In the Western tradition of anthropology, the primary aim of ethnographic research would be to see the world from the perspective of one’s research subjects. By spending an extended period of time in “the field”, engaging in so-called participant observation, one can hope for a process of adaptation to set in. Little by little, one begins to understand the principles that other people live by and in turn their conduct in the social environments they are part of. An insight into the minds of those people ideally enables the anthropologist to see the world as they do. But what if one is conducting anthropological research among practising Sufis, who regard everything around an illusion and who perceive not one but multiple worlds?
In early August 2021, I sat together with two murids of the Naqshbandi Mujaddidi tariqa (path) in a simple but much frequented halal café in the city centre of Ufa, in the Southern Ural region of Russia. The animated conversation was devoted to matters of faith (iman). However, those particular matters—the process of creation and recognising God within the creation—do rarely comprise the subject of formal Muslim education, to be found, for instance, at a madrasa. In fact, many Muslim believers do not have access to this kind of specialised knowledge. This circumstance has less to do with a more informal religious education of the murids of this tariqa; several of them have studied or currently undergo an education at madrasas in Ufa, Dagestan or Istanbul. Most likely, it has more to do with a “layering” of the knowledge about God. At those madrasas cultivating a Naqshbandi tradition, one strives to arrive at layers of knowledge that lie deeper and are not immediately apparent. That remoteness of the specialised knowledge is not without irony when considering, as murids insist, that once we all were familiar with it and have only forgotten. Within the tariqa, there is no question about this point: previously we knew, but at the moment of birth we lost our memory. Now, it is the pir (spiritual leader), who gives out the “medicine” that brings those memories back. By sharing the gnostic knowledge with the initiated murids, they are supposed to remember, and by remembering they may glimpse what lies beyond the veil of deception. Those with the ability to instruct pass on the message—a preferred method here is the conversation (suhbat) between the spiritual master and the murids—and in the next instance, the murids discuss those same matters among themselves. Knowledge is being transmitted both vertically and horizontally. On that mild summer evening in August, such a horizontal exchange of knowledge took place, with the murids helping both me and one another to better understand and draw closer to God. Discussions among peers, in the absence of the master are actively encouraged in the tariqa.
But how best to communicate such metaphysical content within only a few paragraphs? The Naqshbandi Mujaddidi view of the cosmos, of the relationship between God and humanity, of the duties of a Muslim believer are markedly complex. Something of a summary is being provided in the book “Mechanism of Creation” (Rus. Mekhanizm Tvoreniia), written by Qurban Ali hazrat from Taraz, Kazakhstan, and published in Almaty in 2017; the sheikh of the same branch of the tariqa that the two murids from further above also belong to. As a successor to the highly influential Sufi sheikh Ibrahimjan from Uzbekistan, the current sheikh’s network of followers reaches well beyond Central Asia. According to Qurban Ali hazrat in the book “Mechanism of Creation”, one should endeavour to realise that the world around oneself is not real. The world which we can perceive with our senses, also known as the material world (Rus. material’nyi mir), resembles instead a programme on a tablet computer. This programme turns all events that constitute our human lives into something akin to a film to be watched or a game to be played. Nonetheless, it is possible to see beyond the illusion by recognising the creator of worlds. The whole process of creation may also be interpreted as a process whereby God reveals himself to us humans. Dwelling in the divine kingdom, He relies upon one of his qualities to initiate creation not within but outside of Himself. Drawing upon the quality of light (sifat Nur), He creates the other worlds in that sphere known as the realm of inexistence; an altogether less than perfect space (or rather a non-space). Successively, He generates one world after the other: the light of the Prophet (Nur Muhammad), the spiritual world (Ruhaniyat) and eventually the material world. To make the reader better understand, the author of the book employs a language informed by modern life. The light of the Prophet, he suggests, can be compared to a computer tablet, the spiritual world to the screen of the tablet and the material world to the programmes running on it. The first step to take for a seeker of God would be to realise that one does not truly exist within the tablet but that the tablet rests in one’s hands.
These matters are difficult to imagine and to think with, to be sure. However, they also refer to a specific type of knowledge, i.e., a knowledge that is by nature fragile and fleeting. Conversations between spiritual masters and murids show that beginners may try to grasp those ideas with their minds, but with little success, for understanding must develop in the heart, not in the mind. This way of thinking would not seem intuitive to most people and in consequence one must first get used to it. The heart, moreover, needs to be pure to register the message of God. Only by following the religious prescriptions—eating the right kind of food, performing the ablutions and the daily prayers (namaz)—can one remain in a condition of purity and become receptive to the message. Pollution will cause the murids to forget and in the material world nothing is easier than to be affected by pollution. That means that one is constantly struggling to uphold the picture that the sheikh paints in his book and which is also the subject of reflection in the company of fellow murids.
For me personally, it still requires no little effort to switch from one mode of thinking to the other. While living for several years in the city of Perm in the Middle Urals, about 450 kilometres north of Ufa, I was much influenced by the rational outlook of the team of young Russian scholars that I worked with. Leaving that secular environment to return to Ufa for research purposes regularly caused trouble, as two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives demanded predominance. And even today, where I am based in Germany, it takes time to newly immerse myself into the Islamic environment upon arriving in Ufa. The murids themselves do not distinguish much between secular and religious or between carrying a Russian or a Western European passport. What matters to them is the distinction between believer and unbeliever, with the majority of Muslims curiously ending up in the latter category. In their opinion, the message of God can only be truly understood via the heart, after all. So, I follow their lead and engage in the prescribed religious practices to purify my soul and to become receptive. To be able to see what is real, one must stop paying attention to any aspects that are material. Gradually, my outlook changes and it becomes possible to believe, for instance, in the occurrence of miracles (karamat) in our everyday lives. Before my eyes, the world, in its essence, assumes another form. That other reality is enticing. It also raises doubts about living in a state of obliviousness in the material world. Is this still mainly a research project, I contemplate, or is it motivated by a search for a deeper truth? And how to put into words what takes shape around myself in the language of science, whose origins are once more secular? Quite possibly, this text demonstrates how such an endeavour, even in the most favourable conditions, can only be regarded a partial success.
Night had descended before the windows of the halal café and its owners wanted to close down for the day. As they stepped out into the street, the eyes of the three participants in the conversation were still gleaming with inspiration. At that moment, they clearly saw the universe as it was created by God, but this clarity was soon going to turn to mistiness. “You will forget, but also we are going to forget”, said the older of the murids. In reality, he added, neither he nor the other murid truly know what they had just explained while sitting together. He himself was hardly able to comprehend what goes on when that stream of words almost involuntarily left his mouth. The younger murid agreed. He recalled how the spiritual master sometimes begins to cry as he watches back the video recordings made during the suhbat. But why this emotional response, one may wonder. It might be because in these explanations, he witnessed a miracle, or God in action. But he might also be shedding tears over the beauty of revelation, which is always just a temporary phenomenon and one cannot hold on to it.