LINGUIST List 12.1315

Sun May 13 2001

Review: Trix, Spiritual Discourse

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  1. A.Doja, Trix, Spiritual Discourse: Learning with an Islamic Master

Message 1: Trix, Spiritual Discourse: Learning with an Islamic Master

Date: Sun, 13 May 2001 16:27:39 +0100
From: A.Doja <>
Subject: Trix, Spiritual Discourse: Learning with an Islamic Master

Trix, Frances. 1993. Spiritual discourse: learning with
an Islamic master (Conduct and Communication Series).
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
ISBN 0-8122-3165-1. xi+189pp.

Reviewed by Albert Doja, Lecturer in Social Anthropology
University of Hull, United Kingdom.


Discourse analysis and ethnography are now sophisticated
research methods used in fieldwork by both linguists and
anthropologists. Certainly the object of research could be
the research method itself, as the recent developments of
both (sub-)disciplines have made abundantly clear that
reflexive ethnography and discourse analysis is become
central for the current fundamental developments in
anthropological theory. In this respect, Frances Trix's
book, published in 1993 in the Conduct and Communication
Series of the University of Pennsylvania Press, certainly
addressed important issues, for which linguists and
discourse analysis specialists are much more competent to
acknowledge. I propose however to focus my discussion onto
the very content of the object of her study. I consider
indeed that the scope of anthropology as a discipline, be
it linguistic or not, by using different kinds of research
methods, such as discourse analysis and ethnography, is
primarily to search for meaning.

The object of Frances Trix's study is one lesson with Baba
Rexheb, leader of the Islamic Bektashi order, at the
Albanian-American tekke of Detroit. The lesson is rich in
poetry and parable, narrative and face-saving humour. As
Trix seeks to understand how Baba teaches, she
conceptualises the lesson internally in terms of episodes
and dialogic patterns, and externally in terms of the
societal, personal, and ritual histories it presumes. Baba
teaches through a highly personalised, recursive sort of
language "play" that engenders current attention while
constantly evoking an ever-growing past and narrative
building identity.

In Bektashi milieus time is mostly spent making muhabet,
which is talking with each other and chanting or reading
nefes, the Bektashi spiritual hymns and poems. In this way,
they learn how to be a talib 'one who seeks, who strives
after', the name given to the follower or the disciple of a
murshid, that is the master, the spiritual guide, or
roughly the 'teacher'. In nefes, this 'breath of spirit',
the feelings and devotion toward one's particular murshid
are endlessly evoked and elaborated. Frances Trix believed
the nefes could thus be seen as a particular Bektashi
language of talib/murshid relationship. The Bektashis see
the power of a nefes as an actualisation of the
relationship with the murshid, for the inspiration to
compose a nefes comes from one's own murshid.

Trix's assumption is that a description of a lesson with
Baba would shed most light on the murshid-talib
relationship, whereas she was faced with the puzzle of how
to view the relationship of murshid and talib in the
context of analysing a lesson. Previous Islamic studies
have preserved the poetry of murshids and certain
biographical details but have tended to take for granted
the process of their teaching. Previous interactional
studies, such as those between interviewer and client,
teacher and student, or doctor and patient, have also taken
the relationships for granted. Other discourse studies have
tended to fossilize transcriptions of interactions whereas
in this case, if learning indeed took place, a
developmental approach was necessary.

For scholars of discourse and interaction, the study
contributes the central concept of linguistic convergence
that operates not at the level of speech community, but
rather at the level of dialogic encounter, and that occurs
most often among people who have long interacted. For
anthropologists and scholars of religious studies, the
importance of oral interaction in the transmission of
spiritual knowledge has long been appreciated, but the
conceptual framework and methodology for its analysis have
been lacking. Without disregarding the methodological
aspects of the book, that are certainly important and
interesting, and since the main assumption for Frances Trix
concerns the relations between talib and murshid, I also
shall focus my discussion onto the meaning of this
relationship, in other words I would like to question to
what extent her conceptual framework and methodology
provide a better understanding of Bektashi religious
conceptions in particular and of mystical and heterodox
orders in general. In turn, this understanding could be
conceptualised externally in terms of the societal,
personal, and ritual meanings it presumes.

Among Bektashis there is an overriding importance of the
talib and murshid relationship. Among Albanians, the family
name has often been derived from the name of the own's
father or direct ancestor as well as of the village or town
that the family came from, and this feature became
constituent for structuring the morphology of Albanian
social structure. But among Bektashis the next
identity frame is also the name of one's murshid. In the
Bektashi world of discourse, in parables and narratives,
poetry and nefes, the centrality of the relationship with
the murshid is the norm. The murshid himself, the master,
is also a talib, a disciple, for each murshid is a talib of
his own murshid (Trix p. 75).

