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

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