Cover of Sufi Civilities by Annika Schmeding
Sufi Civilities
Religious Authority and Political Change in Afghanistan
Annika Schmeding


November 2023
348 pages.
from $32.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503633384
Paperback ISBN: 9781503637535
Ebook ISBN: 9781503637542

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Despite its pervasive reputation as a place of religious extremes and war, Afghanistan has a complex and varied religious landscape where elements from a broad spectrum of religious belief vie for a place in society. It is also one of the birthplaces of a widely practiced variant of Islam: Sufism. Contemporary analysts suggest that Sufism is on the decline due to war and the ideological hardening that results from societies in conflict. However, in Sufi Civilities, Annika Schmeding argues that this is far from a truthful depiction. Members of Sufi communities have worked as resistance fighters, aid workers, business people, actors, professors, and daily workers in creative and ingenious ways to keep and renew their networks of community support.

Based on long-term ethnographic field research among multiple Sufi communities in different urban areas of Afghanistan, the book examines navigational strategies employed by Sufi leaders over the past four decades to weather periods of instability and persecution, showing how they adapted to changing conditions in novel ways that crafted Sufism as a force in the civil sphere. This book offers a rare on-the-ground view into how Sufi leaders react to moments of transition within a highly insecure environment, and how humanity shines through the darkness during times of turmoil.

About the author

Annika Schmeding is a cultural anthropologist and senior researcher at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam.

"An engaging, compelling, and beautifully-written ethnography that traverses the heterogeneous Sufi sociosphere of contemporary Afghanistan. Schmeding documents, in arresting detail and acute sensitivity, the dexterity of Sufi adepts in creating and maintaining civil communities amidst violence and ruptures. At once profound, riveting, and timely, the book is a vital contribution to the study of religion and civil society."

—Ismail Fajrie Alatas, New York University

"Sufi Civilities opens the door to a marvelous world of faith that lies hidden in plain sight. Schmeding's path breaking ethnographic account of diverse Sufi communities in contemporary Afghanistan is both new and exciting. Over the past half century they have outlasted every radical political regime that failed to appreciate just how deeply Sufism is embedded in Afghanistan's Islamic culture."

—Thomas Barfield, Boston University

"Afghan Sufis have been hidden from view by attention to mujahidin, Taliban, and al-Qaida. Through astute anthropological observation, Annika Schmeding shows how Sufis became important players in the contests for religious authority that emerged from the cultural whirligig of a NATO-supported Islamic Republic. This is a major contribution to the study of modern Afghanistan."

—Nile Green, University of California, Los Angeles