Tag Archives: Sufism

Workshop: Shi‘i Sufism in Modern Times, Edinburgh University, 20 Octobre 2012

A one-day workshop on Shi`i Sufism has been held at the IMES (Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies), University of Edinburgh, on the 2oth of October 2012. It was co-organised by the CNRS in France (Monde Iranien, Monde Indien; IISMM) and the University of Edinburgh (IMES) in UK. For more information, you can also contact Denis Hermann. Continue reading Workshop: Shi‘i Sufism in Modern Times, Edinburgh University, 20 Octobre 2012

Workshop: Muslim Saints, Dreams, and Veneration of Shrines (EASA 2012)

We made an announcement in a previous post about the 12th EASA biennal international conference held in Nanterre University in France (10-13 July 2012). In the workshop entitled “Muslim Saints, Dreams, and Veneration of Shrines”, organized by Dr.I.Edagr (Dept. Anthropology, University of Durham, UK) and Dr.P. Khosronejad (Dept. Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews, Scotland), there will be several interesting papers: Continue reading Workshop: Muslim Saints, Dreams, and Veneration of Shrines (EASA 2012)

Book launch in Karachi, AFK, 28 October 2011

The Express Tribune, Karachi, 30 October 2011

The book by Michel Boivin, Artefacts of Devotion. A Sufi Repertoire of the Qalandariyya in Sehwan Sharif, Sindh, Pakistan, was launched on 28th of October 2011 at the Alliance Française de Karachi (AFK). Read the book description from the official website of OUP in Karachi: Continue reading Book launch in Karachi, AFK, 28 October 2011

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.


Book: Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India

Kelly Pemberton, Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

Pemberton’s book draws on a number of issues like the gender issue and also subaltern studies since she locates women as a subaltern group. She seeks to understand how it is possible for them to “develop a sovereign consciousness that both imbibes and rejects elements of a dominant framework of reference”. In other words, her book questions “how women are able to exercise authority in the shrine setting despite a lack of official sanction for that authority” (p. xvii). It thus implies a different approach from that of Shemeem Abbas which focussed on “female voice” in Sufi Rituals (2002, Austin, University of Texas Press). Pemberton is able to highlight the agency permitting women to become pirs. It is interesting to see how gender studies devoted to South Asia Sufism are developing. The next step would be to devote a study to a shrine where a Sufi woman is buried, and thus venerated.

Michel Boivin

Fellowships: Popular Images and Media in Muslim Religious Spheres

Short-term Fellowships of

“The Cluster of Excellence – Asia and Europe in a Global Context”,

Transcultural Image Database Project “Satellite of Networks”

The Circulation of Popular Images and Media in Muslim Religious Spheres


“In the summer of 2010, Tasveerghar invited proposals for short term fellowships from scholars, researchers and practitioners of popular arts and culture for multi-disciplinary and multi-media projects of research and documentation on the topic of popular visual cultures and practices in and around Muslim shrines and public spaces, with an emphasis on the transcultural flows as emerging in the globalised contemporary popular arts and media.

Muslim public spheres in India/South Asia exhibit a wide array of image practices such as calendar and poster art, devotional framed pictures, portrait photography with artificial backdrops, illustrated covers of religious chapbooks and magazines, besides innovative wall murals and printed notices, all of them incorporating popular icons of Mecca, Medina, local Sufi shrines, saints, Shia symbols, and Arabic calligraphy. Besides these, one also finds religious narratives in popular recorded media such as audiocassettes, video CDs/DVDs, and now the cell-phone software. Much of this popular visuality and ephemera circulate around institutions such as Sufi shrines or mosques in south Asia, although these may not be limited to only one shrine area or a city. One may also find inter regional connections between shrines of different towns and villages through the passage of these media to wider areas.

Although much of these mass duplicated images and media may have their origins in the traditional religious performative practices of the pre-modern era, the impact of new technology and media, especially derived from outside their local spaces, has altered the way religious devotion is practiced today. One could highlight this with an example about the mobility and transformation of Muslim shrines, saint portraits and relics through images and media on the Indian subcontinent (although by no means do we wish to limit the regional focus to India but explore transnational and transcultural flows!). Usually a Sufi shrine holds the original grave or relic of a specific saint that cannot be replicated anywhere else (unlike a Hindu deity whose idol or replica shrine can be recreated in other locations too). Thus the visit to a particular Sufi shrine has its unique value for a pilgrim for its originality. But the mass duplicated images of the same can easily be made and have been in circulation for a long time, making a shrine or relic mobile beyond its original location. There are evidences of hand drawn illustrations of Sufi shrines and saint portraits being made available before the onset of print in India. The printing industry, especially of colour posters and other types of images made the mass produced images of Sufi shrines even more accessible and popular. The photography has added newer dimension to this visual culture where an odd photo of a saint is used again and again to make drawings and even idols, such as in the case Sai Baba of Shirdi.

