The challenge of esoteRism

Aside from bequeathing to Sufism the distinctive institution of the khanqah, the influence of Karrimism on Islamic mysticism is indirect. It should be remembered that Ibn Karram's movement was not mystical sensu stricto. However, the violent asceticism of its exponents, which cast such a spell over the working classes of Khurisanian towns such as

Nlshapur, provoked an epochal reaction amongst mystics in the ninth century. With Hamdun al-Qassar and Abu Hafs 'Amr al-Haddadi at their head, their distinctive teaching emphasised the rejection of all spiritual ostentation (riyi'), against the histrionic otherworldliness of the Karrimite ascetics. Spiritual striving was for God alone, or it was worthless. In the case of Hamdui n, this radical ''introversion'' might even involve actively seeking social blame, in line with the verse in the Qur'an which praises those who ''struggle in the path of God and do not fear the blame of a blamer'' (5:54). The new tendency emanating in particular from the mystics of Nlshapur was thus known as the Mal-imatiyya, the People of Blame.29 The Malimati ethic was fraught with danger. It predictably led some would-be mystics to legitimise outright antinomianism, and so threatened to discredit Sufism within Islam. Interpreted sincerely and conscientiously, however, the Malamati ethic remains a constant and moving undercurrent of Sufi spirituality and hagiography. 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d. 1021), author of one of the earliest esoteric commentaries on the Qur'an, formalised and structured Malimati spirituality in his Malimati Treatise (Risilat al-Malamatiyya), and in the school of Ibn 'Arabi, the highest of all saints are in the Malimati ranks.30

Exponents of the Malamatiyya were thus urged, through the negative example of the Karrimiyya, to objectify what marked out a truly ''esoteric'' askisis from its exoteric analogue. Their askesis was wholly introverted and had no one but God for witness. The Malimati mystics are part of a larger convulsion which characterises Sufism in that period. Sufism (as the mystical movement was presently generalised) could not disguise a certain asymmetry between its teachings and wider religious norms. This asymmetry was visible in many areas, from Sufism's involved paraliturgical practices and the audacity of its goals, to its characteristic media. The pursuit of the Prophet's ''good example'' (uswa hasana) by Sufis unsatisfied with simple conformity to his precedent (sunna) in the routines of daily life, seemed to trespass on the very uniqueness of the Last Prophet. From the ninth century, for example, there were Sufis who spoke frankly of emulating the Prophet's ascen-sion.31 Saintly thaumaturgy - denied by Mu'tazilites but accepted unhesitatingly by the masses32 - seemed to rival prophetic thaumaturgy. Neither was the supreme goal of the Sufi gnostic simply the fulfilment of the religion's legal obligations with a view to posthumous salvation, but was additionally God-realisation (ittisif), no less, while alive. And the gnostic's encounter with God was expressed in Sufism in a unique medium, the theopathic locution. In such utterances, it was claimed that God Himself spoke through the mystic in enigmas akin to the ambiguities (mutashabihat) found in the Qur'an. Like the qur'anic ambiguities, these locutions were to be accepted by the mass of believers in good faith, leaving their interpretation to an elite. Thus, in Carl Ernst's words, they shockingly amounted to a virtual ''supplementary canon, formed by the uninterrupted contact which God maintains with the elect''.33 The most famous ecstatic who brought such readings of Sufism into the open, forcing the issue of their asymmetry with exoterism, was undoubtedly Mansur al-Hallaj.

There had already been trials of Sufis under the Abbasids, notably that of Abu'l-Husayn al-Nuri and his companions c. 878. The mystical ''lover'' Sumnun (d. 910) had fallen foul of certain authorities for his amorous way of talking about God. Ahmad al-Kharraz (d. 899) was exiled from Baghdad at this time on account of his work The Secret (Kitab al-Sirr), and later, after an eleven-year residence in Mecca, he found himself expelled again. But it is clearly the furore centring on Hallaaj and his two trials (913 and 922) under the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir, which marks the moment when the tension most momentously broke surface.

