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Sufi Modernism: Oxymoron or Engagement?

The following article explores how individual and collective

manifestations of Sufism are engaging the contemporary world, and how
these have been theorized by Muslim “modernists”, as well as by Muslims
who are unassailably modern despite their rejection of certain aspects of
modernity. The 2006 conference on Sufism convened in Bedjaia invited
participants to reflect on the transition from the early type of Sufism pursued
by individual gnostics to the later appearance of the collective Sufi Orders
that have played such an important role in Islamic societies and history,
including the present. In response to currents both within and without
Sufism that have attempted to portray it either as being the authentic
traditional heart of Islamic practice, or alternatively, as being a decadent and
moribund vestige of a rural past that will inevitable fade away--I frame my
remarks under the title “Sufi Modernism: Oxymoron or Engagement”.
In 1997 a young Pakistani Canadian graduated from the University of
Toronto with a degree in economics. Rather than accepting one of numerous
good job offers in that field, he made his way to Damascus, Syria where he
studied with traditional Islamic scholars (shaykhs) in a madrasa setting
specializing in the intricacies of Islamic jurisprudence within the Hanafi legal
school, and immersing himself in Sufi teachings. Today Faraz Rabbani is a
regular contributor to Sunni path,1 an English-language website that
dispenses legal opinions and advice, in particular to Muslim youth living in
the West looking for traditional guidance.
Despite the affiliation with traditional Sufism and the grounding in the
authenticity of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudential method) certain elements of Faraz
Rabbani’s biographical notice definitely signal the intersection of Sufism and
the modern.
While his Sufi background is a given, the modern component is
exemplified by the context of diaspora Islam, possession of a Western
university degree, sponsorship of an Internet website and a personal blog in

English, globalized travels and engagement with contemporary discourse. I

am going to use an encounter of Shaykh Faraz Rabbani with a discussant on
another website, the “progressive” Muslim venue, Muslim Wakeup,2 to
illustrate the conundrum of my title “Sufi Modernism: Oxymoron or
Some time ago Shaykh Faraz had responded to a question of the sort
properly asked of Islamic legal experts regarding the marital rights of the
husband (based on one of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).

Question: Is it not a form of sexual abuse for a husband to be able to force

his wife to have sex? How come the wife does not have the same right?

Answer: ...there is a legal difference between the husband and wife’s right
to sex: the husband can demand sex, and the wife is obliged to agree unless
there is a genuine physical or Shariah preventative. Even if she disagrees,
he has the legal right to insist that she comply.3

This fatwa was met with indignation by the commentator on the

Progressive Muslim site, Jawad Ali, who argued that it is anachronistic,
gender biased, and could potentially sanction spousal rape or abuse.4
In response, Rabbani replied soon after to this criticism on his own
blog, “Seekers Digest”, qualifying his previous answer in the light of broader
Qur’anic principles enjoining kindness and mutual respect between spouses.5
I recount this anecdote both to attract the reader’s attention and to
highlight how new configurations of Sufism are interacting with modernity in
global contexts. In fact, theorists of modernity stress the importance of such
debates in the public sphere as being one of the main salient characteristics
of modern societies.
In the rest of this article I would like to offer a brief introduction to how
Sufi thinkers and movements are engaging modernity. The suggestion of the
title that “Sufi modernism” might be an oxymoron--refers to certain reactions
to the conjoining of these two apparently incongruous terms.

