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Translating sufism. .


ISLAMIC MYSTICISM, OR SUFISM (Arabic tasawwuf), from the ninth century A.D. until the last two hundred years, was the one cultural and intellectual constant that bound together elite and common Muslims throughout the Islamic world. With the curious exception of the Twelver Shi""i Safavid empire, controversies about certain Sufi doctrines and practices never put a halt to its attraction for scholars and state officials. Far from being an alternative to "mainstream Islam," or an escape from it, it was elaborated in vocabulary and institutions as an inherent part of Islam, by scholars who became specialists in the Islamic "science" ([ilm.sup.[subset]]) of Sufism. For almost a century of scholarship now, however, Sufism has been treated in Western literature as being contested continually by Islam and, in part because Sufis are viewed as being at odds with legalistic, orthodox Muslims; they are favored accordingly by many writers, who perhaps find comfort in their presence as fellow outsiders. (1) But the growing number of p opular Sufi works in English--often pasteurized versions of venerable orientalist translations of original Sufi words--miss altogether the inescapable historical and ideological foundation of Sufism: Islam itself. (2)

The last two decades have also seen a special interest in the changing landscape of late Sufism. A "Neo-Sufi" thesis proposes that eighteenth-century Sufis shifted their doctrines and practices from union with God to union with the figure of Muhammad. Yet whatever other criticisms of Neo-Sufism there are to be made, the implication that Muhammad is not important as a Sufi model and mystical being in early Sufism is especially questionable. (3) It is a great accomplishment of Sells' Early Islamic Mysticism that it makes the Islamic and Muhammad-centered nature of Sufi texts clearer than any anthology in the field to date.

In his introduction to Early Islamic Mysticism, Sells divides early Sufi phenomena into four periods. The book is concerned primarily with the first three: 1) the [Qur.sup.[contains]]-an and pre-Sufi spirituality, seventh to eighth centuries; 2) the emergence of Sufism and the time of the early masters, eighth to tenth centuries; and 3) the formative period of Sufi literature, tenth to eleventh centuries.

Other recent academic writings have worked to correct the view of Sufism as "counter." [to legalistic] "culture." At the same time, as the work under review shows, efforts to de-mystify Sufism, and to portray it at work as but one among many social forces in Islamic history would be going too far in another direction. It would divert attention away from the truly surprising and creative thought of the early Sufis.

An impressive number of book-length translations of Sufi literature from Sells' final period--4) the age of [Attar.sup.[subset]], Rumi, and Ibn [Arabi.sup.[subset]], eleventh to thirteenth centuries--have been done in the last decade or so and should be mentioned here. Among the books now available in English are many popular and scholarly translations of Rumi (including W. Thackston's new translation of The Discourses and, most recently, F. Lewis' study with translations, Rumi: Past and Present, East and West) along with several fine translations of selections and entire works of Ibn [Arabi.sup.[subset]] (by W. Chittick, J. Morris, G. Elmore, and others). Rumi and Ibn [Arabi.sup.[subset]] are the best-known Sufis in this period, but translations of many other tenth to thirteenth-century Sufis have been done.

In addition to the "greats" from the early periods translated by Sells in the book under review, there are translations available now of al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. ca. 932 A.D.), (4) Ibn Sina (d. 1037) as mystical thinker, (5) and of Abu [Sa.sup.[subset]]id b. Abi Khayr's (d. 1049) teachings. (6) Fresh translations of al-Ghazali (d. 1111), as well as some newly rendered into English, are enriching the study of Sufism. (7) A near contemporary of al-Ghazali, [Ayn.sup.[subset]] al-Qudat al-Hamadhani (d. 1132) has recently been made accessible in English for the first time. (8)

A single publishing house, Al-Baz Publications, now has six translations of the work of [Abd.sup.[subset]] al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166), done by M. Holland, including the Fath alrabbani and the Ghunyah li-talib tariq al-Haqq, while the Cambridge Islamic Texts Society has published To-sun Bayrak's translation of al-Jilani's Sirr al-asrar in l992. (9) Whereas most writers in the past tended to remove Sufis from mainstream Islam, al-Jilani, a magnet of hagiography and eponym of turuq branches down to modern times, had his Sufi credentials severely criticized in a scholarly publication. Based on the fact that twelfth-century biographers describe al-Jilani as a faqih, and not in explicitly Sufi terms, J. Chabbi claimed that al-Jilani's reputation as a mystic was invented, and is late. (10) She did not question the authenticity of his published Arabic writings, however. Although they are not "visionary recitals," al-Jilani's works, as is clear from the English translations, definitely belong to tasawwuf.

