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Chih Rachida et Mayeur-Jaouen Catherine (dir.), Le Soufisme à l’époque ottomane, xvie-xviiie siècle, Le Caire, IFAO, Cahier des Annales Islamologiques, 2010, 442 p.

Paola Abenante

Texte intégral

1The volume is a collection of essays on the history of Sufism in Egypt, and more generally in the Arab world, during three centuries of Ottoman rule.

2In line with recent trends within historiography on the Ottoman period, all the authors share the aim of challenging a paradigm that formerly shaped research on Sufism, i.e. the decline paradigm, which assumed a progressive loss and corruption of true mystical quest due to the institutionalisation and popularisation of arîqa Sufism under Ottoman rule. If the limits of the decline theory within the study of Sufism have been already ascertained by many disciplines, among all anthropology, this collection is pivotal in providing a nuanced historical perspective on the fluxes and refluxes between the antithetical terms of those alleged dichotomies that the decline paradigm has contributed to endorse - i.e. the dichotomy between high and popular culture, between legalistic and mystical Islam and, finally, between traditional and reformed ‘neo-Sufism’.

3In their lengthy introduction, the editors outline the main themes that traverse and bind all the contributions in their shared challenge, and which concur in conveying the creativity and prosperity of Ottoman intellectual and cultural life, in its links to Sufism.

4A prominent theme concerns the relation between the individual character of spiritual initiation and the social character of brotherhoods, two dimensions of Sufism that are proved to go hand in hand although they have often been at the core of an unhistorical, inasmuch too clear-cut, and evolutionary classification of Sufism.

5Among all, the first three contributions more directly deal with this issue.

6Starting from a survey of early treaties on spiritual affiliation and mastery, the khirqa literature, D. Gril shows the multiplicity of spiritual links claimed by more or less famous Sufis, and argues that in the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods spiritual transmission did not necessarily trace a linear ascendance (silsilah) to one specific eponym of a arîqa, his specific teachings and ritual heritage. Whereas posterior treaties, belonging to the Ottoman period, show a slow but unprecedented change of the denomination of transmission from khirqa – individual multiple spiritual investiture -, to arîqa as a spiritual heritage implying an exclusive affiliation to a defined social and institutional reality. The concern underlying this investigation is one of denomination, thus of identification, how Gril puts it: when and in what context has Sufism been identified with the arîqa? A possible answer, Gril suggests, could be found in the need for institutional status that touches Sufism under Ottoman rule.

7R. McGregor’s contribution directly questions the decline paradigm, showing the liveliness of Ottoman Sufism through the description of a new kind of networking that develops in Ottoman Egypt, i.e. transversal affiliation. A short treatise on the genealogy of the Wafâ’faiyya order, linked to the wealthy Cairene Waf’â family, is the main tool of McGregor’s historiography. By claiming transversal connections, both spiritual and genealogical, to different families, the treatise shows the political liveliness of the Egyptian order and its shaykh, continuously engaged in bridging new alliances, beyond the boundaries of a linear silsilah. Very challenging in this contribution is the historically relevant exploration of a literary genre, the panegyric, too often categorized as mannerist, decadent and useless in scientific/historical terms.

8Parallel to McGregor’s study comes A. Sabra’s contribution, which focuses on the other most important family in XVIth c. Egypt, the Bakri family. By integrating the analysis of the genealogies and hagiographies written by the members of the family with other relevant sources such as Sha‘rânî’s tabaqât, Sabra traces the history of the Bakris, which stands for the development of what he defines ‘household Sufism’ in Ottoman Egypt. The underlying intent of the paper, which resonates with Gril’s identification hypothesis, is to show how the Ottoman Empire, out of the need of legitimating its rule over Egypt, allowed for the emergence of new political elites among Sufis, and for the transformation of Sufi cultural and social capital into political capital, of saints into provincial notables, and thus favoured the institutional drive of Sufism.

