Dr. Nahid Angha is the co-director and co-founder of the IAS, the founder of the International Sufi Women Organization, the executive editor of Sufism: An Inquiry, the main representative of the IAS to the United Nations (NGO/DPI). Dr. Angha is an internationally published scholar with over fifteen published books, and has lectured around the world.
She is the first Muslim woman inducted to the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame, was honored as Visionary Marin in 2012; and Huffington Post named her as one of the 50 Powerful Women Religious Leaders To Celebrate On International Women’s Day, 2014.
She graciously agreed to be interviewed by Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about Sufism and her position as a female leader in a traditional male role.
Clarion Project: Could you tell us how you came to set up the
Sufi Women’s organization? What is the main focus of the group’s work?
Dr Nahid Angha: Sufi Women Organization is a department of the International Association of Sufism, which is a non profit and a UN NGO, founded in 1983.
In 1993 I invited a group of women from around the globe and various Sufi and spiritual affiliations to join together to create the Sufi Women Organization.
It was established as a non-political, humanitarian organization to support, protect and educate for the human rights, with focus on women’s and children’s rights, headquartered in Northern California.
The primary goals were to advocate, increase social awareness, and educate for women’s rights and needs.
To practice what you preach, it was in 1994, when I sat together in the inner circle of Sufi meditation and chant, side by side with our male Sufi masters and leaders from around the world and led a meditation. This inner circle is usually reserved for male Sufi masters, becoming the first woman to sit in that inner circle, leading meditation, at the international Sufism Symposium.
The Sufi masters and leaders present were from the borders of Kuwait to Ghana, from Turkey to Canada, from India to Morocco, and many other lands. This positive and most needed endeavor was not only mine but also of those who have honored and trusted my leadership. With this endeavor a wall preventing women from acknowledging their leadership role was removed.
It is important to acknowledge and remember women’s endeavor, women who have paved the way for the benefit of generations. Generations enjoy the advancement of civilizations, and civilizations are advanced by way of sacrifices made by the visionaries.
The Organization began from an idea to expand into international chapters and representations, with programs and projects that are local, national and international.
SWO programs have included lecture series, conferences, and retreats in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, inviting many outstanding women leaders to share their wisdom.
In 1998 we wrote a Code of Ethics, and began publishing a series of books. These included an autobiographical sketch of eleven Sufi women from six different Sufi schools and four different cultures called Sufi Women: The Journey toward the Beloved, books called The Veil and Women’s Wisdom and several others.
We also had the honor of welcoming Nobel Peace Prize laureate, The Honorable Dr. Shirin Ebadi from Iran, who presented a lecture in one of the northern California universities.
SWO members agreed that we must stand against injustice towards women, and began another series of workshops, research and conferences to address the issue of domestic violence.We conducted cross cultural studies on immigrants facing the difficulties of the family structure and ran a global campaign asking all civilized governments to treat rape during war as war crime punishable by international law. We also have a continuous “open letter” project on social and international cases related to women’s rights, calling for the universal application of basic human rights and inviting political, social, and religious leaders to take action against such human calamities.
SWO has continued providing educational assistance, health supplies, clothing, etc. to the areas where need is sharpest. Working with other humanitarian organizations, we were/are able to provide immunization, after school supplies, clean water, medical aid, etc. for women and children in refugee areas. Much of our works are in the area of public education and advocacy and are directed toward peacemaking.
With that in mind, we have presented talks at numerous United Nations events including the NGO Conference in New York, the UN Millennium Peace Summit and the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.
We have also developed specific projects, including Prison Project and Literacy Project. In California, for example, the Project works within women’s jails to provide education, health awareness, cancer prevention and stress reduction services.
Clarion: Please tell us about the unique way in which Sufis interpret Islam and how it differs from the Islamist interpretation?
Angha: These days, or even perhaps the last few decades, terms such as Islamist and Islamism are saturating social and public media. But I am not still sure what they mean. Are these terms used to referring to political groups who claim their political motivations are rooted in religious law, then we have to ask: is there any nation or religion in the world who does not claim such entitlement? So when we use terms that include a “religion” such as “Islamist,” we have to redefine the term and be clear: which one of the political groups, their origin, culture, the time era, and defined ideology, etc. are we referring to? We have to make sure we do not say one thing but refer to another thing! The danger of generalized terms is that they are inclusive rather than exclusive. And when they saturate social and public media, then they become a fundamental forum for misrepresentation; and in this case, the border between “Islamist” and “Muslim” become indistinctive, in our thought process, we may begin to include all Muslims without distinguishing the core differences. And, that is what I actually see in the social and public media.
There are about close to 2 billion Muslims around the world, perhaps 50 nations with Muslim majority, and few European and American nations with Muslim minority; there are many schools of law within the Islamic world, majority of Muslims live peacefully according to those laws, so the usage of generalized terms is not only misrepresentation of the majority, but sometime they become, rather, offensive to the religion itself.
