Sunday, March 24, 2013


Comparative Essay of Green's Sufism and Ernst's The Shambala Guide to Sufism

By Tawni Miller
“I try to deal with the complexities of power and social life, but as far as the visual presentation goes I purposely avoid a high degree of difficulty.”[1] This statement was made by Barbra Kruger, an American conceptual artist, famous for her portrayal of complex thoughts through the use of simple black and white images, and Red and white text. Although, Nile Green, the author of Sufism A Global History, and Carl W. Ernst, the author of The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, are obviously not artists. However, they, like Kruger, seek to convey a mosaic concept in a highly simplistic and logical way. They are both successful in presenting Sufism in a manner appropriate for their separate academic disciplines. The fields of History and Religious Studies often study the same subject and even deliver the same information, but they do so in different formats. This is because students of these disciplines are seeking the same information but with differing questions and aspectual interests. Green’s and Ernst’s books examine the controversial Islamic element that is Sufism and, while both acknowledge its exceptional influence and reject it popular definition as “Islamic mysticism,” they present their research with varying circumstantial definitions for the term, emphasis, and format, all of which are in direct relation to their fields of study.
The concepts that make up Sufism have been around since the time of the prophet, Muhammad. The practice of meditation, in fact, was carried out by Muhammad himself during the time which we received the Quran from Allah.[2] The underlying purpose of these rituals is to become closer to Allah or a “friend of God,” which is what the saints of Sufism are considered.[3] They are venerated because they came the closest to achieving that which Sufi’s desire most, closeness to God. According to the tradition of Sufism this is to be obtained through practices like fasting and meditation.[4] Sufism later took form in the arts. It was, through the course of history, been a presence in architecture, poetry, and dancing.[5] It is based in similar concepts as asceticism, but it provided a physical means for Muslims to strength their relationship with Allah, when the Quran was predominantly inaccessible to the average Muslim. When Arabic was the language of the educated, the less fortunate found spiritual comfort in the practices, rituals, and veneration saints, the Sufi’s offered.[6] For this reason the number of those whom associated themselves with this term was able to grow in diverse social classes. It served individuals with highly differing levels of religious devotion. The ultimate goal of Sufism was, and is, to achieve closeness to the one creator of all. With such large numbers of individuals identifying with Sufism, the term came to be without a clear definition. It is this aspect of Sufism which came to be the reason for it’s even greater expansion socially, politically and religiously.[7] It does not discriminate based on culture, wealth, or social status. Both Nile Green and Carl W. Ernst performed an extensive amount of research on this topic and constructed works which reflected each of their scholastic disciplines.
Nile Green, a professor of South Asian and Islamic History at UCLA, approaches Sufism from a Historians perspective.  He traces the development and spread of Sufism from the time of its origin to the present day. He begins with the years between 830CE and 1100CE which he titles “Origins, Foundations and Rivalries.” Then he proceeds through periods which he calls, “An Islam Through Saints and Brothers” and “Empires, Frontiers, and Renewers,” before concluding with the years from 1800 to the present, entitled “From Colonization to Globalization.” His Book explores Sufism with an emphasis on powerful historical figures. Some of which include: Rabi’a (d.801), an early female ascetic whom the Sufis claim to be an early Sufi. Attar and Remi, the famous Muslim poets, and Ibn Taymiyya, the Syrian critique of Sufism. [8]
Carl W. Ernst, is a specialist in Islamic studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[9] Consequently, he is writing his book with the intention of appealing to an individual with a particular interest in religions and theologies. This book, while providing a brief historical background for each element of Sufism, is more focused on modern day Sufism. It specifically mentions the widely popular Twirling Dervishes and aspects of Sufism which have been adopted by non-Muslims.[10]
The two authors both exhibit a profound respect for, and admiration of, Sufism’s growth though it’s exceptional power of influence. Green elaborates on the strength of this influence by dividing its source into three types of power: discursive, miraculous, and economic. What he refers to as discursive power is the authority assumed by the Sufis to develop a unique vocabulary and variety of rituals by drawing connections to the Quran. Miraculous power is reference to the perception of Sufis, by both Sufis and non-Sufis, as having the ability to perform miracles. Finally, the gifts of land, money, and other forms of wealth were given by wealthy followers.[11] Consequently, Sufis passed down wealth and tradition through their family trees.[12]  Both Green and Ernst discuss the spread of Sufism from Iran and Persia to Spain, Africa, Asia, and India. Although Green goes into greater detail on the varying sources of influence, Ernst specifically discusses Sufism’s success as the result of rulers who supported “residential institutions” of Sufi teaching. He explains that these were how Sufi Orders, similar in many ways to Christian monks, developed and began their contribution to the spread of Sufism.[13]
