Winnipeg author explores 'deep romanticism' in Islam

Starting in Lower Manhattan and working backwards, a Muslim academic from Winnipeg is about to release a new book to spread understanding about an often misunderstood approach to Islam.

Unveiling Sufism: From Manhattan to Mecca to launch at McNally Robinson on Thursday

Rory Dickson is the co-author of Unveiling Sufism: From Manhattan to Mecca. The book will launch at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg on Thursday, March 15, 2018. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Starting in Lower Manhattan and working backwards, a Muslim academic from Winnipeg is about to release a new book to spread understanding about an often misunderstood approach to Islam.

Rory Dickson, an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg, says Sufism can also be thought of as "a mystical approach to Islam" — not a sect like Sunni or Shia, but a way of thinking about the faith that's seen in both.

"It focuses on the idea of love, which is something I think is really important, that there's actually a deep romanticism to the Islamic tradition in general and Islamic cultures more broadly that gets totally lost in the headlines," said Dickson.

Dickson co-wrote Unveiling Sufism: From Manhattan to Mecca along with another academic, Meena Sharify-Funk, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Dickson said the approach is famous for the art, poetry and philosophy its followers produce: you may have heard of Rumi, a famous Sufi poet (and, more recently, the namesake of one of Beyoncé's new twins).

Despite the relative popularity of poets like Rumi, Dickson said the approach is often confused in the West for a sect of Islam, or used as a way to distance Muslim artists from the faith.

"I think too often in the West we separate Sufism and Islam, and what it allows us to do is say, 'well, all these things we like in Islam are not Islam, there's something else called Sufism, and then all these other things we don't like, well, we're going to call that Islam,'" he said.

"And I think [love] is really at the heart of the Islamic tradition."

'Unconventional' structure

Dickson's book, which will be launched at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg on Thursday, is structured in an "unconventional" way, he said, starting with the most recent expressions of Sufism and working backwards.

"We wanted to unveil the tradition gradually, so to speak, so we begin with Manhattan. We begin with Sufism in New York City," he said.

"Each chapter actually moves back toward [its] origins. Normally with an introductory text you begin at the beginning and then sort of work your way up to the present, but we decided to do the opposite."

Dickson himself was introduced to Sufism as a young person, he said, deeply intrigued by various religious teachings and "hungry" for a spiritual encounter. The philosophy stood out to him because of how it reconciled unity and diversity.

"In particular, having met some individuals who represent the Sufi tradition, I really found, sort of, we might say, 'spiritual juice' that I was looking for," he said.

Unveiling Sufism: From Manhattan to Mecca will be launched at McNally Robinson on at 7:30 p.m. on March 15.