Sunday 3 June 2018

Sorgenfrei on Sufism and Islamic Esotericism

A new article, “Hidden or Forbidden, Elected or Rejected: Sufism as ‘Islamic Esotericism’?,” has been published by Simon Sorgenfrei in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (29:2, 2018, pp. 145-165). Sorgenfrei asks two major questions. He first investigates to what extent Sufism can be identified with “Islamic Esotericism,” and argues that this identification is problematic. Why, then, he asks, is a problematic identification so widespread?

Sorgenfrei starts by discussing alternative conceptions of esotericism, focusing on the work of Wouter J. Hanegraaff and Kocku von Stuckrad. He argues that it is easier to apply von Stuckrad’s typological conception in the case of Islam than to apply Hanegraaff’s historical conception. Yet Sufism does not really fit von Stuckrad’s typology: it has not generally been secret, and has only occasionally been in any sense rejected knowledge. Although “claims to access to higher knowledge” are indeed the basis of a Sufi shaykh’s authority, there is much that Sufi tariqas do that is in no way esoteric.

That Sufism is, despite this, understood as esotericism can be explained in terms of the Western construction of the concept of “Sufism.” Sorgenfrei traces this from the early work of William Jones and John Malcolm through William James and the Traditionalists (whose take on Sufism he finds echoed in John L. Esposito’s Islam: The Straight Path), and Eranos. He also suggests that the rejection of Sufism by nineteenth-century Islamic reformists may have fed into this process.

Sorgenfrei’s article is timely. I think he is right about the Western construction of Sufism, and his arguments are confirmed by my own work in my recent Western Sufism. He is also absolutely right that Sufism has not generally been secret or rejected, and therefore does not fit that particular topological definition of esotericism. It may, however, still fit other definitions, as I intend to argue in a forthcoming article.

Mark Sedgwick