From the Jacket
Islam is often described as abstract, ascetic, and uniquely disengaged from the human body. The author refutes this assertion in the first full study of Islamic mysticism as it relates to the human body. Examining Sufi conceptions of the body in religious writings from the late fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries AD, the author demonstrates that literature from this era often treated saints’ physical bodies as sites of sacred power.
Sufis and Saints’ Bodies focuses on six important saints from Sufi communities in North Africa and South Asia. The author singles out a specific part of the body to which each saint is frequently associated in religious literature. The saints’ bodies, the author argues, are treated as symbolic resources for generating religious meaning, communal solidarity, and the experience of sacred power. In each chapter, the author features a particular theoretical problem, drawing methodologically from religious studies, anthropology, studies of gender and sexuality, theology, feminism, and philosophy. Bringing a new perspective to Islamic studies, the author shows how an important Islamic tradition integrated myriad understandings of the body in its nurturing role in the material, social, and spiritual realms.
Scott Kugle is also the author of Rebel between Spirit and Law: Ahmad Zarruq and Juridical Sainthood in North Africa. He lives in India.
Sufis and Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, and Sacred Power in Islam is the seventh volume to be published in our series, Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks.
Why make Islamic civilization and Muslim networks the theme of a new series? The study of Islam and Muslim societies is often marred by an overly fractured approach that frames Islam as the polar opposite of what “Westerners” are supposed to represent and advocate, Islam has been objectified as the obverse of the Euro-American societies that self-identify as “the West.” Political and economic trends have reinforced a habit of localizing Islam in the “volatile” Middle Eastern region. Marked as dangerous foreigners, Muslims are also demonized as regressive outsiders who reject modernity. The negative accent in media headlines about Islam creates a common tendency to refer to Islam and Muslims as being somewhere” over there,” in another space and another mind-set from the so-called rational, progressive, domo critic West.
Ground-level facts tell another story. The social reality of Muslim cultures extends beyond the Middle East. It includes South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and China. It also includes the millennial presence of Islam in Europe and the increasingly significant American Muslim community. In different places and eras, it is Islam that has been the pioneer of reason, Muslims who have been the standard-bearers of progress. Muslims remain integral to “our” world; they are inseparable from the issues and conflicts of transregional, panoptic world history.
By itself, the concept of Islamic civilization serves as a useful counter-weight to that of Western civilization, undermining the triumphalist framing of history that was reinforced first by colonial empires and then by the Cold War. Yet when the study of Islamic civilization is combined with that of Muslim networks, their very conjunction breaks the mold of both classical Orientalism and Cold War area studies. The combined rubric allows no discipline to stand by itself; all disciplines converge to make possible a refashioning of the Muslim past and a reimagining of the Muslim future, Islam escapes the timeless warp of textual norms; the additional perspectives of social sciences and modern technology forge a new hermeneutical strategy that marks ruptures as well as continuities, local influences as well as cosmopolitan accents. The twin goals of the publication series in which this volume appears are (1) to locate Islam in multiple pasts across several geo-linguistic, sociocultural frontiers, and (2) to open up a new kind of interaction between humanists and social scientists who engage contemporary Muslim societies. Networking between disciplines and breaking down discredited stereotypes will foster fresh interpretations of Islam that make possible research into uncharted subjects, including discrete regions, issues, and collectivities.
Because Muslim networks have been understudied, they have also been undervalued. Our accent is on the value to the study of Islamic civilization of understanding Muslim networks. Muslim networks inform the span of Islamic civilization, while Islamic civilization provides the frame that makes Muslim networks more than mere ethnic and linguistic subgroups of competing political and commercial empires. Through this broad-gauged book series, we propose to explore the dynamic past, but also to imagine an elusive future, both of them marked by Muslim networks. Muslim networks are like other networks: they count across time and place because they sustain all the mechanisms-economic and social, religious and political-that characterize civilization. Yet insofar as they are Muslim networks, they project and illumine the distinctive nature of Islamic civilization.
