New Books about Sufism, 2015-2018

By Francesca Chubb-Confer

In the years after September 11, 2001, it has become practically impossible to talk about Islam—whether in the classroom, courtroom, or newsroom—without addressing stereotypical narratives of violent terrorism that permeate political and media discourse. Given this current climate of politicized fear, suspicion, and invective surrounding Islam and Muslims, it may be surprising to learn that the best-selling poet in the United States today is Jalāl al-dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, the famed 12th-century saint, poet, and Islamic scholar. Rumi’s poetry, and by extension Sufism, the mystical tradition with which he is identified, presented a frame for counter-narratives to “political Islam,” including art, music, and poetry singing the praises of wine-drinking and erotic pleasures.

However, situating Sufism as a depoliticized alternative to “orthodox” Islam, or even as wholly outside Islam, has led to definitional issues similar to those that plague the study of religion itself. Is Sufism primarily a literary and philosophical tradition of mysticism? Or is it a series of embodied rituals? Perhaps it is a transnational political movement, a celebration of love and beauty, or some combination that both includes and exceeds its parts? While Western interest in and scholarship on Sufism has been around for centuries, it is only recently that academic work has sought to trace the contours of what Sufism means for the widely diverse populations who engage with its cultural productions across the Islamic world. As a global, transhistorical phenomenon of philosophy, literature, politics, ritual, and materiality across languages and cultures, Sufism is an integral part of the study of Islam.

Faced with the breadth and depth of Sufism’s manifestations across the languages, geographies, and communities of the Islamic ecumene, one may well ask where to begin. Fortunately, we have a variety of new work on Sufism here at Reading Religion, including comprehensive introductions, overviews, and sourcebooks ideal for classroom use.

Introductions and Overviews

Alexander Knysh, a seasoned expert in the field and already the author of Islamic Mysticism: A Short History (Brill, 2010) and numerous other books on Sufism, now offers up Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism. This work examines key aspects of Sufism from its origins in the first centuries of Islam to the present day, including scriptural approaches, institutional development, and internal diversity. A review from Feryal Salem is forthcoming.

If you’d rather shake things up chronologically, Unveiling Sufism: From Manhattan to Mecca inverts the usual order of historical overviews (as the title suggests). Co-authors William Rory Dickson and Meena Sharify-Funk work their way backwards in time: they begin with an examination of Sufism as both a lived tradition and a rhetorical political tool in North America in the years after 9/11, and then move on to discuss Sufi anti-colonial resistance in 19th– and 20th-century Algeria, Sufi-state relations in the “gunpowder” (Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal) empires, major figures of nascent Sufism in the 8th and 10th centuries, and, finally, the sources of Sufism in the Qur’an and from the influence of other religious movements. Reviewer Mohammad Irfan Shah praises the book’s “interdisciplinary approach” and “rich contextualized understanding,” noting its intended use for the undergraduate classroom.

Meena Sharify-Funk and William Rory Dickson team up again for Contemporary Sufism: Piety, Politics, and Popular Culture, with Merin Shobhana Xavier as a third co-author. To answer the question “what is Sufism?” the book aims to demonstrate the diversity of contemporary Sufism, as well as elucidate debates from both admirers and detractors of the tradition over its relationship to Islam and the historical and cultural conditions that shape these debates. Chapters on popular manifestations of Sufism in the West, as well as gender and Sufism, will most likely make this book an appealing choice for instructors of both introductory and specialized courses in Islamic studies—Jamal Elias of the University of Pennsylvania will let us know in his review.

In Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition, Omid Safi, professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, presents a series of translations from the mystical teachings and love poetry of the classical Sufi masters, including but not limited to Rumi, Hafez, Abu al-Hasan al-Kharaqani, and Farid al-din ‘Attar. While we await the review by Farooq Hamid, it’s likely that this work, as an edited collection of primary-source excerpts and translations, would pair well with any of the aforementioned historical overviews for use in the classroom.