Four new translations expand the English Sufi library of the illuminationist thought of Shihab al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi "al-Maqtul" (d. 1191). H. Ziai has edited and translated his Book of Radiance and, with J. Wal bridge, his Philosophy of Illumination. (11) Suhrawardi's Hayakal al-nur was "interpreted" by Tosun Bayrak as The Shape of Light in 1998 and W. Thackston has edited, translated, and provided a parallel Persian-English text of his The Philosophical Allegories and Mystical Treatises. (12) There has even been a book-length translation by V. Cornell of the work of Abu Madyan (d. 1198), the North African shaykh whose name has usually appeared solely as a footnote in analyses of Ibn [Arabi.sup.[subset]]'s career. (13) And finally, as one more in this wealth of English books by Sufis from the era before Rumi, C. Ernst has translated the extraordinary diary of Ruzbihan Baqli (d. 1209). (14)

Current scholarship and serious contributions by translators have made early Sufism considerably more accessible than it had been before. (15) Still, for the three very early periods, Sells' book and a briefer offering by C. Ernst are the only new anthologies of Sufi writings since M. Smith, R. Nicholson, and A. J. Arberry. (16)


Michael Sells has made it a major part of his life's work to breathe new life into Arabic classics for English readers interested in poetry and mysticism. He has translated and analyzed pre-Islamic poetry in articles and in his book Desert Tracings: Six Classical Arabian Odes (1989). In a number of articles and chapters for edited volumes, and especially in his monograph Mystical Languages of Unsaying (1994), Sells, in an engagement with comparative religionists, has contributed his perspectives on Arabic mystical texts. As one example, the first truly fresh translation of the last [juz.sup.[contains]] (thirtieth portion) of the [Qur.sup.[contains]]an since A. J. Arberry was published by Sells in 1999 (Approaching the [Qur.sup.[contains]]an). More recently, Sells issued his Stations of Desire: Love Elegies from Ibn [Arabi.sup.[subset]] and New Poems (2000) and has co-edited The Literature of Al-Andalus. (17)

Early Islamic Mysticism

Since publication in 1996, it has stood successfully the test of college and university classrooms. It contains passages that are translated with aching beauty and clarity. Sells' translations of pre-Islamic poetry, some of which reappear here, are well known. In Early Islamic Mysticism (hereafter EIM) he also tackles prose with equal ingenuity. A few illustrations: [Ja.sup.[subset]]far al-Sadiq is quoted in reference to the [Qur.sup.[contains]]anic verses about Muhammad's encounter with God during the [Mi.sup.[subset]]raj, "When the lover draws as near to his beloved as is possible, he is overcome by utter terror. Then the truth treats him with complete gentleness because nothing but complete gentleness can endure utter terror" (p. 84). Bistami calls out to God, "You have created your creation without their knowledge and have adorned them with faith without their will. If you don't help them, who will?" (p. 238). Muhasibi describes the arrogance that comes with conceit as "a particular anxiety a person has that he not be lorded over, along with a love of lording it over others" (p. 189). On the subject of "the moment," Qushayri's master al-Daqqaq recites:
Just as the people of fire
 when their skin is well roasted
have prepared for their wretchedness
 new skin
No one truly dies
 who finds rest in dying
To truly die
 is to live your death (p. 101).

For those who remember God after sinning, the [Qur.sup.[contains]]an promises, in Sells' translation:

For them is a reward of forgiveness from their lord and gardens with rivers flowing underneath eternal there

fine is the recompense for those whose deeds are fine (3:136, p. 86).

Sells has provided introductory sections to all of the chapters which, taken together, would stand alone as an excellent guide to early Sufism, for both academic and general readers. (18) Among the benefits of the book is the emphasis on the importance, in the selections and in Sells' comments, of the Prophet Muhammad, not only for Sufi journeys that imitate his [Mi.sup.[subset]]raj, but as the perfect model for the mystical life. The hadith "My heart becomes shrouded, so that I ask God Most High for pardon seventy times a day" means, for instance, that Muhammad's normal human consciousness is a veil from reality that glimmers ever more strongly as he rises from one state to another, not that he, too, is prone to human error and needs God's forgiveness (pp. 104-5). Muhammad's personality is compared in the [Qur.sup.[contains]]an, hadith and related literature, and no less so in Sufi texts, with Moses. We have always known from Islamic texts who will win the prophetic competition as delivering divine law most effectively, and the theme has been discussed elsewhere, but this is the first English book on Sufism I am aware of that makes clear that the issue of Muhammad's elevation over or beyond Moses (Islam over Judaism) is a Sufi preoccupation (see, e.g., pp. 96 and 136). (19)

The translations start with passages from the [Qur.sup.[contains]]an (including short surahs to which Sells gives English sounds approximating the power of the Arabic Meccan chapters), Sahih Muslim, and Sirat lbn Hisham. As background for the language and imagery of Sufi writings, Sells then offers examples from pre-Islamic poetry. No scholar before Sells has brought out in a meaningful way the traces of this body of Arabic literature on the Sufi tradition. The unattainable beloved, her stopping places, and pilgrimage sites, all become basic elements of Sufi writing about spiritual states and stations, as Sells proves with the selections that follow. Two sections on Sufi tafsir, one from that ascribed to Jacfar alSadiq, the other from Tustari, precede Qushayri's definitions of technical terms. For the Qushayri chapter, Sells translates the entire alfaz (technical terms) portion of the Risalah. The translation is crisp throughout; this is one of the best parts of the book. One is especially grateful for the points i n this section, and elsewhere in ElM, where Sells proves wrong the prevailing depictions of Sufism in which Junayd appears as a spoilsport figure, limited in mystical perception, who chooses sobriety over ecstasy.