We want to make Muslim networks as visible as they are influential for the shaping and reshaping of Islamic civilization.
I have had the good fortune of learning from many profound teachers. Some have been teachers about Sufism in Western universities, while others have been Sufi teachers far from any university. One such sitting was especially memorable though brief, and I never learned the name of this custodian of the Sufi shrine at Borabanda, on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India. He is a spiritual guide in the Chishti way, a middle-aged man with gentle, weary eyes framed by thick black glasses and hair that curled down around his shoulders. He sat on the floor of a bare room that was his office, in a formerly white T-shirt and lungi, which was his uniform. The only trappings of power that he had were the yellow shawl draped over his shoulders, whose faded brilliance displayed his allegiance to the Chishti way, and an intangible air of authority born from experience that hung about him like a perfume.
Our conversation meandered through many important topics that after-non until we began to speak about khud-shinasi, self-recognition. “The only question worth answering,” he said to me, “is who are you. So who are you?” What began as an observation ended as a question, which hung in the air. I suddenly realized that we were no longer discussing Sufism but rather doing Sufism, whatever that really means. I told him my name. “That is not you, that is your name. You would still be you with a different name.” I told him by that I am part of a family, community, and history. “That is not you, that is where you are from. Now who are you?” In a gesture that surprised even me, I pointed to my chest, without saying anything, as if to show that my body, beneath my name and before my history, was somehow the existential ground of my being. “No,” he said smiling,” that is not you either.” He took my little finger and asked, “Is this you?” And then my hand,” Is this you?” And then my wrist, my arm, my head-“No, no, no, you are other than all this!”
The point seems simple when I write it on paper, but at the time it struck me as profound because I comprehended what he was telling me through gestures even as I did not fully believe it. Yes, the body is not a person’s identity, and yet the body is not so easily left behind. Yes, too easy an acceptance of the body and its routines can distract one from deeper tides of the soul, but still, I asked then and still ask now, can we feel the soul’s force except with and through the body? The body is a limitation that allows us to move beyond limitations. Our conversation that afternoon created for me greater clarity about the issues I was working on in this book, issues about how the body is imagined in Sufi communities, especially the bodies of holy people known as saints and spiritual guides. Clearly, they are issues that cannot be resolved by reading books (or by writing one!) but only by exploring one’s own experience of the body and reflecting on its profound transience with an open heart and clear mind.
So this book is incomplete, and necessarily so. It is an initial exploration into a vast subject. Yet I hope it will also invite the reader to reflect not just about Sufism in times past and places distant but also about things much nearer at hand, such as the breath, bones, belly, eyes, lips, and heart, that link us to people and religious ways of life that may seem, on the surface, remote. From the viewpoint of wisdom, all things that appear remote are actually close at hand, maybe closer than one’s own hand. As the Qur’an declares of God, for we are closer to the human being than the jugular vein (qur’an 50:16)
Like the body itself, books are more complex than they appear on the surface. Although this book is published under my name, it contains my own thoughts and reflections along with traces of long conversations with friends, teachers, and colleagues. Without their encouragement, I could never have conceived of these parts as a whole and could never have summoned up the courage to weave them together.
I wrote this book while supported by a fellowship from the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands. I conducted research for the book while teaching at Swarthmore College, which provided me with unwavering and generous support. Grants from the American Institute of Maghribi Studies, the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, and the American Institute of Indian Studies allowed me to complete the archival manuscript research upon which these chapters are based.
