Alexander Knysh

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2014/2015
discipline Islamic studies
Professor of Islamic Studies Department of Near Eastern Studies University of Michigan and academic project director, St. Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg, Russia

Research project

Sufism in Islam and Islam in Sufism


The Muslim ascetic-mystical tradition, or “Sufism,” is often considered by both outsiders and insiders to be the most tolerant trend in Islam today, the perfect facilitator in a constructive inter-confessional dialogue between the Muslim world and the West. The vicissitudes of Sufism’s evolution across time and space is the subject of Alexander Knysh’s book project. The author approaches Sufism not as a self-sufficient, self-reproducing and self-regulating ding an sich, but as part and parcel of the complex fabric of Islamic societies in their historical development. The book explores Sufism’s major components such as: (i) Teachings (discourses), both hegemonic and counterhegemonic, stabilizing and destabilizing; (ii) Practices, defined by the teachings (discourses) and instrumental in the production and maintenance of a certain lifestyle, cosmology, and social order; (iii) A community of intellectual and, even more so in this case, spiritual commitment that constitutes a source (and occasionally, the source) of identity/subjectivity for its followers; (iv) A set of institutions that ensures the continuity of the Sufi stream of Islam; (v) Leaders, who interpret the foundational ideas (or, rather, their abstracts), supervise rituals, and determine the overall direction of the religious tradition that they represent and cultivate. 


The author’s principal aim is to explore all of these dimensions of Sufism without sliding into either apology or hypercriticism of the subject(s) examined. He discusses how medieval Sufi masters appropriated the apologetic discourses of other Muslim “tradition-builders,” e. g., the founders of the Islamic legal schools, hadith transmitters, litterateurs, grammarians, philosophers, and theologians, in order to legitimize their own beliefs and way of life. He then proceeds to examine the complex and often puzzling  ways in which the elitist (esoteric) spirituality  of Sufism has “exteriorized” itself  in a profusion of fellowships (brotherhoods or tariqas/silsilas), brick-and-mortar institutions (khanqahs, zawiyas,ribats) and  shrines of popular Sufi masters (awliya’, or “saints”), thereby becoming a major factor in the life of Muslim communities world-wide. The process of Sufism’s institutionalization and its flexible adaptation to changing geopolitical circumstances is in the focus of the proposed study. It also explores the role of individual Sufi masters and Sufi lodges in “the vernacularization of Islam” in both its heartlands and on its borderlands during the Middle Ages and in modern times.


In the recent decades, leaders of Sufi communities have managed to avail themselves of, and creatively re-adjust, Sufi ideas and practices to keep Sufism relevant to the aspirations and tastes of modern-day men and women in both the Muslim world and in the West. Finally, the author explores the reasons for ideological and physical attacks on Sufism by various “fundamentalist”/Salafi /jihadi groups that hold it responsible for the plight and subjugated position of Islam and the Muslims in today’s world. He argues that in the past century and a half Sufism has fallen victim to its own success, creating a situation in which attempts to challenge the socio-political status quo by various oppositional forces almost inevitably entail an attack on its most visible (and controversial) symbol as Sufi Islam has become. The study shows how modern-day Sufis have managed to hold their own in the face these incessant attacks, although in their struggle against their attackers they have been forced to seek the help of state authorities. The uneasy and frequently re-negotiated relationships between Sufis and the state and Sufis and their detractors of various stripes are examined in the last chapters of the study.




Alexander Knysh is Professor of Islamic Studies at the Department of Near Eastern Studies of the University of Michigan.  He holds a Ph.D in Islamic Studies and Islamic History from the Institute for Oriental Studies, Soviet Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg. He currently serves as project director of the inter- and multi-disciplinary research project entitled “Political Islam/Islamism: Theory and Practice in Comparative and Historical Perspective”. Funded by a generous grant of the Office of the Rector of the St. Petersburg State University Nikolay Kropachev, the project is housed in the Department of Eastern and African Studies of the said University under the name “Research Laboratory for Analysis and Modeling of Social Processes” (


Alexander Knysh’s research interests include the Islamic ascetic-mystical tradition (Sufism) and Muslim theological, philosophical, and juridical thought today and in historical perspective. His latest work has addressed the vicissitudes of Islamic/Islamist movements and Sufism in local contexts (especially in Yemen, North Africa, Russia and the Northern Caucasus).

Selected publications


Dreams and Visions in Islamic Societies, with Ö. Felek (eds), SUNY Press, Albany, 2012.


'Islam and Arabic as the Rhetoric of Insurgency: The Case of the Caucasus Emirate', Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Routledge, vol. 35, 2012, pp. 315-337.


Islam in Historical Perspective, Prentice Hall & Pearson Publishers, Upper Saddle River, 2011.


'A Tale of Two Poets: Sufism in Yemen During the Ottoman Epoch', in R. Chih & C. Mayeur-Jaouen (eds), Le soufisme à l’epoque ottomane/Sufism in the Ottoman Era, Institut Francais de Archéologie Orientale, Cairo, 2010, pp. 337-367.


'Sufism', in M. Cook (ed.), The New Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 4, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 60-104 & 774-776.


Al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism: An annotated translation, Garnet/Ithaca Press, Reading, 2007.


Judaism, Christianity and Islam: A sourcebook, with Y. Eliav & R.Williams, Kendall-Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, Iowa, 2005; 2nd revised edition, 2007.


Islamic Mysticism: A Short History, E.J. Brill, Leiden/Boston/Köln, 1st edition 2000; 2nd edition (paperback) 2010.


senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2013/2014
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies
discipline Sociology
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies
discipline Philosophy
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies
discipline Social Anthropology
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies
discipline Social Anthropology