Orientalists and Sufis: The European Reception of Sufism and Its Consequences

By Mark Sedgwick
Submitted to Session P2330 (Middle Eastern-European Intellectual Encounters: Cultural Differences and the Fusion of Horizons, 2010 Annual Meeting
Islamic World;
Islamic Studies;
This paper traces and explains Western understandings of Sufism from 1819, the year of publication of the first serious Orientalist article on the topic, to 1914, the year of publication of the first book on the topic that would today be considered reasonably accurate (R. A. Nicholson's The Mystics of Islam). The 1819 article was by James Graham and was published in the earliest forerunner of IJMES, the Transactions of the Literary Society of Bombay, and presents an understanding of Sufism that is correct in many details, but wildly wrong in most important respects. Despite his impressive linguistic abilities and use of primary sources, Graham argues that Sufis were free-thinking non-Muslims who believed in an ancient philosophy found also in Classical Greece.

Explaining Graham's misunderstanding requires an examination of some of the earliest origins of Orientalist scholarship, notably the thought and writing of William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society, and the influence on Jones (and thus Graham) of the religious thought of figures such as Isaac Newton and John Toland, an English Deist whose 1720 Clidophorus is probably the earliest expression of the religious views wrongly ascribed by Graham to the Sufis. The explanation shows the remarkable extent to which the work of the first Orientalists was influenced by the Western philosophical and religious thought of the eighteenth century.

This earliest Orientalist reception of Sufism has had lasting consequences. Although Nicholson's 1914 book corrected the misunderstandings that originated with Graham and had persisted for much of the nineteenth century, 1914 also saw the publication of Inayat Khan's Sufi Message of Spiritual Liberty, which-though written by an Indian Muslim-described a Sufism that had much more to do with the Orientalist conceptions of 1819 than it did with the realities described by Nicholson. This is an interesting example of what is sometimes called "the pizza effect." Over the rest of the twentieth century, as Nicholson's understanding became standard amongst Western specialists, Khan's more "authentic" (mis-)understanding became standard among the general public, especially in the West but also, to some extent, in the Muslim world.

The paper is based on comparative analysis of the texts mentioned above and of other related texts, informed where necessary by the author's own fieldwork on Sufism in the Arab world and Southeast Asia.