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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bernd Radtke and the Study of Sufism

By: Asfa Widiyanto

Reviewed Article: Bernd Radtke, “Between Projection and Suppression: Some Considerations Concerning the Study of Sufism”, in F. de Jong (ed.), Shi’a Islam, Sects and Sufism: Historical Dimensions, Religious Practice and Methodological Considerations, (Utrecht: M.Th. Houtsma Stichting, 1992), p. 70-82.

Studies on Sufism
Berndt Radtke points out that there are many misunderstandings in the study of Sufism, caused by several factors. One reason lies in the sluggishness with which the subject takes in new ideas and information. Secondly, there is a fact that many significant translations and monographs on Classical Sufism published within the last twenty years have been in German. Thirdly, there is an impression that comments and opinions about Sufism are ventured by those who in reality do not know what Sufism is. And this becomes worst by the existing of those so-called “the convinced” or “the believer”. Thus, for instance, Seyyed Hossein Nasr divides scholars on Sufism into three; the first, are those blinded by stupid prejudice, the second, are those whose studies displays a certain but limited understanding such as Massignon and Meier, and the last, the enlightened, the aware, for instance Frithjof Schuon. No further explanation is given for the bases of these evaluations. And this, according to Radtke, the power of conviction outweighs the power of scholarly knowledge.

Sufism, by such methods as concentration and meditation seeks, to penetrate beyond the barriers to deeper levels, which called supra-sensual and divine. This can be understood, if not experientially, nonetheless by a process of self-awareness. And this can not be made compulsory. It is possible to study the social and political history of one or more brotherhoods without any consideration of their inner mystical experience.

Tarīqa Muhammadiya, Neo-Sufism, and Popular Sufism
In his book Islamic Root of Capitalism, Peter Gran discusses the so-called tarīqa muhammadiya. Grant regards that the tarīqa muhammadiya was a sort of Sufi-order, whose ideology had its impacts on the economic decline of the Ottoman Turkish merchant class. The problem is that Gran describes the tarīqa muhammadiya as the ideological superstructure for deep-rooted economic changes, but his interpretation is destroyed by the absence of any sources supporting this view.

According to Radtke, in 18th and 19th century Sufism, tarīqa muhammadiya meant, not a particular brotherhood, but a mystical path in order to come into direct contact with the Prophet. Muhammad as-Sanusi explains authoritatively by quoting al-Ujaymi, “This way – that is, the tarīqa muhammadiya – is based upon an immersion, which is accompanied by modeling oneself on the Prophet (zātih) in word and deed, thus seeing him as he really in flesh and blood.”
Neo-Sufism refers to a tendency within 18th and 19th century Sufism that derives from the founder of the Tijaniyya, Ahmad at-Tijani, and the spiritual father of such brotherhoods as the Sanusiyya, Khatmiyya and Idrisiyya, Ahmad ibn Idris. The proponents of neo-Sufism regard these brotherhoods as reform movements which sought to correct tendencies in earlier Sufism. Neo-Sufis are less ecstatic than the earlier Sufis and are concerned with a more moralistic social ethic.

Fazlur Rahman, puts forward the concept of neo-Sufism, and he is also regarded as its godfather. Rahman considers Ibn Taimiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya as the spiritual ancestors of neo-Sufism. According to Radtke, this is a fascinating train of thought but it has nothing to do with reality. This arises from and ignorance of the sources, that is suppression, and from projection. The ignorance is clear in a thorough examination of the sources make it impossible to call Ibn Taimiyya a Sufi of any type. Nor could the neo-Sufis of the 18th and 19th be unfairly identified with the Wahhabis, as the biography of Ahmad ibn Idris shows. Radtke regards the views of Rahman and the others as examples of the projection of a universalistic conceptualization onto Islamic history. This conceptualization takes its starting point in European rationalism. It tries to find a parallel development in Islam, a parallel, for example, to the European Aufklarung of the 18th century.

