Sufism for Non-Sufis? Ibn 'Ata' Allah al-Sakandari's Taj al-'Arus

Sufism for Non-Sufis? Ibn 'Ata' Allah al-Sakandari's Taj al-'Arus

Sufism for Non-Sufis? Ibn 'Ata' Allah al-Sakandari's Taj al-'Arus

Sufism for Non-Sufis? Ibn 'Ata' Allah al-Sakandari's Taj al-'Arus

Synopsis

Few forms of classical Islam are more controversial among modern Muslims than the spiritual discipline known as Sufism. Yet, in the face of the modern Muslim tendency to limit Islam's deployment to the emphatically political, few expressions of the religion could be more central to its spiritual vitality in the modern world. In his translation and analysis of Ibn 'Ata' Allah al-Sakandari's Taj al-'Arus, Sherman A. Jackson demonstrates that violent, lax, or rigid readings of the texts of Islam are just as much a result of the state of spiritual health, awareness, and fortitude of those who read and deploy them as they are of the substance of the Qur'an, Sunna, and the teachings of Islam's sages.

Sufism for Non-Sufis?: Ibn 'Ata' Allah al-Sakandari's Taj al-'Arus shows the effort of a renowned Sufi master (d. 1309 CE) to circumvent the controversies and misunderstandings concerning Sufism to explain Islam's tradition of devotional rectitude, spiritual refinement, and purification of the self to the everyday Muslim. To this end, al-Sakandari avoids virtually every aspect of Sufism known to raise problems for opponents or non-adepts - theological, institutional, even terminological - instead attempting to cultivate a proper relationship with God, not merely intellectually or theologically but experientially and psycho-dynamically. Written in the classical style of spiritual aphorisms, this work is a treasure-trove of classical Islamic spiritual wisdom, free of all of the usual barriers between Sufism and the common believer.

Excerpt

The mastery of nature is vainly
believed to be an adequate substitute for self-mastery.

—Reinhold Niebuhr

Tāj al-‘Arūs al-Ḥāwī li Tahdhīb al-Nufūs, a full translation of which I present here under the title, The Bride-Groom’s Crown Containing Instructions on Refining the Self, is, as its title suggests, a work on spiritual education. Its author, Ibn ‘Aṭā’ Allāh al-Sakandarī, was a celebrated Sufi in the premodern tradition of Islam. Given the modern polemic around Sufism, this alone might be enough to discourage many, especially non-Sufis, from taking any interest in such

1. Throughout this introduction, my use of the term “spiritual” pays homage to modern convention and recognizes—perhaps more than it should—the modern dichotomy posited between “spirituality” and “materialism.” On this dichotomy, at least from the perspective of those who support the former against the latter, spirituality is deemed to be categorically and incontrovertibly positive. By contrast, part of Islam’s essential struggle from the very beginning was to identify good, substantively sound spirituality and distinguish it from and elevate it over bad, misguided spirituality. In sum, not all spirituality was or is good. It may be some time, however, before the language of modern religious discourse can recover to the point that it enables us to express this idea in terms that are concise, clear, and simple enough to make it worth the while.

2. See, e.g., V. J. Cornell, “Practical Sufism: An Akbarian Basis for a Liberal Theology of Difference,” Islamic Law and Culture, vol. 9 no. 2 (Winter 2004): 103–126, especially 104–109, where he surveys the major “criticisms leveled at the Sufi tradition by its modern Muslim opponents.”

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