By: Loren D. Lybarger and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)


Sufism (al-taṣawwuf) refers broadly to Islamic mysticism and asceticism. Practices falling under this category focus on the attainment of union with God, or in Sufi parlance, fanā’, i.e. “obliteration” of the ego so that there is only one divine reality. Obliteration, in the eyes of those who seek it, bestows a perfection of practice and knowledge–“mystical knowledge,” in Weber’s terms, i.e. a total, reorienting vision–which otherwise, it is held, eludes the common believer content merely to fulfill the plain mandates of the law (sharī`a). Sufism, in this sense, does not cancel the law so much as perfect and transcend it. In its ecstatic variations, however, adepts perform a type of “crazy wisdom” that openly flouts the law as a demonstration of the individual’s transcendent holy status. The law guides the unenlightened, prone to error; but for the seeker it can become a fetish, an object of veneration in its own right obscuring the transcendent knowledge, the total vision, that union with the divine, tawḥīd in its perfection, bestows. The “obliterated” of the antinomian sort consequently cast it off in the moment of sublime ecstatsy.

In its institutionalized forms, Sufism translates “mystical knowledge” into charismatic authority. Such authority rests on an acknowledgement by followers of special or “god-given” powers inhering within the virtuosic figure—the shaykhmurshid, or pīr. Demonstration of these powers entails, among other things, clairvoyent dreams, “spiritual travel,” healings, and the imparting of special wisdom that the attainment of the inner states (sing. ḥāl/pl. aḥwāl) and stations (sing. maqām/pl. maqāmāt) provides. By virtue of their recognition of the virtuoso’s status and powers, followers, known as murīdūn (sing. murīd), or “those who desire” knowledge and union with God, disciples, i.e., offer obedience, ideally becoming, in Sufi terms, as clay in the hands of the shaykh or murshid (guide). In return, the shaykh promises the murīd’s transformation (salvation) through the practice of special disciplines such as performance of dhikr (“remembrance” of God and his prophet) and wird (special invocations, Qur’ānic recitations, or prayers similar to mantras). The murīd is to become “obliterated” in the shaykh as a first step in this transformative process. The shaykh-murīd relation constitutes the core of the ṭarīqa in both its senses as spiritual path and devotional community. A shaykh’s death becomes the occasion for the transferal of his charismatic authority to favored deputies, who continue the spiritual lineage (silsila). The Prophet Muhammad stands at the head of every lineage as the paradigmatic first adept whose night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem serves as the essential model of and for the devotional path.

Historically, Sufism manifests in diverse forms. It originates first in Iraq, spreads then to Iran, and finally becomes a transregional and global phenomenon. Sufism has encompassed a wide range of practices. At one extreme are antinomians like the Qalandarīya and the Rifā`īya who transgress social conventions through public nudity and use of intoxicants and bodily piercing during ecstatic ritualizing; on the other end are the malāmatīya, who soberly integrate into daily life, adhering outwardly to shar`ī conventions while perfecting piety through hidden, interior disciplines. With the progression of time, large ṭarīqāt take form, acquiring the status of “orthopraxy” within the realm of asceticism. These ṭarīqāt rationalize and limit the range of legitimate ascetic practices and expressions of mysticism. Sufism, in this manner, takes its place alongside exoteric sharī`a-minded piety, philosophy, and the caliphate as the core institutions of classical and medieval Islam. In so doing, it becomes also one of the primary mechanisms for the spread of Islam beyond the Iranian-Arab core regions. Sufi ṭarīqāt have been especially central to Islam as it has taken form in the African continent and in Central, South, and Southeast Asia.

Politically, the charismatic authority of the shaykh can become the foundation for powerful patronage networks. Rulers, seeking justifications for the power they claim, might support a shaykh and his ṭarīqāt in exchange for affirmations of the ruler’s legitimacy as God’s chosen instrument. For the same reason, a ruler might also support a maqām, or burial place of a shaykh that has become a site of pilgrimage and supplication, in order to benefit from the holy man’s baraka–i.e. the “blessing,” or charismatic residual, believed to inhere within the virtuoso’s physical remains. Figures like Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566), known as Kanunî (the “Law Giver”), could arrogate charismatic claims in their own right. As “Law Giver,” Suleiman asserts a status similar to that of a prophet, who, in Islamic and Biblical tradition, institutes a divinely given code. Sufi shuyūkh (sing. shaykh) continue to exert important political influence during the period of European colonial rule, serving frequently as brokers between their constituencies and colonial administrators or as leaders of anti-colonial revolts.

In the modern period, Islam has undergone fundamental changes. Secular legal codes have displaced the sharī`a. Democratic processes have undermined religious justifications for power. Scientific knowledge and educational practices have demoted Islamic ways of knowing. In response, Muslims have sought to revise and revitalize Islam. One response has been Salafism, a reform movement that has sought to strip Islam of its putative superstitions. Salafism has taken particular aim at Sufism as a main source of “backwardness.” The proponents of Wahhabism, a variation of Salafism, for example, have destroyed Sufi maqāmāt and regularly preach about the corruptions of mysticism. In response, Sufi shuyūkh, such as the leaders of the Naqshbandīya ṭarīqa, have decried Salafism as a radicalizing distortion of the expansive and tolerant traditions of Islam. Naqshbandis and Salafis have at times violently confronted one another.

