Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam

By Shahzad Bashir. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. xvi+274 pp. $28.00 (paper).

In his last major work on Sufism, the specialist of Islamic religious studies Shahzad Bashir, Stanford University, endeavors to expose an aspect of Sufi thought and practices in premodern Islam (1300–1500 ce) traditionally put aside or overlooked; namely, the cognitive, representational, and encoding functions attributed to the human body. However, here Bashir followed the relatively recent research track of anthropology-oriented Sufi studies opened by key publications such as the special number of the Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée (November 2006) titled “Le corps et le sacré en Orient musulman” [“The body and the sacred in eastern Islam”] and Scott Krugle’s seminal book Sufis and Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, and Sacred Power in Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). While Krugle focused on South Asia and Morocco, the author of Sufi Bodies puts at the center of his inquiry the Persianate societies of Iran and Central Asia, his field of expertise. Moreover, Bashir intends to distinguish his own inquiry from these precedents by situating it more broadly in the contemporary humanities penetrated by new trends of philosophy and social sciences focused on human experience and more specifically the body, very noticeably the phenomenological current. He explains: “I regard the body as an aspect of the human imagination that shifts its parameters through human beings’ phenomenological and social experience during a lifetime” (14). 

In the introduction, the author defines his methodology and views by prominently presenting as his formative and informative references key thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pierre Bourdieu, and Gabrielle Spiegel (15). In particular and logically given the book’s subject matter, he indebts to the first of these thinkers his understanding of the workings of the body both as empirical actor in the present and cultural signifier engendered by past traditions. However, Bashir’s self-designed epistemology happens to be flawed and misleading in the light of the book’s substance. Although the latter, it is important to note, does not really suffer from this weakness and does bring forth highly valuable results, I take issue with a poor mastery and application or presentation of contemporary Western critical theory and philosophy in the field of Islamic studies.  Having engaged myself in this very difficult task of using these critical tools in my own writings, I wish to make the point that high standards must be set and kept if we genuinely aim to advance these studies by this particular means.  Here are some of the significant flaws I have detected. 

While citing Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology extensively, Bashir’s frame of viewing Sufi bodies announced in the paragraph’s title “Embodiment as an Analytical tool” deviates from the Merleau Pontian phenomenological epistemic premises (and from those suggested by the book’s title itself, Sufi Bodies) that precisely place the body and primal sensory perception at the center of its analytical system; for example, that posits it as the very object of its analysis, not as a tool to analyze something else of greater significance or importance to the author’s eyes (13). By decoding this ill-constructed methodological exposé the reader finally learns that this “something else” Bashir is primarily concerned with, is “social imagination”. His object of observation consequently is not the body as locus of consciousness per se but the cultural historical determinants that inform the factual collective apprehension of it, in other words not the phenomenological perceiving body or, to put it in simpler terms, not the phenomenon itself, but the circumstances and effects of its occurrence that Bashir diversely terms “attitudes toward corporeality” or “patterns embedded in stories” (14). Then, he further antagonizes phenomenology when he makes this nebulous statement: “However much it may appear to be so instinctively, the body is not the defining feature of the human species that can help us specify universals” (14). 

Yet, Bashir’s lack of theoretical solidity should not obscure the value of his contribution to Sufi studies. Once it becomes clear that the book’s actual methodology and content fundamentally follow a well established practice of cultural reading of historical material, the validity of its findings can be fully appreciated. With finesse and consistency Bashir unravels the instrumental role of corporeality in the complex articulation of the Sufi pragmatic approach to piety and natural human feelings of love, attraction, and desire with Sufism’s doctrinal, ethic, and philosophical principles. Delving in relevant primary sources, Sufi chronicles, hagiographies (the main source), and literature, as well as in the iconography of manuscript painting, he extracts and interprets the references to corporeal acts, behaviors, and representations serving both the social organization and spiritual expression of Sufi individuals and groups in the period and cultural areas concerned. This hermeneutic process successfully helps unveil the direct apprehension of the carnal body in medieval Sufism and thereby makes us better understand its use in the construction of religious metaphors and projective ideations, more familiar to the scholarship on the subject. 

Like an enlightening path, the two-part book presents a stepped structure leading the reader from one case study of a Sufi theme dealing with existence’s physicality to another, such as the complex set of relationships and practices on the basis of which the mystic linkage between the human and the Divine was formed and performed in the societies in question. This set includes the relationship between master and disciple, men and women, the individual and the group, the zahir (outer) and batin (inner) dimension of the body, and variegated practices such as the composition of sacred genealogies of Sufi families, performing miracles, establishing power and authority by controlling the adepts’ body and self, asceticism, and so on. Throughout the chapters Bashir thus enlightens the multiple dualities that underpin the double nature of Sufism as spiritual application and social construct such as the duality of carnality and soul, male and female corporeality, the singular and the collective body, and beyond, the duality of the microcosm and the macrocosm embedded in the human form. This feature appears pertinently stipulated and illustrated in the introduction with the mention of an act of handshaking taken from a story reported by the early sixteenth-century Persian author Hafiz Sultan Ali Awbahi. According to this text, the gesture operated a codified physical contact through which a channel of links of social and sacred order going back to Prophet Muhammad was established between the privileged individuals touched by the hands (4–8). 

In his investigation, Bashir also looks into painting as a mean of historical documentation and verification. He points out a few illustrations that visually attest to the veracity of the descriptions and stories told in the texts he explores (193, for example). But expectedly, the book does not deal with the crucial function of these artifacts as pure art in the framework of the Sufis’ multisensory aesthetic practices involving the variegated bodily activities of seeing, listening, chanting, dancing or moving, bending, breathing and uttering rhythmically, and the like. The analysis of these particular Sufi activities pertains to another type of expertise: that of the art historian trained in aesthetics and, incidentally, in the phenomenological method since they fall under the sign of the phenomenology of art and perception. 

Finally, Bashir’s inquiry delivers an illuminating description of a profoundly humanistic Sufi milieu that placed as much care on the elaboration and promotion of high mystic ideals as on ensuring the integrity and meaningfulness of its members’ empirical life through a sophisticated manipulation of their body. 

Valérie Gonzalez, Islamic Art and Culture Leighton House Museum, London Leighton House Museum