Intellectual Sufism?

Forget the nowhere man: it's the blue meanies you ought to be concerned about.
Question: Your analyses are often muddied beyond repair with intellectual references to psychoanalysts and philosophers like Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault and the like. But Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari and Foucault were not Sufis. This so called “Tailor’s Doctrine” of pseudo-Sufism is mere speculative application of the relativist values of a temporary, but currently fashionable, academic paradigm. I come from a long line of traditional Sufis — my father is a Sheikh in a major Sufi order — and I know he would say that your intellectual analyses are blinding you from progression.

You need to abandon all these complicated words and instead feel and experience the Haq! And the only way you can achieve this is through discipleship to a true teacher, such as my father. You might be doing some real danger by continuing with this blog — because a casual reader might assume you to be a genuine Sufi teacher — and you would then be, at best, spreading confusion about what Sufism is and, at worst, leading people away from their heart of feeling and into cold fashions and intellectual words.

My father has said: “To really get an understanding of the chaos around you perhaps you need to untangle yourself from the web of intellectualism which has succeeded in masking itself as your hands.” In exchange you will no doubt lose a lot of your analytic impressiveness, but you will then gain intellectual and spiritual independence and, who knows, perhaps that will be the start of true Sufism for you.

The Tailor: Two points, about me and about you.

First point, about me.

You are, of course, correct to an extent. I am obfuscating my Truth with contemporary academic references. But obfuscation is hijab, and hijab is commanded.

My academic references are poetic gestures, first and foremost, ironic, cross dressing acts of high drama. Of course, you must be into musical theatre if you are to get anything from going to a West End show — you must understand the shorthand and the conceits. So your statement is not so much factually incorrect as a cultural misunderstanding. I am, in fact, adopting a poetic conceit that parallels (though inverts) that of Ahmed Bukhatir within this nasheed:

He is posing as a woman, singing the praises of the hijab — “This is my hijab, I never will remove”. But clearly he isn’t a woman: he is instead employing a dramatic position (particularly important in a context where the permissibility of public female nasheed singers is still contentious) to make a point about women and hijabs. If you have a western or non-Islamist background, such a position might seem very funny (in the same way that seeing a man playing a woman in Shakespeare’s time might be peculiar for us) or perhaps even offensive (because you might view it as suggestive of a regressive view of the world, where a man speaks on behalf of women literally, as a woman).

Now, within this blog, I also pose as a masculine academic, apparently brandishing my massive Lacanian phallus around the lecture theatre. And my blog, as the previous statement demonstrates, is probably offensive at a number of levels, if you read it from your Sufist, non-Lacanian background: you might be amused at (a perceived self-indulgent, egoistic) overuse of circular references to myself making statements about myself but also perhaps offended at — or at least object to — my citing “Lacan” and his external, non-indigenous, non-Sufic, academic concept of the “phallus” in what ought to be a “pure” Sufist discussion.

But if you inspect my words carefully, from within my habitus, my practice, my culture of culturality (and again, there is no compulsion here): you will see that just as Ahmed is a man pretending to be a woman speaking about hijab, I am a hijab pretending to be a Man speaking/becoming Woman. “This is my hijab, I never will remove.”

Now, in behaving according to such a fashion, up to and including the previous paragraph’s culturally coded self-recognition of this state of affairs, I am following the sunnah of Prophecy to the letter. I am being Prophetic.

My second point concerns you, specifically.

Sufi teachers have, particularly in the 20th century, used the term “intellect” and “intellectual” in an apparently negative sense, as something undesirable to progress. But negativity and positivity, desirability and undesirability are not the point being made, they are not the sense of such statements. The actual sense in which these terms are used is often (initially) lost on the student. The teacher is not talking about some irritating experience you might have had having to study some boring theorist at university. Or some bookish Nowhere Man figure. Or some emotional distinction between the ecstatic whirling dervish, not using words, contrasted with a dry academic reading Chittick translations of ibn Arabi at conferences.

The “intellectual approach” spoken about here is much deeper (more personal) than those cultural problems and refers, in fact, to the your very act of listening to the teacher.

Let me explain.

I would like to warn you that is can be dangerous to fixate upon the notion of the “intellect”/”intellectual approach” as strawmen that need to be overcome and “ascend” along some imaginary “true” Sufi path.

The danger is that you will begin to hallucinate a value system of ranks and stations. You will imagine the demon of “intellectualism” everywhere — projecting it onto others — as a means to a blanket generalisation — without listening carefully to what they have to say as individuals. And the danger of that, from a Sufi perspective, is that a particular identity will emerge from the crutches of these terms, an identity defined in need of these enemy terms as crutches, a prideful, imaginary self that defines itself as (somehow) in touch with a heart of emotion, released from slavery to the intellect. A self/ego that can offer others advice/da’wah about how they should follow your sunnah.

