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Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.

References

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, rubber ducks, vacuum cleaner bags, and more.

“For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?

flash2

In David Robertson’s interview with Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney and Steven Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project has curated a rich and wide-ranging discussion introducing – if David and Chris’ evident excitement during the podcast is any indication – an increasingly receptive audience of the next generation of scholars to critical approaches to Gurdjieff and the study of religions, an embarrassment of riches against which I now have the great but difficult fortune of contributing some of my own observations from the field. The interview is based on their February 2015 special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on Gurdjieff and his followers and the book they are now writing on the subject.

As it’s not every day an ‘independent scholar’ who is invited to write about their narrow area of expertise is gifted with such an obvious self-reflexive starting point in order to begin with both disclosure and gratitude, I hope I can be forgiven quoting myself being quoted by one of the great contributors to religious studies, Carole Cusack:

“My former Ph.D. student David Pecotic who did a Ph.D. on Gurdjieff’s cosmology … used to say, the article he was living to write was ‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ – and it really is true …”

This is not that article, but it is a question I hope they will address in their book. What I want to do here is to focus on the three themes raised in the interview that I think are the most bound up in whatever the answer to this question may look like – category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems/solutions of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions.’

Category formation/disciplinary boundaries – will the ‘real’ Gurdjieff please stand up?

 

While there is little disagreement as to the basic content of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teaching, there is currently no concrete proposal about the place of Gurdjieff within the broadly scientific study of religions. Various categories have been or are currently on offer; leaving aside the old saw of page102_1his soteriological mission to be able to consciously act as a different person to better ‘match’ different people. To approach in an integrated way a man that was, among other things, a composer, choreographer, author, paranormal powers, just to name a few, would require a more sustained inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach in the future, and Sutcliffe and Cusack’s current collaboration are steps in the right direction.

The epistemology of esoteric archives – the source(code) of and solution to the category problem

3As definitions and theories rely on availability of evidence, archival access and what counts as a primary source (and who gets to decide) is a consequential problem. I agree with their observations regarding basic chronology and the epistemological problems implicit in relying on practitioners for publication of and access to esoteric archives. Yet it was their brief point about the effect of the internet that resonated more for me as a researcher. An esoteric field is no longer about scarcity but abundance. Researchers increasingly have the opposite problem of managing an accelerating quantity of primary source materials. Indeed, there is a need for critical editions if only to better deal with the proliferation of online document access to which both scholars and practitioners alike find increasingly difficult to quality control I would argue that digital technologies began to turn the tide of access in 2004 when the Gurdjieff bibliographer J. Walter Driscoll moved from the print version of his standard reference to the online publication ‘Gurdjieff – A Reading Guide’. Even the more ‘orthodox’, hierarchical groups that teach Gurdjieffian principles and exercises in a formalised manner have taken to the Internet via the Gurdjieff International Review. But there are also crowdsourced domains like The Gurdjieff Internet Guide which despite being officially ‘retired’ in 2012, has 10, 000 visits a month and continues to be an online archive for even the wilder engagement.

Cusack was right to highlight the recent publication flurry of new source material on Gurdjieffian practices, something that has been a special focus of my research (akin to Jay Johnston’s interview on the ‘The Subtle Body’ and David Gordon White’s response) such as what_would_george_gurdjieff_do_swivel_usb_flash_drive_-r5321371fdba3422385fc1c395cf0e0ae_zkhjh_324ed what amounts to a ‘Gurdjieff industry.’ While it is important that institutions like Yale University Library have archived the Thomas de Hartmann Papers, Maurice Nicoll Papers, P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, it also represents a lost opportunity for the reconstitution of a more critical study of Gurdjieff in the context of the digital humanities which can enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners.

 

The industrial struggle of the magicians and unweaving the wicked Webb

There are also demographic and generational reasons why previously secreted Gurdjieffian source materials are coming online apace. As Johanna Petsche, another former Ph.D. student of Cusack’s has pointed out, dramatic changes were made by Jeanne de Salzmann after Gurdjieff’s death, when hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups emerged that subsequently formalised Gurdjieffian principles and exercises. As Cusack noted, de Salzmann was the first Gurdjieffian and not Gurdjieff. Not all of Gurdjieff’s followers amalgamated into this network; an assortment of Gurdjieff-based groups remained outside of it. It is these ‘independent’ and ‘fringe’ groups that are experiencing the most rapid growth and reform; the more orthodox groups are literally being ‘outbred.’

It is in this context that ‘insider’ scholars like insider/outsider process — “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” Capps (1995: 334-5). Similar explosions of understanding have occurred in analogous new fields: Wouter Hanegraff (in a previous RSP interview) has described Western esotericism as ‘one of the biggest last undiscovered niches in the academic study of religions.’ For all the above reasons, Gurdjieff may be the next in the field to be discovered. I look forward with keen interest to any critical reflections on my own observations, as well as to Sutcliffe and Cusack’s contributions in the light of themes I hope they will be able to investigate.

References

Azize, Joseph. 2013. ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ Aries 13(2) 173-203.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. New Age Religions and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

– 2006. The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: Celebrating the Self and the Sacralisation of Modernity. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pecotic, David. 2004. ‘Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: Giving Voice to Further Alterity in the Study of Western Esotericism’ Sydney Studies in Religion, 86-120.

Partridge, Christopher (ed). 2014. The Occult World. Routledge.

Rawlinson, Andrew. 1998. Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Open Court.

Petsche, Johanna. 2013. ‘A Gurdjieff Genealogy: Tracing the Manifold Ways the Gurdjieff Teaching has Travelled’ International Journal for the Study of New Religions 4(1), 1-25.

