Book Review: Mystical Dimensions of Islam

Some call Annemarie Schimmel’s book, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, obsolete. I disagree. To date, I have not come across another book on Sufism that is more complete and moving than this. Spanning a hefty 500-odd pages, Schimmel’s work is conspicuously free from the the kinds of defects that afflict other Orientalist writings.

She begins by establishing that western interest in Sufism only properly began in the nineteenth century. Historical sources and important Sufi manuals were made widely available in print both in the Middle East and Europe. However, Schimmel rightly notes that most of the sources available to European scholars at that time were of rather late origin and seldom painted an accurate picture about the earliest stages of mystical trends in Islam.

Moreover, the works of these European scholars were often coloured by the view that Islam was a backward religion, or a kind of bastardized version of Christianity. How could a desert religion that had been ‘founded’ by an illiterate man aspire to fine and high spiritual thoughts? Was the question many Orientalists asked themselves.

Their interpretations would produce a generation of prejudice not only in Europe but also in Arab heartlands, which at that time were going through a painful period of assimilation with their colonial masters.

An entire generation of Muslim modernists and progressives adopted the European deconstruction of Sufism. Their own writings and speeches echoed much of the condescension that was arrayed against Sufism in orientalist writings.

Such cultural borrowings are not entirely inconceivable. For centuries, it was Christian realms who developed the abiding tropes of anti-Semitism, such as greediness and ambitions to world domination. According to Daniel Pipes,

…historically Christians killed most Jews. Therefore, Jews regularly fled Christendom for Islamdom. In 1945, this pattern abruptly changed. Christians came to terms with Jews, while Muslims adopted both the old Christian themes and murderousness. Today institutional anti-Semitism is overwhelmingly a Muslim affair. One result has been a steady reverse exodus, with Jews now fleeing Islamdom for Christendom.

The prevalence of Muslim anti-Semitism was a topic that the esteemed Shaykh Hamza Yusuf recently touched on in a courageous article entitled, Holocaust Denial Undermines Islam.

It is thus no coincidence that the rise of post-colonial Salafism paralleled the growing rejection of Sufism, based, significantly enough, on reasons that European commentators on Sufism had outlined in their works. In a sense, the character of the revolution led by early Salafists was largely shaped by the European perception of their heritage.

Schimmel very ably supplants all these stereotypes by reverting to the classical interpretation of Sufism that had been expounded by Muslim luminaries like Imam an-Nawawi, Imam Junayd, Imam al-Ghazali and Mawlana Rumi. A position that was remarkably distilled in 1821 by a German Professor of Divinity1,

..the Sufi doctrine was both generated and must be illustrated out of Muhammad’s own mysticism.

In fact, it is a widely-held belief that the seed of man’s innate knowledge was planted long before he was even born. The Quran, in Sura 7:171, speaks of a primordial covenant:

Before creation, God called the future humanity out of the loins of the not-yet created Adam and addressed them with the words: “Am I not your Lord?”, and they answered: “Yes, we witness it.”

Thus, a man or woman’s transgression is never attributed to a Christian-like Original Sin, but to a state of forgetfulness. The object of this amnesia, of course, is the covenant.

Through extensive use of classical works like Imam Ghazali’s Revival of the Religious Sciences and Mawlana Rumi’s Mathnawi’i Manawi, Schimmel explains the key concepts of Sufism in an easy and arresting way.

All Sufis, for example, ascend a path whose beginning is inflected by a process of purification of the heart, and whose end are the twin phenomenon known as mahabba and marifa, love and gnosis. Imam al-Ghazali holds that2,

Love without gnosis is impossible- one can only love what one knows.

But it was Imam Junayd who best summed it up3:

Love between two is not right until the one addresses the other, ‘O Thou I’.

Schimmel admits that the Sufi fondness for discursive reasoning has not always worked in their favor. Sufi manuals and poetry are not only difficult to penetrate without proper coaching from a master, they are also notoriously hard to translate. Although mis-translations have sometimes formed part of the arsenal of those who oppose Sufi theories, Schimmel argues that mystical poetry, such as those favored by Mawlana Rumi or even the more contemporary Muhammad Iqbal, should never be equated with theoretical discussions about theological problems. From my own readings of Imam al-Ghazali, I believe that Sufism views such discourse, even those rooted in established sciences like kalam, as veils that lie between them and God. According to him4,

Those who are so learned about rare forms of divorce can tell you nothing about the simpler things of the spiritual life, such as the meaning of sincerity towards God or trust in Him.

However, it is a mistake to think that Sufis are not orthodox. Sufis did not reject the religious law but rather added to it- often making more punishing demands on their personal lives. Imam al-Ghazali gave up a life of comfort and reputation in Baghdad for that of a wandering Sufi. The latter imposed as an iron rule of conduct, a sharp renouncement of the world and of everything which would separate man from God.

