In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sufism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Sufi Qurʾan Commentary (Tafsir)
  • Sufi Biography and Hagiography
  • Sufi Ritual
  • Female Sufis
  • Sufi Music
  • Films

Islamic Studies Sufism
Marcia Hermansen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0081


Sufism” is the English term used to refer to mystical interpretations and practices of the Islamic religion. This mystical strand is designated in Arabic by the term tasawwuf, while in Persian the term irfan (gnosis) is also used. Proponents of Sufism see it as inextricably arising from the Qurʾanic teachings of an immanent divinity who is “closer than the jugular vein,” and whose “signs are on the horizons and in your selves” (41:53). For Sufis, the religious and mystical experiences of the Prophet Muhammad, such as his Night Journey (Miraj), establish a precedent for his followers to pursue mystical practice. Opponents contend that the term “Sufism” (tasawwuf) was not used in the Qurʾan or by the Prophet, and that Sufism excessively incorporated pre- and non-Islamic elements.

General Overviews

Helpful discussions of the earliest Western contacts and studies of Sufism are surveyed by Schimmel 1975 and Ernst 1997. Colonial engagement with regions of the Muslim world led to some of the early writings on Sufism by Europeans. Late-19th-century and early-20th-century scholarship on Sufism emerged concurrently with the new field of the “science” of religious studies, and both were occupied with questions such as the search for origins. Contemporary currents in the study of religion, such as Carl Jung’s psychology, and other attempts to retrieve universal elements of human religiosity characterized much of the mid-20th-century scholarship on Sufism. An influential interpretive school known as perennialism, or traditionalism, was inspired by figures such as Rene Guenon (1886–1951) and Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998), Sufi convert intellectuals who remained outside of the academy. Such interpretations of religion, Islam, and, in particular, Sufism continue to find academic exponents in figures such as the Iranian émigré Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933), whose students often specialize in the study of Sufi doctrines, particularly the thought of Ibn al-˓Arabi (see Nasr 1999, Nasr 2007). Academic studies of Sufism are at present either primarily doctrinal/philosophical, involving philological expertise and interpretive exegesis of classical Sufi texts; or ethnographic, especially following the rise of area studies and foreign language training that emerged during the Cold War period.

  • Arberry, A J. Introduction to the History of Sufism. London: Longmans, Green, 1943.

    An early classic by a British Orientalist and translator of Sufi texts from Arabic and Persian.

  • Baldick, Julian. Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism. 2d rev. ed. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000.

    A historical overview in which Baldick argues against Sufism being derived from the Qurʾan and stresses its links to Eastern Christianity.

  • Cornell, Vincent J. “Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge: The Relationship between Faith and Practice in Islam.” In The Oxford History of Islam. Edited by John Esposito, 63–106. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    In a style both academically sound and straightforward, this chapter is a basic introduction to the importance of Sufism in the Islamic tradition.

  • Ernst, Carl W. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1997.

    Ernst takes up where Schimmel left off and expands more critically on themes in the study of Sufism, including sources, sainthood, practices, orders, poetry, music, and contemporary developments such as the role of the state, media, and new styles of Sufi leadership. Includes a chapter reviewing the history of the academic study of Sufism in the West.

  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Sufi Essays. 3d ed. Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1999.

    A topical treatment of themes in classical Sufism, such as the Sufi master and the spiritual states.

  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

    A philosophically oriented overview from an “insider” perspective aimed at introducing the field to educated nonspecialists.

  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

    The most complete and comprehensive survey of Sufi history, doctrines, practices, and academic studies in the field up to the mid-1970s. Features an extensive bibliography and index.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.