Sufism in the Contemporary Age

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Humanities


Sufism is often considered the mystical dimension of Islam, or a manifestation of love, peace and understanding, a perennial philosophy that accepts and tolerates other established traditions. As such it is the alternative to what is often called 'radical' Islam or 'fundamentalism'. Such a view has been promoted by studies that focus excessively on classical forms of Sufism in the early medieval period to pre-modern times, which includes an analysis of Sufi love poetry, or the development of Sufi orders. To its opponents, Sufism has encouraged superstitious beliefs, faith in miraculous beliefs, the powers of holy men, and excesses in the drug taking. While there are elements of truth in all of the above views of Sufism, a more sophisticated and nuanced perspective is needed to comprehend the development of Sufism in the UK in the contemporary age. There has been limited scholarly activity on Sufism in the modern period, that is to say, in the past one hundred and fifty years. The changes that have taken place within the Sufi tradition in the modern period are many and defy easy categorisation. This research project attempts to highlight some of these changes, in particular, the association of some Sufi groups with Salafism (which is considered to be one of the manifestations of 'radical' Islam); the phenomenon of transnationalism which involves the growth and development of closely linked Sufi movements in countries as far apart as Europe and the Middle East; the emergence of Sufi-esque movements which draw on New Age for inspiration, and which are not recognised by 'mainstream' Muslims as Islamic; Sufis who feel comfortable living within a 'secular' Western society, and witness no incompatibility of such a life style with Islam - indeed, such Sufis regard themselves as liberal Muslims, and view many of the 'Islamic' regimes in the Middle East with extreme distaste. This research project aims to consider the various manifestations of Sufism, although preference will be given to manifestations of the tradition that have more resonance within the UK.
Naturally there are no pre-determined conclusions to this research project. It is hoped, however, that a more nuanced understanding of Sufism in the UK in the contemporary period will emerge. It terms of outcomes, the project will commence with two workshops, and conclude with a large international conference. The two workshops will focus firstly on Sufism and Salafism, and secondly non-Salafi-Sufism in the UK. Post graduate students will be encouraged to attend and present papers, along with more established scholars. The selectg committee will invite the authors of the best papers from the workshops to develop their papers for the conference, and leading scholars from around the world will also be invited to present their research. Subsequently, the best papers from the conference will be published in a major publication. It is to be hoped that the project will generate interest among the wider academic community, and attract a number of students to engage in post-graduate and post-doctoral research on the topic.
The topic has specific relevance to many within the UK, ranging from governmental policy makers and those in the security forces, to police, social workers, teachers, those who work in hopsitals and a variety of public services. There has been limited work on the topic of modern Sufism, and even less on Sufism in Britain. However, the co-investigators are two British experts who have published in the field, and are specialists most qualified to lead engage and help direct this project.

Planned Impact

There is no escaping the debates about the nature of Islam in the contemporary age, as every day there appears to be items in the news relating to this religious tradition. However, as in any religious tradition there are diverse forms. This projects aims to analyse the Sufi tradition, with specific reference to Sufism in Britain and transnational Sufism. Since Sufism tends to be a communal practice, the research will attempt to investigate communities and groups of Sufis, and the nature of the belifs and practices of individuals within these groups. The project will focus on the influence of the Salafi movement upon Sufism, and therefore examine whether Sufi communities have become 'radicalised', or to what extent such groups regard themselves as endorsing the norms of mainstream British or European society. To what extent has Sufism in the modern period changed from its classical counterpart.

Such an investigation should be of interest to a number of significant groups in society. Perhaps one of the most important concerns security - especially if it is discovered that the Salafi link with Sufism, as Salafis are sometimes associated with being sympathetic for terrorist activity. The transnational dimension of religion and Sufism in the modern age complicates the issues still further, with greater levels of migration, increasing travel possibilities and more awareness and contacts through the internet.

Moreover, if the research indicates there is a turn towards 'conservative' Islam among Sufi groups, this again has implications for policy makers, as more conservative Muslims tend to be wary of integration into the larger society. Thus policy makers need to make decisions on the kind of facilities that society needs to provide for such groups. For example, there may be a need to create separate times/days at libraries or swimming pools, and there may be a demand to investigate the nature of religious and moral education in schools. In effect, the research could have significant implications in the field of equality and diversity among many others. On the other hand the research may indicate that 'moderate' Sufism is thriving in which case policy makers way wish to promote this form of Islam. There are obvious cultural questions associated with the research, which does not attempt to provide answers, but merely to reflect the state of one form of Sufism in the contemporary period. The research will not focus on the UK solely, and much may be learnt from the UK's counterparts in Europe, and in this respect, the research may be of interest to policy makers in the EU.

It should be clear then, that this is an impoprtant piece of research both within academic circles and also in society at large. The results of the research will be spread primarily through the network that is created among the participants, and this should filter through academic circles into a wide range of disciplines. The workshops and conference will be open to all, both academic and non-academics, such as equality officers. I shall liase with Glasgow University's equality officer and publicity department to ensure that a wide variety of channels are utilised to promote this research (such as through journals, newsletters, and internet sites which have an interest in these issues). Moreover, the results of the research, that is to say, the papers from the final conference, will be published in book form.


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Description The relationship between Sufism and Salafism is not always antagonistic. Some Salafis may be Sufis too. The picture is more complex than a simple bifurcation between the two groups.
Exploitation Route The project is still on going and there is a further publication in addition to "Sufism in Britain" edited by Professor Ron Geaves.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Certainly the research will inform my teaching in Glasgow University, and I am in the process of setting up a new taught masters degree looking at Political Islam.
Sector Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal