From the Abbasids to the New Age
Mark Sedgwick’s Western Sufism presents key elements of the reception and conceptualization of Sufism in European and American eyes over the long durée. This work can be seen as a useful companion to elements of his previous book, Against the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2004), as part of a greatly needed attempt to historicize Euro-American views of Islamic mysticism.
The work is divided into four parts which constitute three conceptual units. The first unit (part 1) deals with the history of classical Sufism and its intersection with Neoplatonic thought, including gestures towards the dissemination of Neoplatonic mysticism from Muslim scholarship into the scholarly worlds of Judaism and Latin Christendom. The second unit (part 2) analyses the construction of “Sufis” and “Sufism” as a religious category for a Muslim “other” from the perspective of Western Christians from Reformation to Enlightenment, as well as ample material from the European colonial context of the 18th to 20th centuries. The third unit (parts 3 and 4) discusses the specific social and intellectual formations of “Western”(i.e. European and American) Sufism in both its Islamic and non-confessional forms.
The author has a distinct tendency to reduce Sufi theology and practice to Neoplatonism, which is contestable, especially for pre-Ghazalian forms. If classical Sufism thus tendentiously resembles a passive vehicle for Neoplatonic concepts, it is to facilitate the author’s subsequent explanation of its embrace by European commentators who often operated on the premises of that same philosophical tradition, whether consciously or not. This observation applies to later chapters as well, where Neoplatonic “emanationism” seems to do more work for the author in explaining European comparativists’ approach to Sufism than would seem immediately pertinent. It is regrettable that in contrast, Sedgwick omits a fuller description of those universalizing elements of Islamic dispensationalism that make Muslim theology fecund for theosophical speculation; such elements are certainly foregrounded in certain interpretations of Shīʿism and Sufism, but are also undoubtedly present in the Islamic self-conception of “primordial monotheism” inscribed in the formulations of the Qurʾān itself.
The concept of the “West” is also used by the author uncritically, which is unfortunate, especially in those early chapters where religion in late antiquity and early Islam are discussed. The reification of the West as a teleologically-predetermined and organic whole for the purpose of evaluating an Islamic religious product seems an unnecessary archaism. This should not distract from what is truly at stake for the author: the productive cross-cultural transfer of Neoplatonic thought and its relationship to the practice of comparative theology and mysticism with reference to the construction of Sufism in European and American eyes
The second and third sections contain valuable information on the reception of Sufism in Europe and America, highlighting the malleability of the category. Topics seemingly familiar to the non-specialist—Sufism as antinomian, pacifist, distinct from or older than Islam—are critically examined in an extensive and diachronic presentation with appreciated nuance and accountability for variation and contradiction: herein lies Sedgwick’s great achievement. Instructors may find chapters from these sections appropriate for undergraduates as well, since they pithily and engagingly illustrate the reception of “Sufism” in epochs and milieus otherwise unexpected.
Sedgwick shows sensitivity to contemporary politicization of narratives on Islam, and demonstrates that this is not a new phenomenon, especially with regard to the unique profile perennially granted to Sufism by religious outsiders. His attention to the dynamics of insider and outsider relationships are to be appreciated as well in that, “Sufism” as an etic non-Muslim construct and Sufism as codified religious practice within non-Islamicate societies are shown to enjoy interdependence in unexpected ways. Western Sufism seeks to establish a hybrid category encompassing both, highlighting the inherent ambiguity of the conceptual standards by which adherence to one or the other is viewed as mutually exclusive. By the merit of the author’s broader historiographical approach to the topic the contingency of the duality underpinning this framework of analysis is properly underscored.
Rodrigo Adem is a post-doctoral research fellow in the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
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