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Article

Here or elsewhere: Sufism and traditional Islam in Russia’s Volga-Ural region

Contemporary Islam. 2020. Vol. 14. No. 2. P. 135-156.
Di Puppo L., Schmoller J.

The renewed interest for Sufism, in the form of the celebration of a Sufi past, and the presence of Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhoods in the Volga and Urals ask the question of the place of Sufism in the region’s broader Islamic revival. In particular, how is Sufism related to the concept of “traditional Islam” as a central official category that seeks to define a local Islam? In order to understand how the place of Sufism is negotiated in relation to the notion of a local Islam, we analyse both how Sufism is integrated into the concept of traditional Islam on a more official level and how Sufi murids view their place in the Islamic revival. We refer to the literature on Sufism and its critiques and to new interpretations of the Volga-Ural Muslim history to highlight how negative images of the phenomenon and previous theological disputes form the background against which the Sufi revival takes place. Drawing on the idea of Sufism’s “disappearance” from a historical narrative in Soviet times and on the importance of anti-Sufi critiques in fashioning this narrative, we aim to understand how a new narrative on Sufism emerges on an official level and how it connects or not with the way Sufi murids perceive their beliefs and practices. By analysing convergences and divergences in official perceptions of Sufism and the perceptions of Sufi murids, we examine how the question of Sufism sheds light on the paradoxes in the concept of traditional Islam. Hence, Sufism challenges the image of a unified theological heritage as a foundation for traditional Islam, as it brings to the fore the anti-Sufi critique of previous Jadids. While official views and the views of Sufi murids converge on a more theological definition of traditional Islam understood as the three dimensions of Islam (islam, iman and ihsan), Sufism also raises the question of religious authority. Indeed, the spiritual hierarchies represented by Sufi tariqas may not be easy to reconcile with an official Muslim representation. Finally, Sufi murids refer to the notion of a local sacred geography, but also emphasise the transnational and transregional connections established by Sufi tariqas, thus pointing to another understanding of locality.