka, but suffice it to say that it defies a purely rational or scientific explanation. As a “you are there” account of the intense spiritual life in the Pir's compound, Embattled Saints provides insights into traditional Sufism that I've not seen elsewhere.

But just as valuably, Lizzio's wider analysis of the competing interpretations and tendencies within Islam is an eye-opener. Western students of Sufism, particularly those under the influence of Hazrat Inayat Khan or Idris Shah (to name just two exponents), have tended to view Sufism as a liberal version of Islam or even a mystical stream preceding Islam itself. While both might be true in some fashion, the Sufism of Pir Saif ur-Rahman defies such easy descriptions.

As Lizzio makes clear, the Pir could be a nit-picking stickler for the fine points of sunnah â€” men's beards and trousers must be of a certain length, women are strictly segregated, and so on — to a degree that would be hard to distinguish from fundamentalist Islam. Indeed, the Pir had initially supported the rise of the Taliban in the region, mistaking their Saudi- and Wahhabi-influenced rigor as akin to his own traditionalist approach. However, the Naqshbandi rigor is in the service of a discipline leading to mystical breakthroughs, while the Taliban and other Islamists turned out to be hostile to mysticism and Sufism.

Lizzio describes the almost comical scene of outdoor loudspeakers at both the Pir's compound and a nearby hostile Islamic militant compound trying to drown out each other's vituperative condemnations of their neighboring enemies. All of this is embedded within a complex social geography of competing tribal interests and a shared opposition to Western-influenced modernization. I couldn't help wondering whether decades — indeed, centuries — of sustained warfare and conflict hasn't encouraged a tendency to fanaticism and hysteria among all conflicting camps.

In the author's prologue, he notes that he tries to "privilege the Naqshbandi worldview over the Western one," which is to say that he resists making value judgments about the culture's norms: if the traditional world the Pir struggles to preserve dictates women in burqas, so be it. But as becomes evident by the book's conclusion, that traditional world is increasingly embattled, and with the Pir's demise in 2010, his branch of the Naqshbandi order is an endangered species. If modernity doesn't nail them, there are plenty of Islamic militants who would be delighted to do the job.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney, founder and publisher of the late Gnosis magazine, is the author of The Masonic Myth (Harper Collins), which has been published in five languages. His article "Shhh! It's a Secret: Grappling with the Puzzle of Freemasonry" appeared in Quest, Summer 2013.