Islamic Studies Sufism in the United States
William Rory Dickson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0282


Sufism in the United States is notable for its diverse origins, multiple routes of transmission, and variegated forms. West African Muslims were the first to practice Sufism in the Americas, attempting to maintain Sufi-Islamic traditions under the oppressive conditions of 17th-century plantation slavery. In the 19th century, Sufism emerged as a phenomenon with broader cultural impact in the region through American literary interest in Persian Sufi poetry. As the 19th century drew to a close, American fascination with all things occult, metaphysical, and mystical coincided with a draw toward “the wisdom of the East.” In this milieu, Sufism was embraced by small circles of seekers, frequently coming from Theosophical groups. During the 1930s and 1940s, several Black American converts to Islam joined Sufi orders and transmitted Sufi teachings to mosque communities they established in New York and Ohio. The reform of immigration laws in 1965 resulted in the establishment of immigrant Muslim communities throughout the United States. Sufi teachers from Iran, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, and Turkey, among other countries, settled in America and established Sufi groups in the following decades. The second half of the 20th century witnessed the center of gravity of academic study of Sufism shift from Europe to North America, with the proliferation of Sufi works in English translation in the following decades. By the late 20th century, Sufism had matured as a multifaceted example of American religiosity, encompassing immigrant and local Muslim practice as well as esoteric or mystical teachings functioning apart from Muslim identity. Currently, Sufism in the United States can be found as a conspicuous expression of Islamic spirituality, as a spiritual path not necessarily connected to Islam, as a niche within the broader spiritual marketplace, and as a practice with a varied online presence.

General Overviews

Sufism in the United States is a relatively new subfield of Sufi studies, with the first academic overviews of the subject offered in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Hermansen 1997, Hermansen 2004). The subject is now reasonably well documented (Dickson and Xavier 2019, Dressler 2009, Hammer 2020, Hammer 2004, Hermansen 2015, Küçük 2008, Miller 2020, Schonbeck 2009, Sedgwick 2017, Sedgwick 2019, Webb 2013), though with few book-length overviews (Dickson 2015).

  • Dickson, William Rory. Living Sufism in North America: Between Tradition and Transformation. New York: State University of New York Press, 2015.

    The first monograph on Sufism in North America, this work provides a historical overview of the subject before drawing upon interviews with Sufi leaders to consider dynamics within several orders in terms of their relationship to Islamic identity and practice and their adaptations to North American cultural norms.

  • Dickson, William Rory, and Merin Shobhana Xavier. “Disordering and Reordering Sufism: North American Sufi Teachers and the Tariqa Model.” In Global Sufism: Boundaries, Narratives, and Practices. Edited by Francesco Piraino and Mark Sedgwick, 137–156. London: Hurst, 2019.

    Looks at how several Sufi orders in North America shifted away from the classical tariqa model (“disordering”) between the early and late 20th century before returning to it (“reordering”) in the 21st century.

  • Dressler, Markus. “Pluralism and Authenticity: Sufi Paths in Post 9/11 New York.” In Sufis in Western Society. Edited by Ron Greaves, Markus Dressler, and Gritt Klinkhammer, 77–96. London: Routledge, 2009.

    Examines the ways in which several Sufi groups (including the Naqshbandi-Haqqani, Murid, and Jerrahi orders) negotiate Sufi-Muslim identity both in terms of the “secular-pluralist” context of America and in terms of post-9/11 politics in New York, with a focus on themes of legitimacy, outreach, and commodification.

  • Geaves, Ron. “Sufism in the West.” In The Cambridge Companion to Sufism. Edited by Lloyd Ridgeon, 233–256. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Traces European literary and scholarly interest in Sufism, then considers Western “universal Sufism” and Muslim Sufi communities in Europe and North America.

  • Hammer, Juliane. “Sufism in North America.” In Routledge Handbook on Sufism. Edited by Lloyd Ridgeon, 670–691. London: Routledge, 2020.

