Showing Sufism in all its complexity. Alexander Knysh on the new Handbook of Sufi Studies series

    22 February 2021

New Books in Middle East and Islamic Studies
Edited by Alexandre Papas, "Sufi Institutions", (Brill 2021)

In December 2020, Brill published the first volume of the new Handbook of Sufi Studies series. In celebration, we joined Alexander Knysh, Editor-in-Chief of the series, for a discussion about the popularity of Sufism in the West, the relation of Sufi studies to adjacent disciplines, and the directions that the Handbook series will take in the future.

Prof. Knysh, we are honored to be with you today, would you mind introducing the audience to yourself and your academic work?

Thank you very much for the opportunity to introduce my work and myself. I am Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan and Academic Director of an Islamic studies program sponsored by the Rectorate of the St. Petersburg State University, Russia. My academic interests include Islamic mysticism (Sufism), Qur’anic studies, the history of Muslim theological, philosophical and juridical thought, and modern Islamic/Islamist movements in comparative perspective. I have numerous academic and instructional publications on these subjects, including twelve books. My most recent books in English are Islam in Historical Perspective (London and New York: Taylor and Francis, Routledge, 2017) and Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017). For many years, I have served as the section editor for “Sufism” on the Editorial Board of the Encyclopedia of Islam, Third Edition (Brill, Leiden and Boston). I am also Executive Editor of the Handbooks of Islamic Mysticism book series published by Brill. In sum, I am an Islamologist specializing primarily in Sufi studies.

Speaking of “Sufi studies”, do you refer to an actual field of organized scientific inquiry? And if so, how do you relate it to other subfields of Islamic studies?

I would describe Sufi studies as a subfield of Islamic studies. Islamologists study Islamic culture, art, politics, theology, jurisprudence, philosophy, education as well as history of Muslim communities worldwide, including those based in Western societies, where they constitute a minority. The subfield of Sufi studies has developed in dialogue with all these other subfields of Islamic studies, because many Sufis were simultaneously theologians, jurists, philosophers, poets, artists, and educators. In other words, Sufis were versatile and organically combined in themselves various aspects of Islamic piety and culture. One cannot focus exclusively on the Sufi facet of their complex personalities, while neglecting others facets. They are all equally important. What sets the Sufis apart from the majority of their coreligionists is their preoccupation with perfecting their selves (morally and ethically), striving to reach God and experiencing his immediate, almost tangible presence in their lives, and privileging spiritual concerns over mundane affairs. Otherwise, they are no different from the rest of the Muslims, coping with the same challenges and moral-ethical dilemmas as they do and not always immune to temptations that life in human society always entails. To take them out of their social contexts and to treat them as being somehow separate from their communities inevitably skews the picture. Alexandre Papas’s volume on Sufi institutions is the best antidote to approaching Sufism as an otherworldly, freestanding and self-sufficient “thing-in-itself.” Sufism was and is part and parcel of social, cultural and political life of Muslim communities.


The Western fascination with Sufism has always been a recurring presence in both popular and scholarly portrayals of Islam and Muslims, but how do you explain its rapid expansion in recent years? How conscious and critical are the scholars engaged in contemporary Sufi studies of this trend?

One can say that Sufism is in vogue with certain social-professional groups and individual members of the public in Western societies. This Western fascination with Sufism goes back to the early nineteenth century and has persisted until today. The most vivid evidence of this phenomenon is the popularity in the West of the mystical poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273) and, to a lesser extent, of Omar Khayyam, Sa‘di, Hafiz, Jami, Kabir, and Mehmed Esa‘d Galib. Academic scholars of Sufism, for the most part, welcome the popular appeal of Sufism to Westerners, because it contributes to the public visibility of their field of intellectual endeavor. However, they also point out that many Western admirers of Sufi wisdom, rituals, and meditative techniques tend to idealize and celebrate Sufism as an expression of refined, otherworldly spirituality and freethinking that has little or no connection to the mainstream Islamic beliefs and practices. They also neglect the obvious fact that Sufis were active and influential participants in the life of their communities. In other words, Sufism’s aficionados in the West forget about the more mundane aspects of Sufi existence that combines spiritual exercises and meditations on the beauty of the Divine Beloved with observance of a strict collective and individual (self-)discipline, full submission to the will of the Sufi master (shaykh; murshid), and the necessity to secure a livelihood for themselves and their families. To meet their basic needs the Sufis had to come into contact with their occasionally less-than-perfect coreligionists, including members of the ruling class. History shows that temptation with material wealth and popularity has often proved irresistible to even the most accomplished and respected Sufi leader, who would exhibit weaknesses and failings that are all too familiar to ordinary human beings. When academic scholars of Sufism point out such Sufi weaknesses and failings, they may be perceived by Sufism’s idealistic admirers as deliberate detractors and faultfinders. In most cases, this perception is incorrect. The academic scholars usually value Sufism’s spirituality and the numerous positive contributions its followers make to their communities. However, they are committed to drawing a comprehensive picture of Sufism, not a partial one (in both senses of the word).


Where do you locate the new series of handbooks of Sufi studies in relation to these critical approaches?

