Sufism and the 'Modern' in Islam
An international conference organised by Griffith University (Brisbane), the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM, Leiden), and the Centre for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM, Jakarta)
Jakarta, 4-7 September 2003

convenors: Azyumardi Azra, Martin van Bruinessen, Julia Howell



Sufism and the ‘modern’ in Islam

The Islamic resurgence, the onset of which may be traced back to the 1967 Middle East war and which has received a strong impetus from the Iranian revolution, has not only brought a wide range of Islamist and neo-fundamentalist movements into the public sphere of the Muslim world but also appears to have occasioned a revival of Sufism and related devotional movements. Contradicting the easy dichotomies of much popular writing on Islam, neither the Islamist nor the Sufi movements can be explained as traditionalist responses to modernity or to the secular modernism represented by the nationalist, socialist and populist elites of the preceding decades. Most scholars agree that Islamist ideology and Islamist movements are distinctly modern phenomena, and that to some extent even neo-fundamentalist movements are part of, and not just a reaction to, modernity. Sufism, both in its learned and popular varieties, has commonly been presented and has often presented itself as anti-modernist and anti-reformist, but it is striking that it has been precisely in modern and modernising settings that Sufism has recently made some of its greatest gains.

The conference "Sufism and the 'Modern' in Islam" will bring together scholars who have done recent research on contemporary Sufism in many different parts of the Muslim world in order to study the phenomenon in comparative perspective and to explore the adequacy of various analytical frameworks to account for the observed social manifestations of contemporary Sufism. The conference will focus particularly on the appeal of Sufism to urbanites and others at the forefront of modernising social changes in Muslim communities across the globe. In the two countries with which the convenors are most familiar, Indonesia and Turkey, Sufism has become a conspicuous aspect of urban middle class religiosity, although in different ways. The ‘classical’ Sufi orders such as the Naqshbandiyya and the Qadiriyya, remain influential in both countries, and appear even to find new adherents in circles that previously appeared highly secularised. Besides, religious movements that are not Sufi orders in the strict sense but share certain characteristics with them and have distinctive devotional and disciplining practices, such as the Nurcu movement of Turkey and a whole series of smaller mystical movements in Indonesia, appear to be experiencing significant growth. Many believers who do not themselves follow a specific spiritual discipline express their interest in and sympathy with the mystical tradition of Islam, which they believe to be more open, inclusive and tolerant of others and contrast favourably with ‘fundamentalist’ versions of their religion. Discussion circles, journals and books disseminate Sufi ideas to larger audiences than ever before. Sufi groups cover the entire spectrum from the strictly shari`a-oriented to the latitudinarian, from Muslim puritan to perennialist. It is impossible to make a strict separation between Sufi groups and New Age-type movements – which raises questions of conceptualisation as well as sociological explanation.


Questioning the supposed decline of the Sufi orders

The resurgence of Sufism in modern environments calls into question a number of widely held assumptions about the impact of modernity on Islam and Muslim societies. It had long been taken for granted that mysticism, at least as embodied in the Sufi orders, was rapidly disappearing and only retained a foothold among the most backward, often rural, segments of the population. In a classic of the mid-20th century, A.J. Arberry’s Sufism, it is remarked that Sufi orders in many places were continuing to attract the “ignorant masses, but no man of education would care to speak in their favour” (1950:122). This perception became especially widespread due to the influential writings of Clifford Geertz and Ernest Gellner, whose most accessible essays examined the apparently inevitable shift from the ‘classical styles’ of Islam or ‘maraboutism’ centred around rural miracle-working saints and mystics, to the dry ‘scripturalism’ of urban scholars (Geertz 1968, Gellner 1981, 1992). These studies continue to exert considerable influence among social scientists studying Muslim societies in spite of the serious flaws in the argument. Geertz and Gellner declared Sufism moribund, but what they meant by Sufism (which neither of them had studied closely) was only its popular, rural, ecstatic, illiterate variant. They appeared unaware of the existence, all over the Muslim world, of learned urban Sufis, whose followings included members of the traditional elites. The dichotomy of rural popular religiosity and urban sober scripturalism, to which both authors subscribe, is furthermore undermined by the observation that Geertz’ archetypical marabout, Sheikh Lyusi, was also the author of learned books, and therefore also a representative of scripturalist Islam (Munson 1993). The attribution of Sufism to either “popular” or “learned” and “legalistic” versions of Islam is untenable; many Sufis operate in both domains without appearing to perceive a contradiction.

