Subjectivity in 'Attar, Persian Sufism, and European Mysticism

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Claudia Yaghoobi
Comparative Cultural Studies
  • West Lafayette, IN: 
    Purdue University Press
    , May
     2017.
     280 pages.
     $45.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781557537836.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With Subjectivity in ʿAṭṭār, Persian Sufism, and European Mysticism, Claudia Yaghoobi seeks to bring the celebrated 13th-century Persian author Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār into a dialogue with Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Georges Bataille, and others on a matter of contemporary urgency. How do we pursue genuine inclusion and love through ways of thinking and behaving that “transgress” the limited frameworks we use to organize our world and separate “us” and “them”?

In drawing together ʿAṭṭār and Foucault—Sufi literature and critical theory—Yaghoobi not only provides innovative and informed readings of ʿAṭṭār’s classics, but also she seeks to push scholars of Islam toward a more dialogic and multidirectional invocation of “Western” theory. ʿAṭṭār’s writing is not “theorized” in Yaghoobi’s book; rather, ʿAṭṭār, Foucault, and examples from medieval European literature converse “contrapuntally” to examine the potential of transgression in the construction and deconstruction of subjectivity (2-5). Importantly, Yaghoobi argues that this contrapuntal dialogue reveals that acts of transgression do not involve the absence of what she calls “the limit” but instead reveals the interdependence—even intimacy—of the limit and its transgression. This book is a generative one that invites connections and questions through its kaleidoscopic groupings of narratives from ʿAṭṭār’s works, comparative European romances, and a host of critical theorists. Amidst the splendid questions posed, there are moments when this provocative analysis, which leaps across centuries, literary traditions, and religion-philosophical orientations would benefit from a more thorough attempt to explain the grounds of its comparisons.

After brief introductory chapters, the heart of the book rests in four chapters that pair a narrative from ʿAṭṭār’s works with a medieval European counterpart. While all chapters orbit the idea of subjectivity and transgression, they have distinct thematic emphases. Yaghoobi connects ʿAṭṭār’s biography of the revered female ascetic Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya with The Book of Margery Kempe in order to explore (de)constructions of gender. ʿAṭṭār’s stories of King Maḥmūd of Ghaznī and his beloved slave Ayāz join various medieval European accounts of the young beloved Ganymede in an exploration of homoeroticism as a transgressive practice of self-fashioning. The author compares ʿAṭṭār’s rendition of Majnūn and Laila to Lancelot and Guinevere in order to demonstrate the subversive, ethical potential of sensuous love. Finally, the story of Shaykh Ṣanʿān’s love for a Christian girl finds a comparison in the story of Heloise and Abelard to further expand on the connections between liberated subjectivity and transgressive passion.

Yaghoobi’s chapter on Shaykh Ṣanʿān and the Christian girl is particularly compelling. The author adeptly walks the reader through this tale of a revered Sufi leader who falls desperately in love with a Christian girl and, in his desire, flagrantly violates his previous commitment to Islam by converting to Christianity, drinking wine, herding swine, and burning the Qur’an before an eventual return to Islam. Yaghoobi invokes Levinas’ concept of l'autre (“the other”) as a way of explaining the shaykh’s revelatory and transformative encounter with a figure who initially represents an inversion of all that define the shaykh’s pious Muslim subjectivity. As becomes so clear from Yaghoobi’s analysis, Sufi writers such as ʿAṭṭār use these stories to strike up a symbiotic relationship between “the limit” and its transgression. “Limits and laws are to be crossed; otherwise, there would be nothing to call the law” (152). Moreover, in Yaghoobi’s presentation, Sufis do not reject the world but rather use what is material and fleshly as an entry into spiritual ascent. These stories probe and shatter our assumptions of a dichotomy between the immanent and the transcendent by proffering “unconventional” relationships as examples of self-transformation.

Yaghoobi’s daring anachronisms—such as the exploration of “subjectivity” in medieval literatures—are frequently provocative and productive, but the book’s arguments would be stronger still if some questions were treated more systematically and cautiously. For instance, the book argues that the subversive love of Shaykh Ṣanʿān is not only an allegorical exploration of the Sufi science of the soul but also evidence that ʿAṭṭār himself held to a social ethic of fostering inclusivity, embracing diversity, and challenging “systemic marginalization.” ʿAṭṭār embeds his anecdotes in frame stories in which a Sufi master uses these stories to teach a disciple. On the surface, therefore, they are instrumental allegories and tools of spiritual discipline. How might we leap from allegory to social practice? This is an exceptionally thorny project. Works by Rkia Elaroui Cornell, Tony Stewart, and Shahzad Bashir have offered models for approaching Sufi literature as a source for social history, and their works demonstrate that there is no obvious correlation between, for example, commemorating a female Sufi saint such as Rābiʿa and embracing a social ethic of gender equality.

Yaghoobi’s book offers only brief treatments of the literary and allegorical quality of ʿAṭṭār’s work, and it occasionally treats representation of marginalized figures as an embrace of them. When a “libertine gambler” teaches a shaykh a lesson in spirituality, Yaghoobi interprets this as evidence that ʿAṭṭār is marked by a distinct “openness to human diversity” where he “respects” libertine gamblers (158–59). This is possible, but could we not read this as a story in which ʿAṭṭār demonstrates the fallibility of traditional markers of religious authority so that a respected shaykh may be taught a lesson by the unlikeliest of figures? In other words, could the spiritual lesson rely upon the very lowliness and degradation of the libertine gambler because the story suggests that even a gambler can shame a Sufi who has grown too comfortable in his or her authority? Rather than “being respectable,” it is his unquestioned lowliness that makes him a powerful literary tool. I do not mean to elevate my interpretation above the book’s own, but I would suggest that the provocative arguments and comparisons of this book would find greater traction with a more thorough analysis of genre and its social logic.

Though the book generates more questions than answers and occasionally frustrates with the rapidity at which it tethers European medieval romances to Sufi literature and contemporary theory, this work is nevertheless an effective demonstration that figures such ʿAṭṭār speak to our moment with powerful urgency and vitality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William E. B. Sherman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Date of Review: 
January 27, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Claudia Yaghoobi is Roshan Institute Assistant Professor in Persian studies and Persian coordinator in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research subjects include Persian literature, Iranian “woman question,” minorities in Iran, contemporary Middle Eastern literature, diasporic literature, literary theory, and gender and sexuality studies.

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