Western Sufism

Western Sufism

Friday, October 7, 2022

Call for articles on the contemporary uses of Ibn ʿArabī

Call for Articles – Special Issue – Religiographies, Vol. 3, n. 1, May 2024: "Reviving Muḥyiddīn: The contemporary uses of Ibn ʿArabī’s thought and the reinventions of Islam."

The intellectual and spiritual legacy of Muḥyiddīn Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) has been the object of multiple socio-political and religious interpretations. The fact that his thought is at the same time intensely innovative and deeply rooted in the tradition may explain in part why it had such a lasting influence, both among followers and detractors (Knysh 1999). 

In the West, Ibn ʿArabī appears today as a central reference in contemporary debates concerning Islamic spirituality, and his thought is one of the main sources of inspiration of the proponents of various creative adaptations of traditional Sufism in contemporary societies, ranging from the most conservative forms to openly New Age and syncretic movements (Morris 1986; Sedgwick 2017). 

This special issue aims to explore and analyze contemporary cases of the use of Ibn ʿArabī’s thought, and to shed light on the motivations, dynamics and methods underlying its interpretations. 

We invite scholars from all backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences, as well as social and political actors and artists, to propose contributions focusing on Ibn ʿArabī in connection with one or more of the following topics: 

  • Sufism, Sufi institutions, and the spiritual path 
  • Theology, metaphysics, and epistemology 
  • Anthropology, cosmology, and world vision 
  • Normativity, Islamic law, and rituals  
  • Ethics, ecology, and politics 
  • Social issues, gender, and diversity 
  • Art, media, and creativity 

Download the call – Reviving Muḥyiddīn 

Guest Editors:

  • Mark Sedgwick (Aarhus University)
  • Gregory Vandamme (Université catholique de Louvain

Deadline: 5th of January 2023

Monday, August 8, 2022

Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch and the mystical study of mysticism

Doha Tazi Hemida has just published an excellent article about Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch (1909-1999) who, as she notes, is not mentioned in my Western Sufism, and really should be. The article is “Another Orientalism? The Case of Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch and Rumi,” preprint in Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies (2022), https://doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2022.2104171.

Vitray-Meyerovitch encountered Rumi through Louis Massignon (1883–1962), and Tazi Hemida draws attention to the conclusion of Pierre Rocalve, that Massignon founded a “a school of mystic specialists in mysticism.” She sees Vitray-Meyerovitch as another example of what she calls the “mystical study of mysticism,” which she argues convincingly is quite different from Orientalism and “the colonial relation of power and knowledge that seeks to appropriate its object of study, to destroy it and make it its own.” “The ‘type’ that de Vitray exemplifies belongs to a variety of Islamic Orientalism that is not invested in a civilizational endeavour of self-consolidation but rather inserts itself within a long subterranean tradition of encounters,” including European-Sufi encounters.

Tazi Hemida observes correctly that while the German and American reception of Rumi was mostly through poets (Goethe, Emerson and Thoreau), the French reception was through Orientalists (Massignon, Corbin, Vitray-Meyerovitch). Of these “mystic specialists in mysticism” only Vitray-Meyerovitch went beyond the universalism that she found in Rumi and actually became Muslim, in about 1954. She then learned Persian, and published her translations of Rumi between 1973 and 1990. She also spent 1969-73 teaching comparative philosophy at the Azhar in Cairo, and in 1972 became a follower of the Moroccan Sufi shaykh Sidi Hamza al-Qadiri al-Boudchichi (1922–2017).

Citation: Pierre Rocalve, Louis Massignon et l’islam: Place et rôle de l’islam et de l’islamologie dans la vie et l’œuvre de Louis Massignon (Damascus: Presses de l’Ilfpo, 1993).

Friday, March 5, 2021

Two new articles on Western Sufism, and one of relevance

Two new chapters on Western Sufism, and one of relevance to it, have just been published in a new book, Esoteric Transfers and Constructions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ed. Mark Sedgwick and Francesco Piraino (New York: Palgrave, 2021). They are:

  • "The Sufi Shaykh and His Patients: Merging Islam, Psychoanalysis, and Western Esotericism" by Francesco Piraino, pp. 195-217.

