Book review: Mystiques et Vagabonds en Islam. Portraits de Trois Soufis Qalandar

Alexandre Papas, Mystiques et vagabonds en islam. Portraits de trois soufis qalandar, Paris, Editions du Cerf, 2010, 338 p.

The book by Alexandre Papas, a specialist of Sufism and a historian of Central Asia, is a poetic peregrination in the universe of the Qalandars of the Oriental Turkish world (from Xinjiang to the Bosphorus), from the middle of the 17th century until the middle of the 18th century. It arouses as much the emotion as the reflection on this mystic lifestyle, so far largely unknown.

Right from the start, the author questions the relevance of writing the history of the Qalandariyya’s path, considering the heterogeneity of its principles and practices (p. 13). He suggests following instead the journeys of three Qalandars as attested in their writings, inviting us to familiarise ourselves with the enjoyments and sorrows of their lifestyle, characterized by wandering, poverty and provocation. Based on their own writings (poetry, journey story and Sufi treatise), the author thus draws contextualized portraits of Mashrab the Drinker (1640-1711), Zalîlî the Vile (1676-1753) and Nidâ’î the Boisterous (1688-1760), three mystics who follow each other in time and space. The book closes with two appendices describing the Qalandar of Xinjiang at the turn of the century. These stand for yet another aspect of these mystics, accentuating, if it was really necessary, their irreducibility. However, the material presented in the first appendix enables to draw analogies between ancestor cult and mystic practice, an aspect which remains regrettably ignored in most studies on Sufism.

Despite his unusual approach, the author does not give up any idea of studying history. He tries to grasp the steppes of Asia through the mirror which these three Qalandars hold out to him and which reflects, on one hand, the effects of their practice of wandering, of provocation and of poverty on their society and, on the other hand, the life of the people. It is regrettable that the central hypothesis of the study, the idea of a resurgence of the Qalandar’s movement as an answer to a changing society in Central Asia and at an important turning point of its history is not supported by much evidence. Is this hypothesis only the result of the author’s analysis of the qalandari writings presented here or is it also based on other data, not set out in this book?

This book is an important contribution to the knowledge of a mystic path relatively unknown so far. It gives for the first time access to data concerning Central Asia in a western language. The second remarkable achievement of the book is its demonstration of how Islam is perceived by us, as clearly defined and limited categories “rarely find its reality in history” (p. 263). Indeed, during more than a century, the most opposite paths – Qalandariyya and Naqshbandiyya – were inseparable in the Central Asia Sufi practice. This book concerns all those interested in Sufism and the important historical data that the author provides will certainly help drawing a comparative approach between the Qalandariyya of Central Asia and of South Asia.

By Delphine Ortis

More about Alexandre Papas

With Thomas Welsford et Thierry Zarcone, Central Asian Pilgrims. Hajj Routes and Pious Visits between Central Asia and the Hijaz, Berlin, Klaus Schwarz-IFEAC (under press).

With Lisa Ross, Les saints, la vie, la mort. Essai sur l’islam des Ouïghours au Xinjiang (forthcoming).

Voyage au pays des Salars (Tibet oriental, début du XXIe siècle), Paris, Cartouche, 2011.

Soufisme et politique entre Chine, Tibet et Turkestan. Etude sur les Khwajas Naqshbandis du Turkestan oriental,Jean Maisonneuve, Paris, 2005.

 


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