Sufism
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Sufism

A New History of Islamic Mysticism

Alexander Knysh

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eBook - ePub

Sufism

A New History of Islamic Mysticism

Alexander Knysh

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About This Book

A pathbreaking history of Sufism, from the earliest centuries of Islam to the present After centuries as the most important ascetic-mystical strand of Islam, Sufism saw a sharp decline in the twentieth century, only to experience a stunning revival in recent decades. In this comprehensive new history of Sufism from the earliest centuries of Islam to today, Alexander Knysh, a leading expert on the subject, reveals the tradition in all its richness.Knysh explores how Sufism has been viewed by both insiders and outsiders since its inception. He examines the key aspects of Sufism, from definitions and discourses to leadership, institutions, and practices. He devotes special attention to Sufi approaches to the Qur'an, drawing parallels with similar uses of scripture in Judaism and Christianity. He traces how Sufism grew from a set of simple moral-ethical precepts into a sophisticated tradition with professional Sufi masters ( shaykhs ) who became powerful players in Muslim public life but whose authority was challenged by those advocating the equality of all Muslims before God. Knysh also examines the roots of the ongoing conflict between the Sufis and their fundamentalist critics, the Salafis—a major fact of Muslim life today.Based on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, Sufism is an indispensable account of a vital aspect of Islam.

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CHAPTER ONE
How and Why Sufism Came to Be
Scriptural Grounds and Authoritative Precedents
Sufis never tire of insisting that their teachings and practices are rooted in the Qur’an, the Prophet’s exemplary “custom” (sunna), and the moralethical standards set by the first two generations of Muslims.1 Indeed, the Muslim scripture features many passages encouraging Muslims to behave modestly, remember God often, love him as he loves his creatures, not for a moment to be distracted by commerce or other mundane concerns from remembering him, and, in general, to prefer the world to come to the deceptive allure of the imperfect, transient, and treacherous earthly existence.2 The Qur’an constantly presents righteous fear of God (taqwa), a major characteristic of ascetic-mystical piety in the Abrahamic religions, as a sine qua non for all faithful.3 Some Qur’anic passages may be interpreted as praising the world-renouncing and God-fearing demeanor of Christian monks.4 To the pious and God-fearing “friends of God” (awliya’) among the Muslims themselves God promises his loving care and protection.5 Moreover, the Qur’an implies that these pious individuals constitute a special category of believers whose wholehearted devotion to God has absolved them from the horrors of the Judgment Day described so vividly in the Muslim holy book.6 Unlike ordinary believers, “none should fear for them, nor shall they sorrow (or grieve) [on the Day of Judgment].”7 In general, the Qur’an insists that fear of God and the resultant avoidance of this life’s sensual enticements is “the proper deportment of the faithful.”8
Similar ideas abound in the Prophet’s “exemplary way” (sunnat al-nabi) as recorded in the Hadith.9 The Hadith depict the Prophet as a paragon of piety and renouncer of worldly delights: he goes hungry for two days, breaking his fast on the third day only, eats frugally, never allows himself the food he enjoys most (for example, wheat bread), washes and mends his own clothes, engages in supererogatory (additional) acts of piety,10 keeps night vigils, and so on.11 Even more significantly, he receives his first divine revelation while being in a contemplative retreat on the mountain outside Mecca,12 to which he retires to escape mundane disturbances and to engage in pious meditation and ascetic self-discipline (tahannuth).13 In an oft-quoted Hadith, the Prophet encourages his followers “to be in this world as though you were a traveler or passerby and count yourself from among the dead.”14 In a similar vein, he consistently discourages gaiety and laughter, while advising sadness and contrition in anticipation of the Day of Judgment.15 Collections of reports about the life of the primeval umma ascribe analogous ascetic, world-renouncing inclinations to some of the Prophet’s closest companions,16 including his successors (“caliphs”) at the head of the nascent Muslim state.17 In sum, Muslim ascetics-mystics who consider the Prophet and his companions to be their forerunners have no trouble finding scriptural and other authoritative evidence to legitimize their world-renouncing and self-abnegating beliefs and practices. Not surprisingly, Western observers, too, have discovered in the history of the early Muslim community elements of “this-worldly asceticism,” although, in line with the Western perception of Islam as the religion of the sword, they tended to describe it as being of a predominantly “martial,” “warrior” character.18
On the other hand, Muslim opponents of ascetic-mystical practices have had no difficulty finding the Qur’anic verses and the Prophet’s pronouncements that contain exactly the opposite message. These foundational sources of Islamic faith and practice describe human beings as creatures whom God destined to enjoy the good things of this life, albeit in moderation: “O Children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every place of prayer. Eat and drink, but waste not by excess, for God loves not the wasters” (7:31).19 The Qur’an depicts its followers as the community (umma) of the “just mean” or “the middle way” (wasat)20 who should be keeping balance between worshiping God and enjoying the licit pleasures of this life.21 Being wealthy is not shameful as long as one shares his or her riches with less fortunate members of the umma and fulfills his or her duties toward God.22 In contradistinction to Christian monastic celibacy, Muslim men, no matter how pious, are encouraged to marry and have children, whom they are obligated to support by pursing a gainful employment.23
In accord with the aforementioned principle of the just or golden mean, Muslims should avoid extremes, including all manner of self-imposed strictures, purposeless wandering,24 or voluntary poverty.25 The Prophet is quoted saying, “When God favors a person with property, He likes the person to show it.”26 A good number of the Prophet’s closest companions were wealthy, and some very rich indeed.27 The Prophet himself was a trader, whom God granted his job to rescue him from poverty.28 The same Qur’anic passage that contains an apparently favorable mention of the God-fearing Christian monks is also critical of their self-abnegating “excesses.”29 A later tradition has the Prophet declare, “There is no monasticism (rahbaniyya) in Islam; the monasticism of this community is jihad.”30 A similar attitude, albeit on purely rational grounds, is demonstrated by the first Arab-Muslim philosopher Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub al-Kindi (d. around 252/866). He rejects the self-imposed strictures practiced by the Hindus, Manichaeans, and Christian monks, all of whom “resist the urge for sex, weaken themselves through hunger and thirst, withdraw from the world in cloisters … give up daily affairs, limit themselves to a small amount of unpalatable food, and to wearing painful and uncomfortable clothes.” For al-Kindi, “all such behavior is just a form of self-oppression and self-harm” that, unlike medical surgery, dietary avoidance of tasty food, or swallowing a bitter medicine, does not help one to prevent a greater pain. This being the case, concludes al-Kindi, ascetic excesses are unnecessary, harmful, and irrational.31 Contradicting his own conclusions about Islam’s alleged focus on otherworldly mystical contemplation discussed in the introduction to this book, Max Weber occasionally presented “the Muslim tradition” as encouraging “the luxurious raiment, perfume, and meticulous beard-coiffure of the pious” and discouraging “every type of monasticism, though not all asceticism.”32 Weber’s confusion is understandable: both the Qur’an and the “Muslim tradition” (especially, the Sunna of the Prophet) do indeed carry contradictory messages regarding the proper attitude to worldly life to be practiced by the faithful.
