3 Sufi Amnesia in Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Tahdhib al-Akhlaq  76

In: Sufism East and West
Author: Jamal Malik

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One major proponent of anti-Sufi discourse seems to be Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898), the intellectual giant in Muslim South Asia who had a tremendous bearing on Muslim culture and politics in 19th and 20th century India. He is known for his new approach in Urdu historiography, his rationalism and also his Sufi-bashing. Although he wrote quite a bit against traditional Sufism and its practices in British India, thereby silencing and seeking to obliterate Islamic mysticism, his writings nevertheless resonate with Sufi terminology and deliberations harking back to the concept of Tahdhib al-Akhlaq—in Sufi parlance, controlling the carnal self (nafs) by means of reason and in the traditional ashraf culture, the cultivation of man through manners and etiquette. The chapter argues that in his writing in response to European critique, his Muslim ashrafi civility and modernism displayed Sufi traits that can be read as remnants of path dependencies derived from the archives of the self. In doing so, it revisits some of his major contributions such as his “Wahhabi” writings before 1857, the exegesis of the Bible entitled Tabyin al-Kalam (1863ff) and the Urdu journal Tahdhib al-Akhlaq, which he launched in 1870. This ashrafi civility is compounded by some dreams which Sayyid Ahmad Khan narrated to his biographer in his old age, around 1890. Consequently, his Sufi amnesia, strategically employed to silence Sufi accounts, is enmeshed in structural mimesis, such as meticulously following the 19th century natural sciences, and imaginative anamnesis or the remembrance and visualization of the Sufi shaykh, namely the Prophet.