Schimmel arranges the chapters of her books according to the ages of Sufism. The earliest and perhaps the most famous (or infamous) mystic, al-Hallaj, is given considerable attention. The later part of the book charts the eventual systemisation of Sufism under the able hands of Sufi masters like Imam al-Ghazali. She makes a brief but compelling stop at the turbulent years when Kemal Ataturk seized power in Turkey and abolished the Sufi institutions. For many, it was regarded as the most treacherous and fatal blow on Islam-dom. But Schimmel concludes,

In the course of time…the institutions found themselves unable to respond to the need for modernization and changed outlook. Instead of fulfilling their centuries-old function as center of spiritual education, they became headquarters of obscurantism and backwardness. That is why Ataturk abolished the orders in 1925- a step that some of the leading personalities in the mystical hierarchy even approved of. They felt that the spiritual values of Sufism as taught by the poets of Anatolia would survive without the ruined framework of the orders- perhaps even in a more genuine way. And these values are indeed still alive.

Schimmel’s book is replete with references and information that are not readily-available anywhere else. For example, she mentions the war between members of the Naqshabandi Sufi order in a far-flung Chinese province, Xinjiang, over the issue of true zikir (devotional acts in which short prayers are repeated). Some advocated the zikir to be hidden, while others thought it should be spoken aloud. Or the fact that the Shadhiliyya Sufis had invented coffee to increase wakefulness during their long litanies and night-vigils. She leaves almost no stone unturned in her loving tribute to the science of Tassawwuf, not sparing criticism when she speaks of degenerate Sufis who go against their heritage by being extreme and worse, making light of the Shariah. Written in 1975, this remarkable book is still immensely relevant to our times.

  1. Friedrich August Deofidus Tholuck, Ssufismus suve theosophia persarum pantheistica, Berlin 1821.
  2. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ihya ulum ad-din, 4:254
  3. Fariduddin Attar, Tadhkirat al-auliya, edited by Reynold A Nicholson, 1905-07, London and Leiden
  4. Watt, Muslim Intellectual

The Taliban Kills Another Scholar- What’s New?

The Independent reports a war that remains hidden and under-reported:

The scholars have long been targets, of one kind or another, in Afghanistan. Their words carry weight across many parts of society, and they are assiduously courted for their support – and frequently killed for their criticism.

Herein lies the typical modus operandi of Wahhabis. In fact, the best indications of Wahhabi or Salafi influence in a community are the active de-humanising of traditional scholars, the obsessive attention paid to women’s apparel, and in lawless environments like Afghanistan, the wanton destruction of graves and tombs of revered individuals.


Maulana Ashraf Thanvi on the Culture of Feeding the Ego

Maulana Ashraf Thanvi was born in 1863 and died in 1943, having lived a life steeped in scholarship and wisdom. He was one of the most prolific and intelligent scholars from the sub-continent, and his teachings continue to inspire many earnest students of the religion. For all his efforts, he came to be known as Hakim al-Ummat, or Sage of the Muslim Community.

Here is a sermon he delivered to a group of college students1:

Today we do not propose to speak on a particular theme, but to make a brief survey of the causes which have not so far allowed you to profit from the sermons of Ulema, and which, if not indicated and remedied now, would render such sermons unprofitable in future too. The causes spring from certain deficiencies in you your selves.

The first of these deficiencies that although religious doubts are spiritual ailments, you do not regard them as ailments. That is why you have never dealt with them in the manner you deal with physical ailments. May Allah protect you from all harm, but whenever it so happens that you fall ill, you never wait for the official physician of the college to come down to your room for himself in order to examine you and to treat you. When you were ill, you would have gone to his residence yourself and spoken to him about your illness. And if his treatment did you no good, you must have gone beyond the boundary of the college to to the town, and seen the civil surgeon at the hospital. And, in case even his treatment did not prove effective, you must have left even the town and made a journey to other cities, and must have spent quite a good sum of money in bearing expenses of the journey, in paying the doctors and in buying medicines. In short, you had no peace of body or mind until you had fully regained your health. This being so, how is it that when you are afflicted with religious doubts, you just expect that the Ulema themselves should attend you? Why do you not turn to them yourselves? And if, during this quest, one ‘Alim fails to restore your health, why do you not seek other Ulema? Why do you jump to the conclusion that your problem is insoluble?

The second deficiency is that you too often have an absolute confidence in your own opinion and judgment, and assume that nothing can be wrong with your way of thinking. This is another reason why you never turn to any religious scholar. This in itself is a great error. If you seek a verification of your opinion from the Ulema, you would soon be aware of the errors you commit.

