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.


The term “Sufism” means many different things to many people. This article uses the term both in a narrower sense referring to an internally diverse and evolving tradition of esoteric spiritual practice (taṣawwuf) within Islam and in a broader sense that includes various cultural and social phenomena surrounding this tradition of practice. Modernist and Islamist reform discourses have spread the notion that Sufism is a superstitious populist movement that is historically marginal to “mainstream,” “orthodox,” or “scripturalist” Islam. Many observers predicted the demise of such mystical tendencies in an inexorably secularizing and rationalizing modern world (Bruinessen and Howell 2007). Such depictions are based on misconceptions about the nature of Sufism, Islam, and modernity. Islam was introduced throughout much of the now-predominantly Muslim world by scholars who practiced Sufism, and Sufi thought and practices consequently permeated the default Islam, scholarly and otherwise, of these areas. Throughout history, Sufi practice has been an essential part of many of the most widely respected Islamic scholars’ spirituality and thought, just as it has been part of more popular practices in Islam.

Although the place of Sufism has indeed evolved in modern times, contrary to modernists’ and Islamic reformists’ expectations, Sufi practice and communities are flourishing globally. Sufism continues to attract people of diverse socioeconomic, educational, and ethnic backgrounds worldwide. However, whereas Sufi spiritual practice for several centuries was considered integral to any serious Muslim’s religious practice in many parts of the Muslim world, Sufis are increasingly perceived as constituting a specific school or community set apart from mainstream Islam. In some parts of the Muslim world, such as modernist Turkey and Islamist Saudi Arabia, the state forbids or severely restricts Sufi orders (ṭuruq, sing. ṭarīqa), although many people continue to participate unofficially. In other places, such as Syria, Egypt, and West Africa, the Islamic scholarly establishment is dominated by Sufis. This article begins with a discussion of the meanings and histories of what has come to be known as “Sufism.” Then it discusses some of the social, cultural, and political dimensions of Sufi movements historically and currently.

What Is Sufism?

“Sufism” is most commonly defined as “Islamic mysticism” or “Islamic esoterism.” These terms provide an acceptable yet incomplete starting point. The Arabic term most often translated as “Sufism” is “taṣawwuf,” which primarily refers not to a school of thought, ideology, identity, theology, or division of Islam but to a pursuit of spiritual cultivation that one can undertake alongside other pursuits. Sufism is not a sect of Islam, and it spans the Sunnī/Shīʿī divide, although Sufi communities have traditionally been exclusively Sunnī or Shiʿī. Linguistically, the term “taṣawwuf” designates a process, which one might translate as “making oneself Ṣūfī.” In turn, the term “Ṣūfī” appeared in the eighth century CE and referred to a Muslim ascetic who withdrew from the world and attained a high degree of piety and closeness to God. The most accepted etymology traces the term to “ṣūf” (wool), such that “ṣūfī” would mean “a person of wool,” referring to the rough wool clothing worn by early ascetics. Among Sufism practitioners today, the term “ṣūfī” often continues to have connotations of extreme renunciation. However, the Arabic term most widely translated as “Sufi,” “mutaṣawwif” – literally, “one who makes oneself a Ṣūfī” – designates anyone who participates in Sufi meditative practice, especially after formal initiation by a spiritual guide, typically alongside job and family responsibilities. The terms “faqīr” (Arabic) and “dervish” (from Persian/Turkish) – both meaning “poor” – similarly suggest asceticism, but in many contexts, they designate any initiated mutaṣawwif, regardless of socioeconomic status.

Because Sufi traditions are so diverse, and because people participate in Sufi-related practices in so many ways, no single definition can meaningfully specify who and what is part of Sufism. Alexander Knysh proposes a provisional yet useful list of defining features of Sufism as it exists today, which I summarize thus:
  1. 1.

    A recognition of “intuitive, revelatory knowledge and experience of God and the world”;

  2. 2.

    A wide acceptance of such claims by the Muslim masses;

  3. 3.

    The promise that those who have attained such knowledge can transmit it to followers, often through meditative techniques;

  4. 4.

    The depiction of the process of self-transformation as a path to God that involves attaining “stations” (maqām) and as one traverses through more evanescent ecstatic “states” (ḥāl);

  5. 5.

    The belief that this journey must be made with a community of fellow travelers;

  6. 6.

    The belief that self-transformation requires help of a spiritual guide possessing a legitimate spiritual pedigree (silsila), usually going back to the Prophet Muḥammad;

  7. 7.

    The mutual obligation between spiritual master and student;

  8. 8.

    The perception that spiritual masters are “God’s elect friends” (awliyāʾ), often seen as miracle workers who can dispense God’s blessing and mediate conflicts from a position transcending social divisions (Knysh 2017, 60–61).


The most universal and central part of taṣawwuf practice is the daily recitation, both individually and in community, of litanies and sacred texts, collectively known as dhikr (Arabic; pl.: adhkār, literally “remembrance” or “mention” of God). In itself, dhikr practice is neither unique to nor coextensive with Sufism. Indeed, the Qurʾān repeatedly enjoins the believers to “mention God” (broadly understood) constantly. Many Muslims with no connection to Sufism regularly repeat formulas from the Qurʾān and ḥadīth for various purposes, as detailed in books of adhkār widely available in many countries. What distinguishes taṣawwuf is the use of often more extended litanies whose content, precise number, and manner of repetition depend on a particular spiritual genealogy. Sufi litanies usually comprise phrases from the Qurʾān and ḥadīth or variations on them, as well as sacred poetry and supplications. For example, a Sufi litany might involve repeatedly asking God for forgiveness (astaghfiru ‘Llāh), declaring the unity of God (Lā ilāha illā ‘Llāh), repeating some of the 99 names of Allah mentioned in the Qurʾān, and praying for the Prophet Muḥammad. Sufi spiritual guides sometimes describe each litany as a spiritual medicine meant to address some particular spiritual – and sometimes material or medical – need. The closeness to God attained through regular dhikr is often associated with dreams, visions, clairvoyance, intuitive knowledge (maʿrifa), and miracles. Ultimately, taṣawwuf is usually described as a means of overcoming one’s lower self (nafs) so that one may experience divine reality (ḥaqīqa) firsthand.

It is important to remember that many practices now widely associated with Sufism, such as grave visitation, talismanic uses of the Qurʾān and other texts, and esoteric readings of the Qurʾān, are neither exclusive to nor universal in the taṣawwuf tradition. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Islamic holy men made esoteric use of the Qurʾān before the arrival of Sufi ṭuruq (Brenner 1984; Launay 1992). Although there may be no common denominator that unambiguously distinguishes practices identified with Sufism, dhikr practice within a chain of spiritual transmission is likely the most distinctively Sufi practice.

Sufi Paths and Initiation: Ṭuruq

Since around the twelfth century CE, Sufi practice has most often taken place within a number of ṭuruq (sing. ṭarīqa) in Arabic – literally “ways” or “paths,” but often glossed today as “Sufi order” in analogy to Christian monastic orders. “Ṭarīqa” is also often glossed as “brotherhood,” although most ṭarīqas at least in theory admit women. Each ṭarīqa was founded by one or more saintly figures claiming an unbroken chain (Arabic: silsila) of spiritual transmission back to the Prophet Muḥammad. Most ṭuruq do not have a single corporate organization but instead are divided into numerous sub-lineages, each composed of one or more shaykhs and each shaykh’s disciples. Nearly all the major ṭuruq claim a spiritual chain tracing through the Prophet Muḥammad’s son-in-law and fourth successor (khalīfa), ʿAli ibn Abī Ṭālib. The exception is the Naqshbandī ṭarīqa, whose primary chain traces through the first successor, Abu Bakr al-Ṣiddīq. Although many ṭuruq allow uninitiated people to attend their group litanies and gatherings, most teach that the full benefits of litanies are limited to formal initiates who practice the litanies regularly. Many Sufism practitioners, especially more advanced ones, seek initiation in multiple ṭuruq, although most retain one primary shaykh.