Most scholars agree that today’s conservative Islamic ideologies and

Islamist political movements are a distinctly modern phenomenon, in other
words a part of, and not merely a reaction against, modernity. This is
because they make use of the latest technologies, they assume mass
education and literacy, and they, much like Protestants in the wake of the
Gutenberg revolution, call implicitly or explicitly for the primary authority of
scripture. This focus on the authority of the text rather than the person also
opens the door to the interpretive authority of believers outside of the
limited circle of traditional Muslim religious authorities, the ulema.
Sufism, both in its learned and popular varieties, has commonly been
presented and has often presented itself as anti-modernist6 and traditionalist.
Recent scholarship suggests, however, that it has been precisely in modern
and modernizing settings that Sufism has recently made some of its greatest
Sufism is the English equivalent of “tasawwuf” the Arabic designation
for the mystical interpretation of Islam. As a historical phenomenon, Sufism
has played a major role in Islamic history as an intellectual, cultural and
social force. This is because, in addition to featuring a mystical interpretation
of the religion and incorporating extra practices such as the recitation of
litanies and mediation; forms of Sufism in the pre-modern era constituted
broad social movements. Sufism was often on the forefront of integrating
new populations, for example in South and South East Asia, into an Islamic
religious and cultural synthesis. Sufis were organized into initiatory
networks known as “tariqas” or Sufi Orders that derived their coherence and
identity from claiming to transmit an inner tradition from the Prophet
Another striking feature of the modern, “individualism”, was also
incorporated in classical Sufi practice and theory through elements such as
dream analysis, individual counseling on the part of the Sufi guide, and
various theories about the stages that a person had mastered based on their

inherent spiritual proclivities. These formulations are roughly analogous to

type theories in modern (and ancient) psychology.

Modernity/Modernities, Modernism

Now let’s review the place of modernity, modernities, and modernism

in critical theory. The transition to modernity is identified with markers such
as the transformation of social structures and the self-consciousness of
individuals in the wake of industrialization and technological change events--
dated in the case of the West anywhere from the 15th to the 18th century.
This description accords with the concept that the philosopher, Charles Taylor
terms “acultural” modernity. If modernity is “acultural,” the expectation is
that parallel developments will eventually occur and look pretty much the
same anywhere. Taylor contrasts this to the concept of “cultural” modernity
that is also termed in cultural and post-colonial theory, “multiple
modernities”, or “alter/native modernities” so as to highlight the fact that
developing and diverse cultures are becoming modern in their own distinct
It is here that I would like to locate my discussion of Sufism and the
modern by suggesting that Sufism lays the ground for a cultural and culture-
friendly Islamic modernity.

Sufism as Anti-modern

In the modern period and particularly in the 20th Century, Sufism has
often received a negative evaluation in the Muslim world. This anti-Sufi
critique often mounts accusations that Sufism was authoritarian and feudal,
and that it encouraged withdrawal from practical life thereby inculcating
passivity. This world-denying tendency of Sufis, in turn, is criticized as
having left Muslim societies susceptible to conquest by colonial powers. In
addition, there is a more specific Islamic purist critique of Sufism, stretching

back centuries, that Sufis added embellishments in theology and innovations

in practice that were not part of the original scriptural framework of the
Islamic religion.
In the context of contemporary Muslim immigrants to Europe and North
America, the professionals who embrace modernity in the form of scientific
and technological competence prefer to distance themselves from the
superstition and credulity associated with practicing “popular” Sufism.
These sentiments are often shared by the newly literate cohort of graduates
of modernized mass educational institutions in traditionally Muslim societies.
On a third front, Sufism itself has been characterized as being in
decline both by western scholars and the Sufis themselves. For example
scholars such as Fritz Meier make a distinction between the era of the
classical Sufi masters who were considered moral exemplars and spiritual
teachers, and more recent Sufi leaders who rely primarily on personal
charisma, offering intercessory powers to their followers within Sufi orders, in
lieu of “tarbiyya” or the transformative training of individual disciples.9
In another example of a perceived decline of Sufism, the British
Orientalist, A. J. Arberry, remarked in his scholarly study of the 1950s that
Sufi orders in many places were continuing to attract only the “ignorant
masses, but no man of education would care to speak in their favour”. 10
We find another version of tension between Sufism and modernity in
the thought of certain contemporary exponents of “traditionalist” Sufism.
Most prominent in this regard are those contemporary Sufi movements
popular in the west who draw their inspiration from Shaykh al-‘Alawi, an
Algerian teacher who died in 1934. The strands of Al-‘Alawi’s Shadhili legacy
include the followers of Frithjof Schuon and Seyyed Hossein Nasr as well as
smaller Sufi movements such as the Murabitun.11 In the teachings of these
Sufi groups, a major problem is framed as being “modernity” itself. One
problem of modernity observed by social scientists and taken up by within
the 20th century study of religion by pioneers such as Carl Gustav Jung, Henri
Corbin, or Mircea Eliade, has been the desacralization of the world brought

about by secular attitudes. In response to such challenges as well as

Sufism’s own purported “decline”, these Shadhili revivalists propound
“traditionalism” or “perennialism” in the form of advocating a return to
authentic tradition.

