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Sufism. Carl Ernst Reli 180, Introduction to Islamic Civilization. Outline . Problems of definition Modern European and fundamentalist concepts of Sufism Quick vocabulary check on Sunni/Shi`I Ibn Khaldun on Sufism Institutional development of Sufism, post 1200.

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Carl Ernst

Reli 180,

Introduction to Islamic Civilization


Problems of definition

Modern European and fundamentalist concepts of Sufism

Quick vocabulary check on Sunni/Shi`I

Ibn Khaldun on Sufism

Institutional development of Sufism, post 1200

1 definition and the problem of essentially contested terms
1. Definition and the problem of “essentially contested terms”
  • Examples: Liberal; justice; freedom (see George Lakoff, Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea)
  • Different perspectives on Sufism: foreign & non-Islamic, or the heart of Islam?
  • Where do definitions come from?
    • Summaries of analytical observation (Plato)
    • Historical record (Oxford English Dictionary)
    • Authority (political/religious figures)
arabic definitions
Arabic definitions
  • The derivations of Sufi
    • suf, wool, garment of ascetic denial
    • safa’, “purity”
    • safwa, “the elite”
    • Ahl al-suffa, “the people of the bench” (early Muslims who shared everything in common)
  • Tasawwuf, “becoming a Sufi” explained by teaching definitions
    • How might that differ from “Sufism” as part of the catalog of “isms”?
2 rediscovery of the sufi tradition
2. Rediscovery of the Sufi tradition

Spirituality, experience, mysticism: loaded terms from European/Christian history

Early Europeans like Sufi poetry (love and wine), thought it couldn’t possibly be Islamic – must be from somewhere else?

Recent colonial/postcolonial reformations of Islamic identity (“fundamentalism”) reject Sufi saints, intercession, Sufi lineages and practices, as evil innovations

4 ibn khaldun on sufism
4. Ibn Khaldun on Sufism

Sufism “belongs to the sciences of the religious law that originated in Islam”

Divine worship, devotion to God, aversion from the world, abstinence from wealth, retirement into solitude for worship – all common among early Muslims

Special name “Sufi” developed a couple of centuries later [compare special technical terms of Islamic law and hadith]

ibn khaldun characteristics of sufism
Ibn Khaldun: characteristics of Sufism


Intuitive perception of psychological states and stations

Self-scrutiny and quest for knowledge and unity with God

Special language for inner experience, parallel to other fields of religious knowledge

ibn khaldun explains sufism
Ibn Khaldun explains Sufism

Philosophical psychology as an explanation of Sufi experiences

“Removal of the veil” as a key metaphor for perception that goes beyond the senses

Different views on God as separate or one with creatures (p. 362); alleged similarity with philosophical and Christian views

Disapproval of Sufis by legal scholars (muftis, who give anti-Sufi fatwa decrees)

ibn khaldun criticizes sufism
Ibn Khaldun criticizes Sufism

Theories of absolute oneness: only God exists

Theory of God’s imagination as source of the cosmos

-- Ibn Khaldun dismisses these views as contrary to both reason and experience

more criticism of sufism by i k requires distinction of topics
More criticism of Sufism by I.K. requires distinction of topics

“pious exertions” of meditation and worship

Removal of the veil, perception of supernatural realities

The operation of divine grace in the world

Ecstatic expressions that arouse suspicion (“I am the truth” – Hallaj)  These are the primary problem; they should be disapproved or reinterpreted

ibn khaldun s final verdict
Ibn Khaldun’s final verdict

Seeking inner experience is fine, but it’s better not to discuss them publicly!

5 institutional development of sufism post 1200
5. Institutional development of Sufism, post 1200
  • “Saints” or living friends of God
    • Problems with using the term “saint”
  • Tombs as centers of pilgrimage: local forms
  • Masters (shaykh, pir) and disciples (murid)
  • “Chains” (silsila) of master and disciple, going back to the Prophet [Sufi “orders”]
  • “Ways” (tariqa) taught by orders
  • Veneration of the Prophet
scale of sufi shrine pilgrimage
Scale of Sufi shrine pilgrimage

Ajmer receives 1.5 million pilgrims at the annual festival

Touba receives over 2 million pilgrims

Neither pilgrimage center is aware of or connected to the other

Both challenge the hajj to Mecca in size

To what extent should they be considered marginal in modern Islam?

more institutional developments
More institutional developments

Chanting the Arabic names of God as a ritual of remembrance (dhikr)

Rituals of music, recitation of poetry

Sometimes arms-length from politics, sometimes tightly involved

Abolition of Sufism in Turkey by secular govt., in Saudi Arabia by fundamentalists

Modern phenomenon of Sufism for non-Muslims

  • Problems of definition:
  • “Once Sufism was a reality without a name; now it is a name without a reality”

-- Abu al-Hasan Fushanja (11th century)