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Knysh A. Islamic Mysticism: A Short History, E.J. Brill, Leiden-Boston-Köln, 2000 (358 pp.)

The book provides a general survey of the history of Islamic mysticism (Sufism) since its inception up to the modern time. It combines chronological and personality-based approaches to the subject with a thematic discussion of principal Sufi notions and institutions. Sufism is examined from a variety of different perspectives: as a vibrant social institution, a specific form of artistic expression (mainly poetic), an ascetic and contemplative practice, and as a distinctive intellectual tradition that derives its vitality from a dialogue with other strands of Islamic thought. The book emphasizes the wide variety of Sufism’s interactions with the society and its institutions from an ascetic withdrawal from the world to an active involvement in its affairs by individual Sufi masters and organizations.

Islamic mysticism by Knysh is a comprehensive survey of the interesting and fascinating world of Islamic mysticism written for scholars and students interested in Islamic mysticism, Islamic Studies, Religious Studies and the History of Religions.

From “Introduction”

An ascetic and mystical element that was implicitly present in Islam since its very inception became explicit during the first Islamic centuries (the seventh and eighth centuries C.E.). This period witnessed the appearance of the first Muslim devotees and “moral athletes,” who formed primitive ascetic communities in the central and eastern lands of Islam, primarily in Mesopotamia, Syria and Eastern Iran. By the thirteenth century C.E. such early communities spread all over the world of Islam, forming new social institutions, the tariqas or brotherhoods, which had their distinct devotional practices, lifestyle, moral and ethical system, educational philosophy as well as semi-independent economic basis. In the Later Middle Ages (the twelfth-sixteenth century C.E.), Sufism became a dominant feature of the Muslim social order. Its common textbooks and authorities, its networks of tariqa institutions and its distinctive lifestyles became a spiritual and intellectual glue that held together the culturally and ethnically diverse societies huddled up under the Islamic umbrella. Unlike Christian mysticism, which was overshadowed and marginalized by the secularizing and rationalistic tendencies in Western European societies that culminated in the Enlightenment, its Muslim counterpart, Sufism, retained its pervasive influence on the spiritual and intellectual life of Muslims until the beginning of our century. At that point, Sufi rituals, values and doctrines came under the criticism of such diverse religio-political groups as Islamic reformers, modernists, liberal nationalists and, somewhat later, Muslim socialists also. These groups accused Muslim mystics of deliberately cultivating “idle superstitions,” such as the cult of departed saints and their shrines, of stubbornly resisting the imposition of “progressive” and “activist” social and intellectual attitudes, of indulging in outdated customs and ritual excesses and of exploiting the uneducated and superstitious masses to their advantage. Parallel to these critical attacks, in many countries of the Middle East, the economic foundations of Sufi fraternities were undermined by the agrarian reforms, secularization of education and new forms of taxation, which were instituted by Westernized nationalist governments. The extent of Sufism’s decline in the first half of our century varied from one country to another. However, on the whole, by the 1950s the vigorous anti-Sufi campaigns launched by various groups and parties within Muslim societies and the profound changes in the traditional economies and social makeup of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and North African societies, and to a lesser extent those of sub-Saharan Africa, resulted in Sufism’s dramatic loss of appeal in the eyes of many Muslims. Its erstwhile institutional grandeur was reduced to a few low-key lodges that were staffed by Sufi masters with little influence outside their immediate coterie of followers. At one time, it seemed that the very survival of the centuries-old Sufi tradition and mode of piety was jeopardized by the sweeping social and economic changes which came on the heels of modernization. And yet, against all odds, not only did Sufism survive, but also, in recent decades, has been making a steady comeback. Sufi lodges sprang back to existence in many countries of the Middle East, South East Asia and North Africa as well as in Europe, in the United States and in the republics of the former Soviet Union. Basing themselves on the spiritual genealogies, doctrines, moral precepts and training techniques of the traditional Sufi orders they are working towards what may soon turn into a full-blown Sufi revival. Alongside traditional tariqas, we witness the emergence of the so-called Neo-Sufi movement seeking to bring Sufi values in tune with the spiritual and intellectual tastes of modern men and women. Some Westernized Sufi groups go as far as to divest Sufism of its Islamic garb, presenting it as an expression of a supraconfessional, universal truth that animates mystical quest in all religious traditions.


Annotation, Contents, Acknowledgements, Introduction


Islamic Mysticism
Sufi orders

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