Initiation into most Sufi orders involves the ritual transmission of its regular litanies (awrād, sing. wird) by an authorized spiritual guide (Arabic: murshid) or shaykh (Arabic; South Asian languages: pīr) to a disciple (Arabic: murīd). Initiation may also involve a declaration of allegiance (bayʿa) to the shaykh. Over time, the spiritual guide may prescribe further litanies depending on the disciple’s spiritual level and needs. In some orders, such as the Khalwatiyya, Shādhiliyya, and Chishtiyya, murīds may occasionally be prescribed an intense period of dhikr in spiritual seclusion (khalwa). Usually, a shaykh is expected not only to be able to transmit litanies but also to be thoroughly educated in the Qurʾān, ḥadīth, and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in order to guide disciples in various matters. In turn, initiated disciples are expected to respect and obey the shaykh.

Most ṭuruq prescribe that dhikr practice be complemented with several other essential practices. Many Sufi groups mandate spending time in companionship (ṣuḥba) with fellow travelers in the ṭarīqa, especially at meetings featuring chanting, speeches, and refreshments. Initiates may also be expected to perform various forms of service (khidma) for their shaykh or community. Another form of participation is through financial or in-kind offerings (hadiyya, lit. “gift”) to one’s shaykh or to the community, who may then use these offerings for religious projects or charity.

Contrary to widespread stereotypes of Sufis as ecstatics unconcerned with “scripturalist” or “orthodox” Islam, most ṭarīqa founders and shaykhs have been Islamic scholars with a strong command of the Qurʾān, Islamic jurisprudence, and other Islamic disciplines. Most ṭuruq insist that taṣawwuf practice requires upholding the religious prescriptions found in classical Islamic texts. Also, although the Sufi tradition still has room for the occasional wandering ascetic, the vast majority of Sufi practitioners combine inward spiritual cultivation with typical family and work-related obligations. Sufis often describe this complementarity in terms of the simultaneity of outer (ẓāhir) and inner (bāṭin) truths. They invoke the same principle to insist on following God’s outer law (sharīʿa) in one’s personal life even while being inwardly absorbed in divine reality (ḥaqīqa).

That said, the Sufi tradition has always contained currents ranging everywhere from strict insistence on traditional orthodoxy to outright “antinomianism,” or the claim that Islamic regulations are superficialities of no concern to those who experience transcendence in God. In Morocco, Sufi ṭuruq such as the Shādhiliyya, Qādiriyya, and Tijāniyya are led by scholars with a classical Islamic education and attract many literate followers who self-consciously seek to adhere to Islamic prescriptions. In contrast, a number of ṭuruq, such as the Ḥamdushiyya (or Ḥamadsha) and ʿĪsāwiyya comprise largely illiterate and socially marginal people who combine dhikr performance with frenetic dancing, spirit possession, snake charming, self-mutilation, and other unusual activities. Nonetheless, these and many other Moroccan ṭuruq descend spiritually from the generally “orthodox” Shādhiliyya, and their members consider themselves devoted Muslims (Crapanzano 1973). Similarly, in Kurdistan today, while certain branches of the Qādirī ṭarīqa – like the ṭarīqa’s founder – are highly “sober” and scholarly, others engage in ecstatic dhikr performance during which followers cut themselves, lick hot iron, or eat glass and poison to demonstrate divine protection (Bruinessen 2000). Similar practices were reported in the early fourteenth century among members of the Rifāʿiyya ṭarīqa in the Middle East and Central Asia (Trimingham [1971] 1998, 37–40).

Around the core practices of dhikr, silsila, ṣuḥba, khidma, and hadiyya have developed a wide range of mystical teachings, talismanic practices, social practices, and forms of cultural production (such as music, literature, and dance) associated with various Sufi communities. The question of which of these phenomena are legitimately part of Sufism or even Islam has always been contentious. Usually, uninitiated people who participate in elements of Sufi tradition greatly outnumber the inner circle of formal Sufi initiates (mutaṣawwifa). Some Sufi groups, such as the Khalwatiyya in Egypt, recognize a distinction between a shaykh’s formal “initiates” (murīd) and his far more numerous “devotees” (muḥibb), who attend gatherings and seek his guidance and spiritual power (Chih 2007). Similarly, some observers of Islam in North and West Africa distinguish between the “Sufism” of shaykhs and murīds and the “Maraboutism” (Gellner 1969; Bouhdiba 1985) of the general population, who may visit shaykhs’ tombs to access their baraka (divine blessing) or seek talismans from living shaykhs. Throughout the Muslim world, the grave shrines of Sufi shaykhs have become popular pilgrimage sites for visitors who may not identify themselves as “Sufis” or even as Muslims. In Senegal, many people who approach a shaykh for blessing, prayer, or talismans may strongly identify as the shaykh’s followers and as adherents of the shaykh’s ṭarīqa (usually Tijāniyya or Murīdiyya) even without having been initiated or identifying as “Sufis.” Regardless of the talisman seeker’s status, the talisman itself may be considered a variation of dhikr practice. Often containing repeated Qurʾānic phrases and/or numerological “magic squares,” like recited dhikr, such talismans exploit the hidden power of sacred phrases combined with numbers. Although some of Sufism’s modern apologists and detractors dismiss shrine visitation and talismans as popular excesses, these practices find support in the mystical doctrines of scholarly Sufis like the Andalusian Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) CE) and the learned shaykhs of many of today’s ṭuruq (Knysh 2017, 46–48, 53–57). To engage in such practices is to participate in a Sufi tradition, even without formal initiation as a Sufi.

Although each branch of each ṭarīqa has its own configuration of litanies and teachings, the litanies and teachings of the major ṭuruq are generally quite similar. Unlike sects or denominations, leaders of most ṭuruq today accept the validity of the others and share central concepts and goals. Many ṭuruq speak of the goal of focusing one’s attention on Allāh to the point of experiencing the extinction of the self (fanāʾ al-nafs) in the experience of the divine unity of existence (waḥdat al-wujūd) and the Prophet Muḥammad’s transcendent nature as the first of God’s creations (Schimmel 2014). The most important differences usually concern questions such as which shaykh occupies a uniquely lofty spiritual position or whether a particular group of Sufis is faithfully following its founder’s or Islam’s teachings.

In many cases, the most obvious way to identify a particular Sufi community is through its manner of reciting group dhikr, which may involve distinctive melody, rhythm, bodily movement, dress styles, and instrumental accompaniment. The use of preset tones and rhythms seems nearly universal in various ṭuruq’s group dhikr, even if certain groups only allow enough melody to maintain unison. The only major ṭarīqa that has historically rejected vocal group dhikr was the Naqshbandiyya, which emphasizes silent dhikr, although some branches have adopted group dhikr practices. Also, some rhythmic bodily motion is found nearly everywhere, ranging from minor, spontaneous swaying to prescribed head motions and breathing (e.g., in the Naqshbandī Ḥaqqānī and Chishtī ṭuruq) to minutely choreographed dancing (as in the Mevlevī ṭarīqa) to improvised frenetic dancing (various more locally popular groups) (Hill 2013b).

