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International Society for Iranian Studies

Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defence, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World by Elizabeth Sirriyeh Review by: Leonard Lewisohn Iranian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3/4 (Summer - Autumn, 2000), pp. 427-434 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of International Society for Iranian Studies Stable URL: . Accessed: 25/10/2013 00:11
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philosophy. The two volumes, while reprintinga fair amount sianJPerso-Islamic of material(some of which is of dubious quality), do presentmuch new material as long as they are to the reader.They do facilitate teaching and understanding, a is thus contributionand major The Anthology and critically. used carefully once it is complete (in five or six projectedvolumes), it will no doubt transform the way in which we perceive and studyphilosophicaltraditionsin Persia. SajjadH. Rizvi Instituteof Ismaili Studies,London

Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defence, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World,ElizabethSirriyeh, London:Curzon Press 1999, ISBN: 0-700710582 (cloth) 0-700710604 (paper)viii + 188 pp. "If on some mountaintop somewhere there were a single person of he would constitute the Muslim Community."(Sufyan understanding, al-Thawri) While, for its small size, Elizabeth Sirriyeh's study offers us a unique survey of the social history of Sufis and anti-Sufismin the contemporary world, her analysis suffers from the distorting prism of contemporarypoliticized and secularist understandingof mysticism, where works and authorsthat are of but marginal relevance to Sufi spiritualityare allowed to take center stage and become the judges of a science the relish of which is alien to their taste and the metaphysical subtletyof which is often beyond the scope of theircomprehension. The first chapter on "Sufis and their Critics Before the Impact of Europe" opens with a review and attemptedrevival of A. J. Arberry'slong outdatedthesis, first proposed over half a century ago in a tiny book purportingto give a brief account of Sufism, detailing "TheDecay of Sufism" supposedlyundergone by eighteenth-centurySufism.1 Since then, his thesis has been batted about, to and fro, pro and con, debated by scholars such as Fritz Meier, MarshallHodgson, and J. S. Trimingham.More recently, the entire 'Sufism and decline' paradigm has been re-examined and seriously disputed by Marcia Hermansen2as well as by CarlErnstwho observedthat The notion of the decline of Muslim nations was especially attractive to the self-image of Europeansin the colonial period, since it provided
1. A. J. Arberry,Sufism:An Account of the Mystics of Islam (London, 1950), chapter

2. Marcia Hermansen, "ContemplatingSacred History in Late Mughal Sufism: The case of Shah Wali Allah of Dehli," in Leonard Lewisohn and David Morgan, eds. The Heritage of Sufism, vol. 3 Late Classical Persianate Sufism (1501-1750) (Oxford, 19999), 318-43.