Chapters four through ten consist of individual Sufi figures, their teachings, and accounts of their spiritual lives. [Attar.sup.[subset]]'s telling of [Rabi.sup.[subset]]ah's life, skillfully translated from the Persian by Paul Losensky with an introduction and notes by Sells, is in sharp contrast to Qushayri's chapter of technical terms that precedes it. Onions and tears, Sufi men and women jousting, these are good stories for student enjoyment. (We are referred to Baldick's scholarly article for [Rabi.sup.[subset]]ah's historical and hagiographical personage.) Muhasibi's "Moral Psychology" is followed by a flawless translation of the maqumat of Sarraj. Sarraj also provides the commentary for the shathiyat that make up the first part of the next chapter, on Abu Yazid al-Bistami. Abu Yazid's sayings are translated further from Sulami and Qushayri, along with the account of his [Mi.sup.[subset]]raj from al-Qasd ila Allah. Here I wish that Sells' rich material in the footnotes on mystical ascent had been given more space in the chapter' s main introductory text. A selection from Junayd's writings about unity and [fanu.sup.[contains]] that form the next chapter brings Sells to admit "This is not a comfortable piece to read or to translate" (p. 259). By not bridging over difficulties in the Arabic with added English terms, he has succeeded overall and has honored the original more than Abdel-Kader's earlier translations. From the small number of available texts attached to the name of Hallaj, Sells chooses, for the next chapter, to translate the TaSin on Iblis. Does Hallaj portray Satan as a true or shortsighted monotheist? This and other questions, such as free will and determinism, raised in bold style, make the chapter fruitful for student discussions in classes on Islam and Sufism.

The final chapter is from the Mawaqif of al-Niffari. Conversations between God and mystics have a long and continuing tradition in Sufi writings. They understandably cause consternation among non-Sufis; when the speakers' identities disappear, as they do throughout Niffari, today's Salafis throw up their hands. Placing this section at the end of the book reminds us that advice about asceticism, love of God, and the systematization of Sufi practice, are only a part of the discourse of Islamic mysticism before the end of the tenth century. Like Junayd's radical understanding of tawhid, but in elliptical reference to experience at the interstices of human and divine reality, Niffari presages what is to become full-blown with Ibn [Arabi.sup.[subset]], which is Sells' subject in many of his other scholarly works. The short poem given as an epilogue comes from the Hallajian Diwan. As an appendix, Sells offers a translation from Shahrastani on different schools of kalam. But, without elaborate cross-references from the doc trinal points in Shahrastani to the earlier Sufi portions, students, in my experience, have found the section distracting rather than illuminating.

Most of the selections in the book have never been translated into English, although French and German renderings exist for some of them. Where available, Sells has provided thorough references to the original edited texts and their translations. There are a few exceptions. Page numbers to Nwyia's text of the tafsir attributed to [Ja.sup.[subset]]far al-Sadiq are missing from the footnotes to "Early Sufi [Qur.sup.[subset]]an Interpretations." (20) G. Bowering's edition of Sulami's Ziyadat [haqa.sup.[contains]]iq al-tafsir receives no note within the same chapter; its publication date of 1995 might have overlapped this book's preparation. A 1984 translation of Shahrastani (Muslim Sects and Divisions by T. G. Flynn and A. K. Kazi)--though it has been criticized for its lack of critical apparatus--is not mentioned.

God Language

Among the difficulties of the translations, God language and gender stand out. Allah is "God," but sometimes "Allah," and the pronoun is "he." Rabb is "lord." Elsewhere Sells has written that the divine name a!Haqq "has no innate status as a proper noun but can borrow such status from context." (21) In EIM the name is translated as "the real." To avoid always using a masculine pronoun and capital letters for the divine being, Sells uses "it" and "he" when the antecedent is "the real" even though he has capitalized the optatives that follow all divine referents in the originals. Capitalizing pronouns for God has never been uniform in English translations of the Bible or in Christian writings, and I suppose there is no imperative for them in Islamic English. However at times the result of Sells' creative work with capitalization and pronouns is less than satisfactory, as in Qushayri's definition of [shari.sup.[subset]]ah "divine law is that you worship it [God]" (p. 141), or in chapter when she says that "love of the real (mahabhati haqq) has so pervaded me that there is no place in my heart for love or hatred of another" (p. 163).

Is it true to the sources that, on the one hand, Allah be "demoted" to the level of personal deity who creates, who speaks through the [Qur.sup.[subset]]an, and who is worshipped while, on the other, al-Haqq becomes the sole term for the abstract Absolute (pp. 7-8)? The terms khalq/haqq are often paired in Sufi texts. Precisely because they imply "the created worshipper (khalq)/the creator of the worshippers (haqq)," haqq is nearest to what Western theologians call a "personal God." In addition, it is not uncommon to encounter Allah as the Absolute, the name that contains all possibilities. However, after re-reading many passages, I changed my mind. It seems that al-Haqq, indeed, is fittingly translated in most places in early Sufi texts as "the Real" in accord with the English sense of "Ultimate Reality." (22) But at other times it surely is simply "the truth," as in Sells' translation of Niffari: "I said: You, God, there is no God but You. He said: You have spoken the real" (p. 298).

