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Sufis in Western Society

  • Book Title:
 Sufis In Western Society
  • Book Author:
Gritt Klinkhammer, Markus Dressler,, Ron Geaves
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About the Book – Sufis in Western Society

In recent years Sufism has undergone something of a revival as a spiritual alternative to other manifestations of Islam. This book investigates the development of Sufism in Western societies, with a regional focus on North America and Europe.

Exploring a number of issues relating to the dynamic tensions between religious globalization processes and specific sacred localities, this book looks at the formation of Sufi movements that have migrated from their place of origin to become global religious networks.

Sufi groups are highly differentiated and often inaccessible, so the origins and development of Sufism in the West have not been widely studied.

Employing a comparative approach based on regional fieldwork and case studies, this book addresses theoretical issues and gives a comprehensive analysis of distinct com- munities and the development of regional branches of Sufi orders, providing an international perspective on Sufism in the West. With contributions from well- known international experts on the topic, the book addresses Sufi orders in the context of the transnational networks in which they are operating and the con- straints of the localities in which they live.

This book will be of interest to scholars and students of religion, Islam and Sufism in particular.

Ron Geaves is Professor of the Comparative Study of Religion at Liverpool Hope University. He has been researching Muslims in Britain since 1988 and is the current Chair of the Muslims in Britain Research Network.

Markus Dressler teaches Religious and Islamic Studies at Hofstra University. His research focuses on the religious history of modern Turkey, religion and sec- ularism theory, and formations of contemporary Sufism in Western societies.

Gritt Klinkhammer is Professor of the Study of Religion at Bremen University, Germany. Her research focuses on diverse facets of Islam in Germany, on theory of secularization and modernity and contemporary forms of religion in Western societies.


Islamic mysticism has always played an important role in the development and spread of the Islamic faith. In the Western orientalist tradition, however, Islamic mysticism has often been perceived as distinct from Islam. This understanding is expressed in the concept of “Sufism”, which suggests that Islamic mysticism would differ significantly from “orthodox” Islamic practice and belief.

From the perspective of the founders of European Islamic Studies (e.g. I. Goldziher, C.H. Becker, S. Hougronje), Sufism served the function of closing the gap between Islamic law, theology and individual piety and was labelled as being secondary to the development of the Islamic mainstream.

In the context of Western colonial prejudices and the racial theories of nineteenth-century Europe, Islam was categorized as a “Semitic” religion like Judaism and both were considered anti-spiritual. Accordingly, Sufism was understood as an “orgiastic collectivistic fanaticism” (M. Weber), or as a “primi- tive aimless spirituality” in comparison to Christian mysticism (F.A.G. Tholuck).

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, only a few Western scholars of Islam viewed Sufism in a positive light, at least insofar as it could be constructed as an antipode to orthodox Islam. However, it was not until the middle of the twentieth century that Sufism came to be understood as an integral part of the Islamic tradition.

The Western categorization of Sufism had been complicated in the nineteenth century when Muslims began to invoke the sacred symbols of the past to resist colonialism. In their quest for a return to an authentic Islamic society, Islamic revivalists targeted not only the colonial West, but also the local Sufi traditions. Muslim reform movements like the Wahhabis claimed to be the only true Muslims and often rejected Sufis as unbelievers.

In Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sufi movements face severe restrictions in their activities and are often forced to operate secretly. In Turkey, Sufi Orders have been officially banned since 1925 as a consequence of Mustafa Kemal’s attempts to secularize the new republic from above, even if today they are usually tolerated as long as they are not perceived to threaten Turkey’s form of secularization.

 In Egypt, the government exerts control over Sufi Orders through their integration into the state bureaucracy.

Following twentieth-century Muslim migration to Europe and North America, thriving Sufi communities have been developing, originating from outside the Arabic-speaking world.

 Muslims from places with vibrant traditions of Islamic mysticism like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South-East Asia, Algeria, the Maghreb and South-East Africa have settled in North America and Western Europe. They have brought with them their religious traditions – Sufi or not – and adopted them to their new environments.

 Often they also brought along the political and social debates of their homelands. The Muslim migration to Europe and the US has offered new prospects for Sufi practice and forms of organiza- tion, given the often difficult conditions for Sufism to flourish in many parts of the Muslim world.

The phenomenon of Sufism in the West, however, is not only a product of immigration. A number of Western Sufi Orders have to be understood in terms of processes of “resacralization” in Western societies since the 1960s. At a time when secularization was widely taken for granted as an irreversible process, many from the younger generations of the apparently secularized Western world showed an increasing interest in the spiritual traditions of non-Christian traditions.

 However, Western curiosity about the spiritual traditions of the East was not totally new. Some Western intellectuals had been fascinated by the ideas of Sufism at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century and absorbed it into Western esotericism and the ideas of a perennial philosophy.

In this context, Sufism in its Western universalist forms formulated a new anti- modern and alternative discourse that competed with and critiqued Western modernity1 whilst Islamic Sufism was simultaneously seen as backward and superstitious by both new Islamic revival movements and Muslim modernists.

The practice of Sufism had been introduced to the West by Western oriental travellers who had come into contact with Islamic mysticism during their jour- neys in the East, as well as by Eastern travellers to the West, most prominently Hazrat Inayat Khan, who had already in the 1910s founded the Sufi Order in the West with local groups in the United States and in Europe.

However, the main Western reception of Sufism began in the second half of the twentieth century when an interesting shift of perception occurred. New Western interest in the East turned colonial stereotypes on their head by proclaiming the East the home of spirituality and mysticism and the West the abode of soulless materialism.

Such ideas echoed early attempts by Indian religious figures such as Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda and others to move away from apologia in response to nineteenth-century criticism of their respective religions and to begin to proselytize and market Eastern spiritualities in Europe and North America. This position maintained some appeal to the present day and has influ- enced the “Easternization” of Western spirituality.

Thus, the beliefs and practices of Sufism have been assigned a role as bridge between Eastern and Western spiritual or mystical philosophy. Today this is also manifested in everyday life in the commodification of Sufism in the West, expressed in a thriving Sufi market – especially Sufi music and poetry, but also Sufi rituals used as therapy. Any study of Sufism in Western societies will have to deal with the problem….

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