Sufism has also had an immense impact in the West. Already in the medieval period, it shares affinities with similar neo-platonic religious movements in Christendom. Later, with the rise of modernity, it inspires new forms of alternative religiosity. Today, Sufism participates in “New Age” religion of various sorts. Mainstream institutional ṭarīqāt such as the Naqshbandīya have also made inroads into the Western religious marketplace, selling themselves not as Islam, in explicit terms, but rather as “spirituality.” Translated selections from Jalal al-Din Rumi’s mathnawī have long graced the shelves of spirituality sections in bookstores in Europe and the United States. Public recitations of Rumi’s poetry by scholar/performers like Coleman Barks have further enhanced the 13th Century mystic’s popular appeal.

The books listed below address the broad sweep of Sufism, historically and sociologically. They are a mix of encyclopedic sources, historical overviews, literary translations, and specialized ethnographic studies that provide the beginning student of Sufism with a basic foundation for further inquiry.

General Reference

Boivin, Michel. Historical Dictionary of the Sufi Culture of Sindh in Pakistan and India. Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 2015. This dictionary focuses on Sufism in the Sindh regions of Pakistan and India. Although regionally circumscribed, the work nevertheless provides a wide-ranging survey of Sufism as it interacts with Hindu traditions and influences Sindhi culture through literature and the arts.

Ridgeon, Lloyd. Editor. Cambridge Companion to Sufism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. This work surveys a range of topics–origins, women mystics, antinomianism, colonialism, Sufism in the West, among other matters–pertaining to the early, medieval, and modern periods.

The Encyclopedia of Islam Online. Leiden: Brill. This online source provides access to the first, second, third, and French editions of this classic Islamic Studies resource. Students of Sufism are well advised to begin specialized research with the EI articles. The online version is especially useful because of its search functions; but most academic libraries at universities with Islamic Studies programs will possess the resource in print form.

History: Origins and Orders

Cornell, Vincent J. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin:

University of Texas, 1998. This book is a study of the history of Moroccan Sufism during the 15th and 16th centuries. Probing “sainthood”–how it is conceptualized and institutionalized socially and politically–the author provides an in depth account of the pre-modern period in one especially important regional center.

Karamustafa, Ahmet. God’s Unruly Friends. London: One World, 2006. This book surveys ecstatic forms of Sufism–“dervish piety”–during the medieval period. Dervishes traveled through southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Criticized by the guardians of religious propriety, dervishes as practitioners of “deviant renunciation” drew followings among those seeking access to the baraka–transcendent, superhuman power in the form of “blessing”–which these antinomian mystics and ascetics were seen to possess.

Karamustafa, Ahmet. Sufism: The Formative Period. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007. This book examines the origins of Sufism in 9th Century Iraq and then traces its subsequent institutionalization and spread into Iran and Central Asia. The author’s discussion of the malāmatīya is especially informative.

Knysh, Alexander. Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. This book surveys Sufism from its origins to the modern period of decline, rebirth, and conflict with Salafism. Special emphasis is placed on Sufi exegetical approaches to the Qur’ān.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. New Forward by Carl W. Ernst. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press,1975, 2011. This book is a classical survey of the history and forms of Sufism as they manifested in different regions. The strength of the book lies in its perceptive summaries and analyses of Sufi literature.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders of Islam. New Forward by John O. Voll. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971, 1998. This foundational text surveys the history and types of Sufi ṭarīqāt. The author devotes particular attention to the ritual practices and concepts of the various brotherhoods.

Women, Gender, and Sufism

Pemberton, Kelly. Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2010. This book combines historical and ethnographic analyses to examine women’s devotional practices at Sufi shrines in India. The study demonstrates the ways in which women can attain and exercise public spiritual authority through the institutions of Islamic mysticism.

Randvere, Catharina. The Book and the Roses: Sufi Women, Visibility, and Zikr in Contemporary Istanbul. London: I.B. Tauris in association with the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, 2002.–beliefs/Islam/The-Book-and-the-Roses-Sufi-Women-Visibility-and-Zikir-in-Contemporary-Istanbul. This book focuses ethnographically on contemporary women’s leadership in Sufi dhikr circles and charity organizations in Istanbul.

Ās-Sulāmī, Abū `Abd al-Raḥmān. Early Sufi Women: Dhikr an-Niswa al-Muta’abbidat as-Sufiyyat. Translated by Rkia E. Cornell. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999. This book is a translation of a long-lost text providing portraits of 80 Sufi women who were active between the 8th and 11th Centuries.

