Beshara and Ibn 'Arabi: A Movement of Sufi Spirituality in the Modern
World by Suha Taji-Farouki (Anqa Publishers) Investigating sufi-inspired spirituality in the modern world, this
interdisciplinary volume focuses on Beshara, a spiritual movement that
originated in Britain in the 1970s.
Beshara's main inspiration is the Andalusian mystic Muhyi al-Din Ibn 'Arabi (d.1240), possibly the most influential thinker of the second half of Islamic history. Ibn Arabi's teaching was brought to Britain by Bulent Rauf (d. 1987), a descendant of the Ottoman elite, and discovered there by counterculture youth searching for new spiritual ways. Beshara is their joint legacy.
The first detailed analysis of the adoption and adaptation of Ibn Arabi's heritage by non-Muslims in the West, Beshara and Ibn 'Arabi is a study of the movement's history, teachings and practices. It explores the interface between sufism and the New Age, and the broader contemporary encounter between Islam and the West. Investigating from a global perspective the impact of cultural transformations associated with modernisation and globalization on religion, this timely volume concludes by tracing possible futures of sufi spirituality both in the West and in the Muslim world.
This book is essential reading for anyone interested in religious studies and the sociology of religion, Islamic studies and Sufism, and issues of cultural and spiritual dialogue between West and East.
Suha Taji-Farouki is Senior Lecturer in Modern Islam at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, and Research Associate at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. She has published widely on modern Islamic thought, including (ed.) Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century (Institute for Ismaili Studies) and Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur'an (Oxford University Press). Her most recent work is a study and translation of A Prayer for Spiritual Elevation and Protection by Ibn 'Arabi (Anqa).
"A marvellous book ... historically and ethnographically well-informed, with equally well-informed use of theory — handled with very considerable sensitivity—and lucidly written." --Paul Heelas, author of The New Age Movement and The Spiritual Revolution
"A masterful and multifaceted study. This important book opens out to provide a much-needed critique of the sociology of Islam in the age of globalization." --Victoria Rowe Holbrook, author of The Unreadable Shores of Love and Beauty and Love
"Empathetic in approach and immensely well-documented, this is an exemplary work. Its great importance for akbarian studies is its discussion of the way in which Ibn Arabi's teachings have been received and transformed in the modern world." --Michel Chodkiewicz, author of Seal of the Saints and An Ocean Without Shore
The physical focus of Beshara is its School of Intensive Esoteric Education located near Hawick in the Scottish Borders. Buried in the grounds is its guiding figure, Bulent Rauf (1911-87). Rauf's lasting contribution was to recruit the legacy of Ibn 'Arabi by way of response to the spiritual search of counterculture youth he encountered in England from the late 1960s. Since 1975, the School has offered extended residential courses centring on study, work, meditation and spiritual practice. The teaching of Ibn 'Arabi forms the heart of the study curriculum, and spiritual practices prescribed derive from the Islamic—sufi tradition. The aim is to enable students to realise their potential for perfectibility through existential self-knowledge based on the notion of the 'Oneness of Being: Individual self-realisation is situated within a vision of the global unfolding of a new era reflecting a fundamental reorientation of perspective based on universality and unity.
Most of those who have studied at the School establish a relationship with it and join the network of others who have studied there. Returning to society, they nurture and apply the awareness awakened at the School, endeavouring at the same time to serve the ultimate aim of global reorientation through their individual contexts. The wider community that surrounds the School enjoys a distinct internal culture, evincing features that create insider cohesion and support. For example, those who participate in it use internally designated names among themselves. They meet regularly to study together and again on specific dates to join in collective spiritual practice. Many return to the School for intensive 'refresher' study. They give financial donations to the School according to their means, and some have bequeathed funds to it by will. Where possible, they publicise its work and introduce interested individuals to it. They have a common worldview, creating shared responses, values and priorities, in spite of different life circumstances. The perspective that underpins Beshara shapes their self-perception and understanding of the world, and they often pass this on to their children, who as young adults might also attend the School, producing a degree of intergenerational continuity of involvement.
While the School is effectively its pivot, a distinct movement thus emanates from and supports this central institution. We designate it the 'Beshara movement: For reasons that will become clear later, we eschew the term `membership/member' in favour of the looser term 'association/associate' to describe participation in it. As used here, the term associate designates an individual who has typically (but not always) completed a Beshara course and remains active in the movement, in the sense of continuing to believe in and support its worldview and goals. They may spend spells at the School, serve full-time as staff for specific periods there, attend study groups at home, or participate in the coordination of relevant activities.'
Beshara has not been subjected to significant independent analysis, although both the movement and Rauf have been referred to in passing in some of the literature on sufism in the West. Rauf is typically introduced in the context of discussions of an early associate of his by the name of Tim (Reshad) Feild, as the latter's 'teacher', and most treatments highlight the perceived Mevlevi connections of Feild, Rauf and Beshara.
Some mention the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society (MIAS), established under the auspices of Beshara, as an example of organisations in the West that disseminate information relating to sufism, but they do not always register the connection between it and Beshara. Literature on NRMs in the West generally fails to mention the movement, or mentions it only in passing.
This volume provides a detailed description of Beshara. It adds an original case study to the relatively limited literature on sufism/sufi spirituality in the modern West, and to the few studies of NRMs there that draw on the Islamic—sufi tradition. Given the insatiable interest in anything to do with the contemporary Islamic—Western encounter, it is a timely contribution. However, its relevance extends beyond the specific fields of Islamic and sufi studies, and relations between Islam and the West. The emergence and continued existence of the subject of this volume thus point to broad religious, cultural and sociological issues in contemporary Western societies that continue to provoke lively debate. At the same time, it throws into sharp relief the interface between religion and modern cultural transformations in a global perspective. For example, Beshara's success in one majority Muslim arena exposes the impact of changes brought by modernisation and globalisation on religious life in these contexts. Such wider themes form the large backdrop to the volume.
