Book Review: The Sufi Orders in Islam by J. Trimingham

In his book The Sufi Orders in Islam, Trimingham’s presentation of the Sufi orders is expansive in its analysis of Sufism’s institutional development. The author, an expert on Islam in Africa, attempts to create a guide to the evolution of Sufism and its influence in Islamic society. While his work is certainly valuable as an approachable compilation of Sufi devotional and organizational details, Trimingham neglects the importance of historical and political context in his exploration of Sufi institutionalization and expansion. His thesis concerning the irreversible descent of Sufism with time reveals a bias in his quality judgment of Sufi development and discredits Muslim societies’ ability to acclimate to the changing world. Ultimately, the minimizing viewpoint on Sufism’s future in The Sufi Orders in Islam derives from the author’s rigid understanding of the mystical experience, which further colors his perception and presentation of Sufism’s progress through history.

The Sufi Orders in Islam lacks necessary historical context in its chronicle of the institutionalization of Sufism, overlooking the correlation between political reality and Sufi development. Most notable in his disregard is Trimingham’s inattention to colonialism.  His singular mention of this formative phenomenon is a short paragraph discussing Sufi leaders who opposed colonial power. “The orders were in the forefront of Muslim reaction against the expansion of colonialist powers,” he writes, continuing only with a long list of inscrutable names of those involved (240). The reader is left to wonder: how did these anti-colonial movements affect Sufi practice and community? What was the Sufi relationship with other anti-colonial groups, and how did it shape Sufism’s interaction with the local authority or ruling colonial powers? The Shambhala Guide to Sufism by Carl Ernst discusses the effects of colonialism on Sufism in depth, and readers learn of a detrimental omission in Trimingham’s brief summary of anti-colonial Sufis. Ernst exposes an opposing trend in Sufi communities: “There were other instances in which Sufi institutions were successfully co-opted into the colonial order” (208). In Trimingham’s haste, he also neglects the influence of new Western scholarship about Sufism that surged during the colonial era. As many Westerners reduced Sufism to its strange devotional traditions, Sufi leaders may have been forced to communicate the details of their religion in a new manner. Overlooking the deep connection between Sufism and colonialism weakens Trimingham’s examination of Sufism’s formation in history.

A large portion of the book focuses on the expansion of Sufism and credits Sufism as a vehicle for spreading Islam to non-Muslim regions, but the lack of historical context undermines Trimingham’s authority on this claim. In his review of The Sufi Orders in Islam, Simon Digby of the University of London poses the critique: “No explanation is provided of the historical factors responsible for the great diffusion of Sufi organizations through the Islamic world in the twelfth century A.D.” (136). Carl Ernst points to the importance of the Mongol destruction of the caliphate in the progression of Sufi legitimacy, but Trimingham tunes out such vital political circumstance (Ernst, 126). The Sufi Orders in Islam presents the missionary successes of Sufism as an example of Sufism’s positive contributions to Islam. The author attributes this success to Sufism’s “linkage with the lives of ordinary people” through the wandering dervishes (67).  In his advocating for Sufism’s ability to relate to and entice ordinary non-Muslims, Trimingham contradicts his later criticism of the “degeneration of Sufism” due to “its adaption to the needs and capacity of the ordinary man” (200). The author values Sufism’s accessibility to common people as a missionary tool, but he also criticizes a Sufi experience that opens its doors to those outside of the elite. This contradiction, as well as his neglect of a political backdrop, clouds Trimingham’s report about the spread of Sufism.

The Sufi Orders in Islam describes a theory of three stages of Sufism. Trimingham names the first khanaqah stage “the golden age of mysticism” (103). The second tariqa stage is a period of Sufi conformity to traditional and legal standards, and the third ta’ifa stage is the era of Sufism as a popular movement. The author insists that the quality of mystical content, spiritual freedom, and development of Sufism decayed further with each stage. The reader may draw a comparison to this theory of decline to a theme of traditional Sufi literature called fasad al-zaman, the corruption of times. This theme occurs in “The Revelation of the Veiled” by al-Hujwiri, as it is written,

     “Know that in our time the science of Sufism is obsolete, especially in this country. The whole people… has turned its back on the path of quietism, while the ‘ulama and those who pretend to learn have formed a conception of Sufism which is quite contrary to its fundamental principles” (7).

Trimingham’s claim that Sufism declined from its glorified past agrees with the sentiment of Sufi traditionalism and echoes Islamic fundamentalism, which aims to return to the purity of Islam’s golden age. Does Trimingham truly adopt an objective, scholarly perspective if he presents history through the same lens as these religious idealists?

