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Understanding Sufism: Contextualising the content

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Cook, BG (2014) Understanding Sufism: Contextualising the content. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

This thesis addresses the problem of how to interpret Islamic writers without imposing generic
frameworks of later and partly Western derivation. It questions the overuse of the category
“Sufism” which has sometimes been deployed to read anachronistic concerns into Islamic
writers. It does so by a detailed study of some of the key works of the 13th century writer Ibn
‘Ata’ Allah (d. 709/1309). In this way it fills a gap in the learned literature in two ways. Firstly, it
examines the legitimacy of prevalent conceptualisations of the category “Sufism.” Secondly, it
examines the work of one Sufi thinker, and asks in what ways, if any, Western categories may
tend to distort its Islamic characteristics. The methodology of the thesis is primarily exegetical,
although significant attention is also paid to issues of context.
The thesis is divided into two parts. Part One sets up the problem of Sufism as an organizational
category in the literature. In doing so, this part introduces the works of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, and
justifies the selection from his works for the case study in Part Two. Part Two provides a
detailed case study of the works of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah. It opens with some of the key issues involved
in understanding an Islamic thinker, and gives a brief overview of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s life. This is
followed by an examination of materials on topics such as metaphysics, ontology,
epistemology, eschatology, ethics, and soteriology. In each case it is suggested that these topics
may be misleading unless care is taken not to import Western conceptuality where it is not
justified by the texts. Emphasis is placed on the soteriological character of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s
writings, to which the Western terms “theology” and “philosophy” are only partly appropriate.
Part Two concludes with a short study of the interaction between Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah and Ibn
Taymiyya designed to illustrate how a less Western conceptual approach may modify aspects of
the existing reception of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s thought.
The central point of the thesis is that Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah needs to be reread, taking more account of
the Islamic contexts of his work. The thesis does not pretend to settle every issue of
interpretation and it only deals with some of Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah’s texts. In arguing for contextual
Islamic approaches to Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah as opposed to the more standard generic readings, such as
Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah as “Sufi” or “philosopher,” the thesis raises issues relevant not only to Islamic
studies, but also to studies in comparative religion generally. While limited by its focus on only
one writer, it hopefully may stimulate further research into how Islamic writers may best be studied in ways which respects their religious commitments, while acknowledging the need to
relate their work to concepts of Western origin.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Sufism, Ibn 'Ata' Allah, tawhid, Islamic Mysticism
Copyright Holders: Copyright the Author
Copyright Information:

Copyright 2014 the Author

Date Deposited: 06 Feb 2015 03:34
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2017 01:06
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