History Speaks EP3 – Self and Society in Sufism

In this episode of History Speaks, Saadia Yacoob speaks with Oludamini Ogunnaike and Sara Abdel-Latif about the self and society in Sufi thought from its early formative period in Nishapur to the early modern and contemporary Sufi movements in West Africa. They discuss Sufi conceptions of the self as dynamic and fluid, the role of the paradox in Sufi thought, and the subversion and authorization of hierarchies in Sufi pedagogy.   

Saadia Yacoob



Sara Abdel-Latif is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. She specializes in Sufism, Gender and Qur’anic Interpretation.

Sara Abdel-Latif



Oludamini Ogunnaike is an Assistant Professor of African Religious Thought and Democracy at the University of Virginia specializing in the intellectual and aesthetic dimensions of West African Sufism and Yoruba oriṣa traditions. He received his PhD in African and African American studies and Religion at Harvard University. He is the author of Poetry in Praise of Prophetic Perfection: A Study of West African Madīḥ Poetry and its Precedents (Islamic Texts Society, 2020) and Deep Knowledge: Ways of Knowing in Sufism and Ifa, Two West African Intellectual Traditions (PSU Press, 2020).

Oludamini Ogunnaike








[TRANSCRIPT] History Speaks: Episode 3 – Self and Society in Sufism

Saadia Yacoob 00:13    

Hi folks, this is Saadia Yacoob,  and you’re listening to History Speaks on the Maydan Podcast, a series that situates the Islamic intellectual tradition within a sociopolitical context and connects it to pertinent issues today. Our third episode turns to Sufism and ideas of the self and its relation to society in Muslim mystical thought. In this episode, I speak with Sara Abdel-Latif and Oludamini Ogunnaike about their research on Sufism from its early formative period in Nishapur to the early modern and contemporary periods in West Africa. Our conversation today covered many different topics from Sufi conceptions of the self as dynamic and fluid, the role of the paradox in Sufi thought, and the simultaneous subversion and authorization of hierarchies in Sufi pedagogy.  

Thank you so much, Oludamini and Sara, thank you again for coming and speaking with me on the History Speaks stream. It really is such a pleasure and an honor to be able to have this conversation with you. I wanted to begin by asking you both this question around the idea of the conceptions of self and selfhood in the individual. For me, one of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about in my own work on Islamic law, and particularly around conversations that happen in our contemporary moment, my sense is that a lot of the contemporary conversations around autonomy and self-determination and the idea of the individual is very much based on particular conceptions of the self, the self and their relation to society at large. I wanted to begin our conversation just by asking you, can you give us a sense of how the self is conceptualized in Sufi thought?

Sara Abdel-Latif 02:19    

Thank you for having us, Saadia, it’s honestly a pleasure. I work in Medieval Sufism around the 11th to 13th century. For me, that’s a moment where Sufism is becoming institutionalized, more formalized, it’s less of an individual ascetic experience and more regulating the social order of a Sufi group. When I think about, in that period of time specifically, what self-determination or the idea of the self is, it’s sort of occupying a paradoxical state for me because, Sufi theology at that time, they’re talking about the elimination of the self, the elimination of the individual identity and allowing yourself to clear the channel for God’s will to come through. At the same time, you have these rival groups. There is some self-determination required. There’s the creation of boundaries around what it actually means, what true dervishhood looks like in comparison to that rival group across the street which is not a true form of Sufism in the eyes of these writers. The paradox that I’m finding is that they’re discussing the elimination of the self and trying to remove these particular cruxes of identity and, at the same time, using the identity of the other, using the friction of the identity of other, to create a smoothed out version of this prescriptive ideal form of the true Sufi. I play with that paradox a lot, and I learned a lot in my specific research that these are elite men who are usually writing these texts. I’m looking at how they’re talking about people who they consider different from themselves along various axes. Some of the axes you’ve already mentioned: gender, age, free people versus enslaved individuals, geographical locations. I just watch what they do with that information, whether they adopt that language, whether they change it, and when they’re trying to refine this notion of what they consider the ideal Sufi to be at that time. 

Oludamini Ogunnaike 04:31

That’s really interesting and thank you, Saadia, for having us on the podcast. I work mainly on Sufism in West Africa from the 18th century to the present day. You see that same paradox, or a similar paradox, of the self is nothing or the self is everything and it’s both at the same time. The self is an illusion to be overcome, this being like the nafs, but then the divine self is not other than God or not other than the prophets or the deep reality of human consciousness or human subjectivity is not other than divine consciousness or divine subjectivity. This is realized in the state known as funah, annihilation, which is the passing away, the annihilation, of the ordinary, the everyday self and then the subsistence by God, by the divine self. To discuss Sufi notions of the self, you have to situate the self within Sufi cosmology in which you have this hierarchy of levels of reality, different groups have different formulations of this, but, basically, you have the different Sufis switch the hierarchies, whether you’ll have your body, then you have the nafs, then you have the heart then more subtle you have an aql, the intellect, and then more subtle, you have ruh,  then more subtle, you have aseer, then you have kafee, then more hidden you have an akhlaq.

