Authorship in Sufi Poetry

By Frishkopf, Michael | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview
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Authorship in Sufi Poetry

Frishkopf, Michael, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

This article explores authorship in the Sufi poetry of Egypt. How do we explain apparent paradoxes: attribution of new poetry to an old saint, to more than one person, or to a performer? The Sufi's world includes a close-knit spiritual-social network, spanning entities (both living and dead), across which text and inspiration flow. Poetic production (primarily the recombination of pre-fabricated units), occurs as much in social performance as in "private" composition. Since the Sufi author is always network-connected, every poetic practice is always collaborative. Conversely, every Sufi ("poet," performer, or listener) acquires authorial attributes. The article terms the social network of authors the "interauthor," and claims that it is precisely the social analog to the symbolic "intertext" emphasized through textual repetition. Paradoxes result from coercing the Sufi interauthor into an alien modernist frame of autonomous authorship. Ironically, in practice this sacred "tradition" exhibits more postmodern features of authorship than contemporary secular Arab poetry.


The celebrated Sudanese Shaykh Muhammad 'Uthman 'Abdu al-Burhani, founder of a now-global Sufi order (tariqa), (1) passed away on April 4th, 1983; several years later, the tariqa published his collection (diwan) of sacred poetry, Sharab al-wasl [The Drink of Union] (al-Burhani). Each poem in this diwan carries the date of its composition, and poems are presented in chronological order. All of this seems perfectly ordinary. Somewhat less ordinary is the date of the first poem, April 13th, 1983, a full week after the death of its putative author. How can we understand such an enigma? What is the meaning of authorship for the Sufis?

I. Problems of Authorship, and Sufi Poetry

This article is an exploration of authorship, and related concepts of textuality and meaning, in Sufi poetry, based on more than five years' participant-observation research among Sufis, Sufi singers, and Sufi poets in Egypt. What I intend to do is to interpret the concept of authorship of Sufi poetry as Sufis themselves appear to understand it, without attempting to bracket their beliefs within the confines of a "higher" theory. Rather, I seek to trace the relation between their "emic" (insider) view, and the "etic" (outsider) theories propounded by Western literary philosophers and critics. An analysis of Sufi authorship may help in developing a theory of authorship for sacred literatures, and perhaps even contribute towards theories of authorship in general.

Conventional assumptions about authorship were most famously challenged by Roland Barthes in a highly influential article (Barthes, "The Death of the Author"), in which he melodramatically declared the "death of the author." But I rather follow Foucault ("What is an Author?") in problematizing the contours of authorship (the "author-function"), freeing "authorship" from necessary attachment to a singular concept of individualized creative genius. Spurred by such problematization, ethnographic investigation of Sufi poetic practice can proceed to supply a radically contrastive sociological concept of generalized author. This "interauthor," as I call it, is precisely the social and emic counterpart to the symbolic and etic intertext (formulated by Kristeva and many others). Where the insider (Sufi) sees a network of spiritual-social relations, transcending the individual author, as a distributed source of textual production, the outsider (critic) sees a network of symbolic-textual relations, transcending the individual text. Both concepts correspond to the relative backgrounding of the individualized author and text, within a broader network of Sufi social and symbolic relations, as compared to the secular Arabic literary tradition. Although (or, as we shall see, because) they are grounded in a traditional (pre-modern) mystical theology, such networks ensure a fluidity and superfluity of meaning, such that every "reading" can be different.

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