Friday, May 11, 2007

Way of the Mystics: Smith

I’m reading now The Way of Mystics: The Early Christian Mystics and the Rise of Sufis, by Margaret Smith, first published in 1931, and reprinted several times ever since. With some luck, the book can be found at large used bookstores in the “Islam” or “Eastern Religions” section. As you can tell from the title, this volume is both history and an attempt at finding the origins of an Islamic phenomenon widely known as Sufism or Islamic mysticism. In the first half of the book Smith focuses on the early Christian ascetic practices, monasteries, and heroes, with a few misplaced interjections that seem better suited for the second half of the book where she dives into her contention that one mystical phenomenon necessarily influenced or informed another. (I hope to write a fuller reaction to the book.)

In principle this kind of scholarship does not really bother me; the search for “origins” has always been a human obsession. We want to know where things came from, whether it’s life itself or ideas. Thrust in the pool of this “time” thing, we have an intuitive sense of “before” and “after.” So why shouldn’t the biggest questions of life involve time: “When and how did it all start?” And then, “Where to?” and “How long before we get there?” These are questions that couldn’t have been conceived had we not been inexorably lodged in a time-bound existence.

But still I can’t help but read in this seemingly well-intended work (and excellent historical survey), by an acclaimed and generally well-received scholar, typical Orientalist attitudes that strive to explain not just certain features of Islam, like Sufism, but the religion itself. I will be objective (as informed by what I have read in others): If I were not a Muslim and had an attachment to another monotheistic tradition, I would be curious theologically how or why heaven could have allowed, in a post-Jesus world, such a remarkably successful religious advent—miraculous-seeming phenomenon that produced a layered, profound, deeply artistic, intellectually vibrant, and flourishing civilization that covered much of the known world and reigned longer than any previous civilization—even though its salvation narrative is apparently at odds with God’s requirements as found in Judeo-Christian sources. What on earth (or above) can explain Islam and its stunning achievement in temporal and, especially, spiritual terms?

I have read over the past 20 years or so many works of scholarship from the Orientialist tradition, and too often have I found a nanny-reared Orientalist gliding his pen with the cultural demeanor of a well-born futilitarian. At times he emits an air of sympathy and the nasal erudition of a trained and subtle scholar. Turn up the lantern and the assumptions are not sophisticated. He needs to explain with the verve of a Crusader or as a eunuch of secular natural history the accident called Islam, how this peculiar social energy succeeded, how the mutation of Christianity crossed with Judaic lore and Bedouin wisdom leaped from the petri dish and spread in all directions—India to Morocco and too many points beyond. He must provide an explanation to the collars in the room how a simple caravan runner became the most revered man in human history, and how his band of Mohammadan companions humbled stubborn of regions and brought faith and culture to both the ruffians and the most sensitive of artisans and poets, and brought purpose and psychological sovereignty to the lives of the ordinary and the truly exceptional.

Back to the book, Smith does not sound like nor resemble an unethical scholar, an activist covered by tenure and published works. Like I said above, there is a lot to like about her book, and parts of it are actually inspiring. Reading some of the aphorisms of early Christian ascetics, like Ammon, Paul of Thebes, and various Anchorites, is actually enjoyable. They would say things like, “Fasting is the subjugation of the body, prayer is converse with God, vigil is a war against Satan, abstinence is the being weaned from meats, humility is the state of the first man, kneeing is the inclining of the body before the Judge, tears are the remembrance of sins, nakedness is our captivity which caused by the transgression of the command, and service is constant supplication to and praise of God.”

Her historical survey of early Christian mystics is a very good read. But then Smith begins to fall apart. She speaks of Christian contact with Arabs before Islam and contacts after the Prophet received his call, and that these contacts “prove” that Muslims lifted a lot of the spiritual practices of the faith (and tenets too) from these contacts. She offers no forensics as to how this happened. Contact, apparently, is sufficient to make the claim. No one disputes that Christians were somewhat known to pre-Islamic Arabs, but to trace influence and, more important, source requires more than presence and contact, a fact that Orientalist studies conveniently ignore when turning to Islam. In other realms of influence-scholarship and source-tracing, there is an expectation that a direct link be made between the formers and the latters. Also, content analysis is not always a reliable piece of evidence, which is even more true in religious history since revealed religions claim a connection with the same God who sent prophets and messengers with equally compelling messages that carry a common thread.

