Rubin, Perry Final Paper: Navigating the intersection of the corporeal and spiritual in Sufism

 

I believe it is fair to say all religions are, in some way, preoccupied with the intersection of corporeality

and spirituality. Faiths, internationally, often times disavow the body and its various functions as confining

and inherently at odds with the quest for enlightenment, which is seen as non-temporal. Sufism proposes a

model of thinking about humankind’s physical existence that reconciles the paradoxical condition of

embodiment by embracing its ambiguity and celebrating the body as an instrument for spiritual pursuit. Our

bodies allow for participation in the interior-exterior dichotomy that is intrinsic to the nature of the universe.

Through examining poetry, hadiths and historical literature pertaining to corporeality I aim to show how

Sufism re-enforces a positive stance in approaching the anomaly of physical existence.

 

 

The mystical view on human physicality heavily draws on metaphoric similarities, both earthly and

celestial, to create geographic and topographic parallels between manifestations in the external world and

human anatomy. Inversely relics, part of a saints decomposed body, frequently serve as pivotal axis for

religious practice and daily life. Situating significant sites around bones show how sacred the body can be,

even posthumously, in Sufism. Another strong analogy between the planet and mankind can be made in

analyzing the name of the primordial human being Adam or Adim, which means dust or earth in Hebrew but

skin or surface in Arabic. The linguistic logic here is that dust is the surface of the earth, the skin from which

adam was made. The likened exteriority of the planet’s surface to Adam’s reveals not only the esteem to

which the human being is held but also reasserts the omnipresent symmetry of surface/interiority present in

both. The focus on skin and its purposes show a vested interest in the soma. Skin, the largest organ, is a

boundary between the self and others and it is also an organ of sensation. The skin, like the rest of our body,

will act against our intentions and reveal what has been hidden on judgment day. In this way our inner

worlds can be exposed in the same manner as the terrestrial expanses, unveiled.

 

 

To quote scholar Amina Wadud-Muhsin on the positionality of women in the Qur’an, “in order to

maintain relevance the Qur’an must be continually reinterpreted; the importance of the Qur’anic text is its

transcendence of time and its expression of eternal values. It is not the text which restricts women, but the

interpretations of the text which have come to be held in greater importance than the text.” I find this to be

an incredibly succinct way of responding to the general misconceptions and misrepresentations dominating

conversations about gender dynamics in Islam. Although there is distinctions made between the treatment of

men and women in the Qur’an ultimately there is no essential difference in their values or potentials. So

instead of focusing on divisions and bifurcation of gender I believe the Sufi discussion is about humanity on a

whole, with little concern for biological gender. The rigorousness with which one practices their religion

exists completely independently of ascribed gender identity. The ethio-religious obligations and

responsibilities remain the same. Another linguistic indication of womens highly esteemed position can be

found in the similarities of the words Rahman, meaning God and Rahim meaning womb. Phonetically

relating the words so closely serves as a constant reminder that the Womb acts as an agent for God and is the

vitalizing source of all human life. I think this shows a reverence for the creative power of women that is

empowering.

 

 

A sufi anecdote goes as follows: Hafiz Sultan had a companion named Ali Awbahi who had at

one time traveled with a man named Sa’id Habashi. Sa’id Habashi had prayed to stay alive long enough to

meet Jesus and traveled with him. So anyway, through this chain of the Hafiz Sultan shook Jesus’s hand. As

Jesus had shook Sa’id’s and Sa’id had shook Ali shook Hafiz’s hand, imbuing some of the sacredness of the

profit. The simplicity of the parable emphasizes the simplicity of the action- a handshake, to transmit divine

essence just because physical contact in that way can be so important. It highlights the idea of

interconnectedness, cyclicality and the significance of all exchanges between human beings in Sufism.

Studying Sufism through the lens of corporeal themes expressed in literature and paintings

from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries can be uniquely fruitful. Physicality evokes a more intuitive,

visceral understanding that intimately connects with us in a way that’s immediate, reconciling differences in

time through underscoring base commonality. There is an incorrect perception that Islam aims to disengage

with the human body and is puritanically ascetic. This is a false preconception that ignores the myriad of

ways Sufism and the Islamic tradition are have integrated a bodily understanding into their worldview. The

Qur’an criticizes the human ego and its potential as an agent for insincerity or secrecy. Our skins, relating us

back to Adam, will speak out against us revealing our truths and humanity. On a literal level this is obviously

powerful imagery but it poetically speaks to the inseparable condition of mind and body, encouraging us to

reconcile and respect this notion.

 

 

Sufi doctrine shows us a way to love and cherish our bodies as sacred, part of Gods creation, as a

means through which we can move about the world but also can gain a better understanding of it.

Annihilating the ego is not at odds with understanding and respecting the origins of our bodies and perhaps

our bodies can offer clues to understanding the metaphysical questions of existence.

 

 

Bibliographic Sources:

Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam by Shahzah Bashir

Sufi and Saints Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeaity and Sacred Power in Islam by Scott Kugle

Divine Love by William Chittick

Sufi Women by Dr.Javad Nurbakhsh

Qur’an and Woman by Amina Wadud- Muhsi