Introduction Part 1: Al-Wāsiṭī’s Autobiography

In: The Journeys of a Taymiyyan Sufi
Arjan Post
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I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Chapters 1 to 3 of this book follow the course of al-Wāsiṭī’s life through a detailed study of the autobiographical passages from his writings. There is one source in particular that stands out from all others in that regard: an autobiographical treatise of about forty pages, which he wrote at the beginning of the eighth/fourteenth century (“fī ra⁠ʾs al-sabʿimiʾa”), in all likelihood not long after he had become a member of Ibn Taymiyya’s circle.63 It is published as ‘Riḥlat al-Imām Ibn Shaykh al-Ḥazzāmiyyīn min al-taṣawwuf al-munḥarif ilā taṣawwuf ahl al-ḥadīth wa-al-athar,’ which we may render as ‘The Journey of Imam Ibn Shaykh al-Ḥazzāmiyyīn [al-Wāsiṭī] from deviant Sufism to the Sufism of the traditionalists.’64 Although this title evidently reflects the editor’s bias, it is not difficult to argue that it does do justice to reality as al-Wāsiṭī himself saw it.

The narrative he himself very clearly puts forth is that he indeed traveled from several deviant manifestations of the Sufi path to finally arrive unto the one that was in all respects in accordance with the purest form of Islam: traditionalism. This, he explains in the treatise’s introduction, is also the very reason he had decided to write it: to warn his readers against the many misguided groups (mostly Sufis, but also jurists) that had become prevalent in his age and guide them towards a form of religiosity that effectively combines jurisprudence, theology, and Sufism in the most appropriate way:

I wanted to describe the state of my journey (riḥlatī) during my spiritual search and what I have come across of groups (ṭawāʾif) that deviate from truth and rightness … so that it may provide insight and proof for the seeker of guidance in our age and become a stairway to knowledge (maʿrifa) of what God (T) desires from His servants regarding their religious requirements, beliefs (ʿuqūd), and spiritual states (aḥwāl).65

Simply put, he expresses the hope that his readers – most probably traditionalists interested in the Sufi path – learn from his experiences during his journey so that they would discern why the course he chose in the end is the only correct course, and all others are false. The idea for it, so he tells us, came to him after a study of the biography (sīra) of the Prophet Muḥammad, wherein he read the tale of the well-known Persian Companion Salmān al-Fārisī and his journey towards Islam. This account inspired him because he found that there were similarities between Salmān’s journey and his own.66 Looking back on his travels from Wāsiṭ to Baghdad, Alexandria, Cairo, and Damascus, and reflecting on the different groups he had encountered, the sentiment he seems to convey is that, like Salmān, God had guided him away from misguidance towards the pure religion revealed to the Prophet Muḥammad.

Since his descriptions of this journey provide the pillars upon which chapters 1 to 3 are built, it is necessary to make note of several critical considerations that are important for the scholarly approach in this part of the present book with regard to the genre of autobiography. This is, after all, the genre of literature with which we are dealing here.

Historians have long neglected autobiography as a historical source, for the greater part because the genre revolves around writing about the ‘self,’ and was thence naturally regarded as being much more suspect to subjectivity than other genres of historical writing. It is only rather late in the second half of the twentieth century that the study of autobiographies rapidly developed into a subfield of its own. This development was undoubtedly to a large degree facilitated by the emergence of the new critical theory of deconstruction, which severely challenged notions of objectivity and historical truth.67

Doors opened to consider autobiographical texts as historical sources, sources that may in fact provide unique information due to their paradoxical nature – for, as Albert E. Stone defines it, autobiography is “simultaneously historical record and literary artefact, psychological case history and spiritual confession, didactic essay and ideological statement.”68 As such, autobiographies may contain deliberate misrepresentations and lies – which is of course among the main reasons why academics have previously disregarded the genre. However, as Jennifer Jensen Wallach amongst others has argued, these misrepresentations and lies may actually be of great value to the historian, because one “might learn a great deal about how an individual perceived herself and her times (if the witness’s misrepresentation is honest), or about how she would like to be remembered (if her lies are more calculated).”69 The first-person perspective of autobiography allows one to see a past world through the eyes of its author, and emphatically reconstruct and “re-feel” what he or she has gone through. Moreover, Wallach argues, autobiographies are literally verifiable, for although they may “stretch, evade, or incorrectly portray the truth, they are grounded in real people, places, and things …”70 Thus, by critically studying such texts in combination with other primary and secondary sources related to the geographical and historical context of their respective authors, one can extract historical data from them.71

In spite of the fact that it is a primary source that may tell us a lot about the religious context of the autobiographer, there has been relatively little attention for autobiography within the field of religious studies.72 Indeed, when it comes to the study of the medieval Muslim world specifically, there are but few contributions by academics that rely heavily upon one or more autobiographical texts. It must be noted that while Muslim scholars certainly produced writings that fall within the genre, it was no common practice in premodern times to write a book that explicitly revolves around oneself. Nevertheless, several examples of autobiographical texts by premodern figures from the Muslim world are available today, and several have in fact been translated into English and other European languages.73 To my knowledge, the best attempt at a complete survey of this genre is found in the volume Interpreting the Self (2001), edited by Dwight F. Reynolds, though it only focuses on autobiographies written in Arabic.74

For our present purpose of critically reading al-Wāsiṭī’s Riḥla, Reynolds’ volume makes a distinction between different categories of autobiographies that can be useful. Based on the book’s categorization, our Iraqi Sufi very clearly follows the literary conventions of the category that is called “spiritual autobiographical writings.” In such writings

