Saturday, November 13, 2010

Shii Sufism - A New Translation

The study of Sufism within a Shiʿi context has been somewhat neglected in recent academia. Part of the challenge for examining the relationship in religious studies between the two is the lack of serviceable and useful translations of primary texts from the Shiʿi Sufi tradition. While a number of works associated with two branches of the Niʿmatullāhī order (both those following Nūrbakhsh and the Gunābādīs) are available in translation, little else is. The present translator (Mohammed Faghfoory) has himself made an important contribution, rendering Lubb al-lubāb, a work by Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ḥusaynī Ṭihrānī (d. 1995) based on the spiritual teachings of ʿAllāma Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1981), into English. The work under review (Tuhfah-yi 'Abbasi of Shaykh Muhammad 'Ali Mu'adhdhin Sabzavari) is a further contribution based on a text associated with the Dhahabiyya order, a Shiʿi branch of the Central Asian Kubrawiyya that were particularly dominant in the shrines cities of Iran such as Mashhad (the shrine of Imam ʿAlī al-Riḍā, the eighth Shiʿi Imam) and Shiraz (the shrine of Sayyid Aḥmad, brother of al-Riḍā). Before saying anything further about the text, the translation, introduction and annotations, it is worth mentioning two basic critiques which should be laid before the publisher. First, the cover is not terribly evocative of the contents. The small miniature depicts what seems to be a North African prayer congregation, perhaps of Sufis – what this has to do with Dhahabīs, Shiʿis or even the Safavid period is beyond me. Second, the font and typeface is really quite inelegant – leaving aside the careful copy-editing needed to correct many small typographical errors. On this latter point, newer fonts available would improve the appearance of the text and still render ably the transliteration and ‘scientific’ elements of the presentation; though even here, on wonders why an Arabic system of transliteration is following for a Persian text and for references which are primarily in Persian.

The introduction does a decent job of explaining the author and contextualising the text in terms of Shiʿi mysticism (ʿirfān-i shīʿī). But what of the historical context – since the text is dedicated to ʿAbbās II, the famous Safavid Shah known as the friend of the dervishes (shāh-i darvīsh-dūst)? How was the text transmitted? What role does it play within the Dhahabī order? Is it still a living text of instruction? Where does one locate the Dhahabiyya in contemporary Iran and elsewhere? All we are given about the provenance of the text is that it was edited by a Dhahabī of Azerbaijan called Mirzā Muḥsin son of Ḥasan ʿAlī Ardabīlī in 1918 and published on the order of the head of the Dhahabiyya Āqā Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Ḥayy Tabrīzī. Little is given about the author Muḥammad ʿAlī Muʾadhdhin beyond his official post as the caller to prayer and as a Dhahabī master who, initially hostile to Sufism became converted by his master Ḥāṭim-i Zarāvandī (d. 1057/1647), and died in 1078/1667. The apology for the Sufi path in the text makes more sense if one understands the background of the debate on the permissibility of Sufism in late Safavid Iran leading to the wholescale suppression even of Shiʿi Sufi order after the death of Muʾadhdhin. A thicker description and analysis of the context of anti-Sufism and the need for Sufi apologetics in the period would have been an excellent contribution.

The text itself is divided into two parts: on Sufi approaches to Shiʿi core beliefs – somewhat similar in scope (although much briefer) to Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī’s Asrār al-sharīʿa (Secrets of the Path) albeit in a more apologetic vein – and a section on stations and techniques on the path. A very short discussion on divine justice is appended, written by Najīb al-dīn Riżā Tabrīzī (d. 1108/1697) who succeeded Muʾadhdhin at the head of the Dhahabiyya; it is not clear why it is there or who placed it there. The only indication is that the first printing was on the margins of Tabrīzī’s Sabʿ al-mathānī. Apart from insisting that the Sufi path and the Shiʿi way are entirely interchangeable, the first part has sections on Sufi approaches to the unity of God, prophecy and the imamate, the afterlife, and crucially the relationship of Sufis and the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt). Famous Sufis are therefore appropriated for Shiʿi Islam in a way that is familiar from Muʾadhdhin’s older contemporary Sayyid Nūrallāh Shūshtarī (d. 1610) in his Majālis al-muʾminīn in which all the famous classical Sufis are associated with the Imams or with Shiʿi Islam. One of the more surprising claims is that the sober Sufi par excellence of Baghdad, Junayd is identified as a descendent of the seventh Shiʿi Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓim even though it is widely agreed that he came from an Iranian family of artisans who had settled in Baghdad. The final chapter in this section also includes the silsila of the order back to the golden chain of the Imams. Another feature of the text worth mentioning is the importance of Ghawālī al-laʾālī of Ibn Abī Jumhūr al-Aḥsāʾī (d. 1504) as the source for many of the ḥadīth.

The second section deals with stations along the Sufi path and is divided into twelve chapters (the number is significant – just as significantly there were five chapters in the first section) ranging from the excellence of knowledge and asceticism (or perhaps renunciation is a better rendition for zuhd) to invocation of God (being a better term for dhikr) and ecstasy. Two chapters in particular relate to Safavid debates and would have benefited from some annotation or discussion in the introduction: the first is on the permissibility of listening to music – the samāʿ of the Sufis – and the second is on the need for a spiritual master on the path. Although not explicit, the author clearly engages with the attacks of Ḥadīqat al-shīʿa among other texts and this may allow us to date the Tuḥfa. If one assumes that the text is not heavily interpolated, and given that it is dedicated to ʿAbbās II who died in 1666 and given that the Ḥadīqa was probably written in the Deccan in 1648, that would place the text within this period, possibly after settling in Isfahan in 1655. So one can date the text in the period between 1655 and 1666 – the nature of the apologetic and the maximal claims would also indicate that increasingly the legitimacy of Sufism, even in the rule of one so sympathetic to Sufism, was questioned.

The text itself is smoothly rendered and could profitably be used in undergraduate classes in Islamic spirituality and mysticism (and perhaps even in Shiʿi studies). The criticisms raised particularly with respect to a greater need to provide an introductory and contextualising apparatus would vastly improve the published text and make an even greater contribution to the field.

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