Western Sufism

Western Sufism

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

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.

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