By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray
Dec 26 2018
Over the centuries, in Islamic history, one
of the most ‘misunderstood’, most ‘debated’, ‘complex’, and ‘multifaceted
phenomenon’ has been ‘Sufism’—the “ascetic-mystical movement, stream, or trend
within Islam”. “Sufism is perhaps”, as Lloyd Ridgeon has rightly opined, “the
most difficult of the terms to define”. Numerous scholars, both in the past and
in the present times, including Muslims and non-Muslims, have attempted to
explore the different dimensions of ‘Sufism’.
However, most of this scholarship has
focused either on the history and/ or philosophy of Sufism, or on its
emergence, development, teachings, and doctrines of various Sufi orders (Silsilas),
etc. A new addition, with many distinctive features/ characteristics, new
insights, and new perspectives, to this scholarship is Alexander Knysh’s
“Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism”. Professor of Islamic Studies at
the University of Michigan, Knysh is an expert on this subject, with many books
(including Islamic Mysticism and Islam in Historical Perspective) and research
papers to his credit.
In this volume, covering the history of
Sufism from its earliest times, Knysh reveals the tradition of Sufism, “the
ascetic-mystical stream of Islam that emerged at the early stage of this
religion’s development and that subsequently took a wide variety of devotional,
doctrinal, artistic, and institutional forms” (p. 1).
Without “embroiling” into the debates about
the “true essence or what constitutes correct or incorrect Muslim or Sufi
doctrines or practices”, Knysh’s position is very clear: “an outsider looking
inside the ‘Abode of Islam/ Sufism’” (p. 8). The major objective of Knysh’s
Sufism, as he puts it in the Introduction, is “to give an accessible, while
also nuanced, account of Sufism as a system of thought and action” from its
beginning in 2nd AH/ 8th CE to present times, with a “novel” approach—which
“departs from the traditional historicist and positivist perspective” (p. 10).
Adopting a “holistic approach”, Sufism (or the Sufi tradition), for Knysh, can be
treated under five (5) principal rubrics (or it comprises of 5 components),
viz.: Teachings/ Discourses; Practices; Community; Institutions; and Leaders
Consisting of Six (6) Chapters, excluding
Introduction and Conclusion, the work under review does not delve into the
issue in a chronological order but rather explores the different aspects of
Sufism—which is considered by the author as “Islam in miniature” (p. 14). It
explores “How and Why Sufism Came to Be”; “What’s in a Name?” (Definitions of
Sufism); “Discourses”; “Sufism in Comparison: The Common Ferment of Hellenism”;
“Practices, Ethos, Communities, and Leaders”; and “Sufism’s Recent
Trajectories” (focusing on Sufi-Salafi Confrontations) in its six chapters,
revolves around the usefulness and viability of numerous terms and concepts
related to Sufism, and in particular focuses on the “ideologically driven
contractions and expansions” of the term ‘Sufism’. Building his argument on the
theories/ contentions of “human temperaments” and “Sufi sect is a result of
socio-economic conditions” of two influential scholars, namely Marshal Hodgson
and Agafangel Krymskii, respectively (pp. 20, 24), Knysh puts forth that “the
phenomenon called ‘Sufism’… is real in the sense that it has long-ranging and
tangible socio-political, practical, cultural, and institutional (material)
implications” (p. 34).
explores the various definitions of Sufism, focuses on the “reasons and
dynamics of inclusion in or exclusion from Sufism of certain characteristics or
phenomena”, and reviews the question “how the concept ‘Sufism’ can be
contracted and expanded in response to various intellectual, cultural, and
ideological concerns” (p. 36).