… the author’s path of spiritual development constitutes the central focus of the text. They are thus by definition texts that portray primarily an “inner self” and are constructed on a model of transformation and development. They are also, even more clearly than their scholarly counterparts, constructed as models for emulation in the sense that embedded in the text is a call or an invitation to the reader to travel the same spiritual path. Several of these texts culminate with the author’s “conversion” to the spiritual or mystical life and may thus also be linked to conversion autobiographies such as those by Samaw’al al-Maghribī, who converted to Islam in the twelfth century, and the Christian writer Fray Anselmo Turmeda, who converted to Islam in the fourteenth century.75

There are two characteristic elements of the spiritual autobiography mentioned above that are of particular relevance to us: first, that it is written as a model for emulation and, second, that it may sometimes work towards a specific moment of conversion to the mystical life. Such a conversion narrative is fittingly described by Hartman Leitner as follows:

He who recounts his conversion does not simply reconstruct events in retrospect, but literally describes himself in the language of his (new) faith. The conversion narrative is nothing more than an act of self-description, in which the speaker narratively constructs his identity as a convert, presenting himself as a convert. The form of narrative does not refer to an event independent of the narrative, but is itself already a level of representation.76

As already noted above, al-Wāsiṭī writes in the very introduction to his autobiography that his main purpose is to provide guidance for seekers of God by simultaneously warning them against deviant groups and providing directions towards the true spiritual path. He does so by recounting his own road to traditionalist Islam, thus writing his story as a model of development with the point where he converted to the Ahl al-Ḥadīth and harmonized his Sufi doctrine with its principles as the ultimate outcome of spiritual perfection.

He effectively tells this story through the lens of the person he had become in Damascus, thus judging the religious groups he had previously come across in a way that may not always reflect the thoughts and feelings he truly experienced as he accompanied them prior to his conversion. Hence, it remains difficult, indeed in most cases impossible, to reconstruct where the critical conclusions he claims to have arrived at during his journey are not simply insights that he came to develop as a member of Ibn Taymiyya’s circle – views that he projected back in the Riḥla for the sake of his conversion narrative. In chapter 1, for instance, we will see that he puts forth the claim in his autobiography that he had something of a natural disposition towards traditionalist theology quite early on in his life, even as a follower of the Shāfiʿī school. However, his Riḥla remains silent in regard to the Ashʿarī creed to which he was in all likelihood exposed when he studying Shāfiʿī jurisprudence as a youth, which is seemingly hinted at in another (presumably earlier) treatise he wrote about God’s attributes. His omission of any exposure to Ashʿarism at that time in his life may very well have been a conscious choice in consideration of his audience, which was probably predominantly traditionalist. But again, the reality of such matters cannot be verified. Although we must thus remain critical of the moral and theological judgments al-Wāsiṭī claims to have come to during his journey, especially in consideration of the conversion narrative he adopts, the current study will first and foremost read them as reflections of the way he wants his readers to perceive himself and his times. In that sense they represent the worldview of a medieval traditionalist Sufi.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Map of the places al-Wāsiṭī visited on his journey

In spite of these critical considerations, there is certainly much to be found in al-Wāsiṭī’s autobiographical writings that can be historicized. In fact, it is, above all, in the passages that set out to describe the routines of the religious groups he accompanied that the following chapters will provide unique insights from a first-person perspective. As I have already mentioned in the introduction, the abundant primary and secondary sources about these groups, and the contexts in which our Iraqi Sufi found them, has made it possible to critically examine the veracity of his descriptions. Having said that, we may now begin with his Riḥla, from his Iraqi hometown of Wāsiṭ.


Al-Wāsiṭī, Riḥla, p. 16.


This is the title given by the editor, Abū al-Faḍl al-Qūnawī, who states in his introduction that the original manuscript does not contain a title (cf. p. 8). The current study relies on the first edition published in Konya, Turkey by the editor himself in 2005. There is a second print of the same edition in the collective volume al-ʿImādiyyāt, from the hand of the same editor and published in Beirut by Dār al-kutub al-ʿilmiyya (pp. 25–51) in 2010. There do not appear to be any differences between the two prints.


Al-Wāsiṭī, Riḥla, p. 15.




On this development, see: Charles Berryman, “Critical Mirrors: Theories of Autobiography,” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 32, no. 1 (March 1999): pp. 71–75; the remainder of the article provides a good overview of the study of autobiographies.


As quoted in Berryman, “Critical Mirrors,” p. 80.


Jennifer Jensen Wallach, “Building a Bridge of Words: The Literary Autobiography as His­torical Source Material,” Biography 29.3 (2006): p. 450.


Ibid. p. 459.


Ibid. pp. 447–449.


Jens Schlamelcher, “Religious Studies,” in Handbook of Autobiography / Autofiction, ed. Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), vol. I, pp. 161–162.


For autobiographical writings related to Sufism, see for instance: Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad b. Muḥammad al-Ghazālī, Al-Ghazali’s Path to Sufism. His Deliverance from Error: Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal, trans. Richard J. McCarthy (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae Publishing, 2000); Aḥmad b. Muḥammad Ibn ʿAjība, The Autobiography of the Moroccan Sufi, trans. Jean-Louis Michon & David Streight (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999); Rūzbihān b. Abī al-Naṣr Baqlī, The Unveiling of Secrets: Diary of a Sufi Master, trans. Carl W. Ernst (Chapel Hill NC: Parvardigar Press, 1997).


For an overview of the study of premodern Arabic autobiograpgies I refer the reader to the recent survey in that regard by Susanne Enderwitz, “Classical Arabic Autobiography,” in Handbook of Autobiography / Autofiction, ed. Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), vol. II, pp. 827–849.


Dwight F. Reynolds (ed.), Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 47.


Hartman Leitner, “Wie man ein neuer Mensch wird, oder: Die Logik der Bekehrung,” in Bio­graphische Sozialisation, ed. Erika M. Hoerning (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2000), p. 65 (trans­lation my own).

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