Contemporary Sufism

Piety, Politics, and Popular Culture

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Meena Sharify-Funk, William Rory Dickson, Merin Shobhana Xavier
  • New York, NY: 
    , December
     292 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Fascinating a wide-variety of people in the contemporary age and represented by a multitude of complexly interwoven expressions defying any compact definition, Sufism is facing harsh criticism from “Wahabi/Salafi literalists”/reformists (71-88) augmented by profuse distribution of anti-Sufism literature and fatal attacks on Sufi events/shrines. To understand the contemporary influx of Sufism—with its diverse expressions,especially in the West, opposition by anti-Sufism camps, merger in Europe with the “universal mysticism” (making its Islamic origins questionable), and status quo in the broader Muslim ideological landscape—through a proper methodological approach is of substantial academic significance. Meena Sharify-Funk, William R. Dickson and Merin S. Xavier endeavour to unveil the locus and highlight the challenges, relevance, and diversity of modern-day Sufism (in Western and Islamic contexts) in Contemporary Sufism: Piety, Politics, and Popular Culture. 

In chapter 1, Contextualizing the Production of Knowledge on Contemporary Sufism in the West, the authors’s attempt to rediscover the links or encounters of Sufism in Europe, focusing mainly on the process of “production of knowledge (with their shifting patterns) on Sufism” by the Orientalists (during pre-colonial, colonial, and the post-colonial periods), which yield an opportunity to gain a holistic comprehension of the theme. The authors substantially expose and discredit the mistaken view of some Orientalists as well as the Wahhabis, that the Sufi orders are the “carryovers of an earlier era” with non-Islamic “origins” destined to disappear in the face of modernity (20). 

The study of Sufism “as a living tradition”—even appreciated by the modern-day Orientalists—enhances its significance as a “contemporary phenomenon” that “critically engages with and unpacks everyday Sufi practices, philosophies, and theological tenets within the climate of a modern era” (21). In light of this statement, the authors seek to study the “contemporary expressions” of Sufism, and its status quoin the contemporary scenario inthree main parts: (1) Sufism and Anti-Sufism in contemporary Contexts (chapters 2 and 3), (2) Contemporary Sufism in the West (chapters 4 and 5), and (3) Gendering Sufism (chapters 6 and 7).

“Sufism,” as classified by the authors, represents one of the six major tendencies of the “complex landscape of contemporary Islam” (71), among which “Scholastic traditionalism” and “liberal reformism” give a circumscribed credence to Sufism, while Salafi/Wahhabi Literalism, Wahhabi/Salafi Reformism, and Political Literalist Wahhabism/Salafism (71-72) are highly antagonistic to Sufism, both in theory and practice. The authors’s claim that “Orientalist and Salafi perspectives on Sufism were mutually influential in creating a broader trajectory that has shaped contemporary Sufis,” is well-founded (115). Their views reflect a sound degree of impartiality while tracing the roots of contemporary anti-Sufism expressions in the scholarly strife of medieval times—represented here by Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah’s  theological criticism of Muhyuddin Ibn ‘Arabi. Ibn Taymiyyah’s strand, partially or with considerable transformations, has been represented by Wahhabism in the modern era which was led by Ibn Abdul Wahhab Najdi and rigorously championed later by his followers, eventually yielding terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The Wahhabi Literalists/reformists, with their global impact, played a pioneering role in the anti-Sufism phenomenon—aided by Saudi-petro-dollars—especially post 1950s. 

In part 2, the authors’s focus on the impact of “poetical expressions” of Sufism—especially Persian, such as Hafiz, Omar Khayyam, and Sa‘di—on the Western intelligentsia is interesting, but not the only choice to be deliberated upon while dealing with Sufism in a contemporary Western scenario. As such, the theorectial approaches of some prominent Orientalists to Sufism, including R.A. Nicholson, A.J. Arberry, W. Chittick, A. Schimmel, Carl Ernst, and many others, have been overlooked. With a critical assessment, the authors expose the paradoxical and partial appreciation of Sufism by Western scholars/diplomats/Orientalists who appreciated the “poetic expressions” of Sufism embedded in “universalistic values” (but never dissociated from the spirit of Islam) yet considered Islam “as violent and too legalistic” to withhold such delicacies (115). Some, such as William Jones or John Malcom, despised practical Sufism or practicing Sufis, describing them as “pernicious” (114). Therefore, they mistakenly believed Sufism to be a “universal tradition of spirituality,” a blend of Hindu, Buddhist Neo-Platonic, Perennialist/Trandscendentalist, and Islamic spiritual philosophies that transcend any religious or dogmatic restriction (131). The authors’s critical assessment of this paradoxical approach exposes the errors of the Orientalist scholarship, and is of significant academic value. 

Revealing Rumi’s astounding popularity in the 21st century—especially in America through Coleman Barks’s translations—as a mediator of East and West is significant when dealing with contemporary Sufi expressions, especially in Europe and North America. Therefore, the discussion on Rumi’s unprecedented space in Western popular culture—including music, literature, novels, comics, visual arts, and social media—carries prime relevance for the study. 

Part 3, Gendering Sufism—a highly relevant and significant theme—emphasizes the absence of “gender discrimination” in Sufism, at least in principle, through the concepts of Al-Insan al-Kamil/the Perfect Human and Awaliya-Allah/Friends of God (186-90). Here, the authors reasonably lament the unavailability of literature from the classical and medieval periods on the role of women in patriarchal Muslim societies. However, the authors erroneously refer to Mary as a “prophet” (188), though in Islam, she is eulogized as the “mother” of the Prophet Jesus. In this section, the authors reflect a style that is more narrative and less critical when describing the inspiring roles and challenging tasks of Women Sufis, for example Rabi‘a al-Adawiyyah and others from classical period, Shams and Fatima—the teachers of Ibn al-‘Arabi—and Lala ‘Aziza of Morocco from the medieval period, and colonial era Sufi women such as Nana Asma‘u of West-Africa and Lalla Zaynab. The authors also highlight female leadership in modern Sufism, including four contemporary female Sufi leaders; Nur Artiran, Cemalnur Sargut Hoca I Turkey, Fariha Friedrich, and Devi Tide in the US. 

A commendable research work, this volume is enhanced by it’s comprehensible text, lucidity, text-title relevance, and rich notes at the end of each chapter. Contemporary Sufism: Piety, Politics, and Popular Culture is a must-read for students, researchers, and those with an expertise in religious studies, Islam, and Sufism and is highly recommended for the general readership as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mohammad Irfan Shah is Research Scholar in the Department of Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India.

Date of Review: 
April 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Meena Sharify-Funk is Associate Professor and the Chair of the Religion and Culture Department at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. 

William Rory Dickson is Assistant Professor of Islamic Religion and Culture at the University of Winnipeg, Canada. 

Merin Shobhana Xavier is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College, USA.



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