The Concept of Sainthood in Early Islamic Mysticism: Two Works by Al-Hakim Al-Tirmidhi; An Annotated Translation with Introduction translation by Bernd Radtke (RoutledgeCurzon Press) provides translations of the earliest Arabic autobiography and the earliest theoretical explanation of the psychic development and powers of an Islamic holy man (Saint, Friend of God). It is an important primary source for a complex of religious ideas which have continued to exercise great influence in the Muslim world up until the present.
Generally speaking, Tirmidhi's system of thought is representative of an old Islamic theosophy which had not yet consciously assimilated elements from the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic philosophic tradition. The latter tradition only gradually began to leave its mark on Islamic mysticism through the influence of Fárábi (d. 339/950), and especially through Ibn Sind (d. 428/1037). By the time of Suhrawardi Magtul (d. 587/1191) and in particular Ibn al-'Arabi (d. 638/1240) that influence had assumed dominant proportions.
It has been rightly pointed out that Islam, whether in the Qur'an or in the hadith, did not originally recognize the existence of a special category of holy men who enjoyed a close, privileged relationship with God) There is only one verse of the Qur'an, repeatedly quoted by the mystics, which by a certain stretch of the imagination might appear to express such an idea [10/62]: "Verily, the Friends of God have nothing to fear, nor are they sad!" How then is one to account for the development in this area from the complete silence of early times to the elaborate mystic practices and beliefs which were widespread amongst the popular masses at a later date?
There is a particular mode of explanation which is still very much in favor but which in our view is obsolete and in need of radical revision. According to this explanation, the rise of the cult of holy men and the origin of Islamic teachings concerning holy men and the Friends of God is an outgrowth of a so-called folk Islam. Although there are aspects of this kind of explanation that have partial validity, postulating folk practices and vague notions of decadence as playing a preponderant role in the rise and development of mysticism inevitably falls short of providing an adequate explanation of all the complex phenomena involved. In this connection it should also be noted that research on the origins and the development of doctrines concerning holy men and Friendship with God still remains at an early stage. Recent articles in the Encyclopaedia Iranica (s.v. Abdál, Awli'a) do not represent an enlargement of our knowledge in this area; in some respects they are even misleading. Richard Gramlich's highly useful book, Die Wunder der Freunde Gottes, adopts a phenomenological rather than a historical method in presenting its subject matter.
The idea in Islam of the saints, Friends of God was developed by the second half of the 3rd/9th century in the writings of Hakim Tirmidhi, even if he is not the originator of these ideas. Whether Tirmidhi had predecessors who produced written works we do not know. However, as the reader who progresses through the sequence of themes handled in the Sira will see, this system of thought can hardly be described as having a "folk character". It is clearly the product of an elite intellectual environment in which years of study would have been required in order to master a corpus of traditional sacred learning.
In later centuries Tirmidhi's influence was largely promoted through Ibn al-'Arabi. But it was not Tirmidhi's theosophical "system" as a whole that exercised an influence, his system being too complicated and subtle. It was Tirmidhi's teachings about the khatm al-waláya which left its mark on posterity. This intellectual brain-child of Tirmidhi's soon entered the repertoire of Sufism and to this day has continued to be an article of faith for millions of Muslims throughoutthe world. As the earliest surviving text which presents a theoretical treatment of the phenomenon of Friendship with God, the Sirat alawliyá' clearly merits close scholarly attention.
The first half of Tirmidhi's autobiography is conventional — at least to the extent that one may speak of conventionality with hindsight, this being the first extensive Islamic autobiography that has come down to us. To begin with, the description focuses on Tirmidhi's outward education. But his encounter with different theological-dogmatic currents of thought is omitted, contrary to what one finds in the writings of Muhásibi and Ghazali. Yet from Tirmidhi's other works, we know that he was well informed about alternate systems of theology. For instance, he wrote polemical treatises which are still extant against the Mu'attila and the Rawáfid. The second half of Tirmidhi's autobiography is quite unique, consisting of dream reports for the most part by his wife. The purpose of these recounted dreams is to demonstrate the inner development that Tirmidhi underwent as a mystic. It is well to bear in mind that Tirmidhi, along with the vast majority of his medieval Islamic contemporaries, generally attributed a far higher degree of epistemological authority to a dream communication than present-day people in "the scientific age". Dreams were taken to be an expression of truth and reality, in particular the "true dream" (ru'yá sádiqa) which was considered to be a part of prophecy. What Tirmidhi received through these dreams were messages concerning reality (bushra) which proclaimed to him his gradual ascent within his inner self and, correspondingly, within the macrocosm.
Besides the prominent place given to dreams, two other aspects of the text are rather exceptional, namely the role of Tirmidhi's wife as a medium and his occasional use of the Persian language. In distinction to his commentator Ibn al-Arabi, Tirmidhi's writings do not at-tribute any special mystical role to women. The extraordinary role that Tirmidhi's wife plays as a medium for dreams and as an "active" mystic in her own right finds no counterpart in Tirmidhi's theoretical writings. She was not a woman of scholarly education, since she clearly only spoke Persian and had no command of learned Arabic. None the less, she obviously shared the mystical tendencies of Tirmidhi since in one dream (Bad') she is informed that she has attained the same spiritual station as her husband. One is reminded of her somewhat older counterpart, the wife of Tirmidhi's alleged teacher Ahmad b. Khidraya. But that unusual woman had received a scholarly education.
