Sufism in an Age of transition: ʻUmar al-Suhrawardī and the Rise of the Islamic Mystical Brotherhoods (Islamic History and Civilization)

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 Sufism In An Age Of Transition
  • Book Author:
Erik S. Ohlander
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There were, of course, no Sufi brotherhoods as we know them today İn the early-7th/13th century, no self-identifıed groups of individuals looking back to an eponymous founder under whose name a particular teaching lineage might differentiate itself from others based on an inherited body of practices, texts, foundational narratives, and accoutrements.

This would come later, and in the case of the earliest teaching lineages-the Suhrawardiyya bcing among the first-was invariably the work of  a particular eponym’s disciples and their successors and never that of the eponym himself.1 As with ‘Abd al-Qadir al-JilanI (d. 561/1166), Al_ımad al-Rifa’I (578/1182), Mu’In al-Dın  Chishtı (d. 633/ 1236), Abu ‘1-1:Iasan al-ShadhilI (d. 656/ 1258), andjalal al-Din RumI (d. 672/ l 273) ncither Abu ‘1-Najib nor ‘Umar al-SuhrawardI ‘foundcd’ an ordcr or brothcrhood as such.

In many cases, thc particular teaching lineages which bore the names of such eponyms did not come to be construed as distinct orders (turuq) as such until subjected to the centralizing pressures and institutionalizing policies of the Mamluk, Ottoman, and Mughal İmperial projects.

What these eponyms did do, however, is bring a certain measure of closure to a long and complex period of transition characterized by the progressive routinization of Sufısm as a distinct mode of religiosity, identity, and social affiliation by championing, or at least setting into motion, an İnstitutionalizing vision of organization, accoutrement, and praxis which was self-regulating, self­ propagating, and most importantly, reproducible.

It was during this age of transition-underway by middle of the 5th/ 11th century and fınding a certain measure of consummation in the latter 6th/ 12th through the late 7th/ 13th centuries when certain particularly well-positioned Sufi masters such as Abu )1-Najrb and ‘Umar al-SuhrawardI began to codify the collective theoretical, practical, and institutional weight of the past which they had inherited into discrete, self-regulating, and replicable forms of organization and praxis which would eventually come to characterize transregional forms of institutional organization and praxis associated with Tariqa-based Sufism from North Africa to Iraq, and from Anatolia to India during the centuries which followed.

It is only at the end of this transitional period, occurring somewhere between the late-7th/13th and mid-8th/14th centuries where the shift from the precedence of particular self-referential methods (tarıqlmadh­ hab)2 of individual Sufi shaykhs as primary loci of spiritual authority and group identity to the beginnings of the precedence of a formally definable institutional entity, the organized Sufi brotherhood (tarıqa, pl. turuq), took place.

Generally this shift is understood to have been one of the outcomes of a much earlier transition from the generic pattern of the ‘teaching-shaykh’ or ‘master of instruction’ (shaykh al-ta’lım) to the ‘directing-shaykh’ or ‘master of training’ (shaykh al-tarbiya) and the concomitant proliferation of the physical institutions which sustained them, namely the Sufi ıibats and khanaqahs.

In no small number of cases (as with Abu ‘1-Najrb al-SuhrawardI’s Tigris ıibat for example), such institutions were underwritten by powerful political patrons, supported through the instrument of pious endowment (waqf), constructed with living quarters and, in some cases, supplied with adjoining madrasas. 3

Living as he did in the heart of this transitional period, we find in SuhrawardI an individual who exemplifies the role which such directing­ shaykhs played in this process, individuals who in their endowed ıibats and khanaqahs trained students along the lines of a specific tarıq which, if they happened to become eponyms such as SuhrawardI, would later be replicated, in progressively more self-identified and institutionalized ways, under their name by future generations who envisioned themselves as direct heirs to their particular method.

 Just as it came to refer to a formally constituted Sufi brotherhood, as the second term in the ternary shaıi’a–taıiqa- aqıqa, the term faıiq(a) also refers to the individualized and idiosyncratic ways of particular Sufi masters, con­ notations whose implications were sublimated but not subsumed with the rise of the fraternal turuq long after the age of SuhrawardI+.

As with many technical terms, it is in the first chapter of his Irshiid al-muıidın where SuhrawardI offers his most telling definition of what he intends by the term faıiq(a), informing the group of friends and companions who had requested that he write this particular “compendium on the method of the Masters of Wayfaring” (mukhtaşar fi bayiin madhhab arbiib al-sulük) that:

The term ‘ path’ (taıiqa) refers to the acquisition of god-fearing piety (taqwii) and what draws you near to the Master by way of traversing stopping places (maniizil) and stations (maqiimiit). Every station is a  path in and of itself, and the respective paths (t;uruq) of the Sufi masters (mashayildı) differ because their station and states (a/Jwiil) differ.

Every master devises a  path which accords with his state and station. Some of them follow the  path of assembling with people and training them while others select only a certain individual or group [to train].  still others follow a  path consisting of the recitation of many litanies, extensive fasting, prayer, and the like. Others pursue a  path of serving people by carrying firewood and hemp upon their backs and selling it in the market, being honest in its price in this way, each one of them chooses from among the various paths.5

Uscd in such a manner, the term taıiqa does not refer to the kind of corporate  entities or self-regulating group solidaritics which would come to characterize taıiqa-based Sufism with the rise of the formally constituted Sufi brotherhoods, but rather individual ‘ways’ or ‘methods’ of negotiating the bridge connecting the domain of  submission and faith, the shart’a, with the domain of the ground of existence and the really real, the aqıqa, and as with the authorities upon which he drew, Suhrawardi’s figuration of the term taıiq(a) İs grounded in the recognition that there is, in fact, a multiplicity of methods, various paths of

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