If your interest in Sufism has now been piqued, then you’re in luck: this last introductory text is still in need of a reviewer! Zeki Saritoprak’s Islamic Spirituality: Theology and Practice for the Modern World presents an overview of key figures in classical and contemporary Sufism, from al-Ghazali (d. 1111) to Said Nursi (d. 1960). Saritoprak also includes translations of textual selections, and, through an exploration of modern issues such as religion and ecology, “demonstrates how, when, and where people can practice Islamic spirituality in the modern world.”

All You Need Is Love

A central category for the study of Sufism has been love: sensual, spiritual, sublime. In Love’s Subtle Magic: An Indian Islamic Literary Tradition, 1379-1545, Aditya Behl illuminates the 14th-century North Indian literary genre of the Hindavi Sufi romance, in which Islamic and Hindu cultural expressions “met on the landscape of the soul.” Behl presents sophisticated readings of four such romances, including Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat, the Bollywood adaptation of which has more recently been a flash point for rioting and violence by the Hindu right. Love’s Subtle Magic demonstrates how, as reviewer Ali Altaf Mian puts it, the romance poets “defy modern-day nationalist identity categories. They were Sufis steeped in both Islamic and Indic discursive traditions and cultural norms…provid[ing] a powerful alternative to the conflict-ridden Hindu-Muslim politics of the two-nation notion.” It must be noted that this book itself constitutes a labor of love: Aditya Behl passed away in 2009, and his dissertation advisor, Wendy Doniger, edited and published the monograph. 

Another text that finds fertile ground in Sufi literature for comparative work between religious traditions is Saeed Zarrabi-Zadeh’s Practical Mysticism in Islam and Christianity: A Comparative Study of Jalal al-Din Rumi and Meister Eckhart. Zarrabi-Zadeh, assistant professor of Islamic studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany, identifies the common psychological feature of both testimonies of mystical experience as a loss of self: abegescheidenheit for Eckhart, fana for Rumi. Then, however, the two masters diverge, advocating a “mysticism of intellect-based detachment” (Eckhart) or a “mysticism of love-based annihilation” (Rumi). Reviewer Wolfgang Achtner notes that this book is not only “the first high-level comparison between Rumi and Meister Eckhart,” but also “addresses the unsatisfactory dichotomy between essentialism and contextualism…offer[ing] a new broad understanding of what mysticism is, by looking at its basis in the experience of mystical encounters.”

Share in the love by volunteering to review Joseph Lumbard’s Ahmad Al-Ghazālī, Remembrance, and the Metaphysics of Love. Even though he paved the way for major Sufi thinkers such as Rumi, `Attar, and Hafez, the work of Aḥmad al-Ghazālī has been overlooked by scholars in favor of his much more famous older brother, Abū Hamid al-Ghazālī. Lumbard, of the American University of Sharjah, provides the first examination of this key figure in Persian Sufism in Western scholarship, focusing on his central teachings on divine love and remembrance.  

Muhyiddin Ibn `Arabi (d. 1240) is commonly remembered as the greatest thinker of Sufi tradition, famously describing his belief in “the religion of love.” But in his book Rethinking Ibn `Arabi, Gregory Lipton calls this presumed universalism into question. Reading Ibn `Arabi’s own texts alongside their appropriation by the scholarly field of perennial philosophy, Lipton traces Ibn `Arabi’s Western reception back to the 18th and 19th centuries. For more on Lipton’s provocation, we await the review of this book by Axel Marc Oaks Takács.

Kazuyo Murata’s Beauty in Sufism: The Teachings of Rūzbihān Baqlī sets love aside, arguing that it is not love, but rather beauty that should structure our understanding of Sufism. Murata, a lecturer in Islamic studies at King’s College London, focuses on the medieval teacher and writer Rūzbihān Baqlī (1128-1209), who wrote in both Arabic and Persian, and his theology of beauty as an attribute of the divine essence. To love beauty is to love the prophets—who reflect God’s beautiful nature—and therefore to cultivate “the love for God required for salvation,” which “emerges only through the contemplation of created, and particularly human, beauty.” Reviewer Ariela Marcus-Sells points out that the book “underscore[s] the need to widen our gaze past the category of love as the central conception of the Sufi path,” but believes that it ultimately falls short of advancing a truly groundbreaking argument.