The melodious incantation of dhikr, sometimes with instrumental accompaniment, is often called “samāʿ” (“sacred audition”). Most ṭuruq engage in some form of samāʿ, although intense debate has surrounded what forms of musical performance, if any, are permissible. Some groups, like certain Naqshbandīs and Qādirīs, forbid more melodious and rhythmic recitation styles, and some ṭuruq historically forbade noninitiates from attending samāʿ (Lewisohn 1997). Other groups have developed samāʿ into an art form consumed by a global audience, as discussed below.

From Asceticism to Mysticism to Ṭarīqa to Popular Devotion

Despite modern depictions of Sufism as a marginal sect rejected by more “orthodox” Islamic scholars, for several centuries, taṣawwuf was widely seen as a pursuit that any serious Muslim – especially any Muslim scholar – was expected to learn alongside the Qurʾān, jurisprudence (fiqh), and doctrine (ʿaqīda). According to historian Ira Lapidus, “By the fifteenth century, throughout the Islamic lands the common people were ordinarily both the clients of schools of law [madhhab] and members of one or another Sufi brotherhood [ṭarīqa],” which together became “the backbone of Muslim community organization” (Lapidus 1996, 14–15). In Egypt, according to Michael Gilsenan, up until the nineteenth century, “the literate and the learned studied Sufi works, setting an example to the masses who looked on the Sheikhs of the ṭuruq as their leaders” (Gilsenan 1967, 11). Since the twelfth century CE, a striking proportion of Islam’s leading scholars have practiced taṣawwuf. Even Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 CE), considered a forefather by today’s Salafi movement, practiced taṣawwuf and is listed as a Qādirī shaykh in some spiritual genealogies (Makdisi 1973, 1979). Leadership positions in Al-Azhar, the preeminent Sunni scholarly institution, continue to be held by high-ranking members of the Khalwatī and Shādhilī ṭuruq (Chih 2007).

Sufism has gone through several discrete stages of development, starting as a form of largely solitary asceticism, then developing into a practice and theory of mystical knowledge, and then organizing into ṭarīqa social structures, whose saintly leaders have often become the center of massive popular devotion. In early texts, “Ṣūfī” and “walī” (pl. awliyāʾ: saint, or someone close to God) most often refer to exceptionally pious and ascetic men and women. Their piety consisted of scrupulous adherence to the example (Sunna) of the Prophet and his companions, extreme worldly renunciation, and constant acts of worship, such as spending the night in supererogatory ritual prayer. Although the earliest of these saintly ascetics were only identified as “Sufi” in retrospect, they are the direct progenitors of the first people called “Sufis,” and the later Sufi tradition shares their quest for absolute absorption in experience of God.

Baṣra, in present-day Iraq, was the first place to become famed for its ascetic men and women whose all-consuming love of God led to states of ecstasy. The first major Baṣran figure later described as a Sufi was Ḥasan al-Basrī (d. 728 CE), known for his otherworldliness and fear of God. Born in Medina, he reportedly learned during his youth from ʿAlī before moving to Baṣra. Many ṭuruq thus trace their spiritual genealogies through Ḥasan al-Baṣrī to ʿAlī. Perhaps the most famous Baṣran ascetic was a woman, Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya (d. 801 CE), whose reported sayings inspired Sufi doctrines of self-annihilation through love of God. Later, Ibn Taymiyya noted that some scholars condemned these Baṣran ascetics for extreme behavior while others celebrated them as the ideal Muslims. He himself took a middle road, declaring that they were on the whole sincere and acceptable, although he held up the Prophet and his companions as a better example, noting that they also loved God while showing moderation and sobriety (Th. Emil Homerin 1985). This question of balancing the inner, ecstatic experience of “drunkenness” in God with an outward display of “sobriety” in following Sharīʿa has remained at the heart of debates within and surrounding Sufism.

During the ninth to eleventh centuries CE, as Sufism shifted emphasis from abject asceticism to mysticism, saintly scholars who systematized the practice and theory of Sufism made great efforts to defend the orthodoxy of Sufi practice. Sufi writers condemned or contextualized apparently blasphemous ecstatic utterances (shaṭaḥāt) uttered by some Sufis, most famously those of Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj (d. 922 CE), who was executed for saying “I am the Truth” (anā al-ḥaqq) while in a state of divine rapture. Abū al-Qāsim al-Junayd of Baghdad (d. 910 CE), who codified many concepts still used in Sufism, taught the importance of attaining self-annihilation (fanāʾ) but then returning to persistence (baqāʾ) in following God’s commands (Karamustafa 2007, 15). Although many commentators have described Junayd as the founder of a “sober school” that rejected the unorthodox “ecstatic” or “drunken” Sufism of his day, it would be more accurate to say that, like many scholarly Sufis before and after him, Junayd believed in the complementarity of ẓāhir and bāṭin but insisted on only showing the ẓāhir (Mojaddedi 2003). This necessary complementarity was further developed and disseminated among the Islamic scholarly class by Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111 CE). Despite having detractors, al-Ghazālī was widely reputed as the leading Islamic scholar of his day and has perhaps been the most influential figure in integrating Sufism into mainstream, scholarly Islam (Moosa 2005; Whittingham 2007; Griffel 2009).

The next phase of Sufism was the establishment of more organized communities of practice as popularly recognized saints and their followers formed ṭuruq. This development further brought Sufism into the mainstream by relaxing stringent conditions previously required of those entering into Sufi practice and involving people of many walks of life. During the tenth and eleventh centuries CE, notions of systematic spiritual training and saintly intercession became more prominent. Some Sufi leaders had begun to establish networks of lodges (zāwāyā, sing. zāwiya; also, khānaqāh or ribāṭ) where followers in different locales lived according to strict rules. In Nishapur (in present-day Iran), Abū al-Qāsim al-Qushayrī (d. 1072 CE) taught strict obedience to one’s shaykh, upon whose spiritual energy (himma) the aspirant depended for spiritual progress (Karamustafa 2007, 116–19).

Sufi ṭuruq began to emerge in Baghdad during the twelfth century CE. One of the first was the Qādiriyya, named after the great scholar and public speaker ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (d. 1166 CE), a Persian living in Baghdad. Despite some debate over whether ʿAbd al-Qādir was a Sufi or a strict Hanbali jurist whose descendants founded a ṭarīqa in his name (Trimingham [1971] 1998, 40–44), his writings available now clarify that he was both (H. Malik 2018). The Qādiriyya now has countless independent branches worldwide, which have often incorporated local practices. The first ṭarīqa to become widespread among the Islamic elite of Sudanic Africa, the Qādiriyya, was subsequently popularized by Western Saharan saint Sīdī al-Mukhtār al-Kuntī (Batran 1973; Brenner 1988). Two other early ṭuruq, the Suhrawardiyya and Rifāʿiyya, also emerged in Baghdad during the late twelfth century (Trimingham [1971] 1998). The Suhrawardiyya is now one of the largest ṭuruq in South Asia, and the Rifāʾiyya spread through Central Asia.

