The Invisible Face of the Beloved at the Beirut Spring Festival
The Beirut Spring Festival is a biennial cultural event that seeks to promote the music, theatre and dance of the Islamic world in its many varied and diverse forms. Last night I was lucky enough to be in the audience for a concert entitled “The Invisible Face of the Beloved: Contemporary Traditional Music from Central Asia and Iran”, given by an ensemble featuring musicians from Tajikistan and Iran.
The title of the event carries obvious mystical undertones, inseparable from the Sufi tradition that has long thrived in the Persian speaking-world, and which has always been at the heart of Perso-Islamic culture. Mention of the “Invisible Face of the Beloved” in an Islamic context immediately calls to mind the Qur’anic verse so beloved of the Sufis:
“And to God belongs the East and the West. And wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God.” [II.115]
For the Sufis, then, the face of God symbolises the omnipresence of the divine in the entirety of creation. The 14th century Persian poet Hafiz, whose poems were performed at last night’s recital, also equates God’s face with the divine love:
“Love is where the glory falls
Of thy face – on convent walls
Or on tavern floors, the same
[trans, R.A. Nicholson, Mystics of Islam, 88]
So too does Hafiz use the face of God as a symbol for divine union:
“The day when separation divides you from me,
I’ll be impatient from not seeing your face.”
The metaphor is by no means restricted to Hafiz; in fact it’s found throughout the Sufi canon, reflecting the Sufi poets’ obsession with the mystical images found in the Qur’anic scripture. Clearly, then, by calling the event “The Invisible Face of the Beloved”, or in Arabic, simply “wajh al-mahbub” (“The Beloved’s Face”), the Tajiki-Iranian ensemble had chosen to evoke in a self-conscious manner the mystical tradition that is so central to their own poetic-musical heritage.
Appropriately, then, stepping into Beirut’s Sunflower Theatre last night transported me back to the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture, which I was privileged to attend and write about last year. In part it was the site of the stage in front of us, where five chairs and a host of microphones awaited the arrival of the master musicians. Yet partly as well it was the atmosphere of the place; like in Fez, a noticeable buzz pervaded the audience. We knew that we were in for a special night.
From the very first notes of Abduvali Abdurashidov’s (Tajikistan) introductory piece, it was clear that those expectations weren’t to be disappointed. Abdurashidov is an undisputed master of traditional Tajiki music, to the extent that he has been able to found his own school, The Academy of Maqam, in the Tajiki capital Dushanbe, with support from the Aga Khan Music Initiative. The school’s aim is to return Central Asian classical music to its rightful place at the heart of Tajiki culture and the traditional Islamic arts.
Last night’s concert, also conceived and financed by the Aga Khan Initiative, in collaboration with Al-Mawrid Al-Thaqafy, performed a similar task. The five musicians, three from Tajikistan and two from Iran, are all Persian speaking Muslims, trained in the classical tradition of Islamic court music. Yet, in many ways, their respective cultural heritages remain profoundly different. These differences were manifested onstage, from the musicians’ dress to the style of the music itself. While the Tajiki melodies had a markedly Central Asian character, tinged with Chinese influences, the Iranian players bore the stamp of musicians schooled in the classical Islamic tradition of the Middle East.
Yet at the heart of it all there remained an underlying unity. The Aga Khan Music Initiative’s mission, so the programme notes told us, is “to strengthen links between artistic communities in Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa”. When the five players came together in unison at the concert’s climax, it was clear that not only was there a common bond between the two styles, but also that that bond had been strengthened through collaboration, as per the aims of the Aga Khan Initiative.
Before all that, we were treated to a masterful range of solos and ensemble pieces, beginning with Abdurashidov’s opening maqam, played on the sato, a thin, long-necked string instrument played with bow and fingers. The suite was characterised by its long, drawn out notes, carrying, like those of the Turkish ney flute, a real sense of poignancy and loss. Though Abdurashidov’s mellow playing did not draw the wild applause reserved for Sirojiddin Djuraev’s (Tajikistan) tanbur solo, for me the opening solo was the highlight of the evening. It was certainly the closest to what we might think of as Sufi music, for it conveyed the tragic sense of being separated from the beloved, while leaving room for meditation and inward contemplation.
I mentioned earlier the long, wistful tones of the ney, the Sufi instrument par excellence that symbolises, in its very nature, man’s separation from his divine beloved. Yet last night we saw the ney presented in an entirely different light. As if playing counterpoint to Abdurashidov’s sato, Pasha Hanjani’s (Iran) ney solo danced about in a whirl of vibrato, with Hanjani never holding onto a single note for too long, and often reducing the pitch to a barely audible whisper. Like the best live music, the performance at times hovered on the edge of complete collapse; some in the audience seemed unsure as to whether Hanjani’s lips had not in fact run dry. For me, accustomed to the mournful, breathy notes of the Turkish ney, this was an entirely new experience, and was all the more engaging for that.
If those instrumental pieces, and Sirojiddin Djuraev’s enchanting, rhythmic tanbur playing conveyed in their unique ways the mystical portent of the concert, then Ozada Ashurova’s (Tajikistan) and Mohammad Motamedi’s (Iran) singing sealed the deal. Though I don’t understand Persian, it was clear from the repetitive nature of the songs, and the way that the singers sung them like they were well-loved folk songs, that these were poems taken from the classical Persian tradition, like those of Hafiz cited above. It was here, most of all, that the sense of unity underlying the two musical traditions appeared most pervasively, for the poems of the Persian masters remain a shared source of pride for the Persian-speaking peoples. And so too, by reciting these poems in the form of song, and by combining the great Islamic literary tradition with their own musical heritage, do each of these musicians seek to uncover the beloved’s face.
“To whom shall I go? With whom shall I be?
My heart is yearning to get away from here?
I’d rather see you than your coquetry
Expose your face. Come to the meadow.
My heart has become a stack of fire,
From both eyes, my bloody tears formed a river.”
~ anonymous Persian tarona, performed by Abduvali Abdurashidov and the Academy of Maqam on his CD, The Invisible Face of the Beloved.
4:32 am • 2 May 2012 • 2 notes
The Sufis of Lebanon: the Rifa’iyya order of Baalbek and the Nawba ritual
I have spent the last five months in Beirut, trying to immerse myself in the Arabic language. Since my arrival in Lebanon, I have often asked myself whether Sufism can be said to exist in the country in any meaningful way. My suspicion, without exploring the question in any great depth, was that, when it came to Lebanon’s rich tapestry of religious traditions (the Constitution recognises 18 different religious sects), the mystical heart of Islam was notable only for its absence.
There were a number of reasons why I drew this overly hasty conclusion, all of them based on some presumption or skewed perspective on my part. The most excusable, perhaps, was the Beirut-centric snapshot that I’ve been afforded of the country. While I was later to learn of the presence of Sufi lodges in the southern cities of Saida and Baalbek, similar communities don’t seem to exist in the Lebanese capital, hence my ignorance.
A more pernicious prejudice that had distorted the picture was the oft-repeated assertion (see, for instance, Lebanese sociologist Samir Khalaf’s new book, Lebanon Adrift: From Battleground to Playground) that religion in post-Civil War Lebanon has been divested of its spiritual character, and is now only a marker of identity. Lebanon’s 18 different sects, according to this narrative, merely serve as a badge of belonging for their followers, rather than as a means of connecting with God. Lebanese religion, in another words, has lost its spiritual and transcendent dimensions.
