Sufism represents the inward-looking, mystical dimension of Islam. Often thought erroneously to be its own sect or denomination – such as Sunni Islam – Sufism is better understood as an approach that mixes mainstream religious observances, such as prescribed daily prayers, with a range of supplementary spiritual practices, such as the ritual chanting of God’s attributes (zhikr) or the veneration of saints.

Muslim networks Sufis ceremony 10-09-13
A traditional Sufi ceremony takes place in a prayer room in Rahovec, Kosovo. Credit: Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

Sufism dates back almost to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and it has been present in Muslim societies for more than 12 centuries. Historically, Sufis were organized into a number of brotherhoods or mystical orders (tariqat, literally “paths”), each with its own religious rites, saintly lineage and leadership structure. The head of each order, generally a hereditary position known as the shaykh or pir, represented a spiritual genealogy tracing back to the prophet.

The theological orientation of Sufism – with its inward focus on spirituality – is such that its followers tend to shy away from more political forms of Islam. Historically, however, Sufi orders have not always been entirely apolitical. Some Sufi leaders, especially in the Muslim world, have allied themselves with political forces and, in some instances, even with militant causes. Many Sufi orders place a great deal of emphasis on shari’a (Islamic) law and the strict observance of orthodox requirements in the areas of worship and social affairs. Moreover, given the pre-eminent position of the shaykh or leader, the orders can be rather authoritarian and rigidly hierarchical. For example, the most devoted followers of an order (known as murids) are expected to follow the leader’s directives without question.

Snapshot: Sufi Orders

Sufism has been present in Muslim societies for more than 12 centuries. Historically, Sufis
were organized into a number of brotherhoods or mystical orders, and many Muslim immigrants took their Sufi order affiliations with them to Europe. Other Sufi orders have been present in the region since the Middle Ages.

Stated Purpose/Goals
Sufism is the inward-looking, mystical dimension of Islam, emphasizing personal and emotional religious experiences. The theological orientation of Sufism, with its inward focus on spirituality, is such that its followers generally tend to shy away from more politicized forms of Islam.

Sufism mixes mainstream religious observances with a range of supplementary spiritual practices. Some of the most popular and well-known examples of Sufi practices are the ritual chanting of God’s attributes (zhikr) and dancing, such as that performed by the whirling dervishes in Turkey.

Representative Organizations/Key Figures

  • The Naqshbandi order has a global following and is found throughout Europe; it is led by Nazim al-Qubrusi from his base in Cyprus.
  • The Qadiri order has a broad following in Europe; Sorbonne-trained anthropologist Fouzi Skali oversees a sub-branch of the order in France.

The emphasis on personal and emotional religious experiences in Sufism made it enormously popular among the masses and led to new forms of religious expression, including singing and dancing (the whirling dervishes of Turkey are a well-known example). Sufism’s popular appeal ultimately helped Islam spread across Africa, Asia and Europe. Today, many well-known Sufi orders – such as the Naqshbandis and Qadiris – enjoy a substantial global following. These brotherhoods have become thoroughly integrated into the social structure of many Muslim societies, and it is therefore not surprising that when Muslim immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East began arriving in Europe in significant numbers in the 1960s, many brought their Sufi order affiliations with them.

Not all Sufism in contemporary Europe is the result of recent migrations, however. Some Sufi orders, such as the Bektashis of Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia, have been present in the region since the Middle Ages. Indeed, the religious culture of Muslim communities in the Balkans has largely been shaped by the legacy of Sufism.

Ethnic Makeup and Size

Regardless of their origins, Sufi orders in Europe are deeply embedded in the cultures of many Muslim communities – so deeply, in fact, that it is often difficult to distinguish them from particular cultures and ethnic groups. The Tijani and Muridi orders, for example, are thoroughly woven into France’s West and North African communities. A slight majority of the U.K.’s predominantly South Asian Muslim community are Barelwis, followers of a broad Sufi-oriented movement that encompasses a variety of orders, including the Chistis, Qadiris and Naqshbandis.

