Mohit Dubey: Modernism n’ Mysticism

Ten days before I was born, my parents were given a very corny wedding gift: Coleman Bark’s collection and translation, “The Essential Rumi”. In a way, mystical worldviews had an impact on my modern life before I even emerged from the womb. At some point, my parents must have flipped through those pages, maybe read some of the poems to my language-numb ears, and then left it on the shelf next to old textbooks. In high school, I rediscovered that book and the treasuries of ideas and beauty it contained in its poetry. As a mid-pubescent boy, I remember being startlingly touched by the way Barks had translated Rumi and was enchanted with the style of the language – it inspired me so much, it infected my own outlook, personality, and writing as well. Despite the romantic translated interpretation of Barks, the medieval Sufi poetry of Rumi was relevant to my modern life: it brought clarity and beauty, inspired inwardness and acceptance, and provoked a sense of a vastness within each and every human being. To experience these ideas resounding from centuries past is quite powerful. But this personal tale is only one of the many ways Sufism is relevant to the modern world…


One major way Sufism continues to remain relevant is through its historical influence and cultural role. Since the mid-fifteenth century and through the rise and fall of the Moghul, Safavid, and Ottoman Empires, Sufism and, more specifically, the social hierarchies formed by initiatory paths (tariqas), have shaped most or all of the Muslim world. During these times, Sufi shaykhs were considered to be equal in authority to Islamic jurists and so-called “popular Sufism” began to dominate Muslim culture. According to Geoffroy, during the Safavid dynasty “the worlds of the ulama and the Sufis became more and more intertwined and mystical thought was from then on part of Islamic culture” [1]. Along with this pervasive cultural influence, Sufi practices such as the visiting of shrines and the chanting of sacred names (dhikr) became more widespread and commonplace. In response to this “popular Sufism”, as well as the materialist influence of Western colonists, Sufism went through a period of reform in the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. This reformist movement, in conjunction with the contemporary Wahhabism, involved heavy emphasis on the “Muhammadian Path” – returning to the ways of the Prophet and the first Islamic society. With this, current Sufism has sought to keep alive some of the earliest Islamic ideas and practices even within the context of a modernizing society by encouraging social activism and spiritual engagement: “mystical awareness leads … to active service in the community, not to isolation from it in the pursuit of personal, unshared and incommunicable ecstasy” [2].


Another way Sufism has been active in the modern world is in its political effect, especially on international and postcolonial relationships. Early on, Sufi khanqas were mostly found at the frontiers of the Islamic empire where they helped to peacefully and spiritually spread Islam throughout the Indian peninsula, the Caucasus and North Africa. However, with the arrival of Western colonists, the inner jihad against the carnal soul was forced to physicalize as the external jihad of defending territory and tradition. In the early twentieth century, Sanusis, an apolitical and peaceful tariqa, “carried out an armed jihad against the Italian invaders in Libya, the English in Eqypt and the French in Algeria and Niger” [3]. Furthermore, when Soviet Russians, with an attitude of anti-religiosity, entered the Islamic Caucasus “Sufi orders were viewed as primary enemies of the Communist state and people” [4]. Sufi orders in this area fought guerilla wars against the Soviet armies, continued to religiously educate children and refused to learn Russian or submit to the Soviet way of life in any way. Ironically, five decades later, Iranian President Ayat Allah Khumayni, a self-identified Sufi, wrote a letter to U.S.S.R President Vladimir Gorbachev about “his conviction that the Soviets could benefit from studying the Islam of Ibn Arabi and Ibn Sina” [5]. Finally, Sufi orders continue to be politically relevant in the current surge of Islamicism in the Middle East as characterized by extremist and terrorist organizations. Political leaders from Sadat to Gaddafi have empowered Sufi orders to create “foundations, schools, holding companies, newspapers, television channels, etc.” with the belief that the “Islam of peace and openness that is preached by most shaykhs is undoubtedly the best antidote to the narrow idea that fuel Islamicism” [6].


A third and final way that Sufism is relevant to a modernist worldview is in its philosophical and personal treatment. Despite the “appearance of a certain rivalry between philosophers and mystics” [7] since the 13th century, Sufism has contributed greatly to Islamic and, in turn, modernist philosophy. Ibn Arabi’s pervasive idea of “oneness of Being” continues to be referred to and commented on as a central tenet of Sufi belief and Rumi’s quote “I am neither a Muslem nor a Hindu. I am not Christian, Zoroastrian, nor Jew. I am neither of the West nor the East” [8] has become strikingly relevant in our modern interfaith world. Furthermore, more recent Islamic scholars have found parallels and created dialogues between Sufi and Western philosophy. This is notably the case with “the father of Pakistan”, Muhammad Iqbal, who “was also influenced by the supra-rational philosophy of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche (on the ‘superman’), and of Bergson” [9]. Still, as Jafar explained in class, simply opening to a poem of Hafiz can give you the most astute advice possible at a given point in your life, even in the 21st century. As more and more Sufi works are translated from the fluidity of Persian and the elegance and multidimensionality of Arabic into English and other European languages, the philosophical dialogues between East and West, and their personal reverberations, will become more and more sonorous.


Works Cited


  • Geoffroy, Eric, and Roger Gaetani. Introduction to Sufism: The Inner Path of Islam. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2010. Page 127
  • Sirriyeh, Elizabeth. Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defense, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999. Page167
  • Geoffroy 131
  • Sirriyeh 153
  • Sirriyeh 146
  • Geoffroy 139
  • Geoffroy 120
  • “Rumi 116.” Rumi 116. Accessed March 16, 2016.
  • Geoffroy 138