It hardly needs to be said that this viewpoint is flawed on multiple levels, and does a great disservice to those thousands of Lebanese who take great spiritual and moral strength from their religion, whether they be Sunni, Shi’a, Maronite, Orthodox or Druze. Certainly, religion in Lebanon, perhaps more than in most countries, plays an important role as a marker of a person’s identity, and the corollary of this, need we be reminded, is the sectarian violence that has blighted the country throughout its history. At the same time, however, the dominance of religion over worldly affairs should not disguise the existence of a rich seam of mystical faith and piety.
Proof of this last point lies in the existence of the aforementioned Sufi communities in Saida and Baalbek, whom I had the good fortune of discovering a couple of weeks ago, around the time of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (Mawlid al-Nabi, مولد النبي), which this year was celebrated on February 4th for Sunnis, and February 9th for Shia Muslims.
Though Muslim jurists are divided on the permissibility of celebrations of the Mawlid, the tradition is a strong and longstanding one amongst many Sufi orders, with many Sufis venerating the Prophet, viewed as the Perfect Man (al-Insan al-Kamil, الإنسان الكامل) and the prototype for Sufis in his knowledge of the divine, in their rituals, prayers and philosophical writings.
These practises, moreover, extend to Sufi veneration of other prophets, saints and holy men, reflecting the emphasis of religious mysticism, Sufism included, on the charisma of the God-conscious individual and the specialness of certain times and places. Needless to say, these practices have long aroused the suspicions of the orthodox jurists, with their universalist view of religion and rejection of intermediaries between God and the believer.
It was on account of their Mawlid festivals that I learned of the existence of the Qadiriyya-Rifa’iyya order, which has lodges in Saida and Baalbek, and seems to be Lebanon’s only surviving Sufi order. Orders previously found in Lebanon include the Yashrutiyya, which relocated to Amman in Jordan during the Civil War, and the Dandarawiyya, an offshoot of the Shadhilliyya once based in Beirut.
The Qadiriyya-Rifa’iyya order goes back to the great religious scholar and mystic Ahmad al-Rifa’i, born in modern day Iraq in the 12th century CE. An expert in the religious law (Shari’a, الشريعة) and the other traditional Islamic sciences, al-Rifa’i, like many of the Sufi orders’ founding figures, is notable for his mastery of the exoteric and mystical dimensions of religion, which, like the more celebrated Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, he sought to reconcile in his teachings. It is a great shame that the voices of this “middle path”, which seeks to avoid extremism and literalism on the one hand, and the abandonment of tradition on the other, are rarely heard today.
Nevertheless, the Rifa’iyya Sufis of Saida and Baalbek, at once orthodox Sunnis and religious mystics, show that this tradition is very much still alive amongst the faithful. In Baalbek, the Rifa’i community, reinvigorated since Khalid Kasr became sheikh of the order on his father’s death last year, have begun to attract the city’s youth.
The order’s resurgence, meanwhile, is reflected symbolically and on a practical level by the revival of the “Nawba” (النوبة) ritual, traditionally performed in Baalbek on Islamic festival days such as the Prophet’s birthday, Eid al-Fitr (عيد الفطر), and Eid al-Adha (عيد الأضحى). The rite consists of a slow procession through the ancient city streets, while the Rifa’iyya members chant the dhikr (ذكر الله, repetition of the divine name) and Qur’anic verses, play on drums, tambourines and cymbals, and beat swords against their breasts, glorifying God and asking or his forgiveness. The procession ends at the city cemetery, with a visit to the graves of the great sheikhs of the city, including the famous notable of Baalbek Muhammad Khayr al-Rifa’i, a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad (through Husayn b. Ali) and the founder Ahmad al-Rifa’i.
This year’s Mawlid celebration saw the first performance of the Nawba since 1977, when tragedy struck the festival: a local woman fired a shot in celebration as the procession passed by her house, accidentally killing a member of the Al-Rifa’i family. While the Sufi brothers continued the practice of visiting the graves of the order’s former sheikhs, the absence of the Nawba ritual from Baalbek’s streets served to exclude non-initiates from the city’s traditional religious life.
The upshot of this, of course, is that the revival of the ritual has the capacity to reconnect Baalbek’s residents, young and old, Sufi and non-Sufi alike, with their Islamic heritage. It is, according to Rifa’i sheikh Khalid Kasr, an ancient heritage, with the tradition supposedly going back to the time of the four “Rightly-Guided” Caliphs and favoured by the four “poles” (أقطاب) of the Qadiriyya-Rifa’iyya order: ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Ibrahim al-Dusuqi, Ahmad al-Badawi and Ahmad al-Rifa’i.
In an age when “Islamic revivalism” is almost exclusively concerned with increasing the role of religion in public life and putting a stop to supposed “innovations” in religion, it is heartening to see the revival of an ancient, symbolic and inwardly-focused Islamic tradition, which is also, it should be said, a tradition peculiar to the city of Baalbek.
The Nawba is just one aspect of the Sufi tradition in Lebanon, yet its revivication this year says a lot about the continuing health of a mystically-inclined form of Islam in this complex country. While the Rifa’iyya order may be the only one remaining in Baalbek, its seemingly newfound relevance in the ancient city makes it a welcome re-addition to the rich tapestry of religion in Lebanon.
3:29 pm • 17 February 2012
Sufism & the Arab Spring
Analysis of the underlying causes and potential effects of the series of uprisings across the Arab world that commentators have dubbed the “Arab Spring” has been based upon the acceptance of one of two familiar narratives. The first view is that taken by the Twitter community, western broadcasters and exiled Arab-European intellectuals like Amin Maalouf and Raafik Schami. The Arab Spring, according to them, is about the struggle of the long oppressed Arab peoples for basic human and civil rights. The grievances of Arabs from Morocco to Yemen are explicitly secular, with protestors calling for democracy, freedom of speech and constitutional reform.
The second, more cynical, view notes the potential dangers lurking beneath the benign surface of the revolutionary movements. The Arab Spring may have begun as a genuine push for democracy by ordinary Arabs across the the region, yet by removing or challenging Arab leaders sympathetic to western interests, has left a void that could likely be filled by parties with Islamist and extremist tendencies. Analysts who subscribe to this position, including many religious minority groups and secular groups in Muslim majority nations, have noted the links of prominent Libyan rebels to the Al-Qaeda affiliated Libyan Islamic Movement (formerly Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) and the surge in popularity for the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party and offshoots of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood in post-revolution Tunisia and Egypt respectively. Moreover, with the Islamist AKP in Turkey asserting its neo-Ottoman ambitions in the region under its powerful Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and Mahmoud Abbas petitioning the United Nations for Palestinian Statehood, Israel looks increasingly isolated in the Middle-East, further fuelling the scaremongers’ protestations.
So, where does the answer lie? Is the Arab Spring to be welcomed by those who support human rights and democracy, or is it, like the Iranian Revolution of 1979, to be hijacked by Islamist hardliners? The answer, as ever, probably lies somewhere in between, particularly if one considers the as yet ignored possibility that a truly democratic process in the Middle East might, like in Turkey, see a party rooted in Islamic values emerge victorious. As it is, on the ground little appears to have changed for the ordinary Arabs whose revolutions these were meant to be, and in all likelihood it won’t, particularly in those cases where western powers and their multinational corporations are hovering, scenting a share of the spoils of victory.