Another early ṭarīqa that has established global influence is the Shādhiliyya, founded by the Moroccan Abū al-Ḥasan al-Shādhilī (d. 1258 CE). Like many Sufi aspirants, al-Shādhilī wandered widely in search of knowledge, first in Morocco and Tunisia, then Baghdad, then Morocco again, and finally Egypt, where he based his disciple community (Ibn al-Sabbagh 1993). The Shādhiliyya’s many branches and offshoots remain the most widespread ṭuruq throughout North Africa and Egypt. These groups include more “sober”/“orthodox” variants as well as more controversial ones. The more sober Darqāwiyya branch has become widespread among Western converts to Islam, including American shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller and Scottish shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi, founder of the global Murabitun movement. Many Moroccan ṭuruq descend from the Shādhilī lineage through Muḥammad al-Jazūlī (d. 1465 CE), who popularized the now-influential idea of the Muhammadan Way (ṭarīqa muḥammadiyya). Al-Jazūlī’s approach involved incessant prayers for the Prophet Muḥammad, asserted love for and concentration on the Prophet as the means to the highest spiritual station, and prescribed emulating the Prophet Muḥammad to the point of embodying the Muḥammadan Reality (al-ḥaqīqa al-muḥammadiyya) (Cornell 1998, Chaps. 6–7; Wright 2005; see also Schimmel 2014).

Central Asia, including what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan, also brought a number of ṭuruq that remain influential today (Trimingham [1971] 1998). The two that have the largest following today are the Chishtiyya and the Naqshbandiyya. Although Chishtīs trace their ṭarīqa’s foundation in the Afghan town of Chisht to the early tenth century CE, the ṭarīqa apparently only became well known in the twelfth century when Muʿīn al-Dīn Chishtī (d. 1230) migrated to India and established a community there. The other numerically important ṭarīqa today originating in Central Asia, the Naqshbandī ṭarīqa, began to take shape around 1200 CE in what is now Uzbekistan and developed a distinct ṭarīqa identity during the mid-fourteenth century (Trimingham [1971] 1998, 62–63; Weismann 2007a). Branches of the Naqshbandiyya became particularly prominent in Central Asia, Turkey, Kurdistan, South Asia, and Syria. Another ṭarīqa originating in Central Asia is the Mevleviyya, which descends from Mevlānā Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273 CE), a Persian who established himself in Anatolia (Turkey). Although the Mevleviyya ṭarīqa itself is small and localized, it is arguably the world’s most popularly recognized Sufi tradition (see below).

In fourteenth-century (CE) Turkey, another influential ṭarīqa arose, the Khalwatiyya, which was formed by a number of Sufis with different silsilas. Facing persecution in Turkey, many of the ṭarīqa’s shaykhs and adherents fled to Egypt, where the Khalwatiyya has gained many Egyptian followers since the eighteenth century, including many of Egypt’s most prominent scholars (Trimingham [1971] 1998, 74–77; Chih 2007).

Most of the thousands of ṭuruq and sub-ṭuruq existing today have grown out of the abovementioned spiritual lineages. A more ambiguous pattern is represented by the Tijāniyya, a more recent ṭarīqa with a large global following. Its founder, Shaykh Aḥmad al-Tijānī (d. 1815), was born in Algeria and then traveled to Egypt in search of knowledge before settling in Morocco. Al-Tijānī acquired chains of transmission through the Khalwatiyya and several Shādhiliyya-Jazūliyya offshoots, yet he renounced these chains on the grounds that the Prophet Muḥammad had given him a new wird, which was to form the basis of a new ṭarīqa directly connected to the Prophet. The Tijāniyya spread during the nineteenth century to West Africa, where it has become the most widespread ṭarīqa, with tens of millions of adherents. Despite its independent spiritual lineage, the Tijāniyya builds on the ṭarīqa Muḥammadiyya concept, prescribing daily prayers for the Prophet Muḥammad as a means of attaining gnosis (Wright 2005).

Scholars who practiced and taught Sufism have been responsible for carrying Islam throughout much of the Muslim world. Although Islam existed in sub-Saharan Africa long before ṭuruq became prevalent there, it only became widely popular in many areas with the arrival of scholars of the Qādirī and, later, Tijānī and other ṭuruq. Indonesia, the country with the largest population of Muslims, became predominantly Muslim due to the influence of an assortment of Yemeni, Maghribi, Chinese, and Javanese saints starting in the fourteenth century CE. Some of these saints are remembered as the “Nine Saints” (wali songo), who are now attributed with fostering syncretism to help locals embrace Islam, for example, inventing shadow plays and other art forms. However, they themselves were trained in traditional jurisprudence and taught their immediate disciples a rigorous Islamic practice. Many of them were initiated into the Qādiriyya or Naqshbandiyya ṭuruq and were influenced by the scholarly Sufism of al-Ghazālī (Laffan 2011). Although most did not initiate many people into Sufism, their generally mystical approach to Islam and sainthood shaped Islam’s development in Indonesia. In both Africa and Indonesia, Sufi initiation only became more widespread much later.

Sufism and Politics: From Jihad to Informal Political Authority

It has become commonplace for governments, pundits, and many Sufis to promote Sufism as a pacifistic, apolitical antidote to Islamic fundamentalism and violent Islamic extremism. Certainly, there is certainly a long Sufi tradition of shunning politics and seeking peace (Babou 2007; Sanneh 2016), and in the contemporary context, militant Islamic extremists tend to be violently anti-Sufi. Yet blanket statements about Sufism’s pacifism and apolitical nature overlook centuries of Sufi engagements in politics. In many parts of the world, Sufi figures’ popular clout has made them uniquely effective social and political mobilizers. Local rulers and colonial officials have therefore often seen Sufi leaders as their most potent potential foes or allies. Generally, Sufism practitioners see their spiritual practice as tied to ideals of social and political change. Here I provide a few examples from colonial and postcolonial North and West Africa, and the following section discusses the roots of some contemporary Islamist reform movements in Sufism, even if they have since drifted from their Sufi roots.

In North and West Africa, French and British colonial authorities perceived Sufi leaders as the primary threat to their efforts to divide and conquer. Sufi leaders’ transcendence over tribal and ethnic identities made them uniquely able to unite fractious societies (Gellner 1969). Algeria’s national hero of resistance to French colonialism, Amīr ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jazāʾirī (c. 1807–1883), was an Islamic erudite and a shaykh in the Qādirī ṭarīqa to whom the Berber tribes of Oran (Wahrān) turned to unite them against French aggression. In 1834, a French treaty gave ʿAbd al-Qādir independent control over a vast state in Oran, but the French broke this and subsequent treaties, leading to over a decade of guerrilla warfare. After surrendering to the French in 1847, ʿAbd al-Qādir spent 5 years imprisoned in France. However, in 1860, after moving to Damascus, he attained hero status in West and East for saving Lebanese Christians from a potential genocide at the hands of Druze militias. Unlike today’s jihadists, ʿAbd al-Qādir fascinated and won the respect of Westerners through his civility and respect. He devoted his last years to writing on Sufism, the Qur’ān, and other topics (Woerner-Powell 2017).

In Northern Nigeria, another shaykh of the Qādirī ṭarīqa, the ethnic Fulani ʿUthmān dan Fodio (d. 1817), waged jihad against local states to establish the Sokoto Caliphate in 1809. Although ʿUthmān Dan Fodio saw himself as a clairvoyant with a divinely inspired mission, the Caliphate did not explicitly promote Sufism but rather sought to build a state and society on a strictly Islamic model (Hiskett 1973). The Sokoto Caliphate ruled over much of today’s Northern Nigeria until 1903, when the British took over and replaced the position of Caliph with that of “Sultan.” The heirs of the Caliphate lack political power yet still maintain great influence.

