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Journal of Sufi Studies 2 (2013) 203–220 brill.


Book Reviews

Nile Green. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex and Malden,
Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. xxi + 263 pages, maps and illustrations, glossary,
further reading, index. Cloth. ISBN 978-1-4051-5761-2. US $88.95. Paper. ISBN:
978-1-4051-5765-0. US $36.95.

The book under review is the latest survey of Sufism’s history. It consists of
four chapters arranged chronologically: 1) Origins, Foundations and Rivalries
(850–1100); 2) An Islam of Saints and Brothers (1100–1400); 3) Empires, Frontiers
and Renewers (1400–1800); and, 4) From Colonization to Globalization (1800–
2000). Given the existence of at least half a dozen recent histories and surveys
of Sufism (mentioned in the endnotes to the book’s chapters and in “Further
Reading,” 243–4), the author deems it necessary to explain why another one
is needed. He argues that, unlike some previous studies that have treated
Sufism as individualistic and private experience “distinct from the sphere of
‘politics’ ” (2), his book presents Sufis “as powerful and influential social actors
rather than conscientious objectors acting from the margins of society” (5–6).
In line with this premise, the author conceives “Sufism as primarily a tradi-
tion of powerful knowledge, practices and persons” (3), while downplaying its
“antinomian” and “marginal” aspects in favor of viewing Sufism as a “social and
religious ‘establishment’ ” (6). Sufism’s social, political and cultural influence
on societies in which it is embedded rests, according to the author, on three
types of power: “discursive, miraculous and economic” (ibid.). The workings of
these three powers are traced in the narrative that follows. Finally, the author
proposes to regard Sufism as a sum total of various relationships, namely,
“between [Sufi] saints and their followers, between the readers and writers of
Sufi texts; between the Prophet, the mediating master and the humble believer;
between the subjects and objects of the devotion that has been the emotional
heartbeat of Sufi tradition” (9–10). Special attention is given to the processes of
the tradition’s adaptation to vastly different social and cultural environments
over the longue durée (8–11; cf. 130). The breadth of the book’s geographical
scope, the author argues, makes it truly “global” (12), and I agree. It explores
the world-wide presence of Sufi individuals, teachings and institutions from
West Africa to Indonesia and China. To any scholar of Sufism and Islam

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2013 DOI: 10.1163/22105956-12341255

204 Book Reviews / Journal of Sufi Studies 2 (2013) 203–220

generally, the author’s methodological premises outlined above make perfect

sense. In fact, they are not that novel. While the author uses the now seriously
outdated approach to Sufism of Arthur J. Arberry (1905–69) as his polemical
foil (1 and 6), it is the much more nuanced and broad “civilizational” vision
of Islam and Sufism of Marshall Hodgson (1922–68) that has prevailed among
Western scholars of Sufism (including this reviewer). Surprisingly, despite
its formative influence on practically all subsequent academic accounts of
Sufism’s history, Hodgson’s seminal overview of Sufism in his Venture of Islam
is absent from the author’s narrative and footnotes. One wonders why. Overall,
the author makes good on his promise to provide a comprehensive and con-
textually grounded survey of Sufi tradition in its relations with various histori-
cal actors, socio-cultural environments and institutions.
The first two chapters, as the author himself acknowledges (e.g. 11), cover
a well-travelled territory. As the previous studies of the formative stages of
Sufism’s evolution through time and space, Nile Green’s book emphasizes:
the fact that Sufism and Sufis appeared before the name itself (e.g. 16); that
later Sufi writers appropriated heroes of early Islam to construct a socially and
religiously acceptable yet distinctive “tradition” of Islamic faith and practice
(15–18, 42–4); that Sufism emerged from the pietistic milieu of the Hadith folk,
popular preachers and Qur’an readers (25–6); that Iraqi-style Sufism had to
compete with and, eventually, integrated or suppressed regional versions of
ascetic-mystical piety such as the Malamatiyya, Karramiyya and Hakimiyya
of Khurasan and Central Asia (44–52); that the concept of “friendship with/
proximity to God” (wilaya or walaya) was crucial to Sufism’s claim to a spe-
cial (and superior) type of religious authority and to its subsequent success in
attracting a large popular following (47–8, 92–103). These are indeed “places”
where, to quote the author, “individual readers find themselves on familiar
ground” (11). This reader certainly has. Nevertheless, some points made by
the author do call for critical comment. First, his rigid juxtaposition of Sufism
(tasawwuf ) and asceticism (zuhd) (23, asserted by Christopher Melchert
and denied by Bernd Radtke) can hardly be considered a given. The two co-
existed in relative harmony; as the author himself shows, stressing one or the
other was a matter of choice by individual Sufi masters. Second, the idea that
individuals bearing the sobriquet “sage” (hakim) constituted a cohesive and
definable mystical movement in Eastern Islamdom is a conjecture that begs
more evidence. One can, for example, argue that there were at least three
renowned hakims from that area, namely al-Hakim al-Samarqandi (d. 953),
al-Hakim al-Naysaburi (b. 933, d. 1014), and al-Hakim al-Zandawisti (d. 992),
who were legal scholars and theologians with no known mystical or ascetic pro-
pensities. Another point that needs more research is the assumed link between
Book Reviews / Journal of Sufi Studies 2 (2013) 203–220 205