You have this spectrum of the self, or you have similar Sufi notions going back to the classical period of different levels of nafs, the soul that commands the evil, the blaming soul, all the way up until the perfect or the perfected soul. Most of these conceptions of the self are a spectrum and it is embedded, as you said, in a social context, but then this social context within Sufi cosmologies gets a bit more complicated because it is metaphysical. You have living dead saints, you have the prophets, you have the messengers, you have angels, and, most importantly, you have God, who are all a part of the social <inaudible>, who are interacting and defining and shaping this spectrum concept of the self. Shout out to my colleague, Muhammad Faruque, who just published this book, Sculpting the Self, with the University of Michigan Press that puts some of these ideas, mostly from South Asian and Persian later Islamic philosophy and Sufism and places them in conversation with some Western philosophical ideas and neuroscience and stuff like that.

Saadia Yacoob 07:45    

That sounds really wonderful and I really appreciate this point that you’re bringing up, Oludamini, that even what it is that we conceptualize to be the social or society that the self is in relation to is very different when you bring in this cosmology in which there are the saints who are living, the saints who have passed, there is the Prophet, there is God. It reminds me of when I was doing my master’s at McGill, I did my thesis on female jurists in the pre-modern period. I was researching the life of this 14th century female jurist, who was a contemporary of ibn Taymiyya. There’s this really interesting entry about her, where what’s being described is that she used to climb the minbar at the mosque to sermonize to these large crowds that would show up and supposedly ibn Taymiyya felt uncomfortable with this and decided that he wanted to stop her, but he prayed on it and slept on it, then he had a dream where the Prophet comes to him and says, “This is a pious woman.” Ibn Taymiyya never said anything to her, didn’t try to stop her. It’s this really interesting moment where you can see that both the idea of what is appropriate and what is not is not always determined by social norms or legal rulings, but that there are these other forces that can intervene and they are compelling for people. If you move outside of that cosmology, there’s no way of ever being able to account for the agency of the Prophet or God and the experiences that people have with them and the ways in which that shapes their relationship with other people.  

Oludamini Ogunnaike 09:35    

These visionary encounters with the Prophet are really big in West African Sufism. They’re big in Sufism as a whole, but they’re really central in West African Sufism. As early as the 15th century, the sheikh in Timbuktu, Sidi Yahya, was said to have had visions of the Prophet every night until he did something. They were really key in these big Sufi reform movements, almost all of which began with the founder or the leader taking some kind of retreat and having a visionary encounter with the Prophet. So for example, <inaudible> really began when he had a visionary encounter with the Prophets and Abdul Qadir Gilani, who bound him with a turban and gave him the sword of truth and gave him permission to warfare with the king at the time who had been persecuting him and his followers. Sheikh <inadudible> mission, particularly the non-violent aspect of it according to sources, came from a visionary encounter with the Prophet. He tells the story wonderfully in several of his lectures which <inaudible> had these visions of the Prophet, but it was behind the veil, and he saw some people behind the veil. The Prophet told them that these were the people of God and Bamba said, “What can I do to be with you always like the way they are,” and the Prophet told him, “Well, there’s no sacrifice you can offer because they spilled their blood and they spilled blood when they didn’t want to spill blood and when they didn’t want to have their blood spilled, but now the time for spilling blood is over. So there’s nothing you can give that will get you to their place.” This devastated Bamba and he begged and pleaded and the prophet relented because he is <inaudible> and he said, “All right, you’re going to suffer greatly at the hands of your enemies, but as long as you don’t shed a single drop of blood, as long as you’re not violent, even so much as to crush a scorpion, then you’ll be with me always the way they are. This is the reason for Bamba’s nonviolence, the nonviolence of his movement, the reason why he enjoined this non-violent resistance to French colonial occupation and didn’t engage in the jihad of the sword. 

Sara Abdel-Latif 12:28  

Yeah, that’s a good story. I like that story a lot because I think about what it takes for someone to vouch for a woman in this type of story that’s shared in this anecdote? If Ibn Taymiyya had gone to another sheikh at the time, would that have been enough or does it really need to be this metaphysical encounter with the prophet? This notion of how the gendered aspect of it, for me, sits in what it takes for a woman to be allowed or to be accepted, or to be invited to take up the space that she’s taking through that kind of encounter, so I like that story a lot.