Sufism and/in the West

As scholarly and popular interest in Islam in the United States and Europe has grown recently, so too have publications on Sufism in the West. In Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy, Rosemary R. Corbett draws on a decade of research into the community that proposed the “Ground Zero Mosque” in order to examine broader trends in the United States. Corbett focuses in particular on calls for Muslim moderation, which, she argues, emerge from stereotypical assumptions about the inherent pacifism of Sufis in comparison with other groups. A review from Vincent Biondo is forthcoming for Reading Religion; it has already been reviewed by Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst for JAAR.

Merin Shobhana Xavier, the co-author of Contemporary Sufism: Piety, Politics, and Popular Culture (above), also brings us Sacred Spaces and Transnational Networks in American Sufism: Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and Contemporary Shrine Cultures, the first comprehensive overview of the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship (BMF), a major North American Sufi movement. Xavier’s ethnographic research charts the historical development and practices of the BMF, as well as its transnational dimensions: followers in the United States and Sri Lanka say they find more similarities in their relationship to the movement and to Sufism than cultural differences, which challenges the idea of Sufism in North America as being distinctly “American.” For more on this global Sufi community, we await the review by Amina Steinfels.

Another comparative study comes our way from Minlib Dallh, of Oxford University. The Sufi and the Friar: A Mystical Encounter of Two Men of God in the Abode of Islam investigates the spiritual encounter between Serge de Beaurecueil, a 20th-century Dominican friar, and Khwāja ‘Abdullāh Anṣārī of Herāt, an 11th-century Afghani Sufi master. De Beaurecueil lived in Cairo and Afghanistan, where he became the foremost expert on the life and thought of Anṣārī. Dallh’s work promises a “contemplation on the quandary of genuine engagement with and openness to the religious other.” A review is forthcoming by Matthew Hotham.

The last book in this category is not just about Sufism and the West, but Sufism as itself a long tradition of the West. Mark Sedgwick’s Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age examines both the history of classical Sufism and its reception and appropriation in the European colonial context of the 18th through the 20th centuries. Reviewer Rodrigo Adem locates Sedgwick’s “great achievement” in his analysis of “topics seemingly familiar to the non-specialist—Sufism as antinomian, pacifist, distinct from or older than Islam—critically examined in an extensive and diachronic presentation with appreciated nuance and accountability for variation and contradiction.” While Adem notes that the book can be unfortunately reductive in other places, such as in identifying Sufi theology only with Neoplatonism or uncritically using the category of the “West,” he is appreciative of Sedgwick’s effort to “establish a hybrid category” that can account for “‘Sufism’ as an etic non-Muslim construct and Sufism as codified religious practice within non-Islamicate societies, [which] are shown to enjoy interdependence in unexpected ways.”

Global Sufism

While many of our titles so far have dealt with Sufism outside the Middle East, some merit special mention in their efforts to “de-center” the study of Islam and Sufism, focusing on regions that have only in recent years begun to receive the scholarly attention they deserve.

One such work is Muslims beyond the Arab World: The Odyssey of Ajami and the Muridiyya, by Fallou Ngom. This book won the 2017 Melville J. Herskovits Prize for the most important scholarly work in African studies. According to reviewer Christopher Wise, Ngom’s book “recounts a remarkable and little known history of Islam in Africa,” describing the rise of Ahmadu Bamba, a “humble black Sufi” who became known for his struggles against anti-black racial bias and French colonization in West Africa. The order Bamba founded (the Muridiyya) flourished with his message of racial equality and non-violence, and—crucially for another of Ngom’s main arguments—because of the use of African languages as “vehicles of religious belief” and ajami, African language writing systems with Arabic-based scripts. Ngom introduces the concept of “ajamization” as a means of reversing racist, colonial ideologies still in play around the idea of “oral” vs. “written” cultures, as well as “the historical bias against black African approaches to Islam.”  Wise recommends this “important new study” which “compellingly shows that today’s most urgent social conflicts in West Africa are due to racism and neo-imperialism, not religion.”

Another publication in this vein is Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam, in which Lamin Sanneh, a historian at Yale University, “provides an accessible yet thorough account of the clerical tradition and its role in the development of Muslim societies in West Africa.” While Sanneh doesn’t focus on Sufism per se, James C. Riggan writes in his review that the work “opens up further avenues of research and illuminates the importance of the pacifist clerical tradition to the landscape of Muslim society in West Africa.”