Since the whole corpus of writings of early tasawwuf is in Arabic, the Persian passages in Tirmidhi's autobiography stand out as a striking exception, but unfortunately the state of preservation of the Persian parts of the text is particularly poor. In Tirmidhi's theoretical writings as well there are many examples of single Arabic words that are translated into Persian. All Tirmidhi's books, however, were written in Arabic, the Persian works that bear his name being falsely attributed to his authorship. A close reading of his autobiography indicates that Tirmidhi spoke Persian in his everyday life. His wife, as mentioned, spoke only Persian. Perhaps the clearest proof of this is that whenever Tirmidhi addresses her, he speaks Persian, as he does twice in section. Moreover, in her dreams the angels address her in Persian , God (the Lord, the Commander) speaks Persian, Muhammad uses Persian when speaking to her and it is specifically noted that she has dreams in Persian.
If the Bad' is the biography of the mystic Hakim Tirmidhi, the Sira presents the archetypal biography (sira) of the mystic in general. In the Sira the path proceeds from repentance to disciplining the carnal soul, and then on to pious introspection. The path inwards is at the same time the path that leads outward and upward through the macrocosm. This spiritual ascension is accompanied by divine gifts, the possibility of which is discussed at great length in the Sira. And that discussion treats, amongst other things, the possibility of receiving confirmation of one's spiritual rank (bushra). Likewise, a sizeable part of the discussion focuses on the dangers, pitfalls and obstacles along the path, as for instance the hypocritical practice of asceticism; the problematic nature of sidq; and the delusion that commonly accompanies momentary illuminations ('atáyá). Central to the discourse, though not of such great importance as the spurious later title Khatm al-waláya/Khatm al-awliyá' would imply, is the doctrine of the "Seal of Friendship with God", this personage being the highest spiritual successor to the Prophet Muhammad, the summit and culmination of the spiritual hierarchy. As the autobiography makes clear through the symbolic situations described in the dream reports, Tirmidhi considered himself to be that supreme spiritual figure.
Besides the primary concern to present a worked out systematic Islamic theory of sainthood, Tirmidhi on numerous occasions in the Sira pauses, as it were, to scold opponents who hold different views about waláya and the role of the wall. When he descibes their exploitation of the young, widows and the gullible and denounces these would-be spiritual guides as being hypocrites and actively seeking leadership, this would appear to give some indication of the activities and real-life involvement of contemporary mystics and spiritual teachers. Though such passages are a far cry from the full-blown sketches of rivalry between Sufi shaikhs found in later hagiographical works such as Ibn-i Munawwar's Asrár al-tawhid, none the less they are foreshadowing of themes and attitudes which eventually become the stock-in-trade of authors who portray the wall in action in the Muslim community.
A series of texts excerpted from other works of Tirmidhi has been added in the appendix. The commentary regularly refers to these texts when they shed further light on particular passages in the Sira. This additional material will also give the reader some sense of the breadth of topics Tirmidhi deals with in his other works and the degree of integration that unites his wide-ranging interests.
The Commentary to the translation repeatedly draws attention to what may rightly be described as the unusually conscious structure of the Sira. In this respect the Sira is one of the few works of medieval Arabic literature in which a discursive argument is maintained and developed over a considerable distance.
The content of his theosophical endeavors Tirmidhi gathered from whatever sources he found to hand. Having been educated as a theologian and a faqih, he had at his disposal the whole of the Arabic Islamic tradition: theology, hadith studies, fiqh, and 'arabiyya in the broadest sense. He also borrowed from the Shiites, even from extremist cur-rents amongst them, without however being a Shiite himself. On the contrary, on occasion he was outspokenly anti-Shiite (Sira ). One passage in his autobiography (Bad' ) refers to his having apparently occupied himself, at least for a time, with some aspects of the natural sciences. The latter interest, however, has left no visible traces in his writings. Furthermore, he made use of a general range of Gnostic and Neoplatonic ideas which he did not acquire through the study of specialized source books but which formed part of the diffuse common intellectual heritage of his time.
Tirmidhi's individual contribution to Islamic intellectual history was the fact that he fused these various given elements with his personal "mystical" experiences to produce an integrated overview, his own system. It is in this respect that he is an exceptional case for his day and age. In fact, he is the first and, up until the time of Ibn alArabi, the only mystic author whose writings present a broad synthesis of mystic experience, anthropology, cosmology and Islamic theology. Though there were numerous beginnings in that direction, a work like the Sirat al-awliyá' is unique for the 3rd/9th century. Tirmidhi's most important predecessor, Muhásibi, developed in his writings introspection, anthropology and Islamic theology. His analysis of the carnal soul's impulses may well be more sharply focused and subtle than is the case with Tirmidhi, but Muhásibi nowhere undertakes theosophical speculation. Characteristic themes that Tirmidhi deals with can be found in the thought of Sahl b. 'Abd Allah al-Tustari (d. 283/896), Halláj (d. 310/922), Abu Said al-Kharráz (probably d. 277/890), as well as al-Junayd b. Muhammad (d. 300/912). Yet, theonly extant writings from this early period which present a systematic synthesis are those of Tirmidhi, in particular his Sirat al-awliyá', the main work translated here.
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