Frances Trix, before becoming associate professor of
anthropology at Wayne State University, had been a talib
for twenty-five years, learning Bektashism if not aiming to
become a Bektashi, from her own murshid. The basic analogy
of her study evolved into the learning in the relationship
of talib to murshid similar to the learning of a language,
with language understood as personally linked games, the
main game being the sharing of nefes, and the linkages of
which have theological significance. In this sense, her
study represents a rare experience in the application of
linguistic anthropology to the transmission of spiritual
knowledge to oneself. Her statements are particularly
interesting from both points of view, one of the talib
learning spiritual knowledge from her own murshid, and one
of the anthropologist interpreting this knowledge from her
own scholarship.

One of the aspects of religion as a social system is to be
a mediating cultural system of representation between
powerless earthly creatures and an all-powerful God located
in the firmament, which mediation makes it possible for the
heavenly divinity to intercede on behalf of the powerless
humans on earth. The mediational structure may very well be
hierarchical. The mediator is a human being, the priest or
sacrificer for instance, acting as a representative of a
secular congregation, who places himself on a higher plane
than the latter but is in a position of inferiority with
respect to the deity. The religious structure may just as
well be of another type, and claim to be the negation of
hierarchy of any sort. The initiative is entirely in the
hands of the divinity, which manifests itself without any
mediation, by dispensing the gifts of its grace on the
faithful, with believers receiving direct, immediate
inspiration. Charisma, or divine grace, touches them
without the help of any intermediary, and is in no way
affected by any ritual, more or less efficient, performed
by a mediating priest. In this case, the intensity of
religious life prevails over its extension, and salvation
becomes a personal affair rather than a relationship with
some grace-dispensing agency.

The question is to understand to which model belongs
Bektashism as a mystical, heterodox order within Islam, as
far as we know from an established scholarship in religious
studies, and to what extent Frances Trix's methodology and
statements help for this understanding.

Bektachism essentially responded to the spiritual need for
a non-conformist religious experience in which there was no
room for a clear-cut separation between man and the
divinity, such as exists in the orthodox Sunni dogma. It
represents the demand for a pantheist approach and a 'warm'
faith. Religion is in the heart, and is not written
anywhere. When mystical union with God is not quite the
goal sought, it is the cult of the miracle-working saints,
living or dead, through worship of their tombs, which
prevailed in their religious fervour. The Bektashis are
universal 'brothers'. With a sense of human dignity they
viewed men and women as equal, the most chaste being
closest to perfection. Bektashis have accepted and
initiated women as inner members since the beginning of the
Order in central Anatolia more than seven hundred years
ago. This acceptance of women has brought them criticism
over the centuries and yet they have persisted in it.
Frances Trix believed that her current acceptance as
student of a Bektashi master was certainly facilitated by
the long-standing precedent of female talibs (p. 149).

Orthodox Islam in general is strictly monotheistic. But for
the Bektashis, in particular, who clashed with official
Islam at a very early date, the trinity Allah-Muhammad-Ali
is all-important. Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet
Muhammad, is one of the first Muslims and the one to whom
Shiites attribute the revelation of mystic understanding of
the Koran. For Bektashis, beliefs of reincarnation
(tenassuh) and of God's manifestation in human form
(tecelli) imply a belief in transformation and the
multiplicity of forms. One of the divine manifestations,
the Allah's mazhar, is realised notably in Ali's figure, as
an expression of the perfect, divine beauty. Indeed, they
put Ali on a par with Mohammed, and adore him as a
divinity. He is always depicted as one of the
hierarchically organised divine triad, below the
Prophet and Allah, the supreme God.

The importance to the Bektashis of the hierarchical divine
triad is also reflected, among other instances in the
Albanian-American tekke of Michigan, in its being evidently
displayed on a banner in the large public meeting room of
the tekke (Trix p. 105). The banner hangs prominently
between the Albanian and American flags directly behind
leader's chair. On the banner are verses from the Koran,
translated into Albanian and written in white letters. In
the corners of the banner are four names: Allah, Muhammad,
Ali, and Hadji Bektash. This contrasts with a common Sunni
pattern and replicates the Bektashi chain of spiritual
knowledge and therefore as an explicit keying and rejection
of the Sunni pattern.

