April 5, 2010

Sufis and Scholars of the Sea (book review)

by Rahma Bavelaar. Originally published in Islamica magazine, 2007. Used by permission of the author.

Anne Bang's objective in Sufis and Scholars of the Sea is to explore the history of Islam in the northwest Indian Ocean during the 19th and early 20th century, focusing on the scholarly exchange of ideas between Hadramawt, Yemen, and the East African Coast by looking at the life and works of Ahmed b. Abi Bakr b. Sumayt (1861-1925), the son of a Hadrami immigrant to the Swahili coast and respected scholar and Sufi in the Yemeni and East African intellectual traditions.
Through an empirical study of his travels to and from his ancestral Hadramawt, the family and scholarly links he fored and maintained and his work as a Shafi'i qadi in Zanzibar under the patronage of the British-Omani state, Bang seeks to elucidate several interrelated questions which have as yet received scarce attention in Western scholarship: why did members of the Hadrami tariqa 'Alawiyya become such important exponents of a new, more literate Islam in East Africa? What did they teach and what inspired their teachings? How did they maintain and expand their scholarly network across time and space? Did changes in these networks occur, and if so, why? How did the content of their teachings relate to simultaneous developments in the wider Islamic world? And what was their relationship to the British-Omani colonial authorities in Zanzibar?
The great strength of Scholars of the Sea lies in its convincing use of what are often considered purely "religious" documents, such as scholarly geneaologies (silsilas) and certificates (ijazas), as valuable historical sources that can help elucidate processes of religious change and revival.
Although the overall emphasis of the work is on change, Bang challenges the previously common perspective in Western academia that 19th-century 'neo-Sufism' represented a fundamental break with the classical, supposedly more quietist, mystical tradition of Islam. Her highly detailed description of the historical origins and teachings of the 'Alawiyya brotherhood--which closely follows the 'canonical' version taught within the tariqa itself--she emphasizes the continuity of its theological and spiritual tenets (vested in its members' dual geneaological and spiritual claim to descent from the Prophet), in spite of the far reaching institutionalization of its educational practices in the late 19th century. She also points out the continued centrality of classical mystical and legal writings to 'Alawi education in the Hadramawt and East Africa.
If institutional changes in educational practices were hardly revolutionary in Yemen, they certainly were in East Africa, Bang argues with reference to the 'Alawi scholarly class in Zanzibar, where the Hadrami's emphasis on scriptural Islam and Arabic literacy severely eroded the authority of the Swahili upper class (the Waungwana) and their monopoly, until then, on the primarily oral transmission of Islamic knowledge.
New religious practices, such as public dhikrs (rememembrance) and mawlids, (celebration of the Prophet's birth) which were introduced by the 'Alawis and other new Sufi brotherhoods, greatly widened the general population's opportunities for religious participation but seriously diminished the authority of the Waungwana who had previously monopolized popular religious practices. Bang persuasively argues that new ideas and practices may have radically divergent consequences according to the specific nature of the Muslim community in which they are introduced.
Along the same lines, Bang argues that the association of the 'orthodoxy' with 'Arabness' in the East African context needs to be reconsidered: what were considered highly 'orthodox' devotional practices by the 'Alawi scholars were obviously perceived as highly 'unorthodox' by the Waungwana, who had considered their own mawlid celebrations to be representative of 'proper' Islamic behavior.
Bang's argument for the relativity of such loaded concepts as tradition and reform is further elaborated in her exploration of the influence of modernist and Islamist thought on Hadramawt, and consequently East Africa. Ibn Sumayt's netowrk connected him with scholars in Hadramawt, its diasporas in Mecca, Indonesia and Istanbul, as well as prominent modernist thinkers such as Mohammed 'Abduh and Rashid Rida' in Egypt.
An analysis of the scholarly exchanges taking place through these contacts shows that although modernist thinkers and exponents of the tariqa 'Alawiyya shared a strong interest in social and educational activism (da'wah), their intellectual foundations were entirely different. The activism of the 'Alawiyya in Hadramawt and Zanzibar was primarily and internal development, deriving its inspiration from late 18th-century Hadrami revivalists. It was expressed in the institutionalization of religious education and an increased drive toward da'wah among non-'Alawis and in the countryside, but otherwise remained firmly within the parameters of 'Alawi Sufism. Modernist thought, on the other hand, as expounded by scholars like Mohammed 'Abduh and Rashid Rida--as embraced by a large group of 'Alawi scholars in Indonesia--had its roots in a much more thorough intellectual transformation, formulated in a context of colonial expansion and severely critical of the more esoteric aspects of Islam.
