Indiana University Research & Creative Activity April 1998 Volume XXI Number 1

An Insight into 13th-Century Islam

Stepping from the worldview of a twentieth century Western woman into the mind set of a thirteenth-century Muslim spiritual leader is no small task. Mary Ann Danner-Fadae, a visiting faculty member in the Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, would have to agree. Making that leap was exactly what she had to do to translate Ibn 'Ata' Allah's Miftah al-Falah wa Misbah al-Arwah, or The Key to Salvation and the Lamp of Souls.

Mary Ann Danner-Fadae, a visiting faculty member in the Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, is currently translating and editing an early twentieth-century classic work on comparative Islamic law. --credit

Miftah al-Falah details the Shadhili Sufi principles and techniques of dhikr, remembering God. It discusses what this practice means to a person and the effects it has on physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, and intellectual levels.

The book's focus on the spiritual dimension of Islam is what initially intrigued Danner-Fadae. Because it was written by Ibn 'Ata' Allah, the third of the great masters of the Shadhili Sufi order, it is of great value for academics and lay people alike. "Each Islamic order has different practices, and this book is a tremendous resource for learning about those practices as well as for tracing the development of the Shadhili order from this period," she says.

Besides becoming familiar with Ibn 'Ata' Allah's language, vocabulary, and style, she found she also had to get past her own preconceived ideas about Islam. Her study of Sufi practices in the book broke many stereotypical views she had held toward Islam, and that was a dimension of the project she did not expect.

She says she had had a stereotyped view of Islam as narrow minded and biased against women. Instead she came to the realization that Islam is a tolerant religion and came to understand the contrasts and distinctions between religious teachings and cultural tradition. "You see women covering themselves from head to toe in many Muslim communities," Danner-Fadae says, "but that's cultural. That's an interpretation of Islamic scripture, and while the Qur'an, taken as the literal word of God, cannot be changed, interpretations--such as covering a woman's face as opposed to dressing modestly or this or that other aspect of tradition--can vary."

Looking at the context in which Ibn 'Ata' Allah wrote Miftah al-Falah, the Islamic civilization of the Middle Ages was phenomenal in its successes in art and knowledge. The culture had the foremost doctors and scientists of their day, Danner-Fadae says. Its scholars were advanced in grammar and poetry, sciences, medicine, math, and astronomy. At a time when London and Paris had mud streets, Islamic civilization had paved streets, sewer systems, public baths, and other elaborate architecture. "Western Europeans learned Arabic to learn from Islamic civilization, especially to study their medical texts," she says. "A tradition could not flourish 1,400 years without some significance to it. It could not be superficial to have lasted these centuries and create such a tremendous civilization and such devoted followers."

Danner-Fadae finds that the past can teach you much more than you realize, if you let yourself be receptive. "You have to concentrate on what is being said. I try to let the voice of the author come through," she says. "Then you can focus on the message. But I do explain areas of the text that would not be clear to a Western reader. If you're translating impartially, you can explain the text, and it's up to others to judge if it's for them or not."

Some spiritual schools of Islam teach that different interpretations among religious experts are "a mercy," according to Danner-Fadae. The mercy comes because, she says, "differing interpretations give you a choice. With the range from extreme to the more tolerant interpretations, you can decide which you're comfortable with and can accept." Tolerance is one aspect of Islam that has greatly impressed Danner-Fadae. "It's not like many other religions," she says, "in that it recognizes other religions, like Judaism and Christianity, as valid. They still feel their own is the right one, of course, or else they'd be following the other ones."

Ibn 'Ata' Allah originally wrote Miftah al-Falah as a manual for disciples, and he even included a list of the different Divine Names for disciples to recite, based on their character, temperament, spiritual needs, and hoped-for outcomes. Over time, this book became a part of traditional Sufi literature. Even today, Miftah al-Falah continues to be published. The book gives readers--whether pious, curious, or
academic--a feeling of historical continuity from the thirteenth century to today.
Danner-Fadae says scholars are grateful Ibn 'Ata' Allah wrote so much about his founder and his own shaykh, or teacher, and what they were like. The book offers insights into their daily lives and presents the teachings, practices, and methodology used in teaching the essence of the Qur'an and Sufism. The book has tremendous significance on many levels, Danner-Fadae says. "It provides an in-depth look into Sufi traditions of the Shadhili order of the thirteenth century and has extensive research and documentation, which makes it of interest to scholars, and it is also valuable on a personal level for those looking for spiritual direction." --Leigh Hedger

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