Sufism and Modernity

In the Muslim world, Sufism has not only seen itself through the twenty-first century but also had a momentous resurgence. The discussion on Sufism and modernism will offer new and refreshing perspectives on this important resurgence by demonstrating revelations between Sufism and the currents brought by the Muslim reformists. It will also seek to explore the important presence of Sufi practices and ideas in all aspects of life. There has been considerable influence of Sufi on contemporary Muslim societies in terms of intellectual, economic and political lifestyles contrary to the earlier theories of modernization of the Muslim societies. While Sufi movements and orders usually involve great numbers of followers, even comprising of the modern urban middle class people, it has less been noticed compared to the radical Islam resurgence. This paper explores new interdisciplinary and comparative research done on Sufism and shows how Sufis have reacted towards the globalization and modernization of the Muslim societies. The paper will also seek to highlight on how Sufism and different Islamic reform currents have interacted. Providing fascinating fresh insights into the influence of pervasive Sufi on contemporary economic and political life and modern Islamic religiosity, this paper brings into light important inquiries about the Islam religion in the age of modernism and globalization.

The onset of the Islamic resurgence can be traced back to 1967during the Middle East war. This movement has received a strong impulsion from the Iranian revolution and has caused neo-fundamentalists and Islamists movements to be common in the public domain. In addition, it is the Islamic resurgence which can be said to have revived the Sufism movement including other devotional movements. This observation has for the first time contradicted the easy dichotomies of the common authoritative writings about the Islam religion that neither the Islamists nor the Sufi can be elucidated as traditionalist responses to secular modernism or modernity represented by socialist, nationalists or popularists elites of the following decades. A large number of scholars agree that the Islamist movements and Islamic ideologies are uniquely modern phenomena and to some extent, other believe that the neo-fundamentalists movements form part of the modernity and not just a mere reaction to modernity. As known by most scholars, in its accepted or learned varieties, Sufism is known to be anti-reformist and anti-modernist. However, it is through modern and modernizing environments that Sufism has managed to experience some of its greatest gains.

The resurgence of the Sufism movement in modern settings has called for questioning into several widely held assumptions concerning the impact of westernization on Muslim societies and the Islam religion. For a long period, it was known that mysticism which is at least embodied in the Sufi orders was fast disappearing and merely left traces among the most archaic, rural and parts of the general population. In the mid-twentieth century, it was known that the Sufi orders in most parts attracted ignorant masses and all educated men never stood to speak on their behalf. This conception became widespread particularly due to the influential works of Ernest Gellner and Clifford Geertz, whose highly accessible writings examined the unavoidable shift from the Islamic classical style known as the maraboutism to the dry urban scholar style known as scriptularism. This classical style was centered on the rural miracle-performing saints and spiritualists.  Geerts and Gellner contributions have continued to have significant influences among the social scientists who study Muslim societies regardless of the many serious flaws in their arguments. While Geertz and Gellner described Sufism as moribund, they had not studied Sufism in detail and what they meant by ‘moribund’ is that the movement was rural, popular, illiterate and ecstatic variant. The two researchers largely appeared to be unaware of the existence of learned urban Sufis in the entire Muslim world since the movement was comprised of members of the usual elites. Modern scholars are realizing that the attribution of Sufism as learned, popular or legalistic variants is largely untenable and most of the Sufis now operate in both of these domains without necessarily showing any signs of contradiction.

The explanation to the apparent decline of the Sufi orders has been provided by Michael Gilsenan who had extensive studies about Egyptian urban Sufi orders in the 1960s. According to Gilsenan’s argument, the educational, economic and social roles of the orders are presently served by highly specialized modern institutions of political associations, trade unions and schools. This is a functionalistic argument which opens room for the possibility that some orders may assume new functions and thus grow instead of declining. It is true that some of the orders which Gilsenan studies had indeed declined while others expanded. To this, Gilsenan referred this phenomenon to as Weberian rationalization where there was an adoption of a formal structure as well as clear written rules. This concept was later criticized by De Jong and rather attributed it to state benefaction. While several concepts are raised concerning the decline of the Sufi orders, the explanations provided are normally not mutually exclusive and they deserve further research. Elsewhere in Turkey, the Naqshbandiyya experienced a remarkable resurfacing where a branch of the order caused the establishment of the first ever Islamist party and a number of its successors where real business empires are associated with the order. This observation calls for well-thought views on the often prejudged incompatibility of Sufism movement with Islamism and modernization.

