Global Sufism: Boundaries, Structures, and Politics, by Francesco Piraino and Mark Sedgwick (eds.)

In: Aries
Author: Liana Saif1,2
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  • 1 The Warburg Institute, United Kingdom, London
  • | 2 Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium, Louvain
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Francesco Piraino and Mark Sedgwick (eds.), Global Sufism: Boundaries, Structures, and Politics, London: Hurst and Company, 2019. xi + 299 p. ISBN: 9781787381346.

Global Sufism: Boundaries, Structures, and Politics is a collection of twelve articles dealing with the history of and factors behind the globalisation of Sufism from the nineteenth century to our time. This volume is valuable for its emphasis on the agency of Sufi actors in determining the trends of globalisation, and in strategically negotiating the role of Sufism in relation to perceived orthodoxies, to Islam and Islamic history, and to states. The overall approach is one that stresses the global dimension of contemporary Sufism without implying homogenisation ‘since it is well known that the local interacts with the global in the process that Roland Robertson called “glocalisation” ’ (3). The book is divided into three parts reflecting the different levels on which glocal agency is enacted: through (re)subscribing Boundaries, (re)inventing Structures, and engagement with Politics.

There are two major groups of actors discussed throughout this volume: agents of the de-Islamisation of Sufism and agents of re-Islamisation. The first contribution by Robert Irwin, focuses on “Western” promoters of Sufi ideals through the vehicle of Rumi’s poetry. He shows that the 1980s-reception of Rumi was a logical outcome of the New Age movement of the 1970s, which ‘embraced a religiosity that owed little or nothing to mainstream Christianity and often practised some form of “ecotourism” as they might move from Zen to Yoga to Sufism and then on to Vedanta’ (17). In contrast, the following contribution by Mark Sedgwick delineates the phases of the re-Islamisation of Sufism in the West, showing that de-Islamisation had involved using a language in which ‘what was dominant, however, was the adaptation—the universalism—not the Islamic practice’ (44). The popularity of sheikhs who travelled to England and the United States (37), such as Bawa Muhaiadden and the Moorish Science Temple in America, and Sheikh Nazim al-Haqqani and the Naqshabandiyya in England, succeeded in reintroducing elements of Islamic practice back into these groups (44), due in part to an increased concern for authenticity.

Another helpful way in which these processes are described in this volume is offered by Rory Dickson and Merin Shobhana Xavier. They introduce two useful analytical concepts: disordering, which describes a Sufism that disrupts the classical model, particularly the tariqa set-up; and reordering, which describes a Sufism that turns to more traditional structures and Islamic ideals in order to accentuate its own authenticity. Dickson and Xavier present the main disorderers: Inayat Khan, Gurdjieff, Idries Shah (140–142), and explain that reordering began in the 1970s and culminated in the 1990s and early 2000s (137–138). The main agents of this are Zia Inayat Khan, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and to some extent Vaughan Lee (143–147). Florian Volm shows how the Gülen movement legitimises itself in an ongoing process of “disordering” which has appeal to “the West”. Their disordering strategies include doing without the tariqa structure, distancing Sufism from “worldliness” thus encouraging universalistic reflections, emphasizing “global moral standard” and interfaith dialogue, and that ‘being a Sufi means being modern and secular’ (179–185).

This book unpacks well the phenomenon of the globalisation of Sufism on two levels primarily: the acts which signal a doctrinal and/or epistemological unlocking (reviewer’s choice of words) that encourages what Francesco Piraino describes as “openness” (79); and the channels whereby the agency and the openness are broadcasted. Regarding the former, Piraino shows that the transcultural and transnational activities of the Shadhiliyya Darqawiyya ʿAlawiyya, who originally hail from the Algerian city of Mostaganem, articulated commitments to interfaith and intercultural dialogue, promotion of ecological awareness, women’s rights, and ‘inclusive universalism’ (76–79). Justine Howe focuses on two Muslim communities leading the mawlid celebrations in Chicago: the Mohammed Webb Foundation and the Chicago Mawlid Committee. Their globalising strategies rested on unlocking the primarily Sufi practices of mawlid celebrations to a wider community of American and non-American Muslims in Chicago. This enables negotiations with American culture as a whole, yet it reflects the religious experiences of Muslim groups from varied backgrounds (119, 124). Howe also argues that, to a large degree, the universalism fostered through (not originating with) the Sufism of the Traditionalists and later European and American esoteric currents was re-appropriated by Muslim communities including Sufis, to negotiate diasporic modes of belonging, whether it was Baʿalawis antagonizing Islamists for jeopardising ‘life in security’ (165–170) or the activities of the Mohammed Webb Foundation and the Chicago Mawlid Committee.

