Philsophy, Religion, and Science: Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defense, Re-Thinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World

By Knysh, Alexander | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Philsophy, Religion, and Science: Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defense, Re-Thinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World


Knysh, Alexander, The Middle East Journal


Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defense, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World, by Elizabeth Sirriyeh, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999. xiii + 188 pages. Bibl. to p. 182. Index to p. 188. $14.99 paper.

This book provides a lively account of the intellectual and political opposition to Sufism from the 18th century up to the present day. Chapter one examines the indigenous Muslim critique of Sufi doctrines and practices "before the impact of Europe." Chapter two discusses various Sufi reactions to the European encroachments on the Muslim lands throughout the 19th century. Chapter three addresses the conflict between European and Sufi thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the ways in which Sufism was treated by both conservative and modernizing Muslim thinkers, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, and Abu al-Huda al-Sayyadi. This theme elaborated in chapter four, which examines how Sufism was treated by the principal exponents of the Salafiyya reform movement, Muhammad `Abduh and Rashid Rida, as well as their followers in Syria and the Maghrib. Chapter five focuses on the modernizing interpretations of Sufi legacy by prominent Muslim nationalists, namely Ziya Gokalp of Turkey and Muhammad Iqbal of India. Finally, chapter six traces the evolution of Sufism and its institutions in the second half of the 20th century, with special reference to the anti-Sufi politics of contemporary states (e.g., Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union, and the Turkish Republic) and individuals (namely, Abu al-A`la' al-Mawdudi and `Ali Shari`ati).

Thus, the book under review belongs to the growing number of studies that deal with opposilion to Sufism by various political groups and individual representatives of the Muslim umma. Its concision and clarity make it a potential textbook for undergraduate courses on Islamic mysticism, especially since it provides a useful survey of academic studies on the topic. Specialists in Sufism and Islamic studies, however, are likely to find it lacking on several accounts. In an effort to provide a clear and accessible introduction to the topic, the author tends to juxtapose rigidly Sufism with "mainstream" Islam. The very conception of the book forces the author to treat Sufism as a self-sufficient "thing in-itself ' that is somehow alien to, and separate from, the institutional, educational and doctrinal structures of Sunni and Shi`a Islam. As a result, the latter is implicitly presented as the norm, and Sufism as a deviation from it. Helpful as this analytical strategy may be for pedagogical purposes, it inevitably leads to a gross oversimplification of the complex role of Sufism in modern and contemporary Islamic societies. Therefore, the instructor who plans to use this book in his/her class would do well to fine-tune the author's approach by showing that Sufism was integral to the overall structures of Muslim belief and personal piety from which it cannot be divorced without distorting the entire picture. …

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