Sufism and currents in contemporary Islamic thought

Having dealt with some of the modern critics of Sufism, I will now
characterize some of the more influential intellectual responses to Sufism by
Muslim intellectuals over the past century. This brief overview will establish
broad categories of how the conjunction of Sufism and modernity is variously
framed by the following types of thinkers or movements.

1) Islamic Modernism
2) Post-Tariqa Sufi Movements
3) Traditionalism/Perennialism
4) Progressive Muslims--“engaged Sufism”
5) New Age/eclectic Sufi movements

1) Islamic Modernism

The Modernist Islamic movement was a major force in Islamic thought

in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, attempting to reconcile Islamic
faith and modern ideals. In addition to be willing to accept and adapt
inventions and approaches of the modern West, the roots of modernism
within the Islamic tradition could go back to the Mu’tazilites of 9th century
Baghdad, who favored rationalistic interpretations of the revelation. In
addition to the rationalists among the intellectual sources of the modernists,
elements in the life and thought of Muslim reformist Sufis such as the Indian
Naqshbandiyya, Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi (d. 1625), known as the Renewer of

the Second Millennium (Mujaddid Alf-i Thani) also inspired a number of 20th
century modernists.
The Modernist movement pioneered the reform and adaptation of
Islamic law in new nation states as well as the formation of modern
educational institutions and revised curricula on Western models. It agitated
for political liberalization or decolonization, and was central in establishing
mass circulation print media throughout the Islamic world. The Modernist
Islamic movement went into eclipse during the 1930s-1970s, being largely
supplanted, on the one hand, by purely secular projects (primarily
nationalism and socialism) and on the other hand, by revivalist and Islamist
religious projects.
In fact there are several types of Islamic Modernism with distinct links
or approaches to Sufi thought. Among them I will mention intellectual
rationalism and romantic idealist modernism.

a) Intellectual rationalism

A prominent example of an Egyptian modernist is Muhammad Abduh

(d. 1905) who came from a Shadhili Sufi background although this did not
strongly inform his mature thought. For several such early Modernists,
Sufism was not so much inimical to their project as simply no longer relevant
at the level of personal practice. At the same time, Abduh was willing to
endorse certain Sufi understanding of ethics and spiritual education.
Another example of 20th Century intellectual modernism, the Pakistani
-American scholar, Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), like many others of his cohort,
came from a family background with Sufi connections but was
unsympathetic both to popular Sufi practices and to the intellectual excesses
of Sufis such as Ibn ‘Arabi. It was Rahman who formulated a theory termed
“neo-Sufism”--the theory that Sufism, during the 18th and 19th centuries,
shifted its focus from earlier philosophical monism and aspirations for
individual unity with God, to a movement of piety and devotionalism marked

by imitation of the Prophet.12 This attitude then initiated among Sufi scholars
a concomitant focus on study of the prophetic sayings (hadith) and reformist
attitudes to Sufi popular practices, at least among modernizing urban elites.
We may find here a hint of the “decline of Sufism” thesis, together with an
explanation of some roots of Sufi reform movements of the pre-modern
period. In response to the “neo-Sufism” hypothesis, numerous scholars have
disputed whether these elements of Sufi theory are in fact “new.” 13 Still,
parallels to modernization theory suggest that Sufism, through such
developments, was preparing to adjust to a new modern self-consciousness.
While eschewing folk and popular practices of Sufi, intellectual Muslim
modernists/liberals have tended to appreciate mystical poetry and other
aspects of Sufi influence on traditional Muslim cultures, acknowledging the
role of the Sufi tradition in that heritage.

