Politicized Muslim Sainthood in Diaspora: Sufi Networks from Colonial North Africa to the 2011 Syrian Uprising

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The politics of Muslim sainthood has been a joint enterprise between anthropology and history. Scholarship specifically investigating the political stakes of Sufism has manifested itself in theoretical models of the politically-activist Sufi developed in anthropology, which are often taken up in history. In history, this has given rise in particular to a rich body of scholarship across several geographical contexts, offering substantive work on the role of particular Sufi orders, institutional arrangements, personalities, and doctrinal dispositions to motivate political activism. Geographically, historical scholarship on Sufism and politics in the modern period has primarily drawn from colonial case studies, offering rich insights from Muslim South Asia in the British colonial context, and from the Islamic Maghrib and West Africa in the French colonial context. Yet this body of literature is largely synchronic in its scope; while it offers major contributions to the study of Sufism in a narrow geographical context and time period, it rarely offers connections between geographies or historical periods.

My dissertation instead offers a diachronic study of the politics of Sufism, using the contemporary period (modern Syria) to offer deeper interventions into the history of Sufism beyond Syrian borders. Using the tools of ethnographic history, I ultimately argue that the historiographies of two otherwise distinct regions (Syria and the Maghrib) should be viewed as deeply interconnected. Through ethnographic fieldwork with Syrian Sufi scholars in exile, across three field sites (Morocco, Jordan, and Turkey), I investigate the involvement of a particular tradition of Syrian Sufism, the Shadhili-Fasi tradition, in the 2011 Syrian Revolution. In particular, I focus on the movement of the Damascene Shadhili master Shaykh Muhammad Abu ʼl Huda al-Yaqoubi, the first of the Syrian religious scholars to support the Revolution in 2011. Then, combining ethnography with archival research using an array of materials collected from these scholars’ private libraries – including biographical sources, unpublished litanies, and poetry – I trace the historical trajectory of this tradition from its roots in colonial Algeria and Morocco. I employ mobility as a theoretical architecture to explore how this tradition, despite having been properly indigenized in Syria since the late 19th-century, continues to invoke distinctly North African spiritual tropes to inspire political activism. More specifically, I argue that Syrian Sufis mobilize geographical proximity to the Prophet Muhammad, an otherwise North African spiritual trope, as a basis of spiritual and political authority. While otherwise committed to restraint and incrementalism, Syrian Sufi currents turn to revolutionary thought from their Maghribi ancestors in moments of crisis.






Faruqi, Daanish (2021). Politicized Muslim Sainthood in Diaspora: Sufi Networks from Colonial North Africa to the 2011 Syrian Uprising. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/24428.


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