By studying Beshara, it is possible to reflect on approaches to the study of sufism in the modern West more generally. For example, a recent conference asked: 'Are insights on "NRM"s/"New Age" movements relevant to an understanding of contemporary Sufism? Or is there a significant difference between both types of movement?'" It concluded that no strict boundary operates between sufi groups and 'New Age-type movements; pointing to `questions of conceptualisation as well as sociological explanation:" By way of contribution to this debate we ask whether, as a NRM, Beshara can be seen as a part of the New Age. Quantities of literature on sufism and translations of sufi texts stocked by New Age booksellers point to a substantial interest among their customers. At the same time, certain sufis in the West have been willing to cooperate and join in activities with New Agers.' Some scholars assume the existence of a relationship between certain expressions of sufism in the West and the New Age, but this has not been investigated systematically or in detail.' We explore this sufi—New Age nexus through a case study spanning over three and a half decades. We examine conceptual and operational affinities, and investigate the approach that shapes New Age appropriations of sufi resources." We also explore the potential implications of this nexus for contemporary Western attitudes towards sufism and Islam as its tradition of origin.
The primary interest of this volume is in the realm of tradition and its cultural transmission, adaptation and application in modern contexts. In specific terms, it is in the recruitment of teachings, texts and practices associated with the pre-modern Islamic sufi tradition by elements of the counterculture in sixties Britain, through the intervention of a Muslim descendant of the Ottoman elite. Investigation of this theme through Beshara is certainly sustainable intellectually. Nonetheless, some associates may take issue with the assumption that the 'Islamic—sufi' dimension is sufficiently defining of their movement's character/worldview to justify this focus. We anticipate and acknowledge their potential objections to this primary aspect in our framing of the subject, which we partly reflect in the volume title. Building on it, we consider how Beshara illuminates the trend of Western sufism it reflects, and explore its possible future prospects.
The internally contested Islamic—sufi dimension of Beshara yields various more detailed research questions." How do its teachings and approach to spirituality relate to those of traditional sufi thought, and of Ibn 'Arabi, whose school the movement implicitly claims as its spiritual lineage? Which aspects of doctrine and practice associated with Ibn 'Arabi does Beshara perpetuate? How does the movement relate to the defining tradition of Ibn 'Arabi's world-view? In what ways does it perpetuate this tradition, and how does it utilise its major textual sources? To what extent does it depart from the characteristic values and sociocultural attitudes of this tradition? How (if at all) did Rauf's function in Beshara reflect the role of the traditional sufi teacher/guide? How have the various aspects of his function been undertaken since his death? How does the adopted approach compare with traditional sufi approaches to achieving continuity? Through what imagery, style and language is the Beshara vision conveyed? How does this reflect Rauf's own historical—cultural background, and to what extent does it represent a response to the contemporary Western milieu? What, then, is the matrix of cultural forms through which spiritual teaching and practice take place in Beshara? To what extent and in what ways does Beshara practice reflect traditional elements of Islamic and sufi practice? How do the genres of discourse and methods of communication used by Rauf and Beshara relate to those of traditional sufi spirituality? Are traditional Islamic and sufi understandings of sacred space and its use evident in Beshara? Are the arts and aesthetics used to convey or nurture a sense of the sacred in Beshara, and if so, how does their use relate to traditional Islamic and sufi approaches?
The following chapters reflect on some of these specific lines of investigation. The volume as a whole responds to the key question concerning Beshara and the New Age by elaborating the movement's main features in terms of the context of its formation. Chapter 2 traces its emergence and history, closely following the movement's internal collective memory. Beshara arose out of a syncretic multi-faith centre directed by an English sufi who had encountered Rauf. We map the confluence of trends that led to the centre's formation, exposing the spiritual genealogy of the major figures involved and tracing the gradual crystallisation and preponderance within it of the approach that would characterise Beshara. We examine the consolidation and institutionalisation of the emergent movement, achieved especially through the creation of dedicated schools and an academic society. The distinctive Beshara approach to spiritual education forms the subject of Chapter 3. Here, we examine major study texts prepared for internal use based on Ibn 'Arabi's teaching. We describe residential courses as an integrated framework for spiritual education and explore the School as a purpose-designed facilitating environment. The focus of Chapter 4 is Beshara's guiding figure. We explore Rauf's origins, his family background, formative and possible later influences on him, and his spiritual associations. We characterise his approach as adviser and guide, and evaluate his legacy for the movement.
Chapter 5 sets out the Beshara perspective, and elaborates Rauf's distinctive application of Ibn 'Arabi's teaching in its construction. We consider the movement's perception of the present times, its understanding of its own role in preparing for a new era and its vision of that era. In Chapter 6, we examine the Beshara conceptualisation and practice of the spiritual life, emphasising its perception of the religions and its distinctive spiritual culture, including the relation of the latter to the Islamic—sufi resources on which Rauf drew. Chapter 7 explores the Beshara projection of Ibn 'Arabi. We consider the channels through which the movement brings his teaching (as appropriated by it) to a broader audience, exploring among others the case of the MIAS. We interrogate the characteristic emphases of the image of Ibn 'Arabi projected by Beshara in light of competing projections.
In Chapter 8, we situate Beshara in relation to key themes and questions. We then use the specific case study to explore the possible future of sufism in Western and Muslim arenas. Possible trajectories of universal and Islamic sufism in contemporary Western societies experiencing significant shifts in religiosity are mapped. We turn then to the fate of sufism among certain sectors of Muslim populations, considering the impacts of modernisation and globalisation in shaping constituencies for a reconstituted sufi spirituality that evinces affinities with motifs and approaches widespread in contemporary Western arenas. Finally, we reflect in an Epilogue on some of the volume's findings and methodological implications.
Introducing Ibn 'Arabi and the Oneness of Being Life and works
Ibn 'Arabi was born in Murcia in the southeast of Muslim Spain in 1165, and spent the first thirty-five years of his life in the western lands of Islam. His father served as a professional soldier in the army of the Almohad sultan in the provincial capital Seville, to where the family had relocated in 1172. Their circumstances were good and the young Ibn 'Arabi acquired a broad education. The seminal experience of his youth took place when he was still an adolescent. It was a sudden mystical 'unveiling' in the form of a dream vision of Jesus, Moses and Muhammad, during a spontaneous retreat outside Seville. By 1184 he had entered upon the sufi path and dedicated himself to the spiritual life, turning his back on a potential career in the military and entrusting all his possessions to his father. He began to frequent spiritual masters in al-Andalus, Tunis and Fez. By 1194 he had composed his first major work, the first of nearly three hundred, all of which he claimed had resulted from divine inspiration.