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428 Reviews

a noble justification for conquest and empire on the basis of the 'civilizing mission' of the West (also known as 'the white man's burden'). If, however, we do not intend to supportany of these agendas,then the notion of 'classicism and decline' is distinctly unhelpful in the study of a traditionsuch as Sufism."3 Then, simultaneouslywith this book, Frederickde Jong and BermdRadtke published in 1999 (Brill) their monumental edited collection (800 pages), Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversiesand Polemics, which raises some of the same discussions of decline, but with a wider historical sweep. Sirriyeh's discussion of Arberry'sthesis runs slightly more than two pages (pp. 2-3), in which she does not seem to be awareof (or at least, fails to mention) any of the above scholars except Hodgson, and generally takes the idea of decline as an adequate methodological notion on which to base her study. However, as the most cursory review of the above-cited works demonstrates,it is far from adequate. It should be underlinedthat this "urgeto refonm... clearly visible throughout the world-wide umma"(p. 21) discussed in chapterone, and presentedas if it were the naturalcorollaryto the notion of 'decline,' has always been part and parcel of the ongoing process of purification within Sufism itself, for as Carl Ernst has insightfully noted: "lamentingits decline has been part of the definition of Sufism from the beginning, as an illustrationof the tension between the The examples that the ideals of mysticism and the realities of social practice."4 authorhas selected are by no means typical ones, nor can they be predicatedas being characteristic of a movement within either Sufism world-wide or "the world-wide umma." In fact, being drawn from only a small segment of the Muslim world, they may hardly he said to buttress sufficiently the conclusions drawn. The first chapterprovides a shortlistof negative opinions by Sufis and antiMusSufis alike on the contemporaryspiritualcondition of eighteenth-century lim society. Among the figures cited to typify the Sufi point of view are Shah Wali Allah (1703-62), one of the greatestmystical theosophersof the late classical period in the Indian subcontinent;and Ahmad Ibn Idris (d. 1253/1837), the renownedSufi saintof Moroccanorigin. Neither her coverage of Wali Allah nor Ibn Idris (pp. 4-11) is comprehenWali Allah, and buying into the Orientalistconstructof the sive. Misinterpreting decline of Sufism, she characterizesWali Allah "as a great pioneeringreformer, presentingthe acceptableface of Sufism and paving the way for a much broader renewal with a modem tinge." (p. 6, italics mine) But from the twelfth century onwards,Sufism was always viewed as one of the more acceptablefaces of classical Islam (at least, if we care to heed the judgement of the most influential theologian of medieval Islam-Abu Hamid al-Ghazali- and modem scholars
3. Carl Ernst,"ChishtiMeditationPractices of the LaterMughal Period,"in Lewisohn and Morgan,TheHeritage of Sufism3: 346. 4. CarlErnst,TheShambhalaGuide to Sufism(Boston, 1997), 24-25.

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such as Hodgson5)soit hardly follows that Sufism somehow requires a modem facelift to present its credentials or display its beauty to the world of international belles lettres. Sirriyeh's misinformed bias that Sufism is somehow outside the pale or purview of the classical Islamic traditionand readinessto endorse the rhetorical posturingof certainreformists-that contemporaryMuslim thinkersneed somehow 'reorient' themselves to justify or reinvigorateits existence, unfortunately seems to pervade the entire work. I also fail to understandwhat the author means by Wali Allah's so-called "revolutionaryand distinctly modern-looking social and economic ideas," (p. 6), for as I pointed out in a recent review of Marcia K. Hermansen's The Conclusive Argumentfrom God: Shah Wall Allah of DehIl's HujiatAllaTh al-Biiligha,6 Wali Allah's attitudeto society and government has distinctly little to contributeto modem political science or social theory. Her coverage of Ibn Idris likewise contains some extraordinary assertions. She begins by commentingcaustically (p. 8) that he "mightnot be classed as an outstandingintellectual Sufi" [whateverthat means: some of the greatestclassical-period Sufis, such as Bishr Hafi (d. 226/841), Bayazid of Bistam (d. 261/875), Abu Sacid ibn Abi'l-Khayr (d. 440/1048), have left no writings behind, yet of Bishr Hafi it was said that "if the intellect with which Bishr Hafi is endowed were to be divided among the inhabitantsof Baghdad, all of them would be accounted among the foremost thinkersof the world."7]A few pages on she donnishly informs us that he combined a concern for "spiritualreform" with an attitude"sufficientlyconvincing in his fundamentalist approach" (p. 10), while nothing could be farther from the truth. As a Sufi thinker, Ibn Idris's social significance lies in his staunch opposition to the Wahhabi fundamentalists who took over Arabia, as Bernd Radtke, John O'Kane, Knut S. Vikor, R. S. O'Fahey in their work on The ExotericAhmadIbn Idris: A Sufi's Critiqueof the Madhaihib and the Wahhabis(Leiden: Brill, 2000) have recently demonstrated. Ibn ldris is all the more remarkablefor his spiriteddefence of Ibn 'Arabi's Sufi