A few decades after ʿUthmān dan Fodio established his Caliphate, several other ethnic Fulani Sufi shaykhs – this time from the Tijāniyya ṭarīqa – conducted jihads against local rulers they saw as corrupt and unjust. These Sufi jihadists included Al-Ḥājj ʿUmar Fūtī Tall (d. 1864), whose vast caliphate stretched from present-day eastern Senegal into Guinea and Mali (Robinson 1985). Another was Aḥmad Ba, known as Màbba Jaxu (d. 1867), who founded a similar state in Western Senegal (Klein 1968). Both shaykhs began their conquests before French control over the area, but both died in battles with the French and their local allies. Although their states were short-lived, they had a lasting impact on the predominance of Islam and the Tijāniyya in the area.

Given their history with these revolutionary Sufi leaders, around the turn of the twentieth century, colonial authorities in French West Africa were alarmed as traditional aristocracies crumbled and society rallied around charismatic Sufi leaders. The French exiled several popular shaykhs, fearing they could instantly mobilize armies for jihad if they desired. One of these shaykhs was Shaykh Aḥmadu Bamba Mbacké (d. 1927), a Qādirī shaykh’s son in Senegal who ultimately founded the Murīdiyya ṭarīqa. After exiling him to Gabon and then Mauritania, the French kept him under house for his later life in the town of Diourbel while his disciples built his spiritual capital of Touba, where he had only been allowed to live briefly before his exile (Babou 2007). However, Senegalese Sufi leaders and French colonial authorities both came to realize that they could best realize their objectives through mutual accommodation (Robinson 2000).

During this chaotic time, Shaykh Aḥmadu Bamba sought to integrate masses of people – many of them new Muslims – who approached him for guidance and spiritual power yet who were not prepared to commit to perform lengthy litanies. He therefore conditioned entrance into his ṭarīqa simply on pledging allegiance (bayʿa, Wolof: njébalu) to the shaykh (Glover 2007). Although Shaykh Aḥmadu Bamba introduced his own wird in 1904, receiving it is not generally part of initiation, and disciples could practice the Tijānī or Qādirī wird if they chose. Instead, Bamba defined discipleship as consisting of love for the shaykh (ḥubb), service to him (khidma), and bringing him offerings (hadiyya) – behaviors he described as contributing to spiritual education (tarbiya) (Babou 2007). The result has been to inculcate a strong work ethic that led to new communities being built around the focal point of shaykhs, who controlled and redistributed resources. Controversially, some Murīd shaykhs – especially, but not only, those of the Baay Faal branch – exempt their followers from fasting and ritual prayer, describing disciples’ hard work as a form of prayer (Pezeril 2008; Cochrane 2017).

Today, around 90% of Senegalese identify themselves as disciples of some Sufi leader. Although the majority ṭarīqa in Senegal, the Tijāniyya, continues to tie formal initiation to wird transmission, many uninitiated people strongly identify as disciples of a shaykh. These collective allegiances have given rise to a particularly Senegalese model of Islam-dominated secularism in which Sufi leaders exercise de facto authority and greatly influence policies, election outcomes, and economic production (Villalón 1995). Although economic and cultural changes have led to a decline in Sufi leaders’ influence over elections, despite many observers’ predictions, these leaders remain central to Senegalese culture and politics.

Sufism in Islamist Reform

In other contexts, Sufis have taken part in explicit Islamic reform movements, including in movements reputed for opposing widespread Sufi practices. Many Islamist movements were founded by Sufis and have incorporated certain Sufi practices and concepts, even if many participants today have moved away from Sufism toward literalist piety and political activism. Two of the most influential of these movements are the Society of Muslim Brothers and Deobandi educational movement.

One of the most politically active and influential modern Islamic organizations has been the Society of Muslim Brothers (or Muslim Brotherhood), founded in Egypt by Ḥasan al-Bannā (1906–1949). Appalled by Egypt’s servility to British imperialism and capitalism, Al-Bannā founded the Society with the belief that building a strong and independent society required reforming Muslims’ behavior and spirituality. The son of a rural watchmaker and Islamic intellectual, al-Bannā was raised in an environment where Muslims committed to sober piety turned to Sufi ṭuruq. His father published dozens of volumes on fiqh, ḥadīth, and Sufism, including a book defending the orthodoxy of a Shādhīlī litany (Krämer 2009, 13). As a studious teenager, Ḥasan al-Bannā became a leading member of the Shādhiliyya Ḥaṣāfiyya ṭarīqa, several of whose members would become prominent Muslim Brothers. Al-Bannā later described his local Ḥaṣāfī group as the precursor of the Society of the Muslim Brothers, and he described the ṭarīqa’s shaykhs as influences throughout his life (Krämer 2009, 15–19). Al-Bannā’s title as “Supreme Guide” (murshid ʿāmm) of the Muslim Brothers derived from Sufi organization, as did the pledge of allegiance (bayʿa) required of new Muslim Brothers. Early meetings of the Muslim Brothers, modeled after a Sufi ḥaḍra meeting, featured litanies chanted in unison (Krämer 2009, 30). Ḥasan al-Bannā even authored a handbook of litanies – which he called by the Sufi term “wird” – that he prescribed to Muslim Brothers (Krämer 2009, 53, 70). Ultimately, however, al-Bannā’s attempts to bridge the Sufi-Salafi divide failed as more Salafi-oriented voices became dominant in the organization (Krämer 2009, 70–75; Soage and Franganillo 2010).

However, in Syria during the 1970s, some Naqshbandī shaykhs remained central members of the Muslim Brotherhood and advocated a middle ground that opposed Syria’s secularist Baʿth regime yet avoided both violent extremism and Sufi excesses. Although these “Salafi Sufis” avoided public identification as Sufis, they advocated group dhikr practice to cultivate an authentically Muslim community. These Syrian Naqshbandīs were greatly influenced by Indian Naqshbandī reformist Abū al-Ḥasan al-Nadwī (d. 1999), who had close ties to the Indian Deobandi reform movement (Weismann 2007b). Yet even as some Naqshbandī shaykhs opposed the Syrian regime, another, Aḥmad Kuftārū (d. 2004), decided that he would be more effective through accepting the Baʿth regime’s appointment as Syria’s Grand Mufti (Weismann 2007a, b).

In South Asia, Sufis have had a complicated relationship to politics for centuries. Some have resolutely avoided politics while others have led militant Islamic reforms (Eaton 1978). Today, the great division in South Asian Islam is less between Sufis and non-Sufis than between the more puritanical Deobandi movement and the more popular Barelvi movement, both founded and led by Sufi scholars. The Darul Uloom Islamic school in Deoband, India, was founded in 1867 near Delhi, from whence it has spawned thousands of schools throughout India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and later around the world, especially among the South Asian diaspora. Teachers in the Deobandi school network are typically both devoted Sufis and strict practitioners of Ḥanafī jurisprudence. Many Deobandi masters were themselves initiated in several Sufi ṭuruq (especially the Chishtī, Naqshbandī, Suhrawardī, and Qādirī) (Metcalf 1982; Ingram 2018). The Deobandi movement’s global spread was facilitated by its official avoidance of overt political activity in favor of educating the public in strict Islamic practice.

Deobandis are widely perceived as anti-Sufi because they oppose widespread Sufi practices they consider to be un-Islamic innovations (bidʿa), such as visiting saints’ tombs, venerating the Prophet Muḥammad, and embellishing dhikr with music and dance. This opposition has brought them into sometimes violent conflict with the proponents of these practices in South Asia, who have joined together in the Barelvi movement, with which most South Asian Muslims are aligned. Despite their affiliation with the same ṭuruq and their official focus on religious practice over politics, both movements have become intensely political, and there have been incidents of violence between adherents of the two (Jackson 2013). The Deobandi school is also known as the source of two important Islamic reform movements: the Tablīghī Jamāʿat and the Taliban. Despite sharing an interpretation of Islamic practice, these two movements approach politics differently.

