- Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam by Shahzad Bashir
This rich study of medieval Persian hagiography is the latest addition to a growing literature on premodern Islam and the body. It follows Scott S. Kugle’s Sufis and Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, and Sacred Power in Islam (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) and a special issue of Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée (November 2006) titled Le corps et le sacré en Orient musulman. Although less a historical study than a sociological study of a past society using postmodern conceptual tools, it will be of interest to historians of the medieval Middle East as well as to students of the body in world religions.
Bashir begins by examining the basic components of the human body as they appear in medieval Persian hagiographical texts. He demonstrates that the body was not merely a collection of physical organs; it also had metaphysical and cosmological importance. Since Sufism is ultimately concerned with the fate of the soul, the connection between the body and the soul is of fundamental importance to understanding the ways in which the body is used to discipline the soul. This discipline ranges from the usual requirements of Islamic law (prayer, fasting, pilgrimage) to the more rigorous forms of self-denial undertaken by ascetics and Sufis.
Bashir emphasizes that Sufism was a social activity in medieval Iran. The key social relationship was that between master and disciple. This relationship was hierarchical and depended on the willingness of the disciple to voluntarily submit to a given master. This submission could be articulated by various physical acts, such as kissing one’s master’s feet. He notes the organization of these master–disciple relationships into spiritual lineages that provided the basis for a claim to inherited authority. Here, Bashir might have done more to address the intermingling of spiritual and physical heirship. In much of the Islamic world in the late Middle Ages, Sufi families came to dominate the spiritual landscape, and the concept of spiritual lineage became embodied in the holy families who controlled shrines and formed their own branches of Sufi networks (tariqas). In Egypt, for example, the Wafa, Hanafi, and Bakri families dominated the Shadhili network for centuries. In Iran, one immediately thinks of the Safavid family that later went on to become the rulers of the country.
Perhaps the most fascinating chapters in the book are the ones titled “Bonds of Love” and “Engendered Desires.” Here the reader gets [End Page 424] further insight into the nature of relationships between Sufis, especially between master and disciple. In many respects, the master served as an alternative parent for the disciple, and it is not uncommon for parents, especially mothers, to be portrayed as competitors for the disciple’s affections. In these circumstances, unsurprisingly, the mothers usually lose. Often, they are portrayed as representative of the worldly attachments that must be discarded for the disciple to embark on the spiritual path.
Bashir notes the overwhelmingly masculine nature of the social world of the hagiographical texts. This raises a question about the misogyny inherent in the genre. Women are rarely mentioned, and, when they are, they are seen as potentially disruptive to the spiritual advancement of the male mystic. Although it is clear that women were not totally excluded from the world of Sufism, their presence is usually occluded or treated with hostility. Furthermore, as Bashir is aware, the subject of love cannot be totally separated from that of physical desire. Although Sufi texts usually uphold the traditional Islamic prohibition of homosexuality, the appreciation of male beauty was generally privileged over the appreciation of female beauty. Bashir notes the cases of a select few women who were able to act as spiritual leaders, but in each case they seem to have derived that authority from a male relative, especially the father.
The material presented in this book offers a fascinating window into the world of medieval Persianate Sufism. Given Bashir’s extensive narration of anecdotes from the hagiographical...