In 1200 Ibn 'Arabi decided to leave for good the land of his birth, and he began to journey towards Mecca to perform the pilgrimage. This opened the `eastern' chapter of his career, spent in Anatolia and the Levant, to which his best-known works belong. He passed through Marrakesh, Tunis, Cairo and Palestine, finally arriving in Mecca in 1202. While circumambulating the Ka`ba there, he experienced momentous visions that sparked the beginning of his magnum opus, al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya. They ultimately issued also in his famous collection of poems, the Tarjuman al-ashwaq, and several other works. More travels in the east followed: for example, he accompanied the father of Sadr al-Din Qunawi, who was to be his chief disciple and transmitter of his teachings, on a diplomatic mission. During this period he edited existing works, continued with the Futuhat, added further works to his corpus, and married and had a family. After 1223, he settled finally in Ayyubid Damascus under the patronage of one of its powerful families. His celebrated Fusus al-hikam appeared in 1229 received, by his own account, from the hand of the Prophet in a dream. He died in Damascus in 1240 and was buried in his adopted city.
Ibn 'Arabi's self-understanding pivots on an early vision, in which he was shown his destined role as the Seal of Muhammadan Sainthood. He was to become thereby the supreme heir of the Prophet, charged with being the unique, plenary manifestation of the Prophet's implicit sainthood and exerting spiritual authority over the Muslim saints. However, his conception of the reach of his role went beyond both saintly and Muslim communities, for he also highlighted his nature as 'an absolutely merciful being; a messenger of divine mercy who promised to intercede on the Day of Judgement on behalf of everyone he sees.
Many subjects and fields of knowledge are addressed in Ibn 'Arabi's writings, which combine poetry, exegesis, speculative theology, jurisprudence and mythology. His discursive method involves a degree of elusiveness and the use of symbolic images and paradoxes. The latter reflected his conviction that the syllogistic methods of the philosophers and the imitative approach of earlier scholars were inadequate for conveying the complex dynamic of the relationship between God, man" and the cosmos. This relationship pivoted on the underlying oneness and common origin of all aspects of the universe. For Ibn 'Arabi, the universe was the product of God's desire to see Himself manifested, as in a mirror. Hence, although the Divine Reality is transcendent, at the same time everything that exists is a manifestation of that Reality. Everything that exists is God, but is simultaneously a veil between the seeker and God. Man and God unite in a contemplative process in which man sees his own reality in the mirror of God's existence, and God knows His Essence in the mirror that is man completed. This is the quintessence of Ibn Arabi's metaphysics.
The entire oeuvre of Ibn 'Arabi is ultimately and intimately concerned with the bedrock of Islam, tawhid (the unity of God), and its implications for a proper appreciation of the ultimate nature and purpose of humankind in creation. His elaboration of this theme has been perceived by some as contravening the essential Islamic doctrine of divine transcendence, leading to a designation of his thought as a blatant expression of existential monism. In this view, he is the founder of the 'heretical' doctrine of the Oneness of Being.
The Oneness of Being
The doctrine of the Oneness of Being (in Arabic wandat al-wujud) and the existential monism it assumes do appear to capture an important facet of Ibn 'Arabi's thought, for at one level he upholds the identity of God with His creation, and hence with man. Yet this understanding and its potentially antinomian implications must be evaluated in light of the fact that, at the same time, his thought remains deeply rooted in and faithful to the theistic worldview of the Islamic revelation, with its conception of God's utter transcendence and His creation's dependence on Him." Ibn 'Arabi's vision was multifaceted, fluid and open-ended, his discourse shaped by 'the tensions and paradoxes that arise from the attempt to articulate the ineffable nature of a transcendent divine' (and 'the dynamic between the ineffable and the intermediate').' It is then only natural that this should have been articulated via a language consciously unfettered by 'fixed' or definitive (and thus falsifying, reifying or reductionist) propositions and terminology. By way of illustration, as he used it, the term wujud itself combined a number of interrelated meanings, which Ibn 'Arabi constantly kept in play, such as 'being, 'existence: to 'be found' and, by his own explicit definition, 'finding the Real in ecstasy:" As Chittick puts it, the 'ambiguity' inherent in his understanding of the cosmic situation can better be suggested with paradox (Ibn 'Arabi's own huwa la huwa, 'He/not He, for example)" than in a straightforward phrase such as wandat al-wujud, which, moreover, he never used himself. Furthermore, the perceived centrality of wandat al-wujud to his teaching must itself be questioned, for his major spiritual heir Qunawi makes it clear that the central point of this is neither wujud nor wandat al-wujud, but the achievement of human perfection.'
Nonetheless, historically the term wandat al-wujud has been the one most widely applied to designate the cornerstone of Ibn 'Arabi's doctrine, whether by his advocates or his adversaries." Application of the term reflecting a particular usage among his advocators first appeared in the late fifteenth century, when one of the greatest propagators of his teaching (`Abd al-Rahman Jami [d.1492]) described Ibn 'Arabi and his followers as 'spokesmen for the doctrine of wandat al-wujud For Jami, the doctrine signified tawhid in philosophical language:" The role of Qunawi in shaping the perception of Ibn 'Arabi's work vis-à-vis the notion of wandat al-wujud is pivotal." He was much more inclined than Ibn 'Arabi to engage in debate with the philosophical tradition, having studied the writings of Ibn Sina, who had placed discussion of wujud (the term used in this case to render the Greek idea of 'being' or 'existence') at the heart of Islamic philosophy." However, although Qunawi himself used the term wandat al-wujud in two or three places,' this was not yet as a technical term, and it continued to denote its literal sense of tawhid. Qunawi employed it simply as a phrase appropriate to explaining the nature of divine unity in philosophical vocabulary. Before the fifteenth century, Ibn 'Arabi's adversaries had applied the term to characterise his doctrine. Indeed Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328) probably made the greatest single contribution to `turning wandat al-wujud into the designation for a doctrine:" He labelled as believers in wandat al-wujud Ibn 'Arabi, Qunawi and others who tended to use philosophical vocabulary to talk about God. For him, wandat al-wujud was nothing other than unificationism (ittihad) and incarnationism (hulul). It was equivalent to heresy (ilhad), atheism (zandaqa) and unbelief (kufr).