What is clear, however, is that Islam, perhaps more so than in recent years, will come into the equation in the political arrangement of the post-revolutionary states. We should not forget that, despite being officially banned in Mubarak’s Egpyt, the Muslim Brotherhood have long been well established as an influential movement across the Middle-East, often providing public services to the people in the absence of state welfare. Even Turkey, the most avowedly secular of Muslim majority countries, recently re-elected an Islamist party by a huge margin. “The 21st century will be religious or it will not be,” said Andre Malreux, and in the case of Muslim-majority countries he was probably right.
While the likelihood of an Islamist resurgence may appear a worrying prospect, particularly for the religious minorities of the region for whom a state governed on Islamic principles necessarily means second class status, there exists an alternative narrative that has been largely overlooked up until now. Embedded into the religious history of Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere is a traditional form of Islam that has proven itself to be fully compatible with modern values. This type of Islam is known as Sufism, and is usually termed “Islamic mysticism”, as if it were a kind of cross between Christian monasticism and esoteric Kabbala.
In fact, Sufism exists within the social and cultural fabric of many Muslim communities, particularly in North Africa and Turkey, and has long been adopted by those Muslims who have taken a pluralist view of other religions. Famous Sufis like the Persian poets Rumi and Hafez, and philosophers writing in Arabic like al-Ghazali and ibn al-‘Arabi, adopted a religious worldview that was grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith (traditions) of the Prophet Muhammad, yet which celebrated the underlying unity of existence and the equality of all people, male and female, before God. And Sufism is not just mere theory; organised into distinct orders, Sufis throughout history have offered comfort, shelter and hope to the poor and the marginalised - it comes as little surprise that Jesus, a prophet in Islam, is seen by many initiates as the archetypal Sufi - while also struggling against oppressive regimes, whether they be Wahhabi fundamentalists or secularists like Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. Women, too, have enjoyed a relative degree of freedom within the Sufi tradition, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where there are several Sufi orders, whose members collectively number in the millions, led by female shaykhas.
What has all this to do with the Arab Spring? Well, one of the most intriguing and positive phenomena of recent events in the Islamic world has been the prominence of Sufi groups on the political stage. In August, Sufis in Egypt gathered with Copts and Liberal politicians at an event titled "In Love of Revolutionary Egypt", calling for a civil state based upon universal values. In Algeria, long a hotbed of Islamist violence, the shaykh of the al-‘Alawiyya order, Khaled Bentounes, has called for Sufis to challenge the official Islam propagated by corrupt governments and to engage in dialogue in an effort to promote reform. He told Reuters, “Let the Salafi, the Muslim Brother, the secularist, the agnostic and the Sufi speak freely and suggest solutions.”
In Morocco, king Muhammad VI has patronised the successful Festival of Sufi Culture, held in Fez every year since 2006 under the guidance of scholar Faouzi Skali, which presents the music of the Sufi orders to a diverse audience and aims, through talks on topics such as this year’s “Women in Sufism”, to provide a spiritual dimension to globalisation, while at the same time offsetting the extremist tendencies of Moroccan Salafists. The king, not immune to criticism himself, nevertheless deserves credit for recognising the vital role that Sufism can play in engaging the Moroccan youth in a more tolerant version of Islam than that proposed by the increasingly influential Salafists. For a young person growing up in a Muslim majority country, there need not be a stark choice between the values of Islam and the west, and events like the Festival of Sufi Cultural and the even more successful World Sacred Music Festival, also held every year in Fez, can help remind us that there need not be a clash of civilisations. Similar cultural events, vital to the spread of the Sufi message of tolerance and human values, can be seen in Cairo, where the International Sama’ Festival of Sufi Music was recently held, and Pakistan.
Regarding Libya, the American Sufi scholar Stephan Schwartz noted in an article for the Huffington Post that King Idris, whom Colonel Gaddafi ousted in 1969 and whose flag became the symbol of struggle against the Libyan ruler, had been head of the Senussi Sufi order, and that the “memory of the “Sufi king” is deeply engrained in the Libyans.” While the presence of Islamist figures amongst the higher echelons of the NTC is undeniable, it must be hoped that this longstanding tradition of Sufism can engender dialogue amongst the Libyan people. Even in Afghanistan, Sufism appears to be making a comeback after the oppression it endured in the years of Taliban rule. The position of the Afghani shaykh Luftullah Haqqparast, who told Eurasianet.org, “This traditional society needs Sufis to show it a more open-minded path but also the West to teach it logic,” is typical of the enlightened attitude of many Sufi leaders.
Crucially, the vast majority of these leaders recognise the importance of grounding this open-minded approach in traditional Islamic teaching. Sufism is by no means a western form of Islam, adapted to suit the expectations of a globalised capitalist society. Rather, it is a traditional form of the religion, authentically grounded in scripture and the life of Muhammad, whose wisdom is passed down from generation to generation through the great Sufi shaykhs. By engaging with other religious groups, Sufis have invited criticism from many Muslims for offering a watered down version of Islam based upon opinion rather than text, a critique that is over a thousand years old. Yet it is clear that those Sufis who are grappling with the issue of how to live as a good Muslim while recognising the rights of others are part of a vital wider project, led in Europe by public intellectuals such as Tariq Ramadan more than by Sufis, which aims to reconcile Islam with the modern world, showing that this is by no means an impossible task. If the 21st century is truly to be religious, and there is no suggestion that it won’t be, then Sufis have a key role to play in ensuring that universal values can be upheld within the framework of a religious society.
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10:37 am • 26 September 2011 • 6 notes
Sufism and the Shari’a: a strained relationship
What is the relationship between Sufism and the Islamic religious law? Since renunciant and mystically inclined Muslims were first given the name “Sufis” in the 8th century CE they have been criticised by many other Muslims for not respecting the religious law. Indeed, some have questioned whether Sufis are proper Muslims at all. I’d like to examine the age old question of whether Sufism is necessarily in conflict with the law from the perspective of the culture of Islamic piety, which I hope will throw up some more interesting answers than a mere analysis of whether Sufis have historically practiced the Shari’a.
In the early 1950s, the British Orientalist D.S. Margoliouth, Professor of Oriental Studies at Oxford, translated a hitherto unknown work by the 12th century Muslim jurist Ibn al-Jawzi, called Tablis Iblis, the Devil’s Delusion. Aside from a great name, the piece featured an extended polemic against the Sufis. Sufism, in Ibn al-Jawzi’s view, was one of the various means by which the Devil deluded believers. This owed in large part to the Sufis’ failure to adhere to what he called “the Code”, by which he meant the Shari’a, the Islamic Law based upon the four authoritative sources of Qur’an, Hadith, ijma’ (consensus of the legal experts), and qiyas (analogy). According to the author, the Sufis, the earliest of whom had followed the Law like pious Muslims, had descended into heterodoxy through their practice of innovative rituals like the dhikr (repeated chanting of God’s name) and dancing, their excessive renunciation of worldly enjoyments, and their belief in a special, esoteric knowledge that was deeper than the literal truth of the Qur’an and the Law. For Ibn al-Jawzi, the clash between Sufis and orthodox Muslims was thus inevitable, for the Sufis did not respect the primacy of “the Code”.