For a transregional perspective, check out Ottoman Puritanism and Its Discontents: Ahmad al-Aqhisari and the Qadizadelis, which is currently awaiting review. Mustapha Sheikh, lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Leeds, explores “activist” Sufism from the 16th century onwards, specifically focusing on the Qadizadeli movement, which flourished in Istanbul in the mid-1600s, and tracing out its possible Ottoman and South Asian influences and connections.

Sufism and Politics

Another dimension of contemporary global Sufism is political engagement. For readers who follow the news out of Turkey, we have two recent publications of interest (both available for review!) about Fethullah Gülen, whose Sufism-influenced movement has made headlines for its protracted conflict with the current Turkish government under Erdoğan. The first of these, Hizmet Means Service: Perspectives on an Alternative Path within Islam, is a volume edited by none other than Martin E. Marty, containing scholarly essays on Hizmet, Gülen’s international movement that seeks to promote education and interfaith dialogue. The second publication, entitled The Spirituality of Responsibility: Fethullah Gülen and Islamic Thought, comes to us from Simon Robinson. The book is described as an “important contribution both to the theological and philosophical debate about responsibility but also to the practice of responsibility focused in creative action, debates in business and contemporary society about responsible governance and enterprise,” focusing on the practice of responsibility in Gülen’s life and in the Hizmet movement as an exemplary case study.

In Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism, Sadek Hamid analyzes how Sufi, Salafi, and Islamist activist groups in Britain have evolved, focusing specifically on The Young Muslims UK, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Salafi JIMAS organization, and Traditional Islam Network. For more on how Sufi groups compete with others to offer young British Muslims a sense of identity, we await the review by Shabana Mir.

For a unique and personal perspective on the relationship between Sufi groups and the political landscape, look no further than Steve Howard’s Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir. While still a graduate student in the 1980s, Howard lived in Sudan for three years with the Republican Brotherhood, a Sufi group led by anticolonial activist and religious reformer Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed in 1985 for apostasy. In this memoir, Howard describes his own learning about Islam and Sufism as well as Sudanese history and culture. Reviewer Jürgen Rogalski describes the book as “an authentic, highly thoughtful, and easily readable account” that “invites its readers to direct their attention to progressive, democratic initiatives in the Muslim world.”

Sufi involvement in politics is hardly a modern phenomenon, though, as Hüseyin Yılmaz reminds us in Caliphate Redefined: The Mystical Turn in Ottoman Political Thought. Yılmaz presents new interpretations of how authority, sovereignty, and imperial ideology functioned in the Ottoman empire as a result of political discourse leading to alliances between charismatic Sufi leaders and Ottoman rulers. Volunteer to review this book here.

On a broader level, Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy presents a range of disciplinary approaches to key questions in the study of Sufism and politics, including “Where Sufi related parties exist, what policies do they propose, and how do they differ from those of Islamist parties?” and “Are Sufis more likely to support democracy?” The editors, Clinton Bennett and Sarwar Alam, include perspectives on Sufism’s political dimension across various regions, including Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. A review by Shameer Modongal will be available soon.

In Rumi’s magnum opus, the Persian Masnavī-yi Ma’navī—often translated as “Spiritual Verses”—the Sufi master tells the parable of the elephant. This tale, originating in ancient Indian Buddhist texts, illustrates the limitations of human knowledge: in Rumi’s rendering, people crowd into a dimly lit room to see an elephant exhibited there, but in the darkness, no one individual can get the whole picture. Each describes the elephant differently depending on whether they had touched its ear, trunk, tail, leg, and so on; likewise, Rumi suggests, we must recognize our intellectual endeavors as necessarily partial and incomplete in the face of divine reality.

Here at Reading Religion, Sufism itself stands as one such elephant in the room. Hopefully, the wide range of new work on Sufism will satisfy readers looking to examine in detail one aspect of the elephant—whether it be Sufism in the United States, Sufism as a transnational political movement, Sufism as an expression of transcendent love, or local instantiations of Sufi tradition—as well as those seeking to map out the contours of the whole creature.