One might also ask, does the tailoring of the Arabic huwa, usually translated as "He/he" when referring to God, to "it" (or "She/she," for that matter) reflect the intended meaning of the original authors of religious texts? In a footnote to the first chapter, "Sources of Islamic Mysticism," Sells explains he is not in favor of "imposing feminine constructions, but... breaking with the tradition--which has no [Qur.sup.[subset]]anic or linguistic justification--of repressing them" (p. 325, see also comments p. 38). This applies not strictly to pronouns referring to God but to all gendered referents. For example, Surat al-Infitar, v. 5, is given as, "Then a person will know what she has given and what she has held back," and Surat al-Zalzalah begins, "When the earth is shaken, quaking I And she yields up her burdens" (pp. 44-45). But for God in EMI, Sells stays with "he" or "it."

Of course Muslims do not speak of whether God is male or female, as this trespasses on strict notions of tawhid, Unlike Judaism and especially Christianity, there is no imagery of a father God to warrant using solely masculine pronouns. There is even a fair amount of God-as-nurturing-mother imagery in Sufi writings. Western feminists who write about religion are concerned about the social construction of gender and the way it determines how we speak of the divine. Most Muslims find such ideas offensive or just silly, as "the way things are" is thought to take the opposite direction, heaven downwards, so to speak. Persian, with its gender neutral pronouns, is the ideal language for resolving gender problems in speaking of God; Arabic, up until now, has demanded using the masculine as the default pronoun for God. Still, Muslims are serious about God being beyond gender. (23) With practice, Sells' "it" might serve quite well, but because of the deeply embedded practice of relating to God in a gendered way in Eng lish (whether by the traditional masculine form or with the new blends), I have my doubts.

Union with God

Another controversial feature of the book reflects an equally important issue in Sufi theology, and in polemics against Sufism. This is the question of union with God. Problems in teaching Sufism as part of Islam in the academy are many. How many of us, after giving what we thought were fairly thorough introductions to the history of Islamic mysticism and its practitioners, have read the following in student exams; "The goal of Sufism is union with God"? Comparative scholars of religion often expect Sufis to act like proper mystics and seek unio mystica. But the texts translated in EIM are ambiguous on the matter.

It can be misleading to read the English word "union" when the original sources employ Arabic terms that, in my opinion, imply something other than what is associated with that word when it is used today. No matter whether it is a matter of perception (what seems to us to be union is actually God's overtaking the human), or choice of expression (metaphorical union is used because it is safe, whereas spelling it out is dangerous), the original texts behind EIM do not use the word ittihad, which would be the strict Arabic equivalent for "union." On p. 141, Qushayri, who comes in the generation set to defend the early Sufi masters, declares, in Sells' translation, "No created being attains union with [God]" (wa ma ittasala bihi makhluq). But a similar expression is translated elsewhere not as attaining union but as "clinging to [God]" (al-ittisal bihi, p. 254). In this case the translation implies that the seeker's identity is maintained. In one of the pilgrimage stories about [Rabi.sup.[subset]]ah, she is warned that she would melt if God were to manifest himself to her. Instead she asks only for "a drop of poverty" (p. 158). Even this is said to be far from her grasp, and she eventually returns to Basra because, as the divine voice explains in a way that would seem to break any pilgrim's heart, "When [they] near that clod of earth (the Ka'bah), they themselves cause the road to be closed to them" (p. 159). As a part of this exchange she is shown a sea of blood, "the blood of our lovers who came seeking union with us" (keh bi-tabal-i wisal-i ma). (24) It can be argued that ittisal and wisal in these examples are simply chosen as code for more problematic Arabic words for mystical union; it can also be said that they are used because they convey a different reality or degree of intimacy, perhaps closer to the (admittedly less poetic) notion of "arriving at God."

One more Arabic word that appears in the texts of EIM seems undeniably an equivalent of "union" and that is [jam.sup.[subset]]. In Qushayri's definitions of Sufi technical terms in pairs, [jam.sup.[subset]] and farq are translated as "union and separation." Here the word fits, although it might also be possible to think of "integratedness and dissolution." Qushayri explains that, from the human plane, "union of union ([jam.sup.[subset]] al-[jam.sup.[subset]]) is the utter perishing and passing away of all perception of any other-than-God" (p. 118, emphasis added).

Muslim theology is of course strongly against the idea of God becoming human (hulul, i.e., substantial union and the attendant connection with the incarnation of Christ) or human becoming god. (25) This does not mean, as has been asserted by various writers, that Muslims see God as not being present in history, collective and individual. As the majority of Muslims (and Jews) would say, I believe, one doesn't have to unite with God or have faith in incarnation to have a close personal relationship with God. Or, to put it differently, because one does not desire literal union with God (because one believes it is impossible ontologically) does not mean that one is trapped in isolation from the divine source.