Several totally varying arguments about the relationship between Sufism and modernity have been put forward especially in connection with the international wave of jihad movements which are led by Sufi. The jihad movements involve groups of individuals united against the colonial powers or some of the indigenous elites of the 19th or 20th centuries. The explanation offered by Evans-Pritchard on how the Sanusi order had created an amalgamating structure to the fissiparous Bedouin Cyrenaica tribes provides itself for it to be adapted in other societies which are segmented. The Sanusi orders played a major role in building the nation of Libya and thus appear to adopt novel political roles and as progenitors and predecessors of the modern nationalist movements. The militancy in states such as Libya may be seen to sharply contrast with the tolerant, peace loving and inclusivistic attitudes which are commonly attributed to the Sufi orders. The criticizing of this kind of militancy gave rise to the neo-Sufism concept which was launched by a number of scholars such as Fazlur Rahman who found the need to change several issues in the way Sufism had ruled in the 18th and 19th centuries. The scholars proposing the new movement claimed that neo-Sufism was different from Sufism by the increased militancy, rejection of the bid’a and the robust orientation towards the shari’a. The neo-Sufism movement was also expected to shift from the efforts and achieve unity with God and the imitation of the Prophet. The increasing debate on neo-Surfism has raised questions which are very relevant to the clear understanding of the Sufism resurgence in the modern settings as well as its relationships with the Islamic reformism movement.

A majority of Sufi orders have mainly been transnational right from the time they were formed and have always been constituted of communication networks which connect a number of cultural parts of the Islam world.  Earlier modern scholarly studies have identified the most critical role of the orders in such networks. With the improvement of modern communication and the effects of globalization and the emergence of important Muslim diasporas all over the world, new transnationalism modalities have been introduced. An example of these travelling Sufi orders is the Mouride movement which is based in Senegal where the membership, trade as well as international immigration in the order are closely linked. It is also possible to find transplanted Sufi networks in the Turkish and South Asian immigrant communities of the Australia and the Western Europe. These Sufi networks are usually extensions of the parent networks in different home states. However, Naqshbandiyya Haqqaniyya is perhaps a dissimilar and more dynamic order where the murshid and the chief khalifas are extremely mobile and will always supervise a community of followers worldwide. This order seems to show striking differences from other orders in terms of Sufi practice. Although not really a Sufi order, the fast growth of Fethullah Gulen which is the branch of the Norcu movement has represented a highly victorious adaptation of the movement inspired by Sufism to the inception of the former socialist community.

Sufism and modernity have always been perceived as two disparate entities which may become difficult to intermarry. This is because Sufism, which is the term broadly accepted for the Islamic mystical tradition is never a clearly defined religious movement. Instead, Sufism refers to closely related network of practices and ideas which are all aimed at creating a deeper understanding of the Qur’anic message. These practices and ideas also aim at encouraging the Muslims to have a faithful pursuit of God’s message. In most cases, both the non-Muslim scholars and the Sufis themselves have failed to include all elements of Sufism in their definitions. Instead, they forget out specific emphases and elements which have been important among the Sufis at different historical periods. Most of their definitions therefore end up in contradictions thus misleading the public in general.

The many changes the Western civilization has brought to the world have produced enormous effects on the modern life. For instance, there has been an increased crisis of religious consciousness but this consciousness should not ultimately result into assuming atheistic positions like the one taken by Jean Paul when he said that the God who constantly talked to people is now dead since he never talks again! However, it remains an interesting fact that the concepts of Sufism can be applied to improve our understanding on the human state in the present millennium. It is obviously a surprise to find some intellectual tools from mystical teachings being used in providing insights which lead to better appreciation of man’s contemporary predicaments. It will be of value only when man considers Sufism as the highest expression of the perennial thought and that Sufism is meant to represent man’s loftiest capabilities and ambitions. As Nasr, S.H conceived, Sufism makes up the bone marrow or rather the innermost and esoteric dimension of revealing the Islamic knowledge. In most cases, religion is never renounced but rather the traditions which form the cult. Afterwards, the doctrines become modernized and the postulates and dogmas are adjusted to the modern social states.

In terms of modern religion, the traditionally influenced Muslims have always maintained that Sufism is soaked into opposing the dogma and spirits of the Islam religion which can merely be considered to be a heresy or just a quasi-separate form of religion which is inadmissible for the so called genuine believers. This incompatibility between Islam and Sufism can be traced to the pantheistic ideas found in the thoughts and mysticism of the destruction of Islamic belief of God. The Sufis are also opposed the ma’fa which is the intuitive knowledge and to ‘ilm which is the discursive learning or religious knowledge. Apart from opposing ‘ilma and ma’fa, Sufism undermines the ‘ulama authority and overlies on the pirs, sheikhs and walis teachings. The Sufism movement is also perceived to have ethical propensity of not adhering to the official religious observance prescriptions. In general, the Islamist traditionalists always abhorred the spirit of nonconformism of the Sufism movement which is expressed frequently expressed in rather free thinking, social and religious protests. This attitude can as well be taken as a right wing Sufism criticism.


It may justifiably be claimed that the Sufism have a significant role in not only understanding modernity but also enjoying the fruits of modernism. Without the appreciation of modernity, the ingredients which make the recipe for civilizations will be worthless. The main question to ask about technology should not be whether it should be applied or not or how far some technologies can go. The most important element is to know who is appropriate to use specific technologies and the controllers. One important characteristic of modernity is the massive dynamism it portrays and man should appreciate changes and improve life.

Order now

Related essays