9In general the contributions suggest that Sufism, in its strictly Sunni variant, played an important role in the Ottoman discourse of power, also in counterpoint to the power of Safavid Shîʿah, which in the East competed with the Ottoman rule.

10The impact of Ottoman rule on Sufism is also attested by the significant pro-akhbarian inclination of XVIth and XVIIth c. Sufi literature. The thorough diffusion of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s ideas could be read both as an implicit form of compliance to the Ottoman rule, thus taken as symptom of an institutionalisation of Sufism, and as a sign of the integration and communication between the different Arab provinces, brought about by the Empire.

11Geoffroy’s paper, in particular, discusses the pro-akhbarian and pro-Sufi politics of the Ottoman rulers through the figure of Ibn Hajar al-Haytamî (m. 974/1567), Egyptian Sufi and scholar in al-Ahzâr, and through the analysis if his Fatâwâ hadithiyya, a minor oeuvre consisting in a collection of divers fatâwâ touching issues of law, eschatology, grammar, but mostly the discipline of Sufism. The very structure of the Fatâwâ hadithiyya, Geoffroy argues, is a consecration of Sufism as the fundament of any exoteric science, of the inextricable link between wisdom (hikam) and juridical status (ahkâm), which is at the basis of the process of institutionalisation of Sufism in the Ottoman era.

12The theme of the encounter and the melange of spiritual influences within the Ottoman Empire, and especially between Indian and Egyptian Sufi lineages and doctrines, is central to R. Chih’s paper along with the description of the practical dimensions of Sufism.

13Through the description of the Simt al-Majid, a manual of mystical practices written by the Medinese Saint Ahmad al Qushshâshi (m.1661), Chih shows the mingling of different spiritual influences, other than pointing out the continuous reference to doctrinal knowledge that the saint makes when describing and teaching the very concrete dimensions of mystical practice.

14In his contribution, Wormser picks up the theme of the encounter through the description of the life and writings of a Malaise Saint, ar-Rânîrî (m.1658), highlighting the centrality of Mecca and Medina as sites of encounter and of doctrinal influence. By focusing on Rânîrî’s polemics against two supposedly heterodox saints, Wormser traces the permanent back and froes on religious issues between the Malay and the Arab XVII th c. worlds, and shows how, under Ottoman protection, the two sacred cities became a crossroad between Hadrami, Indian and Egyptian influences.

15Another relevant theme concerns the relation between the hereditary and spiritual genealogy of sainthood, which is mirrored in the writing of hagiographies.

16C. Mayeur-Jaouen’s contribution focuses on the Tabaqât of Sharnûbi, a collection of hagiographies of the four Poles/Aqtab, which marks a turning point in Egyptian Sufism, establishing its main traits until today. Sharnûbi’s hagiographies are described as unprecedented both in style and content, since they propose a new hagiographic model that suspends the boundaries between prose, poetry and epopee, and between oral and written traditions. The narrations of the wonderful lives and deeds of the four saints - Jilani, Rifa'ai, Badawi and most of all Disuqi - present a cosmology and eschatology which draw both on Ibn al-‘Arabi’s works and on the fifteenth century Egyptian delta countryside cultural humus. Linking universal Islamic themes to the very local Egyptian culture the Tabaqât give written legitimacy to an essentially oral Mamluk heritage

17N. Amri continues the reflection on hagiographies and compares three texts – the Ibtisâm of Râshidi (XVth c.), the Rawdat al-azhâr of Baramûnî, (end of the XVIth c.) and the Fath al-‘alim of Tâjurî (1100/1688). By situating them in the depth of their historical contexts, Amri gives an insight on the continuities and the ruptures between two models of hagiography building, matched to two supposedly separate forms of transmission, that is to say genetic and spiritual heritage. In line with Gril’s contribution, Amri’s paper also bestows attention to the complex and entangled relation between spiritual initiation and the social dimensions of Sufism, symbolised by the familial and cliental ties of the brotherhoods.