b) Romantic Idealist Modernism

While sharing many views with intellectual modernists, a detailed

study of the thought of Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) suggests that a further
dimension of “romantic idealist” informs his poetry and ideas. Iqbal was a
prominent poet in both the Urdu and Persian languages, known as the
“intellectual father of Pakistan” due to his early call for a distinct territorial
homeland for South Asian Muslims. The cultural and historical context of a
thinker such as Iqbal would be quite similar to that of Fazlur Rahman (20th
century South Asia). Sufism provides Iqbal’s metaphors and poetic imagery,
and Sufi heroes such as al-Hallaj (801), Rumi (1273), and Ahmad Sirhindi
(1625) populate his literary imagination.
In Iqbal’s thought Sufism is variously characterized as either a source
of spiritual inspiration or a cause of societal decadence. In one of his
poems, Iqbal appropriates the figure of the 16th Century reformist Sufi,
Ahmad Sirhindi, in a way that allows Sirhindi’s story to give voice to several
“modern” concerns.

I will illustrate some of these by citing an excerpt from Iqbal’s poem,

Bal-i Jibra’il (Gabriel's Wing).

I presented myself at the tomb of Shaykh Mujaddid (Sirhindi)

That ground which is the rising place of lights under the spheres,
The planets are ashamed before the dust of that place,
Which shrouds the master of secrets
The one who didn't bow his head before (the Mughal emperor) Jehangir14
The one from whose energetic spirit comes enthusiasm for true freedom
He is watching over the honor of the Muslims in India
God sent him at the right time to raise our consciousness15

In the verses above we find Iqbal expressing the following modern values
through Sufi associations:

a) nationalism (the honor of Indian Muslims)

b) populism/activism (In a historical incident, Sirhindi refused to
prostrate himself before the ruler, as had been customary at the court.
Therefore this image may suggest a modern rejection of monarchism and
c) the evocation of “true freedom” and a raised consciousness
represents an appeal to modern liberal and democratic sensibilities.
Sirhindi is also known as a proponent of a Sufi philosophical theory
known as “wahdat al-shuhud” (the unity of experience) that was said to offer
a corrective to the doctrine of Ibn al-‘Arabi, “wahdat al-wujud” (the unity of
existence). Using the model of the Prophet Muhammad to prove the return
from the state of annihilation in the Divine (fana) back to transform the world
through the state of subsistence (baqa), Sirhindi represents the modern
“activist” Sufi ready to engage within social and political concerns. This
could be seen as contrasting with the quietist, gnostic individual Sufi who is
now seen as failing to address the needs of the contemporary Muslim umma.

2) Post-tariqa Sufism

Certain contemporary Muslim social movements, despite their Sufi

roots, de-emphasize individual initiation and affiliation to specific orders
(tariqas) and the more mysterious and charismatic elements of Islamic
mystic practice while channeling Sufism’s role in developing personal piety
to the achievement of collective goals. Two prominent examples are the
Turkish Nur movements and the Indian Tablighi Jamaat, both of which are
now among the largest and most influential global Islamic movements.
In Turkey and now globally, perhaps millions of followers are dedicated
to organizations promoting the ideals of a 20th century figure, Said Nursi (d.
1960). Nursi’s followers and subsequent branches of the broader Nur
Movement such as the Fethullah Gülen community have developed their own
media conglomerates consisting of newspapers, TV stations, and publishing
houses. In addition their vast networks of business and educational
institutions virtually create a parallel, moderate Islamic society within the
Turkish secular state and they have now expanded to most parts of the
In his writings, Said Nursi directly asserted that Islam could and should
combine with “modern” science. For Nursi, the challenges to Muslims are
atheism and materialism, rather than modernity or the West, while the stress
is on the collective action for the good rather than the pursuit of individual
goals, whether material or spiritual.
While the Nur movements embrace modernity at a technological level
as well as modern pluralism and deny any desire to intervene in the political
system, they remain conservative in social matters such as gender roles.
In terms of representing post-tariqa Sufism, the Tablighi Jamaat has
found a broad appeal by inviting Muslims to return to and cultivate their
religious practice, to engage in service to others, to remain apolitical and
effect positive change, as it were, from the ground up.
A particular characteristic shared by these movements is a transferal
of charismatic authority from centering on the classical shaykh and Sufi
lineage (silsila) and order (tariqa) to the community of activists as a whole. 17

