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Sufism in the Modern World

Julia Howell

Dervishes dance at a community center in Meschede, Germany, celebrating the UNESCO designation of 2007 as the "International Year of Rumi." Photo by Andreas Beer.

When UNESCO declared 2007 the International Year of Rumi and celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Persian Sufi scholar's birth on September 6 of that year, few outside the Muslim world were aware of the problematic status of Islam's Sufi heritage throughout much of the last century. In the Western world, new translations of the poetry of Mawlana Jalal-ud-Din Balkhi-Rumi, sprung from his intense spiritual devotions and rapturous love of God, had topped the poetry best-seller charts. And while George W. Bush pursued his second term in office as president of the United States, White House photographers even posed his wife, Laura, with a book of Rumi's Sufi poetry on her lap.

The enthusiasm for Rumi's poetry in the West evidenced the appetite among better-educated cosmopolitans for an apparently deconfessionalized, universalistic spirituality that can serve as a balm for arid materialism and yet transcend the confines of organized religion. The Year of Rumi celebrations, many of which were hosted in part by interfaith dialogue groups, made much of the universalist themes in his poetry and his images of the loving God, but commentators also pointed to the poet's deep commitment to Islam, and to the grounding in Islam of the Mevlevi Sufi order founded by Rumi's followers. Media coverage of "things Sufi" also brought to public attention other Western branches of Sufi orders (turuq, sing. tariqa) conventionally framed within Islam, as well as Western "Sufi" groups no longer anchored to Islam, such as Hazrat Inayat Khan's Chishti-derived International Sufi Movement, and the spiritual descendents of European aficionados of Sufism, such as René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon.

In Muslim-majority communities of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia a half century prior, such widespread celebrations of a Sufi master and the penetration of Western upper-register popular culture by fragments of the Sufi heritage could hardly have been anticipated. Indeed, in 1950 the respected Orientalist A. J. Arberry (himself a translator of Rumi, as well as the Qur'an) concluded his history of Sufism with the judgment that Sufism had so degenerated by then, having fallen into decline since the fifteenth century, that it was in its "death-throes". And although the Sufi orders continued "to hold the interest and allegiance of the ignorant masses," he observed, "no man of education would care to speak in their favour" (pp. 122).

Arberry's judgment was informed by accounts of Muslim travelers and reformists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that pictured the Sufi masters as common miracle workers, disdainfully lacking in knowledge of the canonical texts and religious law. Modernist Muslim reformers, who at the turn of the twentieth century devised new modes of exegesis to adapt Islamic law to modern society, joined Wahhabi and other fundamentalist reformers in condemning the veneration of Sufi masters thought to have become saints, or "friends of God" (walīyu 'llāh), through their extraordinary devotions. Such veneration, as they saw it, violated the foundational Islamic doctrine of tawhid, the unique Oneness of God. Islamic modernist reformers also saw initiations involving vows of obedience to a Sufi master (proverbially requiring the seeker to give himself over to his sheikh "like a corpse in the hands of those who wash it") as incompatible with the personal responsibility and rational judgment needed in modern society. Similarly, the use of extra, nonobligatory prayers in the form of the highly repetitive litanies used by Sufis (zikir) attracted criticism, not only for heretically lacking precedents in canonical texts (as reformists saw it), but for intensifying religious absorption to the point that practitioners might slip into suspect, nonrational spiritual ecstasies.

The influential social scientists Clifford Geertz and Ernest Gellner, who observed Muslim majority societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia in the post–World War II period, came to similar conclusions to Arberry's about the failing vitality of Sufism at the time and its dubious viability in modernizing Muslim communities. Influenced by Muslim modernist reformers, Gellner characterized premodern Muslim society as an unstable balance between urban-based piety directed by textually learned ulama and enacted as obedience to religious law on the one hand and, on the other, rural-based popular Sufi piety that was largely illiterate and ecstatic. He considered that in the twentieth century the long-running "ebb and flow" of these two variants of Islam was giving way to a dry, nonecstatic, anti-Sufi scripturalism as Muslim communities modernized.

Certainly various scripturalist (that is, narrowly law-oriented) piety movements, such as Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood, and latter-day "Salafi" groups inspired by them, have been major drivers of change in twentieth-century Islam. However, the image of premodern Sufism in Gellner's model overlooked the links of many urban elites with Sufi orders and the ongoing presence of Sufi scholarship in urban and rural centers of learning where tasawwuf continued to be studied as one among the several classical fields of Islamic knowledge. Indeed Barbara van Schlegell has characterized tasawwuf before the modern era as "the one cultural and intellectual constant that bound together elite and common Muslims throughout the Muslim world" (p. 587).