A more judicious and better informed argument concerning the apparent decline of Sufi orders is that given by Michael Gilsenan (1967, 1973), who in the 1960s studied an Egyptian urban Sufi order. The various social, economic and educational functions that the orders had served in the past, Gilsenan argues, are presently better served by the specialised modern institutions of trade unions, political associations, schools, etc. This functionalist argument of course leaves open the possibility that certain orders may find new functions and grow rather than decline. In fact, the order studied by Gilsenan had expanded where others declined, which Gilsenan attributed to a form of Weberian rationalisation, the adoption of a formal structure and explicit written rules, but which a critic (De Jong 1974) attributed to state patronage. These explanations are not mutually exclusive, and both deserve further exploration.

The remarkable resurfacing of the Naqshbandiyya in Turkey, where one branch of the order inspired the establishment of the first Islamist party and its various successors and where veritable business empires are associated with the order (Zarcone 1992, Bulut 1995, Yavuz in Özdalga 1999), calls established views on the presumed incompatibility of Sufism with modernisation and Islamism even more into question.

Sufism, militancy and Islamic reform

A number of entirely different arguments concerning the relationship of Sufism and modernity have been made in connection with the worldwide wave of Sufi-led jihad movements against colonial powers and/or indigenous elites of the late 19th and early 20th century (e.g. Ansari 1996, Voll 1995). Evans-Pritchard’s well-known explanation (1949) of how the Sanusi order provided an integrating structure to the fissiparous Bedouin tribes of Cyrenaica and thus played a role in Libyan nation building easily lends itself to adaptation in other segmentary societies (e.g. Bruinessen 1992, 1994). Sufi orders appear in these cases to adopt a new political role, as predecessors and progenitors of modern nationalist movements. Their militancy in these cases contrasts sharply with the peace loving, tolerant and inclusivistic attitudes commonly attributed to Sufism. This gave rise to the concept of ‘neo-Sufism’, launched by scholars (most prominently Fazlur Rahman) who felt that a number of important changes in the nature of Sufism had taken place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. ‘Neo-Sufism’ was claimed to distinguish itself by increased militancy, stronger orientation towards the shari`a and rejection of bid`a, and a shift from efforts to achieve unity with God to imitation of the Prophet (critical discussion in O’Fahey & Radtke 1993 and several contributions in De Jong and Radtke 1999). The debate on neo-Sufism raises questions relevant to an understanding of the resurgence of Sufism in modern urban environments and its relation to Islamic reformism (see also: Johansen 1996, Weismann 2000).

Transnationalism and globalisation

Most Sufi orders have from their inception been transnational (if that term is appropriate before the advent of the nation state) and have constituted networks of communication connecting different cultural areas of the Muslim world. Studies of early modern scholarly networks (e.g. Voll 1980, Azra 1992) have indicated the prominent role of the orders in these networks. Modern communications and the emergence of significant Muslim diasporas throughout the world have introduced new modalities of transnationalism. The Mouride movement of Senegal represents one special type of a travelling Sufi order, in which membership in the order, trade and international migration are intimately connected (Cruise O’Brien 1971, 1988, Copans 2000). In the South Asian and Turkish immigrant communities of Western Europe and Australia, one finds ‘transplanted’ Sufi networks that are extensions of networks in the home countries. A rather different and more dynamic type is that of the Naqshbandiyya Haqqaniyya, in which the murshid and his chief khalifas are highly mobile and supervise communities of followers around the globe, between which there appear to be considerable differences in Sufi practice (Atay 1996, various other studies in progress). The rapid geographical expansion of the Fethullah Gülen branch of the Nurcu movement, though not a Sufi order strictly speaking, represents a highly successful adaptation of a Sufism-inspired movement to the opening of the former socialist bloc.

Overviews of Sufi orders, their organisation and practices 

During the past twenty years, the academic study of Sufism and Sufi orders has experienced an even more remarkable expansion than the Sufi orders themselves. Several publishing houses (Hurst & Company, Curzon) initiated book series especially dedicated to Sufism, a number of specialist journals have emerged (Journal of the Ibn `Arabi Society since 1982, `Ayn al-Hayat, Quaderno di Studi della Tariqa Naqshbandiyya since 1995, Journal of the History of Sufism since 2000), and an Encyclopaedia of Sufism is in preparation (at Brill). Most of these publications concern classical Sufism, but interest in contemporary developments has also been increasing. There is now a large corpus of recent overviews of organisation, ideas and practices of the various orders in many different parts of the world.