My point, though, is about this whole “origin” thing. If Islam does something or prescribe something that seems similar to other traditions, then we have ways of negotiating this information. One is that Islam borrowed from them as its formation was engineered; or the core message of Islam is what it claims for itself, a continuation and culmination of the religion project, the same thread from the same Weaver who sent emissaries to guide and warn the denizens of a temporal and accountable world. There are other options to consider, such as, the psychological security of Muslim giants of the post-prophetic period who felt completely unthreatened in learning secondary-traits found in other mystical traditions. It may be that they understood one important thing: sincerity (that primary and transcending principle), no matter who seeks it and finds it and puts into play, will generally lead to consonance more than dissonance, regardless of the specific religious stream or unorthodoxy or even heterodox permutations.

Let us not be squeamish about this or tread carefully like ballerinas fearing the appearance of crudeness when handling those Orientalist studies that are footnoted incarnations of Medieval polemics. There are so many attempts to find the “secret” source of Islam, the Quran, and Hadith, one wonders of the desperation and insecurities behind them. I apologize to the late Prof. Smith that she is mentioned in their company, but the point has to be made. A good portion of Orientalist scholarship either overtly or covertly dedicates itself to the core concern: explain the Islamic phenomenon. They are well known: Burton is one. Schact is another. Joynbol too. Rev. Rodwell, Richard Bell, and more recent, Michael Cook and Crune, postmodernists who are tempted to deconstruct the life out of Islamic sources. They are inheritors of what A. J. Arberry calls Disciples of the Higher Criticism, who “threw themselves with brisk enthusiasm into the congenial task of demolishing the Koran…. But having cut to pieces the body of Allah's revelation, our erudite sleuths have found themselves with a corpse on their hands, the spirit meanwhile eluding their preoccupied attention. So they have been apt to resort to the old device of explaining away what they could not explain; crushed between their fumbling fingers, the gossamer wings of soaring inspiration have dissolved into powder.”

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I will be objective: If I were not a Muslim and had an attachment to another monotheistic tradition, I would be curious theologically how or why heaven could have allowed, in a post-Jesus world, such a remarkably successful religious advent—miraculous-seeming phenomenon that produced a layered, profound, deeply artistic, intellectually vibrant, and flourishing civilization that covered much of the known world and reigned longer than any previous civilization—even though its salvation narrative is apparently at odds with God’s requirements as found in Judeo-Christian sources. What on earth (or above) can explain Islam and its stunning achievement in temporal and, especially, spiritual terms?"

Hardly objective. Come on -- don't sabotage your own argument. Are we to look for a heavenly explanation also for Alexander or Chengis Khan -- both amazing successes with lasting effects? Believer or not, I think there are many more serious, secular explanations for Islam's early success that simply Heaven. If one were objective, of course. So what's the mirror image of an Orientalist? An Occidentalist?

5/11/2007 3:15 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Anon, I don’t think I sabotaged my argument, but to answer your question: neither Khan nor Alex had the kind of lasting impact that Islam did, especially Khan whose conquests were actually temporary in civilization time. And, of course, Alex was not in the post-Jesus world. If you find it difficult to hear this assessment from me, then you may want to read others who also commented on the fact that many of the early polemics against Islam were inspired by a serious “unease” with the success of Islam, and not in temporal or marshal terms, but as a religion that found widespread acceptance (to hell with the sword theories) in areas once ruled by Christendom and in areas uninterested in Christendom. As for secular arguments, they rarely are impressive, because in the realm of arguments, all of the enchantment of life can be deconstructed by postmodern methodologies or any other secular axe. I cannot over exaggerate how these arguments are boring because the very nature of the sacred cannot be touched by arguments that deny the notion of the Unseen and the sacred. Also, church polemics often attempted to attribute “success” outside of its reach or influence as disguised as glitter spawned by some kind of demonology. Finally, as a reader of oriental scholarship (much of which, as I have said or should have said, is profound and original), I do find a link between polemics and the assumptions that many scholars took when trying to look closer at Islam. As for Occidentalism, it is no answer at all. What’s bogus is bogus, no matter who attempts it.

5/11/2007 3:54 PM  
Anonymous irving said...

I think your assessment is quite accurate. Human pattern thinking has a way of reducing even large subjects to pigeonholes that do not fit. The early desert father of Syria and Egypt may have had some resemblence to Sufism in that they were both God centered esoteric systems based on service and love, but each has its place in the human sphere, in time, and in religion.

Ya Haqq!

5/15/2007 12:06 PM  
Blogger zanjabil said...

Have you read John G. Bennett's "The Masters of Wisdom"? Bennett was a pupil of Gurdjieff, but he went beyond his teacher. It appears that he embraced Islam in secret. His book is about the chain of spiritual Masters on earth, including Christian mystics, and ending with the silsilas of the Sufis.

Gurdjieff's teachings were largely sourced from the Naqshbandiyya Sufi masters of Central Asia, with whom he had contact. His profound interest in cultivating consciousness is very Sufic.

7/17/2007 4:58 PM  

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