The Tablīghī Jamāʿat is a global missionary movement that, emulating the original Deobandi teachers, carefully avoids overt political engagement. The movement began during the 1920s to preach to nominally Muslim Indian peasants who continued to venerate Hindu deities and did not conduct the five daily prayers (Sikind 2007). It continues to focus its missionary work on fellow Muslims, and members organize preaching trips that last days or months (khurūj fī sabīlillāh, lit. “going out for the sake of God”) (Wario 2012; Janson 2014). Although not all Tablīghīs seek Sufi initiation at the hands of a shaykh/pīr, individuals count daily dhikr on prayer beads (Metcalf 2002).

In the run-up to Pakistani partition in 1947, the Deobandi political organization Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind opposed partition, while Barelvis overwhelmingly supported it (Jackson 2013). However, a group of Deobandis militantly supported an independent Muslim state in Pakistan, forming Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam in 1945. During the 1980s, the same organization set up thousands of Deobandi schools along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, where three million Afghan refugees lived during the Soviet occupation. Students in these schools, known as ṭālibān (Urdu plural of Arabic ṭālib, “student”), went on to found a highly puritanical Islamization movement with the support of these Deobandi schools (known in the West as “radical madrasas”) (Metcalf 2002). The Taliban’s more violent approach was largely a reaction to the generalized warfare and insecurity due to Soviet and Western proxy wars and was influenced by Arab Salafi jihadists who had come to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.

Both Deobandi and Barelvi movements have spawned increasingly militant trends, and leaders of both movements have declared the other’s adherents to be infidels and innovators (Jackson 2013; Ahmad 2016). Many Deobandis have joined the Taliban, and some have violently attacked Barelvis’ religious gatherings. Despite their more traditional Sufi orientation, Barelvis are not necessarily less political or militant. In 2011, Barelvi preachers incited the assassination of a governor who opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law and then organized mass protests against the assassin’s death sentence (Khan 2011). Barelvi militancy is usually related to their veneration of and defense of the Prophet Muḥammad.

In Turkey, Sufism’s significant political influence is generally indirect and covert. Once again, the decisive ṭarīqa is the Naqshbandiyya. For centuries, Turkey was a center of Sufi activities. Sufi intellectuals provided ideological justification for Ottoman rule from the sixteenth to early twentieth century CE (Yılmaz 2018). Yet in 1925, as part of a comprehensive modernization project, Kemal Atatürk’s secular nationalist government officially banned Sufi ṭuruq and lodges (tekke). However, ṭuruq have continued to operate unofficially. Indeed, Naqshbandī networks have given rise to four influential political and social movements, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan’s Islam-oriented Justice and Development Party and exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen’s banned spiritual-social movement, Hizmet (Yavuz 2003).

Ṭarīqa activity in Turkey has often been reconfigured to conform to Turkey’s dominant modernist, rationalistic ethos. The Naqshbandiyya Khālidiyya branch attracts mostly university students and professors, and it approaches dhikr activities and gatherings (ṣuḥba) as techniques to discipline the self. Participants minimize esoteric aspects, such as spiritual transmission and ecstatic states, while insisting that they are merely practicing “Islam” as opposed to anything specifically “Sufi” (Silverstein 2007, 2008). While this shift may owe something to the legal questionability of Sufi practice, it also reflects participants’ own self-understanding as “modern” Muslims, which has been shaped by Turkey’s political context.

Recently, the Naqshbandiyya has received some negative press due to the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandī Order in Iraq, a militant group founded in 2006 by Saddam Hussein’s right-hand man. The Naqshbandī Army’s opposition to the Western-supported, Shīʿī-led government has led to tactical collaborations with jihadist groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) (“Jaysh Rijal Al-Tariqa Al-Naqshbandia (JRTN)” 2015). Although Islamophobes have cited the Naqshbandī Army as proof that Sufism is just another cover for jihadism, this essentially Baʿthist organization has little clear relation to either Naqshbandī spiritual practice or Islamic radicalism. The Naqshbandī Army paid the price for its ill-advised dalliances with ISIS when, starting in 2014, ISIS betrayed it and sought to exterminate its members (Habib 2016).

The examples discussed here do not undermine the prevalent view among Sufis today that they are peaceful, moderate, and diametrically opposed to violent extremism. Rather, they complicate the stereotype of Sufism is an apolitical trend in Islam. In the cases discussed here, adherents of precisely the same ṭuruq take opposing political positions with respect to the powers that be, some collaborating with them, others violently opposing them, and yet others disengaging from them.

Contemporary Transformations: Global Networks and Gender

Sufi networks have always been intensely translocal. They have become even more so with the advent of air travel, transnational communities, the Internet, and smartphones. More pertinent than the question of whether Sufism has declined or resurged in the global age is the question of how its social roles and modes of organization and propagation are changing. While Sufism has in some places lost its former, taken-for-granted status as Islam’s spiritual dimension, many Sufi movements and communities have flourished through embracing change. It is now common in many ṭuruq to declare bayʿa and to transmit litanies over cellphones, email, or social networking apps. However, even if electronically mediated, Sufi practice is still rarely mass mediated or standardized. It continues primarily to take the form of personal transmission from spiritual guide to individual disciple, of local physical gatherings, and occasionally of larger meetings physically bringing together followers from different localities. This section will briefly address two aspects of global Sufism: the globalization of ṭarīqa through the Internet and the rise of women leaders.

Perhaps the most visible example today of a global, Internet-mediated ṭarīqa is the Naqshbandī Ḥaqqānī sub-ṭarīqa founded by the Turkish Cypriot Shaykh Nazim al-Ḥaqqānī (1922–2014). Shaykh Nazim met his shaykh, ʿAbdallāh al-Daghestānī (d. 1973) from the Russian Republic of Dagestan, in 1945 while studying in Damascus. After his shaykh’s death in 1973, Shaykh Nazim’s Ḥaqqānī branch became independent, increasingly marked by its own practices and teachings (Damrel 2006). Although his teacher’s spiritual lineage was only locally known, Shaykh Nazim built a large and visible global following by his death in 2014 through his constant travels in the Middle East, West, and Asia. His successor was his son in law, Lebanese medical doctor Hisham Kabbani, who had established himself in the United States in 1990 on Shaykh Nazim’s instructions. The Ḥaqqāniyya’s followers in the West are a mix of immigrants from various Muslim countries and largely educated, white, middle-class converts, many of whom became Muslim through the ṭarīqa.

Although Shaykh Nazim officially taught a traditionally orthodox Sunni practice of Islam, the ṭarīqa defines itself as open to all Muslims and accepting of non-Muslims as equals. Most of its followers in Vancouver are Shīʿī (Dickson 2014). The group’s decentralization and adaptability have allowed local communities to adopt different practices, for example, some practicing Mevlevi whirling (Nielsen et al. 2006). The Naqshbandiyya Ḥaqqaniyya has dozens of websites run by central leaders and followers (Schmidt 2004). However, this online presence has not brought about transnational solidarity or uniformity among followers globally. Rather, as in traditional Sufi orders, local groups remain vertically connected to the shaykh himself through his visits to them and certain members’ visits to him, with relatively few lateral connections (Nielsen et al. 2006).

