Sufism as a Product of Collective Imagination: On a New History of Islamic Mysticism

Alexander Knysh’s Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism is the result of more than thirty years of study of Sufism and Sufis.

The monograph critically reconsiders approaches to the study of Sufism, as well as Sufi discourses (especially exegesis), practices, communities, institutions, and leaders.

Another distinctive aspect of the New History is a comparative element, which is present in almost all of its six chapters: Muslim approaches to Sufism are compared with Orientalist ones, while Sufi discourses are contrasted with Neoplatonic, Jewish and Christian traditions. This groundbreaking monograph is critical not only for understanding the complex phenomenon that is Sufism, but also for gaining insight into the significant methodological issues of modern historiography. Given the broad scope of the work, the topics that the author discusses—the problem of interpretation and historical methodology, Islamic studies and power relations in society, insiders’ and outsiders’ approaches to the study of Islam—sometimes presuppose the reader’s knowledge of the context, namely the in-depth discussions on epistemological problems that are currently under way in contemporary Western and Russian Islamic studies.

The discussion of methodological issues, with which the author starts his monograph, deserves special attention. Knysh writes that the study is not only about the diverse phenomenon of Sufism per se and its diverse conceptualizations by actors with very different intellectual preferences and religious beliefs, but also examines how human beings imagine religion more generally. He frames Sufism as a continuous act of “imagination” by both Muslims (insiders) and non-Muslims (outsiders), from the time of its inception to the present.

Alexander D. Knysh

Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Michigan

Director of a research project on political uses of Islam sponsored by the Rector of the St. Petersburg State University, Russia

Current projects:

Sufism: A Modern Perspective (commissioned by Princeton University Press) critically and self-reflectively discusses Sufism’s: 1. Teachings (discourses); 2. Practices; 3. Communities and institutions; 4. Leaders and 5. Various regional Sufi-Salafi confrontations today.

Islam and Empire in the Northern Caucasus (commissioned by Princeton University Press) examines the uses of Islam by the ethnically diverse communities of the Northern Caucasus as the ideology of resistance to the Russian conquest and subsequent domination of the area (from the 1820s until today).

Executive Editor of Encyclopedia of Islamic Mysticism and section editor for “Sufism,” Encyclopedia of Islam, Third Edition (both published online and in paper format by E.J. Brill, Leiden and Boston). Editor of the ongoing translation of al-Suyuti’s “Qur’anic Encyclopedia” (al-Itqan).

Knysh draws on the idea propounded by the historian Hayden White that history is not a discipline based on facts and dates so much as a form of literary narrative. Historians assemble materials, events and dates that are haphazardly scattered across chronicles and historical sources, giving them a “unity of signification” through rhetorical techniques, metaphors and allegories, transferring meanings and concepts from one discursive field to another. Similarly, according to Knysh, all historians and students of Sufism “are on a mission of emplotting disparate events and statements related to the object of their concern in order to convey their personal understanding of it, on the one hand, and perhaps also to teach us a certain moral-ethical lesson, on the other.” Knysh notes that, “whereas one does not have to agree with White on the predominantly literary nature of history writing, one can hardly deny that the success or failure of arranging raw historical evidence into a story depends, in the end, on its resonance or lack thereof with the cultural and intellectual preferences of the members of the society in which a given historical account has been produced.”

Every narrative about Sufism is, to a greater or lesser degree, an act of imagination, evidence of a creative literary process

Knysh argues that every narrative about Sufism is, to a greater or lesser degree, an act of imagination, evidence of a creative literary process. Excluding any party from this collective act of imagining in favor of another (for example, by choosing between insiders and outsiders, academic and nonacademic Orientalists, and non-Muslim anthropologists of Muslim societies and Muslim fundamentalists/Salafis) inevitably impoverishes our understanding of Sufism and Islam as a whole. Moreover, as Knysh demonstrates throughout his monograph, different authors with extremely different intellectual preferences and points of view often influence and supplement each other’s discourses, “thus creating epistemological bricolages that are as fanciful and illuminating as they are puzzling or occasionally incredible.

“Authentic” Sufism?

