Book Review: Mystical Dimensions of Islam by Annemarie Schimmel

by britishmisk

After reading Annemarie Schimmel’s excellent ‘And Muhammad is His Messenger‘, I was keen to read more of her work. This and the aforementioned title are her most prominent publications. The two books tie in well as they are both related to the subject of Sufism, whereas the other title deals with the particular aspect of the Prophet ﷺ in Sufism and Islam in general, this one gives a broader overall study of the history and development of the science of spirituality within the Islamic tradition.

The book feels in many ways as though it was the first real appreciative book by a western orientalist on the subject. And despite the fact that things have moved on and changed in the world since its first publication in 1975, as a study of historical, and in particular medieval Sufism, it is still a relevant and useful work. Schimmel deals with the development of Sufism over time, particularly around the era of 10th Century Iraq, concentrating around Baghdad, and then carries on chronologically looking at the different influential figures in Sufism, ending with Muhammad Iqbal, arguably her favourite mystic-philosopher to whom she makes numerous references to throughout her different works. The most interesting aspect to the Schimmel’s research is the way she ties in different theories and ideas across periods and thinkers and then tracks down the one person who made it famous. The best example being on the section of Ibn Arabi’s theosophy, how his ideas of Unity of Existence and the Muhammadan Reality were around before him, something that I myself was not aware of. The ideas and legacy of Hallaj are also another example.

While this is an excellent study of the topic, to me it still felt as though it can be considered an “orientalist” work, Schimmel only deals with aspects of Sufism that have been discussed and studied in the western world, and she makes numerous references to certain things that require western appreciation. I think in today’s more globalised age there wouldn’t be such a disconnect by having a binary oriental-occidental worldview. Today if there is a work that has yet to be translated into a European language, or examined by someone in a thesis, does not mean that there should be a barrier to having it accessed and appreciated. Another minor criticism is that Schimmel only discussed Sufism in the place of cultures she has familiarity with, namely Turkey, Persia and the Sub-Continent, she makes references to other parts of the world, but there is no section dedicated to them as there is for the ones mentioned. I think to make this a more exhaustive work (not that it is in any way lacking in its depth as it is) it should really have delved into areas of the Muslim world where Sufism has a big part to play in its theological discourse, such as North & West Africa, the Levant and South East Asia.

While this is certainly not a “beginner’s” introduction to the topic, it’s an excellent way for people who have a good grounding in Sufi ideas to learn more about its concepts and history.

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