Karamustafa’s Sufism: The Formative Period is a digestible and fairly thorough account synthesizing the latest scholarship on the medieval origins of the Sufi movement. The author is sympathetic to his subjects and charitable toward their motives and capabilities, but he is justly skeptical about the integrity of the relevant hagiographical literature. He is so skeptical, in fact, that he questions whether Hallaj ever said “I am the Truth” as later sources unanimously attest!
The book is highly modular, composed of six chapters, each of which contains two or three subchapters that could stand on their own. All together, however, they do articulate and illustrate Karamustafa’s thesis that Sufism per se began as a form of renunciant piety among a network of upper-middle-class Iraqis, and developed at first through hybridization with neighboring mystical schools and customs. Throughout this period there was tension and exchange between conformists and antinomians, traditionalists and scholars.
The development of dedicated Sufi communities was succeeded by a synergy between the popular reverence of saints and the development of the role of the sheik as spiritual director. Eventually, the robust complex of traditions and institutions of Sufism became useful and/or threatening to the political establishment. Later trends in spiritual mendicancy created the cultural conditions for the recovery and permanent encoding of the germinal paradoxes underlying the earliest Sufi piety.
This is a rewarding read for those interested in early Islam, and in the development of religious forms generally, especially the social and cultural dimensions of mysticism.