But just as there is no real, universal fundamentalism — there is also no real, universal intellectual approach. There are only individual voices — which are intelligible, unintelligible, offensive, truthful sounding or funny. Comprehending this — and treating everyone with this knowledge — is the meaning of the saying that “Muhammed’s nature was shyness”. Of course, I fail in this regularly myself — but right now I am being serious, loving and shy towards you at the same time.

If you were to abandon your attachment to the notion of some “intellectual way” as your enemy, you’ll find it was just a temporary phantom invented to define “you” as a seeker … and your search will become unblocked and will continue. It will not ascend vertically, but it will continue to unfold. This will involve some loss of pride in your current station, as well as a loss of something that you have become attached to as yourself , but the reward is Infinite Pleasure! In particular, you will find qalb accessible, the heart beating with a Love that overflows always in surplus across any hijab you touch, so that the Body becomes Known through its adornment.

11 thoughts on “Intellectual Sufism?

  1. Eloquently argued, as always, Musa. But actually your equation of intellect with hijab is worth pursuing. Because just as a veil protects the privacy of the one who is inside it, so it also conceals from those outside. Religion may command veiling, but Sufis follow the Way of Unveiling (jalaya). And the Divine Theophany, tajalli, means exactly this. [If one wanted to make a connection with Western Philosophy here, one could point to Heidegger’s – and Gadamer’s – emphasis on the etymology of Truth (from the Greek Aletheia) as ‘unconcealing’.]

    It is also important to note that, for the Sufis, there is a distinction between Intellect, aql, as the higher cognitive organ (usually dormant) within humankind, and the reflection of the Divine First Intellect (‘The Pen’), and the role of thinking in the construction of a false, separate, sense of self.

    Really, these relate to two quite different forms of ‘thinking’ that are not clearly understood or distinguished in Western societies, although they are part of everyone’s experience.

    The first is the rearrangement of ‘already thunk’ thoughts, which is the basis of the ‘intellectual’ life as is normally understood (reading others words, incorporating them into one’s ‘mental furniture’, comparing them with other ready-made thoughts, and so on). Whilst this appears to be an endlessly absorbing pastime, and is responsible for a great deal of intellectual ‘output’ (of varying degrees of usefulness), it is really – from the Sufi point of view – a sterile and unproductive activity. Especially when the ‘thinker’ identifies to such a great extent with his thoughts – Descartes cogito ergo sum – that he or she becomes unaware that he or she might, in fact, be something far more than this.

    On the other hand, there is another kind of ‘thinking’ which is characterised by the reception of a wholly new idea (or, indeed, an idea in a wholly new way, as if for the first time). Such thought echoes Goethe’s observation that ‘Every object, properly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us’. And, from a Qur’anic perspective, it corresponds to kulla yawmin huwa fee shanin – ‘Every day He is in a New Affair’ (55:29) – the Divine Self-Manifestation never repeating itself.

    One of these forms of thinking is dead, and sterile, and serves only for ‘self-sensing’ – trying to palpate a sense of separate existence – which is a painful and delusory addiction.

    The other is the way the Divine comes to manifestation through the faculty or organ of thought (in contrast, here, to His coming to manifestation through the feelings or the will – although in reality none of these faculties are separated from one another). It is a living, fresh, experience – one that stretches us to bring to birth a new organ of perception, rather than just rearranging our mental furniture. It is the experience of true understanding.

  2. It’s also interesting, in this context, to look at the etymology of ‘intellect’ – and its Arabic equivalent aql. Intellect comes from the same Latin root as intelligence, viz inter- “between” + legere “choose, pick out, read” (as the Online Etymology Dictionary obligingly informs me). aql, عقل, on the other hand, comes from a root whose primary meaning is to restrain, or withhold (for which Lane’s Dictionary gives copious examples relating to the hobbling of camels). The relevance to intelligence, in this case, (in Lane’s words) “is explained by some as applied to a man who withholds, or restrains, and turns back, his soul from its inclinations, or blameable inclinations”.

    It seems to me that we can reasonably assume that ‘Intellect’ originally applied – in both Latin and Arab usage – to a capacity of choice beyond and above conditioned or fleshly appetites. It is thus about the ability to stand back from ones instincts or impulses, to assume an overview, and make choices based on ‘higher’ values (and, yes, I think ‘values’ is the right word here).