“The possibility of producing a
comprehensive definition of Sufism”, Knysh argues, “remains as elusive as ever
before”, and “any quest for a comprehensive and universally acceptable
definition … is futile”, and the varied definitions “confirm this pessimistic
conclusion” (p. 58).
explores and explains Sufi practices and rules (teachings, doctrines, and
literature: “Discourses”); how the “tradition” (‘school of thought’),
especially in the light of the “Akbarian” and “Kubrawi” ‘school of thought’/
tradition—which draw inspiration from the intellectual legacy of the Sufism’s
‘Greatest Master’/ Al-Shaykh al-Akbar, Ibn al-Arabi (d. 638/ 1240), and from
the Central Asian Sufi thinker Najm al-Din al-Kubra (d. 617/1220),
respectively—and focuses on an examination of the evolution of Sufi discourse
with an emphasis on exegesis, which contains “the keynotes of Sufi thought and
practice” as well as “anchors them firmly in the authority of the Muslim
scripture” (p. 64).
This chapter concludes, among others, with
the argument that Sufism and its leaders “have been making elaborate claims to
a privileged access to Qur’anic mysteries through what they called ‘unveiling’
(Kashf), ‘veridical realization’ (Tahqiq or Tahaqquq), ‘direct
tasting’ (Dhawq), or ‘direct witnessing’ (Mushahada)” (p. 120).
focuses on comparing Sufism with other traditions like “Hellenism”, and
highlights its similarity with the Platonic and Neo-Platonic ideas under the
rubric that “each human individual is but a microcosm, a universe in miniature”
or “an abridged translation…of the macrocosm” (p. 125).
on two major categories in which Sufi Adab (conduct) is divided in: (a)
how one should behave oneself towards God; (b) how one should deal with various
categories of people both inside and outside one’s Sufi community (p. 138).
Literature on this aspect has been produced in abundance, and Knysh gives
examples from Abu Hafs al-Haddad (d. 879), Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d.
1021), Abu Ali al-Daqqaq (d. 1015), Abu Nasr al-Sarraj al-Tusi (d. 988), Ibn
Abbad al-Rundi (d. 1390), etc., on its different dimensions.
Here Knysh finds “a remarkable stability
and uniformity of the Sufi tradition” (p. 174). In the last chapter, Knysh
focuses on Sufi-Salafi confrontation/ trajectory by highlighting the examples
from the Northern Caucasus and Southern Yemen (Hadramawt), and concludes that
though “the role of Sufism” in these and other societies, “is determined by a
complex interplay of social, political, and economic factors”, but the fact
remains that Sufism is “deeply embedded in the history, culture, and social and
power relations of concrete Muslim societies” (p. 225).
In ‘Conclusion’ (pp. 231-33), Knysh
highlights, among others, these points: (i) the history of Islam and Sufism, as
objects of knowledge, exhibit more continuity and less disruption; (ii) the
combination of inside and outside perspective is key to understanding Sufism as
a historical phenomenon; (iii) the understanding of Sufism by both insiders and
outsiders has grown more sophisticated and accurate over the past 200 years;
and (iv) the knowledge and insight offered by ascetic-mystical convictions and
practices, unlike rational investigation, bring happiness and tranquillity to
Though by its title one gets the impression
that the book will be a historical and chronologically-put analysis on the
origin and development of Sufism and Sufi orders, however it is the chapter
titles and the discussions-therein which reveal the real content and context of
this work. Written by a specialist, who has utilized a wealth of primary and
secondary sources, Knysh’s Sufism highlights the varied aspects of
ascetic-mystic stream of Islam. It has ‘Endorsements’ (advance praise) from
scholars like William Chittick, Bruce Lawrence, Bilal Orfali, and Mark
Sedgwick, which speaks of the scholarly stature and scholarship (reputation and
erudition) of Knysh. They have described it as “the best study to date”,
“defining book on Sufism”, “groundbreaking and beautifully written book”, and
“an important and highly original book from a scholar who really what he is
talking about”, respectively.
significant work on Sufism, written from a new perspective, it highlights new
dimensions and bringing forth new insights. In sum, Knysh’s ‘Sufism’ is a
substantial contribution to this ‘misunderstood’ and ‘misinterpreted’ aspect of
Islam, and it will indeed prove helpful to students and scholars of Islamic
Studies and Philosophy/ Sufism.
Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC