Science and belief among Sufis: The Nordic frontier

This qualitative research project titled ‘Science and belief among Sufis: The Nordic frontier’ is funded by the International Research Network for the Study of Science and Belief in Society based at University of Birmingham. The project team includes Professor Ali Qadir as Principal Investigator and Doctoral candidate Muhammad Ahsan Qureshi as lead researcher.

The project probes the views about science and religion among Muslim mystics in the Nordic countries. While many social scientists and philosophers may have moved past the science-religion ‘divide’, the topic remains alive both in academia and in the public and policy spheres. Part of the issue is terminological: what people mean by ‘science’ is often not much clearer than what they mean by ‘religion’. Most of the time, for example, ‘religion’ remains identified with ‘belief’ or with ‘ritual’ and is circumscribed by institutional boundaries. Such articulation develops the category of organized religion with specified definitions for dogma, theological doctrine, acceptable lexicon etc. This, in turn, leads to the exclusion and othering of forms of religions that don’t strictly fit into this category and to other exploratory activities like “science.”

This approach also guided the distinction between religion and mysticism. This is evident, for example, in the way which the study of ‘world religions’ evolved in the 20th century where religion and mysticism were academically split, the latter being associated with deinstitutionalised ‘spirituality’ that belongs to the edge of society. However, critical religion research has recently upended the apparently settled epistemological terrain of what we are talking about when we talk about religion. Among these disruptions is the recognition that not only are mystics present around the world today in many religious traditions, but they are also fully integrated in society and typically play active roles. In Islam, for example, Sufi mystical pathways and traditions are still common ways of life and reference points. Moreover, these traditions now exist on and appeal to a global setting. However, although their influence has been somewhat acknowledged, we still don’t know much about how mystical experiences, consciousness, and practices relate to outstanding questions on the place of religion in the world today. Questions like the science-religion divide.

In this backdrop, the overall research question of the project seeks to answer is, “How do Sufis in the Nordic countries negotiate the boundary between science and belief?” The question has two sub-components. The first is to what extent and how Sufis reflect on the boundary between science and belief, how they draw on mystical insights or dogma for that, and whether there are any patterns of similarity or difference in this regard. In particular, the project probes whether these differ from other perspectives on this boundary. The second sub-question is whether the Nordic institutional context makes any difference in that regard. Nordic countries are widely regarded as among the most secular in the world, even hostile to non-Lutheran religions in some cases. Much of this feeds into Nordic institutions, which shape their cultural environment and encourage tendencies of conflict between science and religion. Do Nordic Sufis bypass this and, if so, how?

These questions are probed through interviews in Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. It is in these countries where Islam has recently become a political issue, often tied in with debates around migration but also about the public presence of Muslims, for instance about Muslims and COVID vaccines, head coverings, Islam education in schools, sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad for instance in cartoon publications, and sanctity of the Quran. Meanwhile, growing migration and public presence of Muslims continues to cause political tensions.

Situated within these contexts, the project aims to theorize on an innovative pathway around the traditional, conceptual impasse between science and belief. It shall also expand on the social dimension of mysticism and highlight its relevance to contemporary society. Importantly, it will show if negotiations with science are different for Sufi mystics and if their Nordic interactions contribute to this distinction.