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Unformatted text preview: 1 Sufism: A Short Introduction 1. The Sufi Path More than a thousand years ago, a teacher called Ali the son of Ahmad, who hailed from the town of Bushanj in eastern Persia, complained that few people had any idea of what "Sufism" was all about. "Today," he said, speaking Arabic, "Sufism is a name without a reality, but it used to be a reality without a name." Nowadays in the West, the name has become better known, but its reality has become far more obscure than it ever was in the Islamic world. The name is a useful label, but the reality will not be found in definitions, descriptions, and books. If we do set out looking for the reality, we will always have to keep in mind that the divide between our own times and the times of Ali ibn Ahmad Bushanji—when the various phenomena that came to be named "Sufism" were just beginning to have a shaping effect on Islamic society—is so deep and stark that it may be impossible to recover anything more than the dimmest trace of it. One easy way to avoid searching for Sufism's reality is to replace the name with another name. We often hear that Sufism is "mysticism" or "esoterism" or "spirituality," usually with the adjective "Islamic" tacked on front. Such labels can provide an orientation, but they are both far too broad and far too narrow to designate the diverse teachings and phenomena that have been identified with Sufism over history. They can never do more than hint at the reality Bushanji had in mind, and they may be more of a hindrance than a help, because they encourage people to file Sufism away unthinkingly into a convenient category. In order to justify using one of these alternative names, we would have to provide a detailed and careful definition and analysis of the new term, and the three 2 I mentioned are notoriously vague. Even if we could provide an adequate definition, we would still have to explain why it is appropriate for "Sufism." That would lead to picking and choosing among Sufi and scholarly writings to support our own definition. We may get closer to the reality of our definition, but probably not to the reality that Bushanji was talking about. Rather than trying to domesticate Sufism by giving it a more familiar label, we should recognize at the outset that there is something in the Sufi tradition that abhors domestication and definition. It may be helpful to suggest that Sufism has a family resemblance with other traditions— such as Kabbalah, Christian mysticism, Yoga, Vedanta, or Zen—but making this connection does not necessarily help us get any closer to Sufism itself. If we look at the Arabic original of the word Sufism (sufi ), we see that the term is already problematic in Islamic civilization. Although it was widely used in several languages, it usually did not have the broad meaning that it has now acquired. Its current high profile owes itself mainly to the writings of Western scholars. As Carl Ernst has pointed out in his excellent introduction to the study of Sufism, the word was given prominence not by the Islamic texts, but...
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- Spring '09
- Islam, Sufism, Shahadah, Ali ibn Ahmad Bushanji