Born in Pakistan and raised in the United States, Sara received her MAIS in Women and Gender Studies with a focus in Sufism from George Mason University in 2012. Her master’s thesis – “Beyond Binary Barzakhs: Using the Theme of Liminality in Islamic Thought to Question the Gender Binary” – reflects on the works of Ibn Arabi, Rumi, and Bulleh Shah, presenting a fresh perspective on the experiences of those who identify as hijras or “third genders” in South Asia. Sara is currently a doctoral student at the University of Maryland’s Women’s Studies PhD program, continuing her focus on Sufism as an epistemological approach to feminist theory. She is fluent in English, Urdu/Hindi, Punjabi, and is currently pursuing Persian. Sara comes to UMD with many years of professional experience working for international NGOs including United Nations platform committees.
Work-in-Progress; Please do not quote without author’s permission
Luxocratic Critical Play via Sufi Threshold Theorizing:
An Attempt at Affirmative Intensity and A-dualistic Modes of Thinking
The Women’s Studies Genealogies course syllabus begins with the lyrics from a Leonard Cohen song: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” I am reminded of Rumi’s famous verse, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Heading toward the end of my first year as a doctoral student in a Women’s Studies program, my body is aching. I am happy here. Why is my body aching? The massage therapist tells me the body cannot decipher between “good stress” and “bad stress;” the body reacts the same way to both kinds of stresses, she explains. Are my muscles so tense because I have been trying to give a perfect offering? Or is it because I am the wound, the crack, where the light gets in.
All day, I have been mulling over an article posted in the Facebook group “Islam and Theory.” The article written by renowned postcolonial philosopher and critical theorist, Hamid Dabashi, is titled “Can non-Europeans think? What happens with thinkers who operate outside the European philosophical ‘pedigree’?” It summarizes many of my frustrations with the current state of women and gender studies. Dabashi highlights the Eurocentric nature of “philosophy today,” including Judith Butler whose genealogy goes back to Derrida and Foucault. He writes,
“Why is it that if Mozart sneezes it is “music”…but the most sophisticated Indian music ragas are the subject of “ethnomusicology”?...Why is European philosophy “philosophy,” but African philosophy ethnophilosophy.
In women’s studies, why are those whose lineages go back to Eurocentric philosophers considered feminist theorists, and those who fall outside this purview relegated to choose from the labels of postcolonial feminist theorist or transnational feminist theorist? The majority of the thinkers whose works we have covered thus far in my women and gender studies classes are those thinkers whose works contain Eurocentric DNA.
One such thinker is Mary Flanagan, whose work Critical Play: Radical Game Design begins with a quote by Michael Foucault and then goes on to repetitively make claims such as wordplay being a nineteenth century phenomenon. Given Dabashi’s concern, one can easily spend more than a term paper critiquing the limitations of Flanagan’s approach. On the other hand, given Karen Barad’s notion of quantum leaps, the focus of this paper will not be merely circling around the East-West dichotomy. Barad describes quantum leaps as,
Unlike any ordinary experience of jumping or leaping, when an electron makes a quantum leap it does so in a discontinuous fashion (belying the very notion of a “leap”…) The electron is initially at one energy level and then it is at another without having been anywhere in between.
In an effort to move past discussions of postcoloniality and neo-orientalism, a quantum leap is attempted in the following pages. Rather than simply critiquing Flanagan as problematic through a postcolonial lens, the purpose of this paper is to reflect on Flanagan’s notion of critical play through the sense of play found in South Asian Sufi poetry and vice versa. AnaLouise Keating’s threshold theorizing, Layli Maparyan’s womanist LOXOCRACY, and Rick Dolphijn’s notions of negativity and dualism will be interweaved throughout the paper.
In her chapter “Language Games,” Flanagan explores language play techniques used by artists. This is a process of creating a play space through “certain forms of language invention” or “the use of words themselves as a medium.” She asks the following key questions: “How do [language games] subvert language itself?” and “What kinds of language play can be unearthed from artists’ practices?” While most of Flanagan’s examples focus on ancient visual art’s use double entendre to produce visual puns, her questions may be applied to South Asian Sufi poetry as well. “Language plays with culture, especially language as used by artists, can help designers find methods of consciousness raising, or tools for social commentary,” explains Flanagan. Sufi poetry’s use of double or triple entendre is one of the ways in which language plays with culture, including challenging authority and questioning hegemonic practices of religion. Language games as used by poets can help both the poets and readers or oral transmitters use this subversion of language as a method for consciousness raising or tool for religio-spiritual and social commentary.
An illustration of this is in the following verses taken from a Punjabi qawali (Sufi devotional song).
Padhi namaz te niyaaz na sikhayaa
You read your prayer and learned no giving
Teriyan kis kam padhiyan namaazan…
Of what use was all your praying?