Some large Sufi orders cross multiple ethnic groups. The Naqshbandis, for example, are strongly represented across many Muslim communities in Europe. Today, it is one of the most prominent orders in the U.K. Through annual visits to Britain from his home base in Cyprus, the Naqshbandis’ leading shaykh, Nazim al-Qubrusi, has developed a diverse following of Turks, South Asians and white or Afro-Caribbean converts in London and Sheffield, as well as a group of South Asian followers in Birmingham.

Muslim networks Sufis al-Qubrusi 10-09-13
Nazim al-Qubrusi, leader of the Naqshbandis, at his home in Cyprus on Feb. 18, 2005. Credit: ALEX MITA/AFP/Getty Images

Given the pervasiveness of Sufi orders in Europe, and the often informal nature of their influence, it can be difficult to determine their actual size. In addition, while some Muslims choose to formally join a particular order, others may opt for a more informal relationship, treating the heads of Sufi orders as respected spiritual guides (murshids) rather than as formal religious leaders. Nevertheless, Sufism’s influence is strong. In Germany, for example, up to 15% of Turkish immigrants and 20% of German-born Turks are thought to be active members of Sufi-based organizations, such as the Sulaymançis.35

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Fouzi Skali, who oversees a sub-branch of the Qadiri order in France, has given a more modern face to Sufism. Credit: Philippe Lissac/Godong/Corbis

Some Sufi orders – particularly those with leadership figures who have been educated or are based in the West – have been particularly successful at adapting to European cultures and societies. For example, Fouzi Skali, a Sorbonne-trained anthropologist who oversees a sub-branch of the Qadiri order in France, has succeeded in making Sufism attractive to an urban, modern-educated, middle- and upper-class audience – a departure from earlier perceptions in France of traditional Sufism as rural and backward. Members of this order today come from all strata of French society. Skali has also managed to generate interest in Sufi culture among a wider European audience by marketing Moroccan Sufism through numerous cultural events and festivals, some of which are broadcast on French television.

Indeed, the leaders of Sufi orders in Europe are frequently involved in a wide range of extra-spiritual activities. For example, Faizul Aqtab Siddiqi, leader of a Naqshbandi order in Britain, practices civil law as a certified barrister and provides shari’a-compliant arbitration for settling conflicts between Muslim commercial disputants. He also helped to organize a large protest in London in 2006 against the now-famous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims found offensive.

Government Promotion of Sufism

In recent years, some European governments have sought to promote Sufism as a culturally authentic counterweight to more politicized Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Sufism’s emphasis on personal spirituality fits neatly with secular European notions that religion should be reserved for private life rather than for the public square.

But the efforts by European governments to promote Sufism have not always been successful. For instance, the Sufi Muslim Council in the U.K. – which was founded with the encouragement of the government in the aftermath of the July 2005 London transit bombings – has been widely viewed with suspicion by British Muslims, who question its credibility as a representative of the community.36 Many see the Council as an attempt by the government to displace larger and more established organizations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, which is widely regarded as the main national umbrella body for Muslim organizations in the U.K., and the British Muslim Forum, a grassroots group representing the majority strain of Sufism in the U.K. Others perceive the Sufi Muslim Council as a blatant attempt by the government to co-opt traditional Sufism for political purposes.37 These debates are taking place against the backdrop of broader discussions that have been going on since 9/11 over how Western governments can promote various forms of “moderate Islam.”38

An Appetite for Spirituality

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American Sufi scholar Hamza Yusuf Hanson. Credit: Religion News Service Photo courtesy of Zaytuna College

Apart from debates about the political role of Sufism in Europe, there are signs of a broader groundswell of popular interest in this particular approach to Islam, including the noticeable popularity in Europe of such figures as Yemeni Sufi scholar Al-Habib Ali al-Jifri and American Sufi scholar Hamza Yusuf Hanson.39 Hamza Yusuf, director of the Zaytuna Institute in San Francisco, is an American convert to Islam whose fusion of spirituality, traditional Islamic learning and colloquial style has earned him a following among young Muslims
in the West.

In the face of what is often experienced as an onslaught of competing and sometimes contradictory views on religion available through the Web and other new media channels, some Muslims have found that affiliation with a Sufi order offers an appealing alternative: a single, reliable source of information on Islam that comes with a personal spiritual guide.40 The new wave of enthusiasm for Islamic mysticism suggests that this tradition will continue to have a pervasive influence across Europe’s Muslim communities.