Saadia Yacoob 13:11    

I found the story, like I mentioned, years ago and it’s just stayed with me and I keep ruminating on it and one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot now is the ways in which once you take away these sorts of possibilities for people, the dream of the Prophet coming to you is no longer authoritative the way that it was in the story, it forecloses certain possibilities for people who might have a disadvantaged position in society, in the law, because the Prophet can not come in and intervene or the saints can not come in and intervene and, if they do, you’re sitting there going, I don’t know whether I should trust this or not. There’s so many stories like this where people who are seen as very saintly and pious figures have these dreams that correct them in something that it is that they said or did and then they’re compelled to change that. That is a way in which people who are disadvantaged in society can negotiate their position in the social order that then becomes completely closed to them once you no longer think cosmologically in those ways. I wanted to come back to this point that both of you raised that I really appreciate, which is this question of this paradox in Sufism in-between self-annihilation, that is at one level the goal, but then at the same time the onus is on you as the individual. There is this self-determination that’s built into that and that you are supposed to very actively engage in this process of moving down this path. Two words: self-annihilation and I just wanted to ask both of you to maybe talk to us a little bit more about how you see that paradox working and how that helps us understand ideas of the self when there is this paradox between the annihilation of the self, but also the self as being the one who has the onus and the ability to actually move towards that.  

Sara Abdel-Latif 15:31    

There’s that interesting sufi tradition of that notion that  you start with your sense of self, with that nafs, and that’s through the process of examining it. In one of the many different forms of self that you go through the hierarchy of the self, I think Oludamini was just talking about it, the self that takes account for his own actions. That level of the self is supposed to be one of the first stages you reach, where you’re sitting there and you’re examining all the aspects of how the mechanism of the self works for you. That includes the illusion of who you are in the world and in society. It includes the things that you may not know, the sly ways that the self inserts itself into your interactions and, in particular, in your relationship with God. Then you move past that, so if that’s the starting point, you start to merge with the teacher in some of these traditions. You start to eliminate yourself, let yourself in your teacher. There’s this mirrored self in this individual that has more authority for you, stands before you, and you mimic them or you imitate them and you allow yourself to dissolve into them. It’s almost like you start with the small self that moves through these different phrases, absorbs these other people or these other identities, and slowly starts to lose itself through the absorption into higher beings or into more authoritative beings. You start to lose the self that you started with. I think the paradox works a lot of the time in Sufi thought and Sufi teachings. The use of the paradox polarizes different aspects and it allows something new to come through. It’s the same thing, you polarize the identity, the self, in two different directions and then you allow it all to fade away and move through. That’s just one of the ways we can conceptualize how the paradox actually has a pedagogical function on the spiritual path.  

Oludamini Ogunnaike 17:41    

I think the step-by-step aspect is really key because, as long as you still experience yourself as having a separate self, you have responsibility, you’re self-directed, but for most of these traditions, something that’s moved beyond and then in a certain sense reacquired. For example, in the Tijani tradition that I studied, the first thing that happens is <inaudible>, that’s the first one. You get a certain set of exercises that you do. You do that, you experience <inaudible>, you don’t experience yourself, you don’t perceive yourself, you don’t perceive anything else. You just perceive God, the divine reality, no distinction as that, then you continue in that until you get annihilation in the prophet and then, after that, annihilation in Sheikh Ahmed Tijani or in one of these other realities. That’s a way of integrating your ordinary separate self with this opening up onto an expanded divine consciousness.  

Another way of looking at it is cosmologically. Everything comes from God, everything is manifested from God through the person of the Prophet and everything returns to God through the spiritual reality of the Prophet as well, so that means that the underlying substratum, the underlying reality of everything, is this prophetic reality, the divine reality.You have all these verses: He is closer to your jugular vein, the Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves. These things are interpreted in light of this cosmology and these experiences. This basic paradox of a separate self or a separate will, which is generally in the post-Ibn Arabi tradition, they love using the verse of the Qur’an: You didn’t throw when you threw, but God threw.

So there’s a negation of the action of the separate self, then there’s the affirmation, then there’s the negation of it again. You didn’t throw; no action of the separate self when you threw then there is the affirmation of it and then there’s also the negation as well. You have the <inaudible>, but that is not the end. The end is <inaudible>, the end is the subsistence because you can’t drive a truck in <inaudible>. You can’t eat in <inaudible>. You’re not going to be around very long. The goal is the combination, the union of union and separation. It’s a union of “I have no self” with the relative existence of a separate self as a divine manifestation. That’s done through following in the footsteps of the Prophet or even finding annihilation in the Prophet. It’s complicated, it’s paradoxical, but there’s a real continuity of discourse and practice, particularly from the post-Ibn Arabi in the 13th century onwards. Of course there are all these interesting differences and competitions amongst different groups, but there’s a lot of similarity on this particular schema and it’s this conception of the self that’s burned up, gone away, and then comes back in a certain relative sense, like a dream where we’re all gods is one of my favorite analogies when teaching. God dreams all of us into existence, so we’re these dream characters, and then you wake up and realize there’s nothing but God, but then come back to the dream with this consciousness that contextualizes everything.  

Saadia Yacoob 22:03    

That’s a beautiful analogy. It’s so powerful in terms of understanding human existence and part of what I hear both of you talking about is that in some ways our more common conceptions of who you are that circulate in our world today, when you hear these articulations of being yourself and who’s your authentic self, things of that nature. Part of what I hear both of you talking about is that Sufi understanding of the human self, it’s so much more complex in terms of what is the self that exists in you? There are all these different understandings. It really raises this question of who are you? What are you? I’d love to hear both of your thoughts on this.  

