Book review: Islamic Sufism Unbound by Robert Rozehnal

Robert Rozehnal (2007) Islamic Sufism Unbound. Politics and Piety in Twenty First Century Pakistan, New York & Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

In this book, which is a revised version of a PhD defended at Duke University with Bruce Lawrence as supervisor, Robert Rozenhal addresses a central question: “What do contemporary Chishti Sabiris make of modernity?”. He explores how they “accommodate a life of spiritual discipline and religious piety to the myriad demands of their daily experiences” (p. 8). What the author calls “alternative modernity” is made up of “a range of practical strategies to integrate Sufism into the complex matrix of twenty-first century life” (p. 9). Contesting the essentializing and reductive lenses with which Western scholars interpret Sufi thought and practice, he stresses the need of a “more nuanced, multidimensional, interdisciplinary reading of Sufism’s multiple dimensions – its public and private manifestations – doctrines and practices, its piety, and its politics” (pp. 13-14). In his methodology, Robert Rozenhal combines manuscripts and fieldwork, to bridge a disciplinary divide.

After an introduction devoted to “Mapping the Chishti Sabri Sufi Order”, the book is divided into six chapters: 1. Sufism and the Politics of Muslim Identity, 2. Muslim, Mystic, and Modern: Three Twentieth-Century Sufi Masters, 3. Imagining Sufism: The Publication of Chishti Sabri Identity, 4. Teaching Sufism: Networks of Community and Discipleship, and 5. Experiencing Sufism: The Discipline of Ritual Practice. Robert Rozenhal’s approach is undoubtedly innovative but since he focuses on the Chishti Sabri tradition, he sometimes makes rapid formulations. For instance, he states that “Pakpattan now stands as the unrivalled center of a distinctly Pakistani Sufism” (p. 26). It is a pity that his contextualization of Sufism in Pakistan is more or less restricted to the Chishti Sabri tradition. Obviously, it does not include the southern province of Sindh, although it is known as “the land of the Sufis”. What about other major Sufi centres like Multan or Sehwan Sharif?

The most important contribution of this book is to show through a fine analysis how plural the discourses on Islam are in Pakistan today. The author makes it clear that “what is at stake here is the definition of Islamic orthodoxy” (p. 34). One can nevertheless regret that the author’s demonstration is more related to the state than to radical Islam. He argues that “the state’s control of Sufi tradition (…) has never been totalizing or hegemonic” (p. 227). He also states that “Sufi identity is capacious, broader, and deeper than the parochial constructions of religious nationalism” (p. 228). The “alternative modernity” embraced by Chishti Sabri Sufi order is framed within an “alternative geography” that delineates an expansive Indo-Muslim sacred landscape centered on Sufi shrines, an “alternative history” that links the disciples ultimately to Prophet Muhammad through a sacred genealogy (silsilah), an “alternative community” rooted in a teaching network, and an “alternative authority” thanks to the experiential knowledge acquired through the Sufi ritual practices.

Michel Boivin (CNRS-CEIAS-EHESS, Paris)

More publications

“A ‘Proving Ground’ for Spiritual Mastery: The Chishti Sabiri Musical Assembly,” The Muslim World Vol. 97, No.4: October 2007): 657-677.

“Faqir or Faker? The Public Battle Over Sufism in Contemporary Pakistan,” Religion 36 (2006): 29-47.

“Debating Orthodoxy, Contesting Tradition: Islam in Contemporary South Asia,” in Islam in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, ed. R. Michael Feener (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004): 103-131.

“From Sufi Practice to Scholarly Praxis: Reflections on the Lessons of Fieldwork for the Study of Islam,” in Items and Issues: Social Science Research Council. Vol.3, No. 1-2 (Spring 2002).


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