Unveiling Sufism

From Manhattan to Mecca

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William Rory Dickson, Meena Sharify-Funk
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , August
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In recent decades, there has been an expanding interest in Sufism, not only among scholars and researchers, but also among the political or state intelligentsia to “unveil” the diverse yet subtle aspects of Sufism. Unveiling Sufism: From Manhattan to Mecca by William Rory Dickson and Meena Sharify-Funk is a noteworthy addition to the long array of academic texts produced recently in this direction. This work is an introductory yet extensive text on Sufism intended to be used in the classroom. With an interdisciplinary approach, the authors aim to provide a rich contextualized understanding of Sufism.

Unveiling Sufism introduces Sufism as it is lived in the contemporary times, followed by the exploration of its historical, political ,and cultural contexts during the medieval and classical periods. Starting these deliberations with reference to the twenty-first century metropolis, Manhattan, going down back to colonial Algeria, moving further to medieval Delhi and Istanbul and reaching back to Baghdad, the authors ultimately visit the manifestations of Sufism in its classical phase at Mecca. Highlighting Sufism as a “multidimensional phenomenon,” each chapter relies on four thematic categories: Politics and Power, Philosophical Principles and Practices, Arts and Culture, and Overview of Historical Developments. Through this thematic division, the authors intend “to highlight some of the ways in which Sufism has influenced Muslim politics, philosophy, metaphysics, art, and culture in each historical era” (3).

Chapter 1, “The Many Faces of Contemporary Sufism in North America,” focuses on the development of Sufism in North America during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Here, the authors mainly focus on Sufism in the post 9/11 political scenario, highlighting the way Sufis sustain their legacy and promote a peaceful image of Islam amid various pressures like “growing anti-Muslim” tendencies in America and “anti-Sufi” sentiments among (Wahhabi) Muslims. The authors highlight the impact of Sufism on the American state-apparatus where Sufism is considered to be an “antidote” to the “extremism” (15). They engage readers with two diverse interpretations of Sufism as propounded in North America: one that sees Sufism as “universal”—not limited to Isla—and the other proposes an essential connection between Sufism and the Islamic sharī‘ah. Then, highlighting the artistic influence of Sufism on North America, the authors discuss the thirteenth-century Sufi, Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, whose poetry has influenced diverse “cultural expressions, from restaurants, to visual arts, yoga, social activism, dance and music” (5).

During the colonial era, Sufis actively led and participated in resistance movements in many regions against European colonialists. However, their defeat and subsequent co-option into colonial regimes won them severe criticism from newly emerging Muslim reformist movements who proposed the revival of Muslim societies by abandoning Sufism. The authors bring this theme under discussion by introducing the activities of the Algerian Sufis like Amīr ‘Abd al-Qādir (d.1833) and Aḥmad al-‘Alawī (d.1934) in chapter 2, “Warriors, Philosophers, and Poets: Sufis in the Age of Colonization.” The discussion seeks to locate the reasons behind the increasing fascination of the West with Sufism and growing anti-Sufi tendencies among Muslims. The authors highlight another development in Sufism during the colonial era, namely the discovery of a great treasure of literary works of Sufis (prose and poetry) facilitated by European colonialism.

In chapter 3, “Commanding Sultans to Wandering Dervishes: Sufism in the Late Medieval Era,” the authors discuss the Sufi-state relation during the pre-colonial era (between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries), with a special focus on the Turkish Ottoman, Iranian Safavid, and Indian Mughal dynasties. The authors study the role of Sufis in these empires, their approach towards the apparatus of the state, and the impact of Sufi hospices and shrines on the common as well as the elite class.

The subtleties of institutional Sufism during the medieval period (eleventh to thirteenth centuries), is brought under extensive study with reference to two distinguished figures: Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d.1111) and the Andalusian Sufi, Muḥyī al-Dīn ibn al-‘Arabī (d.1240) in chapter 4, “Synthesizers and Saints: Sufism in the Medieval Era.” The authors specially focus on Sufis’ role as synthesizers of ‘theology, Sufism, and philosophy” (135 ff). Deliberation on the “organization and institutionalization of Sufism” (163 ff). in a system of different Sufi orders is the concluding section of this chapter.

Chapter 5, “A Reality without a Name: Early Sufis and the Formation of Tradition,” covers the pre-institutional period of Sufism (the eighth to tenth centuries) bringing forth the literary contributions, principle,s and practices of early Sufi experts. Harith al-Muhasibi, Abu Yazid Bistami, Rabi‘a al ‘Adawiyya, Hasan al-Basri, Al-Hallaj, Junayd al-Baghdadi, and a few other classical Sufis are discussed to explore the complexities of Sufism during this era. The expression of their mystic states and experiences in prose or poetry is brought to light through the works of Sufi theorists like Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d.986). The chapter concludes with a brief elucidation on the formation of early Sufi schools.

Finally, Chapter 6, “Sources of Sufism: Transmission of the Prophetic Word,” unveils the Islamic origins of Sufism by exploring the Qur’ān and the biography of the Prophet Muhammad . This section includes an analytical exposition of the esoteric Quranic commentary of Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d.765)—the renowned scholar and descendant of the Prophet regarded as the sixth Imam by the Shi‘as—and criticisms of esoteric commentaries on the Qur’an. This chapter concludes with reflections on external influences on Sufism, including ancient near Eastern traditions (Christian mysticism, Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, and Zoroastrianism). A concluding chapter is followed by an exhaustive bibliography, and an index completes this journey of “unveiling Sufism from modern (Manhattan) to classical era (Mecca).”

Students new to Sufism may find it difficult to learn about Sufism in reverse chronological order. The authors have mostly depended on secondary sources rather than the primary texts (most of which have been translated) while dealing with the formative period of Sufism. Overall, this volume is strongly recommended for researchers and academicians engaged in field of Sufi studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mohammad Irfan Shah is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Islamic Studies at the Aligarh Muslim University, India.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William Rory Dickson is assistant professor for the religion and culture department at the University of Winnipeg, with a specialization in Islamic studies. His research focuses on contemporary Islam and Sufism in North America. Dickson’s recent book Living Sufism in North America: Between Tradition and Transformation (2015) explores the ways in which Sufi leaders in North America relate to Islamic orthodoxy, authority, and gender. Dickson has published articles on contemporary Muslim thought and Sufism in the Journal of Contemporary Islam and Studies in Religion and has presented his research at a number of national and international conferences.

Meena Sharify-Funk is associate professor for the religion and culture department at Wilfrid Laurier University who specializes in Islamic studies with a focus on contemporary Muslim thought and identity. Sharify-Funk has written and presented a number of articles and papers on women and Islam, Sufi hermeneutics, and the role of cultural and religious factors in peacemaking. Her current research focuses on the construction of contemporary North American Muslim identity in a post 9/11 world. It is a continuation of her first manuscript, Encountering the Transnational: Women, Islam, and the Politics of Interpretation (2008) which examined the impact of transnational networking on Muslim women’s identity, thought, and activism. She also has co-edited two books, Cultural Diversity and Islam (2003) and Contemporary Islam: Dynamic, Not Static (2006).



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