The third deficiency is that, in religious matters, you are habitually reluctant to follow any one. That is why you do not accept the authority of any expert in any religious matters, but always pry into the explanations, reasons and arguments of everything. While the truth is that one who is not an expert cannot at all do without accepting the authority of an expert. This does not mean that the scholars of the Shariah do not posses any reasons or arguments. They do possess all that. But many things are beyond your understanding. Just as it is very difficult to explain a theorem of Euclid to a man who is ignorant of the first principles, definitions and other preliminaries necessary for a proper study of geometry, in the same way there are certain sciences which serve as a instruments and elementary principles for a study of the injunctions of the Shariah. Any one who wishes to understand them fully must necessarily acquire a knowledge of these sciences to begin with…

The third deficiency that Maulana Ashraf Thanvi spoke about is especially relevant for Salafis who insist that adhering to Maddhabs, or the traditional schools of jurisprudence, is patently wrong. That’s patently crazy, as a matter of fact. The breaking of tradition, and its moderating influence, is the precise reason why the religion has been dragged into extremist directions. In this, Maulana Ashraf Thanvi was absolutely correct.

  1. Ashraf Ali Thanvi, al-Intibahat al-Mufeedah (Answer to Modernism), trans. Modhamed Hasan Askari and Karrar Husain, 2004

Irony in the Oil Kingdom

It’s amazing what money can buy, even these days. Just a few days ago, President Trump dropped in on Saudi Arabia, and by all accounts, gave a pretty impressive (though tame) speech on Islam. Except, it wasn’t. Not by a long stretch. One thing sticks out: the almost exclusive blame he places on Iran for the region’s problems. Trump accuses Iran of being:

…a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of Iran. From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.

That’s standard trope from Saudi Arabia, and Trump has become the latest patron for it, after inviting the kingdom to sign a multi-billion dollar deal with American defense companies.

Now, there’s no denying that Iran is a bad state actor, funding militant groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq etc etc. However, their attention has primarily been turned towards the region. Trump’s speech, while maverick for an American President, merely repeats pet Saudi Arabian slogans that are firmly anchored in the destructive feud between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. More bluntly, Trump leapt, and came down on the Sunni side of the wall.

Here’s the irony. It’s not the Sunni side of the wall that Trump’s landed on, it’s the Wahhabi side. Though Wahhabis like to identify themselves as Sunni Muslims, the Wahhabi creed is an incredibly literalist form of Islam that eschews all other expressions of the religion. Everything that does not conform to the Wahhabi strain is branded deviant, and this includes groups like Sufis, who have traditionally been considered an integral part of the community. Often, such branding led to deadly outcomes.

Key people in the realm provide monetary and spiritual succor to a brand of extremists who are not only interested in destroying Shia strongholds like Syria, Iraq and certain parts of Yemen, but also the mainstream Islam that is practiced by most Muslims. International terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda share the same ideological pool as Wahhabis. Across the world, they’ve probably killed more Muslims than non-Muslims.

It’s even more ironic that almost immediately after Trump’s sojourn in Saudi Arabia, a suicide bomber struck a concert in Britain. Was it Iran? Nope. The bomber was a poster child of Islamic State.

I don’t care if the extremist is a Sunni or Shia believer. All extremists must be eradicated.

Book Review: Fifty Key Figures in Islam

Well-bound and compact, Fifty Key Figures in Islam is an interesting read that is sure to fill boring moments. In presenting fifty famous figures of Islam, the author goes to great lengths at simplifying important Islamic concepts as theology, mysticism and law. The explanations of Arabic and technical terms are smoothly woven into the text itself, lending the book an elegance that is reminiscent of Karen Armstrong’s own works.

The book is laid out in a chronological manner, starting with the biography of Prophet Muhammad and ending with Abdul Karim Soroush. Though each individual’s life is spread out across an average of five pages, Roy Jackson highlights key moments that helped shaped the course of Islam. One of the book’s most important features is how it subtly exposes hitherto unseen links between old ideas and new ideas. Thus, even though the ultra-rationalist school of the Mutazilites (introduced together with the author’s biography on the Abbasid ruler, Al-Ma’mun) has long since been extinct, many Mutazilite ideas remain popular, especially amongst modern-day reformers like Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani. This is hardly surprising since Roy Jackson goes on to reveal that Al-Afghani was, in reality, a Muslim of the Shia sect, which unlike its Sunni counterpart, has not rejected the doctrines of the original Mutazilites and the type of speculative theology they employed.

However, the book has its faults. It confuses key concepts like mujaddid and mujtahid. Mujaddid means “renewer” of the religion, while mujtahid refers to a jurist who can exercise independent reasoning to derive laws from the Quran and Sunna.

Either Roy Jackson or sloppy editing allowed both terms to be used interchangeably numerous times. It’s highly suspicious when the mistake even extends to the index pages, where mujtahid is explicitly described as “renewer”. That’s incorrect.

Be warned also that because the book is about different individuals, there isn’t a monolithic theme to be derived. One may be hurt by the criticism leveled by individuals against Sufism or Wahhabism, for example. But Roy Jackson is simply being faithful to the key characteristics and achievements of the fifty extraordinary people who, for better or for worse, identified themselves with the Islamic faith.