Ilm padhya te amlaan na kita
You gained knowledge and did not act upon it
Teriyan kis kam kityan vaadan…
Of what use were your efforts?
Othay amlaan de honay ne navaday
Over there, actions will be the judge
Kisay nai teri zaat puchni
Nobody is going to ask about your zaat
In other words, the poet is using critical language to question, what is the use of canonical prayer, or being “religious,” if one does not learn to be giving or compassionate? What is the use of attaining years upon years of education or knowledge, if one is not transformed through said knowledge? What use is theory if practice is not affected by it? The “over there” is referring to the day-of-judgment or the afterlife. Zaat contains various meanings depending on the context, but it is always related to identity. Asking about a family’s zaat would be referring to a caste or social class. Using it after the word for woman – i.e.: aurat zaat – would be including all those who identify with the gender performance of a woman. The last two verses are a cyclical language play on words that critiques the binary of this life and the afterlife. The poet is exclaiming to those who deem themselves better based on race/class/gender, that none of this matters in the end, only one’s actions will count; that is also to say, if only actions will count “over there,” then only actions count in the here-and-now. The poet/singer/listener are critiquing traditional understanding of religion by challenging identity politics, through the use of language play.
This critical language play takes place at the threshold between the poet’s words (or the singer’s performance) and the reader or listener’s understanding – what AnaLouise Keating refers to as “threshold theorizing.” Keating’s main concern in her work Transformation Now: Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change,” is that “oppositional thinking erodes our alliances and communities.” Keating appropriately incorporates Gloria Anzaldua’s theory of nepantlera:
A type of threshold person or world traveler: someone who enters into and interacts with multiple, often conflicting, political/cultural/ideological/ethnic/etc. worlds and yet refuses to entirely adopt, belong to, or identify with any single belief, group, or location.
Jalal al-Din Rumi, thirteenth century Persian poet, was a world-traveler who was physically uprooted from his home at a very young age and sent upon a journey from home to home, and intellectually and spiritually uprooted upon his meeting with Shams, the muse or Beloved who inspired much of his works in later life for which he is now known. He entered and interacted with multiple, often conflicting, political/cultural/ideological/ethnic/etc. worlds and yet repetitively expressed that he refused to adopt, belong to, or identify with any single belief, group or location. His threshold position in life is reflected in the threshold poetry as he consistently reminds us that “I am neither Muslim, nor Christian…I am neither of this world, nor of the next.” The oft-repeated verse is nothing if not threshold theorizing: out beyond the ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field, I will meet you there. All the while remaining rooted in Islamic religio-spirituality, while challenging the hegemonic understanding and practices of said religio-spiritual context.
Thus, Rumi’s radical expression is further explained by what Layli Maparyan coins as “LUXOCRACY,” a key element of the womanist idea.
LUXOCRACY takes as fundamental that all persons are unique manifestations of the One, the All, the Creator, SOURCE. As such, each person’s Inner Light guides the manifestation of that uniqueness across the span of a lifetime. The optimal purpose of society is to foster, facilitate, nurture, protect, and coordinate the expression of every person’s Innate Divinity simultaneously.
Here, the term LOXOCRACY can easily be re/placed with Sufism. The significance of activism being fueled by spirituality is critical in both womanist thought and Sufi thought. Islamic mysticism is a holistic approach to and expression of religio-spirituality that posits each individual’s innate divinity. One way this is done is through language play via Sufi poetry, among other forms of artistic expressions.
There are many levels to this language-play and performance-play as critical-play. On one level, Rumi uses paradoxical expressions to invite the reader or listener into his game:
You are a drop and an ocean, you are kindness and wrath
You are sweetness and poison, O do not make me suffer more!
As Fatemeh Keshavarz explains in her work Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal al-Din Rumi,
Paradoxes…depend for effectiveness on a challenging and surprising quality. In order to challenge and to surprise, there is need for an immediate audience eager to participate in the game. Rumi not only invites his audience to share in the lyrical experience but frequently acknowledges their presence.
Paradoxes or invitations to complete a poem are simply a few of the many ways Rumi lures the reader or listener into participating in the critical play. On another level, what gives Rumi the fun-factor is his “ability to make poetry an embodiment of his life, yet not take it so seriously as to be overwhelmed by its grandeur. The fun and the sense of play persists, even in illustrating matters as grave as the confusion of destiny:”
I am drunk and you are drunk, who is going to take us home?
I told you a hundred times drink a cup or two less.
