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date: 18 April 2024

Sufism in the Modern Worldlocked

Sufism in the Modern Worldlocked

  • Marcia HermansenMarcia HermansenDepartment of Theology, Loyola University Chicago

Summary

Sufism, the mystical expression of the Islamic tradition, has been for centuries a major cultural, social, political, and, of course, religious influence in diverse Muslim cultures. With modernity Sufism has been subjected to increased criticism, and in some cases repression and violent hostility, on the part of certain Muslim opponents. From another direction, secularizing reformers such as President Kemal Atatürk (d. 1937) of Turkey view Sufism as a repository of decadent behaviors and superstitions that are incompatible with modern values and rationality. It is also noteworthy that, in response to internal and external reactions to violent extremism especially post-9/11, political leaders in Muslim majority countries such as Morocco and Pakistan have attempted to promote Sufism as a potentially moderating and peaceful influence and therefore encouraged it in their societies. This approach has also been promoted by Western political interests that present Sufism as a moderating counter to violent extremism. These latter examples highlight the importance of the modern nation-state as it engages with Sufism and its institutions, especially in the postcolonial period.

Pre-modern forms of Sufism emphasized pledging allegiance (bay‘a) to a spiritual master and affiliating with a Sufi order (Arabic: ṭarīqa, pl. ṭuruq). Being part of a Sufi order was thus a communal, as well as a personal, commitment, and the hierarchy and sense of belonging they entailed led the orders to play an important social, and in some cases, political role. With modernity, esoteric elements of Sufi thought, as well as traditional folk practices of making vows and faith healing, along with earlier social forms of clientage and patronage, have become less relevant in increasingly urban environments. Some scholars of Sufism have therefore characterized the modern era as a time of decline and degeneration in Sufi social and political influence, as well as in Sufi intellectual production and literary and artistic creativity.

However, expectations that Sufism is on the wane are challenged by observations of how Sufis have adapted to changing circumstances in modernity, both in Muslim-majority societies and in the West. For example, some scholars document a Sufi renewal involving the rise of charismatic teachers and practices and the reach of new global networks. Sufi teachings are promoted through Internet sites and social media, while today’s Sufi teachers may draw on 20th century Western psychological frameworks to explain the spiritual and therapeutic impact of Sufi practices on individuals. Meanwhile Sufi ideas are disseminated to broader publics through music videos, conferences, and other cultural events, such that Sufism in these new configurations continues to inspire significant, if more diffuse, loyalties, both locally and globally. In an age of networking and social mobility, flows of individuals and ideas have created new transnational spheres for the influence and impact of Sufism. At the same time local conditions vary considerably in shaping its diverse contemporary expressions and adaptations.

Subjects

  • Islamic Studies
  • Mysticism and Spirituality
  • Religion in America

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