Through this multi-disciplinary project we wish to go a few steps further from the nexus of photography, painting, and printed posters, to study the newer practices of the use of “original” images for the creation of new mediated material such as collage posters, videos, animation and even Internet-based presentations that seek newer generation of devotees and their popular piety. A typical example of this would be the production of popular devotional videos about Sufi shrines that are basically music videos with a performer/Qawwal singing a new song seeking the saint’s blessing, dramatically videographed in a studio or staged settings, interspersed with the vérité shots of the actual shrine – the two of which can sometimes be very different in style and quality. There can be several such examples from the contemporary popular culture of Muslims in India. Thus, we invite you to be a part of a larger project by contributing with your specific research about a shrine, institution or public space that is witnessing the production of popular images and media and getting altered through transcultural impact.”

More infos here: http://www.tasveerghar.net

Interview with Ahmet Karamustafa, 2010

Ahmet Karamustafa is Professor of History and Religious Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He has written on various aspects of the social and intellectual history of pre-modern Islam and worked especially on Qalandars and other “deviant” Sufi movements.

During his visit to Paris in May 2010, Delphine Ortis, a MIFS member, interviewed him on his intellectual trajectory as well as his vision of the Qalandariyya, and the differentiation he makes between Sufism and the cult of saints.

Could you first tell us about your educational and professional training, and how you came to work in the field of “deviant” dervish groups and Sufism? What kind of research methodology did you develop?

I did my master’s thesis at the institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal on a subject that led me eventually to the dervishes. In the study of Turkish history, the views of a particular historian, Mehmet Fuad Köprülü, had become very prevalent. He was among the first to ask the question of continuity between pre-Islamic or not yet Islamised Turks. He had peculiar views about this continuity. He saw the deviant or antinomian dervishes as survivals of shamans within an Islamic garb. In order to test this view, I worked on the hagiography of a famous 13th century Sufi master, Hacı Bektaş. After my MA thesis, I decided to work on an early 16th century text in Ottoman Turkish because I wanted to gather more information about the dervishes. My analysis led me to write a more comprehensive though short history of these dervishes from the late 12th century through the 15th century. The thesis put forward in my PhD was drastically opposed to that of Köprülü. We don’t really understand these dervishes if we cast them simply as “survivals” or as superficially Islamized types; rather we should take their religiosity and their Islam seriously and attempt to come up with an explanation. I tried to find in any kind of historical sources all available references to what I called ‘dervish piety’. I sifted texts and synthesised the information I discovered in the light of what I knew about the historical context. I don’t think any single explanation will hold across the board.

What do you consider to be the most striking attribute of the Qalandari path vis-à-vis other currents of piety and other deviant dervish groups?

To my mind the most important trait of the Qalandars was their persistent cultural and social ‘iconoclasticism’ and ‘unconventionalism’. They were persistent in their criticism of respectable mystics and Sufis. The temperament that prevailed was that of the happy, merry and carefree. The Qalandars had liberated themselves from social custom, which pressed down on people. They were libertine in their ways and happy and content about that. They would do anything to set themselves apart from respectable people.

Why do you use the term ‘anarchistic’ that usually belongs to the domain of politics, to characterise a movement of piety?

I use the term anarchism primarily because I wanted my readers to feel the very clear sense of criticism and of standing against established authority that I saw in dervish piety. And this critical stance is what defines them more than any other characteristic. To be ‘anarchistic’ is clearly something that really matters to Qalandars. They are actually persistently needling the authorities. That’s their function. Their agenda is that of reminding people that they have to see through the ways in which power and authority works in society.

Could you determine some reasons why the Qalandari movement was essentially developed in the Persian cultural sphere?

I really don’t know. But let me mention another factor. I think the Qalandari movement, like ‘dervish piety’ in general, is noticeably more prominent in places and times where the prevalent Islamic religious culture was that of the Hanafi-school. This legal school provides a more open space, has a more permissive attitude towards overtly antisocial or unconventional behaviour. Now, from the 13th century onwards the Persian cultural sphere is dominated by the Hanafis. So, this is one possible explanation. But there are others which have to do with the local colouring and local flavour of ‘Sufisms’ in the different regions.

Are you able to observe significant differences between the Qalandars of the Turkish world and those of South Asia?

Indeed, I believe there are significant differences, even probably back in the 13th century. But I don’t have enough evidence concerning the early centuries of Qalandari history to give you a satisfying answer. I believe things changed drastically after the 15th century with the formation of the large scale empires. And within that context, the subsequent history of the Qalandars is one in which they quite clearly continue to react to the prevalent Sufis. But they would not deal with the same Sufis; I mean the South-Asian Qalandars were dealing with Chishtis in particular, some Suhrawardis and some Naqshbandis later on. So I would say that, yes, definitely there are differences between South Asian and Anatolian Qalandars, but they have to do with the fact that they are essentially evolving in rather different cultural domains, and with the different political circumstances of the early modern era.