In order to be understood and appreciated by the European and Russian reading publics of a given age, Islam and its various trends, including Sufism, had to be defined, classified, and presented in the intellectual conventions that would make sense to the intended recipients

This defense of polyphony in interpreting of such a complex phenomenon as “Sufism” is part of Knysh’s polemic with the thesis of the well-known scholar of Islamic mysticism Carl Ernst that the modern image of Sufism is a distorted construction, “an invention of late eighteenth-century European Orientalist scholarship.” Knysh questions the critique of Oriental Studies from the standpoint of postcolonial theory, which has been established in Western humanities. He writes, “Sufism, no matter how fancifully construed and emplotted, was and still is quite real for its followers, opponents, and students, both inside and outside the Sufi tradition.” Sufi works of Islam’s classical age (the 9th to 12th centuries CE), written in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and other Islamic languages, were carefully studied and translated by often-criticized Western and Russian Orientalists into languages understood by their contemporaries. The same is true of Islamic law, theology, the biography of the Prophet, and other Islamic phenomena. This is a natural process of transferring/translating a complex foreign culture and religion into local cultural codes and languages. As Knysh puts it, “in order to be understood and appreciated by the European and Russian reading publics of a given age, Islam and its various trends, including Sufism, had to be defined, classified, and presented in the intellectual conventions that would make sense to the intended recipients.”

Photographs from the book and personal archive of Alexander Knysh. Not for reproduction or distribution

Tomb of anonymous Sufi saint from Baghdad (Piribağdad, Pir-i-Bağdat) in the district of Shamakhi, Azerbaijan (Şamaxı, Göylər kəndi). The image was kindly provided by well-known Azeri photographer Irada Gadirova.

Knysh contends that presenting Sufism as interpreted by the Sufis themselves was simply not an option for European and Russian scholars of Islam. First, there have always been many different local forms of Sufism, none of which is universally accepted or provides a transregional metanarrative about Sufism and Sufis in the premodern and modern Muslim world. Second, medieval chronicles and biographical works on Sufis and Sufism do not provide a comprehensive, complete and structured narrative about how and when Sufism appeared, nor of how it transformed and developed in different parts of the Muslim world. At the same time, Orientalists could not simply confine themselves to translating Sufi sources, since, translated literally, “Sufi teachings and biographies would have no doubt fallen flat on European audiences.” This necessitated the “invention” of a general concept or understanding of Sufism, imagined or emplotted by Orientalists for the consumption of the European public in a language Europeans could understand and which related to their own cultural background.

As for the prejudices and preconceptions of Orientalists, they are, according to the author, obvious and undeniable, yet “are no more or less severe than the biases of Sufis writing about their own doctrines and practices today as in the past.” No author—whether insider or outsider, Sufi or Orientalist—can escape power relations, cultural assumptions and the oppressive discursive practices of their social contexts. As Knysh points out, the various Sufis, like representatives of all other currents within Islam, considered their version of Sufism to be the most correct and orthodox. Throughout the ages, different Sufi and non- or anti-Sufi authors created drastically different narratives of Sufism, presenting it either as a culmination or, on the contrary, aberration of Muslim tradition. Therefore, Knysh says that “to hold Westerners responsible for doing exactly the same, as Carl Ernst does, is seeing the situation with one eye only, to borrow an image used by the great Muslim mystic Ibn (al-)‘Arabi (d. 638/1240).” Knysh goes on to wonder what an “unbiased and authentic” account of Sufism, which Ernst implies is possible, might look like and “whose biases are more preferable (or less distorting)—those of insiders or those of outsiders to the Sufi tradition?

If a historical work is a narrative subordinated to the rules, logic and poetics of the language in which it is written, and if the process of assembling historical sources, chronicles and materials into a cohesive story inevitably transforms it into a form of literary work, then an impregnation of such narrative with myths, stereotypes, phobias, ideological positions is simply inevitable. In the 19th and 20th centuries, European and Russian Orientalists, faithfully adhering to Enlightenment ideals, presented to their audiences various versions of Sufism and anti-Sufism that existed in the Muslim world. On the one hand, they carefully preserved and reproduced “the hidden and not-so-hidden biases inherent in their sources.” On the other hand, “they also injected into their renditions of original Muslim sources their own intellectual preferences and world-orientational convictions.” Orientalists’ biases were inevitable, since they studied all religions by means of the analytical categories created by their European and Judeo-Christian cultural contexts. This is evidenced by the dichotomies they created and applied to other cultures: rational/irrational, secularism/religion, sacred/profane etc.