Parts of this study began as lectures, and some were partially published as articles; the audiences and editors who shaped this process deserve my thanks. Portions of Chapter I were presented as a Swarthmore College Faculty Lecture entitled “Political Bodies and the Body Politic: Saints, Tombs and Power in a North African Urban Center” and also at the DePaul University Faculty Enrichment Program, in Fes, Morocco, later that year. Some material from Chapter 2 was offered at the Second International Conference on Middle Eastern and North African Popular Culture in Hammamet, Tunisia, organized by Universite 7 Novembre ‘a Tunis, the Insitut Superior du Langues de Tunis, and Oxford University, under the title “Wild Woman or Spiritual Sister?” Portions of Chapter 3 were organized as a lecture entitled “Upwardly Mobile: The Uses and Abuses of Muhammad Ghawth Gwaliori’s Ascension,” presented at Swarthmore College at the invitation of the Department of Religion and at the Department of South Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Material from Chapter 4 was presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference as “Shah Hussayn’s Sexual-Spiritual Play: Homoerotic Acts and Public Morality in the Mughal Era,” and I thank for their helpful comments Kecia Ali, Katherine Kueny, Zayn Kassan, and Khalil Muhammad, fellows members of the panel on “Intimate Acts and Public Consequences: Sex, Gender and Power in Islamic Societies before the Modern Era.” Core material from Chapter 5 was presented in a lecture at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference entitled “The Heart of Ritual Is the Body: The Ritual Manual of an Early-Modern Sufi Master.” Part of the concluding chapter was originally presented at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (in February 2002) as “The Body in Ritual: Islam, Sufism and the Greater Jihad at the Emergence of Modernity”; many thanks are due to Carl Ernst and the Department of Religious Studies for the invitation.
For the opportunity to speak on these diverse occasions I am grateful and to the many voices whose comments and questions helped me to clarify my thoughts and spark new insights I am indebted, especially to Omid Safi, Ahmed Karamustafa, Bruce Lawrence, and Carl Ernst for their advice on revision and Elaine Maisner along with the staff at University of North Carolina Press for their editorial guidance. Special gratitude is owed to my teachers in the Kaleemi-Jeeli Sufi community and all those in the Chishti, Qadiri, and Shadhili paths who have generously shared with me their ex perience and intuition.
This book discusses Islamic images of the human body from the distinct perspective of Sufi understandings of Islam. In particular, it examines the role of saints and their bodies in Sufi communities, stressing that in pre-modern times saints were figures central to religious life in Islamic societies, in which they often played the role of political leaders and moral exemplars. Before providing an overview of this book's contents and argument, this introduction presents Sufism to an audience that might not be familiar with its tradition. Sufism is Islamic mysticism, comparable to the mystical sub- streams of other religious traditions but also distinct from them in many ways. It aims not just to understand God, like theological discourse, or to obey God, like legal discourse, but also to love and be loved by God.
Like the Islamic theological and legal discourses, it took some time for the Sufi mystical discourse to emerge from the crucible of the early Islamic community and develop into its mature forms. All three major discourses (theological, legal, and mystical) emerged in roughly the same era. Their advocates interacted intensely, sometimes in cooperation and sometimes in competition, yet all three are authentic human responses to the Prophet Muhammad's charismatic personality and the scriptural message that he brought, the Qur'an. They also vie with exponents of a fourth discourse that of philosophy adopted from Hellenism that flourished under the umbrella of Islamic culture.
As an Islamic discourse that centers upon love and intention, both states of the heart, Sufism aims to get beneath the skin of human existence, beneath its routine and rules. Skin, often overlooked as a bodily organ, is the largest organ in the human body, serving as the boundary between self and other, as well as an organ of sensation. The primordial human being, Adam, has a name that derives from the word for earth or dust in Hebrew. How-ever, the same name in Arabic is linked to adim, a skin or surface. The linguistic logic is that dust is the surface of the earth, the skin of the earth, from which Adam was made. Adam's taking his name from the skin of the earth signifies the human materiality that blocks vision and knowledge of what is deeper inside. Sufism, as Islamic mystical discourse, tries to get beneath this skin to a deeper knowledge of human behavior. Our skins, as the children of Adam, both hide and reveal what is inside while giving the body an appearance to the outside world.
