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Mysticism in Sufi Islam  

David Cook

Sufism is the major expression of mysticism in Islam. While Sufism developed out of the fusion of Qur’anic ascetic tendencies and the vast fund of Christian (and other) mystical sayings present throughout the classical world, by approximately the 10th century it had become a uniquely Islamic feature. Major writers such as al-Ghazali and Ibn al-ʿArabi took this heritage and molded it both into a normative tradition for Islam as a whole (by wedding it to the Prophet Muhammad’s life experience) and, in the case of Ibn al-ʿArabi, into completely new spiritual paths. These interpretations of mysticism were critical in the vast conversion to Islam that happened during the period 1000–1800. Although other factors were involved as well, including trading by Muslims and the Islamic educational system, this conversion happened largely at the hands of the Sufis, especially holy men and healers, and thus the Muslim world is still largely Sufi or Sufi-influenced. Starting in the 19th century, however, and culminating in the mid-20th century, large numbers of Muslims abandoned Sufism, accusing it of being fundamentally anti-Islamic and even polytheistic. Today although Sufis still constitute the bulk of world Muslims, and they are visible throughout the non-Muslim world as well, their belief system is under attack as never before.

Article

Ecology in Islam  

Rosemary Hancock

Starting in the late 1960s, a small number of Muslim scholars turned their attention to how the Islamic scriptures and intellectual tradition might help Muslims understand and respond to climate change and environmental crisis. In building this Islamic approach to ecology, these scholars undertook close analysis of the Qur’an, the Sunnah (the collected traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), centuries of Islamic law, and the writings of Sufi mystics and scholars in order to construct Islamic environmental theologies and law. This Islamic ecology remained on the margins of mainstream Islamic discourse for decades, but the participation of Muslims in environmental movements is growing and with it, the need for an Islamic ecology. In developing environmental theologies, Muslim scholars focus upon the relationship of God to the natural world, positing that as God’s creation, the natural world is a sign through which humanity can experience God. Although the natural world is “made useful” to humanity, humans do not have absolute dominion over creation. Rather, humanity is Khalifah—God’s representative or steward on earth. The development of Islamic environmental law from within the shari’ah tradition is arguably just as—if not more—important as articulating an Islamic environmental theology. Some Muslim environmentalists argue for the revival of Islamic land management institutions and look to the many regulations regarding agriculture and water management found in shari’ah as avenues for implementing Islamic environmental law.

Article

Sufism in the Modern World  

Marcia Hermansen

Sufism, the mystical expression of the Islamic tradition, has been for centuries a major cultural, social, political, and, of course, religious influence in diverse Muslim cultures. With modernity Sufism has been subjected to increased criticism, and in some cases repression and violent hostility, on the part of certain Muslim opponents. From another direction, secularizing reformers such as President Kemal Atatürk (d. 1937) of Turkey view Sufism as a repository of decadent behaviors and superstitions that are incompatible with modern values and rationality. It is also noteworthy that, in response to internal and external reactions to violent extremism especially post-9/11, political leaders in Muslim majority countries such as Morocco and Pakistan have attempted to promote Sufism as a potentially moderating and peaceful influence and therefore encouraged it in their societies. This approach has also been promoted by Western political interests that present Sufism as a moderating counter to violent extremism. These latter examples highlight the importance of the modern nation-state as it engages with Sufism and its institutions, especially in the postcolonial period. Pre-modern forms of Sufism emphasized pledging allegiance (bay‘a) to a spiritual master and affiliating with a Sufi order (Arabic: ṭarīqa, pl. ṭuruq). Being part of a Sufi order was thus a communal, as well as a personal, commitment, and the hierarchy and sense of belonging they entailed led the orders to play an important social, and in some cases, political role. With modernity, esoteric elements of Sufi thought, as well as traditional folk practices of making vows and faith healing, along with earlier social forms of clientage and patronage, have become less relevant in increasingly urban environments. Some scholars of Sufism have therefore characterized the modern era as a time of decline and degeneration in Sufi social and political influence, as well as in Sufi intellectual production and literary and artistic creativity. However, expectations that Sufism is on the wane are challenged by observations of how Sufis have adapted to changing circumstances in modernity, both in Muslim-majority societies and in the West. For example, some scholars document a Sufi renewal involving the rise of charismatic teachers and practices and the reach of new global networks. Sufi teachings are promoted through Internet sites and social media, while today’s Sufi teachers may draw on 20th century Western psychological frameworks to explain the spiritual and therapeutic impact of Sufi practices on individuals. Meanwhile Sufi ideas are disseminated to broader publics through music videos, conferences, and other cultural events, such that Sufism in these new configurations continues to inspire significant, if more diffuse, loyalties, both locally and globally. In an age of networking and social mobility, flows of individuals and ideas have created new transnational spheres for the influence and impact of Sufism. At the same time local conditions vary considerably in shaping its diverse contemporary expressions and adaptations.

