Abun-Nasr, emeritus professor of Islamic studies at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, has produced a substantial body of work on the history of the Maghreb including a previous volume on the Tijaniya, a powerful Sufi spiritual community in that region. Regrettably, the author allows his prejudices and predilections to undermine what could have been an important work on Sufi brotherhoods. Additionally, he gives little attention to Shiite Sufism and passes somewhat coolly over the Sufi tariqat (spiritual community), named for Jalal-ad-Din Rumi (d. 1273), a particularly strange omission given that Rumi is now perhaps the most famous Sufi in the world, among non-Muslims no less than Muslims.
In his analysis, Abun-Nasr makes three main points. First, Sufi "communities of grace" owe their religious authority and authenticity to the baraka or divine blessings of the sheikh (teacher). Second, the original understanding of the tariqa (path) of the individual spiritual seeker came by the thirteenth century to be identified with the specific direction of a particular sheikh. Finally, he contends that by the eighteenth century, the tariqats were transformed into more exclusive "brotherhoods" in which membership was made dependent on a pledge to the sheikh. This view of the development of Sufism embodies a process by which spiritual authority is increasingly centralized in the sheikh and which conforms to conservative Islamic norms, an evolution that the author takes no pains to conceal he supports.
Abun-Nasr's analysis of Sufi brotherhoods is bolstered by the presentation of many essential aspects of Sufism but much is also absent and, worse, spoiled by his biases. Thus, in discussing the dissident manners and utterances of the early, and among Sufis, beloved figure of Abu Mansur Hussein al-Hallaj, Abun-Nasr identifies himself with the sheikh's critics, stating that he "blatantly breached the doctrinal limits of Islamic orthodoxy." Hallaj, a Baghdadi Sufi, was executed for alleged apostasy in 922, a deeply traumatic event in Islamic history. Most Sufis condemn the execution as unjust as they believe his "heretical" self-identification with divine truth was evidence of an ecstatic state rather than a rational denial of the uniqueness of God. To revive an orthodox condemnation of Hallaj, in such harsh terms, appears as a gratuitous reiteration of doctrinal intolerance.
Muslim Communities of Grace comprises historical sketches of Sufi orders the author describes as the "Tariqas of the Islamic heartland" but which really means those affirming a narrow view of Islamic practice. As a result, Abun-Nasr effectively dismisses the significance of the ecstatic Sufi schools, such as the Mawlawiya inspired by Rumi, and the Rifa'iya originating in southern Iraq, despite their being widespread today.
The book provides a detailed and provocative counterpoint to many other works on Sufism. Nevertheless, those acquainted with the broader history of Sufism will recognize in this work a polemic intended to draw Muslims followers of the powerful Sufi tradition back along the path of narrowly regulated authority and practice.