Oludamini Ogunnaike 23:16    

That’s a good question. In fact, that’s the beginning of some of these Sufi treatises. What is the I? What is the human intellect? One of the most interesting answers comes from Ibn Arabi’s stepson and successor, who puts it in very philosophical, theological language that the quiddity, the what is-ness, of the human being is simply wujud. In typical Islamic philosophy and theology, you have the mahia and the wujud, what it is and the being of it. In the case of the necessary existence, the mahia, the quiddity is simply its existence. He says being made in God’s image means that’s the same thing for human beings that they have no mahia, human beings have no fixed stations. It’s different from the philosophical and rational answer of humans as this hairless, featherless bipedal animal. The definition of a human being is that which cannot be defined because that’s what it means to be made in the image of God, who also cannot be limited or defined. Practically speaking again, it usually goes to this spectrum. It’s like, which level of reality are you talking about? Which level of the self are you talking about? Are you talking about the physical self? Are you talking about the social self? Are you talking about the psychological self? Are you talking about the subtle or imaginable self, the self that you encounter in dreams that you dream, or are you talking about the spiritual self? Then there’s this notion of ayan and thaabita, these fixed entities which are that the self is who you are in God’s eternal knowledge of you.  

There’s this whole spectrum of self from just wujud, absolute being all the way down to the ship of Theseus paradox with my toenails, all of the physical parts of me have gone away and everything has been replaced, everything from my dust to my I in God’s knowledge. While in some schemes, one is higher than the other, again, with this later Sufi schema, they’ll flip things often where the physical is the highest because it’s that which has the most ‘ubudiyah

Sara Abdel-Latif 26:05   

That was beautifully explained. Thank you, Oludamini . That notion of the lack of fixedness is in my work. When I’m reading these Sufi texts, it’s almost like a methodology. The goal is to shake you out of your conceptions of reality so the lack of fixedness to say that the real human self is in God. There’s no other way to describe or route your reality. The lack of fixedness and the use of reversal, they use of saying that you thought your body was the lowest form of reality. It’s actually the highest. What it mainly points to is that there’s not going to be “I think,” there’s not going to be a stable, consistent teaching about these things. It will be in that moment with the particular student-teacher relationships that are so important. Would the student before you with their own relatively fixed notions that you have to break as the teacher, you would offer something that would reverse their idea of reality, not so that they hold on to that as a new reality, but so that they break out of any notion of fixedness in the first place and to allow that bewilderment  to carry you through an experiential understanding for once rather than any mental construction of who you are outside of the world.  

Saadia Yacoob 27:35    

I love this point that you’re bringing up, Sara, about that there isn’t a fixed notion and this point that you brought up, Oludamini, about enlightenment thought in this model of the self. That is presented and it reminds me of some of this stuff that I’ve read on possession, spirit possession, possession by gods and goddesses, that is trying to make this point that in that conception of the world and the human in this broader world, there are all of these– it isn’t the fixed self that can be relied upon to be the same from moment to moment and that it is somehow bounded and will not be affected by all these other forces that exist in the world. It’s a self that is constantly in motion and movement and it can be possessed and all of that. There’s a certain amount of being shaken that you need, that your dependency on something that is fixed and stable needs to be shaken in order for you to be able to move, in the context of Sufism, spiritually. I really love this point that both of you are bringing up, that there is something that is lost to us when we come to rely on very fixed ideas of the self and a particular model of this is what the self is and rely on that.

Oludamini Ogunnaike 29:08    

Something you and Sarah just said reminded me of this doctrine, maybe from before Ibn Arabi, but it gets picked up and is often attributed to him. It’s very popular in the West African tradition of the renewal of creation at each moment, so that at each moment, everything in the universe is being created, the cosmos is created and returned to God in the same breath in time and space, like the images you see on a projector or something like that. There’s actually, in a certain sense, no continuity from one moment and it’s not even like a regular tempo moment, but one moment of existence to the next, each one is a completely new manifestation from the divine, which is similar to certain Buddhist notions of self worth at a certain level. You get all of these, but again, all of these pictures and conceptual constructions or models, I think are things that aren’t meant to just stand alone as just a picture of what reality is, but are meant to produce itself. They’re meant to produce a particular self-worth.  

