My dissertation project “Journeys to Traditional Sufi Islam in America: Self-transcendence, Tradition, and Social Change in the Contemporary Modern World” first began with the question of what attracts contemporary Americans to traditional Sufi Islam. The answer to my question of why Americans turn to Sufism, also known as Islamic mysticism (tasawwuf), was not simple or straightforward. And, I found, often unexpectedly, that it involved, in Dewey’s (1925) terms, “complex entanglements” with Sufism’s somewhat unique approach to spirituality, tradition, and social change.
At the heart of Sufi spirituality is the process of self-transcendence which focuses on transcending one’s nafs (i.e., lower self or ego).
Feyza Akova is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Notre Dame with interests in social theory, religion, culture, and social change.
Through employing a broad array of qualitative methods, including multisite in-person and online participant observation of Sufi communities, interviews, and content analysis, my dissertation work ultimately seeks to unsettle several binary understandings concerning religion, including spirituality vs. organized religion, autonomy vs. religious authority, reflexivity vs. tradition, and habituation vs. individuality, while also theorizing the link between self-transcendence and social change. My general approach is informed by the lived religion perspective which views religious pathways as not straightforward but as dynamic and complex (Ammerman 2007; McGuire 2008). I also take inspiration from the works of Saba Mahmood (2005) and Talal Asad (1993), who show how conceptions of selfhood are reframed in the Islamic tradition in creative ways and how these perceptions dispute Western normative understandings concerning religion and agency.
Feyza Akova is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Notre Dame with interests in social theory, religion, culture, and social change. She holds BA degrees in Sociology and Psychology from Istanbul University and an MA in Sociology from the University of Houston. She will receive her PhD from Notre Dame in May 2024. Her dissertation project has been supported with the Lake Dissertation Fellowship from Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press.
Ammerman, Nancy T., ed. 2007. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dewey, John. 1925. Experience and Nature. Chicago & London: Open Court Publishing Company.
Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
McGuire, Meredith B. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.