Now it should be said that even Bernard McGinn acknowledges that the term "union" only gained currency in this sense when it became a tool of scholars of Christian mysticism and religious studies in the nineteenth century. (26) Sells uses union language for what he terms "the apophatic mystics" of Islam, because that is what he finds behind the terms [fana.sup.[contains]]/[baqa.sup.[contains]] in the early Sufi writers and especially in the school of Ibn [Arabi.sup.[subset]]. While he translates words with the root w-s-l and others as "union" here, Sells states in a footnote only one of the most significant correctives to previous treatments of Sufism: "In Sufi understanding of mystical union, there is no 'meeting of two parties,' but rather one party disappears and the other emerges" (p. 341 n. 77; clearly demonstrated in Bistami's words on p. 216).

It would seem, then, that there might be alternative ways in English to express the concept of "union." The English word "union" should be reserved for ittihad, the literal joining of two things into one. If one is a Sufi writing in Arabic, ittihad is, of course, the word to avoid because al-ittihadiyun is the label that later anti-Sufis love to use for their worst enemies. But I don't think it is only because of outsiders' criticism that it is not used. One senses that there is virtually always the preservation of something transcendent, even when the Sufi realizes unity. Especially central to Sufi self-definition is the oft-cited hadith al-nawafil of Bukhari, "When my servant draws near to me...I become the hearing with which he hears..." (p. 22). Junayd, Sarraj, Qushayri, and Sulami writing on Abu Yazid all refer to it, as given in the selections or in notes of the book (pp. 226, 234, 261, 338). Rather than calling this "the union hadith" (p. 342), it would be more in keeping with the way it is used--to e xpress an intensity of yearning for God through acts of worship that God promises to answer in a profound way--to stay with Sells' alternate "free devotions hadith" (p. 217).

On the other hand, especially because he did not confine himself to the most controversial figures, the ones whose goals are supposed to have been union with God, Sells' choice of translated selections is to be commended. (27) For example, Muhasibi, whose prose and life contain none of the union language students expect from Sufis, reminds us of the more commonly expressed, if mundane, goals of tasawwuf Certainly, ecstatic union with God was not in the mind of the person who is cited often by Sufis as defining life as "Five prayers a day and waiting for death." Examining motivations for worship, rather than blindly carrying them out, sets the Sufi approach apart from non-Sufi Islam. In devotional writings, this topic does not make as absorbing reading as becoming one with the divine, but it is probably more representative. On the other hand, while Sells is admiring of Muhsibi's insights (for instance, into procrastination), he cites with approval Massignon's judgment that Muhasibi sullies his "sophisticated psychology with the most naive devotional perspectives...Death is to be feared not on its own account, but rather for the 'accounting' that it entails" (p. 179). For Massignon to chide Muhasibi, or other early Sufis, for speaking of the [Qur.sup.[contains]]anic eschatological consequences of spiritual life on earth belies a prejudice against the revelation-centered consciousness of Islam. Contemplating death is for Sufism a spiritual discipline that is supposed to lead to a better life on earth and in eternity. In our modern psychological terms, crisis can lead to psychological change. We tend to read it all as psychological torment and attempts at transformation; in Muhasibi's inner world, this is real. Satan is pitted against God's desire for sincere worship.

Specific Comments on EIM

Among the refreshing neologisms Sells invents is "godfriend" (or "Godfriend") and "friend-of-God" for wall (wilayah is rendered "godfriendship"), "godservant" for [abd.sup.[subset]], and "powerlust" for [ri.sup.[contains]]asah. Other pleasing translations come to mind: the way the beloved woman Mayya in a pre-Islamic poem appears facing away from the gaze of her lover, "with buttocks like a soft dune / over which a rain shower falls" (p. 73, surely the first poetic description of cellulite in history); "slinking whisperer" for Satan, al-waswas; and the notion of "finding" combined with ecstasy for wajd (esp. p. 221). More problematic is the case of Muhammad, who, when referred to in the originals as rasul Allah, is called, for reasons that are not clear, differently in different passages, "Envoy of God," "Messenger," "Rasul Allah" (p. 55, three variations on one page, p. 218), and "the God-sent" (p. 240). Certain translations of thorny Arabic words remain less than satisfactory. Al-Akhirah is given as "the finality." I tru st this is not a quibble; from a living, believing Muslim's point of view, the reason al-Akhirah is translated as "the hereafter" is that it is not the end, but the beginning of something else. Consistently Sells renders iradah--whether by human or divine subject--as "will." Thus, for example, al-iradah lillah in Muhasibi's Arabie is translated as one's "will for God" (p. 184). Sells introduces Hallaj's dialogue between Moses and Iblis by explaining that Hallaj characterizes God's command (amr) to Satan to bow to Adam as a test, while God's will (iradah) was otherwise (p. 275). To my mind this turns into steel the sense of "desire" inherent in the word iradah.