Notwithstanding the difficulties surrounding it, wandat al-wujud remains convenient shorthand for Ibn 'Arabi's thought as an adequate definition of its fundamental theme.' Like all shorthand, however, it has a potentially reductionist character that threatens to distort understanding of the thought system it purportedly describes.' This tendency is compounded in Western literature by the challenges of translation, given the difficulty of capturing the shades of meaning conveyed by the term wujud as Ibn 'Arabi uses it, noted above.' It is important to keep such concerns in mind whenever application of the term to Ibn 'Arabi's thought system is encountered. In the modern period, it has remained virtually synonymous with his name, both in the Islamic world and in Western literature. Muslim authors in particular often assume the doctrinal content signified by it: by citing certain historical authorities to the exclusion of others, they implicitly select one 'content' over another. This is then judged either positively or negatively, and Ibn 'Arabi is either absolved of it or denounced for it, but there is little attempt to define the expression in such a way that it actually accords with the teaching it ostensibly designates.'
Impact and legacy
Ibn 'Arabi's teaching pivots upon an appeal to the individual to experience directly God's Self-disclosure in the self and the world. Starting and ending with the Islamic revelation, it maps the individual journey of 'return' to the origin. In this respect, it effectively reinstates at the centre of Islamic belief a realisation of the intrinsic relation of self and the world to Absolute Being, pointing to the means by which this realisation can reach its fullest potential in the individual. Like al-Ghazali (d.1111) before him (who like him was honoured with the title 'revivifier of the faith; muhyi al-din), Ibn 'Arabi's emphasis of the interior thus complements or completes the exterior, rather than contradicting it." The concern of such mystics is not to transcend or depart from Islam, but to repudiate a conception of it in which its defining and animating mystical kernel is absent. In presenting an approach that is rooted in the revelation while giving its due to this central concern, Ibn 'Arabi developed an intellectually satisfying resolution to the apparent contradictions between such significant binary oppositions as transcendence and immanence, unity and multiplicity, similarity and incomparability, and even belief and unbelief.
Ibn 'Arabi can reasonably be claimed as the most influential thinker of the second half of Islamic history.' Credited with the systematic intellectualisation of the earlier sufi tradition, his contribution has been a point of reference for most doctrinal sufi discourse since. However, his influence has also radiated beyond the sufis to thinkers more typically regarded as philosophers and theologians. Indeed, from the thirteenth century onward, most prominent Muslim thinkers have felt it necessary to define their position vis-à-vis him." Question marks concerning his orthodoxy have fuelled polemics for and against him from the time of his death to the present day.' At the same time, some sufis who revere him as a saint remain against the general circulation of his works, lest they sow confusion among those unqualified to read them."
Like other great mystics, Ibn 'Arabi had spiritual disciples and
appears to have passed on a khirqa (sufi cloak of investiture),
symbolising the transmission of his spiritual blessing (baraka).
Historically, the transmission of his baraka has proceeded parallel to
the transmission of his teaching.' His initiatic lineage continues up to the present,'" albeit with such
it often remains hidden (those who participate in its transmission are at the same time affiliated to diverse tariqas). His legacy belongs to the common heritage of the tariqas, while his practical directives and baraka have permeated sufism. Whether acknowledged or denied, the stamp of his teaching can thus be found throughout the sufi universe."' The selective study of his corpus remains alive in certain sufi circles, while writings that popularise his teachings circulate among a wider readership.' The constant stream of visitors who journey to his shrine complex in Damascus bears witness to the place he occupies in the hearts of Muslims worldwide, while for his immediate neighbours, he is a generous local saint whose blessing brings livelihood, companionship and solace.'
Western visitors sometimes appear at Ibn 'Arabi's shrine. Indeed, since the second half of the nineteenth century, his teaching has exerted a particular pull among Westerners attracted to sufism. The last few decades have witnessed a growth of interest in Ibn Arabi's thought in the West, evidenced by a steady flow of translations, studies, and, recently, an exploration of the broad spiritual guidance embedded in his teaching. Enthusiasts identify an irenic and ecumenical potential in his thought, much needed in an age of inter-civilisational tension. Some seek within his writings a foil to the theoretical assumptions of the Islamist experiment, and the accompanying cultural impasse in the Muslim arena, out of concern for the Muslim and global future. Others find personal guidance for practical spirituality in his teaching. As in the case of our present subject, they increasingly include non-Muslims, especially as his writings become more widely accessible through translations.
Concerning methodology, data collection and sources Approaching Beshara
The overarching framework of this volume is built upon a historical—contextual approach, emphasising the historical matrix of the movement's formation and its associated sociocultural forces. This significantly illuminates aspects of its emergence, ethos and worldview. We do not intend any reductionism in prioritising it, however, and give due consideration to the subject in its capacity as a 'manifestation of the sacred' (as it is viewed by those involved in it), recognising the irreducibly sacred character of religion/spirituality as a category in its own right. We adopt the open, empathetic approach characteristic of phenomenological scholarship as far as matters of belief specifically are concerned,' aiming to bracket out our own assumptions/prejudices in order to let the subject speak for itself, and in its own terms."' At the same time, and in line with the principle of remaining neutral with regard to matters of ultimate truth,' we suspend normative judgement. Our aim is to do justice to the integrity of the believer's worldview and to present an accurate picture of the beliefs studied as expressed by those who hold them. While 'objective' knowledge is thus the aspiration, we maintain a constant awareness of the hermeneutical setting in which the collection and interpretation of data necessarily operate (linked to our own subjectivities) We also take particular care to make clear if an opinion or analysis presented is our own, or belongs to the subject under study.
This volume is multidisciplinary in spirit and makes use of social science research methods in addition to historical—contextual and textual analysis. We do not claim to combine all these approaches in equal measure. We make no attempt to provide precise sociological data for a representative sample of associates and do not attempt a focused recruitment of sociological theories to understand the movement's fortunes and joiners' motives, for example.' The same goes for psychological theories of conversion and assessment of psychological benefits/(psycho-)therapeutic effects of joining.'" A systematic exploration of these and related areas is deferred to further research on the movement.'" Nonetheless, the driving concerns of sociological and psychological studies of conversion have informed the selection of associates interviewed, and relevant themes are illustrated particularly in associates' life stories (Appendix 5). In broader terms, themes, analyses and debates drawn from the sociology of religion inform the large backdrop to the volume and its framing. Finally, most of the statistics we present originate from the movement itself (apart from our own first-hand observations), and it has not been possible to verify these. Evaluations of its extent and impact based on such statistics thus remain tentative.
Internal sources and their use
Given the paucity of external sources, we have relied extensively (and in some places exclusively) on internal sources in significant parts of this volume. These encompass associates' oral narratives,' documentation put out by Beshara (for internal or public consumption, including course documentation, newsletters, web pages, etc.) and publications produced by its publishing company (Beshara Publications), under its auspices,' or by individual associates.'" Internal sources inform the treatment of both of the broad areas we address, viz., historical reconstruction, and the transmission and understanding of ideas.
In the area of historical reconstruction (encompassing the movement's emergence and history, and the biography of its guiding figure), we selected as sources associates involved from the movement's inception specifically (first-generation' associates). Naturally, there are problems associated with recollections of events that may go back more than three decades. Variations in accounts of the same episodes narrated by different internal sources are also inevitable. Use of recollections of specific episodes or narratives constructed many years after the events concerned (be these oral or published) calls for considerable care.' Although there is little external material on which to base substantial verification or comparison, whenever possible we have endeavoured to critically assess internal narratives. To do so, however, we invariably had to fall back on the oral recollections of external sources,' which are subject to similar problems. In assessing internal narratives we paid particular attention to possible selectivity and the colouring of significant biographies and accounts of pivotal events by a teleological perspective. We must mention finally specific challenges posed by the attempt to reconstruct the movement's genesis, given that it emerged out of a broader trend, abandoning elements within this as the distinctive Beshara identity and approach crystallised. As some associates downplay or dismiss this prelude, the (rather scant) documentation relating to it was particularly important to the construction of our narrative.
Rauf's discourses are pivotal to the Beshara perspective and specific ideas and understandings within it. As there are relatively few written records of these, we relied heavily in reconstructing his views on associates' accounts and observations. In selecting sources to that end, we focused on those associates perceived internally to have been close to him. Our aim was to access his views as conveyed directly to them, avoiding possible distortions and misunderstandings arising in their transmission to third parties. There is little written record of certain themes in the Beshara perspective. This sometimes reflects a deliberate policy, as in the case of especially subtle themes that may be misunderstood or misconstrued by unprepared or unsympathetic readers. To compensate, and to illuminate central themes in the absence of any systematic elaboration of these, we sought out associates' verbal explanations. As in the area of historical reconstruction, here, too, we selected as sources long-standing and particularly first-generation associates.'" In general, differences of understanding and nuance arise in associates' presentations of the Beshara perspective. As with any system of ideas, individuals gravitate towards certain aspects or interpretations, reflecting their personal histories, inclinations and abilities. While the salient features of the Beshara perspective are more or less in evidence in the understanding of all associates encountered, a degree of diversity is thus also discernible in this. Associates also point out that Rauf shared insights with them in accordance with their receptivity. Some assumed he was conveying something he had also conveyed to all others, but later discovered that a certain insight had been shared with them alone, or with only very few others.
We are hinting here at an apparently intractable problem, summed up in the following question: To what extent do individual associates' understandings and perceptions represent those of the movement 'as a whole'? (This becomes especially pertinent in light of the implications of certain of the movement's characteristics for the operative nature of its belief systems, as will become clear later.) For example, some associates are more informed than others of Muslim culture and Islamic belief, and more knowledgeable of Ibn Arabi's writings beyond the texts designated for study within Beshara.' Some present systematically ordered and nuanced understandings, while the thoughts of others are more vague. We cannot claim that every opinion or understanding expressed by every associate is, as articulated by that associate, entirely representative of the movement as a whole.' However, in the plentiful views, perceptions and opinions cited in this volume, we can be confident of reflecting the movement's main emphases and convictions, without suggesting that it is monolithic. Given certain characteristics of Beshara qua movement, we must indeed ask whether we can speak meaningfully of an authoritative or 'official' position concerning any matter. Practically, this issue is settled in terms of Rauf's teaching (enshrined in his few writings and the movement's collective memory), and in the positions elaborated by the Principal of the Beshara School (appointed by Rauf) based on his own understanding and application of this teaching. While we do not attempt a systematic diachronic analysis of all aspects of the movement's perspective, we do probe the possible chronological evolution of this whenever evidence arises of shifts in emphasis and approach across its history as a whole, and during the fifteen years of Rauf's guidance. There is no assumption that the movement is or has been static in its perspective or approach.
Virtual boundaries and methods of data collection
The points we made above relate to the operation of our own selectivity in identifying associates as sources, defined in terms of the focal themes and aims of our study. Selectivity also operates at other levels in the context of the collection of data. For example, some associates (explicitly or implicitly, deliberately or unconsciously) draw virtual boundaries around certain areas and bar the researcher from these.' Associates differed significantly in the extents to which they were willing to consider objectively (even critically) the movement's history, or its present approach. A few were surprisingly frank. In general, their reactions to our research were diverse. Some deemed it important, and appreciated the perceived opportunity for the movement's history to be carefully documented. Others were initially suspicious.' One associate projected his own understandings on the research, insinuating that our pursuit of it was itself evidence that 'an instruction' to that effect had been received.
We carried out data collection in the context of formal interviews
and discussions. Associates typically treated these as solemn occasions
appropriate to the perceived gravity of the subject.' Alongside formal
settings, informal discussions yielded significant insights, as did
settings furnishing opportunities to observe and listen to associates
more generally. Participant-observation formed another
significant fieldwork method.' This encompassed spells at Chisholme
House, where we could observe and join in the daily schedule, and
attendance of Beshara activities elsewhere. In some cases our
participation was welcomed and integrated. In others it was not encouraged (we were asked to sit aside and observe), and on one
we were refused access. In this case, those concerned argued that it would be much better for us to write from 'our own taste (experience); by undertaking a (six-month) Beshara course.
Encompassing Ibn 'Arabi
In studying Beshara it is necessary to evaluate its perspective against that of Ibn 'Arabi, its major source of inspiration. Ibn 'Arabi's corpus is both vast and complex. Given the confines of time and the nature of our subject, we have accessed this for the most part through English translations and scholarly secondary sources. These materials raise some questions. Considering first the translations, even when taken together, they represent only (an inevitably selective) fraction of Ibn Arabi's writings. Some scholars would argue that it is impossible to have utter confidence in them, while others (particularly, but not exclusively, those unqualified to access the original texts) reject such claims. To compensate, where possible we have supplemented translations used with a general sense of the original texts.
The steadily expanding secondary scholarship offers an increasingly helpful resource. However, the fact that its findings remain subject to ongoing reassessment complicates its use as a frame of reference against which to evaluate appropriations of Ibn 'Arabi's teaching. As Chittick remarked a little over a decade ago, given that most of his works remain unedited, unpublished, and/ or unstudied, 'all scholars who have attempted to explain Ibn Arabi's thought have pointed out the tentative nature of their endeavours.' Some dimensions of his thought remain unexplored, and the contours of others exhibit considerable slippage from one treatment to another.'" Many scholars have underlined the difficulties that arise in the attempt to understand him.' To offset the fact that authors' widely divergent interpretations and expectations are reflected in many secondary works,'" we have made an effort to survey and refer to as a wide a range as possible of these. In the final analysis, however, we accept responsibility for any selectivity of presentation or emphasis (explicit or otherwise) in the characterisation of Ibn 'Arabi's teaching (against which the Beshara perspective is evaluated) in what follows.
One evening during the early days of Beshara at Swyre Farm in the Cotswolds, Rauf told an associate before retiring to bed: 'I will tell you what Beshara is really like. If we wake up and find that this property has been moved from valley to valley that should not surprise us, for this is the grandeur and capability of what Beshara is: We now begin the story of Beshara, tracing first the emergence and history of the movement.
Flowing from the story of Beshara, we pick up three questions in this epilogue. First, how does this story illuminate broader issues relating to the study of sufism in the West and that of modern Islam and NRMs? Second, what is the significance (and implications) of the sufi—New Age nexus exemplified by Beshara in the arena of global culture and cultural exchange? Third, how might we project the future of Beshara, and how might this shed light on future religious—spiritual landscapes and the future of sufism?
On studying sufism, modern Islam and NRMs
Some approaches to the study of sufism in the modern West assume or seek out evidence of continuities with categories of the pre-modern sufi tradition in the Muslim world. The facile application of such categories to the study of contemporary trends and figures in the West creates an artificial sense of a reified tradition, and can obscure proper understanding.' Greater illumination of many Western sufi movements can be achieved by approaching these as products of the modern present, taking into account any preferences for self-projection in terms of the historical tradition but assessing their application as potentially fresh constructs. We have demonstrated in this volume that, as a movement of sufi spirituality in the modern West, Beshara can be illuminated by locating it within the arena of its emergence, rather than against the backdrop of pre-modern Islamic sufism or by projecting it as an example of the ongoing influence of prominent figures within this. It must thus be located at the interface of late Ottoman sufism as projected by Rauf (who was exposed to its fading rays), and shifts in religiosity in Western societies as manifest in sixties Britain. In this perspective, we understand the movement's self-description in terms of the category of Uwaysi (Theo-didactic) sufism as an attempt to clarify and seek legitimacy for its own approach. While we do not deny the possibility of a continuing strand of sufi experience capturing the Uwaysi spirit, the interpretive approach here is determined ultimately by the changed context of Western modernity.
We have commented in passing that there are relatively few studies of NRMs in the West that draw on Islamic—sufi resources. In more general terms, scholars of NRMs have shown little interest in Islam and Islamic groups, regardless of geographical location. At first sight, the relatively few entries relating to Islam in surveys of NRMs can be attributed to their exclusively or heavily 'West'-centric focus, which is occasionally made explicit.' Certain assumptions and anomalies arise in surveys of this nature, however, and these serve to illuminate entrenched attitudes towards Muslim religiosity within NRM studies.
We can illustrate these through the example of the Encyclopedia of New Religions: New Religious Movements, Sects, and Alternative Spiritualities (2004). The editor's introduction to the section 'New Religions [NRMs], Sects and Alternative Spiritualities with Roots in Islam' explains that 'many trends and movements within contemporary Islam that can be described as new religions or alternative spiritualities are Sufi in orientation'. Entries in the section have been selected to bear out this claim.' The editor hints at the reasons for the success of sufism in inspiring Westerners (where Islam has failed): 'although many new groups and movements within Islam maintain conservative attitudes and, particularly in the West, seek to distinguish themselves from the surrounding culture, there are developments such as the Haqqani Naqshbandis ... that are far more accommodating and innovative: That he thus effectively dismisses the numerous movements (some of them sufi in orientation, but many decidedly not) that emerged within mainstream Islam during the twentieth century, a period of unprecedented religious dynamism among Muslims, is perhaps explicable in terms of the primary focus and resulting scope of his work. As the inside cover explains, the Encyclopedia provides readers with 'a comprehensive map of the significant religious and spiritual groups functioning in today's world, especially in the West' (our emphasis). However, a glance at the 'Roots in Judaism' section begs the question, for it encompasses, among others, Gush Emunim, a religious nationalist settler movement geographically contained within Israel. If a strictly Western focus is intended, this should be upheld consistently (as in the case of Islam/sufi-derived movements engaging people of non-Muslim provenance in the West). If something else is admitted (for example, Judaism-derived movements for Jews in a Jewish majority setting, as in the case of Gush Emunim), then surely Islamic movements appearing during the second half of the twentieth century (and earlier) in Muslim majority settings must be seriously represented?' Their summary dismissal reflects an assumption that they are relevant only to specialists on the closed and separate world of Islam (or to Muslims themselves). It has the unfortunate effect, in such a broad survey work, of perpetuating an impression that 'Islam' is both monolithic and bereft of impulses of dynamism, differentiation and adaptability that have brought change and development to other religious traditions. The exclusion of Muslim homologues of movements like Gush Emunim is all the more surprising for the fact that many of them have had a profound impact (direct or indirect) on Western arenas (vide the obvious example of al-Qa`ida and the dominant salafi trend in modern Islam from which it emanates), and have evidently recruited Westerners, including those born into Islam and, significantly, converts.' The overlooking of Turkish-origin groups such as the Nur movement and its derivatives, emanating from a secular context at a physical interface with Europe and engaging millions of people (including many in Western Europe and the USA) is further evidence that, for many in this somewhat confused field, `Islam for Muslims' simply evinces no parallels with the religious experience of any other peoples in the modern world, and thus cannot be situated or treated within the same frameworks.
We have hinted at some such parallels in this study, but our purpose here is to underscore the need for a more inclusive and integrated approach that acknowledges the importance and dynamism of modern movements in Islam, irrespective of whether they appeal to Westerners or draw on sufism. The conflation of 'Islamic' religious dynamism with sufism implicit in the Encyclopedia's approach' merely reinforces the suggestion implicit in the Orientalist projection of sufism as 'discovered' 200 years ago, viz. that this part of the Islamic tradition is worthy of particular attention — coinciding with the assumption that it is, ultimately, extrinsic to it, and can hence function as a potential resource for Westerners.
As J. Gordon Melton recently hinted, 9/11 highlighted the need to 'overcome the barriers between NRM studies and Islamic studies;' each of them a relatively insular field. An integrated approach might enable a better understanding of the nature of immediate threats of violence associated with some Islamist movements. More importantly, it may also facilitate the erosion of increasingly dangerous long-standing misconceptions (and ignorance) surrounding the religious impulses of modern Muslims. Such misconceptions have partly shaped the present crisis, and they are perpetuated by the isolation and perceived otherness of Islamic studies. While our subject lies squarely within the Western arena of NRMs, through a necessary marriage of the fields of NRM studies and Islamic studies in this volume we have sought to make a contribution, however modest and indirect, to breaking down the barriers to which Gordon Melton refers.' Most recent years have seen a new acknowledgement of the importance of a truly global perspective in NRM studies. This is accompanied by a gradual paradigm shift towards situating NRMs within the larger field of social movements, moving away from the earlier emphasis on their newness and sui generis religious nature.' Both developments augur well for future integration of the field with Islamic studies.
On the sufi-New Age nexus and global culture
As part of the modern globalisation of religion in general, the New Age demonstrates the ease of cultural interaction and interchange in the modern world." At a time that calls for investment in positive cultural engagement between Western and Muslim worlds, the sufi—New Age nexus in the West, illustrated by the case of Beshara, deserves particular investigation. It has been suggested that, where the New Age has adopted oriental conceptions, this has been 'as perceived by' those Westerners involved, and 'only to the extent that they could be assimilated into already existing Western frameworks. The selective reconstruction of traditions implied in this comment is a universal feature of the cultural migration of ideas. It is well illustrated by the example of Rauf, himself arguably a Westernised 'Oriental; who imported an 'oriental' conception that was remoulded for its assimilation into Western frameworks marked by countercultural discontent with modernity and the turn to subjectivity. Under Young, and within the changing British spiritual landscape of the last two decades, this process has advanced further, and the nature of Beshara's relationship to the world of sufism and Islam has perhaps become clearer (although not every associate may agree with this assessment, it might be noted). Yet the very presence and activities of Beshara contribute to a gradual broadening of familiarisation with sufi (and by extension Islamic) motifs, images and terminology in society at large. The New Age has been acknowledged as an important indicator of contemporary cultural change. Most striking is its resort to a universal reservoir of resources for understanding and celebrating what it means to be human, implicitly divesting the modern West of its claim to universal cultural validity and breaking the monopoly of divisive cultural and religious paradigms. As sufism takes its place in the global repository of spiritual wisdom, the sufi niche in the global New Age (through movements, practices, literature, tourism, the arts, etc.), while perhaps outwardly insignificant, thus represents a potentially important contribution to the gradual erosion of Western perceptions of Islam as other, and the 'detailed ignorance' that accompanies such perceptions!'
The sufi—New Age nexus illuminates the complexities and paradoxes of the experience of modernity in diverse cultures. As we have suggested, for some of those drawn to it in the advanced industrial societies of the West, the embrace of sufism (whether in its New Age appropriation or otherwise) represents a reaction against modernity. In Muslim contexts, the New Age (perceived as 'modern', but itself implicitly refusing to bow to a blanket privileging of the modern) and sufism (originally the heart of traditional, premodern Islamic piety) are tapped as resources in exploring culturally resonant paths to modernity. The dialectical relation of the New Age to Western culture is of particular interest when it is exported as a global product to cultural contexts where local traditions have furnished resources for its original self-expression. As illustrated in this volume, following its export to the West, Muslim arenas have seen sufism re-imported and embraced by youth in a 'Westernised' New Age form." This can ultimately be applied as a resource in constructing a modernity implicitly indexed to Western patterns, but conceived as distinct from them. In the absence of such repackaged `Western' forms, some of those concerned, who have then gone on to develop a deeper commitment to Muslim culture, may never have become thus involved. Against earlier prejudices, such findings further underline the importance of the New Age as a field of academic enquiry.
On the future of Beshara, religious-spiritual landscapes, and sufism
Like other sixties counterculture New Age seekers, first-generation associates who make up the core of Beshara are now in their fifties (and sixties). They have grown older in the mainstream: while remaining deeply involved, they have settled down, found jobs and established families! Brought up within a milieu influenced by their parents' involvement, the older offspring of these associates are now adults. Given their characteristic aversion to imposing anything, associates are disinclined to frog-march their offspring to Chisholme. Some of these offspring have become deeply involved, and have answered a recent call for 'the next generation' to come forward, so that responsibility within the movement can be handed on.' A considerable number of them (perhaps half, according to one associate) are disinterested, and others look disdainfully upon their parents' involvement! Whether or not they have grown up within the movement, younger associates have not on the whole equipped themselves linguistically to study first-hand the works of Ibn 'Arabi or other sufis (through choices in higher education, for example). This points to an inevitable further distancing from the cultural context of Beshara's source of inspiration in the future, as numbers of first-generation associates who are thus equipped (and who had personally encountered Rauf) decline with time. Some first-generation associates indeed now sense the necessity to reassert consciously and explicitly the universal thrust of Beshara over (perhaps somehow without) its 'Muslim—sufi' casing (somewhat as Rauf had done towards the end of his life), if there is to be a true expression and perpetuation of its original message that will be universally accessible.
