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Book Review


Nile Green, Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Pp. ix + 263. $36.95 (paperback).


Figure 1

     The word Sufi today most likely conjures up an image of a Muslim mendicant immersed in chanting, whirling and mystical introspection. Not surprisingly, with the popularity of New Age spirituality there has been increased interest in Sufism among Western seekers. In addition, the current perception of Sufism by many non-Muslims and Muslims alike is that of an apostate branch of Islam shunned and even persecuted by the orthodox Sunni and Shi'a establishment.

     UCLA historian Nile Green's masterful survey-Sufism:A Global History- serves as a much needed corrective of these widely held perceptions of Sufism. He brilliantly contextualizes the birth and growth of this important religious movement and makes clear that for most of its history, Sufism's complex set of ideas and practices were always rooted in Islam, so much so that for most of its history Sufism was inseparable from Islam itself.

     Green's book is not an exegesis of Sufi doctrine and thought, but rather an amazingly thorough historical study of Sufism and its spread from its ninth century Baghdadi roots to its eventual spread alongside the advance of Islam. Green's survey covers a lot of geographical ground following the expansion of Sufism across Asia, Europe and Africa. The reader will be transported from as far as Arabia to Aceh, Anatolia to Australia. Green organizes his survey in four chronological periods from the early medieval (800-1100), medieval (1100–1400), early modern (1400-1800) to the modern period (1800-2000).

     Green analyzes Sufism's origins in the sophisticated and crowded religious landscape of ninth century Abbasid Baghdad, where the first mention of "wool wearers" (suf in Arabic) was a reference to a Christian ascetic movement. Pluralistic Abbasid Baghdad was a culturally dynamic place where concentric rings of overlapping religious beliefs produced the first Sufis. While these first Muslim ascetics were loosely organized, their practices and beliefs quickly solidified into a corpus of ideas firmly rooted in Islam. Sufis almost always connected their ideas to the Quran, the example of the life of Muhammad and the Hadith. One of Green's main arguments is that for most of its history, Sufism was anchored in Islamic tradition. It was through tradition and relations with power brokers-both governmental and private- that Sufism emerged not as a fringe movement, but one integrally connected to Islamic religious leaders and the political establishment.

     While Green's book is focused on the historical spread of Islam, he also helps the novice by explaining some of the basic tenets of Sufism. Early Sufis, like Kharraz of ninth century Baghdad, stressed what would become, according to Green, "the central metaphor of Sufi doctrine: that the Sufi method can be understood as a "Path" (tariqua)that guides one safely on the journey to the state of harmony with God that is Islam" (31).

     It is during the medieval period (1100-1400) that Sufism saw a rapid spread out of Western Asia to Khurasan in the East, North Africa and Spain. Sufi residential lodges known as khanaqahs were established. These brotherhoods were soon found throughout the Islamic world. Some of the charismatic leaders of these Sufi lodges were thought to possess a certain life-force (baraka) and to be able to perform miracles with this power. It is at this time that the veneration of these Sufi "saints" and their lodges became an important part of local Islamic traditions. From women looking to become pregnant to sultans aspiring to rule, Sufi "saints" were visited while alive and their graves became pilgrimage sites. This marked a development away from Sufi's communicating mainly through scriptural pronouncements to the veneration of their physical space. This appealed to large numbers of Muslims, especially among the less literate, rural occupants residing in Islamic lands. According to Green, "In the country if not always in the town, Islam was effectively Sufism; and Sufism was in turn an Islam in which access to Allah was mediated through God's local saintly representatives" (102).

     Sufism's most famous ambassador, Jalal al-Din Rumi, lived during the medieval thirteenth century. Rumi, best known as a poet who resided in the Seljuk capital of Konya, placed love as the goal to be reached along the Sufi path. It is also during this time that we see Sufis leave the lodges to follow more ascetic and heterodoxical pursuits. Sufi vagabonds knows as qualandars (clown in Persian) strayed from the practice of mainstream Sufism by openly using drugs and abusing their bodies reminiscent of the Hindu sadhus found in the Inidan Subcontinent.