    This doesn’t necessarily involve ‘thinking’ (e.g. weighing up what Derrida said versus Deleuze and Guattari, or advancing a ‘reasoned’ justification to oneself for one’s course of action’). In a Sufi context, the capacity to make such a choice is ‘thoughtless’ – in that it is prompted from a faculty considered to be beyond verbalised ‘thinking’, which is usually referred to as the heart (qalb), and it is instantaneous.

  3. Who does more violence to mankind then him who goes into the marketplace of language, stripping the defenceless inhabitants of their clothing, indiscriminately massacring some and cruelly hollowing others with his knife, only to take back the empty vessels as adornments for his home, to fill them as he pleases in accordance with what comes to his mind.

    The only thing more brutal than this is the Tafsir of whim governed loosely by the values of intellectualism. Surely the most pure fanaticism and excess.

    1. Oh dear, here we go again. No one likes becoming part of a hadith. As per the policy of Tailorite adab (which goes way further than the Prophetic!), we offer our sincerest sorrow at your complaint — we thought you were ready for this particular “massacre” but obviously you don’t want to play and there is no compulsion — and deleted your trace from this written hadith (though we have no power over the Written Hadeeth — nor, for that matter, over the Facebook entry where your question to me can be read verbatim for anyone interested).

      Normally I would take the blog piece down, have to painstakingly go through it to remove the trace of a correspondent — but in this case it was an easy job, no shut down necessary, as the bulk of the question was from another person (who I suppose might hit the roof if this is read, ha ha) who wrote to me privately asking I shut down the blog due to its high pseudo Sufi content/confusion.

      The reply you see below was used with you (in both Facebook and the Book of the Face) — but it was itself an edited cut-and-paste of a standard reply I always send out to people objecting to my academic tone and pseudo-Sufism.

      Ah, the spoils of war, and their distribution!

      If you had permitted this Banu Qureyza, you would have found me a Loving Conquerer. There is only an apparent cruelty in my Abrahamic/Muhammedean gesture of my Reading of “you” — like with Banu Qureyza, I’m really offering you the Keys to the Kingdom, not its subjugation.

      For you would have realised that there was never any marketplace at all (because there are no values in life, my love).

      You would have found yourself standing not in a marketplace, but in fields of wheat. You would have found yourself in the wheat, and the stripping and the massacre but harvest of your grain (the sparks of light that resided within your objection, the kernel of truth within your helpful suggestions to me) and to strip away the chaff of your arrogance, to take the result and grind it into a flour of Nur, and bake that within the (controlled) fires of judgement/Deen (that you consider to be intellectual), into a muffin of Love. The Holy Muffin of Joy, now adorned with fractal sprinkles of infinite Love, hundreds and thousands of immanent yet absolutely random and local and temporary sprinkles. Then we could have eaten that Muffin, my sweet, we could have eaten it together with quails.

      Oh well. There is no compulsion in such a reaping/baking/consumption: but it can be a delight, as pain gives way to pleasure, my dear.

  4. In other words,

    Since I am the anti-intellectual sufi here whose words have been stolen and taken back to the homeland to be placed in museums next to artefacts I am very unfamiliar with let me offer a tafsir I am truly entitled and authorized to.

    I use quotation marks to highlight my original suggestions and I will follow with a commentary.

    “Your analyses are often marred with extensive academic references to” (I did not specify any specific scholars, only pointing to their underlying commonality-not do I detest any of the following philosphers or deem their ideas useful for certain kinds of empirical inquiry) psychoanalysts and philosophers like Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault and the like. But Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari and Foucault were not Sufis. “The Tailorite Doctrine of Sufism is nothing other than an extrapolation and application of the ideas and values of a very contemporary and fashionable academic paradigm”. (my words, but actually I have it all wrong, rather it is only using these ideas as a veil, as a form of external display, and a critique of the former philosophical school is thus in no way applicable to the deeper plot) —(now comes the invented character, certainly not myself, whether there is really someone out there like this is not of concern)I come from a long line of traditional Sufis — my father is a Sheikh in a major Sufi order — and I know he would say that your intellectual analyses are blinding you from progression.
    You need to abandon all these complicated words and instead feel and experience the Haq! And the only way you can achieve this is through discipleship to a true teacher, such as my father. You might be doing some real danger by continuing with this blog — because a casual reader might assume you to be a genuine Sufi teacher — and you would then be, at best, spreading confusion about what Sufism is and, at worst, leading people away from their heart of feeling and into cold fashions and intellectual words.