The means of broadcasting all these negotiations thus vary. Andrea Brigaglia looks at Sufi self-reflection in the personal-spiritual development of French Muslim rappers Abd Al Malik and Kery James. He shows that Sufi agency here is not exercised only as a struggle for representation, but as ‘an inner struggle with the rapper’s own self, that the artist starts engaging in a search for universals’ (99). French Sufi rappers (converts particularly) express their spiritually-conscious self-fashioning through the genre of rap which is married to the style of the Arabic qasida because of its inherent self-referentiality and because of it being ‘a more flexible literary paradigm that allowed, through imitation, the moulding and the transmission of the ethical and religious message of Islam into a multiplicity of cultural and linguistic idioms’ (95).

However, the most potent channel, discussed in over a third of the volume, is religious diplomacy, in other words, politics. Zachary Wright delivers a challenge to the characterisation of Sufi orders from the African continent as “typically African”, which implies a restricted agency in the global arena, despite evidence to the contrary (56). In the case of the Tijaniyya order, Wright charts how its members, through conference cycles, foster ‘a way of inhabiting an African identity in a global context, that also reminded the viewer of African Muslims’ centrality in the continued articulation of African culture’; this is Africanité which marks the public expression of their Sufi path (57). They articulate ‘a version of Islamic orthodoxy most visible in West Africa today, and often adapt identities in dialogue with a global Afropolitanism, associated mostly with the successors of the twentieth century’s most prominent African Tijani scholar, Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse’ (57).

A new class of Sufi elites emerges by means of creating establishments equipped to engage with global and state politics. Since the volume deals mostly with contemporary scenes, this led to a consistent discussion of the reordering achieved by those who affiliate with what Jonathan Brown labels as Late Sunni Traditionalism, and what William Shepard calls Neo-traditionalism. Its followers emphasise adherence to one of the four schools of Law, the Ashʾari or Maturidi theology, and Sufism (al-Azami, 225–226). Moreover, it is concerned for continuity with the past while appreciating ‘the depth of the Western challenge, and selectively adopts Western ideas and practices’ (Joassin, 220). Besnik Sinani shows how the Baʿalawis formed diplomatic structures to sound off their rejection of Wahhabism and Salafism. Through relations with the state (UAE especially), they launched criticism of the political mobilisation championed by Islamists, seeing it as violent (158–159). They reintroduced a “golden chain” of transmitters of knowledge that go all the way back to the Prophet and his family (160–161), and they reemphasised sharīʿa as their main ideological reference, seeing themselves as ‘inwardly Shadhili and outwardly Ghazalian’ (161–162). Thomas Joassin focuses on the case of Algerian Sufi establishments and their events, such as The National Seminar of Zawiyas (1991) and the International Sufi Conference (2016). He illustrates the ideo-political incentives behind Sufi elites’ engagement with the state, while showing the utilisation by the state of the Sufis as a tool of image-creation in a context where religious extremism and terrorism were the most urgent global concerns. The appeal rests on the fact that ‘Sufi orders often appear as powerful inter-state intermediaries and can be used in the framework of a country’s religious diplomacy’ (212). On the other hand, Neo-traditionalists broadcast and mobilise their emphatically anti-Wahhabi stance, while evoking the inherent openness and moderation of “traditional Islam” (218–221). In the final contribution, Usaama al-Azami focuses on Neo-traditionalist Sufis, such as Sheikh al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyib (b. 1946) and ʿAli Jumʿa (b. 1952) who was the Grand Mufti of Egypt (2003–2013), and their anti-Salafi and anti-Islamist strategies of alliance to the state (Egypt and UAE). “Western” observers see them as agents ‘promoting secularising tendencies. This is not a case of separating the spheres of religion and politics, however, but of giving those in political authority control over religion and religious discourse […] and is clearly part of UAE’s effort at consolidating the autocratic state in response to the Arab revolutions’ (230).

Global Sufism is highly recommended; however, there is very little discussion of the Shiʿi engagement with Sunni Sufi strategies of globalisation, and the role of Shiʿi mystical traditions that do not identify as Sufi. The absence is made even more conspicuous as some of the contributions casually allude to such engagement. For example, Sinani mentions how claims of prophetic ancestral legitimacy made by ʿAli al-Jifri, a Saudi-born Yemeni scholar of the Baʿalawi order, were challenged by an ayatollah in April 2016 (159–160). Joassin briefly notes that Shiʿi figures from Iraq or Iran are invited to Algerian Sufi symposiums (213). Finally, it is good to see cited the works of Marta Dominguez Diaz (North Africa and Europe), Julia Day Howell (Indonesia), Pnina Werbner (Sufism globally), Marcia Hermansen (South Asia and interfaith dialogue), and some others. Nevertheless, save for the contributions of Howe and Xavier, the volume does not reflect and represent the continuing wide contribution of the many female scholars who have added depth to global approaches to Sufism, such as Razia Sultanova (Central Asia), Lili di Puppo (Russia), Kelly Pemberton (South Asia), Katherine Ewing (South Asia) and many more.

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