In your research on dervish masters, could you discern a particular link between ‘Ali or the family of the Prophet and the Qalandar, as I think is the case for La’l Shahbâz Qalandar?

Such a link is the case for all the dervishes that I am familiar with. That is not particular to La’l Shahbâz Qalandar, I would say. It is quite clear that the shaping of ‘dervish piety’ in general is clearly enveloped in a very special attachment to the family of the Prophet. Now, later on in Islamic history we have a tendency to associate this particular link only with the Shi’is. What we tend to forget is that especially until the 15th century, there is a lot of investment on the part of many Muslims into precisely this kind of attachment to what they consider to be the ‘fountain head’, the spring, the source of sanctity and sacredness in Islam. But certainly with the dervishes it is a clear move in their own minds and in the minds of their audiences to demonstrate their credentials as the true practitioners of Islam; to demonstrate that their close connection to the family of the Prophet is something that they are very clear about. This is one of the puzzles of the study of dervish piety. I still wouldn’t see this as necessarily peculiar to the Qalandaris.

Two ideas you develop echo in particular with my ethnological work. Could you explain the idea of islamization, with regard to the interaction between Islam and local society?

Generally my sense is that, as historians, we really should be extremely close observers of the local scene in order to really understand the ways in which people see themselves as Muslims or are seen by others as Muslims. But as historians, we have serious limitations in doing that. We could still be much more focused on local forms of life and on local forms of piety. The problem is that there are very few historical studies along this line. A new publication of collected essays in seven volumes was just published, called ‘A People’s History of Christianity’ (Horsley, Richard A., ed., 2005 Christian Origins. A People’s History of Christianity, Minneapolis: Fortress Press). This is a history of Christianity written not from the perspective of the church or from that of the authorities, nor of the theologians or the elites, but as we can see that history through the eyes of the people. We don’t have anything like that for Islam. With my research I contributed some things to such a project, but popular piety of the local type is really what needs our attention. What I mean by that is a sort of ethnographical history, we definitely need that focus.

Secondly, you insist on the distinction between Sufism and the cult of the saints at the beginning of Islam. Could you explain this idea, with regard to the origins of the cult of the saints?

On the one hand, we have a special mode of piety, a special form of religiosity, that developed among the urban middle class, an internalized form of piety that insisted on the need to explore within ourselves. But this can’t be a popular form of religiosity.

On the other hand, we begin to see what we call the cult of saints, just like in Christianity. These are popular cults that have nothing to do with Sufism. A local warrior or learned scholar dies, is buried, and then becomes the symbol of a particular village or town. And they all become automatically saints or a member of the family of the Prophet, whatever the reasons that led to sanctity. And sanctity is not confined to Sufism. So the idea is basically that these are developing as two separate phenomena: one is Sufism, the other is the cult of saints. But both flow into one another in a spectacular way, especially from the 5th Islamic century onwards. Eventually, many of the popular saints attempted to be or simply were Sufis. Analytically these are separate developments but they become completely interlinked with one another. And Sufism benefits greatly from this linkage.


Sufism: The Formative Period. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200-1550. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994. Paperback reprint: Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

Vahidi’s Menakib-i Hvoca-i Cihan ve Netice-I Can: Critical Edition and Historical Analysis. Sources of Oriental Languages and Literatures, 17; Turkish Sources, 15. Cambridge, Mass.: The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University, 1993.

Assistant Editor, The History of Cartography, Volume 2, Book 1, Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies. General editors J. B. Harley and David Woodward. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992 (awarded the R. R. Hawkins Award for Best Scholarly Book [1992] by the Association of American Publishers).

“Sufism,” in Voices of Islam, ed. Vincent J. Cornell. Praeger, 2007.

“Sufism,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 5. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans and Leiden: Brill, forthcoming 2007.

“Origins of Anatolian Sufism.” In Sufism and Sufis in Ottoman Society: Sources, Doctrine, Rituals, Turuq, Architecture, Literature and Fine Arts, Modernism, 67-95. Edited by Ahmet Yasar Ocak. Ankara: Turkish Historical Society, 2005.

“Early Sufism in Eastern Anatolia.” In Persian Sufism: From its Origins to Rumi, 175-98. Ed-ited by Leonard Lewisohn. London: Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, 1994.

“Antinomian Dervish as Model Saint.” In Modes de transmission de la culture religieuse en Is-lam, 241-60. Edited by Hassan Elboudrari. Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1993.