Within the Sunna, orthopraxy and mysticism are not in opposition to each other, but there is a particularly tenacious cliché about the history of Sufism. According to this cliché, Sufism is always in opposition to the sharī’a. This continues by positing an everlasting conflict between the two until the reconciliation of al-Ghazali. Thus Sufism is always the antinomian antithesis of the orthodox Islam. For many outside Islam for whom orthodoxy is unsympathetic, Sufism in this formulation seems to possess large warmth that the former lacks.

Here, for Radtke, both suppression and projection come into play. Suppression, in those inconvenient facts, however well-known, are simply forgotten, projection, in that expectations are focused upon, and the process create a form of “warmer Islam” with which the expectant can identify. Not surprisingly, the process of creating a “warmer Islam” falsifies to the point of absurdity the historical reality of “colder Islam”.

If Sufism has its place within the Islamic intellectual tradition, it is nonsensical to see it only as an aspect of popular Islam. This is not to deny that a popular Sufism exists, but the later is coterminous with the former. It is unacceptable in mainstream Islamic scholarship for the cult of the saint, the prophetic role of dreams, practicing the samā’, for all these to be described under the rubric of popular Islam. What is even worse is when these attitudes and misconceptions become the bases of vague theories of decadence, or of large unsubstantiated notions of mentalité.

It can be seen that the difficulty that the elements Radtke has referred here do not have their origins in some form of folk Islam found in the Atlas Mountains or elsewhere, but derive from the Sufi intellectual tradition. The philological evidence for this proposition is easy to produce. But the mistake lies not in poor philology alone, rather than lies in a massive act of suppression. To begin with, no effort is made is made to establish criteria for analysis of popular Islam.

The first impression the writer got from Radtke’s article is that it is less systematic. It explains about the study of Sufism throughout the article without systematizing and categorizing it into sub chapters. To make it easy to understand, the writer tries to present this article into sub chapters.

Radtke (1944-….), rightly point out that the Sufistic phenomena can be understood, if not experientially, nonetheless by a process of self awareness, because Sufism, according to J. Spencer Trimingham[1], aims at direct communion between God and man by making use of intuition and emotional faculties. This is something to do with experience, or in more specific, mystical experiences and states (al-ahwāl as-sūfiyah). The Sufis sometimes perceive and describe their experiences differently from other Sufis, because this kind of experience occurs at a short moment, and hard to describe. May be it roughly can be compared with orgasmic experience which happens at a very short time. And the mystical states, particularly the highest ones, can be described as “spiritual orgasms” of the Sufis.

This is not the only way to study Sufism. Radtke rightly asserts that it is possible to study the social and political history of brotherhood without any consideration of their inner mystical experience. Trimingham[2] has done this kind of study. In his book, The Sufi Orders in Islam, Trimingham discusses the role of the Sufi orders in the life of Islamic society pertaining their religious role, their cultural and educational role, and their political role.

According to Peter Gran, the tarīqa muhammadiya refers to a distinct theological tendency within orthodox Sunnism, focusing on the importance of orthopraxy,[3] whose ideology had its root in the economic decline of the Ottoman Turkish merchant class. For Radtke, this interpretation is not supported by the existing sources.

It is fruitful to distinguish between the mystical order proper (tarīqa) and such corporation as trade-guilds (tā’ifa) in Turkey. The tarīqas are purely religious organizations, and the purpose of tā’ifa is economic association or trade. But, sometimes, a particular guild and its member tended to be linked with a particular tarīqa and saint.[4] So it is difficult to differentiate whether the tarīqa itself which plays a role on the economic decline of Ottoman Turkey merchant class, or the tā’ifa associated with a certain tarīqa.

