Outdated Studies on Sufism in Central Asia

Tristan Kenderdine


Studies on Sufism in Central Asia Devin Deweese, Abingdon: Routledge, 2020, 374 pp. Pbk $48.95, Hdbk $200. ISBN: 9780367601881


The Sufi blossoming thought in Central Asia occurred largely in a historical bubble that has proven difficult to penetrate through the deadening legacy of Soviet Union historiography. Deweese here brings together a series of his own studies on the schools of Sufi thought which originated in Central Asia, Kubrawi, Yasawi, and Khwajagan/Naqshbandi. He is particularly concerned with reviving the discipline from the banal mediocrity which grey-washed Islam through the Soviet period and from which wider Central Asian studies have still not recovered.


Sufism is a loose collection of interpretivist schools of Islamic theology. Stressing the importance of independent reasoning and continual renewal of Islamic jurisprudence or Usul al-Fiqh that comes with interpretation, Sufism's anti-dogmatic reinvigoration of Islam was melded with local culture and custom, allowed for the co-development of Islamic schools of jurisprudence alongside it. In Central Asia and the greater Turkic world, the continued development of Hanafi Islam was influenced through the melding of the Sufis open interpretation of various sources of Islamic law, as well as their tailoring of Islam to local conditions, incorporating non-Arabic and non-Persian cultures and practices.


The institutions developed during the Sufi period, roughly the second half of the Islamic Golden Age, would influence future iterations across the spatial, political, cultural, linguistic, and theological institutions of Central Asia. Sufi institutions bridged a divide between the Islamic Golden Age, the Mongol Period the emergence of the independent Turkic Khanates and the Timurid Empire before the later Russification of the region. The history of Sufism is the Central Asia of Khwarazm, Khorasan, Turkestan and Transoxiana rather than modern forms of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan or Afghanistan.


Deweese’s scholarship is deeply rooted in Arabic, Persian and Turkic languages and a commitment to primary source work. And his work shows the depth of cultural and linguistic links between Central Asia and Arabia, Persia and the developing Turkic world. While only really a collection of the author’s own journal articles and conference papers, the book nevertheless forms a solid gateway to reading secondary studies based on primary sources. However for a book collecting deep studies on the typologies of hagiographies, there are no categorizations, simplifications or even diagrams to locate the reader. Several charts would have made this work better, categorizing the primary sources used with their transliterations and translations; a categorical framework for how the sources examined fit into the wider context under study; or charts placing the Sufi schools examined here placed into comparative historical context. These would have allowed for a cleaner analysis of Sufism fits into regional, universal, modern or contemporary schools of Islam. Instead the reader is expected to discover the source texts at the same rate and the same chronological order as the author did.


Deweese is clearly a skilled translator, historian and hagiographer but the lack of editing in this book is stark. The 2020 book is a reissue of the 2012 first edition which has not been updated, which is disappointing given this is a very poorly designed and typeset book. The footnoting style is from the 20th century, with long tangents, sometimes taking an entire page on a single footnote. The introduction is self-indulgent, airing old grievances against former editors. Different fonts used throughout the book give a disjointed feel, with some chapters seemingly photo scanned in facsimile style. Preserving primary source is important, however preserving the typesetting, fonts and pagination from conference papers from the 1990s is bizarre. There is a good index, though no appendices, and the few charts that accompany the text are strewn throughout the book without any reference points to locate them. A second printing of this book could have been a great chance to reach a new audience and to produce a book which engaged a younger generation of Central Asia, Islamic, and Sufism scholars. The 2020 edition then could have been a chance to reformat the book into something more human for the reader, instead we get tired reproductions of early 1990s conference papers. This potentially intellectually rich book is ultimately poor because of the paucity of production, typesetting, and lack of editing. The reader remains alienated from the text, vicariously living through the authors own cotton glove approach to primary sources applied to his secondary publications.


Whether one studies Central Asia through the proto-Turkic, Mongol, Chagatay, Russian or Soviet periods, the same problem is immediately met: lack of sources. The historian, hagiograph, and political scientist alike are confronted with the dichotomy of densely rich cultural histories erased by linguistic mankurts. Beyond the contemporary simplicity of political narratives limited to Sunni and Shi’a, volumes such as this exploring Sufism open up new worlds through which it is easier for the English language reader to access historical sources and modern histories on the pre-modern states, institutions, theocracies and theologies of Central Asia and the Persianate and Turkic worlds. Where contemporary pan-Turkism has an Islamic values core and multifaceted understandings of Islam are need to understand Afghanistan’s place in Central Asia, it is evergreen to focus on sources of Islamic history and theology in Central Asia.


Sufism in Central Asia is an understudied field and any publication should be welcomed, not least from such a depth of scholarship as this one emanates. A reexamination of Islamic sources of jurisprudence, institutionalized forms of pluralist theology, and the theological-cultural nexus underpinning the Hanafi and Turkic worlds adds a layer of depth to modern scholarship inundated with tropes of post-Sovietism, Islamism as threat, or externally historicized typologies of Central Asia. Studies in Sufism in Central Asia is a doorway to deeper scholarship in a dimension of Central Asian institutions which traditionally suffers from a dearth of multidimensionality, despite the richness of its traditions.


Tristan Kenderdine is Executive Editor at Hansa Press and Research Director at Future Risk

1 February 2023




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