Rethinking Sufism and the Supernatural in Islamic Reform

By Arthur Zarate
Submitted to Session P5013 (The Formation of the Secular Since Ottoman Times, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper examines the place of Sufism (tasawwuf) and the supernatural (khawariq al-‘ada) in the thought of Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-1996)—a classically trained Egyptian Muslim scholar and one-time leading intellectual of the Muslim Brotherhood. It charts the evolution and aftermath of his 1967 call for the revival of Sufism, and reveals how this call was intertwined with the mid-twentieth century translation into Arabic of texts written by American metaphysicians and spiritualists. Together with these American thinkers, Ghazali believed that the study of the human spirit could undercut the pervasive scientific materialism of the era. Although Sufism and the supernatural are often depicted within the secondary literature as disparaged by Muslim reformers, during the 1950s and 1960s the mystical and the miraculous were championed by many reformers as discursive arenas in which they could make claims about the ability of the human and the divine to transcend science’s natural laws. This paper contextualizes Ghazali’s interest in Sufism and the supernatural by showing how it was related to the process by which Muslim thinkers came to see tasawwuf (Sufism) as “Islamic mysticism,” or the Islamic expression of a universal religious phenomenon; and renewed discussions about the nature and potentials of “the human,” which were galvanized by the installation of global human rights regimes during the mid-twentieth century.

This paper hones in on three texts Ghazali published at the height of his intellectual career. In the first from 1961, Ghazali positions himself as a defender of Sufism, arguing that is the most important, yet most neglected of the classical Islamic sciences and attempts to resuscitate a central Sufi text—Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah al-Iskandari’s (d. 1309) book of aphorisms—by offering new interpretations for the words of this Sufi master. In the second from 1967, Ghazali details his extensive reading of the works of American metaphysicians and goes on to call for the revival of Sufism. The third from 1980 is a manual for the supplication (du‘a’) and invocation (dhikr) of God in which Ghazali discusses the inability of science to explain the miraculous effects of prayer. Ultimately, by demonstrating how the views of one of the twentieth century’s most prominent Sunni Muslim reformers transcended modernist epistemologies and ontologies, this paper aims to challenge one of the predominate narratives on modern Islamic Reform, which holds that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Muslim intellectuals “functionalized,” “objectified,” and “rationalized” Islam.