Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

A New Terminus Ad Quem for 'Umar Al-Suhrawardi's Magnum Opus

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

A New Terminus Ad Quem for 'Umar Al-Suhrawardi's Magnum Opus

Article excerpt

Attending to the chronological sequence of an individual author's works is a sine qua non of contemporary literary biography, one of the single most important descriptive elements that the critic should attend to in evaluating the oeuvre of any one writer. It is inconceivable, for example, to comment upon the works of Dostoevsky without knowing that he wrote Crime and Punishment before The Brothers Karamazov, and that his writing of the latter was completed after the sudden death of his young epileptic son Alyosha in May of 1878. It is printing, of course, which makes this easy. However, as with many premodern authors whose oeuvre comes to us solely in manuscripts, establishing a bio-bibliographical chronology of the written works of medieval Muslim authors can be a frustrating task, if not an exercise in futility. At the same time, when the occasional bio-bibliographical datum does present itself in the manuscript record, one is well advised to take note. This is especially true in the case of unusually productive writers whose individual works might give the appearance of a certain development or refinement of thought over time, but whose significance is unclear in the absence of at least a rough bio-bibliographical chronology in which such apparent developments may be situated.(1) This is of even more significance in the case of individuals whose biographies are particularly well known, such as the eminently public seventh/thirteenth-century Sufi master of Baghdad, and eponym of one of the earliest Sufi tariqa-lineages, Shihab al-DIn Abu Hafs Umar al-Suhrawardi (539-632/1145-1234). (2)

Hailing from a family of ShaficI scholars and Sufis from the city of Suhraward in the northern Jibal, cUmar al-Suhrawardi followed in the footsteps of a number of his relatives by coming to Baghdad as a youth. Initially trained by his paternal uncle Abu I-Najib cAbd al-Qahir al-Suhrawardi (3) (d. 563/1168)--a ShafiT jurist, traditionist, and Sufi who directed a flourishing ribdt-cum-madrasa on the banks of the Tigris--he established himself as a Sufi master of some repute, eventually drawing the attention of the thirty-fourth 'Abbasid caliph, al-Nasir li-Din Allah (r. 575-622/1180-1225), who in 579/1183 installed him as director of a newly endowed Sufi lodge known as the Ribat al-Ma'muniyya. Over the course of the next thirty years, Suhrawardi would emerge as one of the most visible figures in the caliph al-Nasir's wide-ranging political and religious campaign aimed at reasserting the long since de jure authority of the caliphate. A few indiscretions aside, Suhraward! enjoyed a long and successful career as both an official emissary of the caliphal court and a well-respected Sufi master, towards the end of his life managing the affairs of no less than five of the city's Sufi ribats as well as enjoying a widespread reputation among Sufis from as far afield as Khurasan, Egypt, the Panjab, and Anatolia as an authoritative representative of the sober, largely ribat-based, Shari'a-minded, Junaydi-style Sufi tradition championed in many of the early Sufi tariqua-lineages.

As an author, 'Umar al-Suhrawardi left behind a sizable oeuvre, a corpus of some fifty-five individual works comprised of treatises on Sufism of varying scope and length, a commentary on the Qur'an, a manual for pilgrims to Mecca, two substantial polemical works directed against Peripatetic philosophy, two Persian handbooks on futuwwctt, as well as a body of testaments (wasciya) and letters written for and to his disciples and associates. (4) Undoubtedly the most celebrated among these is his lengthy mystical manual, the 'Awarif al-ma'drif, a Sufi handbook whose influence on the early Sufi tariqa-lineages and their institutions is well evinced not only in the preeminent position that the text held within emergent Suhrawardiyya and Chishtiyya communities in North India beginning in the mid-seventh/ thirteenth century, (5) but also in its incorporation into early Kubrawi Persian Sufi manuals composed in Transoxiana (6) and its widespread transmission in Syrian, North African, and even Andalusian Sufi communities by individuals such as the well-traveled Egyptian Shafi'I jurist, traditionist, and Sufi Ibn al-Qastallani (d. …

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