A New History of Islamic Mysticism

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Alexander Knysh
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Recent decades have witnessed the flourishing of a vast number of studies on Sufism within Western scholarship, shifting from the traditional philological focus on texts to more in-depth studies of particular groups, especially in contemporary settings, and historical contexts. This focus on the function of Sufism as a lived spirituality has also reshaped the historical study of the trajectory of Sufism and the multiple ways it has been conceptualized and interpreted. Alexander Knysh’s remarkably well-written and comprehensive overview, Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism, synthesizes these approaches of recent scholarship in a nuanced and dynamic history of Sufism. His main objective is to give an accessible, accurately detailed account of Sufism as a system of thought and action, ranging from teachings, practices, community, institutions, and leaders, extending from its beginnings in the initial ascetic movements of the 2nd/8th century down to the present day.

Knysh’s major argument is that “the notions of ‘Sufism’ and ‘Islam’ are not different than any other abstractions of human being to serve as an explanatory tool” (7). In other words, rather than attempting to detach Sufism from its Islamic forms and contexts, Knysh proposes instead to “explore the dimensions of the ascetic-mystical stream of Islam, or Sufism without sliding into either unbridled partisanship or adverse criticism of the subject and of its conceptualizations by both insiders and outsiders” (8). In doing so, Knysh seeks to convey how Sufism has been envisioned, invented, and imagined by various outsiders, as well as to provide informed insights into the lived of Sufi communities through their different movements and trends within Islam.

The uniqueness of this work lies in Knysh’s ability to identify and concisely analyze three guiding themes that have characterized the study of Sufism within the wider framework of Islamic studies: namely, “Sufism as an ascetic movement”; “examining ascetism and mysticism into two ideal types so that it [does not] turn into a sterile scholastic Islamic theology” (11); and “the separation of Sufi teachings, its ascetic and mystical elements, from Sufi practices” (13). The author first delves deeply into the explorations of the various sources, theses, and conceptual approaches surrounding the origin of Sufism. Those models range from the interpretation of the temperament of asceticism as a pre-Islamic precursor to the unavoidable influence of Christianity’s mystical expressions, while at the same time recognizing the inherent complications of any comparison between the two.

Knysh then moves on to the range of previous approaches to the issue of the motivations of early Sufism: those range from otherworldly escapism, self-introspection, or passive protest (in Marxian terms) and related interpretations of social and political unrest, to pursuing a pure form of Muslim devotion and the quest for blessing (baraka) (27). In sum, Knysh states that Sufism is a genuine historical phenomenon “in the sense that it has had long-ranging and tangible sociopolitical, practical, cultural, and institutional implications” (34), which developed through the imaginations and actions of a wide variety of individuals. Within those centuries of Muslim societies surveyed here, those interpretive schemes and historical influences allow Knysh to develop the complications of Sufism as an expanding dimension of human creativity as well as lived spirituality.

His analyses deepen in the following chapters, where he connects the understanding of Sufism to its more practical aspects. Here he utilizes several necessary foundational aspects of Sufism—such as walaya, the spiritual authority of teachers and guides which is transferred through the teacher’s lived example—in order to show how Sufism plays a distinctive and meaningful role within Muslim communities, in ways that are rather different from earlier Western stereotypes. Here he also takes up the different sociopolitical role of Sufi groups in relation to the Sunni/Shi’i divide in Muslim communities. He points out the ways earlier Western interpreters often emphasized the elite discourses of Muslim spiritual “authorities,” rather than examining more closely the actual social structures embodying different forms of Sufism. In chapter 2, Knysh offers a succinct, helpful list of traits that appeared to be the essentials of Sufism (60–61). These insights help his readers to understand the deep connections between the social forms of Sufism and wider Islamic spirituality.

Beginning with a balanced overview of Islam and its divisions, including Sufism, Knysh argues that Sufism functions beyond any written discourses in creating an entirely distinctive ascetic-mystical approach to life—one going beyond philosophical conjecture, cosmology, and genealogical hierarchies (chapters 3 and 4) highlighted by earlier Western scholars—which was “created by the collective Sufi imagination” (144). Thus, he concludes that the discourses on Sufism presented by premodern Muslim thinkers involved the “discussion of the vicissitudes of Sufism that place their subject into meaningful historical perspective, creating a meta-narrative of its evolution across time” (166). Looking at this comprehensive picture of Sufism’s evolution, according to Knysh, leads to a balanced view of Islam and its divisions, including Sufism, and allows scholars to dispassionately and objectively examine the differing conceptualizations of Sufism by both insiders and outsiders.

The book’s most original part is its last chapter (6), titled “Sufism: Recent Trajectories.” There Knysh moves on to examine spiritual characteristics of contemporary Sufism, including its recent implantation in the West. The benefit of this chapter is that it is based on an informed historian’s perspective of how various Sufi communities, across societies from West Africa to Indonesia, have earlier expanded, evolved, and been guided through different geopolitical settings. Here Knysh integrates his own firsthand research and other recent studies from Hadramawt, Northern Caucasus, Chechnya, and others as far away as Indonesia. In examining those different recent cases, he seems to conclude that—just as in earlier settings—a comprehensive, inclusive definition of “Sufism” remains elusive (229).

This work is a useful basis for situating both earlier Western scholarly studies of Sufism and the self-understanding of earlier Sufi authors (and their critics) viewing their movement as a multivalent expression of Muslim practice. As such, it provides a helpful, wide-ranging historical introduction for students of Islamic spirituality and the many related fields of Islamic thought and practice.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Andi Herawati is a PhD candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
February 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander Knysh is professor of Islamic studies at the University of Michigan. His many books include Islamic Mysticism: A Short History and Islam in Historical Perspective.



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