    My father has said: ““To really get an understanding of the chaos around you perhaps you need to untangle yourself from the web of intellectualism which has succeeded in masking itself as your hands.” In exchange you will no doubt lose a lot of your analytical credibility, but you will then gain intellectual and spiritual independence and, who knows, perhaps that is the start of true Sufism for you.”” (ok this last paragraph also originally belonged to me.)

    obviously I apologize sincerely for my conflation of the Tailorite doctrine with the particularly fashionable philosophy it uses as clothing.

    But if this is what became of what began as a call for moderation. If this is the violence that can be done to the words of a human in the name of tafsir, even the thought of the fanaticism and anarchy that must fill the verses of the Tailorite Quran makes me shudder.

    Finally let me re-center myself, and purchase back my words at a reasonable price.
    ———————————————————————————-
    “For moderation/immoderation/repression are cultural norms and vary”

    But I said

    what are these “moderations” and “repressions”? intellectual subjects?, drowned in the sea of cultures, and thus unreachable.

    No, an intellectual approach is surely immoderate and desirable only to a heart repressed by its intellect master.

    only desirable to an immoderate and imbalanced body home both to extreme poverty and suffering alongside an excessive, opulent and yet very empty luxury.

    that is what we see around us is it not?

    what we see inside us, is it not?

    and sure you will say ‘an immoderate body? but cultural norms vary’

    but what i mean is a balance, a movement of the heart guided by intellect which all moderate bodies within the universal culture of moderation can sense.

    ———————————————————————————-

    And speaking of the excess of contemporary culture I noted that:

    But the dearth of spirituality and immoderation we find in Salafism is in equal if not greater measure present in the idolising of the senses, or hedonism of “popular” culture. Indeed since these two cultural expressions are in many senses blood brothers, despite being raised in very different environments (leading to the popular perception of them as diametrically opposed) any critique issuing from one directed at the other will end up revealing the underlying truth, this deep connection and in the process of fighting each other, their blunt weaponry and lack of nuance will no doubt end up causing a great deal of damage to their real enemy, Moderation,

    in other words understanding in contrast to the extremism of these schools that both the rigidity of norms and the pleasure of senses are necessary in moderate amounts but that their excess or lack impoverishes our souls.

    sexual repression and sexual release and both together, against one another

    but never moderation

    never!
    ———————————————————————————-
    and finally

    But what is the solution to the problem which results from excessive “intellectualism”,

    in this case the so-called impossibility of a single and consistent moderation for all mankind,

    for me the answer lies in Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, who discovers the universal in the subjectivity of the particular
    leading to a spiritual rather than a material univeral

    great minds may think alike

    faithful hearts understand in union

    But the intellect must point it out, distinguish it from the chaos of life, and when we enter this dark cave of faith and begin this journey it is only the intellect which can prevent us from running back in fright, from leaving altogether.

    Now where did that anti-intellectual Sufi come from?

    are we then to trust the Tailorite method?

  5. as-salamu alaykum brothers and sisters,

    i am one of the silent readers of this blog and also a facebook and real friend of the tailor

    i saw the original facebook discussion and read through this version

    the onl comment i want to make is that the tailor often does things at several levels the intellectual as you say and the heart but also at the level above that

    he calls these level of the nafs and the level of the qalb and the level of the ruh and the way he works at the level of the qalb is by what he calls ‘performing” or demonstration and ritual

    i think at the level of the nafs he is disagreeing with blackman because they are two distinct souls

    but at the level of the qalb he is not agreeing or disagreeing but demonstrating something to blackman by doing a performance of mirroring him

    blackman gave some advice and then ended his comment with the arrogant statement that the tailor might one day begin on real sufi path

    then the tailor did exactly the same thing mirroring advice then arrogantly telling blackman that this is the right path

    ive seen him do the same mirror performance before

    he did something same in the conversation with ned and the other sufi last year

    i think that by putting both views or dialectic as he sas with his intellect on the page he is performing balance showing balance in mirror question and answer of arrogance so from that nafs comes the qalb

    so he is showing moderation in giving mirroring qn answer thats the qalb level he is trying to teach us

    ws

    l

  6. Whilst I don’t always agree with Musa (but always enjoy the originality of his thoughts, references and modes of expression – and the time and effort he puts into it), this world would only be poorer without this blog.

    You might be doing some real danger by continuing with this blog — because a casual reader might assume you to be a genuine Sufi teacher — and you would then be, at best, spreading confusion about what Sufism is and, at worst, leading people away from their heart of feeling and into cold fashions and intellectual words.

    However, in such a hypothetical case, this ‘casual reader’ would be basing their reactions entirely on an intellectual response to what they have read. And surely someone who lives in the world of words should best be left in that world they choose to inhabit? What right have any of us to tell them what they should or shouldn’t be doing?