The Sufi shaykh in question is Gabriele Mandel, in Italy, who combines Islam, psychoanalysis, and Western Esotericism.

  • "Sufism and the Enneagram" by Mark Sedgwick, pp. 219-246.

Covers the complicated relationship between the Enneagram from Gurdjieff to the Naqshbandiyya.

  • "Heretical Orthodoxy: Eastern and Western Esotericism in Thomas Moore Johnson’s 'Platonism'" by Vadim Putzu, pp. 273-296.

Not strictly speaking about Sufism, but important, as Thomas Moore Johnson was the publisher of some of the important articles about Sufism by C. H. A. Bjerregaard, and was also connected in other ways.

See https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030617875 for full details.  

Monday, December 28, 2020

New book on eight North American orders

Eight Sufi orders in North America are discussed in a new collection, Varieties of American Sufism: Islam, Sufi Orders, and Authority in a Time of Transition, ed. Elliott Bazzano and Marcia Hermansen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2020). The book starts with a good introduction by Hermansen.

Of the eight orders, only two are discussed in my Western Sufism: the Sufi Order of Inayat Khan (chapter by Geneviève Mercier-Dalphond) and the Mevlevi Order of America (chapter by Simon Sorgenfrei). The other six are not discussed, as they were established less than fifty years ago.

In terms of new research, the two most valuable chapters are by Bazzano on the Shadhiliyya of the Palestinian shaykh Muhammad Sa‘id al-Jamal (1935-2015), and by Rasul Miller on the Tijaniyya among Black American Muslims in New York City. Nothing significant has been published by anyone on either of these before. The Tijaniyya chapter is especially interesting for what it shows about gender.

Two chapters usefully summarize unpublished PhD dissertations: Sorgenfrei on the the Mevlevi Order of America from his “American Dervish: Making Mevlevism in the United States of America” (University of Gothenburg, 2013) and Melinda Krokus on the Ansari Qadiri Rifa‘i Tariqa from her “The Poetic Body: Love and Knowledge in a Transnational Sufi Order, the Qadiri Rifa'i Tariqa” (Boston University, 2014). 

Three chapters provide accessible summaries of important recently published work: William Rory Dickson on the Golden Sufi Center (from his Living Sufism in North America, 2015), Merin Shobhana Xavier on the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship (from her Sacred Spaces and Transnational Networks in American Sufism, 2018), and Julianne Hazen on the Alami Tariqa (from her Sufism in America, 2017).

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Inayatiyya in Austria

A new article explores the Inayatiyya (formerly: the Sufi Order) in Austria and, especially, its innovative approach to gender. The article is Sara Kuehn and Lukas Pokorny, “On Inayati Female Visions in Austria: Female Leadership in the Western Sufi Tradition,” Religion in Austria 4 (2019), 53–114, available https://www.academia.edu/38435835.

The article focuses on the teachings and activities of Murshida Zumurrud Butta, who was initiated by Pīr Vilayat Inayat Khan, and has been active in Vienna since the mid 1990s. Butta is also a chirāg, and Universal Worship is celebrated. The article also covers the activities of Lisa Malin, the head of the Sufi Healing Order in Austria, also initiated by Pīr Vilayat.

The focus, however, is on what Kuehn and Pokorny call Butta’s “gender-inclusive, or what might be called feminist, hermeneutics” (71). These are explored at length. They have also had an impact on practice. Part of the central prayer of the Inayatiyya asks:

Allow us to recognize Thee in all Thy holy names and forms:
as Rama, as Krishna, as Shiva, as Buddha,
Let us know Thee as Abraham, as Solomon, as Zarathustra,
as Moses, as Jesus, as Muḥammad, 
and in many other names and forms known and unknown to the world

In Vienna, this is now:

Allow us to recognize Thee in all Thy holy names and forms:
as Sītā, Rama, Rādhāand Krishna, as Pārvatī, Shiva, Tara and Buddha,
Let us know Thee as Sarah, Hagar and Abraham, as Deborah, Solomon, Anahita and Zarathustra,
as Asiya, Aaron, Miriam and Moses, as Mary, Jesus, Khadīja and Muḥammad,
and in many other names and forms known and unknown to the world (74)

A rich and very interesting article.