This sense-of-play that is so critical to his work is one that is not divorced from the idea of a critical play. Even though Rumi’s spiritual convictions are the core of his poetry, even though the optimal purpose of his work is both an expression of his own Innate Divinity and has served for ages to nurture the Innate Divinity of its readers, listeners and storytellers, it does not prevent him from lacing it with humor, irony, paradox and a beautiful sense of play that keeps readers and listeners coming back for more, that push the readers and listeners to participate in his game by either writing a few more verses or being awakened to their own sense of Innate Divinity.
The luxocratic critical play that is found throughout mystical philosophy is not far removed from what Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin refer to as new materialism’s approach to dualism.
…a cultural theory can only be truly distinctive and original if its establishment does not claim to be the next step in a discussion that is structured according to the dominant lines of sequential negation and the narrative of progress…Simply, opposing the narrative is…not an option. ‘An idea opposed to another idea is always the same idea, albeit affected by the negative sign. The more you oppose one another, the more you remain in the same framework of thought.
If “cultural theory” is taken in a broad sense, then the above holds true for both feminist thought as well as religious theory, mysticism in particular. On one level, Sufism does not simply oppose the narrative of hegemonic Islamic practices and legalities, it is a critique that comes from within the tradition and yet pushes at its boundaries – all the while whirling in luxocratic circles. On another level, mysticism challenges the dualistic notion of human-versus-God; it pushes for a non-dualistic approach to the relationship between the Inner and the Divine, or the self and the Self. As Dolphijn explains,
…new materialist cultural theories are not relational in a negative, reductive manner, but rather are structured along the lines of an affirmative intensity, which in the end turns into a non-dualism, a monist philosophy of difference…immanence.”
It is almost humorous, albeit not surprising, that what is being called “new” materialist cultural theory is considered to be age-old perennial wisdom in the context of mystical philosophy.
Raimon Panikkar, mystical philosopher and theologian, uses the notion of Advaita from Hindu philosophy to explain non-duality. A-dvaita, or “not two,” is applied to the relationship of everything within and without this world, including the human-God relationship. Panikkar prefers to the term “a-duality:”
God is not the Self (monism) nor the Other (dualism). God is one pole of Reality, a constitutive pole; silent and as such ineffable, but who speaks in us; transcendent, but immanent in the world; infinite, but limited in things. This pole is nothing in itself. It does not exist except in its polarity, in its relation. God is relation, intimate internal relationship with everything.
This relation/ality always plays in threshold spaces. LUXOCRACY’s stress upon the idea of all, living and non-living, being related to the SOURCE, through diving into the depths of one’s Inner Light, also challenges ordinary dualistic modes of thinking. Panikkar’s nuanced approach does not simply further perpetuate the false dichotomy of monism versus dualism, but rather gives us the notion of a-duality for our careful tinkering.
This a-duality is an undoing, an unlearning, of the most profound and the most simple kind. Flanagan concludes, “…a game is an opportunity, an easy-to-understand instrument by which context is defamiliarized just enough to allow…‘a magic circle’ of play to occur.” The de/familiarizing is an un/doing, an un/learning. The luxocractic circles connecting our inner with the outer, our self with the other, our inner-outer with the Divine, are whirling about at the threshold of our thoughts. The counterclockwise circling of the whirling dervish is simply a symbolic performance of the everyday games we play with ourselves and others.
This paper has been a personal and academic struggle to move past the duality of colonizer and colonized, to take a quantum leap into the a-daulistic efforts, to move past reductive modus operandi, and walk along the path of an affirmative intensity. Juxtaposing the space limitations of the paper with the depth of (simply a few of) the concepts convened in this Women’s Studies Genealogies class, I hope a light has shone through the sliver of a crack of my thoughts. It is not easy work, as Anzaldua reminds us, being a nepantlera. It is certainly not easy work being a nepantlera being pushed to take quantum leaps.
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Bulleh Shah. “Othay Amlaan.” Perf. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_ahy97wMys&list=PLxsBpYnhH7PLa-WO4iSnl3n34HNKlvaW8. [My trans.]
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---. “A-dualism, advaita.” panikkar written words. Raimon-Panikkar.org, n.d. Web. 28
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 Flanagan 118.
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 Bulleh Shah,“Othe Amla”(Perf. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) My trans. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_ahy97wMys&list=PLxsBpYnhH7PLa-WO4iSnl3n34HNKlvaW8.
 AnaLouise Keating, Transformation Now! (Urbana: U. of Illinois Press, 2013) 10.
 Keating 8.
 Keating 12.
 Fatemeh Keshavarz, Reading Mystical Lyric (Columbia: U. of South Carolina Press, 1998) 4-6.
 William Chittick, The Sufi Doctrine of Rumi (Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2005) 78.
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 Keshavarz 46.
 Keshavarz 47.
 Keshavarz 47.
 Rick Dolphijn, New Materialisms (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012) 120.
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 Flanagan 262.