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Sufism

Carl Ernst
Reli 180,
Introduction to Islamic
Civilization

Outline
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
1200

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)
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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?
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2. Rediscovery of the Sufi


tradition
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
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3. Who overlaps with whom?


A quick vocabulary check

Sunni Sufis, and Shi`i Sufis


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Human face
composed of
Allah,
Muhammad,
Ali

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]
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Ibn Khaldun: characteristics of


Sufism
Asceticism
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
knowledge
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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)
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Ibn Khaldun criticizes Sufism


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

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More criticism of Sufism requires


distinction of topics
1. pious exertions of meditation and
worship
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
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Ibn Khalduns final verdict


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

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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
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Tomb of Mu`in al-Din Chishti


(Ajmer, India, d. 1235)

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Tomb of Ahmadu Bamba


(Touba, Senegal, d. 1910)

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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?
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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
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Conclusion
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)

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