Isnad-based Analysis of the Emergence of Sufism: A Network Approach

By Jeremy Farrell
Submitted to Session P5014 (Medieval Islamic Thought at the Intersection of Intellectual and Social History, 2017 Annual Meeting
Islamic World;
7th-13th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The criteria by which to judge the “origin” of groups in pre-modern Islamic society constitutes a largely unresolved problem. Landmark studies of pre-modern groups' dynamics (Bulliet: 1972; Mottahedeh: 1980; Zaman: 1997), take for granted the stable influence of categories of actors with whom nascent groups interacted (e.g. ?ulam??, neighborhood associations, caliphs). This approach necessarily de-emphasizes the importance of simultaneous processes of differentiation from peers and generation of internal coherence that Stark (1997) identifies as crucial to the success of new groups. Breakthroughs in the study of networks, specifically on the property of “emergence”–wherein a characteristic lacking in individuals becomes measurable in their coordinated action–make identifying with greater accuracy a group’s “originary” moment possible. This paper argues that analysis of the isn?ds of 9th- and 10th-century works by Sufis provides a more accurate picture of the emergence of Sufism in Baghdad at the end of the 3rd/9th than previous studies.

For the past half century, historians of early Sufism have largely relied on the reports in biographical works (al-Sulam?: 1953/1960; al-I?fah?n? 1932-6) to study the origin of Sufism, an event which occurred at a 100 year- and 1,000 mile-remove from these works’ authors (Melchert 1996, 2005, 2015; Karamustafa 2007). The publication over the past quarter century of a corpus of 9th- and 10th-isn?d-based works by Sufis, comprised of ?ad?th and Sufi-related akhb?r (al-Sayyid: 1988, 1989; Radtke: 2009), provides solidly documented evidence of associations that more than 1,200 Sufis and their affiliates maintained during the late-3rd/9th and early-4th/10th centuries. In the field of Islamic studies, the evidence of isn?ds has conventionally been relegated to issues of dating Prophet traditions (Motzki: 2005; Sadeghi: 2008). Haider (2011; 2013) has recently demonstrated the value of supplementing inter-group comparisons with information that is encoded in isn?ds for studying internal group dynamics.

Following Haider, the encoded data the early Sufi corpus' isn?ds (records of transmissions, birth/death dates, etc.) is parsed in a relational database, and visualized using R Studio. When matched against an existing database of the simultaneous elaboration of élite ?ad?th-transmission network, this evidence will show: 1) precisely when a group of identifiably Sufi actors emerged through generating substantial internal coherence, and 2) precisely when the emergent group demonstrably broke the confines of the wider ?ad?th-tranmission network.