Tuesday, November 13, 2012

New trends in the social history of Sufism

Hitherto, collective studies on medieval Sufism have tended to suffer from some basic shortcomings: they have focused on mystical ideas devoid of any serious contextualisation, or upon a particular order, or a region, or have even attempted to discern an Arab or simply Persianate essence to the phenomena of Sufi practice and thought. Many of these studies have also been characterised by an ahistorical approach to the subject of inquiry. Those which have exhibited a historical approach have tended to assume that Sufi practice in the medieval period shifts from the establishment of orders and their dominance to a gradual decline into the colonial and imperial period. However, a number of recent works try to engage seriously with the historical contextualisation of Sufi movements as well as the construction of hagiographies. The present volume of papers makes at least two major contributions: first, it brings together a series of studies from the Ottoman and Indian worlds rarely combined in the same volume – and partly, no doubt, due to the fact that Curry’s research has hitherto focused on the Halveti order in the Ottoman realm and Ohlander’s on the Suhrawardī order not least in India; and second, it engages with some of the major themes in the historical study of medieval Sufism from the rise of the orders through to the cusp of the colonial period, in particular focusing on the relationship with political power, the conundrum of the ‘court of the Sultan versus the court of the Sufi shaykh’, initially raised masterfully in the Indian context by the late Simon Digby. It also complements a number of more recent studies on Sufism that demonstrate the actual agency that Sufis have deployed and make sense of doctrine rooted in social, intellectual and cultural contexts. Broadly, one can also discern a Persianate flavour in the volume that accounts for elements of cultural continuity from Turkey to India. 

The editors themselves locate these studies within two key contemporary contexts – critical insofar as history remains very much the domain of how the present makes sense of the past in the light of its own concerns and prejudices. The first is the current debate over violence and jihad and whether Sufism provides the required ‘moderate’, non-violent and ecumenical face of the religion to be bolstered against the extremists, a policy that in itself is problematic given the history of antipathy, hostility, and violence towards Sufism exhibited by the violent Salafī tradition that has spawned al-Qaeda and its cognates. One way to understand the role of Sufism within the current landscape therefore requires an understanding of how Sufis have engaged with power and violence in the past – and how the very notion of constitutes Islam has been and remains contested. Such a study can provide useful correctives to misguided attempts at promoting a 'peaceful, non-violent' and other-worldy Sufism as a bulwark against violent extremism. The second frame is the desire to provide a fuller history of Sufism and society in the pre-modern period, especially in the few centuries leading up to the colonial period, and to produce a richer account by considering different cultural and geographical contexts.

The chapters are then arranged into four sections of three papers each. The first on historiography attempts to reconsider and re-evaluate the sources that we have for the history of Sufism. Auer’s paper on the Delhi Sultanate questions the very fissure between religious and political conceptions of authority and power. A couple of key questions remain: is the relationship also a discourse about legitimation, and to what extent should we consider some of these chronicles are discursive constructions of elite life that do not allow us to hear the subaltern speak? A corollary could also investigate whether tales of baraka and karāma are always currency within elite discursive negotiations? But the article whets the appetite and suggests a more serious reading of Auer's recent book on the sultanate. Ohlander interrogates trans-regionalism and the assumption of the relative isolation of the Indo-Muslim context by examining the sources on the famous Suhrawardī Shaykh Bahāʾ al-Dīn Zakarīyāʾ (d. 1268). One additional point in favour of transregionalism and the transmission of networks and lineages associated with key figures and spaces in India is the basic question of property and patronage. It is no accident that much of the elite (including Sufi) immigration into India in the late medieval and early modern period was associated with the desire to acquire power and wealth, since India was relatively far richer in resources than anyone else in the Persianate world. Exchange and negotiation at shrines was not just about the spiritual currency of baraka. Foley discusses the network around the Naqshbandi Shaykh Khālid (d. 1827) as a means to question the use of some theoretical approaches relating to modernization and social movement theory that are sometimes deployed in the study of more recent Sufism. His paper is an important marker that frames the upper temporal limit of the scope of the study and raises the interesting question of the nature of Sufism in societies on the brink of modernity and colonization.

The second section on landscapes considers how Sufism shapes the moral, intellectual and physical landscape and how one frames the study of Sufism in medieval society. Anjum’s piece is an ambitious attempt to understand how hierarchies of spirituality were constructed from the formative period and then challenged and interrogated later as visions of authority and reality were diversified following the Mongol invasions. The focus in the chapter is on Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1351) as the liminal exemplar between Sufism and reforming anti-Sufism. However interesting the attempt (and rather lacking in actual detailed consideration of evidence), it is pretty much impossible to provide a total account for the relationship of diverse visions of spirituality to their socio-political contexts throughout the totality of the history of Islam. Yurekli’s chapter looks at the key centres of Sufi agency, namely the tombs of saints, and demonstrates the distinction of the Ottoman sphere in which there was greatest scholarly resistance to Sufism and hence the nature of the sacred space of the tomb quite different from the rest of the Persianate world. Bukhari focuses on a specific case of patronage by the Mughal princess Jahānārā (d. 1681) and how her contribution was an attempt to inscribe her own literary and spiritual presence into some of the major Sufi spaces in India, not least at the shrine of the founding shaykh at Ajmer, Khwāja Muʿīnuddīn Chishtī.

The third section shifts to doctrine and praxis and shifts in the Mamluk and Ottoman worlds. Ingalls examines the evolution of the Sufi fatwa and the move towards accommodation such that by the sixteenth century the scholarly culture of Cairo was far more sympathetic to both Sufi thought and practice than before. Yildirim considers Qizilbash spirituality, another major lacuna in the historiography, and its relationship to the futuvvat literature and the transition to Shiʿi affiliation in Anatolia. Ambrosio examines the later history of one of the most important Sufi orders, the Mevlevi, but focuses on its later manifestations and their interaction with the broadly anti-Sufi, puritanical movement of the Kazizadelis. The final section entitled negotiations considers how Sufis negotiated the social reality of their time and context. Emre examines the Sufi Ibrahim-i Gulşeni (d. 1534) within the context of the transition from Mamluk to Ottoman Cairo. Curry considers the relationship between the prominent Halveti shaykhs in Istanbul and the Ottoman court of Murad III (d. 1595). The final chapter by Nyazioğlu studies the role of dreams in the major Ottoman text Şaka’iku ‘n-nu‘maniyye. A number of the contributors to the volume are young and creative scholars suggesting that the future of the intellectual and socio-cultural history of Sufism is bright and one expects much to emerge to transform the field.

Overall, there are more papers that deal with the Ottoman context than any other. It would have been useful to see more papers on the Central Asian contexts – and at some point, more studies need to emerge on Sufism and society in Africa, in the Indian Ocean system and others. Further research is also desirable, given our contemporary concerns, on issues of Sufism and gender, community, individuality, and not least magic and rationality. One would also like to see a discussion of how Sunni and Shi‘i affiliations flowed and intersected with Sufism in the period – Yildirim is the only one which touches indirectly upon that – especially given the fundamental shifts in the Naqshbandi, Dhahabi and Ni‘matullahi orders that emerged from the onset of the Ottoman and Safavid empires with distinction theological identities. But this volume does present a gradual step toward a richer understanding of the history of Sufism and ought to be read alongside others; most importantly it demonstrates the efficacy and facility of using theory to elucidate the social contexts and roles of Sufism. 

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