Sufi Literature and Doctrines

Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Al-Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination. Stony Brook, NY: SUNY Press, 1989. This book provides a translation of Ibn al-`Arabi’s metaphysical writings, contextualizing them historically and theologically. Ibn al-`Arabi is a towering intellectual figure in Sufism. Exceedingly difficult to interpret and often misunderstood, his ideas remain nevertheless influential to this day.

Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Stony Brook, NY: SUNY Press, 1984. The author provides translations and commentary for key passages from Jalal al-Din Rumi’s major poetical work, the mathnawī.

Heer, Nicholas, and Kenneth L. Honerkamp. Translators and Editors. Three Early Sufi Texts: A Treatise on the Heart, Stations of the Righteous & the Stumblings of Those Aspiring. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2003. This book provides translations and commentary for two rare Khorosani Sufi texts, “Treatise on the Heart” attributed to al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi and “Stations of the Righteous and the Stumblings of Those Aspiring” attributed to Abu `Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami al-Naysaburi.

Sells, Michael. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qur’an, Mi’raj, Poetic and Theological Writings. New York: Paulist, 1996. This book begins with a long and informative essay on Sufism by one of the foremost translators of Arabic poetry in the United States. Following the essay are translations from the Qur’ān, the Prophet Muhammad’s sīra (spiritual biography), and classic Sufi texts.

Modern Sufism in Context

Ali, Roznia. “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi.” The New Yorker (January 5, 2017). This essay examines the transformation of Jalal al-Din Rumi’s poetry into a deracinated form of “New Age” spiritual literature. In this process, Islam is stripped from Rumi’s work and thus made available for consumption within a Western religious marketplace.

Buehler, Arthur F. Sufi Heirs of the Prophet: The Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi. Forward by Annemarie Schimmel. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2013. This book is an in-depth study of Naqshbandi shuyūkh in the modern Indian context. It examines how Sufi adepts establish “personal authority” through silsila (spiritual lineage), “spiritual travel,” emulation of the Prophet Muhammad, and the transmission of mystical knowledge.

Dickson, William Rory. Living Sufism in North America: Between Tradition and Transformation. Stony Brook, NY: SUNY Press, 2015. This book explores the various forms that Sufism has taken in the United States. 

Hoffman, Valarie J. Sufism, Mystics, and Saints in Modern Egypt. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. This classic ethnography documents and analyzes Sufi practices in contemporary Egypt. The author also created an accompanying film.

Howard, Steve. Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2016. This memoir recounts the author’s decades-long association with the Republican Brotherhood, a modernist Sufi movement in Sudan that promotes a non-violent, feminist, and democratic interpretation of Islamic doctrines and texts. The author is a disciple of the founder of the movement.

Millie, Julian. Splashed by the Saint: Ritual Reading and Islamic Sanctity in West Java. Leiden: Brill, 2009. This study is an ethnography of Sufi ritual reading practice at the urbanized village level in West Java, Indonesia.

Lewis, I. M. Saints and Somalis: Popular Islam in a Clan-Based Society. London: Red Sea Press, 1998. This book compiles I. M. Lewis’s classical ethnographic analyses of Sufism in Somaliland into a single volume. The essays offer insight into East African Sufism during the early and middle 20th Century.

Sedgewick, Mark. Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. This book traces the development of religious and philosophical ideas and practices inspired by neoplatonism in Islamic and Christian contexts. The author asserts that neoplatonism links Western and Islamic Sufism. The argument fundamentally undercuts Orientalist conceptions that sever Islam from Christianity, showing instead the common origins, affinities, and interactions in the forms of mysticism and “spirituality” that develop across these two religious spheres.

Sirriyeh, Elizabeth. Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defence, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World. London: Routledge, 1998.  This book examines the rejection, defense, and revitalization of Sufism that occurs with the rise of modernity.

Sufi Politics

Ansari, Sarah F.D. Sufi Saints and State Power: The Pirs of Sind, 1843-1947. Cambridge

University Press, 2003. This book examines the relationship between Sufi pīrs (shuyūkh) and colonial and postcolonial governments. The pīrs perform key roles as brokers between governing authorities and their constituencies in the Sind provinces of India/Pakistan.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949. This classic historical and ethnographic study documents the role of the Sanusi ṭarīqa in organizing resistance against the Italian occupation of Libya.

Heck, Paul. Editor. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton, New Jersey: Markus Weiner Publishing, 2007. The articles in this book examine the various political roles Sufism has played in the pre-modern and modern periods.

Glover, John. Sufism and Jihad in Modern Senegal: The Murid Order. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007. This book looks at the formation of a specifically Senegalese modernity through the agency of the Murīdīya. This ṭarīqa simultaneously brokers power with the French colonial regime and resists it by creating an alternative base of power. Since independence, it has become Senegal’s de facto religious establishment, wielding significant political influence.

Muedini, F. Sponsoring Sufism: How Governments Promote “Mystical Islam” in their Domestic and Foreign Policies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. This book documents how national governments from the United States and Europe to the Russian Federation, Morocco, Algeria, and Pakistan sponsor Sufism, viewing it as an alternative source of religious legitimacy and an irenic counterweight to Salafi political movements.