Saadia Yacoob 30:23    

When I’m teaching this, I feel like one of the most challenging things to get across to students about Sufism, but more broadly teaching about the pre-modern Islamicate context, because I think there’s such an idea of what the self is and what the individual should want that students come in believing to be universally true and as an absolute good and to then be introduced to this whole other world of how to think about the idea of the self, that it’s not fixed, that there’s constant movement and like who is even the self. There’s this cacophony of voices inside you. There’s the different ways in which the different nafses are pulling on you, then there is the was-wa-sas, those whisperings of Satan and other evil forces. How do you know whether this voice is your own? Do you trust it or not? All of these things are things that people are trying to think through and to get students to understand this is difficult because what I’ve experienced is that students are often willing to challenge their own conception of what is right and wrong provided that what they’re uncomfortable with is an affirmation of an individual’s autonomy and determined self-determination. They come across things that they are uncomfortable with and then they’re like, okay, I can accept this if this is what the individual wants. How to move them to recognize that, in this context, it’s not just that this is what the individual wants,that this is an articulation of their own desire, but that they are actually very critical of their own desire. This has meant precisely to undo their own desire and it’s so challenging to get people to understand that because it is so different in some ways than the ideas of self-affirmation that have become such a truth for us.

Sara Abdel-Latif 32:37    

A thing I end up doing almost every year is that it takes me a while to discuss in a more informal setting with students the way of thinking about these people as human beings, just like you and me, with very similar ways of trying to solve problems, but that the concluding solution they might come to might be very different because of their particular socio-historical circumstances, but to do the thought experiment of putting yourself in their shoes at that time with the resources that you have and having a problem with the self come up or the problem of identity, I have them think through what would you do in those shoes? You start to find a little bit of the consistency of the human experience even while the garb on the outside might look very different.

Oludamini Ogunnaike 33:26    

I found that talking to students about things where they do encounter this, like exercise or diets or love, particularly my favorite class is the what is love class, we read a lot of love poetry. When you think about your beloved who doesn’t want to see you right now, but you want to see him or her, do you do what you want or do you do what your beloved wants? These things, getting creative and getting them to put themselves in either a similar situation or find analogs, like look at all the freedom break dancers have or if you’re a gymnast, they can do all this stuff. How do they get that freedom to do that? I put on some music and tell you guys to dance, half of you were just going to be doing the same awkward, shaking thing, whatever, unless you grew up dancing. How do people who are really good at dancing get like that? There’s a context, there’s discipline, there’s training whether formal or informal, and that’s how you get this freedom. Examples like this give them a little bit of a window into what it’s like.  

Saadia Yacoob 34:46    

That’s a really great point that both of you are raising of getting students to see themselves that these ideals that we have around individual self-determination and that whatever you do you do because you chose to do it, even in our own realities, doesn’t play out. I brought this up recently with students this semester about coming to the institution, like you choose to come to the institution, you want to come to the institution, but that didn’t mean that you chose every aspect of what that decision would then mean and, oftentimes, you would disagree with ways in which you’re expected to live while at this institution or what the culture of the institution is that you are then really being molded into, but you do it and somewhat resist it, but somewhat also lean into it because, at some level, you’re invested in this. The institution creates desires in you that didn’t exist before, so it really complicates this idea that it’s just me making decisions every step of the way.  

Oludamini Ogunnaike 35:46    

I remember I talked about this with my class because I was like, “Okay, you guys all chose to take this class, but I know some days you don’t want to come to class, right? You’re sick of Zoom, but some of you did it anyway,” so you get a sense of this complexity, but it gets really deep in the Sufi sense of this famous saying that again gets repeated throughout the ages, down to the present date from <inaudible>, “I want to not want.” The abandonment of wanting as freedom is a really strong thread that runs through a lot of these different traditions that eventually get called Sufism.

Saadia Yacoob 36:35    

That’s a really incredible point about what freedom is and, if liberation is the aspiration, liberation from what? Liberation to do what? The example that you’re giving is a very particular way of understanding what you’re trying to free yourself from into what purposes. I wanted to ask this question. For a lot of people who study Sufism, but also for the many of us who read your scholarship and are very interested in Sufism and the hierarchical aspect of Sufi thought, we would love to get your thoughts on this? This is something that I see in my own work, I see the  social order that’s imagined by the jurists that I spend a lot of time reading is one that is very hierarchical along a very complex matrix of different identities that set up a number of different hierarchies and I always find myself both really appreciating the way in which they understand the individual as very much a part of and located in those social connections and relations, but then also start to feel uncomfortable with that hierarchical ordering of it. I would love to hear your thoughts on how this manifests itself in particular time periods and thinkers that you’re looking at and also how you grapple with this question.  

Sara Abdel-Latif 38:24    

That’s a great question. I think definitely the concept of the hierarchy gets even stricter with Sufism because you have the cosmological hierarchy, you have these levels of beings who continue their work in the unseen and the pyramid so to speak, the hierarchy itself, is so rigid that it’s almost like the acceptance of their will as channels of God’s will, so you follow through in their footsteps in that sense. Then it manifests even in the physical plane when you have a Sufi order with the sheikh and then you have his Khalifa or whatever the team might be, the authority that you invest in these individuals, you can’t just invest in anybody. I think hierarchy is one of the things people find quite tough about Sufism for a tradition that’s all about the lack of fixedness of the self and all these things and being one with God with no intermediary and all that kind of stuff, but one way that I sit and I conceptualize and I think through it is that while we’ve been talking about a lack of fixedness of the self and eliminating the self, at the same time, while the individual self, the goal is to eliminate it, the container in which you do so is actually quite rigid hierarchically.  It’s through the ability to maintain the structure and the integrity of the container, i.e., through the chain of transmission from teacher to student. It’s only through the rigidness of that that, a lot of times, the belief is that you can receive the teachings as purely as possible in order to walk the path in the best way. Then you have that paradox. You have the outside being rigid so that the inside can fade and dissolve.  