I am not a political person, nor a politician, but I know that education is one of the most essential keys for global peace, protecting rights, understanding each other’s belief systems.
Political ambition is political ambition no matter how they are explained; destruction of lives is destruction of lives, disregards for rights is disregards for rights, no matter who practice it and under which banner they are sold to humanity.
This is just as true in the case of freedom or democracy. Freedom without accountability is just another form of political ambition rooted in the unknown. Democracy that is designed to promote the absolute political rules and ideology of one group is dictatorship in disguise.
Education is an important ground that develops and nurtures civilization and civility; otherwise, “not knowing” remains the greatest forum that divides us, cultivates prejudice and feeds human calamity.
Regarding Sufism, there are multitudes of books that have been written about Sufi teachings, and scholars and Sufi masters have devoted their lives to the understanding this spiritual journey of self transformation.
Here, to honor the limit of time, I can only share with you a short summary of how Sufism began its history, developed and its spiritual understanding.
Sufism is the mystical and inner dimension of Islam, historically originated from a group of people, Ahle Suffa, the People of the Platform, who used to gather on the platform of the Prophet’s mosque, in Medina, 7th century, to listen to his teachings.
They sought to learn the meaning of revelation and meditation, to attain spiritual truth and to understand the meaning of unity, develop practices for spiritual transformation, and ensure that their belief was founded upon knowledge embedded in reality.
History tells us that over time three major Sufi centers were established. Sufis and their students traveled across many lands, introducing this spiritual practice into the fabric of different cultures and times.
At the present time there are about twenty or so major Sufi schools.
The central principles of Sufism, namely a journey of personal transformation, have remained free from the dimensions of time or place, gender or race, cultures or ceremonies.
Passing from the world of multiplicity to discover the essential unity became an essential Sufi pursuit, in hope that the walls of limitations will fall and the manifestation of the divine will illuminate the heart of the seeker. Then the wayfarer will discover the bounty of Being.
So on this journey of self-awareness and discovery, philosophical interpretation and explanation (no matter how poetic or convincing) may excite us, but will not lead the way towards that “attainment” unless the person takes steps towards the knowledge of such understanding.
Longing for such understanding rises from the heart and will find its answer within the domain of the heart.
An illuminated person is the one who is just, honorable, truthful and respects the creation, seeks knowledge, is kind and compassionate, humble, modest and forgiving.
Clarion: How can the Sufi message be expressed more prominently to combat Islamism?
Angha: “Combat” is such a strong word as it sounds like seeking sovereignty regardless of human life. The unity of heart and mind, body and soul, respect for life, will not open the door towards the battlegrounds of ideologies, political ambitions and the marketplaces of religious goods.
Any honorable individual who truly respects oneself will also respect and honor all of humanity.
I am almost sure that, the continuous conflicts amongst the world’s religious ideologies, disguising themselves as political movements, seeking more territory and unmatched power and control, no matter how earned and at what cost, will not last long.
I am almost sure that, when the accumulation of material wealth becomes more valuable than preserving human life our civilization will fall or take another shape. When humanity collectively stands and let cultures be destroyed, lives vanish and monuments of civilization become ruined, then human civilization will lose; no matter how we justify it and under what banner we permit such destructions.
The present and future generations, who are connected through the advance of technology and are more accepting, will not endure such calamities, I hope.
As a Muslim Sufi, I teach, not dictate, and what I can contribute to the well being of humanity is to promote and advocate knowledge and encourage education. The cost of “not knowing” is enormous.
Clarion: Sufis are persecuted by radicals across the world for their beliefs. Do you find that Islamists in America target Sufism? Do Sufis have an easier time in America?
Angha: Prejudice is a universal human failing. I personally have never had such experience. I see more media prejudice towards Islam disguised under freedom of speech, than towards Sufism.
Clarion: Why has the Council on American Islamic Relations (and other Islamist groups like ICNA and ISNA) been able to seize control of the Muslim narrative in America, despite the fact that only 12% of American Muslims regard them as representing them? (Links to Clarion Project’s profiles on these Islamist groups are provided)
Angha: If narratives are towards understanding, peace, honor, respect and compassion for all humanity, then why should it matter who is contributing towards such understanding?
Clarion: How can non-Muslim individuals and groups best support non-Islamists against radicals?
Angha: Education, education, education!
Education is such an important key towards understanding; battling ideologies will not contribute towards global peace, war is a war no matter who initiates it and under what banner it is sold.
Humanity is humanity, each one of us has the rights to choose our own spiritual development, our own religions; it is during the time of human chaos that the agents of prejudice will take off their masks and lead us towards destruction. We have to be mindful of that.
It is not Muslim or non Muslim that will pay the price of destruction, and it is not Muslim or non Muslim population who will benefit from the cost of war.
We have to be mindful of that as well, and ask ourselves: who truly benefits from war, battles, prejudice, injustice and global chaos. That ‘who’ is your answer, terms are merely disguises!