Historical Perspectives

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.

Similarly, in the field of studies on Al-Ghazali, which according to scholar Kujiro Nakamura has been flourishing since the middle of the 20th century, "there were several attempts to verify al-Ghazali's authentic works through textual criticism," while "the new trend in the study of al-Ghazali is to re-examine his relation to philosophy." The availability of texts in translation has also greatly aided the expansion of Sufi studies in relation to medieval western philosophy.

Perhaps the most telling example of the state of Sufi studies in the contemporary period is the recent book by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth, published in 2007. In the introduction, the author explains his rationale and intention in writing the work, which is subtitled "The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam's Mystical Tradition." Nasr sees the work as the result of fifty years' worth of scholarly and "existential participation" in Sufism. It is, unlike most other studies by academics, a Sufi work originally composed in English (as opposed to an English work about Sufism, but based primarily on texts in another language.) This hybridization—of western communication of what is traditionally seen as an eastern tradition—symbolizes the ultimate reconciliation between the realms of academic theology and engaged Sufism.

What Nasr's book represents is a culminating piece in a decades-long study of Sufism in the academy. There have been, especially in recent decades, introductory books about Sufism by many scholars, but Nasr's work represents a Sufi text "in the manner of classical Sufi works but in a contemporary language" (Garden, p. xiv). Therefore, in its form as much as in its content, this most recent example of Sufi studies embodies the global if not universalizing impulse that underwrites much of the historical development of Sufism itself.

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