Sufism arose in the east within Islam as a spiritual movement in the 8th century. Over centuries it gradually grew and was adopted by more followers through out the East and eventually to Northern Africa. Though Sufism existed for more than a millennia, it remained generally geographically contained. This containment was especially noticeable in the West where, barely a hundred years ago, Sufism absolutely no following (Malik 12). Today there are hundreds of thousands Sufis in countries all through out the Western world. The movement, beginning from a complete standstill, has progressively built momentum and continues to grow today (Bagasra). Why did a religion that existed for more than a thousand years cease to exist in this significant portion of the world? What allowed it to suddenly appear in West and spread so rapidly over the course of just a century?
A Neurotheological assessment of Sufism can provide the answer to these questions. Since Western Sufism is still in its infantry stage and was spread through out highly developed societies, one cannot apply classical neurotheological measures of evolutionary advantageousness. These typically highlight the particular aspects of more archaic religions that led to the survival of its people and growth of its prevalence. But just because these usual evolutionarily based measurements cannot be applied modern Sufism in the West, does not mean that the religion does not have its own features intrinsic to its viability and growth. In fact, before Sufism was able to exist in West, it had to evolve into a new religious entity. This entity became know as “Universal Sufism.”
The inception and growth of Sufism in the West was largely made possible by evolving of its structure. But this alone cannot take fully accountability for Sufism’s present following in the West. The centrality of ritual and mystical experience within Sufism was a major element in viability of the religion. Conjunctively, these elements built the basis for Western Sufism.
At the time just before Sufism made its expansion, the West was certainly not a fertile land for traditional Sufism. Although Sufism gradually delineated itself from mainstream Islam, there were still Islamic aspects in Eastern Sufism that rendered it unappealing. Some aspects “made [it] conceivably impossible for Western adoption…..Change was entirely essential to a growth into the new world” (Webb). It was not until the 20th century that an effort to revolutionize Sufism and expunge these restrictive aspects was made. This effort initially was made by a single man who created the grounds for the revolutionary Sufi movement in the West.
Hazrat Inayat Khan was an Indian Sufi who was given the task by his Sufi teacher to "unite East with West in the harmony of your music” (Witteveen 19). Leaving India in 1910, Khan traveled first as a touring Muslim but quickly began teaching the ways of Sufism. Until Khans presence, there was nearly no knowledge of the unique spiritual religion in Western world. Khan had strong intentions when began his teachings. He sought “To help to bring the world's two opposite poles, East and West, close together by the interchange of thought and Ideals” (Khan). In accordance with this goal, Khan shaped the spiritual legacy of Sufism and made it responsive to the needs of that time. “The Sufism Order International” was the manifestation of his active endeavor to spread the ideals Sufism to the West.
This Order of Sufism provided numerous elaborations and a restructuring of classic Eastern Sufi doctrine. In fact, it grew into a movement that did not just lead to a new Order of Sufism, but to an entirely new and innovative religious outlook; a Sufism of the West, with the hope and willingness to gain universal acceptance. Thus the movement became know as “Universal Sufism.” Three alterations distinguished Universal…