3) Traditionalism

A third case of Sufism engaging the Modern is the response of a group

of Muslim intellectuals, among them a significant cohort of Western converts
to Islam. The roots of Islamic Sufi “traditionalism” go back, as I previously
mentioned, to a specific Sufi Order, the Shadhiliyya, and to a particular
Algerian Sufi shaykh, Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi (d. 1934).
I would like to point out two strains that I observe within this tendency:
traditionalism and a tendency towards combining Sufi piety with immersion
in fiqh according to the four Sunni school of law, that I am designating as

a) Perennialism/ Gnostic Traditionalism

One of the most popular interpretations of contemporary Sufism

among non-Muslims and Muslim elites has been what might be termed
gnostic or perennialist Sufism. This form emerges from Western esotericism
and late 19th century movements in Europe as epitomized in the works of a
French convert to Islam, Rene Guenon (d. 1951) who embraced Islamic
Sufism, wrote books on esotericism, comparative religion and Islam and
spent the latter part of his life in Egypt.
Perennialism honors the shared or essential perennial “core” of all
religious traditions, and believes that an individual must follow one specific
established tradition among them, as a response to the collapse of the
modern world’s access to spirituality. There are important intersections and
continuing linkages between perennialist scholars and intellectuals and
prominent figures within the academic study of religion and Islam in the
West. America examples are Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Huston Smith; in
Britain the late Martin Lings, as well as numerous contemporary French
scholars of Islam [Denis Gril, Eric Geoffroy, etc.]

Through contact with Shaykh al-‘Alawi the philosophy of this

intellectual tendency was further oriented towards the metaphysics of Ibn
‘Arabi and a focus on gnostic apprehension of the “real”. This is evidenced in
writings by scholars of this group many of which either deal directly with the
Akbarian tradition or draw heavily upon it. This movement has also had
some impact on selected intellectuals and elites in the Muslim world.
Sufi-influenced traditionalism has been appreciated in the West for its
cultural refinement and implicit pluralism, although it has also been
associated with certain elitist trends and even in some cases the extreme
political right in Europe,18 indicating some of the dangers of which moderate
Islamic positions may be co-opted or channeled.

b) Fiqh-sation

This version of traditionalism is at present gaining in popularity among

Muslim youth in the diaspora, and it has also garnered some support in the
Muslim world. Rather than existing as a single movement this strand of
traditionalism combines rigorous adherence to the shari’a through mastery
of Islamic legal discourse and punctilious observance of the rules of fiqh
within one of the four Sunni schools of law with Sufi affiliations. Like
perennialism, this development has been strongly influenced by Sufis of the
Shadhili-Alawi lineage of Shaykh al-Alawi of Algeria. Leaders within this
movement are mainly younger intellectuals, many of whom have a strong
grounding in contemporary currents in Western thought. At the same time
they have dedicated themselves to study in traditional Islamic madrasa
environments in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan or elsewhere, mastering the classical
sources of Islam in Arabic and immersing themselves in the discourse and
mindsets of particular legal schools (madhahib). Their focus on fiqh leads
me to term this strand “fiqh-sation” or in other words, the quest for
authenticity or authenti”fiqh”ation defined through norms of Islamic practice.

