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Middle East Forum

Sufism Seminar:


On February 11th, 2011, The Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies hosted a one day Sufism seminar for Midshipmen and Faculty. In total the seminar registered three hundred attendees with two hundred and fifty Midshipmen and fifty faculty and guests participating. The event featured the field’s foremost experts who provided insight into an often misunderstood aspect of Islam. The two panels featured:

Carl Ernst is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. Author of numerous books, including the awarding-winning Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (2003), Sufi Martyrs of Love: Chisti Sufism in South Asia and Beyond (2002), Teachings of Sufism (1999), The Unveiling of Secrets: Diary of a Sufi Master by Ruzbihan Baqli (1997);Guide to Sufism (1997); among many others.

Jamal Elias is Chair of the department of Religious Studies and the Class of 1965 Term Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of The Throne Carrier of God: the Life and Thought of Ala ad-Dawla as-Simani (1995) and Death Before Dying: The Sufi Poems of Sultan Bahu (1998). Prof. Elias is also one of the world’s foremost authorities on Pakistani truck art, and has done extensive research in Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.

Alan Godlas is an Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Georgia, director of the Virtual Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of the Islamic World and Co-Director of the Arabic major and Morocco study-abroad program at the University of Georgia. He has conducted years of field research in Uzbekistan, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, as well as traveled extensively in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, and is well-known for his websites on the study of Islam and Sufism. Prof. Godlas is author of numerous publications and is currently at work on a 3000-page translation of Ruzbihan al-Baqli’s encyclopedic esoteric Sufi Quran commentary.

Anna Gade is an Associate Professor of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her areas of research include religious and social change in modern Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, Cambodia and Malaysia. She is author of The Quran: An Introduction (2010) and Perfection Makes Practice: Learning, Emotion and the Recited Quran in Indonesia (2004). She is currently working on popular Muslim religious expression in Southeast Asia.

Devin Deweese is a Professor of Central Eurasian Studies, Religious Studies, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University in Bloomington. He is the author of Islamization and Native Religion: Baba Tukles and Conversion to Islam in Historical and Epic Tradition (2004) and a number of articles devoted to Sufism in Central Asia. He teaches courses on Islam in the Soviet Union and successor states, religion and power in Islamic Central Asia, and the Islamic hagiography of Central Asia.

Art Buehler is a Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. He is a scholar of trans-regional Sufi networks and the transmission of Islamic revivalist ideas, and is senior editor of the Journal of the History of Sufism. He began his career teaching Arabic in Yemen for the British Council. After five years in the Arab world he entered the History of Religions Program at Harvard University specializing in South Asian Islam under the tutelage of the late Annemarie Schimmel. His subsequent two books, including Sufi Heirs of the Prophet: The Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi Shaykh (1998) and Analytical Indexes for the Collected Letters of Ahmad Sirhindi [in Persian] (2001), are the result of four years of fieldwork in Indo-Pakistan.

The first panel focused on the definition of Sufism and common themes associated with its practice. In the afternoon, the second half of the panelists gave regional perspectives on Sufism.

Dr. Carl Ernst underscored to the Midshipmen the importance of understanding ‘Sufism’ as an ‘Ism’constructed during the Enlightenment to explain a common set of practices and beliefs within Islam. The concept that ‘Sufism represents many different things to many different people’ set the tone for the rest of the seminar. Both Dr. Jamal Elias and Dr. Alan Godlas furthered this premise by explaining the concepts of ‘Charisma’ – or ‘Baraka’- and Psychological aspects of Sufistic practices. The second panel focused on regional manifestations of Sufism with South East Asia, Central Asia, and the Naqshbandiyya respectively under discussion.

The Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies plans to continue with future seminars that focus upon major themes in the Islamic world. More forthcoming…

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