It is fitting that God, as represented speaking in the Qur'an, should criticize those who do evil and hide their real intentions by having their skins, which they thought were their safe cover, testify against them on the day of judgment. As in the quotation that heads this chapter, the Qur'an often cites the skin in criticizing those who harbor evil intentions that drive them to commit wrongs in secret and by stealth. Just as the skin conceals the human heart and allows us to express a potential deceitful appearance, on the day of judgment, the skin (along with other parts of the body) will act against our intentions and reveal what has been hidden, as is explained in the Qur'an before the verse cited above. One day, Gods enemies will be ushered toward the fire, distraught and bewildered. As they approach it, their hearing and vision and skin bears witness again them, revealing what they had been doing. They address their skins, "How can you bear witness against us?" They answer, "God has caused us to speak, as God causes all things to speak for God created you in the first instance and you revert inevitably to God!" (Q 41:19-21). As the skin talks back to its owner, we can hear the Qur'an criticizing the operations of the ego that subvert sincerity, hide our intention, and give an appearance that is false testimony or injustice to others. It is to this ethical urgency and cosmological profundity of the Qur'an that Sufis primarily respond, rather than to its far less frequent legal or governmental directives.
While the Prophet Muhammad was alive, his charismatic presence and ability to speak for God through revelations brought Muslims into a power- fully concentrated unity. Muslims not only memorized the Qur'an and re- cited it in prayer but also carefully observed the Prophet's ethical behavior and bodily comportment for signs of God's guidance. His wife, 'A' isha, would later reveal the seamless fusion between God's presence through speech and the Prophet's personality by teaching that "Muhammad was the Qur'an walking:' Muslims of the early community were so moved by his charismatic presence that they sacrificed their economic well-being, social status, established customs, and often gave their lives in combat in order to join and defend the fledgling community. Under Muhammad's guidance, they formed an Abrahamic monotheistic community that overcame tribal rivalries, family chauvinism, and class inequalities. The early community, after migrating to Medina, even managed to set up a polity that was multi-religious and multiethnic by entering into a civil compact with the Jews, who had long lived there as neighbors and rivals of the Arab tribes.
This successful experiment was short lived. The Arab elite aggressively rejected the Muslim experiment, driving the Muslims out of Mecca, at- tacking them in Medina, and involving some of the Medinan Jews in their strategies. The Muslims responded militarily and against all odds defeated the Meccan Arab elite, absorbing their tribal clients into the now swelling Muslim community. Upon the Prophet Muhammad's death, this Arab elite became nominally Muslim and took over political power. They seized the political force of Muhammad's experiment and fashioned from it an imperial ideology, advocating a morality of entitlement and an ethic of martyrdom. Their project was hugely successful in outward terms, and the Islamic empire toppled surrounding agrarian empires from Spain to India.
The empire's very success bred discontent. Thoughtful and pious Muslims looked back from their material plenty and imperial grandeur to the impoverished times of the early Muslim community. A movement of ascetic renunciation gathered force, which was critical of the Arab elite and preached the awe-filled fear of God's judgment and a return to the example of the Prophet. This ascetic reaction to imperial conquest formed the origin point for all three of the Islamic discourses noted above. Moderates in the ascetic movement reacted to imperial prerogative by creating Islamic legal discourse: they addressed the practical need to regulate all affairs and trans- actions (ownership, trade, taxation, contracts, marriage, and inheritance) while infusing it with the urge to create a salvific society that embodied ideals of humility, piety, and justice. Radicals in the ascetic movement belittled practical action in the world in favor of other-worldly devotion: they wore only wool; renounced ownership of property, the saving of money, and the establishment of routine family life; and retreated to devotional centers outside urban areas, thereby adopting some practices that resembled ascetic Christianity, which had flourished in areas that became heartlands of the Islamic empire, like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Revolutionaries in the ascetic movement revolted politically against the imperial elite, as in the Khariji and Shi movements.
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