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A Lightning Trigger or a Stumbling Block: Mother Images and Roles in Classical Sufism

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Although the relationship of mothers with their children is barely detailed in Sufi sources, those who were mystic in their own right as well as those who were merely mothers of renowned Sufis, often acted beyond the harmonious “iconic” images of mothering and motherhood. Mothers were not always the effective lightning trigger. Sometimes, mothers of renowned Sufis denied their sons free mobility, taking advantage of the principle of respect for their wishes and the seminal ideal of aqq al-wālida mentioned by Sufi biographers. In Sufi spheres, maternal uncles seem to have given reality to the ideal of supporting motherhood more effectively than mere mothers actually did. This article was written as part of my post-doctoral research work for the years 2009/2010 sponsored by The Dangoor Program of Universal Monotheism at Bar Ilan University (Israel) under the supervision of Professor Binyamin Abrahamov. The word “classical” in the title refers to Fritz Meier’s classification of Sufism into three major stages: pre-classical Sufism (from the latter part of the second/eighth century to the beginning of the third/ninth century), classical Sufism that extends from the third/ninth century up to the fifth/eleventh century, and post-classical Sufism from about the end of the fifth/eleventh century onward. By the classical period, Sufism came to be “almost the entire battalion of the inner science” which had been “seen as a whole gained in homogeneity” [F. Meier, “The Mystic Path”, in The World of Islam: Faith, People, Culture, ed. Bernard Lewis (London, 1976), 118]. Furthermore, post-classical Sufism is basically distinguished by the higher values of visionary and occult experiences, the theory of a divine spark in man, and the Gnostic concept of the world’s emanation from God. In the course of the post-classical epoch, Sufism managed to gain wide popularity in contrast with its marginality in earlier epochs (See ibid., 120). This usage of the terminology differs slightly from other determinations invested by modern scholarship [See e.g., Tonaga Yasushi, “Sufism in the Past and Present”, Annals of Japan Association of Middle East Studies, 21 (2006): 12-13]. Sufism in its classical and early post-classical periods, according to Meier’s classification, is the main concern of the current paper.

Affiliations: 1: (University of Haifa)

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