In North America, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani and his followers have established several organizations involved in education, charity, and public policy. Kabbani’s Islamic Supreme Council of America positions itself as advocating authentic Islamic practice appropriate to “a modern secular society” and as seeking “to present Islam as a religion of moderation, tolerance, peace and justice” (qtd. in Damrel 2006, 119). Kabbani incensed many American Muslims when he told a US State Department Open Forum in 1999 that “extremism has been spread to 80% of the Muslims in the US” and that most American mosques were “being run by extremist ideologies” (qtd. in Damrel 2006, 120). Naqshbandī Ḥaqqānīs’ vocal support for the post-9/11 “war on terror” has contributed both to the movement’s estrangement from the mainstream Muslim umma and to its acceptance as an “American” religious group (Damrel 2006, 124; Dickson 2014).

Another major shift since the late twentieth century is that women have taken on more visible roles as leaders and followers in many Sufi orders around the world. There were many outstanding premodern Sufi women, from Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya to the prolific Damascene poet and author ʿĀʾisha al-Bāʿūniyya (d. 1517) (Th. Emil Homerin 2006; al-Bāʿūnīya 2011; al-Bāʿūnīyyah 2014) to the Northern Nigerian writer and leader of women Nana Asma’u (d. 1864), daughter of ʿUthmān dan Fodio (Boyd 1989; Nana Asma’u 1997; Mack and Boyd 2000, 2013). Yet only recently have many women begun to act more openly as Sufi leaders, often leading other women but sometimes leading both women and men.

In South Asia, as in many parts of the Muslim world, it is widely believed that a woman cannot be a Sufi saint (pīr). Although some women have played such roles throughout history, they are often perceived as breaching accepted norms. Typically, women are not formally appointed as pīrs in South Asian Sufi groups, yet some effectively play that role when formally acting on behalf of a pīr husband or father or occasionally on behalf of an unrelated pīr (Pemberton 2004). For example, Amma, a charismatic Sufi guide and healer in Hyderabad, India, had many followers and clients but lost her authority when her husband died (Flueckiger 2006). Today, whatever their official status, some South Asian women exercise Sufi leadership with considerable independence. For example, Baji Saeeda was appointed by the head of the Azimiyya order in Pakistan to represent the order in Europe. At Baji Saeeda’s meeting place in Manchester, England, male and female disciples mix freely, saying they are too focused on God to notice whether co-disciples or their leader are male or female (Werbner 2007, 200–202).

One of the most influential women’s Islamic movements is the Qubaysiyyāt, a mostly informal women’s teaching movement founded in Damascus by Munīra al-Qubaysī (b. 1933) in the 1980s. Students who studied with Qubaysiyyāt in Damascus have spread the movement around the world. The Qubaysiyyāt are best known for organizing individual and small-group tutoring sessions in private homes where more senior Qubaysiyyāt women teach other women the Qurʾān, jurisprudence, and other Islamic disciplines. Since the Assad government authorized them to teach publicly in 2006, they have opened dozens of girls’ schools and taught in mosques (Grewal 2014). The Qubaysiyyāt have largely avoided the government repression and suspicion faced by many male-led Islamic movements (Islam 2012). The Qubaysiyyāt organization grows out of the Naqshbandī ṭarīqa, and its hierarchical organization emulates that of a Sufi order, with Munīra al-Qubaysī as its central shaykha. More senior students are formal murīds of a Naqshbandī shaykha, and the organization stresses its initiatory chain back to the Prophet Muḥammad (Grewal 2014, 237).

In the Fayḍa Tijāniyya community, women have assumed formally recognized and visible leadership roles. Despite a long history of Tijānī women reputed to have a high spiritual level (al-Idrīsī 2010), until recently there were few women known to act as leaders. During the twentieth century, a few Tijānī women, for example, in Northern Nigeria, led other women in segregated women’s spaces (Hutson 1999, 2004). Since around 2000, however, dozens of women in the Fayḍa Tijāniyya branch of the ṭarīqa in Dakar, Senegal have begun to act openly as Sufi leaders with both male and female disciples, most of them urban youth. Partly due to global changes that have brought more women into prominent socioeconomic roles, these women have aroused surprisingly little controversy. Rather than openly challenging traditional gender roles, these women present their leadership as an extension of their roles as mothers and wives (Hill 2018). Perhaps the Fayḍa Tijāniyya’s best-known female representative in Senegal is Shaykha Maryam Niasse, daughter of Fayḍa founder Shaykh Ibrāhīm Niasse. Since she began teaching the Qurʾān informally in her home in Dakar during the 1950s, she has opened up four Qurʾānic schools and a large Islamic institute in Dakar. Less known is the fact that her father appointed her as a spiritual guide in the Tijāniyya and that she has initiated many disciples and appointed her own deputies (Hill 2013a, forthcoming).

In Turkey, a prominent contemporary Sufi leader is Cemalnur Sargut, who leads a branch of the Rifāʿiyya ṭarīqa. She was trained by two other women, her own mother and Samiha Ayverdi, both followers of a male leader, Kenan Rifai. Samiha Ayverdi, a prolific author, became accepted as Kenan Rifai’s successor, despite lacking his written authorization, a fact Cemalnur Sargut attributes to the banning of ṭarīqa structures in Turkey. In fact, this ban seems to have weakened patriarchal structures, making it easier for these women to step into roles traditionally held by men (Neubauer 2016). Sargut has drawn on Ibn ʿArabī’s and Rumi’s conceptions of femininity to associate women with mysticism and to posit an age of women (Neubauer 2009).

Sufism Beyond Islam?

Another contemporary trend in Sufism has been its adoption, adaptation, and appropriation in multiple contexts beyond that of Muslim communities engaging in taṣawwuf practice. Often, this has involved erasing or attenuating Sufism’s historical connection with Islam. Since the early twentieth century, a number of figures have independently introduced Sufi thought, practice, and culture into largely non-Muslim Western circles, often presenting it as a form of Eastern wisdom transcending any particular religion. Western Sufism practitioners developed “Traditionalist” or “Perennialist” thought (Sedgwick 2004), which holds that all religions share a single esoteric truth despite their outward differences. Numerous Sufi groups have formed that cater primarily to non-Muslims (Hermansen 2000). Elements of Sufi culture are being repackaged and consumed far outside their original context. Persian Sufi poets like Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī and Shams al-Dīn Ḥāfeẓ have become best sellers worldwide, largely through selective publications that de-Islamize their messages. The prolific writer Idries Shah (d. 1996) also removed references to God and Muḥammad to reimagine Sufism for Western audiences as a form of universal wisdom and psychology, famously influencing Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing (Moore 1986; Galin 1997). Communal dhikr practices such as Turkish Mevlevī samāʿ and South Asian qawwālī have gained popularity in world music circuits.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, several Western intellectuals, artists, and bohemians were initiated into Islam and Sufi orders during stints in places like Egypt and Morocco. A key figure was the French Orientalist Renée Guénon (d. 1951), who integrated Sufi thought and practice into his “Traditionalist” or “Perennialist” theory of religion (Sedgwick 2004). After moving to Cairo in 1930, Guénon joined a Shādhiliyya offshoot. Shortly thereafter, a young Swiss man inspired by his thought, Frithjof Schuon (d. 1998), joined another Shādhiliyya offshoot, the ʿAlāwiyya, while in Algeria. Schuon’s secret ʿAlawiyya branch in Switzerland became the spiritual home to many prolific Muslim Perennialist intellectuals, including Titus Burckhardt, Huston Smith, Martin Lings, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Christian followers adapted Schuon’s teachings and litanies for a Christian setting.

