Home Sociology Orientalism Revisited: Art, Land and Voyage
Beyond the opposition between West and East
Another point made about Orientalism is that, through the power structure in which knowledge is created, this created knowledge also influences the object’s self-understanding. Knysh writes that ‘[t]hese scholars trained a cohort of “native” Muslim scholars, who disseminated western perceptions and definitions of Sufism among their coreligionists, thereby providing an alternative reading of the Sufi tradition to that of traditional Muslim theologians.’78 Ernst writes that Modernist Islamic intellectuals became impressed by ‘the scientific posture of European scholarship’ and took over much of the Orientalists’ critique of Sufism: they saw the Sufis as traditional and backward, opposed to progressive modernising forces. He gives the example of Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938), Pakistan’s national poet, who criticised Sufism as a foreign element in Islam, a ‘recycled version of Plato’, too passive and too dependent on the spiritual leaders.79 The Salafis want to purify Islam from any foreign elements and innovations. Ernst says in this respect that they are ‘echoing’ and ‘mirroring’ the Orientalists.80
Rashid Rida combined all these attitudes. He started his intellectual career as the student of the modernist Muhammad ‘Abduh, but became more and more influenced by the more regressive reformism of the Wahhabis. Rida increasingly abhorred Sufism. He also stressed the Arabic character of Islam - in line with the rising nationalist spirit of his time - and saw Sufism as a non-Islamic, non- Arab import into Islam. He pointed to the collaborationist character of many Sufi movements, which in his eyes made them the enemy of Arab nationalist resistance against the colonialists.81
Ernst implies that the Orientalists are in a large part responsible for this contemporary anti-Sufi attitude by misrepresenting Sufism as a foreign innovation in Islam and as degenerating since its golden age. However, many elements of the Orientalists’ misrepresentations can be found in some form or other in ‘Eastern’ tradition as well. Ernst himself mentioned that the sources to which the British Orientalists were exposed might have influenced their ideas. Ernst mentions the Dabistan, a seventeenth-century Persian text written by a Zoroastrian who argued that all major philosophical and mystical ideas derived from Persian culture, which was a major influence on Jones’s work.82
Ernst’s main example is that the official Persian Shi‘ite clerical hierarchy formed a major source of information. They had not been favourably disposed towards Sufism since the rise of the Safavids in the sixteenth century. The Safavids were originally a Sufi brotherhood themselves, but when they came to power their approach changed. The Iranian clergy started to distinguish between the practical aspects of Sufism - the rituals, the life-style and the social organisation - which they abhorred, and the more philosophical aspect, which they called ‘irfan and which they valued. Travellers visiting Safavid Iran were exposed to these ideas. Ernst especially mentions Malcolm, who was ambassador to the Persian court on behalf of the British East India Company in 1800 and had a close relationship with an important clergyman in Kermanshah, who was very opposed to Sufism and had persuaded the Qajar ruler to start persecuting Sufi leaders.83
Other examples are the Wahhabi ideas on purity and bid‘a, which predate European influence and are strongly critical of Sufism.84 Also, A.J. Arberry (1905-1969) refers to the works of Dara Shikuh (1615-1659), whose work was translated in 1929 by Mahfuz al-Haqq. Dara Shikuh believed that mysticism can be found in every religion, and aimed to reconcile Sufi theory with the philosophy of the Vedas.85
These are a few examples of ‘Easterners’ having ideas for which the Orientalists are later blamed. By giving these examples, I do not mean to imply that the Orientalists played no part in contemporary ideas on Sufism. I do want to say that I think the most important gap that needs to be filled when analysing the history of Sufi studies is the gap in our understanding of how the ‘Easterners’ themselves contributed to the misrepresentations of the Orientalists, and the concrete consequences (such as colonialism) to which they led. One of the main criticisms aimed at Said’s work is that he does not let the Arabs and Muslims speak for themselves and denies them any role in the articulation of their representations, denying them agency.86 As Edmund Burke and David Prochaska phrase it, in this way Said ‘in effect imported the very dichotomies between powerful, active colonizers and passive peoples he otherwise sought to refute’.87 As Said knowingly limited himself to the Western discourse this is a slightly unfair criticism to make, but it does show where we should put our efforts to go beyond Said and understand that ‘colonized subjects were not passively produced by hegemonic projects’.88 In the case of Sufism, we see this on both the front of representations and the front of concrete cooperation with the colonial rulers; but we also see cases of opposition. We have seen how the Orientalists were influenced not only by European ideas and power considerations, but also by ‘Eastern’ ideas on Sufism and by Middle Eastern power struggles (for example in the case of the Safavids). It is time to ‘move beyond the polemicized rhetoric of the binary blame game’89 and arrive at a deeper understanding of the underlying power structures in all parts of the world, not just the West.
The main problem of the Orientalist misrepresentations is that they are generalising, essentialising, reducing the ‘Other’ to stereotypes. This is something that we still see today, and is particularly strong in the current debates on Islam and the Middle East. Burke and Prochaska have pointed to the relevance that this discussion on Orientalism still has in our times: ‘the post-9/11 terrain has seen a regrettable regression toward civilizationalist narratives. [ ... ] the “war on terrorism” and the Iraq war have acquired a discursive power to shape the political field akin to the phase of high imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The absence of debate over the colonial character of American presence in Iraq, and the Middle East more generally, is one telling index of the invasion of the intellectual field by the political field.’90 In this discourse, Sufism is often portrayed as universalist and tolerant, as an antithesis to jihad! Islam. Some Sufis have followed the Orientalist idea that Sufism is not part of Islam. While not many contemporary Sufis go that far, the philological focus on texts, with its representation of Sufism as Islamic mysticism and an expression of a universal religious trend, combined with the practice of co-optation that many colonial (and postcolonial) rulers used, leads to the idea that Sufism is tolerant, peace loving and easy to cooperate with. Many people use it to show that there is more to Islam than jihad, but we should keep in mind that this image is just as much a misrepresentation of Sufism as the misrepresentation that the members of the Sufi brotherhoods are all crazed fanatics. Just as we did in the case of the anticolonial brotherhoods, we should put this view of Sufism in its historical context, focus on the power structure behind it, and see if and how academics contribute to this view.
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