Sufism in Western Historiography: A Brief Overview


The academic study of Sufism in Western scholarship began more than two centuries ago, and had its origins largely in the need of European colonialists to better understand the religions, cultures, and beliefs of the people they governed. With the exception of some familiarity with the ideas of some of Sufism’s most prominent figures in the precolonial period, very few in Europe or North America possessed any serious knowledge of the Sufi tradition. This article traces the development of the study of Sufism with a focus principally on the time period spanning John Malcolm (1769–1833) and James W. Graham (up until World War II), and slightly afterwards. In the process of exploring the views of such towering intellectuals as Tholuck (1799–1877), Dozy (1820–1833), Renan (1823–1892), Goldziher (1850–1921), Palacios (1871–1944), Nicholson (1868–1945), and Guénon (1886–1951), to name but a few, it will be demonstrated how various dynamics of power and notions of race and religion colored the way Sufism and its relation to Islam were conceived. The article ends with some brief remarks about the future of Sufi studies.