Sufism:The Essentials, Mark J Sedgwick, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000. pp112
Dr Sedgwick's book, with the sub-title "The Essentials," seeks to provide the man-in-the-street with basic information about Sufism. This in itself is useful because of the many false impressions of it available, which are all too eagerly lapped up. Sufism, real Sufism, this book explains, is deeply rooted in Islam. A true Sufi is, first and foremost a Muslim, and only secondly a Sufi. There is no such thing -- or there shouldn't be -- as a Sufi who does not hold the same beliefs as any other Muslim and who does not perform the same religious obligations. This is the primary message of the book. For the reader who does not possess the necessary background knowledge of Islam, this is given in condensed form right at the beginning and also in a glossary where such terms as dhikr, fiqh, sunna, etc, are explained.
The writer emphasises that no one can be a Sufi without having a shaykh, whose importance to him cannot be overstressed, and it is perhaps this pivotal position accorded to the shaykh that for many people makes Sufism a difficult path to follow. After all, one of the great attractions of Islam without any adherence to a Sufi tariqa, is the absence of a hierarchy or clergy between the individual and his God. On the subject of the Sufi's love for his shaykh the writer likens it to that of a child for its parents and says that a Sufi's shaykh is in fact a sort of "spiritual father." Thus a Sufi will normally ask permission of his shaykh in relation to a number of basic steps in his life: whom should he marry? what should he work at? where should he live? what names should he give to his children? Perhaps some people are happy to give up making such decisions for themselves; others, however, may feel reluctant to hand such matters over to another person, however spiritually endowed that person may be.
Just as the position of the shaykh of any Sufi tariqa is of prime importance to the members of the order, so too the author emphasises the importance of the frequent meetings of the individuals making up the community. These often take place as a dars (or lesson) at which some religious subject is discussed, or at a suhba, a meeting for the purpose of companionship of men bound together by the same set of beliefs and ideals. Thus the tariqa and the regular meetings of its members constitute a sort of club.
An important part of this short book is given over to a discussion of the various Sufi tariqas, as well as to how they came into being and the role that they played in the spread of Islam. Thus the Al-Qadiriya Sufi order, named after 'Abdel-Qadir Al-Jilani, who was born in Persia in 1078 and died in Baghdad, spread throughout various parts of Africa, then to China and Malaysia, and later to Bosnia and Albania, as well as to Zanzibar and other areas of East Africa. We are informed that in the twentieth century it was even carried to Siberia by men deported from the Caucasus by Stalin. The Shadhiliya order, on the other hand, was named after a Moroccan shaykh of the 12th century from Seville. This shaykh, Abul-Hassan Al-Shadhili, like many other shaykhs travelled widely and spent some time in Alexandria. There he was succeeded by Abul-'Abbas Al-Mursi, who in turn was succeeded by Ibn 'Ata Allah. The latter became widely known as the author of a famous collection of sayings under the title "Hikam."
Unfortunately only a few pages of the book are devoted to "Sufism in the West," a phenomenon about which little information is available. While some Sufi orders in the West look after the spiritual needs of immigrant workers, such as the branch of a tariqa in Italy that caters for Senegalese workers, there are other Sufi groups whose members are made up almost solely of Westerners in search of religious truths outside Christianity. Thus the writings of Idries Shah on Sufism are widely read in the West, though the way in which he presents such teachings would not be endorsed by most Sufis in the Islamic world. As the writer of the present book says: "Sufism is a path within Islam and so can only become something different if removed from that context."
Of sufi orders primarily patronised by Western converts to Islam special mention is made of the branch of the Naqshabandi order led by the Turkish Cypriot Shaykh Mohamed Nazim Al-Qubrusi, a man with a knowledge of English in addition to Arabic and Turkish and a person blessed with an unusual degree of charm, charisma and sense of humour. He has attracted to his tariqa -- and thus to Islam -- a considerable following from England, Germany and other European countries, as well as from the States and native-born Muslims from the Arab world and the Far East. All are strict Muslims in a way that would satisfy the most rigorous dictates. Brief mention is also made of that most interesting French writer on religion in general and on Islam in particular, René Guenon.
Having become disillusioned with the increasing materialism of the West, Guenon wrote a number of books such as "The Crisis of the Modern World" in which he expressed this dissatisfaction. He himself eventually embraced Islam and became a member of the Shadhili order, making Egypt his home and dying here in 1952. Many people were later influenced by Guenon's writings, among the most active of whom was the Swiss thinker Frithjof Schuon who formed an order known as the Maryamiya, branches of which are to be found in various parts of the West and also in some parts of the Islamic world.
Despite Sufism's long history, many Muslims have questioned the orthodoxy of it. The most famous critic of some of its unorthodox practices was the scholar and theologian Ibn Taymiyya who condemned the importance accorded to walis (saints) by the Sufis, as well as such habits as visiting their tombs. An even more bitter enemy of Sufism was Mohamed ibn 'Abdel-Wahab, the puritanical founder of the Wahhabi movement that continues to be the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia. The latter's active hostility to Sufism throughout the Islamic world is effectively fuelled by its oil wealth.
Finally, the writer asks the inevitable question of what future Sufism has. The answer, as given by Dr Sedgwick, is direct and curious, and it deserves to be quoted in full:
"Most Sufis would reply to such a question by asking what future the world has. For Sufis, the eclipse of Sufism is synonymous with the eclipse of true religion, and once true religion has almost vanished from the world, the Final Day will come, as countless hadith predict and explain. Millenarian expectations have always been popular among Muslims, but are particularly widespread today among Sufis, many of whom would be not at all surprised to see the Day of Judgment in their own lifetimes."
The book ends with some examples from the Hikam of Ibn 'Ata Allah mentioned above. I found the following three to give a taste of the typical wisdom to be found in many Sufi aphorisms:
"In your despairing you are a free man, but in your coveting you are a slave.
Sometimes He gives while depriving you, and sometimes He deprives you in giving.
So that your sadness over something be little, let your joy in it be little."
The bibliography at the end of the book is excellent, and it even gives Web sites related to the subject of Sufism.
Reviewed by Denys Johnson-Davies
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