Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age

Oxford University Press consistently publishes cutting edge scholarship on esotericism and related movements and is the gold standard of academic writing in religious studies. November 16 was publication date for this book covering nearly two thousand years of history. As described by the publisher:

Sedgwick starts with the earliest origins of Western Sufism in late antique Neoplatonism and early Arab philosophy, and traces later origins in repeated intercultural transfers from the Muslim world to the West, in the thought of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, and in the intellectual and religious ferment of the nineteenth century. He then follows the development of organized Sufism in the West from 1915 until 1968, the year in which the first Western Sufi order based on purely Islamic models was founded.

Highly relevant to my ongoing research is much of the material in chapter 8, “Transcendentalism, Theosophy, and Sufism.”  Three sections relate to the Thomas Moore Johnson correspondence.  “Transcendentalism and the Missouri Platonists” identifies Transcendentalism as a small intellectual movement of which the Missouri Platonists, were successors, another small intellectual movement. “Both the Transcendentalists and the Missouri Platonists were Neoplatonists, and both were universalists. Neoplatonism was more important to them than Sufism, but both included Sufism in their universalism.” Over two pages are devoted to a section on Thomas Moore Johnson and The Platonist, and Sedgwick draws on the research of Patrick Bowen about the Sufic Circle within the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, first reported in his first volume of A History of Conversion to Islam in the U.S., and further developed in his introduction to Letters to the Sage on the connection between Johnson’s circle of acquaintances and Sufism. Other than Johnson, the person most discussed by Sedgwick and relevant to the Letters project is Carl-Henrik Bjerregaard, who belonged to both the Hermetic Brotherhood and the Theosophical Society and was later instrumental in the first Western Sufi movement focused on the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

This book is a mental feast for anyone with an interest in the diffusion of Sufism in the West. On subjects where I had a modest amount of knowledge, like Idries Shah, I found Sedgwick the fairest-minded commentor to date. It was most encouraging to see his judicious appraisal of Thomas Johnson and the Missouri Platonists, in whose world I am currently immersed.  In the first half of the book, the review of neoplatonic and myriad other influences on Sufism is thorough and engaging.  But my favorite parts of the book were the material almost completely new to me, concerning the Sufi Order in the West and Meher Baba’s Sufism Reoriented.  The intricate “family tree” relationships of these groups connect to both the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and hence to the Johnson letters.

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