Oludamini Ogunnaike 40:14

It’s really complicated when you get into this social stuff because you get all kinds of forms of social organization, social hierarchy, antinomian Sufi movements, which were even present that to no means will be once we’re all against certain social hierarchies, you have very much Sufi movements that are wedded to, or that produce, new hierarchies or all different kinds of things. I think the key is in what Sara was saying, there’s this famous quote that defines Sufism, “it’s outward slavery and inward freedom, and that’s among the character traits of the noble.” There’s a certain sense in which the outward is really fixed in some ways. There’s almost no compromise on saying the five prayers on time and in some orders in congregation and then the rules of these different orders become really, really strict, but that’s how you’re supposed to get the inward freedom. It’s at what level is the freedom, but then again, with this cosmology, there’s the potential for everything to be turned upside down. You have the <inaudible>, but then you also have the Prophet coming to people and initiating them directly. For all of these different things, this opening into the veil allows for what can seem to us like exceptional circumstances, but which in so-called pre-modern societies or settings, they are almost like par for the course in which you have the eruption of the unseen into the seen, which produces new social orders, new hierarchies, and disrupts things. You have loads and loads of Sufi stories in which, like Sarah was talking about, you have this hierarchy of saints and the top people are all enslaved outwardly, they’re all at the lowest level. This has become a trope in Sufi literature. These people are at the lowest rung of society outwardly, but at the highest levels of the divine hierarchy that governs the universe and everything. This is complicated because, in a certain sense, it’s subversive of the hierarchy, but there’s a trace of it reinforcing the hierarchy. It doesn’t matter that this is an unjust or whatever social hierarchy because these people are at the top of the inward hierarchy, but then you have all of the Sufis, particularly in West Africa, you have all of these Sufi revolutionary movements that create new societies. Some of them, according to Rudolph, were anti-slavery or at least anti-slave trade and then with the case of Sheikh Bamba as well too, intentionally destroying the caste system that exists. Sheikh Bamba, leader in what was then colonial French Senegambia in the early 20th century and late 19th century, intentionally takes people from leather working families, from these low caste and slave backgrounds and puts them in charge of people from scholarly families, but then the order is ordered and develops its own structure and you get a different hierarchy there as well. There are these social hierarchies that are established, Sufis are part of these outward social hierarchies, but because of this openness of the unseen, there’s this potential, again not always realized, for this disruption or subversion of these social hierarchies or for a reinscription and support of existing social hierarchies.  

Sara Abdel-Latif 44:22    

That’s a really good point, but also to your point, Saadia, I think what’s vocalized with Sufi texts, particularly when there is an actual conscious effort to put down teachings, what’s vocalized is usually the tip of the iceberg on purpose. So any statement of equality or otherwise, I don’t sit and take it as that’s what that person believes. I sit and think, what are they trying to meet or go through in reading the sentence even more so in person. If you know a particular Sufi teacher and they’re explaining something as a radical equality, for me as a scholar of Sufi teachings and literary devices and all these rhetorical moves, I’m thinking, what experience are they trying to put me through? What version of reality are they trying to induct me into? The words are almost a veil in themselves, they’re an illusion in themselves that it can be very hard to pinpoint whether or not a particular Sufi teacher or master actually believes these words or they’re using them as a distraction to put you through a process of transformation that’s at the heart of their pedagogical technique. 

Oludamini Ogunnaike 45:42

The things that I have said, but there’s also so much more to the embodied, like the kissing of hands, the serving of water. Some sheikhs will go and serve all of their disciples water, other shapes will sit and then people come and serve them water and massage their feet and do other things. Other people, they hate people kissing their hands. They won’t let it happen. Others go around and let everybody kiss their hand. There’s all of these different ways. I think what Sara was saying is, some people might just like to get their hands kissed, but if you think of it, in terms of serious Sufi pedagogy, it also serves a certain purpose, a certain pedagogical lesson is also serving as illusions that are supposed to help train or develop and teach certain things to the disciples. You see this in written texts, you see this in gestures, you see this in body language greetings, it really all comes together and you see this a lot, the stuff I know the best is Ibn Arabi and afterwards in which they’ll just constantly flip these hierarchies. Set-up one hierarchy and in the next three pages, completely flip it. It’s like a kaleidoscope, you just keep turning it and you get a different perspective on it. It’s like putting you through conceptual yoga or something like that. You go through these different positions and that’s supposed to transform the way you see things, you see yourself and the way you’re supposed to transform your being. 