    Besides, if ‘feeling and experiencing the Haq’ is the thing, someone with the capacity to feel and experience will hardly be satisfied with thoughts, will they? So there is little real danger that ‘intellectual Sufism’ – if that is what this is (and personally I think that not do justice to what the Tailor has been doing here) – will colonize ‘experiential Sufism’.

    Further, I would venture that it is not really a Sufi perception to see ‘dangers’ everywhere (or to respond to such perceived ‘dangers’ by trying to repress others activities). The Sufi, surely, is someone who lives the Reality of la hawla wa la quwwata illa billah – ‘No transformation nor capacity save in God’ – and who knows with certainty that wa ma tasqutu min waraqatin illa ya’lamuha – ‘And not a leaf falls but He knows it’.

    It’s surely only the political man – even if he calls these politics ‘religion’ – who thinks that he has to do something, or else the world will ‘go to Hell in a handbasket’; and that things have to be stopped, people ‘put right’, and that a great deal of effort and commotion is required to remake the world in the image of his… what?… we would have to say, his merely ‘intellectual’ comprehension of scripture. Where is the Living Reality of the Divine omniscience and omnipotence in all of this?

    The Sufis, on the other hand, are those who: “Say Allah, and leave them to their playing with words” [6:91]

  7. The rational only plays a part in the Sufi Way, and needs to take its place amongst the ranks in the greater context. However, people very often desire, and to a certain extent can benefit from, information and a rational, intellectual framework. Even if part of the work involves wearing out intellectual and emotional responses and even demolishing the existing, derelict abode to make room for the new. And even if at some point, certain frameworks need to be dismantled, like scaffolding around a house once built.

    There are benefits whether one is approaching the Way or outside but involved with Sufism in one’s life. Approaching the Way, it can help to harness the intellect and encourage other elements of the self to allow and to facilitate one to pursue the Way or at least to turn a blind eye, rather than to oppose one’s approach or reject the Way. And outside the Way, the provision of information and the intellectual approach can similarly help to support the work, for example to help it germinate, grow and flourish in a culture; to help protect it from detractors and assailants; or at least to let it go on unhindered.

    That said, when a Sufi encounters folk arguing fiercely over aspects of Sufism or even engaging in lengthy intellectual debate, ignoring the “living reality” of the Way, he may rightly turn away and “let the dogs fight over the bone [of contention]” or “leave the donkeys to their pasture”. However, not being a Sufi myself, it would be utterly inappropriate for me to suggest such a thing.

  8. However, not being a Sufi myself, it would be utterly inappropriate for me to suggest such a thing.

    The Qur’anic injunction “Say Allah, and leave them to their playing with words” was addressed to all believers, and not specifically to Sufis (even if the records we have of their lives show a group of people who acted in accordance with their beliefs in this respect).

    My intention in mentioning it, however, was not as a criticism of “folk arguing fiercely over aspects of Sufism or even engaging in lengthy intellectual debate” but as a jibe at those forms of Islamic Sufism that seem to be more interested in telling others what or what not to do (which I’ve described here as ‘political’ activity) rather than following such traditional injunctions to keep their own counsel. They can’t have it both ways – on the one hand, to be the jealous custodians of this material, yet on the other to ignore it and to try to leverage power and persuasiveness in the manner of worldly institutions.

    Musa has a highly original take on these matters. I don’t see that he is particularly interested in stimulating, or taking part in, the kinds of fierce arguments over aspects of Sufism that happen elsewhere on the web. And personally, I greatly enjoy his offbeat poetic and mystical readings of the Qur’an – which often remind me of Ibn al-‘Arabi – and the way that he combines these with postmodern philosophy. It seems to me that the world of Islam is crying out for original minds such as his.

    Is this Sufism? Not if one equates that term with the conservative outlook and practices of the traditional turuq (which my own mentors in these matters all considered to have outlived their usefulness). Nor if one tries to make comparisons between them more contemporary expressions of the Sufi Way, such as those of the late Idries Shah. The Tailor’s writings are sui generis – and that is their complete delight (especially since this is an area where most commentators are constantly deferring to what others say, with a fear of stepping outside a very narrow line).

    There is a place for them. And this is it!😉

    1. “The Tailor’s writings are sui generis – and that is their complete delight (especially since this is an area where most commentators are constantly deferring to what others say, with a fear of stepping outside a very narrow line).”

      Indeed, and the world would be a poorer place without folk like The Tailor, moving around outside the box. I agree with much of what you’ve written. Thank you, friend.

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