Thursday, July 15, 2010

Now available: A Soaring Minaret

Laury Silvers, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Toronto, is the author of the newly released A Soaring Minaret: Abu Bakr al-Wasiti and the Rise of Baghdadi Sufism. The book traces the development of early Islamic mysticism and metaphysics through the life and work of theologian Abu Bakr al-Wasiti. Today we're offering you a teaser of the book, via Laury's introduction. Enjoy!

Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Musa al-Wasiti (d. ca. 320 AH/932 ce) was an unpopular shaykh. He had the knack of alienating almost anyone with his exquisitely honest observations on the divine-human relationship. When a man asked Wasiti if his good or bad deeds will matter on the Last Day, Wasiti bluntly informed the man that God creates one’s bad deeds and then punishes one for them. Despite being theologi- cally sound in its particulars, Wasiti’s explanations for positions such as this one do not make them any more comforting. It is not hard to imagine why he may have been driven out of nearly every town he visited and died with only one known devoted companion. But these same statements are also praised in the classical Sufi literature for their uncompromising eloquence and theological sophistication. Several biographers depicted his habit of calling people to account with his sublime if forceful expressions by naming him “a soaring minaret.”

Wasiti’s legacy is a number of firsts: He was one the first students of the great Baghdadi Sufis, Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd (d. 298/910) and Abu al-Husayn al-Nuri (d. 295/907–08). He may have been the first of them to migrate east and establish the Baghdadi Sufi tradition in Khurasan. He was among the first Sufis to articulate a complete metaphysics in keeping with developments in early Ahl a-Hadith theology. Wasiti’s thought anticipates important discussions in later Islamic metaphysics, demonstrating that questions concerning ontology and ethics were being explored with subtlety and rigor from the earliest period onward. Moreover, his sayings offer insight into the development of theological norms in the period just prior to the rise of Ash`arism. Finally, he was one of the first Sufis to compose a Qur'an commentary. Although the original text of his commentary is now lost, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d. 412/1021) included Wasiti’s work in his compendium of Sufi glosses on the Qur'an, Haqa’iq al-tafsir and its appendix Ziyadat haqa’iq al-tafsir preserving his thought and establishing his influence for the later tradition.

Part One is Wasiti’s life told as a story about the development of Sufism in the formative period. The account of Abu Bakr al-Wasiti’s studies, travels, and teaching—especially the story of his Qur'an commentary and its transmission—takes us through the beginnings of Sufism in Baghdadi Ahl al-Hadith culture, the spread of Ahl al-Hadith culture and Baghdadi Sufism East to Khurasan, the consolidation of Baghdadi Sufism and the Khurasani interiorizing traditions by Sulami’s day in the fifth/eleventh century, and finally the contribution of Khurasani Sufism to the rise of the Sufi orders in the sixth/twelfth century....

Part Two turns to an analysis of Wasiti’s understanding the nature of the divine reality. As is typical of nearly all classical Islamic theology, no matter how intellectually detached or theoretical the language may sound, one primarily seeks to understand the divine reality for the sake of conforming one’s own nature to God and His will. In keeping with the theological trends of his day, Wasiti stresses God’s utter incomparability even as he affirms God’s self-manifestation through creation. Wasiti is at pains to preserve the proper boundaries of God’s incomparable Essence such that even as one recognizes God’s manifestation of His attributes through the creatures, one also affirms that the creatures possess nothing of those attributes. Wasiti’s position is seemingly at odds with the goal to conform one’s nature to divine reality. By denying human agency, he claims all human activities, even worship, are “indecent acts.” But in Wasiti’s way of looking at things, abandoning agency is nothing other than conforming to the divine nature and will.