The Tijaniyyah branch of Sufism in Islam had a larger influence on Islamic thought than many historians believe, Northwestern University Professor Zachary Wright said at an event Friday afternoon in the Edward B. Bunn S.J. Intercultural Center.
Wright teaches at Northwestern University in Qatar and focuses his studies on the regional history of the Middle East and North Africa, and he is currently researching the intellectual history of 18th century North Africa.
Sufism is an Islamic order that emphasizes asceticism, strict observance of Islamic Law and religious mysticism. The Tijaniyyah Sufi order emerged in late 18th century North Africa as a sect of Sufism that maintains strict adherence to Islamic law, rejection of asceticism and quietism and a predominantly African character. Wright criticized Sufi historians for misrepresenting the Tijaniyyah Sufi order as a minor and peripheral, even though Wright agrees that Tijaniyyah Sufism is distinctly African.
“You find many overviews of Sufism that really marginalize the Tijaniyyah Sufi order as being somehow not really important,” Wright said. “It’s spreading while having an unapologetic Black African leadership.”
Examining Tijaniyyah Sufi scholarship from the 18th century is necessary for understanding contemporary works, Wright said.
“To better understand arguably the world’s most popular Sufi order, which happens to be based in so-called Black Africa, one has to understand what’s going on in the 18th century a little better, right, and to recognize that the Tijaniyyah, its own internal narrative is of being a culmination of 18th century scholarship, which itself was a culmination of previous centuries of scholarship,” Wright said.
Historians often mischaracterize 18th century Sufi Islamic scholars as either beholden to past scholarship from influential scholars of the Middle Ages like Ibn Al-Arabi and Al-Ghazali or ignorant of it, Wright said. In reality, historians build upon older ideas and incorporate historical scholarship into their interpretations of Islamic principles, according to Wright.
“Yes, they’re cognizant and aware of previous scholarship in the field, for Sufism that certainly means Ibn al-Arabi and al-Ghazali, but they’re not seeing themselves as wholly restricted by those articulations,” Wright said.
The work of the Tijaniyyah’s founder, Ahmad al-Tijani, represents how 18th century Sufi thought incorporated the historical religious ideas of traditional Sufism, Wright said.
“What you see in the 18th century Sufism here as represented by Sheikh Ahmad al-Tijani is not a backing away at all from these controversial very profound aspects of Ibn al-Arabi but rather a further exploration of their meaning in actual social contexts” Wright said.
Wright said Tijaniyyah Sufism incorporates many of the central ideas of Sufism.
“Basically, all of the ideas that come to the forefront with the foundation of the Tijaniyyah are already there in previous Sufi scholarship, it’s their combination with the Tijaniyyah that is perhaps somewhat distinctive” Wright said. “There’s a sort of fascination that associating one’s self with a paradigmatic friend of God is a source of salvation more broadly, so this is not new with the Tijaniyyah.”
John Voll, Georgetown professor emeritus of Islamic history, said at the event that Wright’s work reframed the history of 18th century Sufi scholarship to more accurately reflect the intellectual progress of the era.
“18th century studies in general are studies that are always shaped by some general purposeful framework, and its useful to have the stereotype of the 18th century in the Islamic world as being intellectual stagnation and static and so on because it makes it easier then to talk about the virtues of the West,” Voll said.