     As we move to the early modern period between 1400-1800, we see the zenith of Sufi influence and power, stemming from their embedded relationships with the three great Muslim Empires of the time, Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid. As these states expanded, Sufis found themselves soldiering in frontier areas like Eastern Europe, extending Ottoman power. Sufism's thrust can even be seen in Western Europe as the English word "sophy" appears in Shakespeare as a reference to Persian kings. By the seventeenth century, Sufism was so intertwined at all levels of Islamic societies, across three continents, that according to Green, "Muslims were exposed to a Sufism that was indistinguishable from Islam in general" (154). Green exclaims that at this time Sufi Islam was "the establishment" (127). Yet, it is also during this period -due to the sheer abundance and variety of Sufi orders-that schisms and fractures started to cleave the brotherhoods, while debates raged about who was upholding the true Sufi path.

     Green closely analyzes the emerging anti-Sufi sentiment in the Muslim empires. For example, the Ottoman Turkish establishment began to crackdown during the seventeenth century on what was thought of as degenerate Sufi activities, such as smoking tobacco and consuming alcohol. In the eighteenth century, the conservative writings of the Arabian, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab and the Wahabi movement that followed him would lead to mainstream scrutiny of Sufi practices.

     Even as internal conflict burned within Islam about Sufism, European colonization played a major role in introducing Sufism to a wider audience in the West and unintentionally giving Muslim opponents of Sufism ammunition to further persecute adherents. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Westerners who encountered Sufis in Western and South Asia focused on the mystical elements of their practice, downplaying the traditional Islamic features of their complex repertoire. As interest in mysticism became fashionable in the West, the selective focus on Sufi transcendental practices reified the image of the Sufi that still stands. While Muslim empires weakened and waned during European colonialism, Muslim leaders seized on this Western image of the mystical Sufi to declare their unorthodox practices partially responsible for European conquest of their lands as a "punishment for straying from the true path of Islam" (189) .

     In addition, Green also examines the interaction between Sufis with French and Russian colonial authorities. The analysis of the Russian colonial experience in Chechnya is particularly relevant, as he describes the resistance led by Imam Shamil in the mid -nineteenth century, who while not a Sufi himself, used a Sufi organizational structure to marshal his resistance forces against Russian imperialism.

     Green's last chapter, covering the years from 1800 to the present, charts the subordination of Sufi movements in Muslim lands conversely with their growth in the West. As some Sufi brotherhoods were outlawed by modernizing Muslim leaders such as Ataturk in Turkey, Sufis and their ideas would make their way to the West. The arrival and reconfiguration of Sufism in the West is an interesting coda to Green's book. He describes movements like the current day Turkish Gülen, with its over 1000 foreign schools, including over 100 in America spreading its Sufi influenced message. In addition, Sufism found broad appeal amongst a cross-section of New Age mystics looking for salvation in the materialistic West. Modern writers like the Anglo-Asian Idries Shah, who Green cites as an example of a "fusion Sufi," filtered the esoteric ideas of Sufism through New Age sensibilities to share with millions of readers. Green does not see these modern movements as watered-down or corrupted Sufism, but instead just another example of the dynamism of a living tradition that has evolved and redefined itself for the last 1200 years.

     Green's Sufism: A Global History is an accessible book for undergrad and graduate students of history, religious studies and the interested layman. While the breadth and scope of the chronological and geographical reach of the book can be daunting, Green's survey is manageable and engaging. With such a comprehensive overview of Sufi history, I found myself also wanting to understand more about Sufi theology, which Green's book skims. More importantly, in a time when Islam has been seen by many in the West as a hostile and fanatical monolith, Green's study goes a long away in illuminating a complex component of Islam that is essential and integral to its growth and understanding.


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