Article

The Safavids  

Colin Mitchell

The Safavids (1501–1722) controlled a land-based empire that comprised the modern-day nation of Iran, with extensions into Iraq, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan. The family of the Safavids originated as Sufi mystical sheikhs based in the region of Azerbaijan but were later imperialized thanks to the dynastic founder, Shah Ismaʿil (r. 1501–1524). The transition from Sufi tariqa to imperial polity was not smooth, and Ismaʿil faced external threats from the Ottoman Empire to the west, as well as internal pressure from his popular base, the Qizilbash tribal Turks who revered their shah as both a Sufi sheikh as well as a manifestation of the millenarian figure Mahdi who was popularly understood as the Muslim agent of the Apocalypse. The success of the Safavids was partly based on their ability to distance their family from such decentralized, tribal elements and seek out those constituencies that could help with regard to establishing and building legitimacy: orthodox Twelver Shiʿite jurists and scholars as well as urban Persian administrators and bureaucrats. It was Ismaʿil and his successor, Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576), who proclaimed and enforced Twelver Shiʿism as the new state doctrine, thus contributing to a stark Sunni-Shiʿite division between themselves and their neighboring rival empires of the Ottomans and the Uzbeks. The apogee of the Safavid Empire took place during the reign of Shah ʿAbbas (r. 1589–1629) who, among other things, transformed Isfahan into a city of international stature with fantastic architectural patronage while at the same time enticing European merchants and traders to trade in textiles, silk, and other manufactured goods. Following the reign of Shah ʿAbbas, the Safavid Empire became less stable and more susceptible to outside elements, namely those Caucasian nobles and landed gentry who had been previously incorporated into the Safavid state as court officials, provincial governors, and ranking military officers. Concurrently, there was a rise in conservative orthodoxy among the Shiʿite religious scholars, and the previous era of open trade and strong international relations began to wane as Christians, Jews, and other minorities became increasingly targeted and persecuted. By the end of the 17th century, the Safavid court was politically isolated from the other provinces, so much so that the imperial capital was easily besieged and conquered in 1722 by an invading conglomerate of Afghan tribes.

Article

Islam and Art: An Overview  

Wendy Shaw

Modern terms like “religion” and “art” offer limited access to the ways in which nonverbal human creativity in the Islamic world engages the “way of life” indicated by the Arabic word din, often translated as religion. Islam emerged within existing paradigms of creativity and perception in the late antique world. Part of this inheritance was a Platonic and Judaic concern with the potentially misleading power to make images, often misinterpreted in the modern world as an “image prohibition.” Rather, the image function extended beyond replication of visual reality, including direct recognition of the Divine as manifest in the material and cultural world. Music, geometry, writing, poetry, painting, devotional space, gardens and intermedial practices engage people with the “way of life” imbued with awareness of the Divine. Rather than externally representing religious ideas, creativity fosters the subjective capacity to recognize the Divine. Flexible enough to transcend the conventions of time and place over the millennium and a half since the inception of Islam, these modes of engagement persist in forms that also communicate through the expressive practices of contemporary art. To consider religion and art in Islam means to think about how each of these categories perpetually embodies, resists, and recreates the others.

Article

Sufi Communities in Secular Mexico  

Lucía Cirianni Salazar

The emergence of an organized presence of Sufi communities in Mexico dates to the last two decades of the 20th century. Sufis constitute a part of Mexico’s minority Muslim community. Their groups are mostly made of Mexican and other Latin American converts who follow the leadership of Western sheikhs, who themselves converted to Islam and were initiated into Sufi orders as adults. These characteristics shape many of the particularities of Mexican Sufi communities and their relationship to the Sufi orders from which they originated. The oldest and most established Sufi community in Mexico is the Nur Ashki Jerrahi order, an offshoot of the Turkish Halveti-Jerrahi order. The second community of Sufi Muslims to have been established in Mexico is the Murabitun community, a branch of the Murabitun World Movement that settled in the southern state of Chiapas in 1995. Apart from these two larger communities, other Sufi orders have representatives in Mexico who guide smaller groups of followers. Some Sufi groups in Mexico have combined traditional gatherings with commercial activities, especially in the form of workshops and alternative therapeutic services that are advertised as being based on Sufi concepts and ritual practices. These groups have also offered intellectual approaches to Sufism, such as reading circles and seminars. By considering groups whose Sufi dimension has been overlooked, either because they are secular communities or because they are organizations focused on social transformation with little or no mystical emphasis, scholars can query the conventional Western construal of Sufism as Islamic mysticism.

Article

Theology in Translation: Latin American and Iranian Efforts  

Ángel Horacio Molina and Luis Alberto Vittor

“Turkish” migrants , in fact Ottoman Arab who entered the American continent with identity documents issued by the Ottoman authorities and traveled with their languages or dialects, arrived at the end of the 19th century and in the first decades of the 20th century. However, the migratory wave extended almost until the middle of the 20th century after going through a complex political, social, and cultural process that substantially modified various aspects of the migrants’ lives. Their religious lives were progressively hampered in terms of ritual practice because their faith of origin was in the minority with no adequate spaces for collective prayer. They encountered the increasingly pressing need to translate their Islamic sources, on the one hand because of the gradual loss of the Arabic language in some communities and on the other because of the need to maintain it—not only through translation but also by teaching the language in mosques and community centers. The arrival of Iranian migrants to different destinations in Latin America starting in the 1980s enriched this process of translation and dissemination of Islamic texts (Arabic and Persian) in Latin America. The Muslim diaspora was the first group who, for various reasons, left their homeland while maintaining a close relationship with their language and culture of origin, and later, Muslim converts devoted themselves to the task of translating (inversely, directly, and indirectly) the Islamic theological texts from Arabic to Spanish or Portuguese. The very possibility of translation is a type of migration—a transfer that modifies a source language into a target language. One’s own language is poured into a foreign language. Translating is the disposition of language from the “I” that leads the reader to meet the “you” of otherness. This migratory process is also the inner journey made by the Latin American convert to the Islamic faith: their effort to first learn a language that is not their own in order to translate it into their own in the act of translating. Translation is a form of migration that has become an essential tool for mediation, conversion, knowledge, and dissemination. Both Muslim Arabs and converts devoted themselves to this task: for Muslim Arabs because of the progressive loss in the use of the language of their ancestors, and for converts, out of a pious duty to learn Arabic, the language in which the Qur’an was revealed in the Scripture that guides their new faith and to benefit those who do not know the language.