‘An Enthusiastick Sect’

Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr

by Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, translated from the Arabic by Carl W. Ernst
Northwestern University Press, 253 pp., $18.95 (paper)
Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford/HIP/Alamy
‘The Hanging of al-Hallaj in 922’; attributed to Iran, late nineteenth century

Simon Ockley was the first writer in English to compose a history based on Arabic sources. The Conquest of Syria, Persia, and Ægypt, by the Saracens (1708), which recounts the Arab conquests following the death of Muhammad, deeply influenced Edward Gibbon and, in the words of a recent scholar, “revolutionized the treatment of Islamic civilization throughout Europe.” Ockley, a professor at Cambridge University, also translated a twelfth-century Arabic parable, The Improvement of Human Reason, Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan (1708), the story of a boy raised by a gazelle on a remote island who teaches himself the practical sciences and eventually the truths of religion. This short tale, which may have given Daniel Defoe the premise of Robinson Crusoe, points to the superiority of intuition over instruction. Ockley linked this lesson to the mystical practices of the Sufis, about whom he warned his readers:

The Suphians are an Enthusiastick Sect amongst the Mahometans, something like Quietists and Quakers; these set up a stricter sort of Discipline, and pretended to great abstinence and Contempt of the World, and also to a greater Familiarity and stricter Union with God than other Sects; they used a great many strange and extravagant actions and utter Blasphemous Expressions.

The history of European efforts to understand Sufism is a history of imperfect analogies. Ockley compared Sufis to Protestants because Quakers valued the individual’s experience of Christ over the teachings of scripture; others compared Sufis to Catholics, because of what they perceived as the Muslims’ monkish behavior and devotion to “saints.” Europeans were trying to grasp the unfamiliar by translating it into familiar terms. Even the word “Sufi” was often traced back to the Greek sophos, since Sufis were thought to be like Platonic philosophers in teaching the renunciation of worldly things. (Modern scholars generally agree that the word is derived from the Arabic suf, or “wool”: Sufis characteristically wore woollen cloaks as a sign of poverty and penance.)

We now tend to look askance at such analogies, which impose Western categories on non-Western people and modes of life. Edward Said argued that the practice is typical of Orientalist scholarship. “Something patently foreign and distant acquires, for one reason or another, a status more rather than less familiar,” he writes in Orientalism. But this “is not so much a way of receiving new information as it is a method of controlling what seems to be a threat to some established view of things.” The most pernicious example of such thinking turned Muhammad into an imitation of Jesus—in other words, an impostor.

Can one do otherwise than translate the unknown into the known, and is this always a bad thing? Even if such comparisons are imperfect, even if they are made to control a…

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