12.04.30, Bashir, Sufi Bodies

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Elena Biagi

The Medieval Review 12.04.30

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Pp. 296. ISBN: 978-0-231-14490-2.
ISBN: 978-0-231-51760-7.

Reviewed by:
Elena Biagi
University of Milan

Sufism--generally interpreted as the mystical dimension of Islam--has traditionally been associated with the representation of bodies engaged in the performance of rituals, the practice of ceremonies and the physical, as well as spiritual, training of the self. Going much further than these collectively shared representations, Bashir delves into the medieval Sufis' perception of the human body by exploring the multifaceted approaches to corporeity underlying Persianate hagiographic narratives and miniature paintings of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Bashir's methodology in dealing with this material is innovative: as he explains in the introduction, his perspective owes much to the phenomenological, sociological and epistemological discourses developed in recent decades by the humanities and the social sciences, anthropology in particular, on the notion of "embodiment" as an analytical tool. Hence, the author focuses on the body's performances, postures and gestures as displayed in the sources, basing himself on the assumption that "the body is implicated in all acts of deriving meaning" (14): that is, at the root of any process of knowledge and any notion of the self there is always an experiencing body which, far from being merely a single and intact biological entity, is considered the living locus of cultural projections that make it dissolve "into webs of symbols, laden with historical and social baggage" (14). In the same way as the body is an actor of and is acted by the society, also texts can be seen as products as well as producers of social realities. On this basis, Bashir extracts information from narratives and paintings by unpacking the fabric of the text to detect the elements which he sees as particularly helpful to our understanding of Persianate social and religious context.

The method is illustrated at the very beginning of his book, where Bashir analyzes a story related by the early sixteenth century Persian author Ḥâfiẓ Sulṭân 'Alî Awbahî telling of the momentous event of the latter's shaking the hand of a notable figure said to be able to connect to the Prophet Muhammad through a chain of handshakes. The author accurately sections the narrative into the many threads interwoven in its composition, by situating Awbahî's citation within an intertextual space and knitting it together with other hagiographic narrations on the same theme: touching on issues ranging from the particular concept of time symptomized by the narrators' logic to the gender restrictions inhibiting the physical contacts between Sufi men and women, Bashir highlights the significance of the practice of handshaking in exploring and understanding social and intellectual dynamics. Such dynamics, which the author views as particular to Sufism but, to this reader's opinion, could be as well applied to the general mode of transmission and acquisition of knowledge in Arabic-Islamic classical traditions, see the body as crucially central to the process of learning and of its conveying: "Most often, the conduction of knowledge in this [Sufi master-disciple] relationship was mediated in lessons absorbed through the working of the senses of sight, audition, touch, taste, and smell" (13).

While presenting the Sufi conception of the world as a duality of the exterior (ẓâhir) and interior (bâṭin) realities, in the first part of the monograph the author discusses the way bodies are shown in his source material to be involved in Sufi life. Islamic rituals and Sufi practices (such as dhikr, lit. "remembrance" or repeated mention of God's name, and samâ', audition and dance) are examined in their quality of performances contributing to form not only individual bodies, each one personally and distinctively engaged in the process of acquiring self-realization, but also collective bodies--what Bashir calls the Sufi "networks"--moulding themselves to communal rules of conduct and to the teachings of different Sufi masters.