The Gellner model also ignored major changes within the world of the Sufi orders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the eve of the Muslim world's engagement with Western modernity, changes that paved the way for a wide array of creative responses to twentieth-century anti-Sufi reform movements and to the challenges of modern life itself. Picking up the term "neo-Sufism" coined by Fazlur Rahman, historians John Voll, Nehemia Levtzion, and others called attention to a reformist current in eighteenth-century North African Sufi orders inspired by the Moroccan Ahmad ibn Idris that spread across the Middle East to South and Southeast Asia throughout that century and into the nineteenth.

Like the roughly contemporaneous Wahhabi movement, the neo-Sufi orders responded with their reforms to a conservative mood prevalent in the Muslim world after the heady centuries of Islamic civilization's expansion, efflorescence, and absorption of diverse local cultures. The neo-Sufi reforms included a reassertion of the importance of Islamic law as the basis for the quest for inner spiritual knowing; social activism in the cause of moral reform (including, in some colonial contexts, military campaigns to purge the community of the foreign presence); and a renewed emphasis on the Prophet Muhammad, not only as an exemplary figure made intimately known through close study of the hadith (canonical stories of his life and sayings), but also via meditation practices through which the inner sight might be opened to his guiding presence. Such "neo-Sufi" orders also effected organizational changes, knitting together loose networks of masters and disciples into hierarchical mass organizations capable of effective communication and mobilization across wide territories.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, anti-Sufi reform movements have to some extent put the Sufi orders, and more generally the devotional use of Sufi practices and understandings, into a defensive posture. Moreover, the proliferation of specialized social institutions, such as schools providing general education, science-based medical practices, trade unions, and secular welfare institutions, have here and there reduced or modified the social functions of conventional Sufi orders. Nonetheless the persistence of the turuq is evident across the Muslim world, and not only among the rural poor. Valerie Hoffman, investigating Sufi orders in Egypt in the 1980s, judged that the numbers of turuq there had actually increased over the course of the twentieth century and had come to include modest numbers of people in Egypt's new middle and upper classes. Moreover, certain orders like the Burhaniyya and Muhammadiyya Shadhiliyya that clearly stressed conformity with Islamic law (like the neo-Sufi orders of the previous centuries), were successfully aiming their recruitment at better-educated urbanities. In Indonesia, a West-Java based branch of the Qodariyya-Naqsyabandiyya order (TQN Suryalaya), which operates in a distinctly open manner and tends its connections with political elites, has also enjoyed a substantial influx of well-educated, white-collar members over the last three decades. Nor is it the only order to attract members of the modernizing Indonesian elite. In the 1980s, just as Indonesia was picking up the global mood of Islamic revival, a leading women's magazine, Amanah, carried a cover story on the middle-class "rush to the tarekat [turuq]".

The influx of better-educated and professionally qualified people into classically founded Sufi orders has enabled some of these orders to undergird the informal relationships linking the sheikh to his spiritual deputies and initiates with a parallel bureaucratic structure, extending the organizational changes initiated by the earlier neo-Sufism movement. This has empowered TQN Suryalaya, for example, to maintain its social importance in the wider community by delivering services using contemporary professional methods. Thus it runs its own schools, with a general curriculum as well as religious studies, from primary school to university level; a variety of agricultural extension services; and drug addiction therapy centers. In Egypt, Gilsenen attributed the continued flourishing of one of the turuq he studied to a similar move to formal organization.

While some turuq have accommodated the urban middle and upper classes in the modern cities of the Muslim world, others like the Muridiyya and Tijaniyya in Senegal studied by Leonardo Villalón and the Khalwatiyya in Egypt studied by Rachida Chih have maintained their urban presence by catering to the social needs of recent urban migrants with few personal resources, elaborating the ethos of mutual support among fellow initiates in providing accommodation and help finding jobs in the city. Similarly, Asian migrants to Western countries have helped establish branches of turuq from their places of origin, and, as Pnina Werbner has shown in her studies of Pakistan-based Sufi orders in England, the social warmth of informal bonds between master and disciple, and among disciples sharing the same sheikh, has made the turuq attractive centers of social life.

While Sufi orders as traditionally constituted have persisted in Muslim heritage societies and in diaspora communities throughout the world, there has also been much innovation in the institutional arrangements through which study and practice of Sufism are carried out today. We can understand the variety of these forms by seeing them as different repositionings of Sufism in society through the disarticulation of elements once bound together in the traditional Sufi orders.