The editorial board of the Handbook of Sufi Studies, which incudes, apart from myself Marcia Hermansen, Christian Lange, Bilal Orfali and Alexandre Papas (with Bernd Radtke as the honorary founder) consistently seeks to avoid theologically and ideologically driven advocacy or criticism of Sufism. These two approaches to Sufism have informed the bulk of its studies in the West and the Muslim world over the past three or four decades. Our task as academic scholars is to show Sufism in all its complexity and, occasionally, contradiction. It is not our intention to evaluate the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of Sufism as a stream of thought and practice (as well as a network of institutions and communities) within Islam. We leave this task to Muslim theologians and jurists who are, I must say, sharply divided over this issue. We have no interest in joining in the fray on either side of the divide. We expect our authors to demonstrate academic rigor and diligence in investigating various manifestations of Sufi beliefs and practices, not to pass judgment on their compliance or non-compliance with the letter of Islamic law. At the same time, we give our authors freedom to pursue their own, unique approaches to Sufism, even when they disagree with ours, as long as these approaches are not openly and deliberately theological, polemical or apologetic. In sum, we promote unbiased (to the extent this is possible) and methodologically and intellectually sophisticated engagement with Sufism as opposed to simply describing it or defending/denouncing it on theological or juridical grounds. This, in my opinion, is the principal distinctive feature of our book series.

A handbook is a rather specific publication format, can you tell us what you hope to achieve by using it? And how would you define its target audience?

Originally, the goal of the editorial board was to produce an encyclopedia of Sufism. However, after discussing it with our colleagues and friends, some of whom predictably exclaimed, “Oh, no! Not another encyclopedia!,” we have chosen to take a different route. We want our books on Sufism to be coherent, well-argued and elegant narratives, exploring one or the other aspect of Sufism. The format of a book series is more conducive to this goal than an encyclopedia. Simultaneously, we wanted our books to represent the state-of-the field of academic study of Sufism, thereby helping readers to navigate the vast and often muddled sea of academic and non-academic literature on the subject. The format we have chosen allows us to examine Sufism from a variety of disciplinary and methodological vantage points, including anthropology, sociology, political, economic, military and intellectual history, as well as cultural and literary studies. The target audience is a general, non-specialized reader, preferably with some knowledge of Islam and interest in ascetic-mystical aspects of religion. In addition to encouraging our authors to use the latest methods of the aforementioned academic disciplines, we have also invited them to draw comparisons between Sufism and ascetic-mystic streams in other religious traditions, especially Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Shintoism.


Interdisciplinarity seems to be a defining trait of both the field and the handbooks. Does that pose any particular challenges when editing a reference book series on such a scale?

Yes, the challenges of dealing with such a vast and diverse body of research produced by scholars coming from a broad range of academic background are enormous indeed. Since our authors work independently, using only the general guidelines we provide, our task as editors is to minimize repetition and to cross-reference the issues addressed, usually very differently, in the chapters of individual volumes. Yet, a certain amount of repetition is unavoidable, because our authors often draw on the same or similar sources. On the positive side, the reappearance of the same Sufi idea, practice, institution, name or motif in different chapters of the same volume or in different volumes of our series serves as the best indicator of its importance in the overall scheme of things.

This particular interest in methodological openness towards different disciplines such as sociology, anthropology as well as literary and religious studies, why do you think it is essential to a field such as Sufi Studies?

The study of Sufism and Islam cannot be viable, intellectually sophisticated and interesting not just to specialists but to outsiders unless it takes advantage of the latest methodological tools offered to by the fields of the humanities and social sciences I have just mentioned. At the same time, we, I mean the editors of the book series, are not obsessed with methodology for methodology’s sake. We encourage our authors to make use only of the methods that help them to find new ways of seeing and approaching their subject matter. If certain methodologies turn out to be unhelpful, they should be discarded and replaced with ones that enrich the investigation a particular topic related to Sufism. In any event, we consider the profound knowledge by scholars of written and oral sources and their ability to analyze them diligently and dispassionately the sine qua non of academic study and appreciation of Sufism.

What makes a topic suitable for a handbook in the series? Thematically speaking, how do you envision the underlying thematic relationship connecting the topics of handbooks in the series? What should the reader expect next?

Topics for the volumes in the Handbook of Sufi Studies are usually proposed by the members of the editorial board that includes the specialists on Sufism in its different doctrinal, practical, institutional and regional manifestations. The volume on Sufi institutions edited by Alexandre Papas is the first swallow. It will be followed by the volumes on Sufi cosmology (edited by myself and Christian Lange), Sufism in Western contexts (Marcia Hermansen and Saeed Zarrabi-Zadeh), Sufi prose (myself and Bilal Orfali), Sufi poetry (myself and Bilal Orfali), Sufism and the body (Eyad Abuali, Christian Lange, and Mehdi Sajid), Sufi material culture (Alexandre Papas and Thierry Zarcone). Other topics under consideration include the history of the reception and cultural appropriation of Sufism in the West and Sufism after the USSR (Sufism in post-Soviet space).

Thank you for your time!

More information on the Handbook of Sufi Studies series, visit The first volume in the series, Sufi Institutions, edited by Alexandre Papas, was published in December 2020.

Text: Elmozfar Ahmed