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Book review: Father Scatolini on Islamic Sufism

New grand volume brings together texts and the history of major Sufi figures across seven centuries of Islamic civilisation

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 24 Feb 2013
Father Scatolini
Father Scatolini
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Al-Tagaleyat Al-Ruheya fil Islam (Spiritual Transfigurations in Islam) by Father Josibi Scatolini and Ahmed Hassan Anwar, Cairo: Family Library – General Egyptian Book Organisation, 2012. 684pp.

Many orientalists have studied the history and literature of Arab culture, preserving rare manuscripts from total loss or destruction, serving humanity as a whole by documenting and publishing rare works.

Islamic Sufism, however, was difficult to handle, even for Arab specialists, due to the complex language and philosophical concepts. That's why the service done by Italian monk Father Josibi Scatolinii to Sufism is quite tremendous, and this book isn't the last of these services.

Scatolini was born in Italy 1942 and obtained his bachelors in theology from Milan in 1968, studying Arabic afterwards in Lebanon while gaining a diploma in Arab studies in 1971. He then continued his education in Cairo until 1987.

Maybe the grandest of services Scatolini offered to Islamic Sufism was documenting the Sufi poetry of Ibn Al-Farez in a colection published with an introduction by Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayyeb.

In addition to Scatolini, who now works at the Papal Institute for Islamic Studies in Rome, his student Ahmed Hassan Anwar shared in preparing this volume. As written in the introduction, the idea of this volume came when Father Scatolini wished to compile the Sufi texts he taught for a long time in Rome for his students to benefit from, and indeed the preparation of the text has helped Anwar himself who is now preparing his PhD on Sufism, supervised by Scatolini.

The volume includes a very wide collection of Sufi texts from among the most important characters and leaders of Islamic Sufi schools throughout seven centuries, from the first century after Hijra (the migration of the Prophet Mohammad to Medina) to the seventh, organised chronologically so the reader can follow the life contribution and texts of major Arab Sufis, as well as the development of Sufism itself from its core idea during the 7th century.

The book includes a mix of texts and biographies of major Sufi figures, focusing on the roles played by Al-Hallaj, Zunuun Al-Masry and Abu-Yazid Al-Bostamy during the 3rd and early 4th Hijri centuries.

The age of the major Sufists, between 4th and 5th Hijri centuries, takes up over 200 pages of the volume due to its importance, and includes texts by major Sufists such as Al-Naffary, Al-Shibly and Al-Ghazaly. As the authors of the volumes describe, this era represented a major step change from the pure creativity of Sufi experience to the collection of Sufi texts and producing them in volumes with their names.

The third section of the volume includes philosophical Sufism that started during the 6th and 7th Hijri centuries, where Sufism coalesced into major currents around forefathers like Abdel-Kader Al-Gillani, and also Al-Refaeyya, Al-Mawalaweya and others. Sufi thinkers and philosophers present during this era included Rumi and Ibn-Araby and Al-Sakandary.

Father Scatolini attempts in the introduction to the volume to explain to the reader why he was interested in Islamic Sufism while being a Christian man of religion and theology. Scatolini underlines that Islamic Sufism is of great spiritual value, not within Islam but for all civilisations and religions.

Each religion, Scatolini says, includes a mystical angle. Islamic Sufism isn't an orphan; it develops in great harmony with other religious and spiritual currents.

Scatolini places the Sufi experience at the heart of the religious experience, promoting it as a grounding for core dialogue between religions and a foundation for discussion across civilisations.

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