5. See Ghazali's Al-Munqidhmin al-dalal, ed. FaridJabre(Beirut, 1969), 35-36 where he situates Sufism as the supreme science in Islam. Marshall G. S. Hodgson points out that it was men such as Ghazali who helped make Sufism "acceptable to the 'ulama themselves," so that "graduallySuifism,from being one form of piety among others, and by no means the most acceptable one either officially or popularly, came to dominate religious life not only within the Jamaci-Sunnifold, but to a lesser extent even among Shicis.'' The Ventureof Islam: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods 3 vols. (Chicago, 1977), 2: 203. 6. In the Bulletinof the BritishSociety of MiddleEasternStudies27 (2000): 216-20. 7. Muhammad b. Ahmad Dhahabi, Siyar aclam al-nubala' (Beirut, 1981-85), 475, cited by A. M. Damghani, "Persian Contributionsto Sufi Literaturein Arabic," in L. Lewisohn, ed., The Heritage of Sufismvol. 1 Classical Persian Sufismfrom its Origins to Rumi,47.

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430 Reviews So he can no more doctrines in the face of their persecutionby the Wahhabis.8 be classified as having a "fundamentalist"approach to religion than, say, Ghazali or Mulla Sadra can. Anyone who cares to read Ibn Idris's stout and eloquent apologia for Sufi ecumenical esotericism in the face of the crude calumny of his Wahhabi fundamentalist enemies (see The Exoteric Ahmad Ibn Idris, pp. 177-211), will witness how sublime the flights of his intellect, how deep the insights of his heart were. So Sirriyeh's theses, in these particular instancesat least, are completelywrong. This first chapterrepresentsa brave attemptto sum up the main attitudesto society held by a select group of four Sufi thinkersin Arabia,South Asia, West and North Africa, examining respectively the thought of Ibn Idris, Shah Wali Allah, Usuman dan Fodio (1754-1817) and Ahmad al-Tijani. However, I confess that the main thing which troublesme aboutthis chapteris a generallack of reference to Sufism's two key subjects: speculative metaphysics and the prescriptive ethics of the Path. Next to nothing about any of the psychological or metaphysical doctrines of Sufism found in their writings is mentioned here: nothing about the ahwal and maqiimat; nothing of samiC, next to nothing of wahdat al-wujud, nothing of the khanaqiihinstitution,and very little about the ethical prescriptionsof Sufism which define the place of Islamic mysticism visa-vis nomocentricIslam. In short, this book reads so far as if it were a kind of history of Methodism without citation of any of the hymns of Isaac Watts or CharlesWesley, withoutquotationof any of the sermonsof GeorgeWhitefield. This lack of adequaterepresentationof the advocates of the classical Sufi traditioncontinues in chaptertwo, devoted to "The Challengeof EuropeanAntiSufism" (pp. 27-53), which geographicallyspans Sufism in Algeria, the Sudan, the North Caucasus,the OttomanEmpire,and India, and is subdividedinto brief sections treating historical examples of the confrontationof Sufism with European imperialismand modernism,as well as some coverage of clerical reaction and resistance to tasawwuf. The relevant rubricsof the author's discussion are "Algeria: Divided Struggle, Quietism and Collaboration,""Mahdismand Sufi Ahmad, the Sudanese Mahdi (1844-85)," "The North Resistance,""Muhammad Caucasus: Resistance and Revitalized Sufism," "Implications of the Lesser Jihad," "The Greater Jihad and Worldly Constraints,""Surviving the British Raj," 'The Deobandi Sufi Reformers," 'The Barelwi Defenders of Traditional Ahl-i Hadith." Sufism,"and "Anti-SufiReformers: For each of these, Sirriyehoffers vignette-likesurveys of varyingdegrees of historical breadth,doctrinaldepth, and scholarly accuracy and adequacy.While her treatment of "Surviving the British Raj", focusing on the Deobandi and Barelwi Sufis, is substantial(five pages), for instance, the conspicuousomission 8. Broughtout in my review in African Studies90/360 (1991): 476-78 of R. S.
O'Fahey,EnigmaticSaint:Ahmadibn Idris and the Idrisi Tradition.