To what degree does this medieval writer provide us with a valid model by which to analyse the relationship between Sufism and the Law? A feature of the sayings of Sufi masters throughout the ages has been an insistence that the Shari’a is as much incumbent on the Sufi as on any other Muslim. This is true from al-Junayd, the leader of the early Baghdadi school, who famously said that the Shari’a is a gateway to the Haqiqa, the mystical Gnosis that is the Sufis’ goal, to modern-day Sufis like Javad Nurbakhsh and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Most famously, of course, there was al-Ghazali, the great theologian and a near contemporary of Ibn al-Jawzi, who is often credited with reconciling Sufism with the orthodox Law. Ibn al-Jawzi makes it clear that he doesn’t buy al-Ghazali’s attempted synthesis, however. His reasoning is that any system that proposes an alternative form of knowledge to “the Code” necessarily undermines the authority of the Law.
It is at this point that we have to stop and consider the very idea of the religious Law as a safeguard of knowledge. The Shari’a was developed in the 8th century by those pious Muslims who sought out a new Islamic ideal, with the failure of the Umayyad Caliphs’ conception of an Islamic community based upon old Arab ideals combined with Persian kingly absolutism. The Shari’a is founded upon an Islamic piety that is universalist, moralistic and anti-hierarchical. The Law therefore aims to make real Muhammad’s community of believers at Medina in the here and now. Under this religious Law, all Muslims are equal as successors to this prototype community. Of course, this theoretical dimension was not always applied in practice, and as time wore on, the Shari’a community became increasingly hierarchical, with religious knowledge confined to the class of legal experts, the ‘ulama’, who alone had the capacity to define “the Code”. But the Shari’a-ideal was always there.
How does Sufism fit into all of this? It’s pretty clear that Sufism proposes an alternative form of piety. Sufism, and the form of knowledge it proposes, is hierarchical and specialist, its leading figures are charismatic rather than moralistic. Sufis receive training in religion from their sheikh, their knowledge of God from direct experience. Sufi communities are local rather than universal. Of course, many Sufis have been trained in the Law, including the greats Ibn al-‘Arabi and Rumi, and have a detailed knowledge of the Hadith and Sunna of the Prophet, which forms the basis for the majority of legal rulings. Yet the point is that Sufism also proposes that religious knowledge can come from sources alternative to those used by Ibn al-Jawzi and his ilk. The Law, for the Sufis, will only go so far, and requires supplementation, whilst for the legal-minded it provides the answer to everything. In other words, the Sufis, with their separate communities, their own ideas, authority figures, and rituals, are challenging the integrity of the system developed by the guardians of orthodoxy and by extension the authority of those same men. Sufis may well adhere to the rulings of the Shari’a, therefore, yet will always remain to some degree a subversive element to the universality of the Shari’a system.
Because of all this, Sufism is by nature a more individualistic form of the religion. Whilst the so-called orthodox base their piety upon a traditionalist mentality, through the implementation of laws formulated by religious scholars going back to the 8th century, the Sufis propose that God’s truth can be perceived by the enlightened individual in himself. What’s more, individualism by nature presupposes that some individuals have a greater capacity in religion than others, or at least that some will exercise their religious capabilities more than others. Hence there are saints, holy men and great masters. This elitism is well illustrated by a passage from Rumi’s Masnavi, in which he describes how the same saying has a different meaning when uttered by people of different levels of religious knowledge:
"The words, "I am the Truth," were light in Mansur’s mouth,
In the mouth of Pharaoh, “I am Lord Supreme,” was blasphemy.
The staff in the hands of Moses was a witness,
In the hands of magicians it was naught.
For this cause Jesus did not teach that foolish man,
The words of power whereby he raised the dead.”
In the first line, Rumi is referring to the famous Sufi martyr, Mansur al-Hallaj, a disciple of al-Junayd who was executed for arousing the anger of the orthodox authorities with ecstatic statements such as the one above. Many Sufis who, like al-Hallaj, have supposedly declared divinity for themselves, have done so out of the belief that nothing exists but God, including their own egos. This gives us a sense of the special knowledge of the Sufis. It is a knowledge that is said to be deeper than the outward, literal meaning of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet, and can be understood only by those who have gone through the sufficient level of training and annihilation of the ego.
This principle is applied by the Sufis in their rulings on the legitimacy of music, which has often been ruled illicit by orthodox jurists. From al-Ghazali through to Nurbakhsh, the Sufis’ position has been that only those who are predisposed towards the apprehension of God should take part in sama’ sessions. For youths or those whose piety is not sufficiently genuine, ritual song is a hindrance rather than a help. Here we see a blatant contradiction with the basic idea of the Shari’a, whose rulings have the same force for all Muslims.
The Sufis, by contrast, though not arguing with the idea that religious practices should be regulated by Law, recognise that people require different forms of guidance in matters of religion, depending on their personality and capabilities. For this reason the Shari’a is sufficient for some, but not for others, who desire direct apprehension of God in this life. This, of course, clashes with the egalitarian principle of the Shari’a-minded, for whom the Law is a complete religious system regulating the lives of all Muslims. It is not for me to suggest that one of these two approaches is more inherently Islamic than the other. I hope, however, that this brief analysis has shed some light on the complex relationship between Sufism and the Law, by showing that it is not just a question of whether Sufis adhere to the Shari’a.
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9:00 am • 10 August 2011 • 2 notes
Ramadan in Sufi Culture
The fast during the month of Ramadan is one of the most widely known aspects of Islamic culture. As one of the Five Pillars of Islam, Fasting (al-Siyyam) during the holy month is one of the duties required of every Muslim. This prescription is based on the Qur’anic verse 2:183:
O you who truly believe!
Fasting is prescribed for you,
Even as it was prescribed
For those before you, in order that
You may practice true devotion.
How is Ramadan viewed by the Sufis? This is perhaps a false question, since the overwhelming majority of Sufis, being observant Muslims, view Ramadan in much the same light as their fellow believers. Ramadan for them is a month set aside for God, when worldly and sensual desires are exchanged for spiritual focus, and patience and abstinence replace gluttony. For this reason, it is a time especially beloved by the Sufis, whose aim is to turn away from all else but God, a task made easier by refraining from material excess.
What’s more, it should be said that fasting is notable as a practice for being both intensely personal and at the same time communitarian. The fasting Muslim has given himself over fully to God and His protection, yet does so as part of a collective group effort. Ramadan, says a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, is God’s month, and by partaking in this group ritual the Muslim affirms his submission to the divine will.
As might be expected, given the Sufis’ emphasis on the personal relationship of the believer and God as lover and beloved, it is the personal dimension to the fast that has most strongly captured the Sufis’ imaginations. Fasting is symbolic of purification of the self, something which Sufism, which has its origins in the asceticism (zuhd) of early mystics like Hassan al-Basri and Rabi’a, has always held to be of utmost importance. For the Sufi with a mystical goal, that is, who strives for union with God, this purification of the self is a step along the way to total abnegation of the ego, which separates him from God. Ramadan, therefore, is a time when Sufis are reminded of their commitment to place God above their own transient and ultimately unimportant desires.
It is for this reason that Rumi says:
"Fasting is the Seal of Soloman."
The Seal of Soloman was a legendary ring of the Jewish king, which is supposed to have possessed alchemical powers, that is, the power to convert base metals into gold. Alchemy is one of the Sufis’ favourite symbols; for them, the heart that has welcomed in God is golden, and divine union is a treasure created out of the Sufi’s own efforts.
The Sufi who has achieved this divine alchemy, who “practices true devotion” as the Qur’an implores, is thus in a perpetual state of fasting. So Ibn al-‘Arabi suggests that true fasting is about not being overly attached to the world:
"Fast from phenomenal being and do not break your fast!"
