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Sufi Hagiography

Bāyazīd and his Heritage in Islamic Mysticism

(Annabel Keeler)

One of the most celebrated figures in the history of Sufism is that of the 9th century mystic Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī, popularly known as Bāyazīd. Despite the controversial (if not apparently blasphemous) nature some of his sayings, which are often cited alongside the infamous utterances of the al-Ḥallāj (executed in 309/922), Bāyazīd became widely known as the ‘Prince of Mystics’ (sulṭān al-ʿārifīn) and was a significant source of inspiration and influence for many Sufis who came after him. Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d.672/1273), for example, mentions him more than any other mystic in his Mathnawī, and the same has been said of Ibn ʿArabī (d. 638/1240) and his works. In fact, there is hardly a work of Sufism that does not cite his sayings or some anecdote about him. One of the fascinating aspects of the Bāyazīd’s heritage is that later mystics of different schools of thought retrospectively ‘adopted’ him as their ancestor in the mystical way. Thus we find that IbnʿArabī shows him as an exemplar of the school of blame (malāmatiyya), whereas Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā Suhrawardī (587/1191) sees him as his ancestor in the School of Illuminationist Philosophy, relating a dream in which Aristotle tells him that Bāyazīd is ‘one of the philosophers and sages in the trues sense of the word’.

 Given Bāyazīd’s importance for the history of Islamic mysticism, it is surprising to find that there has been no recent in-depth academic study of his life and thought. This is possibly because academics have been daunted by the legend itself, by the inevitable amount of apocryphal material about him that has accumulated over the centuries. Yet there is a substantial body of early material that deserves rigorous re-examination. Moreover, in addition to the better-known sources on his life there are other early Sufi treatises that have only recently been discovered and published. This research project is broadly divided into two parts:

 a)    A study of the life and thought of Bāyazīd

This comprises a close examination sayings of, and anecdotes about Bāyazīd cited in all the earliest hagiographical and non-hagiographical sources, those written between the 10th and 13th centuries. This is being collated with material on him that appears in numerous later sources. The aim of this intra- and inter-textual study is firstly to try to discover material that is most likely to be authentic. But the comparison of earlier and later material is also providing insights into the way that hagiography and ‘legend building’ works in Sufism. 

b)    A study of the impact and influence of Bāyazīd on later Sufism

This will examine Bāyazīd’s impact and influence on later Sufism from the point of view of doctrine, sayings and mode of expression (i.e. his literary influence), and how later mystics/philosophers ‘appropriated’ him in different ways as their exemplar or ancestor. It will also consider the controversial nature of Bāyazīd and how certain Sufis and theologians either criticised or tried to justify his sayings.

 In addition to two articles that have already been published (‘Bāyazīd Bisṭāmī’, in Maḥmūd Riḍā Isfandiyār, ed., Āshnāyān-i rāh-i ʿishq, Tehran, 2006, pp. 35-74; and ‘Rumi and Bayazid: Hagiographical Moments in the Masnavi-ye Maʿnavi’ in the Proceedings of the Symposium of Mawlana Rumi, Istanbul, May 2007, Istanbul, 2010), it is envisaged that this research will result in the publication of a new monograph, The Life and Thought of Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī, as well as several articles if not a second monograph on the impact of Bāyazīd on later Sufism.