On the term "Neo-Sufism"

My use of the term “Neo-Sufism” is discussed in a footnote to a recent article, Kuehn and Pokorny (2019), and it is clear that I need to clarify this. Note 7 observes that I used the term in 2006 and 2012, that it was challenged by O’Fahey and Radtke (1993), and that in 2017 I used “Western Sufism” rather than “Neo-Sufism.”

Confusion arises because there are two distinct senses in which the term has been used. The oldest, to which O’Fahey and Radtke (1993) are referring, was coined by Fazlur Rahman in 1968, and refers to a group of revivalist or reformist Sufi ṭarīqas in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Muslim world. O’Fahey and Radtke questioned this use on the grounds that Rahman had in part misunderstood what was going on. I agreed with them in 2005. This use, then, has absolutely nothing to do with the modern West. 

The other and distinct use was coined by specialists in (Western) New Religious Movements, who have for many years being discussing what they call Neo-Paganism and Neo-Hinduism to denote contemporary Western forms of the phenomena in question, and who identified a parallel development they called “Neo-Sufism.” This is the sense in which I used the term in 2006 and 2012, not because I myself particularly liked it, but because the editors of the works in question had chosen it and asked me to write on it.

Normally, research on the eighteenth-century Muslim world and on the contemporary West remains separate, so the two uses of the term “neo-Sufism” can also remain separate. Sometimes, however, they come together, and confusion results. This is one reason that I used the term “Western Sufism” in 2017. The other is that I do not actually think that Western Sufism is particularly “neo.” It is marked by its place and time, but so are most other varieties of Sufism, now and in the past.

  • Kuehn, Sara, and Lukas Pokorny (2019). “On Inayati Female Visions in Austria: Female Leadership in the Western Sufi Tradition,” Religion in Austria 4: 53–114.
  • O’Fahey, Rex S., and Bernd Radtke (1993). “Neo-Sufism Reconsidered,” Der Islam 70 (1): 52–87. 
  • Rahman, Fazlur (1968). Islam. New York: Anchor Books. 
  • Sedgwick, Mark (2005). Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill 
  • Sedgwick, Mark (2006). “Neo-Sufism.” In Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ed., Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. Leiden: Brill, 846–849.
  • Sedgwick, Mark (2012). “Neo-Sufism.” In Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein, eds., Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 198–214.
  • Sedgwick, Mark (2017). Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

American Jews, Buddhism, and Sufism

A great new book on American Jews and Buddhism touches directly on Western Sufism at points, and also has broader implications. It is Emily Sigalow, American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change (Princeton University Press, 2019).

American JewBu combines history with anthropology. The book’s first section is historical, tracing the development of the Jewish encounter with Buddhism in the United States. Sigalow starts with the first ever public conversion to Buddhism in America, by Charles T. Strauss (who was of Jewish background) in 1893. She then traces three subsequent phases, one during which Judaism influences American Buddhism, one during which Buddhism influences American Judaism, and one during which meditation becomes medicalized and mainstream. The book’s second section is anthropological, investigating today’s Jewish-Buddhist milieu and its inhabitants, looking especially at questions of spirituality and identity. Both sections are beautifully written.

The first point at which American JewBu directly touches Western Sufism is the discussion of Sam Lewis (1896-1971), who Sigalow identifies as a universalist, perennialist, Jewish Buddhist. I had always thought of him as a universalist, perennialist, Jewish Sufi. If someone is a universalist perennialist, as Lewis certainly was, it is perhaps absurd to claim them exclusively for Sufism or Buddhism. Even so, Lewis did primarily self-identify as a Sufi.

Lewis belongs to Sigalow’s second phase, in which Judaism liberalized American Buddhism. In the third phase, during which Buddhism contributed to the creation of “Contemplative Judaism,” Lewis’s friend Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2019) appears. Sigalow identifies him (not as explicitly as she does Lewis) as a universalist, Buddhist Jew. Schachter-Shalomi was also, of course, a universalist Jewish Sufi, initiated by Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916-2004), although on this occasion his primarily self-identification remained that of a Jewish rabbi.