The fast undertaken in Ramadan is symbolic of this deeper spiritual cleansing. It is not only an issue of Shari’a, of a ritual obligation, therefore, but also a reminder of the need to maintain the purity of heart that is required on the Sufi’s journey to God.
1:23 pm • 1 August 2011 • 10 notes
The Role of Mysticism in Arabic and Persian Poetry
The role of mysticism in Arabic and Persian literature is intricately bound to the place of Sufi literature in those two languages, Sufism being the inner, mystical dimension of Islam. Though any analysis of the prominence of mystical literature must, therefore, take into account the various means by which the Sufis expounded their religious views, it is important to make a distinction between writing that explores mystical themes, and those other genres favoured by the Sufis, such as zuhdiyya (ascetic poetry) and poetry praising the Prophet or Sufi saints, which nonetheless cannot be described as “mystical”. Once this distinction is established, it is necessary to consider the extent to which mystical literature held a central place in the respective literary canons of the two Islamic languages.
At the most general level, it seems necessary to consider briefly the respective roles of poetry and prose writing within the mystical literature of the two languages. Given that mysticism by its very nature aims to move beyond purely rational discourse and learning, one might expect poetry to predominate in the writings of the Sufis. Furthermore, it is possible to differentiate mystical prose and poetry with reference to the two forms of “sober” and “intoxicated” Sufism, where poetry is the primary domain of the intoxicated mystic, and prose that of the rational scholar. Using this distinction, W.Chittick suggests, “Sufi poetry constantly celebrates God’s presence, and Sufi prose tends toward systematic exposition of doctrine and practice.” Similarly it has been written that “furqān (sober Sufism) is the domain of knowledge and intelligence, qur’ān (intoxicated Sufism) the realm of love and union.”urqān and qur’ān according to the symbolic vocabulary of Ibn al-‘Arabi.
There is certainly some validity to such a distinction of Sufi prose and poetry, in that the majority of Sufi prose literature took on the form of “specialised treatises expressing the particular orientation, ideas or sectarian purpose of an individual Sufi figure or group,” whilst there was also some overlap with mainstream religious prose literature, such as tafsīr, biography and theological treatises. The significance of this is that the majority of Sufi prose does not in fact appear to constitute “mystical” writing. The most notable exceptions to this rule are perhaps the Persian Sawāniḥof Aḥmad al-Ghazālī (d.1126) and Kashf al-Mahjūb of Hojwīrī (d. 1072-7), and the Arabic writings of Ibn al-‘Arabī (d.1240), though even al-shaykh al-akbar, whom H. Corbin has suggested belongs to the same group of “fideles d’amour” as Rūmī, deals primarily with theosophical, rather than mystical, themes, at least in his prose works. Generally speaking, therefore, it might be stated with some validity that mysticism played a minimal role in Arabic and Persian prose literature, though many of the Sufi prose writers were doubtless inspired by their own mystical experiences and incorporated mystical themes into their theology.
In dealing with the broad role of mysticism within Arabic and Persian poetry, it is necessary once more to consider an oft-repeated generalisation, namely that Persian mystical verse far outstrips its Arabic counterpart in quality and extent. Thus R.A. Nicholson writes of Arab poets that it is “remarkable how seldom they possess the note of mysticism,” reflecting “one of the deepest differences between Arabs and Persians.” Again, though we may wish to shy away from so sweeping an analysis of the literary traditions of two great languages, one might note the dominance of Persian Sufis amongst any list of the greatest mystical poets: perhaps only Ibn al-Fārid (d. 1235), indisputably “the greatest mystical poet in the Arabic language” is mentioned in the same breath as the Persians Sanā’ī, ‘Aṭṭār, Rūmī, Sā’dī, Ḥāfiẓ and Jāmī. Having said this, Nicholson’s view is certainly extreme and rather uncritical; one should keep in mind that until the late 10th Century, well into the “classical period” of Sufism, Sufi literature remained the preserve of Arabic poets. Thus there existed no Persian Sufi poetry whilst Ḥallāj (d.922) was declaiming:
“I saw my Lord with the eye of the heart.
I said: ‘Who art thou?’ He answered ‘Thou.’”
More valid therefore is Rypka’s view that “it would be entirely wrong to regard early or even later Sufism as a purely Iranian phenomenon…though on the other hand there is no doubt that Persian poetry dedicated itself to it in the broadest and deepest sense.”
It seems, therefore, that mysticism had its greatest effect on Islamic literature in the genre of Persian poetry, particularly in the medieval period. Whilst, as stated above, we should shy away from the ethnically focused arguments regarding Persian dominance of Sufism of certain late 19th Century orientalists such as Goldziher, it would not be wrong to recognise that the flowering of Islamic mystical poetry took place in a “Persian” context (including India). Furthermore, it has been suggested that the Persian psyche was naturally drawn towards mysticism, on account of the embedded influence of the quasi-mystical doctrines of Iranian Zoroastrianism, and the proximity of Buddhist lands.
Significantly for the purposes of this essay, it appears that not only was Persian poetry the genre in which mystical ideas found their most natural home, but also that medieval Persian poetry is to a large degree defined by mysticism. This view is summed up by the Iranian scholars A.H Zarinkūb and Q. Ghanī with the former declaring, “The Persian poetry of classical times was so extensively influenced by Sufi philosophy that almost every great lyric poet was a Sufi, as nearly every great Sufi of the time was a poet,” and the latter that “Sufism gave [Persian] poetry a new and important lease on life, broadening its conceptual scope and imaginative power…” Much the same has been said by Western scholars: “There are but few [Persian] poets who remain untouched by Sufism in one form or another.” In other words, mysticism not only flourished in the particular genre of Persian poetry, but also was in fact integral to the genre’s flowering as an art form. It is interesting at this point to note the predominance of Persian mystical poetry in the Islamic literature of India, as early as the 11th Century. Indeed, as A. Schimmel notes, “the Subcontinent produced more Persian works than Iran proper.” This fact makes it evident that the successful introduction of mysticism into Persian literature was a product of the widespread diffusion of the Persian language amongst the urban Sufi orders, where Sufi poetry was integral to the samā‘ ritual, rather than something inherent in the Iranian character.
Given the apparent dominance of Persian mystical poetry over that of the Arabs within the Sufi tradition, one might presume that mysticism has not held so central a role within the Arabic poetical tradition. This view is disputed by S. Jayyūsi, who writes, “The Sufi achievement in Arabic verse is momentous,” and that Sufi verse “managed to preserve the primary prerequisites of verse and protect Arabic poetry from the emotional atrophy that was threatening it.” She celebrates the mystics’ introduction of a profound and meaningful symbolism into Arabic poetry in the “post-classical period”, that is, post-12th Century. Such an argument, however, seems based principally on the heavily symbolic poetry of the great 13th Century Sufis already mentioned, Ibn al-Fārid and Ibn al-’Arabī, and might equally be applied to the symbolic mystical poetry of early Sufis such as Dhū’ Nūn al-Misrī (d.861), Junayd (d.910) and Ḥallāj. Such allegorical poetry is of a different character to the “popular” mystical Arabic poetry traditionally recited, just as with the Persian poetry, at the samā‘ gatherings of the Sufi orders.
