2 Definitions of Sufism as a Meeting Place of Eastern and Western “Creative Imaginations” 53

In: Sufism East and West
Author: Alexander Knysh

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This chapter addresses various iterations of the term “Sufism” (tasawwuf) in modern-day academic and non-academic discourses. Because all scholarship begins and ends with definitions of the subject(s) explored, the very category “Sufism” can easily turn into a site of heated ideological debates and politically and theologically driven contractions and expansions. Definitions of Sufism being legion, the chapter focuses on the reasons and dynamics of inclusion in or exclusion from this notion of certain characteristics, individuals or phenomena. The process of defining and redefining reflects both obvious and not-so-obvious ideological and intellectual predilections of defining subjects. Obviously, ideologically driven constructions and adaptations of the object(s) defined are not unique to Sufism. They are, for example, abundantly attested for the notion of “Islam,” beginning with a very pertinent and hotly disputed issue of whether Sufism should be considered to be part of it. Without passing a final judgment on the validity or lack thereof of certain definitions of Sufism, the chapter emphasizes inclusion over against exclusion. Events, personalities and practices that various observers associate with Sufism should be included into it unless there are compelling and clearly established reasons not to do so. The “expansive definition” advocated in the chapter does do not necessarily outweigh or overrule more narrowly focused normative definitions as long as they are viewed as such, that is, attempts by a given party to legitimize and valorize a certain understanding of Sufism and Islam generally.