Broadly speaking, one strategy for repositioning Sufism in the modern world is to promote, in the words of Hamka (one of Indonesia's most prominent modernist reformers of the twentieth century), tasawwuf tanpa tarekat, that is, Sufi teachings and (some) Sufi practices (tasawwuf) without recourse the Sufi orders (I. tarekat). As a member of Indonesia's leading modernist organization, the Muhammadiyah, Hamka wished to encourage a modern Islamic ethos of rationality and personal responsibility that he thought was incompatible with tutelage from a sheikh. In his popular book Tasauf Moderen, first published in 1939 but still in print today, he gave the expanding Muslim middle class and intelligentsia, who would take on the task of building a new nation, a kind of do-it-yourself guide to ethical reflection and the cultivation of Sufi spiritual virtues in the course of everyday life.

Tasawwuf study outside the Sufi orders also has been made available to well-educated Indonesian urbanites by university-style adult religious education institutes, such as the Paramadina Foundation associated with the late Nurcholish Madjid, and through formal study programs offered for a fee by the leading mosques. At these institutions university professors present tasawwuf as one of the classic scholarly disciplines of Islamic knowledge.

Just as Muslims in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have found new ways to promote Sufi teachings and practices without recourse to the Sufi orders, so also have offshoots of some of the orders radically altered what they teach as tasawwuf. Thus, for example, the Turkish Naqshbandi Iskenderpasha congregation studied by Brian Silverstein has excised what had been the ultimate aim of Sufi disciplines and learning in Sufi orders of the past: ecstatic awareness of being in God's presence. Carrying forward the spirit of neo-Sufi reformism of the nineteenth century and adapting to twentieth-century Kemalist repression of Turkey's Sufi orders, this Naqshabandi community has discontinued rituals promoting extraordinary religious experiences and stresses instead disciplining practices like sohbet to undergird work in the world with proper ethical comportment.

The better-known Fethullah Gülen movement, originating in Turkey in the 1960s and by 2000 Turkey's largest religious voluntary association, has done something similar. Gülen has drawn selectively on Sufi teachings but has not established a Sufi order and recognizes only loose links of affinity with the Naqsyabandi Sufi teacher Said Nursi. A charismatic lecturer, Gülen started his movement when employed by the state as an imam in a provincial town. There he developed a range of activities to help upwardly mobile young men aiming at careers in business and the professions get a strong grounding in Islamic textual knowledge as well as ingrained practice of Sufi ethical disciples interpreted to undergird everyday social life. The movement now spans Gülen-inspired schools, publishing houses, television stations, and other businesses around the world with assets worth billions of dollars.

While the influence of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reforms identified by scholars as "neo-Sufi" is evident in many twentieth- and twenty-first-century Sufi movements (notably in their prominent stress on conformity with Islamic law, their emphasis on this-worldly spirituality rather than otherworldly mysticism, and their rationalized organization), this pattern of change is characteristic, understandably, of the Muslim world rather than of Western Sufi movements. However, the term "neo-Sufism" itself has taken on novel uses since scholars like Mark Sedgwick have employed it to designate deconfessionalized Western Sufism. The term has even escaped into popular discourse, where it now conjures the wedding of the ancient and the modern in New Age Sufi-inspired therapies and "world music."

Selected Bibliography

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  • Bruinessen, Martin van, and Julia Day Howell. Sufism and the "Modern" in Islam. London: I. B. Tauris, 2007.
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  • Chih, Rachida. "What is a Sufi Order?" In Sufism and the "Modern" in Islam, edited by Martin van Bruinessen and Julia Day Howell, 21–38. London: I. B. Tauris, 2007.
  • Degorge, Barbara. "Millennial Islam in Africa: Sufi Politics in the Sudan." The European Legacy 5, no. 2 (2000): 195–206.
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  • Villalón, Leonardo. Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal: Disciples and Citizens in Fatick. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
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Related Content

Subject Entries

Between Orientalism and Fundamentalism: Problematizing the Teaching of Sufism
Islam and the Spread of the Sufi Orders (18th and 19th Centuries)
Modernist Responses: The Limits and Legacy of Islamic Modernism
Spiritual Lineage of the Tariqa
The Sufi Orders
Sufism and Politics
Sufism in America


Ibn Idrīs, Ahmad
Gulen, Fethullah
Nurcholish Madjid
Nursi, Said
Rumi, Jalal al-Din
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