I am not entirely convinced that the [Mi.sup.[subset]]raj angels' command to Bistami--"Come!"--is meant as a play on the optative [ta.sup.[subset]]ala for God (pp. 246-47 and note pp. 358-59). In the Junayd chapter I wonder why Sells chose all past tense for the kana passages in Junayd's explanation of the effects of achieving [ma.sup.[subset]]rifat al-tawhid on a person. For fa-kana haythu lam yakun wa lam yakun haythu kan. thumma kana [ba.sup.[subset]]d ma lam yakun haythu kana kan. fa-huwa huwa [ba.sup.[subset]]d ma lam yakun huwxa, we read, "He was whereby he was not and he was not whereby he was. Then he was, after he was not, whereby he was--was! He was he after he was not-he" (p. 254). Like the [Qur.sup.[contains]]anic descriptions of God (e.g., innahu kana tawwab "[Ask God for forgiveness] for he is most forgiving" 110:3), the first elements seem better as "eternal present" tense. In the kalam appendix, it might have helped clear up confusion for readers who have not heard the point made to explain that the term Qadariyah attached to proponen ts of free will can be understood as "those in favor of qadar al-insan."

I am not sure what Sells means by there being a constant feature in these texts of a "symbiotic relationship between spirituality and embodiment" (p. 11). In some places, he seems, rightly, to be reminding readers that Sufis, and all Muslims, do not rely on texts and words, but they perform meaningful rituals as well. He has brought out in general a sense of the richness of early mystics, beyond asceticism, but none of them in EIM discuss accepting marriage for the sake of fealty to the sunnah, nor do they come near Ibn [Arabi.sup.[subset]]'s embrace of the world and the body's pleasures as positive sites of divine manifestation and realization. This is the age of Bistami's famous thanksgiving for being freed from the burden of women "until I no longer took note whether it was a woman I encountered or a wall" (p. 240). Another, related, issue is the "grounding" that is spoken about at several places. There are a few good stories from daily life, and Muhasibi certainly provides concrete details of living among his c ontemporaries in his criticisms of their attitudes toward others ("How many traditions have you memorized? Who were your teachers? I haven't eaten for such and such a time. Who am Ito be sleeping at dawn?" p. 191). I am aware of the difficulty of giving flesh to Sufi thought in the early period because of the nature of the sources. Still, I wish Sells had provided what little can be found about the lives and milieux of the subjects. For instance, it would be helpful to have a concise summary of the parties involved in Hallaj's trial and execution for his chapter.

While on the subject of "grounding," one cannot help but be a little disappointed at the lack of women in the book, [Rabi.sup.[subset]]ah's chapter notwithstanding. It is true that, only after the project was completed, the manuscript of Sulami's biographical book of Sufi women, Dhikr alniswah al-[muta.sup.[subset]]abbidat al-sufiyat, was found, edited, and translated. (28) But there are references to pious, inspirational women in the writings by and about early Sufi men. And Qushayri's tafsir, [Lata.sup.[contains]]if al-isharat, which is not translated here, gives Sufi interpretations to [Qur.sup.[contains]]anic accounts of biblical women. Perhaps Sells could have highlighted them.

Generally, the arrangement of the selections is well done. Qushayri's alfaz section from the Risalah comes before biographies and writings of earlier figures in preparation for some of the technical terms they use. A bit confusing is the presentation of the [Mi.sup.[subset]]raj and Sharh sadr al-Nabi on pp. 47-56, some one hundred pages removed from Abu Yazid's mystical ascension.

Some oversights have remained post-editing. The introduction promises a full transliteration the first time an Arabic proper name appears as well as uniformity in the way biblical figures' names are given, but inconsistencies are apparent throughout the book. In addition, [Isra.sup.[contains]]il should be glossed as Jacob, not Isaac (p. 178); Potiphar's, not Pharaoh's, wife gets out the knives before Joseph enters her banquet hall (p. 341); and in [Attar.sup.[subset]], soup must have been made with meat fat, not lard, which is an (American) English word most commonly associated with pork (p. 160). Qushayri's discussion of the shahid-beloved merits male gender pronouns and an explanatory note on the Sufi homoerotic controversy (pp. 146-47). Also, on a minor scale, we should have "sweet desserts" rather than "sweet deserts" (p. 255) and "theological plane" for "theological plain" (p. 271).

Sells states at the outset that he is not interested in providing accurate but stilted translations of these texts. As he says with justification, "Specialists might as well read the original texts in the original languages" (p. 8). For specialists' courses and for anyone who wants to taste the delightful complexities of Islamic mystical writing before it became formulaic and attained the character of the other developed religious sciences, Sells, with his superbly crafted English, stands alone. He has earned his poet's license.

It is to be hoped that Paulist Press will continue to publish translations of Sufi works in its Classics of Western Spirituality series, particularly whole works by individual Sufis from the early period. I commend the Press, by the way, for breaking with its usual practice of using imagined portraits of the saintly authors on the covers of the books being translated. The Bosnian mihrab painting Sells chose for EIM, though removed from early Sufis in time and place, still shares more with them than the beardless man who graces their Bezels of Wisdom cover shares with the historical Ibn [Arabi.sup.[subset]]. A final comment on appearances concerns formatting and typefaces. At first the italicized paragraphs that mark Sells' commentary put me on edge, as if each sentence ended with an exclamation point. After relaxing I found the variations in font sizes and style nicely reminiscent of printed early modern English sermons, and oddly fitting.

