Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy

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Clinton Bennett, Sarwar Alam
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , August
     262 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Recent debates about Islam and its political engagement have mainly focused on Salafis and political Islamists. Since Sufis are largely represented as apolitical, their political perspectives and contributions to modern democratic culture have been overlooked, even though the Sufi tradition is followed by a significant portion of the global Muslim population. Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy, edited by Clinton Bennett and Sarwar Alam, is a noteworthy contribution toward understanding the ideas and activities of political mysticism. The promotion of Sufism and the involvement of Sufis in politics are considered to be useful ways of countering radical Islamists and Salafis. Strengthening Sufism is suggested as a better way to promote democracy among Muslim states than the existing policy of aid to authoritarian regimes of Muslim majority states (9). 

Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy deals with the following puzzle: while in many countries Sufis are siding with authoritarian regimes when people revolt against the government, in some countries Sufis lead movements against dictators. In consideration of this phenomenon alone, it is difficult to simplistically label Sufis as either pro- or anti-democracy. However, it should be noted that those Muslim-majority countries in which a dominant section of the population follows Sufi tradition perform better than other Muslim-majority countries on the democracy index. This book examines the role of Sufism in shaping and developing democracy in these Sufi-dominated Muslim-majority countries. As indicated in the title of the book and explained in its various chapters, the improved performance of democracy in Sufi-dominated countries is due to the contribution of Sufism to pluralism and the rights of marginalized groups, including minorities and women.

This book examines political movements led by Sufis or inspired by Sufi ideology in different parts of the world including Europe, Euro-Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia. In the introductory chapter, co-editor Clinton Bennett describes Sufism. The following chapters analyze particular political parties such as Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) of Turkey, the role of specific Sufi orders such as the Bektashi Sufi order, or Sufi saints and philosophers like Hazrat Delaor Husayn Maizbhandari, Ibn al-Arabi, and Rumi. While the first chapter briefly discusses Sufi-affiliated political parties, chapter 2 analyzes the Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gulen. The cases of Indonesia and Bangladesh in particular clearly demonstrate the role of Sufism in developing a pluralist culture in society. The last section of the book explores the literary and theoretical underpinnings for this pluralist culture through an analysis of works by Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah, two Sufi poets of the Punjab, and, again, Ibn al-Arabi and Rumi. 

Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy succeeds in exploring the often-sidelined political contribution of Sufism. The chapters clearly answer questions such as what role Sufism plays in promoting pluralism, secularism, and democracy. The book examines Sufi teachings for ensuring human rights and gender equality. However, the editors and contributors may expand the boundaries of Sufism too far, without due attention to the importance of juris prudential laws in the lived experience of those who identify as Sufi. Even though al-Ghazali is cited in order to indicate the importance of the sharīᶜa in Sufism (2), the authors seem to miss this aspect in the following chapters. Nevertheless, this book works well for those looking to get a basic idea about the politicalengagement of Sufis in modern democracies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shameer Mondongal is a doctoral candidate in the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Clinton Bennett divides his teaching between SUNY New Paltz, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY and Cambridge, UK. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. A Baptist missionary in Bangladesh 1979-1982, he maintains close personal and professional ties with South Asia. Director of interfaith relations for the British Council of Churches 1986-1992, he has served on not-for-profit management committees, local, national and international ecumenical agencies, chaired a school governing body and represented an NGO at the UN.   He has written ten books, numerous articles, reviews, chapters, editorials, and encyclopedia and dictionary entries. He is editor of the Continuum Studying World Religions series.

Sarwar Alam teaches at the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies of University of Arkansas. He received his doctorate from the same university in 2006. He was a postdoctoral fellow in the department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia between 2007 and 2010. He is currently preparing a manuscript for publication entitled Jewels of Honor: the Perception of Power, Powerlessness, and Gender Among Rural Muslim Women of Bangladesh. He contributed two chapters on Sufi historiography and political activism in Bangladesh in South Asian Sufis: Devotion, Deviation and Destiny edited by Clinton Bennett and Charles Ramsey (Continuum, 2012).


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