Alessandro Cancian, "Sufism and the Social: Between the Spiritual and the Political in Contemporary Iran and India"

Sufism is often referred to as non-political, sometimes even apolitical, and as a purely spiritual phenomenon. While it is correct to affirm that Sufism orders qua organized religious institutions have rarely laid direct claim on political power, looking at Sufism as an alternative to "political Islam" can be misleading. A cursory glance at history suffices to nuance the alleged apolitical stance of Sufism - the establishment of Shi'ism in Iran through the military campaigns of a movement that was originally a Sufi order (the Safavids) should be enough of an evidence for that.

Over the last two centuries, while some Sufi orders across the globe have adopted an extremely apolitical stance, in particular, those orders that have gone global and targeted and extended audience in particular in the West, other order, for different reasons, did not have the same privilege, and for circumstances arising from the political and social context they operate in, have become necessarily more and more vocal in the political arena. Another, mirroring trend is that of religious movements originally non-interested in, or even hostile to, Sufism that has gradually appropriated some elements of Sufism, recognizing its social relevance and appropriating it to appeal to a larger social base.
In this lecture, the very categories of Sufism, Islamic mysticism and their alleged distance from the political sphere will be examined, by looking at two specific contemporary phenomena: the Nimatullahi order in Iran, and the appropriation of Sufism by the Deobandis in India.
Alessandro Cancian is a Senior Research Associate in the Qur’anic Studies unit at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London

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