Podcasts

Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.

References

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, rubber ducks, vacuum cleaner bags, and more.

“For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?

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In David Robertson’s interview with Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney and Steven Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project has curated a rich and wide-ranging discussion introducing – if David and Chris’ evident excitement during the podcast is any indication – an increasingly receptive audience of the next generation of scholars to critical approaches to Gurdjieff and the study of religions, an embarrassment of riches against which I now have the great but difficult fortune of contributing some of my own observations from the field. The interview is based on their February 2015 special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on Gurdjieff and his followers and the book they are now writing on the subject.

As it’s not every day an ‘independent scholar’ who is invited to write about their narrow area of expertise is gifted with such an obvious self-reflexive starting point in order to begin with both disclosure and gratitude, I hope I can be forgiven quoting myself being quoted by one of the great contributors to religious studies, Carole Cusack:

“My former Ph.D. student David Pecotic who did a Ph.D. on Gurdjieff’s cosmology … used to say, the article he was living to write was ‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ – and it really is true …”

This is not that article, but it is a question I hope they will address in their book. What I want to do here is to focus on the three themes raised in the interview that I think are the most bound up in whatever the answer to this question may look like – category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems/solutions of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions.’

Category formation/disciplinary boundaries – will the ‘real’ Gurdjieff please stand up?

 

While there is little disagreement as to the basic content of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teaching, there is currently no concrete proposal about the place of Gurdjieff within the broadly scientific study of religions. Various categories have been or are currently on offer; leaving aside the old saw of page102_1his soteriological mission to be able to consciously act as a different person to better ‘match’ different people. To approach in an integrated way a man that was, among other things, a composer, choreographer, author, paranormal powers, just to name a few, would require a more sustained inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach in the future, and Sutcliffe and Cusack’s current collaboration are steps in the right direction.

The epistemology of esoteric archives – the source(code) of and solution to the category problem

3As definitions and theories rely on availability of evidence, archival access and what counts as a primary source (and who gets to decide) is a consequential problem. I agree with their observations regarding basic chronology and the epistemological problems implicit in relying on practitioners for publication of and access to esoteric archives. Yet it was their brief point about the effect of the internet that resonated more for me as a researcher. An esoteric field is no longer about scarcity but abundance. Researchers increasingly have the opposite problem of managing an accelerating quantity of primary source materials. Indeed, there is a need for critical editions if only to better deal with the proliferation of online document access to which both scholars and practitioners alike find increasingly difficult to quality control I would argue that digital technologies began to turn the tide of access in 2004 when the Gurdjieff bibliographer J. Walter Driscoll moved from the print version of his standard reference to the online publication ‘Gurdjieff – A Reading Guide’. Even the more ‘orthodox’, hierarchical groups that teach Gurdjieffian principles and exercises in a formalised manner have taken to the Internet via the Gurdjieff International Review. But there are also crowdsourced domains like The Gurdjieff Internet Guide which despite being officially ‘retired’ in 2012, has 10, 000 visits a month and continues to be an online archive for even the wilder engagement.

Cusack was right to highlight the recent publication flurry of new source material on Gurdjieffian practices, something that has been a special focus of my research (akin to Jay Johnston’s interview on the ‘The Subtle Body’ and David Gordon White’s response) such as what_would_george_gurdjieff_do_swivel_usb_flash_drive_-r5321371fdba3422385fc1c395cf0e0ae_zkhjh_324ed what amounts to a ‘Gurdjieff industry.’ While it is important that institutions like Yale University Library have archived the Thomas de Hartmann Papers, Maurice Nicoll Papers, P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, it also represents a lost opportunity for the reconstitution of a more critical study of Gurdjieff in the context of the digital humanities which can enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners.

 

The industrial struggle of the magicians and unweaving the wicked Webb

There are also demographic and generational reasons why previously secreted Gurdjieffian source materials are coming online apace. As Johanna Petsche, another former Ph.D. student of Cusack’s has pointed out, dramatic changes were made by Jeanne de Salzmann after Gurdjieff’s death, when hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups emerged that subsequently formalised Gurdjieffian principles and exercises. As Cusack noted, de Salzmann was the first Gurdjieffian and not Gurdjieff. Not all of Gurdjieff’s followers amalgamated into this network; an assortment of Gurdjieff-based groups remained outside of it. It is these ‘independent’ and ‘fringe’ groups that are experiencing the most rapid growth and reform; the more orthodox groups are literally being ‘outbred.’

It is in this context that ‘insider’ scholars like insider/outsider process — “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” Capps (1995: 334-5). Similar explosions of understanding have occurred in analogous new fields: Wouter Hanegraff (in a previous RSP interview) has described Western esotericism as ‘one of the biggest last undiscovered niches in the academic study of religions.’ For all the above reasons, Gurdjieff may be the next in the field to be discovered. I look forward with keen interest to any critical reflections on my own observations, as well as to Sutcliffe and Cusack’s contributions in the light of themes I hope they will be able to investigate.

References

Azize, Joseph. 2013. ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ Aries 13(2) 173-203.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. New Age Religions and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

– 2006. The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: Celebrating the Self and the Sacralisation of Modernity. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pecotic, David. 2004. ‘Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: Giving Voice to Further Alterity in the Study of Western Esotericism’ Sydney Studies in Religion, 86-120.

Partridge, Christopher (ed). 2014. The Occult World. Routledge.

Rawlinson, Andrew. 1998. Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Open Court.

Petsche, Johanna. 2013. ‘A Gurdjieff Genealogy: Tracing the Manifold Ways the Gurdjieff Teaching has Travelled’ International Journal for the Study of New Religions 4(1), 1-25.