by Anisah Bagasra, MA Instructor of Psychology, Claflin University Orangeburg, South Carolina
It is important to understand the history and development of Sufism in America in order to truly gain a sense of the role of this spiritual tradition within the diverse religious landscape found in the United States today.
Sufism has gone through many stages in its development as a permanent spiritual tradition within the United States, and is still very multifaceted in the manner in which it is practiced and the regions of the world which American Sufi communities originate from.
Hermansen (2000) points out that little attention has been given to Sufi movements in America because they have not been considered a significant population in terms of the overall Muslim community.
She uses the term movement to describe Sufi groups. The term community or group will be used rather than movement because the term movement often implies an underlying political or reformist connection, which is rarely a part of Sufi communities in America.
Gabbay (1988) also gives a description of the history and development of Sufism, including Sufism’s introduction to American. More importantly he offers a description of American Sufi practitioners in which one hundred and thirty one practitioners filled out a survey measuring their level of involvement with Sufism and the impact of Sufism on their lives. These types of studies are leading to a greater understanding of the history and place of Sufism in the American spiritual landscape.
Hermansen points out that there are a number of movements that are Sufi-oriented or influenced by Islamic mysticism but which do not follow the practice of Islamic law. She refers to these types of Sufi movements as perennial because they stress the unity of religions and do not usually require the formal practice of Islam by their members. Both perennial Sufi groups and more traditionalist Sufi groups continue to exist in the United States, and many of them maintain relationships with each other despite their differences in doctrine. Godlas (2004) refers to three main categories of Sufism in the United States; Islamic Sufi Orders, Quasi-Islamic Sufi organizations, and Non-Islamic Sufi organizations. This is an accurate description of Sufi groups in the United States over the past century, and demonstrates the difficulty of examining the practices of Sufi groups due to the differences in level of adherence to traditional doctrines.
The earliest introductions of Sufism to America took place in the early 1900’s through scholars, writers, and artists who often accessed information on Sufism through the Orientalist movement. Examples of Western figures who were influenced by Sufism include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rene Guenon, Reynold Nicholson, and Samuel Lewis. These individuals helped to introduce concepts of Sufism to larger audiences through their writings, discussions and other methods of influence. Emerson, for example, was influenced by Persian Sufi poetry such as that of the poet Saadi, and this influence was then reflected in Emerson’s own poetry and essays. Rene Guenon incorporated information about Sufism into his traditionalist philosophy, and Nicholson offered Western readers some of the great Sufi works for the first time in the English language, especially the Mathnawi of Jelaludin Rumi.
The first major Sufi figure in the United States was Hazrat Inayat Khan, a musician from India. He blended aspects of Sufism and Islam with other spiritual, musical and religious concepts and practices. He did not actually consider his group a Sufi group and preached a Universalist spiritual movement. Webb (1995) states: “Hazrat believed destiny had called him to speed the “universal Message of the time,” which maintained that Sufism was not essentially tied to historical Islam, but rather consisted of timeless, universal teaching related to peace, harmony, and the essential unity of all being (and beings)”(p. 253). Hazrat Inayat Khan’s Sufi Order in America, called ‘The Sufi Order in the West’ was founded in 1910. The Order continued through his disciples Rabia Martin and Samuel Lewis. Eventually Lewis broke away from the original order and began to initiate his own disciples. Similar occurrences of break-away Sufi branches and groups involving Sufi-oriented individuals such as Frithjof Schoun and Rene Geunon, Irina Tweedie and others as well as the relatives of Hazrat Inayat Khan caused the growth in different Sufi orders and communities based on individual beliefs and the blending of various Eastern and Western traditions. Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, the eldest son of Inayat Khan, became head of the Sufi Order in the West in 1956, after having studied in Paris and England. Both he and his father were prolific writers in English and many of the early books dealing with Sufism available in the United States were the results of their publications. Pir Vilayat wrote about the practices of meditation and other Sufi practices, music and Sufi psychology (Khan, 1993, Spiegelman, Khan & Fernandez, 1991). His father’s teachings were published in many volumes by disciples. They dealt with more generalized topics dealing with spirituality, rather than specifically Sufi beliefs or ideas (Khan, 1978, Khan 1982).