American JewBu touches indirectly on Western Sufism in two ways. Firstly, just as one might wonder why so many American Buddhists are (in the widest sense of the word) Jewish, one might wonder why so many American Sufis are (in the same wide sense) Jewish. It was not only the first American Buddhist, Strauss, who was Jewish, but also the first American Sufi, Rabia Martin (1871-1947, born Ada Ginsberg). Secondly, the processes of religious change (the final part of Sigalow’s subtitle) that produced the American JewBu presumably have something to do with the processes of religious change that produced the American Sufi.

For the first question, Sigalow reviews prior theories, and adds some of her own. She classes prior explanations of the American JewBu as historical, religious/theological, demographic, and “pull.” Historical explanations point to the shared focus on suffering of Judaism and Buddhism, which has no echo in Sufism. Religious/theological explanations point to the use of religious texts, the conception of God, the emphasis on universal truth, and mystical traditions—all of which would work equally well for Sufism. Demographic explanations point out that there may be a far higher percentage of Jews among American Buddhists than among the general population of the US, but that there are also disproportionately many Jews in the demographic from which American Buddhists come—“the highly educated upper middle class, intellectuals, artists, and bohemians.” Again, as for Buddhism, so for Sufism: American Sufis come from exactly the same demographic. Finally comes “pull,” especially the way that Buddhist practices (seem to) work so well. That must be an important factor for all American Buddhists, not just Jewish ones. I am not sure how much it applies to Sufism.

Sigalow then suggests five explanations of her own. One is the demographic, which she re-names “social location,” drawing attention also to “shared occupational space”—an awful lot of psychotherapists, for example. My own impression is that there are also an awful lot of Sufi psychotherapists. Then comes the fact that “Judaism and Buddhism do not have a fraught history with each other.” She noted a “quiet uneasiness” in many of her informants when it came to Christianity. This makes sense. While historically the relationship between Judaism and Islam has been less fraught that the relationship of either with Christianity, relations between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East today are certainly somewhat fraught, which must give Buddhism an edge. Sigalow’s third explanation is that Buddhism has always been organizationally open, which is also true of some varieties of Western Sufism but not of Islam, and her fourth and fifth explanations derive form the impact of American Jews on American Buddhism: once Buddhism has become liberal and Buddhist leaders are often of Jewish background, Jews feel ever more at home there.

The main explanations that explain disproportionate Jewish participation in both Buddhism and Sufism, then, are probably the demographic, quiet uneasiness when it comes to Christianity, and “pull” (though that applies to everyone). To this one might add the declining attraction of certain forms of institutional religion, as Orthodox Judaism becomes too demanding and Reform Judaism becomes too tame, sending ever more Jews looking somewhere else.

For the second question, Sigalow emphasizes universalism, perennialism, and romanticism. These are among the major factors that I emphasized in Western Sufism, though I tended to pair universalism with perennialism, and leave romanticism a bit on its own.

She also wants to rehabilitate the term “syncretism,” which she thinks is unfairly stigmatized, especially if we are now all happy with “hybridity.” Many understandings of contemporary religious change use similar metaphors—salad bar, shopping basket, bricolage. These metaphors, Sigalow thinks, contribute to the way that much contemporary religiosity is not taken entirely seriously—and she may be right; there is certainly a problem with the way that anything that can be termed “New Age” is not really taken seriously.

What has actually been happening, Sigalow argues, is Jewish-Buddhist syncretism. This is certainly something that American JewBu does demonstrate. Was there ever an equivalent Jewish-Sufi syncretism? One can think of individual cases, including Lewis, but though there was undoubtedly syncretism when it came to Sufism in America, the standard counterpart to the Sufism does not appear specifically Jewish, but rather American or even Western. This might raise the question of to what extent the liberalization of American Buddhism that Sigalow notes was the result of Jewish influence, or of American influence.

American JewBu, then, is recommended for all who are interested in Western Sufism.