Monday, January 04, 2016

Seyyed Hossein Nasr as shaykh

Traditionalism, René Guénon and the contemporary Maryamiyya are discussed in a new book, Living Sufism in North America: Between Tradition and Transformation by William Rory Dickson (State University of New York Press, 2015). The first part of the book provides an excellent concise history of Sufism, in the Muslim world and then in the West, which is where Guénon is discussed, and contextualized. Then, in the second part, Dickson discusses the responses of ten leading contemporary American Sufi shaykhs, including Seyyed Hossein Nasr of the Maryamiyya, to five topical issues impacting all American Sufis: authority, culture, gender, the relationship between Sufism and Islam, and the participation of non-Muslims.

As Dickson notes, it is clear that Nasr emphasizes Islam more than Frithjof Schuon did, and does not prioritize the esoteric in the same way as Schuon. Commenting on what he calls "California Sufis," those who want to have Sufism without Islam, Nasr notes that they want to have the fruit without the tree, and so have a limited future: the tree is necessary, and non-Islamic Sufism lacks rooting in a divine message. Nasr also emphasizes that traditional forms and practices have value in themselves. This sets him apart from most of the other Sufis interviewed by Dickson, who are much happier to sacrifice forms and practices to adapt to American realities.

Even Nasr, however, makes some concession to realities where gender is concerned. While (unsurprisingly) rejecting feminism in principle, Nasr distinguishes between "instructive" and "administrative" functions within Sufism, and reserves only administrative functions (which others might call positions of power) for men. There are, according to Nasr, ever more "highly qualified women who are interested in the spiritual life... and who also, intellectually, are able to deal with the gnostic, intellectual aspects of Sufism." He explains this partly in sociological terms, as women go to college and experience and act just as men do, but firstly in metaphysical terms, as "compensation for the downfall of men spiritually."

Living Sufism in North America is interesting because it puts into dialogue with each other the views of different Sufi shaykhs on issues that they all encounter but rarely discuss openly or comment on publicly. One exception to this is that another shaykh interviewed by Dickson, Yannis Toussulis, does make one explicit comment on Traditionalist positions. He criticizes the Traditionalist quest for what he calls "hyper-coherence," a quest that he feels leads the Traditionalists to ignore the diversity that has always existed within Islam and Sufism.

My thanks to Neon Knight for drawing my attention to this book as one of the few places in which Nasr publicly discusses his work as Maryami shaykh.


Doba said...

Happy to see my book being of some interest / use!

- Rory

Unknown said...

Hi Rory

I am so proud of you and grateful that you have made this contribution to literature on Sufism! Thank you! I have not read the book yet but I have definite plans to do so, inshaAllah!

Munira (from WLU)