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Against Sufi Practitioners: Shiʿa Virtues and Bodily States in Safavid Iran

Wednesday 24 October 2018
Free to visit, free drinks after
Fall lecture series in Shiʿi studies
Lipsius Building
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

Modern scholars have placed much emphasis on the role of the jurists or/and the intellectuals in engineering the demise of traditional paths of Sufi knowledge under the Safavids, especially during the 17th century. Various studies have paid little attention to the processes of doctrinal and socio-legal ‘homogenization’ tied to gunpowder empires like the Safavid and Ottoman ones. They have also assigned little agency to common Shiʿa believers when addressing the marginalization of tekkes and khāniqāhs as spaces for the development of moral and ethical capabilities, not to mention socio-religious and economic bonds. In this respect, they presented the shariʿa as essentially if not categorically antithetical to Sufism in all its forms and enactments. This paper examines the connections and discursive differences between the ʿibādāt tied to the shariʿa, on the one hand, and Sufi embodied practice, on the other, by looking closely at questions of sensuality, chastity, passion, and ecstasy, which emerged in Iran during the 17th century. More specifically, the speaker delineates the discourses of Sufi shaykhs and scholars, as presented in Sufi ādāb works, surrounding audition (samāʿ) and sensuality. I also examine the ‘script’ offered by Sufi masters on an audition, that is, the prescribed way (ʿāda) of performing it, and the prevalent opinions concerning its successful delivery. The Safavid jurists’ preoccupation with samāʿ (audition), the speaker argues, must be read in light of long-standing discussions and debates among Sufi masters and scholars themselves about sensuality and the regulation of cognitive-emotional states (ālāt, maqāmāt), crying (bukāʾ), and rapture or ecstasy (wajd) associated with audition. Comparisons and distinctions are drawn between forms of ascetic restraint tied to ʿibādāt, that is, rituals of worship enjoined by the shariʿa, on the one hand, and rituals of dīn or pure faith enjoined by Sufi masters, on the other. The jurists’ writings against Sufi practice, rather than being seen as a break with the tradition, had a vivid connection to the concerns of Sufi masters who feared that audition would undermine the attainment of pure faith and a true knowledge of the divine.

In the last few decades of the 17th century, the refutation of what was broadly called “Sufiyya” and “Sufi” continued to draw out legal-theological proofs for the blasphemy of doctrines of fanāʾ (annihilation of the self so the Sufi can unite with God), ḥulūl (incarnation of God in the body), ittiḥād (unity with God), and waḥdat al-wujūd (oneness of being). Yet, an overwhelming emphasis was placed on embodied Sufi practice, presented pejoratively as a form of undisciplined lay piety evident among “laypersons” (ʿawām). More importantly, the jurists addressed the overlap between Sufi and ʿĀshūrāʾ rituals, with respect to crying, fainting, yearning, emotional outbursts, and expressions of ecstatic love. It appears that ʿĀshūrāʾ rituals and the believers’ engagement with them, facilitated the break (from below) with Sufi ṭarīqas by offering powerful parallels to Sufi ritual and helping nurture new spiritual and moral aptitudes.

Bio speaker

Rula Jurdi Abisaab is Associate Professor of Islamic History at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, where she teaches in all areas of Islamic-Shi`ite history. She is especially interested in the transformation of juristic thought, the `ulama’s legal authority and relations of power in Shi`ite society during sixteenth and seventeenth-century Iran.
Her previous research focused on religion and power in Safavid Iran, exploring the interface of the shari`a with Sufism and heterodoxy. She is currently working on research on public religion and militancy in modern Shi`ite society.

In addition to her academic research and writing on Islamic Shi`ite history, Professor Abisaab also is a poet whose poems appeared in Iraqi, Lebanese, and American journals and newspapers.


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Send an email to LUCIS@hum.leidenuniv.nl

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