Internet sites such as “Sunni path” offer commentary and advice in this
vein. Other sites feature op-ed type articles on Islamic and current events
topics authored by public intellectual convert Sufis such as Tim (Abd al-
Hakim) Winter and Nuh Ha Mim Keller, in addition to a younger cohort
including the Canadian, Faraz Rabbani, whom I cited as the outset of this
article.19 In this expression of Sufism there is an impulse to recover a
comprehensive paradigm of traditional Islamic scholarship and comportment
that I term, the “imagined madrasa”. This is the form of Sufism that most
resonates with the diaspora youth who populate Muslim student associations
and attend periodic seminars known as “Deen (religion) intensives”.
Since the legitimacy of legal discourse (fiqh) is unassailable, this
version of “modern” Sufism is able to cross over into venues such as Muslim
Student Associations and in the United States, the Islamic Society of North
America (ISNA). Previously such organizations had been dominated by
Islamist tendencies and generally were not welcoming to Sufism. However,
this strand of Sufism can present itself under rubrics drawn from the Qur’an
itself such as “tazkiyya al-nafs” (purification of the soul) and “ihsan”
Both perennialist traditionalism and “fiqh”sation movements find their
roots in Islamic Sufism, while rejecting secular modernity and the
desacralization of the world. At the same time each embraces modern
technologies, and even the discourse and realms of Western academia.
These trends in “modern” Sufism tend to be favored by cultural and
economic elites while they remain conservative on social issues such as
gender relations. At the same time these Sufi movements are fairly liberal in
accommodating to living in the pluralistic West and definitely take a stand
against violence and terrorism on legal and moral grounds.

5) Progressive Muslims--“Engaged Sufism”


A progressive Muslim movement in the West emerged to counter

perceived rigidity in Islamic organizations and their rejection of liberal and
progressive values. Among the progressives are some individuals who favor
a Sufi approach to Islam, and seek to recover progressive elements existing
in the classical Sufi tradition. One such attempt to derive inspiration from
classical Sufism on the part of some progressives argues that there is an
intimate and organic relationship between personal and public ethics that is
intrinsic to Sufism.
Their claim is that Sufi individuals and communities have engaged in
spiritual praxis impacting issues of gender politics, socio-economic relations,
community development, ecological awareness, religious diversity and
broader social justice imperatives. This interpretation claims the right to
criticize conceptions of Sufism that are excessively narrow and represent it
as individualistic spiritual practice that disconnects personal morality from
the realm of public ethics and socio-political power dynamics. 21

5) New Age/Eclectic Sufi movements

In the 20th century, some Sufi teachers traveled to the West and
Islamic mystical practices spread in various forms to Europe and America.
Alongside more recent attempts merge Sufism with strict compliance to
ritual law and exclusive Islamic identity, earlier trends in Western Sufism
seemed rather to favor eclectic and New Age forms that incorporated inter-
religious practice. Prominent examples of such groups are the Sufi Order of
the West inaugurated by the Indian Sufi, Inayat Khan (d. 1927) and carried
on by his descendants, and the Society for Sufi Studies, promoted by the
literary figure, Idries Shah (d. 1997). These movements are arguably small
although they have a wider outreach to non-Muslim audiences due to
publications and cultural activities.22
Since such eclectic Sufi movements, in which conversion to Islam is not
essential, generally address a Western audience, the emphasis is on

something other than traditional Islamic practice and piety. Such

movements often represent the purpose of Sufism as being “something else”
besides Islamic religiosity for example, as being transpersonal psychology or
spiritual healing. They are by philosophy and in terms of the sort of middle
and upper class adherents that they attract, intrinsically able to embrace the
modern and have no trouble accommodating to pluralistic settings.

In setting forth this group of categories according to which Sufism is

interacting with the modern, I may be criticized for presenting an overly
linear view of the modern as rational and predictable. I would like to note,
however briefly, that attempts to establish a post-modern or anti-modern
interpretation of classical Sufism are also taking place, at present in literary
and intellectual terms rather than in the form of actual social movements.23