The Orientalist’s Burden

The author of the New History supports one of the main theses of post-colonial criticism and the theory of “Orientalism”: Orientalism served to essentialize, romanticize, and dehumanize the subjects of the “backward East,” resulting in their cultural and political subordination. Knysh agrees with Edward Said and his numerous followers that some Orientalists “did indeed pursue covert and sometimes obvious political and ideological agendas aimed at facilitating and justifying European colonization of the Muslim lands.” For example, some Western and Russian Orientalists deliberately exaggerated the danger of Islam to Christian and European civilization, thereby legitimating their governments’ aggressive colonial policies. This approach remains fundamentally unaltered: to this day, governments seek to use Orientalists’ knowledge for political purposes. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many scholars of Islam served in the colonial administration, just as contemporary scholars serve their respective governments by working in think tanks or strategic centers. As Knysh points out, the peculiarities of their profession prevent Orientalists from becoming isolated in an “ivory tower.”

Sufi shrines and tombs in the district (raion) of Shamakhi in Azerbaijan (Shamaxı, Kələxana türbələri).The image was kindly provided by well-known Azeri photographer Irada Gadirova.Sufi shrines and tombs in the district (raion) of Shamakhi in Azerbaijan (Shamaxı, Kələxana türbələri).The image was kindly provided by well-known Azeri photographer Irada Gadirova.

Nevertheless, Knysh argues that the various European students of Islam do not constitute a uniform community; they differ significantly. In particular, the professional responsibilities and methods of academic Orientalists are distinct from those of scholars who work in analytical centers. Thus, “before launching into a diatribe against their predecessors, today’s experts on Islam and Muslim societies, who have taken Said’s critique of Orientalism to heart, should determine which group of the Orientalists they are targeting in order not to paint them all with one brush.” Knysh adds that those who criticize Orientalists should not forget that their own intellectual work is also determined by social context, power relations, and peculiarities of audience and venue. Every critical deconstruction of Orientalism, he suggests, should begin at home.

This criticism may appear to be an apologetic for Orientalism, but this is not the case. In fact, it is Knysh’s attempt to understand the results of the “intrusion” of neo-Marxist critical theory—, in its various guises, —into his discipline. At the same time, it contradicts the criticism of Orientalists made by Said. In his famous book, Said conceptualized Orientalism as a discourse in dialogue with the ideas of Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, who had quite opposite ideas of discourse, knowledge and power. Foucault believed that discourse is infinitely stronger than a subject, who cannot escape or resist it. Orientalism is a discursive formation consisting of models for actions and statements that Orientalists have to follow in order to situate themselves within the discipline, as well as to be understood and recognized. In this discourse, individuals do not play any significant role. A certain Orientalist can be in love with the East and have warm feelings toward Muslims, but the discourse that he or she reproduces belongs to the discipline that legitimizes and supports their subjugation. Gramsci saw this process somewhat differently, and described it through his concept of cultural hegemony, which he understood as the imposition of certain ideological systems and ideas by the ruling class in order to maintain control and domination of a given society. According to Gramsci, intellectuals (including Orientalists) play a key role in this process of instilling of certain values and ideas.

To summarize, if one sees the work of orientalists through the prism of Foucault’s ideas, then the intellectual preferences of individual Orientalists are not a matter of any importance. There is no difference between a “good” and “bad” Orientalist, since both are “hostages” of a discursive formation and Orientalist archive that they cannot escape and which, in turn, serves colonial interests. If, on the other hand, one follows Gramsci, then certain Orientalists deliberately create Oriental discourse, intentionally contributing to the cultural hegemony of the ruling class and serving its political, colonial and militaristic goals. The criticism of Said and his followers does not draw a clear distinction between these two interpretations, as some of their critics have also pointed out.

“Invention” of Tradition

Addressing the claim that Sufism was invented by Orientalist discourse, as Ernst and other scholars have suggested, Knysh suggests that Sufism is no less or more real or invented than such concepts as “religion,” “asceticism,” “mysticism,” “Neoplatonism,” and “Judeo-Christian.” All these intellectual constructs, whether created by insiders or outsiders, are transformed into living traditions or practices by people who take them to heart, practice, perform, transmit, and debate them. Concepts do not exist without actors who create, reproduce and practice them.

As you can see, Knysh understands the “invention of tradition” not as a distortion of a certain authentic one, but as the collective work of various actors (both insiders and outsiders) that, like any other intellectual work, is not entirely free from prejudice, nor from the political and ideological limitations of its times.

