Printer Friendly

Revealed Grace: The Juristic Sufism of Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624).

Revealed Grace: The Juristic Sufism of Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624). By ARTHUR F. BUEHLER. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011. Pp. xxii + 321. $24.95 (paper).

This volume consists of a scholarly translation of twenty-six letters selected from Ahmad Sirhindi's Maktubat (Collected Letters), preceded by a comprehensive introductory essay. The Sufi master Sirhindi (d. 1624) is a key figure in the religious and intellectual history of Mughal India. Through his teaching and writing he expounded and developed the legacy of the Naqshbandiyya--the Central Asian tariqa imported to India at the time of the TImurid conquest--giving it his personal imprint and promoting its further expansion. This achievement, occurring in the decades immediately following the year 1000 (1591 C.E.), earned him among his followers the honorific "renewer of the second millennium" (mujaddid-i alf-i thani), hence the name MujaddidI for the branch of the tariqa based on his teachings. Testifying to the dissemination of these teachings, the Maktubat, originally written in Persian, were translated into Ottoman Turkish already by the middle of the eighteenth century, and later into Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, modern Turkish, and, most recently, Chinese. The prestige of Sirhindl's magnum opus is well encapsulated by the nineteenth-century shaykh Ghulam 'All Shah Dihlawl, who praised Sirhindi, saying: "He is not a messenger but he has a book." Containing more than 500 letters written during almost a quarter of a century, the Maktubat are a classic of early modern Sufi literature, an increasingly important field of research where critical examinations and scholarly translations of sources are still needed. Buehler's book fills a gap in scholarship by providing an English translation of unprecedented accuracy, the result of many years of study of Sirhindl's Maktubat and later MujaddidI literature.

Buehler's 63-page introduction deserves to be recommended reading for students of Sufism in India. It gives a thorough overview of Sirhindi's life and thought, building upon previous academic work and offering fresh analytical perspectives about his social and political role and his significance as a Sufi master. In twentieth-century Indo-Muslim historiography, Sirhindi has been subjected to ideological readings emphasizing his political role. In this context, strongly influenced by nationalistic agendas, Sirhindi has been either celebrated or denigrated for his opposition to the administrative reforms and universalistic religious policy of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), for his emphasis on the necessity to ground spiritual training in strict adherence to the Sharl'a and the Sunna, and for his critiques against Sufi "innovators," most notably the followers of Ibn al-'Arabi's monistic Sufism in India.

More balanced scholarly accounts have helped to correct this perspective. Yohanan Friedmann deconstructed Sirhindi's modern image as a restorer of orthodoxy and pioneered a study of his mystical thought on its own terms, later deepened and refined by J. G. J. ter Haar. Yet despite their merits, these scholarly accounts underestimated or sidestepped the issues raised by Sirhindi's polemics against Mughal religious policies. Buehler reopens the file, providing a new framework for interpretation focused on Sirhindi's social milieu. Paying attention to the importance of ancestry and family history, Buehler underlines that Sirhindi, as indicated by his nisbas Kabuli and Faruql, belonged to the upper stratum of Indo-Muslim social hierarchy--that is, the "nobles" (ashrdf), according to the specific meaning the term had in the Indian context, which distinguished the Muslim elite of Central Asian and Afghan origins not only from Hindus but also from native Indian Muslims. Neither new nor exceptional, Sirhindi's opposition to Akbar in the name of Islamic legalism appears to reflect the concerns and outlooks of his social group, still tied to Central Asian religious and political culture, characterized on the one hand by the dominance of the Hanafi-Maturidl version of Sunni Islam, and on the other by the leading role of the Naqshbandl shaykhs as intermediaries between rulers and subjects. Buehler's sociological explanation is by no means intended to minimize the significance of Sirhindi's advocacy for adherence to the Sharl'a, or to explain away disturbing statements against non-Muslim and "innovators." It rather calls attention to a fundamental element of Indo-Muslim Mughal culture, permeating also the "spiritual" sphere. This helps to explain in a wider cultural context the central role Sirhindi gave to the Sharl'a also in his Sufi teaching.

