Il Libro come Maestro: Sufismo e Storia della Lettura nel Medioevo Islamico
Between the end of the 8th/14th century and the beginning of the 9th/15th, the literate elites in Yemen and al-Andalus publicly debated the legitimacy and the educational function of Sufi books. In Yemen, where Ibn ʿArabī’s ‘school’ thrived, some jurists urged the ban of his books, while ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Jīlī and his associates extolled their educational virtue for Sufi novices. In al-Andalus, the debate focused on whether books could take the place of the master in Sufi education, an issue whose relevance was felt well beyond Sufi circles, prompting Ibn Ḫaldūn to join the discussion. These controversies, even though they were connected to specific local contexts, are significant in a general way because they offer evidence for the spread of private reading among Sufis in the later Middle Ages. To appreciate the historical importance of this, one should ask how far it is new and whether it is limited to Sufism. These two questions are addressed in
the first two parts of this article. The first part outlines key changes relating to Sufi literary output in the 12th and 13th centuries. In particular, it examines the tension between orality and writing within Sufism, and the ways in which the written transmission of mystical knowledge was controlled or repressed. The second part draws attention to shared paradigms of both esoteric and exoteric knowledge as the connection between private reading and innovation, and the preservation of oral symbolism in written transmission. Finally, the third part re-examines the 14th and 15th-century debates from the angle of the history of reading in medieval Sufism. The arguments exchanged in these debates bear witnesses to changes in reading practice linked to the shifting relationships between authority and knowledge in Islamic cultural history.
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