The best books to teach you how to be a Sufi

Alexander Knysh Author Of Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism
By Alexander Knysh

Who am I?

My exploration of Sufism began in the unlikely environment of the Soviet Union where Sufism was considered a relic of the past to be replaced by the atheist, world-asserting ideology. The fact that my Muslim academic advisor assigned this topic to me, an active customs officer, was nothing short of a miracle. It was the beginning of a chain of miracles that punctuated my teaching and research career in the USSR, UK, US, EU, and the post-Soviet republics of Eurasia, especially Tatarstan and Kazakhstan. Having observed Sufism in various shapes and forms for over thirty years, my knowledge of its precepts and rituals is of great help to me in everyday life.  

I wrote...

Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism

By Alexander Knysh,

Book cover of Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism

What is my book about?

After centuries of flourishing as the principal ascetic-mystical stream of Islam practiced by millions of Muslims worldwide, Sufism saw a sharp decline in the twentieth century, only to experience explosive growth and revival in the twenty-first. I try to explain this surprising comeback of an age-old tradition pronounced dead or moribund just fifty years ago by such strange bedfellows as Muslim fundamentalists (Salafis and Wahhabis), modernists, and westernizers. While writing my book, I could not help admiring the richness, depth, and adaptability of Sufism—the features that have allowed it to survive and thrive against seemingly insurmountable odds. I was equally thrilled to find out how differently Sufism has been perceived by insiders, outsiders, advocates, and detractors since its inception until today. 

The books I picked & why

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Al-Qushayri's Epistle on Sufism - Al-Risala Al Qushayriyya Fi 'ilm Al-Tasawwuf

By Abu 'l-Qasim Al-Qushayri, Alexander D. Knysh (translator),

Book cover of Al-Qushayri's Epistle on Sufism - Al-Risala Al Qushayriyya Fi 'ilm Al-Tasawwuf

Why this book?

Written by the renowned Sunni scholar and Sufi teacher Abu ’l-Qasim al-Qushayri (986–1074) of Khorasan in Eastern Iran, this is probably the most popular Sufi training manual ever. It is still widely used by Sufis today, so you can begin your Sufi journey by reading it. It also serves as a window onto the life of “Sufi friends of God” or “saints,” whom the author depicts as uncrowned kings of this world. We see them in a variety of contexts: suffering from hunger and thirst in the desert during a pilgrimage to Mecca, participating ecstatically or quietly in spiritual concerts, reciting and interpreting the Qur’an, waging war against outward enemies (“infidels”) and their own demonic desires, earning livelihood, meditating in a retreat, praying, working miracles, interacting with the commoners, their family members and peers, dreaming, and dying.

The Book of Strangers

By Ian Dallas,

Book cover of The Book of Strangers

Why this book?

This book offers a poignant personal view of Sufism by a Scottish-born actor and writer who became disillusioned with a world “where people teach but know nothing, where the sentences flow on endlessly but lead nowhere.” He seeks and finds wisdom and solace in the deserts of Sahara under the guidance of a Sufi master to whom he dedicates his short but powerful book. When I picked it up as a reading for my class on Sufism, I thought I would find a usual mushy account of Sufism by a starry-eyed neophyte. The book was anything but: it was eloquent, deeply personal, and felicitously free from platitudes. I was pleasantly surprised and so were my students. I recommend it to everyone interested in spiritual quests regardless of his or her background.    

Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age

By Mark Sedgwick,

Book cover of Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age

Why this book?

While the author of my second recommended book sought Sufi wisdom in the “Muslim Orient,” this wisdom has become an integral part of intellectual, cultural, and spiritual life in “Occidental”  societies. A peculiar mixture of Neoplatonic emanationism, Sufi poetry, music and rituals, perennialism, pantheism, esotericism, and New Age religiosity, it has captivated the minds and souls of Western academics, anarchists, artists, architects, faith healers, physicians, and psychiatrists, who rearranged these diverse elements to create their own distinctive versions of Sufi spirituality and lifestyle. Lively and witty, the author’s narrative guides us through several “cultural transfers”—premodern, modern, and New Age—from the Muslim world to the West,  culminating in the emergence of “Western Sufism” represented by the major public figures, celebrities, and charismatic teachers.       

Sufi Institutions

By Alexandre Papas (editor),

Book cover of Sufi Institutions

Why this book?

Now that you know what Sufism is all about, it is time to find out what lies behind the romantic façade of Sufi love poetry, ecstatic outbursts, and exotic rituals. For this purpose, I cannot recommend a better guide than this collective monograph. Its authors explain the nuts and bolts of Sufi life past and present: how Sufis interact with the world that they are supposed to despise and reject, how they feed themselves and their families, how they create and sustain their fellowships and associations, how their shrines serve as centers of charity, education, and arbitration as well as objects of pilgrimages, both collective and individual. My greatest takeaway from this informative and richly illustrated volume is Sufism’s remarkable adaptability. It thrives in the countryside, urban spaces, and cyber environment, often against great odds. 

The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Al-Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination

By William C. Chittick,

Book cover of The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Al-Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination

Why this book?

This book was a revelation for me when it came out, and I continue to use it as both reference and a source of new ideas and inspiration. The author felicitously combines a deeply personal perspective on Sufism’s greatest thinker Ibn ‘Arabi (1165–1240) with academic rigor and precision in translation. His comments on Ibn ‘Arabi’s teachings are unobtrusive and helpful in navigating the Sufi master’s breathtaking exploration of the universe that he presents, paradoxically, as a giant reflection of the [self-]image and imagination of the Divine Absolute. The subtle interaction of mundane and divine imaginations determines how we ourselves imagine the world. After reading this book, you will understand why Ibn ‘Arabi looms so large in Eastern and Western imaginings of Sufism and why he is compared to Plato in the Western intellectual tradition.    

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