In his first chapter, eloquently called "Bodies Inside Out," Bashir offers a very original approach to the dichotomy between ẓâhir and bâṭin. The opening quotation from Ṣafî's Rashaḥât immediately captures our imagination and strikes us for its impressive association with the ideas of "embodiment" as developed by the Semitic tradition as well as by the modern psychoanalytic debate: "Some have said that the master (shaykh) must be able to eat the disciple (murid) [...]. This 'eating the disciple' means the master must be able to work on the interior (batin) of the disciple" (27). Therefore, acquiring knowledge, be it mystical or secular, is seen as a process of internalization involving both the body and the mind, and implies a fluid interrelation between the interiors and exteriors of masters and disciples, narrators and auditors, writers and readers. To support his suggestion of human bodies as "doorways" connecting the external and internal dimensions of reality, Bashir examines some very heterogeneous materials from pre-modern Persianate hagiographic literature. In particular, the author's discussion of some treatises by the Sufi-inspired Hurufi sect, whose mention sporadically recurs throughout his book, appears particularly enticing, especially for the reader interested in the morphology and lexical peculiarities of Arabic language. For instance, the Hurufi linguistic speculation on man's sperm residing in his back (ẓahr) while its receptor being the woman's stomach (baṭn)--words which share the same roots as ẓâhir and bâṭin respectively--explains the act of conception as a replication of the constant movement between exteriors and interiors which is inherent to reality. Another fascinating example of the correspondences that can be traced between text in the Arabic script and the body is forwarded by Bashir's illustration of the concept of the "readable body," as exploited by the Hurufi's theory that each bodily organ corresponds to a letter of the Arabic-Persian alphabet. On similar terms, the science of physiognomy endorsed the argument that observation of corporeal features could lead to the knowledge of a person and that visual inspection could allow the Sufi master to interpret the interior dispositions of the disciple and enable him to "eat" the seeker, that is to "eat up" his bad habits. An early sixteenth century miniature painting seals the conclusion of this chapter figuratively, showing two Sufi men framed by a doorway which bears the inscription "Yâ mufattiḥ al-abwâb" ("O you who opens doors"). Bashir's reading of the picture, whose speculative character is acknowledged by the author himself, is however full of symbolical suggestions, that concur to substantiate the author's interpretation of the body as itself a "doorway" between the physical and spiritual dimensions always in motion within each self and among the socially interrelated selves.

The constitution of individual and social selves is the subject of chapters 2 and 3, where the author surveys the intentional corporeal actions performed by the Sufi in his path toward befriending God and attaining self-realization. He starts with an illustration of Persianate Sufi interpretations of normative Islamic rituals, concentrating on texts produced by authors belonging to the Khwajagani-Naqshbandi tradition. Religious prescriptions such as ablution and ritual prayer are "rationalized" by these authors, who seek to interpret the rituals metaphorically, while at the same time reasserting the kind of "corporeal awareness" underlying the activities of Sufis and Muslims in general. Such awareness is also at the basis of asceticism and self-mortification practices, toward which Persianate Sufism held contrasting attitudes, as significantly shown in the many entertaining stories culled from Sufi masters' hagiographies.

Rituals, rules of etiquette, asceticism, dhikr and samâ' would concur to the constitution of saintly personas as well as of collective bodies, banding together around the figure and the teachings of a master. In particular, Bashir deals with a notion which was particularly cherished by Persianate literature, that is the belief in a physical and spiritual hierarchy of God's friends, which ended in a pole (quṭb), a saintly figure regarded as a microcosmic condensation of all perfections. It is especially in this context that hagiographers seem to have played a critical role, as they often tried to prove the reputation of their subjects by referring to them as the poles of their times. After discussing the various ways of legitimizing masters' incorporation to specific lineages, the chapter ends with the author's reading of a miniature painting, which stands, in this reader's opinion, as one of the most captivating pages of the book. Bashir's insightful interpretation plunges the reader into the vibrant movement of the twenty-three human figures depicted while engaged in a samâ' gathering. By looking at the bodies' postures, attires and positions, the stillness of some contrasting the enthusiastic motion of others, one could recognize the respective roles, social status and spiritual states of the participants on the basis of what the author discussed in the first chapters. Symmetrically and powerfully constructed, the image conveys the idea, and the emotion, of an encounter of singular different selves interrelating in a corporal and symbolic dance to constitute one collective body.