(1.) B. Radtke characterizes Western scholars in his "Between Projection and Suppression. Some Considerations Concerning the Study of Sufism," in [Shi.sup.[subset]]a Islam, Sects, and Sufism, ed. F Dc Jong (Utrecht: M. Th. Houtsma, 1992), 70-82. Radtke also, rightly, lauds German scholarship on Sufism. See, especially, the many translations and studies by R. Gramlich.

(2.) Having the music critic of the New York Times write a review of the visiting Turltish [sama.sup.[subset]] probably was not one of Mevllana's goals nor is it likely he would recognize his writing in the form of "A Gift of Love: Deepak and Friends [Madonna, Demi Moore, Martin Sheen, Debra Winger, Goldie Hawn and others] Present Music Inspired by the Love Poems of Rumi" (Rasa, 1998). A dubious benefit of instant online reviews of books and music is that listeners of Deepak Chopra's recording make public their responses to Rumi as in the following <> contribution, "you just want to turn to your lover and...make love with candles and sandlewood [sic] incense all night!"

(3.) Responses to Neo-Sufism have come from many quarters. R. S. O'Fahey and B. Radtke offer an alternate view of late Sufism in their "Neo-Sufism Reconsidered," Der Islam 70 (1993): 52-87. The present reviewer discusses the issue with regard to Syrian Sufis of the eighteenth century in "Sufism in the Ottoman-Arab World: [Abd.sup.[subset]] al-Ghani al-Nilbulusi (d. 1731)" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1997). Valerie Hoffman has proved that melding with Muhammad is not confined to the late period of Sufism in "Annihilation in the Messenger of God: Development of a Sufi Practice," IJMES 31.3 (1999): 351-69.

(4.) B. Radtke and J. O'Kane, The Concept of Sainthood in Early Islamic Mysticism: Two Works by al-Hakim al-Tirmidht (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1996).

(5.) S. Inati, Ibn Sina and Mysticism: Remarks and Admonitions, Part Four (London: Kegan Paul International, 1996).

(6.) By Muhammad ibn al-Munawwar (al-Munavvar, fl. 1157-1202), tr. J. O'Kane, The Secrets of God's Mystical Oneness, or, The Spiritual Stations of Shaikh Aba [Sa.sup.[subset]]id (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 1992).

(7.) T. J. Winter has translated Books XI, XXII, and XXIII of the [Ihya.sup.[contains]] [ulum.sup.[subset]] al-din as The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife and On Disciplining the Soul and On Breaking the Two Desires (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1989 and 1995); D. Burrell translated Al-Maqsad al-asna fi sharh [asma.sup.[contains]] Allah al-husna as The Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God for the same press (1995); and D. Buchman has made a new translation with parallel Arabic text of Mishkat al-anwar as The Niche of Lights (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young Univ. Press, 1998).

(8.) H. Dabashi, Truth and Narrative: The Untimely Thoughts of [Ayn.sup.[subset]] al-Qudat al-Hamadhani (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999).

(9.) M. Holland, Utterances of Shaikh [Abd.sup.[subset]] al-Qadir al-Jilani (malfuzat) (1992); The Sublime Revelation (Al-Fath al-rabbani) (1993); The Removal of Cares ([Jala.sup.[contains]] at-khawatir) (1997); Sufficient Provision for Seekers of the Path of Truth (Al-Ghunya li-Talibi Tariq al-Haqq) (1997); Fifteen Letters (Khamsata [Ashara.sup.[subset]] Maktuban) (1997); and Revelations of the Unseen (Futuh al-Ghaib) (1998) by Al-Baz Pub, and Tosun Bayrak, trans., The Secret of Secrets [Sirr al-asrar] (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1992). All of the translations are accurate but it is clear they are intended for a wide, and not necessarily academic, audience. The same can be said of works of translation published by The Islamic Texts Society and Fans Vitae.

(10.) J. Chabbi, "[Abd.sup.[subset]] al-Kadir al-Djilani, personnage historique," Studia Islamica 38 (1973): 75-106.

(11.) The Book of Radiance was published in 1998 and the new critical edition and translation of the Hikmat al-ishraq (The Philosophy of Illumination) was published by Brigham Young Univ. Press in 1999.

(12.) Tosun Bayrak, Suhrawardi: The Shape of Light (Louisyule, Ky.: Fons Vitae, 1998). W. Thackston, ed., trans. (with an introduction), The Philosophical Allegories and Mystical Treatises (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 1999).

(13.) V. Cornell, The Way of Abu Madyan: Doctrinal and Poetic Works of Abu Madyan [Shu.sup.[subset]]ayb ibn al-Husayn al-Ansari (c. 509/1115-16-594/1198) (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1996).

