Breaking: Persian tradition played central role in Islamic mysticism: Duke professor
TEHRAN – A professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University says that the Persian tradition played a pivotal role in development of mysticism (Erfan) in the Muslim world.
“The Persian tradition as being a central one for understanding Mysticism in the “Mashreq” (the Eastern half of the Muslim majority world, more or less from Balkans to Bengal),” Omid Safi tells the Tehran Times.
Philosophically speaking, mysticism (erfan – gnosis) belongs to the category of cognition, but not cognition in the ordinary sense. Not a common, day-to-day consciousness of the external world, but knowledge of a world beyond the superficial appearances. Not knowledge-based on belief or reason, but one founded on direct, intuitive, instinctive perceptions.
In other words, an inspired form of insight or an esoteric and personal knowledge flowing from within. Religion or philosophy probably used this intuitive method of cognition more than common sense.
The professor from Duke University also says, “One can mention how the Mughal Empire was Persian speaking in its court, how Persian was so common in the Ottoman court, how Samarqand and Bukhara and Herat were major Persian metropoles.”
Following is the text of the interview with Safi:
Q: Given the dominance of Sunni-Shia narratives, how do you assess the position of mysticism in the contemporary Muslim world in light of the emergence of Wahhabism and Salafism?
A: The mysticist dimension of Islam was never relegated to either the Sunni or Shia traditions, but one that pervaded both. So many of the most influential Sunni thinkers, like Ibn ‘Arabi, Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, al-Ghazali, etc., were either mystically oriented or deeply shaped by the mysticist tradition. Within the Shia tradition, much of what we know as “Erfan” is really metaphysical.
I think that the subtlety, humanity, aesthetic beauty, nuance, service, and appreciation for multiple vantage points that are all common features of the Sufi tradition would offer an important antidote to flat, rigid puritanical versions of Islam that are too common today.
Q: Do you think that mysticism can build a bridge between different Islamic sects and even between religions?
A: To a large extent, yes. The plurality of perspectives and the reminder that it is only God alone who is “al-haqq” (the Truth) would go a long way towards doing so. But the work of mysticism in healing and reconciliation would need to go hand in hand with other political and economic reconciliation and not replace them.
“While no human community has a spotless record of living in perfect peace and harmony, some of the conflicts we see today are not “ancient and eternal” conflicts, but ones that can be definitely traced to the violence of European colonialism.”
Q: How important is Iranian civilization when we talk about mysticism and its history?
A: I prefer to use the term Persian and Persianate traditions because historically, so many of the cultures were Persian was the language of high culture, poetry, refinement, and the mysticism tradition were outside of the modern-day Iranian nation-state.
One can mention how the Mughal Empire was Persian speaking in its court, how Persian was so common in the Ottoman court, how Samarqand and Bukhara and Herat were major Persian metropoles, and how even in Bosnia, there were academies devoted to the proper recitation and commentary on Mawlana Rumi’s Masnavi.
In all those ways and more, I see the Persian tradition as being a central one for understanding mysticism in the “Mashreq” (the Eastern half of the Muslim majority world, more or less from Balkans to Bengal).
Q: What is the function of religion in modern times? How can religions help protect the environment and promote social issues?
A: Religion has, to a large extent, been subsumed into nationalist discourses. In many places (Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.), the rulers have adopted religious discourse to legitimize themselves, but what happens to the truth-telling ability of religious individuals and movements in such a context? If religious traditions are seen as a means of drawing closer and closer to God, living in harmony with the whole of humanity and with nature, then yes, there is much that religious traditions have to offer us today.
Q: What is your comment on sectarian conflicts in West Asia? What are the roots of these confrontations?
A: A great many sectarian conflicts in the Middle East (West Asia) go back to the era of colonialism and the subsequent anti-colonial revolutions that became cloaked in nationalism. While no human community has a spotless record of living in perfect peace and harmony, some of the conflicts we see today are not “ancient and eternal” conflicts, but ones that can be definitely traced to the violence of European colonialism.