The Many “Selves” of Sufism: Psychoanalytic Reflections on “Polishing the Mirror” Politically | Quinn A. Clark

Quinn A. Clark

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According to Freud, the “self”—that little “you” deep within that we try to understand by allowing it emerge naturally and undistorted—is not natural and, instead, is the very product of distortion. Within an individual, Freud thought, there were many desires and fears that contradict each other. You want to sleep, and you want to eat, but you can’t do both. You want to be an artist in your career, and you want to win your parents’ respect, but you fear those may be incompatible. These opposing forces within us, neither wanting to give way to the other, push against each other until they ultimately squeeze out and up to the surface the sum total of these contradictions: you.

Or at least the version of yourself that you’re aware of. Columbia University anthropologist Katherine P. Ewing has noted that, while we are quick to notice the inconsistencies in others—that one may take a political position in one context but then proceed to act in a contradictory way in another—we rarely notice our own contradictions, the multiple versions of our “selves” that we inhabit throughout a given day. Psychoanalytic thinkers might suggest to us that our inability to accept our own inconsistencies is not merely an error. Instead, it is a misrecognition (mesconnaissance, for Jacques Lacan) that allows us to see what we want to see so that we can proceed to do what we want to do without reckoning with our own inner conflict. But all the while, these multiple selves are still there.

What better example of many selves than al-Hujwiri (1009-1072-77 CE)? Or shall we instead speak of Data Ganj Baksh? Al-Hujwiri was one of the premier thinkers and scholars in the history both of Islam and of South Asia. As a Hanafi ʿalim, al-Hujwiri was a master of jurisprudence and law, and he made a career of calling out groups that he considered to not be taking shariah (transliteration) seriously enough, labeling them as heretical. Indeed, his Persian-language masterpiece, Kashf al-Maḥjūb, gives substantial consideration to the differentiation between acceptable and unacceptable Sufi groups. As the interred patron saint of Lahore, Data Ganj Baksh is one of the most visited Auliya in South Asia and is known for hearing the requests of everyone without discrimination. Which is the real one? Al-Hujwiri, the bookish and erudite ʿalim famous for contributing to the systemization of “orthodox Sufism”? Or Data Ganj Baksh, the all-welcoming and beneficent saint? Was he both? Neither?

The answer for academics is, unsurprisingly, thoroughly academic: the distinction is built on a false dichotomy. For the majority of the history of Islam, it’s entirely unhelpful to differentiate between the ʿulema and Sufis. Of course, most famous Sufis were also ʿulema, and they’re famous because we have access to these scholarly writings, from exegetical texts to poetry to tasawwuf manuals. And so the historian’s answer would be that “al-Hujwiri” and “Data Ganj Baksh” are merely two different names that we attach to the same person, who easily and without contradiction took up both roles. Everyone seems content with this answer.

But what about someone like Ashraf Ali Thanwi (1863-1943CE), the towering figure of the Deobandi school? Thanwi is best remembered as a translator of the Quran and a prolific writer of fiqh. His most famous work of fiqh, Bahishti Zewar, is among the most widely published books in South Asia. Aimed primarily at women and today regularly given as a wedding present, this manual attends to a range of topics and, perhaps surprisingly, Sufi shrine visitation does not fare well, including an outright prohibition against women visiting these dargāh with assurances of curses of the Prophet (PBUM) for those that do visit such places. And why is this surprising? Thanwi was a hardcore Sufi, himself, and not just nominally. He wrote voluminously on tasawwuf and was the pīr of his hometown khanqah in Thana Bhawan. Yet unlike al-Hujwiri/Data Ganj Baksh, whose dual-identity we are happy to accept, many either dismiss or reject this Deobandi ʿalim’s place among India’s great Sufi figures. Deobandi-educated Thanwi, who prohibits even the visitation of dargāh for women and has no patience for things like mīlād celebrations, a Sufi?!

And yet there it is. He is both. Or is he neither? In a time when the US and Russian governments are sponsoring Sufism to fight their own global wars against Muslims that they perceive to be threats and at a time when the government of the BJP’s saffron-swaddled Yogi Adityanath is planning a “Sufi Circuit” tourism package, we must pause and ask ourselves once more about identity. Which Sufism is the real Sufism? The Sufism of world-renouncers or sultan-spurning anti-elites? Or the Sufism of the political royalty? Both? Neither?

The answer is not immediately obvious. But psychoanalytic perspectives on the “self” can put us on the path to the right question. The better question is this: just as we notice others’ contradictions but overlook our own as to avoid confronting the inner conflict that defines us, politically what inner conflict is so intractable that we must simply overlook it? The greater challenge is not to reconcile the dual-identities of others, such as those of al-Hujwiri/Data Ganj Baksh or Ashraf Ali Thanwi. The greater challenge is to understand why it is that we consider one’s multiple identities acceptable but the other’s a contradiction. Ibn Taymiyyah was a vociferous critic of Sufi brotherhoods and also as a Sufi. Yet it doesn’t seem that he struggled to reconcile these two identities. It is primarily in the modern era that we view Ibn Taymiyyah’s Sufi identity as something at odds with his other views. Thus, we are the ones puzzled by this, not him.

Today, many of us see no contradiction in the fact that one “self” of Sufism is that of cultural, capitalist temperance and personal, political introspection—that is, polishing the mirror of the heart—while another “self” of Sufism earns film industries and book publishers crores of rupees and acts as military advisor for US, Turkish, and Indian security forces. Yes, now more than ever, one must ask: of all of the different “selves” of Sufism, why it is that some of us can only see one yet so easily overlook the wonderful, messy soup of contradictions and variety in the rich history of Sufism? And if Freud was right these oversights are not just errors but are productive oversights that help us avoid acknowledging inner conflict, then politically what is the internal conflict that we fear we cannot afford to admit to our political adversaries or, moreover, to ourselves? For this, polishing the mirror of the heart does, indeed, become its own form of political action.

Further Reading:

Ewing, Katherine P. “The Illusion of Wholeness: Culture, Self, and the Experience of 
Inconsistency.” Ethos 18 (1990): 251–78.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in 
Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits: A Selection, translated by Alan Sheridan, Reprinted., 1–7. London ; New York: Routledge, 2008.
Mian, Ali. “Surviving Modernity: Ashraf ’Ali Thanvi (1863-1943) and the Making of Muslim 
Orthodoxy in Colonial India.” Duke University, 2015.
Nicholson, Reynold A., trans. The Kashf al-Mahjub. Havertown, Pennsylvania: Gibb Memorial 
Trust, 2014.
Sirriyeh, Elizabeth. Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defense, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern 
World. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999.
Thānvī, Ashraf ʻAlī. Bahishti Zewar = Heavenly Ornaments : A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law. 
Karachi: Altaf & Sons, 1998.

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