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Carl Ernst
Reli 180,
Introduction to Islamic

Problems of definition
Modern European and fundamentalist
concepts of Sufism
Quick vocabulary check on Sunni/Shi`I
Ibn Khaldun on Sufism
Institutional development of Sufism, post

1. Definition and the problem of

essentially contested terms
Examples: Liberal; justice; freedom (see
George Lakoff, Whose Freedom? The
Battle over America's Most Important Idea)
Different perspectives on Sufism: foreign &
non-Islamic, or the heart of Islam?
Where do definitions come from?
Summaries of analytical observation (Plato)
Historical record (Oxford English Dictionary)
Authority (political/religious figures)

Arabic definitions
The derivations of Sufi
suf, wool, garment of ascetic denial
Safa, purity
safwa, the elite
Ahl al-suffa, the people of the bench (early
Muslims who shared everything in common)

Tasawwuf, becoming a Sufi explained by

teaching definitions
How might that differ from Sufism as part of
the catalog of isms?

2. Rediscovery of the Sufi

Spirituality, experience, mysticism: loaded
terms from European/Christian history
Early Europeans like Sufi poetry (love and
wine), thought it couldnt possibly be
Islamic must be from somewhere else?
Recent colonial/postcolonial reformations
of Islamic identity (fundamentalism)
reject Sufi saints, intercession, Sufi lineages
and practices, as evil innovations

3. Who overlaps with whom?

A quick vocabulary check

Sunni Sufis, and Shi`i Sufis


Human face
composed of

4. Ibn Khaldun on Sufism

belongs to the sciences of the religious law
that originated in Islam
Divine worship, devotion to God, aversion
from the world, abstinence from wealth,
retirement into solitude for worship all
common among early Muslims
Special name Sufi developed a couple of
centuries later [compare special technical
terms of Islamic law and hadith]

Ibn Khaldun: characteristics of

Intuitive perception of psychological states
and stations
Self scrutiny and quest for knowledge and
unity with God
Special language for inner experience,
parallel to other fields of religious

Ibn Khaldun explains Sufism

Philosophical psychology as an explanation
of Sufi experiences
Removal of the veil as a key metaphor for
perception that goes beyond the senses
Different views on God as separate or one
with creatures (362); alleged similarity with
philosophical and Christian views
Disapproval of Sufis by legal scholars
(muftis, who give fatwas)

Ibn Khaldun criticizes Sufism

Theories of absolute oneness: only God
Theory of cosmic imagination
-- dismissed as contrary to reason and


More criticism of Sufism requires

distinction of topics
1. pious exertions of meditation and
2. Removal of the veil, perception of
supernatural realities
3. The operation of divine grace in the world
4. Ecstatic expressions that arouse suspicion
(I am the truth Hallaj) These are the
primary problem; they should be
disapproved or reinterpreted

Ibn Khalduns final verdict

Seeking inner experience is fine, but its
better not to discuss them publicly!


5. Institutional development of
Sufism, post 1200
Saints or living friends of God
Problems with using the term saint

Tombs as centers of pilgrimage: local forms

Masters (shaykh, pir) and disciples (murid)
Chains (silsila) of master and disciple,
going back to the Prophet [Sufi orders]
Ways (tariqa) taught by orders
Veneration of the Prophet

Tomb of Mu`in al-Din Chishti

(Ajmer, India, d. 1235)


Tomb of Ahmadu Bamba

(Touba, Senegal, d. 1910)


Scale of Sufi shrine pilgrimage

Ajmer receives 1.5 million pilgrims at the
annual festival
Touba receives over 2 million pilgrims
Neither pilgrimage center is aware of or
connected to the other
Both challenge the hajj to Mecca in size
To what extent should they be considered
marginal in modern Islam?

More institutional developments

Chanting the Arabic names of God as a
ritual of remembrance (dhikr)
Rituals of music, recitation of poetry
Sometimes arms-length from politics,
sometimes tightly involved
Abolition of Sufism in Turkey by secular
govt., in Saudi Arabia by fundamentalists
Modern phenomenon of Sufism for nonMuslims

Problems of definition:
Once Sufism was a reality without a name;
now it is a name without a reality
-- Abu al-Hasan Fushanja (11th century)