Understanding Sufism: Contextualising the Content

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The following is the abstract for my PhD thesis. 

This thesis addresses the problem of how to interpret Islamic writers without imposing generic frameworks of later and partly Western derivation. It questions the overuse of the category “Sufism” which has sometimes been deployed to read anachronistic concerns into Islamic writers. It does so by a detailed study of some of the key works of the 13th century writer Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah (d. 709/1309). In this way it fills a gap in the learned literature in two ways. Firstly, it examines the legitimacy of prevalent conceptualisations of the category “Sufism.” Secondly, it examines the work of one Sufi thinker, and asks in what ways, if any, Western categories may tend to distort its Islamic characteristics. The methodology of the thesis is primarily exegetical, although significant attention is also paid to issues of context.

The thesis is divided into two parts. Part One sets up the problem of Sufism as an organizational category in the literature. In doing so, this part introduces the works of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, and justifies the selection from his works for the case study in Part Two. Part Two provides a detailed case study of the works of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah. It opens with some of the key issues involved in understanding an Islamic thinker, and gives a brief overview of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s life. This is followed by an examination of materials on topics such as metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, eschatology, ethics, and soteriology. In each case it is suggested that these topics may be misleading unless care is taken not to import Western conceptuality where it is not justified by the texts. Emphasis is placed on the soteriological character of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s writings, to which the Western terms “theology” and “philosophy” are only partly appropriate. Part Two concludes with a short study of the interaction between Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah and Ibn Taymiyya designed to illustrate how a less Western conceptual approach may modify aspects of the existing reception of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s thought.

The central point of the thesis is that Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah needs to be reread, taking more account of the Islamic contexts of his work. The thesis does not pretend to settle every issue of interpretation and it only deals with some of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s texts. In arguing for contextual Islamic approaches to Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah as opposed to the more standard generic readings, such as Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah as “Sufi” or “philosopher,” the thesis raises issues relevant not only to Islamic studies, but also to studies in comparative religion generally. While limited by its focus on only one writer, it hopefully may stimulate further research into how Islamic writers may best be studied in ways which respects their religious commitments, while acknowledging the need to relate their work to concepts of Western origin.

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