July 2014

Chris Beal


Embattled Saints: My Year with the Sufis of Afghanistan by Kenneth P. Lizzio

When the author of Embattled Saints was in graduate school, his professors taught that the classic period of Sufism -- Islamic mysticism -- was from the twelfth through fourteenth centuries and that the Sufis were "relics of the past." This book proves them wrong. Billed as a memoir, it is also an historical account of Sufis in Central Asia. In fact, Kenneth P. Lizzio's own story takes a back seat to the story of modern Sufis, especially the Naqshbandi order of which he was a part. Although he managed to get a Fulbright to study the Sufis and this book -- the result of his labor -- shows how well he succeeded in this, his personal motive is clear: he was looking for enlightenment.

A quotation from Napoleon Chagnon opens one chapter: "Anthropology is more like a religion." Although Lizzio fortunately lacks Chagnon's ax to grind, this book does have something in common with Chagnon's sprawling tome, Noble Savages. Lizzio too abhors reductionist thinking. The demonstrative behavior of Sufis who are thrown into blissful abandon in the presence of their teacher simply cannot be explained away, even if it is not understood. Not understood, but indeed well described by Lizzio, who witnessed such ecstasy innumerable times.

Extrasensory perception is also common to the Sufi experience. Many Sufi devotees relate dreams they have had of their teacher before meeting him, or of other Sufi saints of whom they had never before heard. Or a Sufi teacher might give advice in a dream. Premonitions also abound. In short, this is a world where it is assumed that the rational mind is only one tool for understanding life -- and not the most powerful one. Sufis, Lizzio makes clear, have something valuable Westerner rationalists fail to appreciate.

Lizzio wants to enter this expanded world, and he wants it so badly that he takes himself to one of the most dangerous places on earth -- the tribal region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan where everyone, it seems, is fighting everyone. His spiritual teacher, Saif ur-Rahman, is an Afghan who emigrated after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Alas, he did not find his adopted home much safer. It would not be an exaggeration to say he is holed up in his own Sufi compound. Even getting to the location is a dangerous ordeal. Perhaps in part because Lizzio is willing to endure the trip time and again, his teacher, Saif ur-Rahman, sees Lizzio's sincerity and takes him seriously as a disciple.

Still, Lizzio brings his Western orientation with him and that presents a problem:

Life in the khanaqah [religious compound] meant observance of both shari'a [Muslim law] and tariqa [mystical Sufi practices]. While tariqa was wild and ecstatic, shari'a seemed, to me at least, dry and tedious. From the proper form of bathing to eating and sleeping, every detail of life required attention and -- in my case -- alteration. In terms of one's appearance, this meant growing a beard roughly four inches in length, wearing a turban seven meters in length, donning an immaculate shalwar kameez [traditional south Asian costume] and observing impeccable hygiene and grooming.

... Early in my apprenticeship, I conveyed my frustration to the pir [his teacher] about all of the attention to detail that was required. He said, "Ahmad [Lizzio's Muslim name], it is precisely because of the details that this path is a path."

There are other foreigners in the compound, and when Lizzio grows discouraged by his lack of spiritual progress, he goes to speak with one of them, a German man named Akbar. He confides some of his hesitations about shari'a, only to be told,

In the beginning, I was like you... I didn't like wearing a beard, so I trimmed it. [But] as it grew and I learned how to imitate the Prophet Muhammad, I received so much grace. It was astonishing. What I'm saying makes no sense, I know, but that's exactly what happened. The more I practiced the shari'a, the more grace I received.

Lizzio had intended to share his doubts about the aspect of shari'a he found most disturbing: the segregation of women. He was glad he didn't when he discovered how fully Akbar accepted this as well.

When Westerners think of Sufism, we think of Rumi's ecstatic poetry, and indeed, Rumi is part of the tradition and often quoted by the Naqshbandis -- but we don't often consider that Rumi himself lived with a set of cultural norms that he considered an inherent part of his faith but which most Westerners wouldn't tolerate.

While Lizzio might have focused on his own experience, instead he grounds his personal search in the larger, complicated and tragic story of Sufis in Central Asia. Islam is breaking into smaller and smaller splinter groups, many of them fundamentalist, and many of them with no use at all for Sufis. Sufis themselves, over the years, have not been pacifists but have taken up arms in battles that are as much political as spiritual. Complicating the picture still further, in this land where loyalty to tribe is one's ticket to survival, tribal and sectarian allegiances may not align, requiring men to choose -- with sometimes tragic consequences. Reading these historic chapters is somewhat of a task for those unschooled in Middle Eastern history: many Islamic and Sufi terms have no English equivalent, and, while there is fortunately a glossary, referring to it every few paragraphs slows the reader considerably. But Lizzio's effort to bring this history to a popular audience rather than limit it to an academic one is commendable.

Given the importance of Islam in the modern world, most Westerners know far too little about it. It is rare to find personal experience and cultural history combined in one volume. Embattled Saints gives us insight into a sect that many Westerners may not have realized was still around, and in so doing also offers a larger view of Islam.

Embattled Saints: My Year with the Sufis of Afghanistan by Kenneth P. Lizzio
Quest Books
ISBN: 978-0835609234
288 pages