- Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age by Mark Sedgwick
In the West, one might say that understanding Sufism is a difficult task. Without authentic information and deep empathy, one has to contend with only the language about Sufism. The words cut off from the Sufi practices represent a simulacrum of Sufism, not its reality.
In this thoroughly researched book, Sedgwick is confident enough as a historian to start from Plotinus and end with Ian Dallas and John G. Bennett, touching almost all issues that he finds related to Sufism and visiting almost all the intellectuals whom he associates with Sufi practices in the West. The book is divided into four parts, fourteen chapters, and fifty-one sub-chapters and has a seventeen-page index of names and concepts. All illustrate the fact that he investigates every suspected Sufi like a detective. In this respect, the book is very informative.
Sedgwick treats sham Sufism as real. For instance, if anyone seriously believed Sedgwick, he or she would probably end up erroneously assuming that Neoplatonism has played a more decisive role in Sufism than the Quran, the Sunnah, or the Sufi masters. A huge mass of practicing Sufis and great spiritual masters, such as ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Gīlānī, Baha-ud-Din Naqshband al-Bukhari, Ibn Arabi, Rumi and Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi al-Sirhindi, never imagined that they are all in fact Neoplatonists. They never heard of the concept of Neoplatonism. For Segwick, this is not a problem. Sedgwick finds no difficulty in accrediting people with views which they did not accept. He without hesitation can write "although Guenon publicly rejected both theosophy and emanationism, he was still influenced by both" (p. 10). From this statement, we understand that he knows Guenon better than Guenon himself. He also goes on to say that "Neither Eckhardt nor Ibn 'Arabi were aware of their debt to Neoplatonism …" (p. 16).
One of the most important problems of this book is its over generalization. He writes under the subtitle of Ottoman Dervishes without any qualification that "They dressed differently from the general population… Their dress often consisted only of one or two animal skins, sometimes air-dried rather than tanned, and their standard hairstyle was to shave off all hair, including beards, eyebrows and mustaches. Dervish dress generally involves a [End Page 1] degree of nakedness that contravened religious norms as well as social ones" (p.73). Anyone who reads the above lines would assume that this was the general mode of dress for the Ottoman Dervishes. Indeed, it is well known that some of the marginal and deviant dervish groups like Qalanders and Haydaris may have dressed in such a way, but Sedgwick generalizes this marginal practice and makes it the practice of all Ottoman dervishes. In Ottoman culture, public life was influenced by the orthodox tariqas such as Naqshibandiyya, Qadiriyya, Kubraviyya, Bayramiyya, Halwatiyya, Mawlaviyya, Zayniyya, and Yasaviyya. To envisage the dervishes of these tariqas dressing as depicted above is ridiculous.
Although his understanding of Sufism is problematic, Segwick as a historian provides rich and impressive information about intellectuals who were vaguely involved in Sufism in the West. That can be said positively about the book, but the main tenor of the discussion is sadly lacking in accuracy and depth. [End Page 2]
University of Notre Dame