This theory of decline exposes Trimingham’s insensitive generalizations about a stagnant Islam, an inadaptable organized Sufism, and a less-adept, underdeveloped Muslim world. A central thesis of The Orders in Islam blames a decline of Sufism on an inadequacy of the entire Muslim community: “The decline in the orders is symptomatic of the failure of Muslims to adapt their traditional interpretation of Islam for life in a new dimension” (257). Attributing Sufism’s decline to an Islamic inability to adapt to modern changes fuels the trend in Western scholarship and attitude that deprecates the Muslim world. Bruce Lawrence from Duke University writes about Trimingham’s stereotyping, “He is obsessed with what can only be termed a compulsion to interpret the evolution of Sufism (and, in fact, Islam itself) as subject to an unchanging law of irreversible decline” (175). Trimingham’s theory of the permanent deterioration of Sufism reveals his understanding of Islamic societies as inadequate. In the Shambhala Guide to Sufism, Ernst roots the theory of decline in the “self-image of Europeans in the colonial period, since it provided a noble justification for conquest and empire on the basis of the ‘civilizing mission’ of the West” (132). As students of history, readers must be critical of Trimingham’s allegation about the degeneration of Sufism throughout time.

While many observers may disregard the Sufi mystical experience as bizarre and imaginary, Trimingham deserves credit for his firm insistence on the validity of the mystic. Despite this validation, the author’s opinion on what constitutes high-quality mysticism disservices his historical account about the progression of Sufism. Ernst explains this fault, “[Trimingham’s] theory of decline logically derives from his assumption that mysticism must be a personal and individual phenomenon” (131). The Sufi Orders in Islam exhibits his narrow understanding of mysticism in Trimingham’s conclusion of the book, which expresses some hope for the future of Sufism only through select individuals, while organized communal Sufism is bound to perish. He concludes,

     “The Path, in our age as in past ages, is for the few who are prepared to pay the price, but the vision of the few who, following the way of personal encounter and commitment, escape from Time to know re-creation, remains vital for the spiritual welfare of mankind” (259).

By limiting the definition of mysticism to strictly personal experience, Trimingham rejects the legitimacy of his own claims concerning the beneficial contributions of organized Sufism to the community. He argues that communal Sufism creates an effective means of expression in voicing grievances to political authorities and stabilizes social cohesion through a secure sense of unified identity (234). The author’s assertion that institutionalized Sufism is spiritually inadequate contradicts the fulfillment of societal needs by communal Sufism that he simultaneously defends.

In addition to Trimingham’s descriptions of the mystical community, evidence of an outward mystical experience occurs in Sufi texts.  For example, A Collection of Sufi Rules of Conduct by Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami includes many instructions for conduct with others as a vital component in mystical life, such as: “The Sufi must dispute with his fellows on matters concerning the Sufi way of living, and then become reconciled with them” (12). Sufism promotes more than just a personal mysticism—it also teaches the importance of external conduct and community that Trimingham disregards in his judgment of spiritual quality.

Scholars and students have appreciated the feat of The Sufi Orders in Islam since its publication, noting Trimingham as the spearhead in the comprehensive collection of lineages, expansion paths, and devotional trends of Sufism through time and place. While Trimingham’s impressive work is worthy of its praise, readers must still be critical of the unfilled gaps, taints of bias, and infusions of personal judgment that skew the book’s full credibility. A history of Sufism is unfinished without the analysis of the intimate relationship between political context and Sufi development that Trimingham overlooks. The author’s thesis that Sufism has been corrupted due to its inadaptability to modernity underlines his minimizing attitude toward the capabilities of the Muslim world, and his conception of the mystical experience neglects the validity of communal Sufism’s spiritual and social functions. Regardless of these imperfections, his book exhibits to the Western student the influential role of Sufism in history and the modern world. With a critical attitude and an assertive inquiry, readers may be inspired by the shortcomings of Trimingham’s work and launch into an inclusive, fair, and objective study of Sufism. With this rise of interest and academic recognition from The Sufi Orders in Islam, further research and education about Sufism in the West may lead to a more validating, inquisitive, and impartial attitude toward Islamic mysticism and its development.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for Sufism with Professor Katharina Ivanyi at Columbia University.

Works Cited

Digby, Simon. “The Sufi Orders in Islam by J. Spencer Trimingham Review.” JSTOR. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Web.

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

Hujvīrī, ʻAlī Ibn ʻUs̲mān, and Reynold Alleyne Nicholson. Kashf Al-mahjūb of Al-Hujwīrī: The Revelation of the Veiled: An Early Persian Treatise on Sufism. Wiltshire: Aris & Phillips, 2000. Print.

Lawrence, Bruce B. “J. Spencer Trimingham, “The Sufi Orders in Islam” (Book Review).” Religious Studies Review 4.3 (1978): Web.

Sulamī, Muhammad Ibn Al-Ḥusayn, and Elena Biagi. A Collection of Sufi Rules of Conduct: Jawāmiʻ Ādāb Al-Sūfiyya. Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 2010. Print.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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