Schuon’s visions of Buddha and the Virgin Mary served as signs to embrace syncretism and to focus on inner spiritual truths while relaxing certain rules. Due to the centrality of the Virgin Mary, his ʿAlāwiyya eventually became known as the Maryamiyya. The Maryamiyya opened zāwiyas throughout Europe and America, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr (current head of the Maryamiyya) opened one in Iran, where he lived until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Schuon’s press World Wisdom published many of his and his followers’ influential works. A female follower named Gray Henry founded three major presses, two of which (Islamic Texts Society and Fons Vitae) remain important sources of works on Islam and world religions. In 1981, at the age of 73, Schuon moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he shifted from a Sufi-Islamic approach to a “Primordialist” approach drawing primarily on Hinduism and Native American religion. Following various scandals, including court cases alleging naked rituals, Schuon retired from leadership during the early 1990s. However, both the Maryamiyya and his Primordialist community continue to exist (Sedgwick 2004).

Another major strand of Sufism in the West is the Universal Sufism of Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927). Inayat Khan defined Sufism as “the essence of every religion and all religions,” which only takes on “Muslim terminology” when necessary “to make it intelligible” to Muslims (Khan 1960). Most of Inayat Khan’s followers are non-Muslims living in the United States, Europe, and Australia. For over a half-century, Inayat Khan’s not-specifically-Islamic brand of Sufism was the most widely available Sufi practice in the West (Genn 2007). Khan’s Sufism appealed especially to participants in hippie and New Age culture. Like Idries Shah, Khan presented Sufism as a general form of Eastern wisdom, even if his disciples included some Muslims, for example, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, who produced a widely used English Qurʾān translation (Ernst and Lawrence 2016, 142). Inayat Khan toured the West as an Indian classical musician in 1910 and soon returned to spread Sufi teachings. After some years in the United States, he settled with his American wife in France. Inayat Khan founded the International Sufi Movement, and his successors formed several other organizations. During the 1960s, Murshid Samuel Lewis, a prominent American disciple and a certified Zen master, reported being divinely inspired to bring Sufism to California’s hippies. Lewis founded the Sufi Ruhaniat International Order and the ecumenical Dances of Universal Peace.

Another predominantly non-Muslim Western Sufi organization is a branch of the Naqshbandī-Mujaddidiyya ṭarīqa associated with Russian-born Englishwoman Irina Tweedie (d. 1999). According to her memoir (Tweedie 1995), Tweedie spent 5 years during the 1960s studying Naqshbandī practice in India with a Hindu master who had been trained by a Muslim master (Sviri 1993). Her appointed successor, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, now heads the Golden Sufi Center, which has centers in the United Kingdom, California, and Germany. Vaughan-Lee draws heavily on Carl Jung’s thought to emphasize Sufism as a form of psychology.

It is striking that the same ṭuruq from which these largely non-Muslim or nonorthodox Western movements derive – the Naqshbandiyya, the Chishtiyya, and the Shādhiliyya (including its ʿAlāwiyya branch) – in many other contexts remain associated with sober Islamic orthodoxy. To most Sufism practitioners around the world, Sufism for non-Muslims probably makes as much sense as Catholic communion for non-Christians. However, followers of these modern reimaginations of the Sufi tradition are no less committed to what they consider the essence of Sufism.

In addition to these Sufi groups, elements of Sufi culture have been widely embraced by people who are neither Muslims nor self-identified Sufism practitioners. For many non-Sufis, “Sufism” is synonymous with the legacy of Mevlānā Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi). Although Rūmī himself was a Qurʾānic and Islamic legal scholar who warned against using his teachings outside the context of Islamic practice, his poetry has come to have deep meaning for various audiences (Friedlander 1992, xx). Since the mid-1990s, journalists have described Rūmī as the best-selling poet in America. Whatever the accuracy of this claim, dozens of scholarly and popular translations of Rūmī’s poetry have been published in English, most often by non-Muslim translators and reinterpreters, and his verses have been set to songs and symphonies (El-Zein 2000). Rūmī’s popularity in the West has hinged on his purveyors’ almost total erasure of his many Qur’ānic referents in favor of themes of all-consuming love and the illusory nature of the material world.

Rumi is also the originator of the most widely recognized samāʿ (Sufi musical) tradition in the West. Popularly known as “whirling dervishes” or “Sufi dancers,” disciples of the Mevlevi ṭarīqa founded by Rumi meditate on sacred litanies while rotating, as the fringe of their cloaks whirls outward like a disc. The samāʿ ceremony is accompanied by reed flutes, frame drums, and sometimes other instruments and singing. In Egypt, the Ministry of Tourism sponsors a weekly Mevlevi samāʿ performance in Islamic Cairo that attracts Egyptians and foreign tourists. In many parts of the Middle East today, troupes described as “Sufi dancers” – most of whom have no connection to the Mevlevi ṭarīqa – are hired to perform at weddings, in bars, and on cruise boats alongside belly dancers and lounge singers. Albums of “Mevlevi” music are marketed as meditation music to a New Age crowd (Uyar and Beşiroğlu 2014). For many people in both the Islamic world and the West, “Sufism” refers to this now-folkloric performance genre.

Another globally recognized genre of Sufi samāʿ is the South Asian genre of qawwālī. Introduced by the saint of the Chishtī ṭarīqa Amir Khusrau in Delhi during the thirteenth century CE, qawwālī fused the Hindustani classical musical tradition with the Islamic culture of India’s Turco-Persian rulers. It has been performed ever since in many Chishtī dhikr rituals. With instrumental accompaniment (often a harmonium, tabla and dholak drums, hand claps), a lead singer and backup singers intersperse sacred poetry with short dhikr phrases. Traditionally, qawwālī performances took place at the tomb shrines (dergah) of saints, which many people visit to access the saints’ spiritual power and help (Qureshi 1986). Partly due to the Chishtiyya’s openness to non-Muslims and noninitiates, qawwālī has long held deep meaning for various Muslims and non-Muslims. The advent of gramophone, radio broadcasting, and amplification technologies during the twentieth century dramatically transformed both the form and the consumption of qawwālī (Qureshi 1999). Qawwālī songs, often modified for concert halls, parks, and radio, became part of the cultural repertoire of many South Asians, regardless of religious background. Later, qawwālī musicians such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri Brothers collaborated with Western musicians and distribution companies to make qawwālī a major presence in the world music scene (Hermansen 2000, 180). This development has had the boomerang effect of raising qawwālī musicians’ superstar status back in the subcontinent.


Although Sufism’s many manifestations have always been highly contested, both among taṣawwuf practitioners themselves and by their reformist and modernist detractors, its variability and adaptability are what have allowed it to thrive throughout its history. This article has only been able to touch on a few of potentially countless examples of Sufism as a spiritual, historical, social, and political phenomenon, past and present. In addition to giving a sense of some commonalities and diversities in spiritual tradition, it has attempted to complicate some widespread generalizations about Sufism. Among these are the notion of Sufism as a marginal tradition in relation to “orthodox,” “mainstream,” or “scripturalist” Islam; the assumption the inexorable “rationalization” and “disenchantment” of the modern world will inevitably lead to a decline or disappearance of Sufism; and that Sufism is by nature apolitical, pacifistic, and inimical to “reformist” tendencies in Islam. Although Sufism has undergone many changes over its history, certain concepts remain central to most practices of taṣawwuf, even among movements that rely heavily on Internet communication. Among these are the practice of dhikr, the personal relationship of spiritual transmission between spiritual guide (murshid) and disciple (murīd), and the focus on inarticulable truths that must be experienced. However, the diverse phenomena described using the term “Sufism” cannot be grouped under a single definition that would please everyone who identifies with the tradition.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

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