On the basis of this brief overview we are able to conclude that

contemporary Muslim responses to Sufism fall ideologically on both the
“right” and the “left”, so to speak. In so far as groups or movements
espouse certain universalistic philosophical elements of Sufism--these can
provide the resources for interpretations that are liberal, pluralistic, and
individualistic and therefore they are compatible with the nature of many
modern societies and modernist movements. Beyond these intellectually
modernist attitudes, we may find among progressive and liberal Muslim
movements, calls for an activist or reformist form of engaged Sufism that
would employ Sufi practices or principles to address issues of social and
economic injustice.
In terms of social and political contexts, most organized movements
developed from Sufism still tend to be socially conservative, authoritarian,
and collectively oriented. This might suggest that in the Muslim world, Sufi
movements could play a role in the future, even in the context of Islamic

states. At the same time in secular Eastern (Turkey) or Western democratic

nations, we might expect that individual Sufis and Sufi movements would be
able to integrate in pluralistic and secular systems. In fact, based on a
concept of Sufism as “moderate” Islam, certain conservative elements
among American policy makers such as the authors of a controversial Rand
Corporation report, have suggested that Sufis in the Muslim world be
supported and patronized. This is because these Sufis were seen as
representing a “moderate” strand in Islam that might be less critical of
Western policies.24 While some Muslim Sufis embraced this sign of favor or
source of patronage, many other Muslims, Sufi and non-Sufi, were more
cautious about whether this was in fact a positive assessment and were leery
of the possibility of being used coercively.25

2) Sufism and the recovery of culture

The “cultural” is central in modernization theory, especially in theories

such as that formulated by Charles Taylor regarding the emergence of
multiple or alternative modernities.26 Today we find that certain Sufi
influenced thinkers also demonstrate an engagement with producing and
theorizing cultural forms of Islamic expression. This is in contrast to the
more hostile stance towards cultural elements, whether art, music, or traces
of pre-Islamic indigenous practices, evident on the part of Islamist
intellectuals and movements in the Muslim world.
In illustration of this debate over culture, I would like to present two
recent American metaphors for Islam in interaction with culture. It is
noteworthy that each explicitly evokes the theme of a “cultural imperative”.
The first was offered by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, a Muslim-American scholar
in residence at Chicago’s Nawawi Foundation. In his article, “Islam and the
Cultural Imperative” available on the Nawawi Foundation Web site, Abd-Allah
draws on classical Islamic sources in law and theology, while his writing also
exudes a Sufi fragrance.

In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and in that regard, has been
likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet and life-giving but –
having no color of their own – reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which
they flow. In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. 27

By extension in America, Islam will look American. Note that the image
for Islam in this case is that of a pure, life-giving stream of water that is
flowing and flexible. Dr. Abd-Allah goes on to use Qur’anic citations to back
up this vision. For example he cites the verse: “Accept (from people) what
comes naturally (for them). Command what is customarily (good).” (Qur’an
Drawing on classical Islamic jurists, Abd-Allah also cite legal maxims
such as, “cultural usage shall have the weight of law” propounded by
scholars such as the Maliki scholar, al-Qarifi (d. 1285). The gist of this
argument is that Islamic legal judgments and, by extension, Muslim
behavioral norms, must take into account the diverse cultural realities
wherever Muslims live.
This model bears an interesting contrast with an alternative metaphor
for Islam in relation to culture that I discovered in what I would term a
conservative or Islamist position paper that also claimed to address the
theme of a “cultural imperative”. This article was authored by scholars
associated with the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Virginia.
Their analysis, in contrast to Abd Allah’s, calls for “a critical and objective
reassessment of the Muslim cultural and intellectual heritage of the past to
sift out the wheat from the chaff.”28 This version of a cultural imperative
offers what I call the “sieve metaphor” of the role of Islam. Among certain
Islamist inspired thinkers we observe hostility to culture and an attempt to
“correct” or “sift” it.
The objective of this second cultural imperative is stated as being the
development of “a valid methodology that will enable the reconstruction of
the modern Muslim mind along lines that will ensure the recovery of its

originality and creative potential. Given the premises of the venture, a

distinct Islamic vision will crystallize and this, in turn, will generate a fresh
civilizational impulse in our own time.”29
Contemporary Muslims may be understood as negotiating the
relationship of Islam to culture within the implications of these contrasting
metaphors, the clear flowing river versus the sieve. In some cases
combinations of Sufism and Islamic modernism may offer resolutions for the
flourishing of both individual and collective expressions of Islam in the
modern period.