Radtke rightly asserts that the tarīqa muhammadiya or tariqa ahmadiya refers to the way initiated, among others, by Ahmad at-Tijani and Ahmad ibn Idris.[5] Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, another exponent of the tarīqa muhammadiya, regard it as an exoteric linkage to the Prophet emphasizing conformity to religious law.[6]

Radtke also carefully cited and translated the words of al-Ujaymi on tarīqa muhammadiya and compared with other translations, which according to him, are inaccurate, especially, in translating the word zātih (see page 74-75). In this text, Radtke sees –after comparing with two Tijjaniya texts (i.e. making an inter-textual analysis)– that it does not mean the cosmic haqiqa muhammadiya but the Prophet in flesh and blood.[7] As a result of these inaccurate translations, there is a misleading view that the goal of mystical path is not union with God and ecstasy, but union with the spirit of the Prophet. These assertions are nonsense. For him, as for Sufism since its inception, the imitatio Muhammadi was a means to the union with God.

It is seen that Radtke analyses this problem from philological point of view. This is not surprising since Radtke himself is a philologist. He did many philological works, among others, The Concept of Sainthood in Early Islamic Mysticism: Two Works by al-Hakim at-Tirmizi (annotated translation with introduction by Bernd Radtke and John O’Fahey) and Musannafāt li-l-Hākim at-Tirmizī: Kitāb Sīrah al-Awliyā’, Jawāb al-Masāil allatī Sa’alahu Ahl asy-Syar’ ‘anhā, Jawāb Kitāb min ar-Ra’y (annotated translation with introduction by Bernd Radtke).

The concept of neo-Sufism launched by scholars (most prominently Fazlur Rahman) who felt that a number of important changes in the nature of Sufism had taken place in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Neo-Sufism was claimed to distinguish itself by increased militancy, stronger orientation towards the sharī’a and rejection of bid’a, and a shift from efforts to achieve unity with God to imitation to the Prophet.[8] But Radtke rejects Rahman’s opinion that Ibn Taimiyya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya as the spiritual ancestors of neo-Sufism. Even it is impossible to call Ibn Taimiyya, a Sufi of any ilk, “neo” or otherwise.

Neo-Sufis, according to Radtke, are less ecstatic than the Older Sufis, rejecting such practices as dancing and samā’ in favor of a more moralistic social ethic. According to the writer, they are less to be called Sufis rather than moralist, and what they do is also less to be called Sufism (tasawwuf) rather than moral (akhlāq), since the term Sufism refers to direct communion and experience with God, and it is characterized by mystical states, such as ma’rifa, hulul, and ittihād. The tendency which less pays attention to this experience and favors moralistic social ethic, are less to be called Sufism rather than morality or piety.

Lastly, Radtke criticizes the so-called projection and suppression in studying Sufism, but he did not explain, furthermore, what considerations he contributes in studying this unique tendency within Islam.

Leiden, medio November 2003

[1] J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 1.
[2] See J. Spencer Trimingham, op.cit.,p. 218-244.
[3] Peter Gran, Islamic Roots of Capitalism: Egypt, 1760-1840, (Texas: University of Texas Press, 1979), p. 134.
[4] J. Spencer Triminghan, op.cit, p. 24-25.
[5] Compare with J. Spencer Trimingham, op.cit, p. 106-107.
[6] Ibid., p. 129.
[7] It can be compared with the concept of Tor Andrae --as quoted by Adrien Leites (“Sira and the Question of Tradition”, in Harald Motzki (ed.),The Biography of Muhammad: the Issue of the Sources, (Leiden: Brill, 2000), p.54-55 ) -- on functional prophet and ontological prophet. According to the first conception, Muhammad is a mere man invested with the function of prophethood at a certain point of his life. And according to the second conception, Muhammad is a superhuman being invested with the attribute of prophethood trough an election prior to his worldly existence.
[8] Martin van Bruinessen, et.al., Sufism and the ‘Modern’ in Islam, (Online), (http://www.let.uu.nl/ martin.vanbruinessen/personal/, being accessed on November 18, 2003).



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At January 4, 2014 at 7:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.


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