The author’s position should be understood in the context of contemporary discussions in American Islamic studies about the role of insiders and outsiders in the study of Islam. It should be noted that similar discussions are also taking place in Russia, where an increasing number of Muslims are studying their traditions using language and methods that have previously been the exclusive domain of “secular Orientalists.” The author takes a conciliatory position, attempting to show that such a debate actually hinders the understanding of the subject, as each approach is imperfect and an objective description of Sufism is hardly possible. He writes that it is not necessary to set the “discourses on Sufism” created within the tradition in strict opposition to those created outside it, considering the former authentic and the latter biased (or vice versa). It would be much more productive to consider these discourses as dialogues about Sufism, as any attempt to comprehend Sufism enriches our knowledge of this complex and variegated phenomenon.

Sufi shrines and tombs in the district (raion) of Shamakhi in Azerbaijan (Shamaxı, Kələxana türbələri).The image was kindly provided by well-known Azeri photographer Irada Gadirova.

Conceptualizing Sufism as “the meeting place of discourses and imaginations, both Muslim and Orientalist,” Knysh shows how ideas travel in an interesting and unexpected way from Sufis to Orientalists, and how what has sometimes been considered an “Orientalist invention” was in fact invented by Muslim authors decades or centuries earlier. For example, Knysh reconsiders the established division of Sufism in Oriental Studies into “ascetic Sufism” and “mystical Sufism,” a distinction that goes back to Max Weber’s idea that Islam was originally an ascetic movement that “later was somehow adulterated by Sufism, which catered for the emotional and orgiastic needs of the masses.” He says that the comprehensive careful study of Sufi literature shows that asceticism and mysticism are mutually complementary concepts. While leading an ascetic life, hermits, monks or Sufis simultaneously pursue mystical goals, such as communion with God or direct cognition/vision of the divine. Without such a goal, why would an individual exhaust his or her body with starvation? In addition, the rejection of mundane goods, prolonged fasting, and seclusion often lead to a mystical experience, ecstatic trance or visions. Yet is this dichotomy a product of explaining Islamic phenomena through Western concepts—a kind of Orientalist invention? According to Knysh, this division was actually created by Muslim authors. For example, the Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun differentiates between the “orthodox” Sufism of early Muslim ascetics and “philosophical” Sufism, which introduced mystical metaphysics into Sufi asceticism. Similar ideas were expressed by Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Taymiyya, Shams al-Din al-Dhahabi, and many other Muslim scholars. Many centuries later this view of two types of Sufism was reproduced by Western students of Islam, such as Louis Massignon and Christopher Melchert, both of whom have argued that asceticism is not the same as mysticism and vice versa.

Another example of the translation of intra-Islamic criticism into the Orientalists’ scholarly concepts is the well-known German Islamicist Fritz Meier’s interpretation of the transformation of the relationship between Sufi master (shaykh) and student (murid). Meier believed that with time, the “Sufi shaykh evolved from…an informal ‘educator’ (shaykh al-ta‘ lim), whom anyone could visit and leave at will, to…a strict and demanding trainer (shaykh al-tarbiya).” At first glance, it may seem that this explanation is the conclusion of an Orientalist who selectively analyzed Sufi materials and constructed his own version of the decline of “intra-Sufic relations” on the basis of Max Weber’s theory of “routinization of charisma.” However, Knysh shows that, in fact, many Muslim theologians, such as Ibn Abbad al-Rundi, Ibn Khaldun, and Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, drew such a conclusion long before Meier. All of them wrote about the decline of “true Sufism” and the degradation of relations between shaykh and disciples.

A saint’s tomb in Hadramawt, Yemen. The photography made by Alexander Knysh in 1989.

In this context, Knysh cites a prominent scholar of comparative religion, Jonathan Z. Smith, who writes, “man, more precisely western man, has had only the last few centuries in which to imagine religion…Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy.” Knysh comments on the ideas of Smith and “his deconstruction-minded colleagues” by arguing that Muslim scholars can rightly be considered experts of religion. Like their Western counterparts, they carefully collected, cataloged, compared, and tried to systematize the rituals, customs and practices of Muslim groups as well as other traditions. Obviously, they used different concepts and terms, but they often came to the same conclusions as European Orientalists. It goes without saying that these thinkers and concepts were not embedded in the Western academy, as Smith pointed out, but is this a necessary precondition for thinking critically and analytically about religion?