The central role of symbolism and allegory within both Arabic and Persian mystical poetry relates to a key issue regarding the role of mysticism in the two literatures, this being the doubts some have had as to whether the images employed by the poets are in fact representative of mystical ideas. As J. Rypka puts it: “Persian lyric…becomes to such an extent obsessed by eroticism that it is not always possible to draw a reliable dividing line between real and supermundane love.” Even in the case of the great mystic Ibn al-Fārid, Nicholson suggests, “it may not be possible to know whether his beloved is human or divine,” owing to what he sees as the poet’s adhesion to the images and tropes of classical Arabic poetry. Schimmel too notes that, unlike the early Sufi poets, “Ibn al-Fārid employed the whole heritage of traditional poetry…” Similarly Western scholars long debated whether Ḥāfiẓ’s poetry merits a mystical interpretation, with W.M Thackston reflecting the widely-held view when he writes of how Ḥāfiẓ “sang a rare blend of human and mystic love so balanced…that it is impossible to separate one from the other.”
This last comment reflects the blurring of the distinction between secular and mystical love poetry that occurred in both Arabic and Persian during the post-classical period of Sufism. On one level this is a product both of the continued use of the of the classical Arabic tradition, such as the Iraqi mystic al-Shiblī’s (d.946) allusion to the tale of Layla and Majnūn:
“They said: ‘Thou art mad for Layla.’ I said:
Madmen (al-majānīn) know only the easier part of love.”
The Persian mystics too, “with images taken from the Arabic tradition taught their listeners…not to close their eyes in the sleep of heedlessness lest the caravan leave them in the desert.” At another level this blurring is a result of the inherently symbolic character, in both the Arabic and Persian traditions, of Sufi literature after Ibn al-’Arabī, where “language is never what it appears to be in its literal and external aspect,” hence the contemporary Syrian poet Adonis’ (b. 1930) description of early Arabic mystical poetry as “surrealism before surrealism”. Persian mystical poetry in particular developed an entirely new symbolic vocabulary, which has lately been presented by J. Nurbakhsh in 16 volumes of his Encyclopedia of Mystical Terminology.From the 13th Century, it would appear that the symbolism of mystical poetry became ever more entangled with the secular symbols of human love, wine, and the desert. This characteristic of Arabic and Persian mystical poetry on one hand prevents us from determining with precision the extent of the role of mysticism within the two literatures, yet on the other reveals mysticism to be intricately bound up in the two poetical traditions.
Annemarie Schimmel, As Through a Veil: Mystical Poetry in Islam (New York, 1982)
William C. Chittick, Sufism, A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford, 2008)
Martin Lings, Sufi Poems: A Mediaeval Anthology (Cambridge, 2004)
The Legacy of Mediaeval Persian Sufism (ed. Leonard Lewisohn) (London, 1992):
- S.H Nasr, “Persian Sufi Literature”
- L. Lewisohn, “Iranian Islam and Persianate Sufism”
Jan Rypka, History of Iranian Literature (Reidel Publishing Company, 1968)
The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Arabic Literature in the post-classical period (ed. Roger Allen; D.S Richards) (Cambridge, 2006)
Encyclopaedia of Islam (ed. P. Bearman; , Th. Bianquis; , C.E. Bosworth; , E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs), Leiden 2006:
- J.O. Hunwick; C. Ernst; F. de Jong; L. Massignon-[B. Radtke]; Françoise Aubin, “taṣawwuf”
Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature (ed. J.Meisami, P.Starkey) (London 1998):
- B. Radtke, “Sufi literature, poetry”
- R.L Nettler, “Sufi literature, prose”
R.A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism (Cambridge, 1967)
Wheeler M. Thackston, A Millenium of Classical Persian Poetry (Bethesda, 1994)
‘Abd al-Ḥusayn Zarinkūb, “Persian Sufism in its Historical Perspective”, Iranian Studies, vol. 3 (1970)
6:50 am • 20 July 2011 • 12 notes
History in an Hour
I have just had my article on the history of Sufism posted on the History in an Hour blog. You can read it at
History in an Hour is an excellent project that aims to provide short summaries of key historical events and phenomena for those who don’t have time to wade through pages and pages of history books.
6:44 am • 20 July 2011 • 5 notes
Ahmed al-Tijani and the Tariqa Muhammadiyya
Lurking deep within the medina of Fez one finds the tomb of Ahmed al-Tijani, the late-18th, early-19th century founder of the Tijaniyya order. Born in southern Algeria into the noble blood line of the Prophet, al-Tijani’s life is a testament to Fez’s reputation as a centre of mysticism in North Africa, for it was to there that he was to return repeatedly in search of wisdom, and there that he was ultimately to establish his own Sufi order.
A direct descendent of Moulay Idris, it would not be stretching things too far to suggest that al-Tijani embodied the founding vision of his forefather in the way he lived his life, which was one of complete and constant dedication to God and Islam. His teaching was characterised by an emphasis on the necessity of respecting the orthodox legal code in one’s mystical practice, and in this he reflects Fez’s twofold character as a centre of exoteric Islamic learning and piety, and as a home for Maghrebi Sufism.
The Tijaniyya, and al-Tijani himself, ought in this concern for orthopraxy be seen within the wider context of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, the “Muhammadan Way”, a movement that flourished in North Africa and the Hijaz in the 18th Century, and considers the Prophet to be capable of giving instruction in the Sufi way, laying particular emphasis on the sunna and utilizing the ideas of the nur Muhammad (“The Light of Muhammad”) and Haqiqa Muhammadiyya (The Muhammadan Reality). These latter two, which were developed extensively by Ibn al-‘Arabi, suggest that the person of Muhammad perfectly reflects the divine reality, and thus that concentration upon the essential reality of Muhammad can produce vision of God.
Ahmed al-Tijani’s connection to the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, which is less a coherent movement than a spiritual method, has two major significances. The first is that, as just mentioned, the importance that he placed in his teaching on the person of the Prophet came to influence his view of the shari’a, a view which is summed up by a saying attributed to the sheikh: “If you hear anything attributed to me, weigh it on the scale of the shari’a. If it conforms, accept it, otherwise reject it.” Like al-Junayd, al-Tijani saw the shari’a as a gateway to the divine haqiqa, and was well versed in the traditional Islamic sciences.
This explicitly orthodox rendering of the Sufi way undoubtedly played a large part in the rapid spread of the Tijaniyya order across North Africa and into West Africa, where its adherents today are counted in millions. Every year al-Tijani’s shrine receives visits from thousands of Tijanis from Senegal, Mali and Nigeria, highlighting the essential universality of the Sufi message, and the pull that saints’ shrines still have over modern day disciples, with many worshippers coming to Fez en route to Mecca. Furthermore, it is unlikely that al-Tijani would ever have settled in Fez, were it not for his training in the orthodox sciences, for it was at the instigation of the Moroccan sultan Moulay Suleyman (r.1792-1822), who sought the “renewal of the scholarly elite” of Fez, that al-Tijani came to set up his own zawiya in Fez. There has even been some suggestion that the sultan was himself a disciple of the Tijaniyya,
The second result of the central role of the Prophet in al-Tijani’s mystical thinking was the establishment of the Tijaniyya itself. Al-Tijani’s early life demonstrates the fluidity and interaction between disciples of the various Sufi brotherhoods, and gives a great insight into the ways in which different orders can come to influence one another. Whilst still in the Maghreb, al-Tijani received instruction from masters of the Qadiriyya, Nasiriyya and Wazzaniyya (or, as they were called in Algeria, the Taybiyya) orders. What’s more, on his way to Mecca in 1773, he was initiated into the Khalwatiyya order at Algiers, and was to seek out in Cairo a master of the Khalwatiyya, Mahmud al-Kurdi, who appointed him muqaddam (propagator) of the order in the Maghreb.
