Children of the Zawiya : narratives of faith, family, and transformation among Sufi communities in modern Damascus

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Doerre, Sharon Louise

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Modern Syria is the site of this intellectual and spiritual exploration of Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam. Sufism, long considered a dying form of Muslim worship, and a system of often criticized by some governments and fundamentalist organizations, is enjoying a renaissance in many Muslim countries, including Syria. The author spent fifteen months in Damascus engaged in intensive anthropological fieldwork. Utilizing the classic methods of participant-observation, the author discusses the gradual process by which she became part of a community around a Rifâ'îyya shaykh. This entailed not conversion to Islam but rather a growing attunement to the discursive and affective world of Sufi Islam. This is a process that mirrors the progression of Sufi discipleship itself. The result is a practice-based ethnography focused on a close examination of the spiritual, ritual, and everyday practices of the community xii or children of the zâwiya who gather around the father figure of the shaykh. The author explores the discursive world created by some Muslims in Damascus, Syria today who feel an attraction to the mystical dimensions of Islam. This attraction is an individual matter and can strike people across the socio-economic spectrum of modern Syria. Most often such an orientation leads to a relationship with a Sufi shaykh; one who demonstrates a close connection to God through their knowledge of the mystical realities that underlie ordinary life. As the author was incorporated into the household of a Sufi shaykh in modern Damascus, she learned the narrative forms, interpretative frameworks, and storytelling conventions that distinguish Sufi Islam from other strands of Islamic practice. These narratives and related practices are distinct and important, the author argues because they offer individuals the possibility for change and transformation without rejecting the traditional religious and patriarchal bases of society. For some individuals participation in the community of a zâwiya and the reliance on a Sufi shaykh for guidance in both spiritual and mundane matters becomes an important strategy for negotiating the complexities of modern life



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