(14.) C. Ernst, The Unveiling of Secrets: Diary of a Sufi Master [Kashf al-asrar] (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Parvardigar Press, 1997). A. Godlas is at work on a critical edition and translation of Baqli's [Qur.sup.[subset]]an commentary, [Ara.sup.[subset]] is al-bayan.

(15.) This is to say nothing of the English publications now in print translated from and about the middle period and, especially, early modern Sufism in the broad geographical and cultural range of Islam.

(16.) C. Ernst's Teachings of Sufism (Boston: Shambhala, 1999) includes translations of extracts from later Sufi works, some by lesser-known writers, as well as a few well-chosen women authors.

(17.) Edited with Maria Rosa Menocal and Raymond P. Scheindlin (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000). Sells also wrote the chapter entitled "Love" in the volume.

(18.) The popularity of Sufism for the classroom and for general readers has spawned a number of new introductory texts that can be considered in addition to the older, and still excellent, books by A. J. Arberry, T. Burckhardt, M. Lings, J. S. Trimingham, and A. Schimmel. W. Chittick offers an overview of Sufi beliefs in his Sufism: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Oneworid Publishers, 2000); A. Knysh provides a different approach in his Islamic Mysticism: A Short History (Leiden: Brill, 2000); M. Sedgwick has recently published Sufism: The Essentials (Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press, 2001. not seen); and C. Ernst's Shambhala Guide to Sufismn (Boston: Shambhala, 1997), while thoroughly researched, offers undergraduates the most readable introduction to the subject on the market. One wishes that Sells would add an introductory textbook to Sufism to his list of writings.

(19.) Moses stands for the limitations of Law and rational thought when they stand alone without spiritual tempering, as in the story of Khidr and Moses in a Sufi telling. Jesus, because of his miraculous origin directly from the divine ruh, has a different character in Sufi writings. Christianity, not the person of Christ, is "faulted." Sells provides a fine Qur[contains]anic translation of the story of the Virgin Mary and Jesus but, as material for speaking about the Sufi path, Moses receives more attention in the texts and in EIM.

(20.) There are also no page numbers to Qazvini's and [Isti.sup.[subset]]lami's editions of [Attar.sup.[subset]] used for the chapter on [Rabi.sup.[subset]]ah.

(21.) "Comments" section of M. Idel and B. McGinn, eds., Mystical Union and Monotheistic Faith: An Ecumenical Dialogue (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 165.

(22.) With some other notable exceptions. See, e.g., Qushayri's use of al-Haqq in the following, "The real, Most Worthy of Praise and Most High, has given their heart sustenance in every instant, as he said (19:62) .. ." p. 133; the transtator comments on p. 7 that it is Allah who is "the personal deity that speaks through the [Qur.sup.[subset]]an." The tafsir portion on p. 81 exhibits similar problems. In any case, my personal preference would be in favor of capitalizing the translation of al-Haqq as the Real,

(23.) This is not to say that privileging of the male gender on earth or in heaven is not present in the [Qur.sup.[contains]]an. See 17:40 and esp. 53:19. Sells does not use the feminine pronoun for God in EIM, unless one counts the female beloved of the Arabic poetry cited or written by the Sufis he translates. Some would say that since the feminine pronoun has no history of being used for both sexes or as neuter in English, using it for God is particularly limiting and an act of anthropomorphism in the true sense (if not etymology) of the word. For many years, Michael Sells has worked on language and gender in the [Qur.sup.[contains]]an and theology. See, e.g., "Sound, Spirit, and Gender in Surat al-Qadr' JAOS 111 (1991): 239-60 and "Towards a Poetic Translation of the Fusus al-Hikam," in Muhyiddin Ibn [Arabi.sup.[subset]]: A Commemorative Volume, ed. S. Hirtenstein and M. Tiernan (Rockport, Mass.: Element Books, 1993), 124-39.

(24.) P. 158 of EIM, p. 69 of Qazvini's edition of the Tadhkirah (Tehran: Kitabkhanah-'i Markazi, 1957).

(25.) The only allusion to "incarnationism" occurs in verses attributed by Sarraj to Bistami and by others to Hallaj, p. 218.

(26.) Mystical Union and Monotheistic Faith, 185.

(27.) Although he does mention Abu Talib al-Makki's Qut al-qulub, I would like to have seen Sells use his translation artistry on this author, whose approach is highly unusual.

(28.) Though it was known and used by Ibn al-Jawzi and others, Dhikr al-niswah as a separate work with this title was only recovered in 1991 by Mahmud al-Tanahi in Riyadh. He edited and published it in Cairo, 1993. A second, more complete edition with translation was published by Rkia Cornell in 1999 (Louisville, Ky.: Fons Vitae).

This is a review article of: Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, [Qur.sup.[contains]]an, [Mi.sup.[subset]]raj, Poetic and Theological Writings. By MICHAEL SELLS. Classics of Western Spirituality, vol. 86. New York: PAULIST PRESS, 1996 Pp. xi + 398. $34.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).
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Title Annotation:Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qur'an, Mi'raj, Poetic and Theological Writings
Author:Von Schlegell, Barbara R.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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