devotionto one's own school,the statesthat"fanatical 9. ThusIbn Idristolerantly of different as if it werea matter eachotherof heresy, of factions, andaccusing formation
religions . . . such things we disapproveof." Cited in my review of O'Fahey where lbn

is highlighted. Idris's anti-fundamentalism

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Reviews 431

of notes referencingany of the main secondary works on Sufism in India (such as K. A. Nizami, Carl Ernst, Bruce Lawrence, M. Hermansenor S. A. Rizvi, particularlythe last two scholars' works on Shah Wali'ullah), as well as the complete absence of reference to any primary sources (throughoutthis whole chapter),makesthis vignette a cursoryratherthanan in-depthanalysis. The authornotes that the Europeanoccupation was to extend "far beyond the physical takeover of land and launch a devastating attack on all aspects of Muslim identity. In this process Sufism, as a centralfeatureof this identity, was to be challenged more severely than at any point in its history. By contrastwith this worldwide Europeanassault, all previous internalMuslim anti-Sufismpales almost into insignificance." (p. 29) While this statementhas quite a lot of truth in it, one can find frequent instances where Sufi masters expressed respect for and kinship with some of the more progressivevalues of Westem civilization in the face of the repression encountered in their own homelands from fanatical formalist Muslims, as well as frequentdeclarationsof admirationfor Sufism on the partof Europeanscholars. In 1831 (to give but one example out of many of the latter), for example, the Nicmatullahi master Zayn al-cAbidin Shirvani ("Mast cAli Shah") described his friendly encounter with a learned European gentleman in Kirmanshah,who, when asked to comment on the Europeanview of Sufis and Sufism, gave him an enthusiasticallypositive report.'0 Throughoutthis chapter, broad-brushgeneralizations abound; one finds a tendency to take particularexamples belonging to specific historico-cultural contexts and temporalpolitical circumstancesand draw from these general conclusions supposedly applicable to the wider Muslim world. The following statement,for example, may make sense in a limited historicaland geographical sense, but certainlycannotbe generallyappliedto Muslimmystics en masse. For numbersof Sufis their first encounter with Europeanswas a violent one. In areas without other effective armed forces, where larger Islamic state control was weak or non-existent, it was often they who formed the front line of Muslim resistance,engaging in the traditional religiously-approvedstrategy of jihad against the unbelieving enemy. (p. 29) Following this pronouncement,the author proceeds to discuss nineteenthcentury Sufi attitudes to "the Lesser Jihad" in Algeria. A mere two pages (32 infra-34 supra) is devoted to CAbd al-Qadir's Sufism, portrayingthe Amir as a 10. "From the books of Sufismavailablein our land, " the man replied,"we have deduced thatthe sect of the Sufis arethe mostpiousandpeacefulof all Muslims. Since we considera 'perfecthumanbeing' to be someonefromwhose handand tongueall othersaresafe andsecure, whodoes notannoyandirritate nordestroy others, theirpeace andcontentment by botheration andtorment, themainMuslim sectcharacterized by such ethics are the dervishesand theirfollowers,for this groupare seekersof wisdomand gnosis,who chooseto residein solitudeandseclusionandrefrain fromassociation with folkof vaindisposition." Bustan Shirvani, al-siyaiha (Tehran, 1315/1936), 31.

