On terminology: A sufi polemic against the “mutafaqqihūn” of Damascus

Reading Ignaz Goldziher’s summary (1874) of a sufi’s lament over the corruption of Syrian Islamdom under the Mamluks, I was struck by the sufi’s choice in terminology.

The Maghribī born ʿAlī b. Maymūn attacks current practices of the jurists and sufis of Syria (and Damascus, in particular) but in the title of his work Bayyān ghurbat al-islām bi-wāsiṭa ṣinfai al-mutafaqqiha wa-l-mutafaqqira min ahl Miṣr wa-l-Shām wa-mā yalīhimā min bilād al-aʽjām he does not use the common terms faqīh and ṣūfī. Rather, he refers to them as mutafaqqihūn and mutafaqqirūn. This grammatical form opens up a wide semantic field.

A quick search on shamila shows that these terms are overall uncommon. They only appear ever so often throughout the different Arabic disciplines. Ibn Maymūn seems an exception in using them throughout his work. So what does that mean? Does he use them in a polemic, perhaps even propagandistic way? The use of the form tafaʿʿala is peculiar in itself. Whereas faqīh commonly refers to an accomplished jurist, this form indicates a more abstract notion, describing those people who follow the way or approach of fiqh (jurisprudence) to gain understanding of God, whereas the mutafaqqirūn, in contrast to the accomplished fuqarāʾ, only aspire to gain the same knowledge by a different path (but have not achieved it yet). These might respond to the distinction of two categories of knowledge (ʿilm al-ẓāhir / ʿilm al-bāṭin), Ibn Maymūn uses in an earlier work (Goldziher 1874, p. 301). The grammatical form can further be interpreted as meaning ‘those who pretend to be jurists / sufis’. In the light of the general argument of the work, this seems most plausible.

This notion of the state of Syrian scholarship and sufism becomes clearer in the course of Ibn Maymūn’s argument, which, after starts out with plead for a reconciliation of both approaches, proceeds to outline all the faults of Syrians in both areas. The individual points addressed by Ibn Maymūn (and summarized by Goldziher) are all intriguing on their own account. They offer insight into a number of contemporaneous practices, the Maghribī sufi regarded as wrong and dangerous.

Yet, they seem to only illustrate what he outlines already in the title of the work: His choice in terminology already diminishes the status of both Syrian sufis and jurists a priori, casting them down from full fledged representatives of their respective status groups to mere aspirants to the knowledge, these approaches offer.


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