On the one hand, the Qur’an asks, “What is the life of this world except the enjoyment of delusion” (3:185) and lauds “those who repent, those who praise [God], those who journey,33 those who prostrate themselves in worship, those who command what is right and forbid what is wrong, those who keep God’s bounds” (9:112). On the other, sura 55 (“The Beneficent”) recounts for the believers the numerous material blessings bestowed on them by God—a message brought home by the constantly repeated refrain: “Which of your Lord’s bounties will you [two] deny?”34 In short, in and of themselves wealth and enjoyment of life are not evil or improper. Wealth can and should be enjoyed as long as it has been properly “purified” by paying alms or spent “in the path of God” (Q 2:261–65).35 Yet the surest way to God, according to the Qur’an, is to obey and worship him: “[women] who are faithful, surrendered themselves [to God], obedient, penitent, worshipful, journeying, who have been married and [who are] virgins” (66:5). Whereas the meaning of the word “journey” / “journeying” in this list of meritorious acts and character traits is not quite clear, it may well have referred to the practice of “pious wandering” that some devout early Muslims shared with itinerant Christian ascetics and monks.36 The presence of those in the region is so amply attested as to absolve us from belaboring the issue any further.37
Such ambiguous scriptural references and contradictory historical precedents have been grist for the mill of heated debates over the legitimacy of the ascetic-mystical strain of Islam almost since its very inception.38 As one can expect, the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of worldrenouncing and world-denigrating attitudes to mundane existence depends heavily on the personal inclinations and intellectual background of the interpreter, or, simply put, is in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, the issue of legitimacy or illegitimacy of the ascetic-mystic interpretation of Islam stands little chance of ever being resolved, because its resolution depends on the sort of ideological glasses the beholder happens to sport. What one cannot deny is that the Muslim scripture and the precedent-setting history of the early Muslim community contain evidence that yields itself to disparate, if not diametrically opposed, understandings. The only constant is the will to interpret this evidence, and this has never been in short supply.
Why? The Argument from the “Temperament
After discussing some scriptural and historical precedents for the rise of ascetic-mystical tendencies in the early Muslim community, the logical question arises as to why some Muslims were inclined to adopt and cultivate world-renouncing attitudes and mystical aspirations in the first place. An interesting explanation was proposed by the American scholar Marshall Hodgson (1922–1968), who argued that to thrive and expand a religion should be able to accommodate the widest possible spectrum of human temperaments.39 According to Hodgson, if some believers are not allowed to practice, within a given religious environment, the type of piety40 that resonates with their temperamental disposition, they are likely to be lost to this religion as they will be compelled to seek a more accommodating environment elsewhere. In our case, if a Muslim of worldrenouncing and mystical propensities cannot find his or her “temperamental niche” in Islam, he or she is likely to turn to another religion. All the more so because in the Middle East and Eurasia, such accommodations were available in monastic Christianity, Manichaeism, or Buddhism. In Hodgson’s view, Muslims of different personal inclinations took vastly different approaches to the historical act of Islam41 by interpreting it “in all the directions that the full range of human temperament might suggest.”42 Relevant to our subject, to successfully compete with its religious rivals, Islam had to develop its own version of world-renouncing piety in order to capture and retain within its fold individuals of an ascetic-mystical “temperament.”43
Accepting Hodgson’s explanation hardly resolves the issue, because it raises a number of fraught questions. One can ask, for example, whether Hodgson’s theory of accommodation of different temperaments by religious traditions holds true for the ascetic-mystical stream in Judaism? Can we confidently argue, for instance, that Judaism or, rather, its learned leaders, the rabbis, were indeed interested in drawing into the ranks individuals of ascetic-mystical propensities regardless of their ethnic background? Experts on Judaism are likely to answer this question in the negative, citing the fact that Judaism was and still is hardly interested in casting the widest possible net to “catch” outsiders (non-Jews) of various temperaments and to keep them within its fold.44
The example of Judaism just cited does not necessarily negate Hodgson’s thesis. It only problematizes its universal applicability. After all, one may argue, in many respects, Judaism is unique, being intimately linked as it is to the ethnic identity of “the Children of Israel.” Other religious traditions, one can argue, were and are much more interested than Judaism in attracting new followers and keeping the existing ones within their bounds. Therefore, they willy-nilly have to be responsive to temperamental needs of both extant followers and new recruits. If so, then Hodgson indeed has a point. Furthermore, his thesis seems to find confirmation in our own quotidian experience that tells us that people do possess different psychological predispositions and, therefore, are likely to seek congenial environments to nurture them. If, following Hodgson, individuals with certain personal inclinations can find such an environment in Islam, they are likely to stay within its fold. Conversely, if the conditions offered by Islam turn out to be unconducive to their needs, they are likely to be attracted to a religious tradition that is more welcoming to their temperament.
Plausible as Hodgson’s thesis may appear at first blush, one must point out that in the overwhelming majority of cases in the premodern and even modern epochs people were brought up Muslims or Sufis, not “programmed” automatically to look for a religious identity suitable for their psycho...

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