Shafiʿism and Sufism (50), bearing in mind that at least two major exponents
of “Sufi science” cited by the author (al-Kalabadhi, d. 990 or 995, and al-Jullabi
al-Hujwiri, d. circa 1075; see 52) were almost definitely Hanafis. Finally, I have
a minor quibble with the author’s anachronistic use of some modern terms.
My list includes “intelligentsia” (42–3 et passim) to describe the merchants,
scholars and craftsmen of the Caliphate’s urban centers; “franchise” to describe
the spiritual method and metaphysical teachings of some Sufi masters and
brotherhoods (62 and 87 and passim); and “public intellectual” to describe al-
Ghazali (d. 1111). I also disagree with describing Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) as “a Sufi
legal scholar” (101; cf. 125).
In chapters 4 and 5, Green focuses on the emergence of Sufi brotherhoods
and “sanctification of God’s friends” (92 and passim)—a process that the
author describes as “vernacularization of Sufi teachings” (103 and passim). Spe-
cial attention is given to the ambivalent relations between the ruling establish-
ments of the major Muslim empires (Ottoman, Safawid and Moghul), on the
one hand, and Sufi leaders and institutions, on the other. Here, too, the author
traverses a well-travelled territory, although his ability to integrate into his nar-
rative an amazingly vast body of the latest academic literature on the subject
as well as his own research on Sufism in the Indian Subcontinent renders this
part of his book particularly valuable for students of Sufism. These pages (141–7,
163–7, 192–5) constitute, in my opinion, one of the major strengths of the book
under review. Another strength lies in the author’s concerted effort to show
Sufis as agents of Islamization of frontier areas as well as of “vernacularization
of Islam” across centuries and continents. Naturally, when the author ventures
into the geographical areas that lie outside his immediate academic purview
(e.g. Central Asia, the Volga Region and the Northern Caucasus) he occasion-
ally finds himself on a shakier ground. For example, his discussion of Imam
Shamwil’s (Shamil’s, d. 1871) jihad against the Russian Empire is too terse to do
justice to the subject and, moreover, repeats the unproven assumption about
Sufism as the primary vehicle of Muslim anti-colonial resistance to the Russian
conquest of the Caucasus (204). More seriously, the author makes frequent use
of a highly problematic (due to its patently retrospective nature) notion of the
“crisis of conscience” (128 and 154–61) in Muslim societies following 1591 (the
end of the first millennium of the Muslim era; see 188). It is deployed to explain
such different phenomena as later Sufism’s rigid hierarchism and bureaucra-
tization, its cozy relations with the ruling establishment, its resultant loss of
popularity among some social groups as well as the rise of Wahhabism and
other anti-Sufi discourses in latter-day Islam. It would be more productive to
view Sufism in recent times as, partly, the victim of its own success—a situ-
ation in which challenging the socio-political status quo almost inevitably
206 Book Reviews / Journal of Sufi Studies 2 (2013) 203–220

entailed an attack on its most visible (and controversial) symbol as Sufi Islam
had become. In the final analysis, Nile Green’s Sufism: A Global History has ful-
filled its goals outlined at the beginning of this review. His erudite discussion of
the recent vicissitudes of Sufi Islam in both the Muslim world and in the West
(220–6) is particularly welcome and timely.

Alexander Knysh
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor