May 24, 2016
Asian History / Studies, Islamic History / Studies, Religious Studies and Theology, South Asian History / Studies
The Dabistan and Orientalist views of Sufism
Professor Carl W. Ernst (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Tuesday, 24 May, 2016
Room 4429, Main Building, SOAS, London
From the time of Sir William Jones, early British Orientalists were united in their praise of the Dabistan-i mazahib ("School of Teachings"), a 17th-century Persian treatise on all the religious teachings existing in India at the time. The unusual perspective of the author as a follower of the esoteric Zoroastrian movement of Azar Kayvan subsequently led many scholars to discredit it as a reliable historical witness, despite its many quasi-ethnographic observations of contemporary religious behavior and thought. These observations, both admiring and critical, apply particularly to the book's treatment of Sufism in its final chapter. Yet the work's immense popularity, in the deeply flawed 1847 translation of Shea and Troyer, reinforced many common Orientalist stereotypes of Sufism, including its ostensible universality and its supposed lack of connection with Islam. This paper undertakes to assess the character and impact of Shea and Troyer's presentation of Sufism in their translation of the Dabistan, as measured against both the original Persian text and the more robust accounts of Sufism available from other sources.