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432 Reviews man who harboredviolent animosity for his FrenchChristianenemies, while in reality his characterwas quite the opposite-witness his heroic defense of the 15,000 Christiansof Damascus at the time of the Druze massacres (1860), so Churchill: eloquentlydescribedby his biographer "All the representatives of the Christian power then residing in Damascus, without one single exception, had owed their lives to him. Strange and unparalleleddestiny! An Arab had thrown his guardian aegis over the outraged majesty of Europe. A descendent of the Prophethas shelteredand protectedthe Spouse of Christ."" The author's cursory and dismissive account of the Amir's political career is complementedby a virtualdisregardfor the spiritualdimensionof his personality, even omittingto mentionthe existence of any of his profoundtheosophical writings, although a good anthology of these was published in both Frenchand English'2severalyears priorto this work. Sirriyeh's approachto the various forms of malaise which afflicted Sufism in the nineteenth century is generally not to acknowledge that there are any basic fundamentalprinciplesof the Sufi tarfqa which may have been perverted, but instead to view these perversions as integral dimensions of Sufism itself. The author's attitude of indifference to Sufi ethics (akhlaq) and intellectual flouting of the preceptsof suluik-the prima materia of Sufi speculativetheosophy-betrays an essential disregard for the mucdmalat,ahwal, maqamat,and ultimately,the haqrqat of classical Sufism. This dismissive attitudetowardsthe principles of Sufi ethics is visible, for instance, in her comments about the Sudanese 'Mahdi' MuhammadAhmad, who in 1884 announceda ban on all the Sufi tarrqas, declaring that their adherentsshould abandonthem. Sirriyeh here judges that "His mahdishipdid not deny the truthsof Sufism, but made its preform obsolete."(p. 37; italics mine) vious organizational Alas! The impious behaviour of this pseudo-Sufi, this so-called messiah, belies the first and fundamentalmoral truthof Sufism, which is abstentionfrom condemnationof one's fellow Muslims for adopting divergent modes of worship: a coda of tolerance that is the theme of the exordium to the chapter in Sacdi's Gulistanon "Sufi Ethics,"later versified by 'Abd al-RahmanJami in his Silsilat al-dhahabas follows: If you see a devotee engage with the Prophet'smessage yet in his wordor doctrinewitness andHall, TheLifeof AbdelKader(London: Chapman 11. Charles HenryChurchill, of the Distortion "From Sufismto Terrorism: 1897),323, cited by RezaShah-Kazemi, in RezaShah-Kazemi, Culture of Algeria," ed.,Algeria:Revolution Islamin thePolitical Islamic World 1997),165. Revisited Report, (London:
12. Michael Chocdkiewicz,The Spiritual Writingsof 'Abdal-Kader (Albany, SUNY


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a myriaderrors,faults and kinds of innovation, bewareneithercurse him as an infidel, nor reckonhim amongthe folk of the fire.'3 In any case, it seems more reasonable that Sufis should be measured by their compatibility to classical Sufi ideals, with the understandingthat, as Hujwiri put it, writing almost a millenniumago, "there'sbut one championin every host, and the genuine adepts in every sect are few-still, the masses count these fakes as genuine, and because of their conformity with the Sufis in one respect, people reckon them as Sufis in every respect. Hence, the Prophet's dictum. 'He who makes himself akin to a party is one of them."",14Any study of Sufism which fails to give focal importanceto Abu'l-Husayn Nuri's (d. 295/907) dictum "Suflsm is neithercustomarypractices nor knowledge; rather,it is ethics"'5 remains,to say the least, methodologicallyand academicallyshallow, insofar as Sufism is a type of mysticism whose primary definitions are, as Carl Ernst points out, of an ethically prescriptivenature.16 Another disturbing aspect of the book in this respect is that most of the Sufis that the authorhas chosen to discuss are actually often quite uncharacteristic of the ideals of the classical traditionof Islamic mysticism. Thus, there is very little mention of the classical traditionof Sufism in the book, such that the names of the likes of Bayazid of Bistam (d. 264/877-78), Abu Bakr Shibli (d. 334/945), Abu'l-Hasan Kharaqani(d. 426/1034), or Abu Sacid ibn Abi'l-Khayr (d. 440/1049) are completely absent from the text, nor featured in the index. Neither is there mention of the two greatest Arab and Persian lyric Sufi poets: Ibn Farid and Hafiz. How can one discuss the pros and contrasof Sufi thought, whether this be in the medieval or moderncontext, without any referenceto the prose and poetic works of its principaltheoreticiansand founders? Academics involved in Iranian studies will find the author's highlighting the views of the theological and intellectualtheoreticiansof anti-Sufisrnin Iran, without representingany of the modernadvocatesof Sufism, especially irksome. This is particularlyevident in the penultimatechapter ("Contemporary Suflsm and Anti-Sufism") of the book. Focusing on cAli Sharicati (pp. 164-66) and Khomeini (pp. 145-46), I was quite surprisedto find Khomeini described,apparently on the basis of some of his early writings, as an advocate of what the authorclassifies as "politically resurgentSufism" (subtitle to pp. 145-48). It is true that if Khomeini had been completely opposed to Sufism, as were the

