Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan

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Benjamin Gatling
Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World
  • Madison, WI: 
    University of Wisconsin Press
    , August
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Benjamin Gatling’s Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan offers unique insights into contemporary Central Asian Islam, being, as far as I am aware, the first book-length, English-language study of the role of Sufism in post-Soviet Tajik culture. A folklorist, Gatling studies the appeal to literary and narrative devices and moods, especially nostalgia, in Sufis’s discussion of their religiosity and its relationship to the wider context. Although it would benefit from a deeper engagement with Sufi studies, this book offers many valuable insights about Sufism’s recent social and historical situation in Tajikistan.

For example, Gatling translates a variety of Tajik terms, including ahli tasavvuf and tariqati (literally “people of Sufism” and “of the path,” respectively), as “Sufi” (9) without further comment upon the difference between the literal translation of those terms and Sufi. While this decision may make sense as a matter of convenience, it appears to neglect longstanding debates over the use of “Sufi” as a standalone noun when referring to followers of Sufi paths, as these followers seldom use the term when describing themselves—indeed, when and how a specific individual can be called a Sufi (rather than a practitioner of Sufism or a follower of a pir or shaykh) has been a subject of some debate in the secondary scholarship. This debate may, in turn, reflect a wider questioning of the origins of the term “Sufism” in Western scholarship (Alexander Knysh, Sufism: A New History of Islamic MysticismPrinceton University Press, 2017, and, in particular, its chapter “What’s in a Name?” can serve as a particularly valuable recent example). Whether any of Gatling’s respondents ever used Sufi, rather than ahli tasavvuf or tariqati, in their self-description, could have contributed additional insights into the relationship between the academic definition of “Sufi” and “Sufism” and practitioners’s conceptions of their relationship to those phenomena Western scholars have termed Sufism.

Similarly, a more explicit engagement recognition of the variations in Gatling’s use of the term zikr (Arabic dhikr, “remembrance” or “mention”) and that of his respondents could have enriched studies of Sufi practices. The term is often assumed to refer to Sufism’s characteristic meditative practice, the repetition of certain Names of God or the recitation of litanies containing those Names, and Gatling does discuss this practice (158). However, he also discusses Sufi groups’s traditional Thursday-night gatherings for zikr, discussing its dimensions as a collective event that often features the recitation of poetry (142-47).

Gatling’s interviews with a subject who composes poetry for such events could have offered the occasion for a different line of questioning that might have proven illuminating, given that the relationship between authority and his subjects’s relationship to the past is quite central to Gatling’s project. In Sufi circles, the phrases used for zikr as an individual contemplative practice are generally supposed to be prescribed to the practitioner by their shaykh, who is supposed to derive both the zikr he prescribes and the authority to provide it from his own instructor, whose authority extends back to the Prophet Muhammad in an unbroken initiatory chain. So, in a sense, this manner of zikr cannot be held—by these norms of practice—to have been composed in the present or recent past. However, the gatherings Gatling observed made frequent use of recently-composed poetry. If the recency of the poetry used during communal zikr events contrasts with the assumed antiquity of individual zikr formulae, how might this contrast complicate a practitioners’s relationship to the authoritative Sufi pasts Gatling argues that they draw on so regularly?

Gatling also notes that he observed a Naqshbandi pir cite Ibn ‘Arabi as an authority figure and object of admiration (161). This could have occasioned a closer study of Ibn ‘Arabi’s reputation among Central Asian Naqshbandis, and, called for a more explicit engagement with Hamid Algar’s study of earlier Naqshbandis’s generally favorable reception of Ibn ‘Arabi and its contrast with that of later prominent Naqshbandis such as Ahmad Sirhindi, who Gatling’s subjects also recognized as a major authority in their tradition (Algar, “Reflections of Ibn 'Arabi in Early Naqshbandî Tradition,” Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society X, 1991).

The relationship between these two apparent spiritual progenitors, and whether Gatling’s respondents perceived any tension between them, could also have proven a fruitful object of inquiry. For example, in light of his claim that Tajik Sufis frequently appealed to nostalgia when discussing Sufism’s place in 21st century Tajikistan, Gatling could have asked whether his subjects perceived any of Ibn ‘Arabi and Sirhindi’s positions to have differed, and if not, whether they assumed that exemplary figures from the past would agree with one another as a matter of necessity, given their exemplary status.

Despite the fact that Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan could have benefitted from a deeper engagement with Sufi studies, it remains a welcome contribution to the fields of folklore studies, Central Asian studies, and, indeed, Islamic studies more generally; the extant studies of Islam in Tajikistan have dwelt almost exclusively with questions of the relationship between the Islamic revival there to questions of “fundamentalism” and security policy. As such, Gatling’s study of Sufism’s position in this context offers a richer and more nuanced picture of Islam’s recent history in Tajikistan.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Landau Ames is Lecturer in Persian Literature the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department at Harvard Univeristy and previously taught Religious Studiest at St. Francis College.

Date of Review: 
February 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin Gatling is Assistant Professor of Folklore at George Mason University.


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