Saadia Yacoob 47:22    

One of the things I’ve seen in my own work,  which is not to idealize or romanticize hierarchical social orders, but one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is that in the legal world, there are so many different hierarchies. There isn’t just one hierarchy, there are many different kinds of hierarchies. Having a world in which there’s so many different hierarchies that are functioning allows for people to move across the different hierarchies so they’re not always only in a disadvantaged position. A lot of us that have been thinking about Islamic law, and particularly thinking about gender and Islamic law, have missed the ways in which different women might sit in different places in the social order, depending on which hierarchy we’re looking at because woman and man, that gender hierarchy is not the only one. If you are a free adult woman who has the financial ability to also have slaves for example, now you are in a hierarchical relationship over in to people. What does it mean then to only see you as a woman who is disadvantaged? Those multiple hierarchies that are functioning at the same time also allows movement across the hierarchies that in another way challenges these ideas.  

Sara Abdel-Latif 48:54    

When we’re looking at the prescriptive models, for me, it’s like when you’re on a sidewalk, they’re laying down these tones, but there’s ways that grass shoots through anyway. Depending on the intersection of the person’s identity, and I think intersectional methodology really works well in history as well and it’s not used as much, that’s where we start. If you analyze these alongside each other, how does a free elite woman who owns enslaved individuals operate in this circumstance versus that circumstance when you line them all up and then compare that with other people, you start to see how these systems are not consistent really at all, they’re points that are put on the horizon and then people are just trying to do their own thing. They walk their own paths. That’s where I really think intersectional gender methodologies is way more useful and would serve Islamic studies much better in this context because then it allows you to break some of the ways that we, even as scholars, categorize things as a social hierarchy as if it’s rigid and operates in that way when the lived realities are often much more complex. 

Oludamini Ogunnaike 50:07

I love that image of the grass growing up through the concrete or the stepping stones or things like that, because there’s a certain expectation of scholars that these social hierarchies are systems of oppression or something will be logical, but they’re not. They’re people who are doing things and reacting to different circumstances and there is some logic to them, but they’re rarely logical, like racism is not that logical. You can understand it and how it works, but it’s rarely logical or sexism or any of these other things. With Sufism though, it gets really very interesting because you have these people who come from presumably the lowest backgrounds, you have black enslaved women, who are lauded as these great saints and put on top of these hierarchies of sanctity and they’re the ones you have to ask to pray if there’s a drought. You get these tropes and, even like contemporary examples, we have people who are looked down on by society. They’re walking around selling shoes and then somebody will realize their status or something like that and then their social situation will change if they want it to, some people just want to be left alone. You get these interesting possibilities of subverting or changing the social when you add these spiritual hierarchies, in addition to these complicated and complex dynamic social hierarchies as well.  

Saadia Yacoob 51:50    

What you’re saying about this ethic that was drilled into us as kids when we were little growing up in Pakistan about being very careful in your dealings with people who’ve been dealt with unjustly or who are oppressed or who are vulnerable in society because the distance between them and God is very short. You want to be very careful because if you step the wrong way and they pray against you, you are going to get destroyed. Obviously that didn’t mean that people were actively working to change the conditions that these people were in, but it does in some ways provide a certain kind of spiritual tool for those people to be able to navigate their situation. They oftentimes did call on that right. If they felt like somebody was being cruel to them, they would call in this way of saying be careful in the way that you relate to me because I don’t want to make a prayer against you. That had a power. That did actually have power. It would silence people in ways that I think certainly is not something thatI have seen since my childhood now that I’ve moved to a totally different context.

Sara Abdel-Latif 53:24    

But you do see it in the text a lot. There are all these stories of beggars or old women in the desert or all these people, they have the spiritual power, but I think about the function of those stories a lot in my research and it’s not an invitation to be in their situation ever. Those are very much tropes that allow the elite male presumed reader to reflect on himself through another that he considers completely and drastically different from himself. In the context that you’re talking about, and I had similar things growing up in Kuwait and in Egypt, the idea is that, what’s the lesson? The idea is that you don’t know who’s the closest to God so be careful. Things are not as they seem. Then that same lesson is in the stories that are repeated in Sufi texts, where it’s like things are not as they seem, but in the stories, the difference I’ve found is that they, at the same time we enforce it, that is still how things should stay. Things may not be as they seem, but the outward social hierarchies are how things should stay just as this one person in the desert, who looks at an old woman who didn’t have anything ended up being able to do the spiritual feat or whatever doesn’t mean that now you can go and make her the head of your Sufi order. It’s a very specific momentary flash of spiritual authority that’s supposed to get the male reader to think about themselves and how they can be better, so they can end up becoming the head of the Sufi order. 