And perhaps he would have remained merely a propagator of the Khalwatiyya tariqa, were it not for his attachment to the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, which he had picked up from his Khalwati masters. In 1784, al-Tijani is said to have experienced a vision of Muhammad at the oasis of Bou Semghoun, in which the Prophet told him that he was to be al-Tijani’s initiator on the Sufi path and intercessor with God, and thus that he ought to forego the support and instruction of his other sheikhs. It was thus that al-Tijani was inspired to found his own brotherhood, which he later established in Fez in 1789.
Ahmed al-Tijani’s Sufi order symbolizes Fez’s position as a meeting point of orthodoxy and mysticism, of eastern and western Islam, and of Muslims of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Like his ancestor Moulay Idris, his significance is still felt today, through those who continue to carry out visitations to his magnificent shrine. Walking through Fez’s narrow lanes, one cannot help but feel that these great men of faith live on in the city’s peculiar mystical charm.
Halima Baali-Cherif, Les Confreries Musulmanes au Maghreb
12:55 pm • 8 May 2011 • 9 notes
The Khalwatiyya Tariqa perform at the Festival of Sufi Culture in Fez. Look out for the Sheikh smiling at 0:23!
11:42 am • 6 May 2011 • 1 note
Ibn al-‘Arabi and the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture
It will become clear to the reader from my reports of the talks and conferences, found below, that Muhyiddin Ibn al-‘Arabi dominates the intellectual Sufi tradition like no other. It was Ibn al-‘Arabi’s cosmology that formed the bedrock for almost all of the discussion, and which was seen to have influenced Sufis, men and women alike, down the ages. So too did his poetry take centre stage, as it was sung by Karima Skali, the headline act on the opening night, and later by Habib Yammine, and Aisha Radouane. Over the course of the week it became evident that Ibn al-‘Arabi’s title of “al-shaykh al-akbar” (The Greatest Master) is a deserved one, and that he was not speaking out of delusional vanity when he boasted:
“In every age there is one after whom it is named; for the remaining ages I am that one!”
Though our wanderings on the first day ultimately revealed that Ibn al-‘Arabi was not buried in Fez as we had initially thought, his connection to the city is profound. Most obviously there is the time he spent living in Fez, a period roughly spanning 1195 to 1199, during which he wrotehis Kitab al-Isra’, describing his mir’aj (night journey, echoing that of the Prophet) from the phenomenal world to God’s presence, a description which is said to have influenced Dante. Given that this period preceded the writing of his greatest works (see below), which were inspired by his travels in the Islamic east, these years in Fez and North Africa ought to be seen as formative to his thinking.
We should note too that Ibn al-‘Arabi’s initiation into the Sufi path came in the service of a disciple of the Andalusian mystic Abu Madyan, who studied Sufism and the religious sciences in Fez, before travelling, like Ibn al-‘Arabi, to the east, where he is said to have studied under both al-Ghazali and ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, the founder the Qadiriyya order. On his return from the east, Abu Madyan can be held responsible for the incorporation of al-Ghazali’s moderate, orthodox Sufism into the practice North African mysticism. Ibn al-‘Arabi, born not forty years after Abu Madyan, would have been directly exposed to this newly formed tradition.
Whilst Ibn al-‘Arabi’s study and travels may have brought him into contact with Fez on several occasions, it seems to me that his principal connection to the city lies in his thinking itself, which shares that symbolism, that spark of mysticism, which is the hallmark of the city. For just as behind the outward clutter of Fez’s seemingly impenetrable maze of narrow lanes and dead ends can be found a tranquil space, so beneath Ibn al-‘Arabi’s esoteric, often paradoxical language, expressed in thousands of chapters and verses, lies a deep insight into the nature of reality. This link between the mystic’s thought and the city’s inner mystery is unsurprising, reflecting as it does the impact that his early years in Fez, and his learning at the hands of the great masters of North African mysticism, had on his philosophical outlook.
This philosophical outlook found its expression in some 350 works, from Ibn al-‘Arabi’s masterful prose writings, Fusus al-Hikam (Bezels of Wisdom) and Futuhat al-Makkiyya (Meccan Revelations), to his collection of mystical love poems Tarjuman al-Ashwaq (Interpreter of Desires), each characterised by their symbolism, their range of possible meanings and yet, their integration of this neo-Platonic philosophical outlook into the core Islamic principle of tawhid (Divine Unity). Ibn al-‘Arabi, recognising that all but God is “no-being”, or to put it the other way round, that everything is a manifestation of the “One” (al-ahd), extends this principle to what he calls the “Oneness of Being” (wahdat al-wujud).
It is this latter idea for which Ibn al-‘Arabi is most widely known, yet it should also be stated that it is also an idea of such tremendous complexity, such great subtlety and esoteric symbolism that any attempt to summarise or even categorize it inevitably falls well short. Some have seen in it echoes of pantheism or panentheism, yet this view fails to recognise Ibn al-‘Arabi’s grounding in the traditional religious sciences of Islamic monotheism.
Indeed, whilst his work has in recent decades, as Jane Clark told the audience at her talk, begun to find a readership outside of the Islamic world, in places as far afield as the U.S.A and Japan, it seems to me that any attempts to analyse it outside of the context of the Islamic tradition (which is, after all, a world tradition), will fail to appreciate the full picture being painted. How can one understand his commentaries on the Qur’an and Prophetic Hadith, for example, without an appreciation of those sacred texts?
Added to this, one finds the obvious difficulty of appreciating a symbolic work, whose genius is as much in the ambiguity of the language used as in the outward meaning, when studying it in translation. To take an example, whilst Sufis are often characterised by their desire to rend the veil that separates man from God, and thus attain direct vision of God, Ibn al-‘Arabi tells us that “vision is through the veil, inescapably so.” (emphasis mine). Here one finds Ibn al-‘Arabi dealing in characteristic paradox and symbolism in his commentaries.
The apparent impenetrability of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s thought is further demonstrated by the numerous and lengthy commentaries on his two major prose works, many of which are said to be as allusive as Ibn al-‘Arabi’s own writings. Thus one finds commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries, all dealing in somewhat arcane symbolism.
Beneath this esotericism, however, lies an indisputable mastery of mysticism from the Islamic perspective. Indeed, it would not be stretching things too far to suggest that Ibn al-‘Arabi is THE master of Islamic mysticism, the highest example of one, after the Prophet himself, who developed a mystical philosophy (or, perhaps, theosophy), yet still reconciled it with the day-to-day practice of the Sufi path. As Martin Lings puts it, in Ibn al-‘Arabi “we encounter the presence of ardent love side by side with the pure objectivity of the true intellectual.”
This unity of theory and practice, of intellect and love make Ibn al-‘Arabi a deserved and appropriate patron saint of the Festival of Sufi Culture, which through its talks and conferences, aims to strike this same balance. At his most inspiring, and paradoxically, at his most mysterious, Ibn al-‘Arabi breaks down the language barrier and offers a vision of love in which all of mankind can share. He reminds us too of the ultimate inadequacy of mere talking and debate, for it is by living a life of love that one can attain the divine reward:
Were it not for
The excess of your talking
And the turmoil in your hearts,
You would see what I see
And hear what I hear!
It has perhaps become clear that there is not an area of Sufi culture that remains completely uninfluenced by the life and thought of Ibn al-‘Arabi. In relation to the Festival however, there are two specific areas of his thought that I would like to focus upon, as these have perhaps the greatest relevance to the project: his view of women and, specifically, the feminine, and his attitude towards other religions.
