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Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam by Shahzad Bashir (review)

From: Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies
Volume 6, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 242-248 | 10.1353/isl.2013.0013

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In this socio-anthropological work, Shahzad Bashir proposes to explore the question of the body in Sufi tradition with the intent of providing a large and new overview of the body and/or corpse within the framework of Sufism. It is intended to delve into the theoretical articulation of the body through its mystical presentation in Sufi sources. He focuses mainly on Persian Sufism after the rise of the Safavids. The author uses mainly hagiographical works as his sources, and, because of the history that is proper to Persian Central Asian Sufism, Naqshabandi sources are primarily used. However, he does not critically address the pre-eminence of these sources or his reasons for selecting this specific position.

The author gives an account of his method and his goal in the introduction. He tries to bring the question of the body to the level of a problem. He sees the body as a metonymy that opens the way to a different understanding of Persian societies in the period he is focusing on. He sees ‘the careful and pervasive use of the body as a tableau for mapping social as well as cosmological relations in these materials’ (3). However this statement should have been phrased as a question rather being reproduced as something new, and the sources used could have been of a great help in this matter. The determination of the texts, despite the reference to their rhetoric, that is neither established nor questioned, is typical of a historical socio-anthropological perspective that cannot hide its prejudices even when arguing: ‘Reflecting an amalgamation of historical, anthropological and literary methods, this approach involves paying careful attention to textual and other representations as rhetoric tied to the social world of its origins’ (3).

It is hard to find anywhere traces of an historical method that would examine the sources critically; of an anthropological method that would try to establish at least some structure; and of a literary method that would analyse carefully the rhetoric, the style, its structures, the metaphors, in short the whole tropology that is constitutive of Sufism and specially hagiographies. The author defines Sufism itself only through its social dimension since he pretends to give an overview of the ‘social and intellectual history of the body’ that Sufism is supposed to shape as he says: ‘I therefore use the term Sufism in this book not to refer to a coherent system but as an analytical horizon that allows me to explore a set of issues in intellectual and social history’ (10). He stresses this claim, adding: ‘I am more interested in patterns embedded in stories rather than direct theoretical discourse on corporeality’ (13). This sentence gives a good example of the lack of rigour of this construction. What is a pattern if not a theoretical discourse? What kind of an incarnation pattern, with all its past philosophical history, allows one to speak of a pattern embedded in stories? Is there any ‘direct’ theory, since, as philosophy as grounded by Plato immediately defined it, discourse is precisely always an oblique strategy to avoid addressing directly what is supposed to be the goal of the theory? The concept that allows Shahzad Bashir to build his whole discourse and to frame the body in this supposedly direct theory is the expression of ‘social imagination’. He uses it as a form of evidence (14) and this is rather problematic for many reasons. It should at least be discussed since it plays such an important part in his construction and assumptions with variations like ‘human imagination’ (14).

The body is built as an object of investigation through this use of weak concepts like ‘social imagination’. It does not avoid falling into the trap of a self-evident metaphysical construction that is repeated without being noticed, assuming that this metaphysical border between intellectual/ spiritual and body/passions can be taken for granted and that it doesn’t need to be pointed out as a construction. And this construction, by the way, is deeply linked with the gender construction of body that is supposedly discussed later in the book. The author pretends that: ‘the body was, it is fair to say, more central to Sufi practice than...

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