Sufism Between Past and Modernity

  • Joseph HillEmail author
Living reference work entry


The term “Sufism” refers to a broad range of practices and concepts that cannot be given a single definition. At its core, “Sufism” is a gloss of a tradition of spiritual practice called “taṣawwuf” in Arabic, which has most often entailed the transmission and recitation of litanies, both individually and collectively, through a chain of transmission, usually with the goal of cultivating spiritual experiences of the divine. Additionally, Sufi figures and concepts have come to have cultural significance beyond the circle of people formally initiated into taṣawwuf, such that the Sufi tradition can be understood as including a range of social practices and relationships. This article complicates a number of widespread misconceptions about Sufism. First, whereas many observers have depicted Sufism as marginal to mainstream Islam and have predicted the demise of Sufism as the world modernizes and becomes more educated, Sufism has for centuries been central to mainstream Islam, and it continues to thrive around the world among all social classes. Second, although some Sufis conform to the widespread picture of Sufis as moderate, apolitical, and pacifistic, the reality is far more complex. Throughout history, Sufis have had a wide range of political engagements, and some taṣawwuf practitioners have been behind some of the strictest and most influential Islamist reform movements, such as the Society of Muslim Brothers and Deobandi movement. This article also discusses some more recent changes in Sufi communities, including globalization and the growing number of female Sufi practitioners and leaders.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

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