Oludamini Ogunnaike 54:59

I think that’s definitely how they use it sometimes, but classically, and then especially in the West African case, you do get the opposite. You do get people from lowly backgrounds being named as prominent muqadams, giving ijazas, put over people from traditional elite backgrounds officially and unofficially, and the ways in which this <inaudible> discourse that circulates this person is the Halifa is all Huron, but bought-in on this person is really this, this old woman is really the holy khalifa. This then translates into actual social capital for that person, so that person– I’ve seen both contemporary examples and then even in texts and things like this. You have this interesting example that’s really widely read in texts in West Africa, Abdulaziz Adabagh, who’s a semi-literate Fessy, not that well educated, comes from tanning family, although he is a said, and he has this incredible fath, like Khider comes to him and teaches him these prayers, then this sheikh from Nigeria comes and completes his training and does all this wild stuff. He becomes the teacher of all of these fuqaha in Fez, he becomes a very prominent elite scholar in Fez who through dreams and other things ask him questions, recognize his high spiritual station. They’ll ask him questions and he’ll ask the Prophet and then give the answers back to them and reasons and explanations. They ended up following him and becoming his students. The texts can operate and you see this in West Africa as well, for elites to look at, oh, wow, isn’t that interesting. The roles could be reversed, this function and this way of upholding the hierarchy, but you also have these ways in which the texts, and then these actual social situations lead to these strange reversals . You have these interesting stories, whether legendary or historical, in which these hidden or spiritual hierarchies lead to social reversals or changes in behavior in social structure. This is very evident in all of these Sufi jihads and new social movements that are produced in West Africa from the 18th century onwards, which just creates all these new social orders. Sara’s point about the instrumental way in which these reversals are used to reinforce hierarchy is a really important one because they really are used like that. It’s not the only way they’re used, I want to make sure I don’t come across as just disagreeing with that because I very much agree with it. 

Sara Abdel-Latif 58:06 

You brought a really good point. None of these things will operate in a singular way. They’ll always operate in lots of different ways depending on the needs. One of the things I was thinking about as you were explaining the specific ways that it didn’t operate that way in your examples, I was thinking immediately, “Well, that’s interesting. I wonder what the history of <inaudible> are in West African Sufi circles that you’re talking about, that they would at some point feel that they need to have them re-educated in a certain way by people from a different social melia because I’m looking at the very formative period of the emergence of Sufi orders, where one of the arguments within my research is that I do think, especially in initial four where I look at, it was an elite phenomenon. The Sufi’s and the dervishes were very much from the upper classes of society, so of course it would operate differently when you have the starting emergence of these elite circles that are putting together what a Sufi order is, what a correct way of being a Sufi student is, who the teacher is, versus fast forward later when you’ve had the ‘ulema And you’ve had lots of unsure political infighting about these things and then you have this reversal in the ties and let’s get this person from a tanning family that has a whole other different purpose and I’m sure a very interesting socio political background too. If you have anything, I would love to hear a little bit more, personally, about the sociopolitical context.

Oludamini Ogunnaike 59:35

There is this interesting trend in West African Sufism, which has been the expansion of Sufi devotional practices and disciplines and notions of attaining a modified direct knowledge of God, reality and sanctity or wilayah from elites scholarly circles to nonscholars, Housewives, lay people, young people, et cetera. If you look at these different Sufi movements, start with <inaudible>  movement, Sufism is very important there, it’s what the whole clan identifies with, but Sufism is just part of this integral package of being a good Muslim, a good scholar. The census is hat Sufism as a practice is still somewhat an elite practice, popular devotion and popular piety that’s influenced by Sufi cosmologies and other things, but they’re really serious disciplines of Sufism seem, to a certain degree, to be limited to the people who have already excelled or who also excel in these other disciplines as well, so a scholarly elite. Then with Sheikh Bamba movements at the turn of the 20th century, you see a much greater popularization of socialism and Sufi practices and Sufi initiations amongst nonscholars, amongst people who don’t come from a scholarly background, even amongst people who don’t develop much scholarship, don’t develop anything beyond a basic mastery of fiqh or aqeedah. They’re receiving serious Sufi training as well. There’s an increased emphasis there on popularization of Sufism. You see this dynamic really comes to the fore with the movement of Sheikh <inaudbile>, which promises a very high spiritual station to anyone who undergoes the discipline regardless of their scholarly training, knowledge of Arabic, et cetera. It’s really democratized or popularized the very serious Sufi training to the extent that people will often do their spiritual training and then go and study Arabic and the exoteric sciences, et cetera.  

Saadia Yacoob 01:02:49    

Thanks for listening to this episode of History Speaks. I’m very grateful to Oludamini and Sara for speaking with me today about their research. You can find more information about their work as well as more information about the History Speak series at themaydan.com/podcast, and please stay tuned for our next episodes.

History Speaks

History Speaks
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The past, present, and future are intimately bound to one another. In short, history matters. History Speaks situates the Islamic intellectual tradition within its socio-political context and connects it to pertinent issues today. Join Saadia Yacoob as she speaks with Islamic studies scholars about their work on gender, Iaw, and theology in the Islamic tradition. In each episode we move across different time periods and regions to discuss how aspects of Islamic history speak to concerns today.


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