The role of the Sharl'a in Sirhindi's mysticism has been widely explored in previous scholarship. Besides Friedmann and Ter Haar, Alberto Ventura has also closely analyzed Sirhindi's conception of the spiritual imitation of the Prophet, pointing out its connection with Ibn al-'Arabi's hagiology. Buehler concurs with this line of inquiry, while refining the interpretation of Sirhindl's role as a "renewer" of religion. In this regard he underscores the difference among Salafi and Sufi concepts of "renewal." The point is important in order to avoid the identification of "orthodoxy" with "Salafism," altogether inappropriate in the early modern context. In any case, Buehler does not label Sirhindi's vision of a renewed Sufism as "orthodox," preferring to characterize it as "jurist-friendly." Buehler's most original contribution in this area lies in his particular attention to practice and experience, seen as underlying characters of Sirhindi's writing. In the author's own words: "Sirhindi's Collected Letters functioned as a detailed operating manual for a curriculum in contemplative practice showing how to verify ways of knowing about unity" (p. 58); "this is not 'armchair sufism' but a set of very precise directions for aspirants to evaluate their experiences and discriminate the real from the shadow of the real" (p. 137, introducing letter 1:290). Buehler is thoroughly familiar with Mujaddidi contemplative practices and keenly aware of their essential role in Sirhindi's spiritual anthropology and cosmology. The pedagogical context of the Maktubat gives also a clue to the vexed question of the distinction between "unity of being" (tawhld-i wujudi) and "unity of contemplative witnessing" (tawhld-i shuhiidl), which Sirhindi used in order to describe different stages of mystical experience, rather than to draw dogmatic boundaries between good and bad Subs (see, in particular, pp. 37, 47-58, 186).

The twenty-six letters selected for translation, comprising about thirteen percent of the corpus, coherently reflect the approach of the introduction. In the opening section, due place is given to Sirhindi's juristic and theological positions ("Shariat, Sunnat, and Jurists," pp. 63-114), but the bulk of the translated texts concerns personal experience and Sufi training, with detailed expositions of the Naqshbandi method ("Contemplative Experience," pp. 115-68; "Aspects of the Sufi Path," pp. 169-232). The fourth and fifth chapters include two long letters that constitute two independent Sufi treatises, giving a general overview of Sirhindl's teaching (1:260, pp. 233-65, and 1:287, pp. 266300). Each letter is preceded by a detailed introduction, giving background information concerning the addressee and a survey of the content of the letter, with abundant references to other passages from the Maktubat.

Overall Buehler's choice to focus on contemplative experience highlights the fluidity and dynamism of Sirhindi's letters, avoiding the identification of his teaching with a narrowly defined set of doctrines. For example, Sirhindl's internal development leads him to correct himself, setting right his own statements on the basis of new experiences (p. 41). This shows that Sirhindi is very conscious of the problematic relationship between the spiritual experience and its interpretation. In fact, a Sufi master is a guide first and foremost to the interpretation of the disciple's experiences. Sirhindi himself underwent this training under the supervision of his master Baqi Billah (pp. 115ff., 124ff., 135ff.). Earlier Sufi literature is another criterion for measuring spiritual experience. Often Sirhindi makes reference to Sufi books, which are an indispensable tool in interpreting experience even though they are not immune from misconceptions (e.g., pp. 121, 166). Enjoying a sophisticated literary culture, Sirhindi displays a dialectic between consciousness of precedent and independent judgment: the landscapes he explores have already been mapped by previous wayfarers, but are still open to amendments and refinements. Personal verification enables the seeker to disagree both with his master and with the written tradition, leading to further advancements in knowledge (pp. 206-7).

Buehler's non-dogmatic attitude is well reflected in his translation choices, accounted for in the "Translator's preface" (pp. ix-xxii). Aware that complete fidelity is unattainable, Buehler seeks to be as precise as possible, paying attention both to what is said and how it is said. He translates each letter in its entirety and without ellipses, keeping most of the polite formulae that belong to the natural flow of Sirhindi's prose. Notwithstanding the intricacies of the text, the translation is highly readable. An English equivalent is given for every word but shari(at, but Buehler avoids simplification and keeps as close as possible to the etymological meaning of the words. For example, he translates walaya with "intimacy," and kufr with "covering up reality," adding the conventional meaning "unbelief" or "infidelity" in brackets, leaving it up to the reader whether to give precedence to the etymological or the theological meaning. Buehler adopts consistent renderings for Sufi technical terms, pointing out their precedents in earlier Sufi usage; a case in point is the term fard ("unique one"), already defined by Ibn al-Arabl but used by Sirhindi in a particular way.

Not having access to the Persian original 1 could only detect a few minor errors: the death date of Ibn Taymiyya given as 653/1255 (pp. 29, 52); Israfil identified with Rafael instead of Seraphiel (p. 273); and occasional mistakes in transliterations from Arabic, e.g., muhaytan instead of muhitan (p. 112); fa-aslamu and fa-islamu instead offa-uslimu and fa-aslama (p. 229).

In addition to consulting previous translations in various languages of the Islamic world and Urdu commentaries to the Maktubat, Buehler benefited from the assistance of living Mujaddidi masters deeply grounded in the study of the text. As an outsider translating Sufi literature (adab) and opening his ears to its "music," Buehler attunes himself to Sufi good manners (adab), bridging somehow the gap between being an outsider and an insider. He gives a lesson in nuancing through both his account of Sirhindi and his translation of the Maktubat.


COPYRIGHT 2014 American Oriental Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Pagani, Samuela
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2014
Previous Article:Sufism: A Global History.
Next Article:Phonetic Ambiguity in the Chinese Script: A Palaeographical & Phonological Analysis.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |