SOAS University of London

SOAS South Asia Institute

The Dabistan and Orientalist views of Sufism

Dabistan and Orientalist views of Sufism
Professor Carl W. Ernst (UNC-Chapel Hill)

Date: 24 May 2016Time: 6:30 PM

Finishes: 24 May 2016Time: 8:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: 4429

Type of Event: Seminar


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. 

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The Dabistan and Orientalist views of Sufism


​Carl W. Ernst is a specialist in Islamic studies, with a focus on West and South Asia. His published research, based on the study of Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, has been mainly devoted to the study of three areas: general and critical issues of Islamic studies, premodern and contemporary Sufism, and Indo-Muslim culture. He has received research fellowships from the Fulbright program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and he has been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His current research projects include an edited volume on Islamophobia in America (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013), studies of Muslim interpreters of Indian religions, and a translation of the Arabic poetry of al-Hallaj. His most recent book is How to Read the Qur'an: A New Guide, with Select Translations (UNC Press, 2011). His other publications, which have received several international awards, include Rethinking Islamic Studies: From Orientalism to Cosmopolitanism (co-edited with Richard Martin, 2010); Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (2003); Sufi Martyrs of Love: Chishti Sufism in South Asia and Beyond (co-authored with Bruce Lawrence, 2002); Teachings of Sufism (1999); a translation of The Unveiling of Secrets: Diary of a Sufi Master by Ruzbihan Baqli (1997); Guide to Sufism (1997); Ruzbihan Baqli: Mystical Experience and the Rhetoric of Sainthood in Persian Sufism (1996); Eternal Garden: Mysticism, History, and Politics at a South Asian Sufi Center (1993); and Words of Ecstasy in Sufism (1985). 

He studied comparative religion at Stanford University (A.B. 1973) and Harvard University (Ph.D. 1981). He has done extended research tours in India (1978-79, 1981), Pakistan (1986, 2000, 2005), and Turkey (1991), and is a regular visitor to the Gulf, Turkey, Iran, and Southeast Asia for lectures and conferences. He has taught at Pomona College (1981-1992) and has been appointed as visiting lecturer in Paris (EHESS, 1991, 2003), the University of Seville (2001), and the University of Malaya (2005, 2010). On the faculty of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1992, he has been department chair (1995-2000) and Zachary Smith Professor (2000-2005) as well as member of the Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association. He is now William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor (2005-present) and Co-Director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. He and Bruce Lawrence are co-editors of the Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks Series at the University of North Carolina Press. 


This event is free to attend and open to all. No registration is required.

Organiser: MUSA Research Forum

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