The New History provides many other insightful examples of “a meeting of minds of insiders and outsiders facilitated by their common interest in Sufism.” For instance, Shiite theological and philosophical tradition makes a distinction between ​“true” or intellectual Sufism—the Irfan—and the “distorted” Sufism of the dervishes. This distinction was adopted and developed by the French Orientalist Henry Corbin. Later, his esoteric and philosophical understanding of Sufism was disseminated across academia by his disciples, including the well-known Muslim thinker and scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

Internal Islamic discourse is closely reflected in the ideas of Orientalists; what is sometimes considered a “neutral” academic conclusion is actually rooted in the constructions of Muslim authors. “Internal” and “external” approaches to the study of Sufism are so intertwined that they are sometimes difficult to separate from each other.

The Neglected Comparative Approach

In addition to Knysh’s comparative analysis of insiders’ and outsiders’ approaches to Sufism, the New History provides a detailed comparative analysis of Sufi exegesis, which shows how the interpretation of the Qur’an and prophetic narrations developed by early Sufis influenced later authors, evolving from the 10th century to the present day. In addition, the author analyzes how Sufis borrowed and re-interpreted Neoplatonic concepts, adapting them to their own epistemology and cosmology. The author notes that the translation activities of early Abbasids undoubtedly played an important role in spreading Platonism and Neoplatonism in the regions of Sufi activity. However, a no less important influence on this process of appropriation was those Quranic verses that contain gnostic and mystical elements. These verses contributed to the integration of the rich Hellenistic ethical and philosophical heritage with the Sunni ascetic-mystical currents, as well as with certain forms of Shiism.

The Seven Domes of the town of ‘Inat in Hadramawt, Yemen. One of the tombs contains the remains of Sufi Shaykh Abu Bakr b. (bin) Salim, ancestor of Yemeni Sufi shaykh Habib ‘Umar bin Hafiz (Hafidh).The photograph was kindly provided to Alexander Knysh by Dr. Ismail Alatas of New York University.

A comparison of relations between Sufis and Salafis (“Wahhabis”) in the North Caucasus and South Yemen reveals how fruitful a comparative analysis of transnational Islamic currents can be. It shows that such factors as war, economic decline and attendant corruption, the role of external actors, an ideological vacuum, competitiveness, the charisma of religious leaders, and the age and social status of various groups are important components of internal conflicts between Islamic currents in such seemingly remote and dissimilar regions regions as the Caucasus and Yemen.

It should be noted that the lack of comparative analysis in religious studies, especially in Islamic studies, is an old problem. Muhammad Arkoun, a well-known Islamic thinker who often emphasized this issue, once warned that without careful comparative analysis of the Sunni and Shiite Islamic currents, as well as of monotheistic religions, our understanding of Islam will be limited, and this limitation will create obstacles to dialogue and mutual understanding. Knysh likewise believes that it is necessary to go beyond the general trend of separating Islam from other traditions, an approach that ignores rich opportunities for comparative analysis with other religions and cultures. According to Knysh, the lack of a comparative perspective in contemporary Islamic Studies is very often the result either of apologetics (“pure Islam without external influences”) or of an erroneous understanding of political correctness.

The New History concludes by inviting scholars and readers, insiders and outsiders, Sufis and Orientalists to engage in a dialogue of ideas and comparative analysis, while also calling not to ignore the modest possibilities and relativity of human cognition, especially when it comes to such a complex and diverse phenomenon as Sufism.

To conclude, here are some critical remarks about Knysh’s New History, which, however, should in no way obscure its numerous positive aspects. For instance, though the author understands “Sufi discourses” to encompass both exegesis of the Qur’an and prophetic traditions (hadiths), he pays much more attention to the history of the Sufi interpretations of the Qur’an than to Sufi engagements with prophetic narrations. The role and place of hadith in Sufi thought has not been sufficiently studied and, therefore, deserve a separate and equally through discussion, especially in comparison with Quranic exegesis.

In addition, the discussion of Sufi-Salafi relations could have been extended, in particular to include the debates that took place on the territory of the Ottoman Empire and in British India in the 19th and 20th centuries, which could have enriched the content of the book and strengthened the author’s theoretical conclusions. That being said, the subject is immense and the verification, fine-tuning or disproving of the author’s conclusions through the analysis of other sources and regions is a matter for further research.


A researcher in the field of Islamic Studies from Azerbaijan. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in Oriental Studies (Persian language and literature) from Baku State University (Azerbaijan). He has also studied Arabic language and literature at Kuwait University. Currently, he is a doctoral student at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.


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