13. Jami, Masnawr-yi Haft Awrang, ed. Jabalqa cAlishah, Asghar Janfada, Tahir Ahrari, and Husayn Ahmad Tarbiyat(Tehran:Nashriyat-i Miras-i Maktub, 1378/1999), 1: 242-43. 14. Kashf al-mahjuib, ed. V. A. Zhukovskii (St. Petersburg,1899 reprintedLeningrad, 1926), 51.

15.Kashf 47. al-mahjiub,

16. See "The Term Sufi as a Prescriptive Ethical Concept," in Carl Ernst, The

Shambhala to Sufism, Guide 18-26.

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434 Reviews Wahhabisin Arabia,the situationfor Sufis in Iranwould have been much worse than it presentlyis.17 One must distinguish,however, between the theoreticaland of Sufism practicalaspects of Sufism.'8 One cannot separatethe understanding from spiritualrealization,and thereforeto cite the name of Khomeini as exemplifying "politically resurgent Sufism" is to confuse the hikmat theosophy of tasawwufin theoretical Cifiainwith the practicalconcerns of khanaqah-centered relationshipis paramount,which leads to a major misunwhich the pfr-murrdr not only of Iranianpolitics but of PersianSufism in general. derstanding All in all, Sirriyeh's readinessto accept certainextremistSalafi theologians and pseudo-Sufis' politicized versions of Islam as characteristic of, or even compatible with, the ethical ideals and spiritualrealities of classical Sufism, is not convincing. It would be nice to recommendthis book as a good primerfor seeking a broadoverview of the encounterof Sufism with coloundergraduates nialism, modernism,and other Western"isms"over the last two centuriesin the Muslim world. While the scope of the authoris certainly sweeping in the geographical sense, and unrivalled by any other publication in its chronological focus on the modern era, encompassing a vast number of Sufi and quasi-Sufi movements and thinkers in a remarkablyshort space-and this itself is a great achievement-many of her own insights and conclusions are, as I have shown above, prone to bias in favor of the anti-Sufi rhetoriciansand ideologues, so the intricaciesof the theosophicalteachings and doctrines she wishes to discuss are misrepresented. LeonardLewisohn SOAS,Universityof London

Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of PostmodernAnalysis, HaidehMoghissi, London:Zed Books, 1999, 166 pp. Islam has long had an obsessive concern with issues of gender and sexuality. Althoughfear of female sexuality and concernover the moralconductof women are not unique to the Islamic tradition-both the Talmudand the writings of the early Churchcontain explicit warningsaboutthe sexual power of women-what sets Islam apart is the popular image of the Muslim woman as the veiled and secluded sexual propertyof her husbandthat first emerged in the writingsof the Europeancolonialists. The initial reaction of the West to this incomplete, if not
17. As I pointed out in a recent article that examines the conflict between mullas and Sufls in the context of early modem and contemporaryIran (1750-2000), most of the tariqas in Iran still live in constant terrorof the faqths' Holy Inquisition. See Leonard Lewisohn, "An Introductioninto the History of Modem Persian Sufism," Bulletin of the School of Orientaland AfricanStudies,61 (1998): 437-64; 62 (1999): 36-59. 18. See S. H. Nasr, ''cIrfan-inazari va sayr u suluikdar tasawwuf," Iran-niimah,11 (1993): 121-27.

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