Ibn al-‘Arabi and the Divine Feminine:
Few were the speakers at the 2011 Festival of Sufi Culture who did not make extensive reference to Ibn al-‘Arabi’s concept of the “divine feminine”. Beginning with Eric Geoffroy’s talk on the Algerian Sufi ‘Abd al-Qadir’s use of Akbarian (the adjective denoting the thought of Ibn al-‘Arabi, “al-shaykh al-akbar”) feminine symbolism, through Muhammad Vulsan’s and Katia Legeret’s analysis of the relationship between Hindu and Sufi concepts of the female, to a talk on the influence of Sufism upon Goethe, Ibn al-‘Arabi’s cosmology provided the theoretical basis for many of the later figures discussed. This is not to mention Jane Clark’s talk on the female teachers of Ibn al-‘Arabi, which looked at the ways in which those women who influenced the Sufi’s spiritual development came also to inform his understanding of women’s roles.
Ibn al-‘Arabi’s metaphysical understanding of the “masculine” and “feminine”, and the ways in which it has been developed by later disciples of his, will be explored in some detail in my analysis of the individual talks. However, it is worth briefly outlining its basic outline here.
Man, according to Ibn al-‘Arabi, has in his potential two separate characteristics: effectiveness and receptivity, sometimes translated as activity and passivity. The former is based on the pre-existing Sufi concept of futuwwa (chivalry), and represents such qualities as power, bravery, discipline and high morality. The latter represents not so much “being passive” in the negative sense, but rather symbolises existence as the object of activity and qualities such as discipleship, humility and lack of attachment to the self-serving ego.
Ibn al-‘Arabi terms these “masculine” and “feminine” natures, though he is careful not to sexualise the two. Thus a man may be capable of taking on the “feminine” nature, and a woman the “masculine” one, and it is the greatest travellers on the Sufi path who have realised both characteristics. Indeed, Ibn al-‘Arabi suggests that women are capable of surpassing many men in “manliness”, and lists those women who are amongst the greatest in “manliness” of the day. This latter point reflects his radical outlook and his consistent efforts to follow through the logic of his theory of non-duality.
This is not to suggest, however, that Ibn al-‘Arabi supposed the “masculine” to be the higher of the two natures. In fact, whilst “manliness” may be the highest human quality, the “feminine”, representing the object of love and desire, is symbolic of the divine, which is the beloved of the Sufi. The feminine, therefore, in the form of actual female beauty, is viewed as a divine archetype. By extension, it is the desire of the mystic, male or female, who desires unity with God, to become the feminine, which is the symbol of his beloved. This is yearning for total absorption in the beloved is most beautifully expressed by the lines of the (in)famous Sufi al-Hallaj:
"He am I whom I love, He whom I love is I,
Two spirits in one single body dwelling.
So seest thou me, then seest thou Him,
And seest thou Him, then seest thou Us.”
The same image is found in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Tarjuman:
"I therein am Thou, and we are Thou,
And Thou art He, and All is in He is He -
Ask of any that so far hath reached.”
In this essential non-duality, which is at the core of the Sufi view, one can see how maleness and femaleness as separate gender distinctions are revealed to be mere “contingencies”. One sees also how the tolerant outlook of the Sufis does not hinge upon some inauthentic regard for the progressive outlook of Western liberalism, but is in fact grounded in the theory, and indeed in the life, of Sufism’s greatest master.
Furthermore, unlike many mystics, Ibn al-‘Arabi does not seek only to uncover the divine in himself, but also recognises the presence of God behind every veil, that is to say, in all of creation. As such, for him the female archetype is not merely a divine symbol, it is the divine. In this idea one sees how for Ibn al-‘Arabi, as mentioned above, vision of God is through an earthly veil. Thus divine beauty is manifested in actual female beauty, and a real life woman, in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s case, his beloved Nizam, is to be loved like God.
Here again we witness in Ibn al-‘Arabi’s writing the convergence of theory and practice, for the true Sufi does not just “believe” in God as love, but actually lives a life of love. If the theory of “wahdat al-wujud” is to be put into practice, then love of a human beloved is one and the same as love of God. This, surely, is the meaning of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s oft-quoted couplet, which was to be repeated on several occasions over the course of the Festival:
“My religion is love’s religion: where’er turn
Her camels, that religion is my religion, my faith.”
Ibn al-‘Arabi’s view of other religions:
That the above couplet, taken from the eleventh poem of the Tarjuman, was a clear favourite of many of the speakers and performers at the Festival reflects the spirit of religious and cultural tolerance that its organizers wish to spread. Again, this spirit can be clearly seen within the historical Sufi tradition, especially in the work of the great poets. Compare, for instance, the poem of Hafez:
"Love is where the glory falls
Of Thy face—on convent walls
Or on tavern floors, the same
Where the turbaned anchorite
Chanteth Allah day and night,
Church bells ring the call to prayer
And the Cross of Christ is there.”
One should bear in mind that the majority of Sufis, though professing and practicing the “religion of love”, nevertheless remained observant Muslims, for they understood that, though there may be a number of paths to God, the believer should still follow a particular path, rather than flitting between them. In this there is the recognition that the outward and the inward, the exoteric and esoteric need to exist in balance with one another. Outward symbols may carry a hidden meaning, yet they are still required as metaphorical expressions of truth.
For Ibn al-‘Arabi, of course, the divine is uncovered through the veil, that is to say, the presence of God exists in the symbol itself. He takes on this idea to conclude that God is manifested in the language and metaphor of faiths other than Islam. In this respect he makes use of the principal of Junayd, who notes that water takes on the colour of its container. In much the same way, suggest Ibn al-‘Arabi, God takes on the form of the symbols used by people of different faiths, for:
“Those who adore God in the sun behold the sun, and those who adore Him in living things see a living thing, and those who adore Him in lifeless things see a lifeless thing, and those who adore Him as a Being unique and unparalleled see that which has no like.”
In other words, individual creeds vary because people vary from one another. With this idea Ibn al-‘Arabi uses the analogy of the mirror, which reflects the light of God according to its own shape. Not only do distinct doctrines act as mirrors, but so too do individuals themselves, hence there is variety of religious expression and belief.
This theory is, of course, wholly consistent with his worldview, which recognizes that the all-encompassing divine reality is manifested in the outward diversity of creation. Indeed, he writes, “God is too All-embracing and Great to be confined within one creed rather than another,” for to deny the possibility of God existing outside of the “mirror” of Islam is to deny His infiniteness, His capacity to transcend worldly diversity. All this, then, is a reminder of the aforementioned Qur’an 2:115:
“Wherever you turn, there is God’s countenance.”
Turning everywhere and seeing the face of God, Ibn al-‘Arabi recognized the validity of all expressions of the divine:
“The creatures knotted
Various beliefs concerning God;
And I bear witness to everything they believe.”
In Ibn al-‘Arabi, therefore, one finds a model of love, intellect, faith and tolerance. Truly he is a mirror to a better world and to a divine reality. No understanding of Sufism or Islam is complete without an appreciation of the work of this extraordinary man. It is to be hoped that, through the Festival of Sufi Culture, and other schemes like the Oxford based Ibn ‘Arabi Society, his vision will live on in the lives and works of others.
Lings, Sufi Poetry, A Medieval Anthology, 38
3:05 am • 4 May 2011 • 1 note