    A broad overview of Sufism in North America, covering Sufi practices, organizations, teachers, gender, literature, and politics in the region.

  • Hammer, Olav. “Sufism for Westerners.” In Sufism in Europe and North America. Edited by David Westerlund, 127–143. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004.

    A historical account of Sufism in Europe and North America, with a focus on early Sufi converts, writers, and teachers, including Ivan Aguéli, René Guénon, Hazrat Inayat, and Idries Shah.

  • Hermansen, Marcia. “In the Garden of American Sufi Movements: Hybrids and Perennials.” In New Trends and Developments in the World of Islam. Edited by Peter B. Clarke, 155–178. London: Luzac, 1997.

    The first academic overview of Sufism in the United States, Hermansen’s pioneering article includes an often-cited typology of American Sufi movements, classifying them in terms of their relationship to Islam (“hybrids”), universalism (“perennials”), or their grounding within a particular immigrant community (“transplants”).

  • Hermansen, Marcia. “What’s American about American Sufi Movements?” In Sufism in Europe and North America. Edited by David Westerlund, 36–63. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004.

    Examines a variety of dynamics shaping American Sufism, including conversion, the spiritual “marketplace,” psychology, and popular culture.

  • Hermansen, Marcia. “Sufi Movements in America.” In Oxford Handbook of American Islam. Edited by Yvonne Haddad and Jane Smith, 119–136. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    Explores the presence and influence of Sufi movements among American Muslims, considering Shi‘a Sufism, African American Sufis, women and Sufism, and Sufi ritual practices.

  • Küçük, Hülya. “A Brief History of Western Sufism.” Asian Journal of Social Science 36.2 (2008): 292–320.

    DOI: 10.1163/156853108X298752

    Discusses the first two Sufi orders present in Europe and North America, the Sufi Order (Inayatiyya) and Shadhiliyya (Maryamiyya), at length, before providing short summaries of several other Sufi groups that have since been established in the West.

  • Miller, Rasul. “The Black American Sufi: A History.” Sapelo Square, 18 March 2020.

    A pioneering historical study of Black American Sufism from the 1930s to the 1990s, highlighting Black American Sufis affiliated with the Shadhili, Chishti, Tijani, Burhani, and Qadiri orders in several American cities, including New York, Cleveland, Detroit, and Atlanta.

  • Schonbeck, Oluf. “Sufism in the USA: Creolisation, Hybridisation, Syncretisation?” In Sufism Today: Heritage and Tradition in the Global Community. Edited by Catharina Raudvere and Leif Stenberg, 177–188. London: I. B. Tauris, 2009.

    Summarizes some early scholarship on Sufism in America before offering a brief overview of “Islamic,” “Quasi-Islamic,” and “non-Islamic” American Sufi orders.

  • Sedgwick, Mark. Western Sufism: Form the Abbasids to the New Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    A sweeping history of Western Sufism, the book highlights the role of the shared Islamic-Western Neoplatonic heritage in framing Western interest in Sufism. Later chapters focus on the intersection of transcendentalism and theosophy with Sufism, and some of the first Sufi teachers in Europe and North America.

  • Sedgwick, Mark. “The Islamisation of Western Sufism after the Early New Age.” In Global Sufism: Boundaries, Narratives, and Practices. Edited by Francesco Piraino and Mark Sedgwick, 15–34. London: Hurst, 2019.

    Considers several “travelling sheiks” who established Sufi groups in Europe and North America during the “early New Age” (1960s and 1970s), charting the gradual Islamization of their groups in the following decades.

  • Webb, Gisela. “Negotiating Boundaries: American Sufis.” In Cambridge Companion to American Islam. Edited by Juliane Hammer and Omid Safi, 190–207. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    Provides an overview of Sufism in America in terms of three historical “waves” and then focuses on the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship as an exemplar of broader tendencies.

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