In the author's view, this communal "social body" is kept together by the mechanism of love. While many studies have been dedicated to discussing the theme of Sufi love for God, Bashir's work explores the subject from a different perspective, by viewing love as a driving force which underlies, on a horizontal axis, human beings' reciprocal relations: understanding the dynamics of such a force, as depicted both by the Persian poetic rhetoric of love and by the hagiographic stories, proves to be crucial to understanding the functioning of Persianate Sufi communities as units in themselves and as mediators in the more general social context. In this regard, the way Bashir treats hagiographic materials in chapter 4 is particularly intriguing. He handles the life stories of renowned Sufis as narrations of cycles of love, starting with "love at first sight," which makes the apprentice Sufi "fall in love" with his master, thus enabling him to absorb the latter's teachings and behaviour. We then go through the middle stage, when the Sufi endeavours to transcend his body and mind to reach total union with the master. Such a union is attained in the final phase, that witnesses a "transmutation of bodies" and the developing of an interrelation between disciples and masters acting interchangeably as lovers and beloveds. As the author observes, stories concerned with these phases show how "the modulation of love relationship is intimately tied not only to affection but also to domination, submission, and control" (108). Interestingly, Bashir's reflection on the master's power to manipulate the tension induced by love in order to drive disciples along the path strongly echoes, to this reader's view, the psychoanalytic discourse on the concept of "transfer" and its implication in the process of wielding power and control in social and intra-personal relations.

Another kind of transfer-process is what characterizes the shifting of the disciple's love from love of the mother into love of the master, the last one often portrayed in hagiographies as playing a maternal role. The role of Sufi and Sufis' mothers is part of a larger discussion in chapter five, where Bashir concentrates on two issues: the question of desire, especially with regard to Sufi representations of inappropriate desires stirred by senses and to be overcome by disciples and masters, and the question of gender as constructed in the context under analysis, with a particular reference to the ambivalence regarding women, who are depicted often as a burden or tempting objects of desire but at times are also represented as potential or fully accomplished Sufis. However, in both cases, the narratives examined by the author appear as the mirror and product of a wider socially and religiously shared ideology, which kept persons embodied as female on the fringes of the male-centred Sufi networks and of society in general.

Bashir's historiographic effort to canvass the social dynamics embedded in the texts is directed, in the last two chapters, to hagiographic narrations of Sufi masters' karâmât (miracles). While challenging the approach held by most historians, he shows the social purpose and value of miracle stories, usually dismissed as insignificant sources because of their historical improbability. In this vein, the author dissects the leitmotif of miraculous food in all its symbolic and social purports, ranging from accounts on miraculous multiplication of provisions to stories of Sufis reconstituting meat into living animals. Food is seen as a matter tied to corporeity and at the same time a mediator between physical and spiritual dimensions of life, with its intake strictly regulated by religious norms and practices. Through providing or limiting food, as well as assessing its legality, the master could exercise control over his disciple both in the interior and the exterior. The stories, relating of masters sharing food from their mouths as a sign of favour to some disciples and using bodies as a modality of transmission of mystical knowledge and state, corroborate Bashir's main argument.

The manipulation, healing and ubiquity of bodies are the topics discussed in the last chapter, where the author explores hagiographic narratives from a double perspective. He refers to the famous Sufi maxim exhorting the novice to submit to his master, becoming like a corpse in the mortician's hands, and he interestingly makes use of this aphorism to uncover the narratives' twofold logic. The first sense of the metaphor is what appears from the inside perspective of miracle stories, depicting the image of masters as morticians who manipulate the disciples' sensory perceptions, exert control over their minds and bodies, heal diseased organs, or give and take away life. However, the author shows how the metaphor's meaning reverses, when considered in relation to the narratives' authorship: the disciples, in their quality of sponsors or authors of the hagiographies, become themselves like morticians who manipulate masters' bodies, mediating the narration of events with their own eyes and pens. This is made particularly evident by the author's discussion of hagiographic representations of the death Sufi masters: different sources are shown as modulating the same narration according to the identity and claims of its author.

Finally, Bashir's treatment of the miracle stories in the last two chapters highlights what we see as the main objective of this work and its original contribution to the process of developing a thorough and fully aware methodology in approaching source material, be it branded as literary or historical, be it visual or textual. In the same way as the texts are the products of human experience embedded in physical, spiritual and social milieus, so they should be interpreted as the arenas of a living interplay between the personas of narrators-painters, depicted characters and readers-auditors. In this sense, the hagiographic stories best represent this mechanism: the portraying of masters as miraculously powerful figures is the product of the projections of the devotees, who would idealize the master's charisma to serve the interests of their own Sufi communities and guarantee the continuity of spiritual legacy. Such mechanism was made possible by story-telling, which both in oral and written forms represented the linchpin of this social, political, and also economical, dynamic process.

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Author Biography

Elena Biagi

University of Milan