Pointing to examples of educational, agricultural and medical reforms proposed by Ibn Sumayt, challenges overtly static notions of reform, arguing that reform should not be understood as a mere theoretical ideal that is necessarily rooted in ideology (as with the Egyptian reformers) but is primarily about the will to change concrete aspects of society: action which may be rooted in social, political and personal circumstances without implying an intellectual shift. Ibn Sumayt may have shared certain reformist tendencies with modernist thinkers, but this does not mean that he shared their intellectual foundations.
Some critical footnotes may be placed here regarding the theoretical framework in which Bang places reform within the 'Alawiyya tradition which she defines, following previous scholarship, as a shift from the imposition of an external moral code to an internally motivated code for life conduct, i.e. a shift from doctrine to praxis, rather than a shift from apathy to activism. This change of emphasis may circumvent the problematic political implications of the term activism but does nothing to explain why this shift took place, apart from the tenuous implication that previous generations of Muslims did not 'internalize' or 'practice' Islam to the same extent. The well-traveled Hadrami sayyids were doubtlessly aware of the expanding influence of the Western world (an entire generation of Hadramis studied with Zayn ad-Din ad-Dahlan in Mecca, who taught subjects in European History and was a supporter of Ottoman pan-Islamism). Could it be, then, that the expansion of da'wah and popular education had more to do with external influences than Bang concedes to? Could the shift also reflect a new need for self-affirmation in the face of the rapid penetration of foreign and non-Islamic influences into the Muslim heartlands? The consolidation of Sufi tariqas was central to the spread of Islamic teachings among the 'masses' and in many places pursued highly political (often anti-colonial) objectives during the late 19th century, regardless of the non-political nature of their essential teachings.
Furthermore, Bang's conclusion that the shift that took place was not an intellectual one may be premature. The long-term effects of the expansion and institutionalization of education may not have been evident in the early 20th century, but they certainly are today. Unprecedented popular access to religious knowledge has today led to radical shifts in the distribution of religious authority and increasingly eclectic attitudes towards Islamic knowledge. Many other drastic changes on the local and global level have obviously played a role in the increasing 'democratization' of religious knowledge, but expanded access to Islamic education from the late 19th century, as exemplified by the ribats in Hadramawt, certainly formed part of the groundwork for future shifts of a more intellectual nature.
Nonetheless, Bang's research presents powerful illustrations of the complex and intricate dialectics of political social and intellectual developments.
The example of Ibn Sumayt, who was utterly steeped in Hadrami scholarly and Sufi tradition but did not hesitate to ask legal advice from Mohammed 'Abduh, promoted the translation of the Qur'an into Swahili and shared the judge's bench with Ibadhi scholars, shows the infinite complexity of the modes of intellectual evolution across space and time and poses a powerful rebuttal to those who would like to compartmentalize Islamic thought and practice according to sharply defined ideological categories.
Overall, the themes raised in Sufis and Scholars of the Sea offer many leads for future inquiry. In the 20th century the revolutionary expansion of modern communication technology and mass media have both empowered and fragmented religious discourse, generally undermining the traditional authority of scholarly classes such as the 'Alawis. Yet new technological tools also present entirely new avenues for the propagation of their 'brand' of Islam. In fact, the tariqa 'Alawiyya seems to have greatly expanded its global network since the early 20th c., growing branches into European and American Muslim communities as well as building a considerable presence in Islamic broadcasting and cyberspace. Many of the questions posed by Anne Bang can be newly asked about the continued role of the 'Alawiyya in the modern world: How have the networks described in Sufis and Scholars of the Sea evolved and changed since the early 20th century? What have been the effects of modern communication technology, mass media, and new global audiences on the content of 'Alawi teachings and the methods of its transmission (da'wah)? How is 'Alawi Sufism indigenized (as it once was in East Africa) in the Western world, where its discourse is now informing new Muslim identities, political opinions, and ideas about what constitutes normative Islamic 'tradition'?
To conclude, Sufis and Scholars of the Sea offers all that is expected from an historical study of intellectual history: profound knowledge of the classical canon of Islamic scholarship, highly relevant research questions, and thorough engagement with pertinent theoretical approaches to Sufism. It certainly deserves attention from scholars and laymen alike.


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