Sufism: A Global History.

Author:Renard, John
Position::Book review
 
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Sufism: A Global History. By NILE GREEN. Chichester, West Sussex, and Malden, Mass.: WLLEY-BLACKWELL, 2012. Pp. xxi + 263, illus. $84.95 (cloth); $34.95 (paper).

Four surprises await readers of Nile Green's new book: first, that he has set out to do a "global history" of Sufism in barely 200 pages of actual text; second, that he has largely succeeded in doing so; third, that he has found a way to include a remarkable array of information beyond what one might imagine would be de rigueur for such a broad overview; and finally, that within the relatively narrow confines of the text he packs a remarkable store of corrective insights. How Green has managed this considerable feat is nearly as interesting as the contents of this engaging volume. Adequately annotated chapters encompassing four large chronological eras stretched across increasingly expansive swaths of geography represent an interesting and not entirely predictable "periodization."

Green's methodological introduction provides a useful working definition of Sufism: "a powerful tradition of Muslim knowledge and practice bringing proximity to or mediation with God and believed to have been handed down from the Prophet Muhammad through the saintly successors who followed him" (p. 8). There he expresses the hope "that the scope of coverage and the overall model of a tradition being gradually elaborated and distributed to so many different contexts lends originality to the narrative as a whole" (p. 11). It does.

A chapter on "Origins, Foundations, and Rivalries (850-1100)" begins with the most illuminating discussion of Sufism's genesis that I have seen. Green carefully filters out a series of shop-worn scenarios, such as over-reliance on the etymological centrality of the term suf, the diachronic notion that ascetics/asceticism yielded definitively to mystics/mysticism, and the "historical structuralist" attribution of seminal influence to Nestorian Christian hagiographical sources. Green settles on a more synchronically integral view in which, for example, ascetics and mystics fulfilled distinct and different roles in a given setting, and one needs to search the context of a given Sufi's own time (rather than earlier "influences") for reasons as to why he/she was known as a Sufi. This organic approach allows Green to situate Sufism more subtly within a rich cross-current of intellectual and spiritual developments, rather than emphasizing adversarial features such as its oft-claimed...

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