The expectation of a new age appears to be less of an immediate preoccupation within the movement today than during the early 1970s. Yet the coming of a new era remains central to associates' understandings of the world, and the tone of Young's discourses in particular serves to underline the urgent need for the changes that will help pave its way. This expectation is clearly evident in the movement's projection of its view of the present times in the public domain, where it appears repeatedly, if without specific detail. It must thus be deemed part of its appeal to those who approach it. Associates have registered with quiet confidence the burgeoning interest in all things spiritual in Western societies in recent years, and the growing challenge mounted by `spirituality' to traditional religious frameworks, the very social and cultural changes of which the movement itself might be construed as a product, and to which it owes its continuing appeal. Projected as harbingers of the approaching materialisation of their utopian vision, such observations have served to vindicate their worldview.
It is noteworthy that Beshara very quickly established an international presence. It has also made good use of opportunities offered by globalisation for enhancing its work. For example, while it is unclear how successful NRMs in general have been in using the internet for self-publicity and recruitment of new members, and although some sociologists suspect that the `disembodied' interface will fail given the importance of social networks in the recruitment process!' Beshara has received a steady flow of students via this particular route, which has also taken it to Indonesia. In general, the movement scores well against Stark's ten propositions specifying the necessary or sufficient conditions for the success of religious movements.' The first of these deserves particular attention: 'New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that they retain cultural continuity with the conventional faith(s) of the societies in which they seek converts:" This suggests that, by drawing on resources associated with a religious tradition perceived as extraneous to the Western cultural context that represents its primary sphere of operation, Beshara competes from a position of relative weakness compared with Judeo-Christian-based movements. In its embrace of key New Age themes, however, it simultaneously taps into an expanding undercurrent in modes of engagement with the sacred in this arena. In the context of the New Age/spirituality of life, notions of cultural capital and its expenditure on conversion demand particular assessment, for the ultimate index is the self and its wellbeing and freedom, rather than the cultural straitjackets of society. It can of course be argued that the New Age represents a particular cultural expression, but its eclecticism points to a confident cultural borrowing and synthesis that defies the logic of Stark's first proposition. Moreover, Campbell's thesis of the Easternisation of the West' must also be placed in the balance.
Beshara's viability as spiritual resource provider becomes clear when viewed alongside the experience of Rauf's contemporaries among Turkish sufi masters, which we illustrated earlier. Several twentieth-century Turkish sufi masters shared with Rauf a general ethos and aspects of approach to the spiritual life, and their followers' perceptions of them resonate closely with associates' perceptions of Rauf. Such masters have often emphasised love and ethics over law, and common humanity over religious divides, for example, and they have eschewed formal institutionalisation. The 'ever-colonizing Turkish dervishes' who have brought their teaching to the West have tended to export a pre-determined formula, however, adapting this ad hoc as necessitated by its new milieu. What sets Beshara apart from their endeavours is the fact that this project was conceived outside of the Muslim milieu: it took shape in response to the search of Western seekers specifically, while Rauf was in the West. This circumstance has served as a powerful counterbalance to the 'alien' cultural—religious provenance of the resources upon which he drew.
A study of the religious—spiritual orientations of the cohort of first-generation associates must reflect on the findings of research on their baby-boomer counterparts mapping developments from the 1960s to the present, as they move beyond late middle age. This may add to our understanding of religious—spiritual trends in this influential generation (which significantly altered the religious—spiritual landscape of the USA)." Beyond this specific cohort, the growing Beshara clientele points more generally to the widespread spiritual quest and search for meaning in the West today. The movement's existence, teaching and approach reflect the impact of transformations associated with modernity on religious life throughout contemporary Western societies, highlighting among others changing understandings of authority and the turn to the self, re-sacralisation, and the 'Easternisation of the West. At the same time, its success points to the potency of its message of 'Oneness' in its capacity as an integrating, `totalising' foil to the fragmenting impacts of modernity.
From a broader perspective, the strong resonance between the narratives of those who have come to Beshara in Britain and seekers in majority Muslim societies who have arrived at a 'new' sufism must be underlined. Differences in starting point, context and destination notwithstanding, the underlying commonalities of motivation and process, reflecting universal impacts of modernisation and characteristic influences of late modernity, are striking. As they search for that which transcends them and gives meaning and purpose to their lives, some of the 'intensely modern' Muslim seekers we have described evince the same emphases as their Western counterparts. They too 'value experience over beliefs, distrust institutions and leaders, stress personal fulfilment yet yearn for community, and are fluid in their allegiance:" All are actively engaged as individuals in 'creating an ongoing personal religious narrative in relation to the symbolic resources available:"
Beshara illuminates facets of the place and role of sufi spirituality in the contemporary world. For example, close collaborative relationships that have developed between associates and 'recent' Turkish Muslim sufis illustrate the strong bonds to which a shared sufi heritage can give rise, notwithstanding significant differences with regard to religious framing, and the potential of the sufi heritage as a channel for cultural rapprochement between Muslim and Western worlds. It is undeniable that modernity imposed unprecedented pressures on sufism as the heart of traditional Muslim piety. Yet it has also occasioned transformations and revitalisation of this in ways unimaginable a century ago. Some Westerners involved with sufism suggest that, when its spiritual treasures began to lose their currency in a modernising Muslim world (where its fate would increasingly be sealed by the triumph of an `exoteric' Islam)," these were providentially rescued by Western souls who lamented a parallel earlier loss in their own societies. While not everyone will agree with this projection, the resuscitation of sufism in its lands of origin and its continued expansion and metamorphosis in the West have undoubtedly been facilitated by the shrinking of space and cultural difference in the modern world, which has made possible strategic alliances aiming to preserve and perpetuate its heritage. Meanwhile, the detachment of sufism from its Islamic and tariqa matrix has had profound implications for the diffusion, democratisation, and, according to some, degradation of sufi traditions. The story of Beshara gives form to one outcome of the profound changes that mark out the sufi experience in the modern world.
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