The European Discourse on Sufism: On the Appeal of ‘Moderate Islam’

R. James Ferguson

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Sufism has had a long reception by, and engagement with, European scholarship, at first indirectly via the translation of Islamic texts from the 11th centuries onwards. From the 16th century on was gradually constituted as an object of inquiry, with a widening audience and popularity by the late 20th century. Sufism, both as a collection of texts and practises, has fascinated European scholars and publics alike. This is partly based on popular works and translations that have positioned it as a form of experience that transcends religiously-bound communities. Politically, there have been efforts to see Sufism as an individualised and ‘moderate’ form of Islam and a channel of influence for Western-desired outcomes. This view of a cosmopolitan Sufism, though partly true, masks the fact that Sufi orders have historically been involved in staunch resistance against imperial powers in Algeria, Egypt, Chechnya, and Central Asia. Functional views of Sufism miss the deeper opportunities in building relational identities in a pluralized, globalizing world in search of new solutions to a host of shared problems. The key orientation of Sufism towards direct experience of the Real allows personal identity to reach beyond the normal bounds of state, nation, ethnicity and rigid religious affiliation. This generates an active and creative construction of political action that can cross religious boundaries, crucial in a partly post-secular age. Sufism and its insights allow a widening of the Western imagination at a time when the European political project is beset by challenge and crisis. A deeper appreciation of, and interaction with, other cultures could have a progressive influence on Europe’s relational identities, allowing it to pursue a more proactive cosmopolitanism in the conduct of its international relations.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSufism
Subtitle of host publicationA Theoretical Intervention in Global International Relations
EditorsDeepshikha Shahi
Place of PublicationLanham
PublisherRowman & Littlefield Publishers
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-78661-386-8
ISBN (Print)978-1-78661-385-1
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2020


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