18The following four contributions take up the issue of reform in Sufism and describe the complexity of characters and orders that have too often been reductively associated with a traditional form of Sufism, bound to disappear in front of the renovating force of reformist trends.

19A. Papas discusses reform and re-foundation within the Naqshabandiyya, describing the life of its oriental branch, linked to the samarcandi shaykh Khwâja ‘Ubayd Allâh Ahrâr and contemporary to the reformed Majaddidiyya of Ahmad Sirhindî. Papas attests the force of a spiritual tradition which appears more as a medieval khirqa, far from organisational rules, hierarchical structure and normative teachings, than as a bureaucratic and institutionalised arîqa, thus questioning the reductive modernist tale – that is to say the reformist and orthodox destiny - of the Naqshabandiyya.

20A. F. Ambrosio’s contribution on the Mevleviyya, together with S. Pagani’s on the anti-puritan shaykh ‘Abd al Ghanii al-Nâbulusî, take more directly issue with the debates on popular Sufism which thrived after the rise of the Qâdîzâdeli puritan movement, and describe the defence of specific practices and beliefs condemned for their backward character and illegal status, especially. While Ambrosio finely illustrates the point of view of a ‘turning dervish’, unveiling the existential dimension of vilified Sufi practices through the exploration of Anqaravî’s writings, Pagani’s discerning paper explores the relations between tasawwuf and fiqh under Ottoman rule. At a time when the Qâdîzâdeli movement was forwarding its puritan reforms in the institutional domain and the Empire was promoting the movement’s point of view by means of juridical language, Nâbulusî is described as a remarkable defendant of both the spirit of Sufism and of law, breaking the much too clear-cut dichotomy between spirit and letter, tradition and reform. By dissociating the precept of ‘amr – commanding the good – from the institution of hisba - censorship – Nâbulusî works in the direction of troubling the process of harmonisation between qânûn and sharî‘ a and the cooptation of the religious establishment within the bureaucratic apparatus of the State.

21Out of the same perspective of describing the complexity of the relation between the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of Ottoman Sufism, P. Ballanfat sketches the personality of Nîyazii Misrî, one of the most notable ottoman mystics who variously combines esoteric quests with the learning of traditional religious sciences during his itinerary through XVIIth c. Egypt.

22J. Dreher’s paper contributes to the exploration of the debates around the licit and illicit character of Sufi practices and beliefs, through a description of a polemics on the religious status of the Prophet’s parents, an important subject at the époque, and not to be found frequently in main stream literature.

23The last three papers more specifically engage in a literary analysis of texts of Sufi authors who appear in their very individual commitments and beliefs. The sensitive analyses of XVI th c. Yemeni poetry (Knysh), a XVII th c. travelogue (Elger) and the more doctrinal writings of Murtadâ al-Zabîdi (Reichmuth), provide an insight on Sufi existential inclinations and sensibilities, out of the exclusive bonds of brotherhood life.

24Overall the volume distinguishes itself for the perceptive attention it accords to the vast literary production of Ottoman Sufism, which is distinctive in its amount and epitomizes the advent of a new role of writing, probably promoted by the close-by printing revolution. Arguing for a contextually attentive reading of these sources through their, at times, repetitive meanders of genealogies and quotations, this volume sheds new light on a patrimony heretofore often dismissed as mannerist and redundant. The authors convincingly show the original drive of this literature as well as the importance of exploring the desire to write, which finally appears as the bridge between the supposedly high and popular dimensions of Sufi culture.

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Paola Abenante, « Chih Rachida et Mayeur-Jaouen Catherine (dir.), Le Soufisme à l’époque ottomane, xvie-xviiie siècle, Le Caire, IFAO, Cahier des Annales Islamologiques, 2010, 442 p. »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 131 | 2012, mis en ligne le 24 novembre 2011, consulté le 05 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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