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Sufism and Transnational Spirituality (SATS): Experience, Meaning, and Networks in the Global Rise of Islamic Mysticism

General Background

In the decade following 9/11, much attention – both public and academic – has been paid to the appeal of transnational militant Islam among converts and diasporas in the West.  This focus has, however, to a large extent directed research away from detailed social analysis of the rising global appeal of non-violent Islamic movements. Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, is one of these.  Sufism has become increasingly visible as a spiritual alternative to other varieties of Islam since the 1960s, and its popularity seems to have increased further in the last decade – even though at the same time political anxiety about Islam and its negative treatment in the popular press have also both increased (Bruinessen and Howell 2007).  This project will analyse this rising but largely ignored popularity of Sufism in a politically changing, late-modern world.


As noted by many scholars (Casanova 1994; Habermas 2002), religion has resurged into the public sphere since the late 1970s.  This ‘desecularisation of the world’ has been complex (Bainbridge 2004; Berger 1999; Petitio and Hatzopoulos 2003).  It is clear however that the new importance of religion, especially ‘spiritual’ forms of religion, emerges out of what has been called a ‘subjective turn’ in contemporary life (Taylor 1991:26) – i.e. the new importance of individual experience as the basis for a sense of identity, belief and ontological certainty (Giddens 1991).  There is now a large amount of scholarship devoted to studying this link between the re–enchantment of modernity and modern individualism (Clarke 2006; Heelas and Woodhead 2005; Taylor 2007).  But when it comes to the role of Islam in this resurgence of religion, most attention has been given to militant Islam (Roy 2004). This is unfortunate, because Sufism represents an important case when it comes to rethinking the late-modern renaissance of religious belief.  Exploring Sufism within the new conditions of belief and identity afforded by late modernity will not only, we suggest, shed light on a hidden side of Islam, namely the social and symbolic power of its mystical tradition, but will also constitute a contribution to the academic understanding of how religion, spirituality, and alternative forms of community-building are employed by people on the fringes of society in both Europe and beyond to understand, negotiate, and navigate the global modern world.


Research hypothesis

To explore this, SATS will initiate detailed ethnographic investigation of a carefully selected group of transnational Sufi networks or orders (turuq) in order to probe the experiential, symbolic and organisational aspects of these global networks from a comparative and cross-disciplinary perspective. This three-dimensional focus on how Sufi religiosity is individually experienced, socially lived, and politically organised on a transnational scale will give us a solid basis on which to place the rise of Sufism within the complex global resurgence of religion and spirituality in the late 20th and early 21st century.


Conventionally defined as the mystical tradition of Islam (known in the Muslim world as tasawwuf) and a counterpart to the legalistic heritage within Islam, Sufism seeks to provide direct experience of God through exoteric and esoteric practice (Schimmel 1975; Stoddart 1976).  This entails coupling a focus on piety as the basis for outward behaviour with a strong emphasis on attaining an inner, mystical experience of God through rituals such as dhikr (repetitive and rhythmic prayers invoking the attributes of Allah).  Centred on the figure of the Shaykh, its spiritual leader, a Sufi group is bound together by a strongly regulated communal way of life that seeks to bring its members closer to a communion with God through the annihilation of the individual ego (fanā) (Heck 2007; Sedgwick 2003).  Sufism may in other words be said to be characterised by three closely connected characteristics:

  • A strong focus on achieving a direct mystical experience of God through an annihilation of the self.
  • A ritualisation of personal life and identity in pursuit of this.
  • A social organisation into a pious and loose, but still hierarchical, community coalescing around a spiritual leader that depends on traditional forms of authority, but that often has a global reach through modern media technologies.


The first hypothesis that informs SATS is that these characteristics of Sufism are at the heart of its global success, facilitating the mediated flow of ideas of proper piety and practice.  A study of the way Sufism is disseminated through global media as well as global forms of social organisation will allow the study of Sufism to make a broader contribution to the understanding of the way changing media patterns and forms of social organisation contribute to contemporary global re-enchantment.


The second hypothesis is that individual experience is central.  Sufi techniques to experience God directly may therefore well be an important part of its global appeal, in the West and increasingly also in the Muslim world itself (Bruinessen and Howell 2007; Louw 2007; Malik and Hinnells 2006).  Other aspects of individual experience, including the experience of community and ritual communitas, may also be of great importance (Bauman 2001).


The third hypothesis is that there is an overlap between the distinctly modern spiritual idea of finding and working with yourself and the focus within Sufism on the esoteric fusion of self and God (fanā).  Sufism has, it would appear, been lodged awkwardly but interestingly within what Scott Lash has called ‘the second modernity’, the modern tradition of critique of and opposition to the Enlightenment that instantiates a different rationality based on subjective experience, uncertainty, and experiment (Lash 1999).


The fourth, and final, hypothesis is that the rise of Sufism in the modern world grows out of a critique of, and concrete attempt to escape from, the perceived alienation from modern life, materialism, ‘scientism’ and consumerism, a perception that has long since penetrated the mainstream and become part of the (post)modern project of ‘working with the self’ (Giddens 1991; Heelas and Woodhead 2005).   Sufism may in other words be attractive because it offers a spiritual utopia and a path to self-realisation that presents itself as an alternative to both Western modernity and Islamic ‘fundamentalism’.  In a time of political Islam and a global war on terror, Sufism seems to suggest a third way.


Taken together, these hypotheses coalesce around a single proposition, namely that there is a serendipitous juncture between Sufi organisation, individual experience, and the ‘subjective turn’ in contemporary modernity. This, we suggest, has—against all previous expectations—enabled the global spread of Sufism.


Theoretical and scientific relevance

Sufism has been studied by Western scholars for 120 years, but most of these studies, especially the early and the anthropological ones, have suffered from two significant weaknesses that SATS proposes to remedy.


Firstly, most studies have been village-based.  As a result, classical studies of Sufism declared that mystical Islam with its rural associations, esoteric knowledge, and ecstatic orientation would gradually disappear in favour of more legalistic and text-oriented varieties of Islam (Geertz 1968; Gellner 1992; Gilsenan 1973; Tapper 1984).  The current global popularity of Sufism however runs against the grain of this view of Islamic mysticism.  Far from being a moribund tradition, Sufism is a global, religious, and mediated cult of the subject, the study of which relates intimately to current discussions about global modernity, contemporary subjectivity, and the future of religion.  So far, however, scholars of Sufism have been relatively slow to turn their interest towards how Sufism has ‘gone global’ (Werbner 2003; Spellman 2005).  With few exceptions (Raudvere and Stenberg 2008), the study of Sufism is still struggling to break loose from area-specific studies (Bruinessen and Howell 2007; Dressler, Geaves, and Klinkhammer 2008; Malik and Hinnells 2006; Westerlund 2004).


Secondly, studies of Sufism have tended to focus on homogenous social organisation and the formal workings of the orders in social, political or economic terms. As a result, they have tended, with a few exceptions, to ignore how Sufism is lived and experienced (but see Cornell 1998; Ewing 1997; Lizzio 2007; Werbner 2003).


We suggest that it is here that SATS makes an important new contribution, since the conventional focus on village-based and formal organisation has prevented proper investigation of how Sufism is experienced and lived within ‘loose’ global networks.


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