Sufism in the Light of Orientalism

Sufism in the Light of Orientalism
Algis Uždavinys

Research Institute of Culture, Philosophy, and Arts

This article offers a discussion of the problems regarding different interpretations of Sufism, especially those promoted by the 19th century Orientalists and modern scholars. Contrary to the prevailing opinions of those European writers who “discovered” Sufism as a kind of the Persian poetry-based mysticism, presumably unrelated to Islam, the Sufis themselves (at least before the Western cultural expansion) regarded Sufism as the inmost kernel of Islam and the way of the Prophet himself.

The title of our paper is rather paradoxical and not without irony, especially bearing in mind the metaphysical connotations of the word “light” (nur in Arabic), which is used here, however, in the trivial ordinary metaphorical sense and has nothing to do with any sort of mystical illumination. It certainly does not mean that Orientalism would be regarded as a source of some supernatural light, although the “light of knowledge”, upon which the academic scholarship so prides itself, may be understood simply as one hermeneutical perspective among others, thereby establishing the entire cluster of interpretative tales, or phenomenological fictions which are nonetheless sufficiently real within their own imaginative historical, if not ontological, horizons.

The scholarly term “Sufism” (with the “-ism” ending characteristic of the prestigious tableaux of modern Western ideological constructions) was introduced in the 18th century by the European scholars, those who were more or less connected to the late 18th century policies of the East India Company. It appeared in the context of certain ideological and cultural predispositions as well as highly selective and idealized expectations. This context included the myth of the philosophical wisdom of the ancient Persians, invented or rather revived by the Neozoroastrian reformers in Moghul India. The myth itself was saturated with the Neoplatonic ideas of Ishraqi philosophers (reinterpreted in Iran under Safavids) when the famous Suhrawardian concepts (hikmat al-ishraq) and ambivalent claims were persistently but incorrectly attributed to the ancient Persian sages. The discovery and publication of such semi-phantasmagoric Neozoroastrian texts as Dabistan al-Madhahib (The School of Religions) and Dasatir (rendered as The Sacred Writings of the Ancient Persian Prophets), which stemmed from the school of Adhar Kayvan and had very little to do with real Zoroastrism, supported the distorted but fascinating view that Iranians possessed a distinguished metaphysical heritage which they had entirely forgotten. Therefore, no wonder the newly discovered “Sufism” is regarded as a fundamentally Persian spiritual phenomenon to be traced back to the estimated Indian roots.

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Sufism in the Light of Orientalism
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