Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy - Clinton Bennett

Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy - Clinton Bennett

1. Sufis, Saints and Politics in Islam: An Historical Survey

Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy - Clinton Bennett

Clinton Bennett [+-]
State University of New York, New Palz
Clinton Bennett divides his teaching between SUNY New Paltz, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY and Cambridge, UK. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. A Baptist missionary in Bangladesh 1979-1982, he maintains close personal and professional ties with South Asia. Director of interfaith relations for the British Council of Churches 1986-1992, he has served on not-for-profit management committees, local, national and international ecumenical agencies, chaired a school governing body and represented an NGO at the UN.   He has written ten books, numerous articles, reviews, chapters, editorials, and encyclopedia and dictionary entries. He is editor of the Continuum Studying World Religions series.


This chapter explores the role that Sufis have played in validating, providing and challenging political leadership in Islamic contexts. On the one hand, Sufis are widely perceived as politically quietest, as disengaged from temporal affairs. On the other hand, there is a long tradition, influenced by Iranian ideas of authority, of Sufi masters legitimizing and opposing political leaders. The origins of the Safavid dynasty lie in this Sufi tradition. In India, successive rulers looked to Chishti sheiks, not to a distant or non-existent caliph, to validate their rule. Also, as Charles Lindholm’s work demonstrates, thriving Sufi orders effectively functioned as micro-states, as viable alternatives to the larger Islamic polity, whose values Sufis rejected, in which participation was considered compromising. In contexts where proselytization was led by Sufis, who fused Islamic and local traditions, the Muslim-majority societies that evolved tend to affirm pluralism; several such contexts have seen democracy begin to flourish. Today, in these contexts, Sufis – sometimes supporting secular parties, sometimes forming their own –arguably help moderate leaders retain power. Some nineteenth century European writers depicted Sufis in colonial settings as militant, and there are stories in circulation of zealous, sword wielding, Temple destroying Sufis. The latter appear to be apocryphal; the former can be analyzed, if true, as wholly justified opposition to foreign domination. Perhaps ironically, on a less optimistic concluding note, some prominent Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, owe their own existence to Sufi patterns of organization and discipline. Can Sufis continue to influence political culture, or will less democratic inclined alternatives emerge as dominant?

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Bennett, Clinton. 1. Sufis, Saints and Politics in Islam: An Historical Survey. Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. 25-49 Jul 2017. ISBN 9781781792216. Date accessed: 22 Oct 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.27385. Jul 2017

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