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Religion Library: Sufism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Historian John Voll has delineated three major movements in the study of Islam in the second half of the 20th century (also see Marcia Hermansen's article, "The Academic Study of Sufism in American Universities"):

a. An initial post-Second World War phase dominated by modernization theory, which postulated a diminishing public role for religion. According to modernization theory, such vestigial Islamic behaviors as Sufism represented no more than a fading and temporary resistance to the inevitable process of secularization.

b. A period of revisionism that entailed the recognition that religion remains important. However, at this point religion is studied in its exotic or extreme forms, such as new religious movements and cults or fundamentalist and extremist movements.

c. Finally, there emerged an appreciation for the normalcy and persistence of certain aspects of religion, such as its role in conveying meaning and embodiment and expressing emotion.

As the academic study of religion has come to accept terms such as "culture" as useful hermeneutics for the interpretation of historical religions, the study of Sufism has grown. The affinity of Sufi studies to comparative analysis and other disciplines such as anthropology, musicology, and social history has occurred in tandem with recent trends in the broader study of Islam that also eschew the general for the particular. According to Hermansen, Sufism is "the expression of Islam that most incorporates local cultural elements and embodies local Islams. It is also amenable to being studied in terms of 'globalization' and negotiations of identity and practice in the modern and the post-modern eras."

A particularly influential scholar of Sufism is Seyyed Hussein Nasr, philosopher ad professor of Islamic Sciences at George Washington University. His impressive bibliography contains dozens of titles on comparative religion and Sufi literature, thought, and history, including:

  • The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam's Mystical Tradition
  • Religion and the Order of Nature
  • Muhammad: Man of God
  • Islamic Studies: Essays on Law and Society, the Sciences, and Philosophy and Sufism
  • The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity
  • Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present: Philosophy in the Land of Prophecy
  • Poems of the Way
  • The Pilgrimage of Life and the Wisdom of Rumi
  • Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization

In the western academy, scholars such as Alexander Knysh have focused much of their work on particular scholars. Knysh has broadened the field of Ibn Arabi Studies, with his works Ibn al-'Arabi's "Meccan Revelations": Man, Metaphysics and Mysticism, and Ibn 'Arabi in the Later Islamic Tradition: The Making of a Polemical Image in Medieval Islam.