A group of scholars at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris were the first to bring together students of Sufi orders from all over the world in a series of conferences, resulting in important overviews of the history and present position of various orders throughout the Muslim world (Popovic and Veinstein 1986, 1995, 1996; Gaborieau, Popovic and Zarcone 1990; Zarcone, Isin and Buehler 2000). Although the contributors represent different academic disciplines, these publications are much in the nature of inventories, and the contributions tend to be descriptive rather than analytical. Little attention is paid to questions concerning the impact of modernity and social change on the orders and their practices. Another volume, edited by De Jong and Radtke (1999), brings together many scholars from the same network but focuses on debates between Sufis and anti-Sufis and thereby is of greater relevance to the present discussion. Such debates are also the subject of a well-received monograph by Sirriyeh (1999). 

The Muslim neo-traditionalists Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Syed Naguib Al-Attas have produced numerous studies that at once enriched scholarship on Sufism and contributed to a renewed appreciation of Sufism among western-educated Muslims. Most of their writings concern metaphysical Sufism and great Sufis of the classical period, but Nasr also edited a volume (1991) on Sufi orders and Sufi literature that surveys more recent developments too. 

A number of more recent overviews — either of specific orders or of the various orders present in a more narrowly defined region — address more explicitly the relationship of Sufism and the Sufi orders with modernisation, Islamic reform and Islamism. The resurgence of the Naqshbandiyya in Turkey and neighbouring regions is studied in a volume edited by Özdalga (1999); the continuing spread of the Tijaniyya in Africa in Triaud and Robinson (2000); the role of the orders in Sudan in Karrar (1992). The volume by Westerlund and Rosander (1997) contains several contributions on the relation between Sufism and Islamic reformism in various parts of Africa. Work by Werbner, Ewing and others has been highly valuable in bringing new disciplinary approaches to bear on the study of Sufism in South Asia. 


The conference: Sufism and the ‘modern’


The present conference will specifically address questions of Sufism and modernity, including those hinted at above. The participants are requested to reflect, on the basis of their own observations, on (some of) the following questions: 

·        Are practices, institutions and intellectual traditions associated with Sufism disappearing or being significantly transformed as Muslim urban culture comes into apparently irreversible ascendancy?

·        Where there appears to be a shift to 'legalist' Islam at the expense of popular devotional practices and Sufism, is this due to urbanisation and other aspects of modernisation or should other factors be taken into account?

·        Where Sufism of one sort or another survives and flourishes, is it due to the persistence of traditional communities left behind by economic development or to creative adaptations that meet the needs of modern Muslims?

·        Which orders, traditions and practices are proving adaptive and in what social contexts?

·        What does “Sufism” (or tasawwuf) mean to contemporary urbanites, especially those urbanites involved with the modern sector of their national economy?

·        Where “Sufism” or tasawwuf in some form is explicitly constructed as “modern” or compatible with modern life, how is that achieved?

·        Where Sufism appears vital and strong, is that due to some form of Weberian rationalisation of organisation or practices?

·        Have changed age and gender roles affected the appeal of Sufism or how it is woven into the lives of contemporary Muslims?

·        How have hierarchical and authoritarian characteristics of Sufi orders been reconciled, if at all, to democratic values and the increased individualism in the modern sector of developing and post-industrial countries?

·        What role do political forces play in the activation, suppression or otherwise of Sufi orders and Sufi piety, and have those forces favoured inclusivist or exclusivist attitudes amongst “Sufis”?

·        In what ways can sociological representations of “Islamic society” be revised to better accommodate current findings on the varieties of contemporary Islamic religiosity?

·        In what ways has globalisation — understood either neutrally as the movement of people, goods and ideas across geographical space or as the spread of hegemonic cultural or discursive practices — affected current Sufi ideas and practices?

·        Are insights on ‘new religious movements’ / ‘New Age’ movements relevant to an understanding of contemporary Sufism? Or is there a significant difference between both types of movement?


Relevant literature


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