What doctrines were specifically at stake in these persecutions? It appears that the Nuri trial was founded on a vague allegation of zandaqa (crypto-Manichean heresy). This was enough provocation for the Hanbalite jurist Ghulaam al-Khalail to persuade the authorities to have him arrested and tried. For a figure like Khalil, Nuri's doctrine of divine love suggested an outrageous intimacy between creature and God, and implied an intolerable anthropomorphism. It is important, however, that when questioned by the chief judge of Baghdad, Nuarai spoke in particular about the saints who ''see by God and hear by God'' (the idea of ittisaaf), causing the judge to weep with emotion. The same principle was the recurrent issue in the Hallaaj trials. In the first of these, the main charge was that Hallaaj had claimed divine lordship for himself and taught incarnationism (hulual), by which the authorities concluded that the wandering thaumaturge was posturing as a messianic figure (mahda).34 This was deeply threatening to the state at a time when the extremist Shai'ite movement known as Carmathianism was in the air. In the second trial, although Hallaj's alleged replacement of the Hajj was decisive in his condemnation from the point of view of orthopraxy, nevertheless the vital issue from the viewpoint of orthodoxy was probably again ittisaaf. It was the seizure of a text on this subject among Hallaaj's effects which initially provoked the caliph to hand him over for cross-examination, and Hallaj's ''thesis of [God's] witness'' (qawl bi'l-shahid) was the subject of a special session during the proceedings. In this last doctrine, it was claimed that witnessings (shawaahid) of God are obtainable in the person of the saints (ahl al-ikhlas), who thereby become persuasive evidence of God in the midst of creation, drawing mankind to Him.35 Hallaj evidently claimed as much for himself: ''If you do not know Him, then at least know His signs! I am that sign and I am the Truth [ana'l-Haqq]!''36

It must be noted that Hallaj himself rejected the concept of hulUl. But a unio mystica, in some sense, clearly lies at the heart of his teachings. Hallaaj thus describes the realised saint as a manifestation (zuhur) of God, but ''not an infusion [hulul] in a material receptacle [haykal juthmani]''.37 The distinction is important and clearly eluded Hallaj's persecutors. The point is surely that through the saint's self-annihilation there is a thinning of the existential veils which hide God from the world, so that God in His infinity and transcendence may be contemplated through the saint, as the sky may be glimpsed through a window. There is no suggestion here of God incarnating, through a kenotic ''descent'' into an earthbound individual. Indeed, a recurring note of Hallaj's Tawcisin is that God and the creature never combine. Be that as it may, the very notion of God-realisation, whatever its interpretation, appalled the Hanbalites, and obliged Sufis who used such language to qualify and carefully explain what they meant. A more circumspect view was that the saint was ''invested'' with one or another divine name or attribute (sifa). This was the so-called sifati mysticism, initially developed by Hallaj's disciple Abu Bakr al-Wasit! (d. c. 932) and popular in later Sufism. Another way in which the unitive experience of the mystic was explained was through the Sufi concept of baqa' (''enduring''), whereby the earthly adjunct of the mystic was readmitted subsequent to his annihilation (fana') in God - readmitted, however, in the light of that experience. The great contemporary mystic Junayd (d. 910), whose epistles are marked by a preoccupation with this whole problem, explains baqa' as follows: ''[The mystic] is present in himself and in God after having been present in God and absent in himself. This is because he has left intoxication with God's omnipotence [ghalaba] and comes to the clarity of sobriety.''38 Junayd goes so far as to emphasise that the famous ecstatics like Bistaamai had all passed away only ''in their imagination'' ('ala al-tawahhum).39 His insistence on the subjectivity of the experience of annihilation and the imperative of passing beyond it to a reinstatement of the creature-creator distinction became a feature of so-called sober (sahwi) Sufism, and was later enshrined in the doctrine of wahdat al-shuhud (''the unity of witnessing'', subjective theomonism).

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