Marcia Hermansen
Loyola University Chicago
United States
Rabbani, Faraz, Reply originally published May
25, 2003.
2 Muslim Wake Up is no longer an active site but is at present (2008) archived.
3 Published July 3, 2005. Accessed 11/10/07. The
source for the idea that she must comply at all times with her husband’s desire for sex comes not from the Qur’an but from a
number of hadith such as “If a man calls his wife to bed and she refuses, and then he sleeps angry, the angels shall curse her
until he awakens.” Rabbani cites this example in his original ruling.
4 Accessed Sept. 8. 2008.
This reply on the personal blog can no longer be viewed.
That is, contemporary Perennialist and Traditionalist Sufis feel that Islamic modernists, as well as fundamentalists, are the
most negative influences within the Muslim community. See for example, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of the Truth,
New York: Harper, 2007), 154-6.
As argued in numerous cases studies in Martin van Bruinessen and Julia Day Howell (eds.) , Sufism and the ‘Modern’ in
Islam (London: I. B. Taurus, 2007).
Charles Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity” in Alternative Modernities ed. Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar (Durham, NC:
Duke, 2001), 172 ff.
Fritz Meier, Zwei Abhandlungen iiber die Naqshbandiyya (Istanbul: Franz Steiner, 1994),
A. J. Arberry, Sufism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1950), 122.
On the Murabitun see Marcia Hermansen, “The ‘other’ Shadhilis of the West” in The Shadhiliyya, ed. Eric Geoffroy, (Paris:
Maisonneuve et Larose, 2005), 481-499.
Fazlur Rahman, Islam, (New York: Anchor Books, 1966), 193-6. 205-6.
R. S. O’Fahey and Bernd Radtke, “Neo-Sufism Reconsidered” in Der Islam 70, 1 (1993): 52-87.
This refers to an incident in which Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi refused to follow the court custom of doing a prostration
before the emperor, Jehangir. For this he was imprisoned but later pardoned.
Kulliyat Iqbal (Pakistan: Ghulam Muhammad, 1973), 304. This poem is translated into English in Poems from Iqbal by
V. G. Kiernan (Bombay: Kutub, 1947), 52.
Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito, Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gulen Movement (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse
University Press, 2003).
This is also observed by Yoginder Sikand, “The Tablighi Jama’at in Mewat, India” in Martin van Bruinessen and Julia
Day Howell (eds.) Sufism and the ‘Modern’ in Islam (I. B. Taurus: London, 2007), 147. I compare Said Nursi and Maulana
Ilyas, founder of the Tablighi Jama’at in “Said Nursi and Maulana Ilyas: Examples of Pietistic Spirituality among 20 th
Century Islamic Movements” Islam and Christian Muslim Relations, 19 (1, 2008): 73-88.
Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Websites featuring this sort of thought are,,
In fact, the hadith of Jibra’il, where the Prophet describes the succession of “Islam, Iman, and Ihsan” is often cited by
traditionalists as the basis of Sufism.
Engaged Sufism Special Issue of the Journal for Islamic Studies (South Africa) 26, 2006.
For a more detailed discussion of these movement see my article "Hybrid Identity Formations in Muslim America: The
Case of American Sufi Movements" Muslim World Spring 2000 (90 #1&2): 158-197.
Adonis, Sufism and Surrealism (London: Saqi, 2005) or Ian Almond, Sufism and Deconstruction : A Comparative Study
of Derrida and Ibn 'Arabi (London: Routledge, 2004).
Cheryl Bernard, "Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, Strategies," Rand Corporation, 2004.
Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (NewYork: Pantheon,
Another farming of this idea discusses the intersection of global and local factors. For a review of some of the theorists
see John Voll, “Contemporary Sufism and Social Theory” in van Bruinessen and Howell (eds.) Sufism and the ‘Modern’,
Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, “The Cultural Imperative”
Mona Abu al-Fadl Viewed March 12, 2006