The second major wave of interest in Sufism in the United States occurred in the 1960’s during the hippie/counter-culture movement. Webb points out that Americans sought out Eastern teachers to learn traditional wisdom but were not concerned with the historical foundations of the traditions that were associated with that wisdom (Webb, 1995, p. 252). Figures such as Frithjof Schuon and Rene Guenon became teachers of traditional wisdom related to and sometimes directly dealing with Sufi teachings. Though these figures lived and began teaching in the earlier part of the century their teachings and writings played a larger role in the mid-twentieth century as they became available to a wider audience in the United States. Both were proponents of the traditionalist or perennial philosophy (see Guenon, 1962, 2001). Schuon (1907-1998) was a Swiss national who spent much of his time in France and published all of his major works in French. Most of his writings have now been translated into English and contribute to the body of work written in the early twentieth century that demonstrate the philosophical and spiritual thinking that emerged when East met West. Schuon was also known as Shaykh `Isa Nur al-Din Ahmad al-Shadhili alDarquwi al- `Alawi al-Maryami. He is said to have been initiated into the Shadhiliyah Sufi Order and became a leader of his own branch of the Order in the United States, known as the Maryama Order (Schuon, 1981). Like Schuon, Rene Guenon (1886-1951) also traveled extensively and encountered various religions, eventually becoming initiated into a Sufi Order. Guenon, though a practitioner of Sufism himself, continued to write and teach from a multi-religious point of view. He never lived in the United States but from the writings of other leaders of Sufism in the west it can be seen that Guenon had a major influence on the academic community in America.
Of the Sufi groups that developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s some aligned themselves with Islam and traditional Sufi doctrine and practices, while others were more loosely associated with traditional Sufism and incorporated what they wanted from Sufi belief and practice into their groups. An example of a group that Godlas (2004) considers a non-Islamic Sufi group is the Sufi Ruhaniat International founded by Samuel Lewis, who was originally a disciple of Hazrat Inayat Khan. The Order claims to have members who are formally initiated students but their method of initiation and doctrinal terminology are not based on traditional Sufi doctrine. Rather, they echo the universalist ideas first put forth by Inayat Khan in the early part of the century. It was during the 60’s that Lewis created Dances of Universal Peace that became known as "Sufi dancing." Idries Shah (1924-1996) was one of the most important individuals in terms of popularizing Sufism in the United States, and perhaps still the most well known Sufi writer in the West. He began writing in the 1960’s and continued to produce popular books, though he contended that Sufism was not tied to Islam or any other religion. He produced dozens of books, many of them adapting traditional Sufi stories for Western readers (Williams, 1974).
Other groups, such as the Bawa Muhaiyadeen Fellowship in the Philadelphia area, started out with little formal association with Islam but slowly moved more towards traditional Sufism and mainstream Islam. Bawa Muhaiyadeen’s Sufi group is an example of a Sufi group that blended the earlier trends of Sufi practice that occurred during the 1960’s and the more traditional practices that have emerged in Sufi groups today. Bawa Muhaiyadeen arrived in Philadelphia in 1971 and membership to his group, known as “the Fellowship” grew quickly and numbered nearly a thousand during his life. He lived and led his community for 15 years until his death. The community built a mosque in 1983 where congregational prayers are practiced according to Islamic law. Today, those who gather at the mosque include original converts and a large number of immigrants and non-convert Muslim Americans who do not necessarily have any allegiance to Bawa or his teachings. The teachings of Bawa were faithfully recorded, translated and published by his followers, and his teachings continue to be disseminated and gather new adherents. At the same time, part of his community has become absorbed into the greater Muslim community and is not as distinguished as a “Sufi community.”
Present-day Sufi groups in the United States include groups established in the early waves of the 1920’s and 1960’s, and Sufi communities formed or facilitated by new immigrants to the United States who are affiliated with Sufi orders in their countries of origin. Webb asserts that some Muslim immigrants join Sufi communities in America to cultivate a deeper religiosity, or they see Sufism as an alternative to modernity. Today, many people become involved in Sufism as a contrast to the growing influence of more puritanical sects of Islam that are having growing influence on mainstream Islam.
The majority of Sufi communities in the United States are branches of Sufi orders that exist throughout the world and originate in traditional Muslim societies. The leaders of these orders typically do not live in the United States but appoint local Shaykhs or leaders to oversee the activities of the order in America. Today nearly every Sufi order is represented in the United States either in the form of single or multiple communities throughout the country or by visiting/traveling Shaykhs of an order. There are at least a dozen Sufi orders with larger communities established in the United States.
Examples of Sufi orders that have established communities in the United States are the Jerrahiyyah Order of dervishes, the Naqshbandi, the Mevlevi Order, the Nimatullahi Order, the Tijani Order and the Qadiriyyah Order. The Naqshbandi Order is represented by a very large community in the United States under the Naqshbandi-Haqqani group established by Shaykh Nazim. The Order is run by Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, a Middle Eastern man who has grown to be an international figure representing American Sufis in his travels throughout the world. He came to the United States in 1991 and has established thirteen Sufi centers throughout the United States and Canada. The Chishti Order is a major Sufi Order of South Asia that has also become established with several branches operating throughout the United States and Canada. The Nimatullahi Order is also well-established in the United States due to its leader, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, who has published dozens of books in the English language on topics ranging from basic Sufi practices, Sufi symbolism, and Sufi psychology. The Order also publishes a magazine in both English and Persian called Sufi: A Journal of Sufism. Despite Rumi being one of the most important figures as far as exposing Sufi concepts to the West in the last several decades, his order is represented in the United States not in its traditional form, but rather as a Quasi-Islamic Sufi Organization as the term is described by Godlas (2004).
