“Close Encounters of the Sufi Kind"

By Thomas Emil Homerin
Submitted to Session P5022 (Competition and Social Practice in Early and Medieval Islamic Poetry, 2017 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
All Middle East;
13th-18th Centuries;
Sufi lore abounds with accounts of meetings between prophets, saints, and spiritual masters. Sometimes, a mysterious stranger appears to offer advice or guidance while, at other times, one mystic may chastise another for spiritual pride, or demonstrate her/his superiority. The wondrous nature of many such tales undermine their historicity, though perhaps not their pedagogical or hagiographical intent. Nevertheless, other stories of meetings and conversations between accomplished Sufi masters may be quite detailed and historically plausible. A case in point is the well-known account of the meeting in Mecca between the Baghdad based Sufi scholar and diplomat 'Umar al-Suhraward? (d. 632/1234) and the Egyptian Arab mystical poet 'Umar Ibn al-F?ri? (d. 632/1235), two of the most important Sufis of the 7th/13th century. According to several medieval sources, Ibn al-F?ri? miraculously appears to a despondent al-Suhraward? in Mecca during the Hajj with good news from the Unseen World. The two Sufi masters later meet again during the pilgrimage, when al-Suhraward? invests Ibn al-F?ri?’s sons and others with the khirqah, or Sufi robe. Despite the wondrous elements in this account, new evidence suggests that much of this story is, in fact, true. The proof texts are two poems that I have recently discovered in manuscript by Mu?ammad Ibn al-Khiyam? (602-85/1205-86), a student of Ibn al-F?ri?. In this presentation, I will recount the story of the meeting of the two Sufi masters during the Hajj, discuss its hagiographical elements, and then probe its historical elements and possibilities in light of two poems by Ibn al-Khiyam?’s: his elegy on the death of Ibn al-F?ri? and his panegyric to al-Suhraward?. In addition to their literary merit, both poems underscore the value of poetry, particularly the ikhw?niyy?t, or verse exchanged between friends and colleagues, as an important register for the social history of Islamic mysticism during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods.