Professor discusses history of Sufism, society

<p>Erik Ohlander, a professor of religion, explained Sufism, a form of Islam, and its relationship with society throughout history in the Alexander Library yesterday on the College Avenue campus.</p>

Erik Ohlander, a professor of religion, explained Sufism, a form of Islam, and its relationship with society throughout history in the Alexander Library yesterday on the College Avenue campus.


Between poetry and practice, Sufism is one of the most well-known forms of Islam in North America, said Jawid Mojaddedi, associate professor in the Department of Religion.

Erik Ohlander, professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, spoke about the history of Sufism and the relationship between Sufism and society yesterday at Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.

Sufism has roots in the tradition of Islam, Jewish and Christian philosophies, but its practices make it unique, he said.

He said many contemporary studies forget the social and political context of Sufism and focus on its pure methodological practices. Ohlander tries to put the issues of Sufism in historical context.

“I put together a group … to see how a study of Sufism across … different borders would work,” he said.

The results were heartening and created better questions about the matter than a more homogenous group would write, he said. He set out to learn about Sufism in the medieval Muslim world, including a representative Sufi teacher in the 12th century.

“I want to show you the contours of how a historian would go about understanding Sufism … in a methodological approach,” he said.

He said Abu Hafs Umar al-Suhrawardi, a prominent leader in Sufism’s history, envisioned and positioned himself in a world where mysticism was a practice of society rather than a series of religious beliefs.

Al-Suhrawardi went to the capital of Baghdad as a youth and assumed the position of Sufi mystic from his uncle, Ohlander said. In his lodges, he wrote treatises in Arabic and Persian and invested the public with Sufi beliefs.

His followers spread his words across Asia to India and Persia, Ohlander said. His Sufi handbook, “Gifts of Deep Knowledge,” is still widely read in Sufi communities across the world today.

“In the larger thought, [the book] creates a bridge between the past and the present,” he said.

He quoted several couplets from the book that spoke of the value of passing the cup that emphasized sharing.

Sufis such as al-Suhrawardi were drawn in to the Caliph, the title for the ruler of an Islamic community ruled by the Shari’ah, who planned to use their power to dominate the region. At the time, the religion was as strongly related to competition and elitism as it was to mysticism.

The Sufis believed they were absolutely necessary to the mandate of Islam to the community, Ohlander said. The Sufis called themselves otherworldly, while other non-Sufi scholars were “more worldly.”

He described the psycho-spiritual body, which combined the physical organs of the body with the spiritual actor in constant conflict with each other. It is only through following the Sufi path that the body can find its way to its heavenly source and escape its bodily entrapment, he said.

The Sufi communities were centered on endowed brick-and-mortar lodges that were organized hierarchically, such as master, superintendent and resident disciples.

Seeing the amount of respect commanded by Sufi masters, it was no surprise the Caliph patronized them and recognized their power. Toward the end of his life, he joined the religion and became an active religious member.

 “Al-Suhrawardi tried to circumscribe and integrate many of his competitors,” he said. “He always tried to bring them into the fold.”

Texts also played an important role in the religion, he said.

 “The medieval Muslim context of the text objectified the text as an object of status not only in its contents, but also for its cultural values,” he said.

It also connected to the master-disciple relationship as governed by a complex of formal manners and customs, he said. Rituals such as auditions and recitation allowed for the face-to-face transmission of the ideas within the text to disciples.

Each text included authorization and a detailed record of who read the text and when they read it, he said. He has uncovered six licenses of transmissions in al-Suhrawardi’s own hand, he said.

He also transmitted his text for centers such as Damascus and Cairo, and served as a diplomat of Sufism, he said.

“The couplet I read has new meaning. … When he says ‘pour the cup,’ he is referring to the text as cup to share,” he said.

Mojaddedi said the event is part of a religious consortium that holds two lectures a semester for the new master’s program in the department.

“Ohlander met with M.A. students, and we are discussing the lecture in our next class,” he said.

Siam Siam, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said he came to the lecture because he was interested in mysticism and holistic ways of describing the body and soul.

He heard about the event through his New Testament class and decided to attend.

“It was interesting to hear an expert talking about Sufism,” he said.


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