Trajectories of modern Sufism: an ethnohistorical study of the Rifai order and social change in Turkey
Burak Adli, Feyza
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This dissertation provides an ethnohistorical examination of the history, discourses, and practices of the Rifai Sufi order in Turkey. The Rifai order is an upper-middle class Sufi order that is currently under the leadership of an unveiled female shaykha, Cemalnur Sargut (b. 1952). The Rifais imagine Islam as a dynamic “tradition” that can adjust to new spatial and temporal arrangements. They concentrate on the inner meanings of Islam, as expressed in ethical self-formation through the cultivation of love and mindfulness of God. Rifais reconfigure mainstream Muslim gender discourses by discarding the practices of veiling and gender segregation, and extending women’s public participation to the level of community and spiritual leadership. The Rifai sheikhs reformulated the tradition by situating it within ongoing projects of sociocultural, political, and economic change over the past century in Turkish society. During Turkey’s transition from an empire into a nation-state in the 1920s, Kenan Rifai emphasized the compatibility of Sufi tradition with the processes of modernization, secularization, and Republican reform. During the Cold War Era, Samiha Ayverdi entwined the precepts of the Rifaiyye with the politics of anti-communist conservatism, with her nationalist commitment to the preservation of Turkey’s Islamic heritage in literature, music, fine arts, and architecture. Since the early 2000s, Cemalnur Sargut has reinterpreted the Rifai way of life in a manner that ethically engages the lifestyles, sensibilities, and tastes of Turkey’s diverse middle-class. Sargut has also contributed to the global revitalization of Sufism by building global Sufi networks through a series of academic initiatives, including establishing endowed professorial chairs and Sufi research institutes around the world. This study contextualizes the revival of alternative piety movements like Rifaiyye within the broader changes taking place in Turkey. The changes highlighted include the expansion of a culturally hybrid middle class, growing disillusionment with social and economic neoliberalism, increased public interest in Islamic religiosity, and the global revitalization of Sufism. The study also challenges the portrayal of Islam as a homogeneous, immutable, and ahistorical religion grounded in totalizing and essentialist readings of the sacred texts, highlighting the varieties of Islamic traditions and pious subjectivities in contemporary Turkish society.
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