Some of the Sufi communities are loosely linked and meet sporadically. Others are very tightly formed communities that actively practice aspects of their daily lives in a community form. Some Sufi communities, such as the Bawa Muhayiadden Fellowship, maintain their own printing presses.
One cannot discuss Sufism in America without mentioning some of the major academic figures over the last half-century who have, through their writing or teaching, influenced American Sufism in many ways. Several individuals in university settings have played an important role in spreading information on Sufism to a large student population, popularizing Sufism amongst younger generations of Americans. Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Victor Danner are amongst an older generation of professors whose teachings in American University settings have helped to shape the American understanding of Sufism. Nasr, originally the minister of education in Iran before the Iranian revolution has taught in several institutional settings and is the author of dozens of books and articles in multiple languages dealing with Sufism and Sufi topics. His involvement in bringing hundreds of young students into the folds of Sufism cannot be underestimated. Victor Danner, who was born in Mexico in 1926 and earned his PhD from Harvard University after having served as a young man in World War II. He taught at Indiana University for more than two decades in the subjects of Sufism, Islam, mysticism, as well as the Arabic language. He authored a few books and many articles which have contributed to the available literature of Sufism, and his courses dealing with Sufism were extremely popular throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Three other scholars who, though not American or teachers in American schools, who have had a strong impact on American Sufism, include Martin Lings, Titus Burckhardt, and Annemarie Schimmel. There is little biographical information available for either Lings or Burckhardt who lived fairly private lives and are best known for their writings in English dealing with Sufism. Burckhardt was a Swiss who followed the Traditionalist school, and his writings and essays touched on Sufism. Lings is the former Keeper of Oriental manuscripts in the British Museum and Library, and has authored several famous and acclaimed books dealing with Islamic Mysticism as well as a biography of the Prophet Muhammad. Annemarie Schimmel, a German scholar and linguist, authored more than fifty books dealing with Islam, Sufism and South Asian topics. She was an expert in Islamic mysticism and her books are extremely popular in the United States. All three scholars’ writings are of major importance for American and other Western students of Sufism, and continue to be authoritative texts for those interested in Sufism, Islam, and mysticism in general.
The younger generation of academics teaching about Sufism in American Universities includes William Chittick and his wife Sachiko Murata, both former students of Nasr, Bruce Lawrence and Carl Ernst in North Carolina, Alan Godlas in Georgia, and Laleh Bakhtiar in Illinois, as well as dozens of others spread throughout the country at numerous colleges, universities, and other intellectual and professional institutions. This younger generation of scholars and research are impacting American Sufis and Sufi communities through their ability to reach large audiences of non-Sufis in the academic environment and for their prolific work in translating Sufi works and publishing on topics of Sufism in the English language.
The differences in beliefs, doctrines and practices of the Sufi communities in the United States makes it very hard for those outside of these communities to define or group them in one way. The contentiousness the authenticity of Sufi groups in the United States by some Sufis also has made it hard for those not involved with particular communities to understand the role of Sufism in general in the United States, because there are many different types of Sufism being practiced in these communities. All of these types of communities, and the beliefs and practices which they have incorporated into their group are of importance to the history of Sufism in the United States and the continuing growth of the tradition in the West. Thus it is important to recognize all groups who claim to be Sufi and who incorporate the basic core beliefs and practices of Sufism as legitimate Sufi American groups.
Gabbay, T. (1988). A discussion and a description of a sample of American Sufi practitioners. Dissertation Abstracts International, 49 (09), 3987. (UMI No. 8817270).
Godlas, A. (2003). Sufism, the west and modernity. Retrieved September 20, 2004, from http://www.uga.edu/islam/sufismwest.html
Guenon, R. (1962). The crisis of the modern world. (A. Osborne & M. Pallis, and R. Nicholson, Trans.). London: Luzac.
Guenon, R. (2001). Insights into Islamic Esoterism and Taoism (H.D. Fohr, Trans.). New York: Sophia Perennis.
Hermansen, M. (2000). Hybrid identity formations in Muslim America: The case of American Sufi movements. The Muslim World, 90, 158-197.
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Schuon, F. (1981).Sufism veil and quintessence. (W. Stoddart, trans.) Bloomington: World Wisdom Books.
Spiegelman, J.M., Khan, V.I. & Fernandez, T. (1991). Sufism, Islam and Jungian psychology. Arizona: New Falcon Publications.
Webb, G. (1995). Sufism in America. In T. Miller, (Ed.), America’s Alternative Religions (pp. 249-258). Albany: State University of New York Press.
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