Ernst and Green agree that the popular definition of Sufism as “Islamic mysticism” is overly simplified, and there for inaccurate. They are particularly concerned with this understanding of Sufism by Westerners, which Green explain, leads to the image of Sufis as spontaneous, antisocial God seekers, with an aversion to rituals and religious symbols. The image of an “individual God seeker,” is a direct consequence of Westerners grouping Sufism with Christian Protestantism.[14] In actuality, Sufis participate in many social religious activities which include dancing and chanting.[15] They also, participate in the veneration of saints through architecture, rituals and stories.[16] This veneration of saints, specifically, is not coherent to this association with Protestantism. Actually, this vernation of saints would be in more likeness to Catholicism and Fundamentalists of Islam, like the Protestants, argue that saint veneration is in relation to idol worship. [17] Ernst’s also, finds discomfort with the term “mysticism” because of its ambiguity.[18]
As a result of differing fields of study, these two scholars chose different alternatives to this definition of Sufism as mysticism. Ernst simply states that he has no intention of providing a clear definition of Sufism. He believes the awareness and acknowledgment of the conflicting views of Sufism is essential to a full comprehension by the reader.[19] Green is bolder and offers circumstantial understanding of Sufism as he will address it in his work: “a tradition of powerful knowledge, practices and persons.”[20] The word “tradition” implies an endurance of time, which is directly related to his the discipline of historical scholarship, through which he conducted research for this book.
The emphases of these two works are varied from one another as a result of their difference in purpose; which in turn, is directly linked to their fields of scholastic study. It is only natural that Green’s approach to Sufism results in an emphasis on important people of the past, which were recorded. A Historians subject of interest is, in fact, historical textual documents. So, Green goes into a great deal of detail surrounding these historical figures.  Green’s field of study’s relation to his book’s intention of providing an, “…overall survey of Sufism that devotes equal value and emphasis to each period of History.” is painfully obvious.[21]  These figures are discussed by Green in greater detail than Ernst, who uses them simply as examples in explanation of a defining characteristic of Sufism. Ernst’s focus remains on how Sufism is practiced today. He  strives to provide explanation for the purpose of providing greater understanding of Sufism’s “uses,” which he has promised his reader with the statement of his goal in the preface, “…to perform the genuine service of a guide for the reader who wants to asses the uses to which Sufism is put today.”[22]
The format in which the book is written is in direct relation to the method of study utilized by the author. Green’s book is organized chronologically. He breaks the history of Sufism in what he views as phases of Sufism’s development and expansion. Green titles each section of time with terms and phrases that summarize the way in which Sufism grew through that period. It is clear from Green’s previously stated intention for developing this book; a sequential approach was always his intent for the presentation of his research. The chronology of events is often more important to a Historian than to a Religious scholar. Although it is still necessary for the understanding of the development of Sufism, it is not the main focus for Ernst. Ernst, in contrast, organizes his book topically. The chapters in his book possess titles such as: “Saints and Sainthoods” and “The Sufi Orders.” This organization of information serves the needs of individuals interested in specific aspects or characteristics of Sufism.
Although differing in presentational aspects such circumstantial definitions of Sufism, emphasis and format, as a result of each authors’ field of study, the two works of Green and Ernst both recognize Sufism’s influential ability and reject the overly simplistic view of it as the mysticism of Islam. The service a book is performing is in direct relation to how the information is formatted. History majors have a tendency to want things presented to them chronologically. This is so they are able to fully understand the order in which events unfolded and their relations through cause and effect. A student of Religious Studies, however, would prefer a topical format so as to make comparisons of rituals and theology between different religions. The study of Religion and History are closely linked. So much so, that some university classes are offered to students to be taken for credit as either one. However, after considering the ideas put forth in this paper concerning the necessary difference in the presentation of material in accordance to the reader’s interest, it is likely an argument could be constructed against this practice.


Ernst, Carl W. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997.
Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Wiley-Blackwell , 2012.
Kruger, Barbara, interview by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve. The Art of Public Address Art in America, (November 1997). Excerpt. (accessed spetmeber 26, 2012)

[1] Kruger, Barbara, interview by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve. The Art of Public Address Art in America, (November 1997).
[2] Ernst, Carl W. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997. 32
[3] Ibid, 58.

[4] Carl W. Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, 99.
[5] Nile Green, Sufism: A Global History. Wiley-Blackwell , 2012. 113
[6] Ibid.
[7]Ibid, 6.
[8] Nile Green, Sufism: A Global History, 21, 109, 125.
[9] Carl W. Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, 1997.
[10]Ibid, 179, 180.
[11] Green, Sufism: A Global History, 6.
[13] Carl W. Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, 120.
[14] Nile Green, Sufism: A Global History, 2.
[15] Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, 179.
[16] Green, Sufism: A Global History, 113
[17] Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, 58.
[18] Ibid, xvii.
[19] Ibid, xix.

[20] Nile Green, Sufism: A Global History, 3.
[21] Ibid, xi.
[22] Carl W. Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, xix.


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