>From her master Frances Trix learned among other things
that in Bektashi conception there are explicit hierarchical
series or chains all connecting back to Cennabi Hakk, the
term for God. The theological rationalisation is that
"Cenabi Hakk could not always stay and guide humankind, so
he sent the following people in his place: Cenabi Hakk \
halife \ prophet \ veliler (saints) \ tarikat (Sufi Orders)
\ murshid\" (Trix p. 102-103). But other hierarchical
chains reveal even more specifically the hierarchy of
spiritual revelation and hence of spiritual or supernatural
powers of the saints. "The power to perform miracles comes
through: Cenabi Hakk \ Cebrail (Gabriel) \ Muhammad \ Ali \
the imams \ saint Hadji Bektash \ the murshid \" (Trix p.
103-104). The divine series are quasi-historical chains in
that the prophets are understood to have ended with the
coming of Muhammad, and the tarikat or Sufi Orders to
appear much later. In mentioning Ali, the place of the
mystic revelation, characteristic of the Bektashis, is
specifically emphasised. As for the saints, "some are
hidden, some are known" (Trix p. 103). In other words, they
can be considered differently, according to the
hierarchical chains of spiritual revelation or power.

There is also an unbroken chain of talibs and murshids
through which Bektashis connect themselves to the founder
of the order, their patron saint Hadji Bektash. This
unbroken chain of talibs and murshids continues the link
from Hadji Bektash to earlier saints, to the imams, and
back to Hussein, whose murshid was Ali, whose murshid was
the Prophet Muhammad, whose murshid was the Angel Gabriel,
and thus to God. Building on this continuity, Bektashis
come into relation with God through devotion and obedience
to their personal murshid. The murshid carries on with the
guidance of individual talibs, but the relationship of
talib to murshid is indeed a model of the relationship of
human beings to God. Frances Trix viewed both divine and
historical chains connecting to God in Bektashi conception
exactly as "a sort of logic in that its function is to
display connections and thereby to legitimise the place of
the murshid cosmologically" (p. 103).

The difficulty laid, however, in the fact that the
spiritual master repeatedly made the point that Sunni Islam
considers the relationship of human beings to God as a
direct one "without intermediary". The critical message was
that Bektashism, in contrast to orthodox Islam and
Christianity, adheres strongly to the belief in
intermediaries between humans and God, the murshid being
such an intermediary, and more specifically an intercessor.
The build-up to this message was first a quick likening of
Christianity with Sunni Islam, and an equally swift
contrasting of these forms with Sufi Islam. The new
understanding that emerged reinforced the message of the
murshid being an intermediary, and more specifically an
intercessor. Through many connections, by repeatedly
telling and retelling narratives and adages, chanting nefes
and making muhabet, the understanding of the message that
the murshid is the intermediary between human beings and
God is evoked, reformulated and memorably forged throughout
Frances Trix's book (see for instance pp. 33, 69-70, 95,
120-125, 127, 131, 151). This in turn gives the talib an
expanded understanding of the murshid, both as intercessor
and as agent of inspiration.

In my view, this point is particularly relevant for
understanding Bektashi religious conceptions. Whereas for a
talib the message of the murshid as an intermediary between
humans and God is well assessed and clearly understood, how
should the anthropologist understand the Bektashi's
conception of the relationship between humans and God: as
mediated and hierarchical or as a direct, unmediated one?
In other words, if there is any intermediary hierarchy,
should it be found in the conceptualisation of the divinity
or in the organisation of the worldly, human society? To
what extent does the murshid/talib relationship contribute
to this understanding could indeed be shown through the
very experience of Frances Trix herself as a talib.

Most Bektashi narratives, for instance, especially those
with new, much more Sufi episodes, show a progression from
a more limited orthodox understanding to the deeper Sufi
understanding. In these narratives, the point is clearly
made that "the murshid is the way through which the student
reaches God" (Trix p. 121). In one of these narratives, the
murshid commanded his talib to swim across the water with
him, holding onto his collard and all the time saying Pir
Hakk!, "the Pir (patron saint, here murshid) is the Truth".
The talib, however, showed his lack of trust in the murshid
by reconsidering halfway across the water and calling out
to God instead, at which point he began to drown. In his
explanation, the master made clear that it was murshid's
place to call out to Cenabi Hakk (Bektashi term for God)
for both of them; as for the talib, his place was to call
out only to the murshid.

Normally in Bektashi world, "for a murshid to speak for
someone does not mean he would put words in his mouth when
speaking to other men, but implied speaking to God for one"
(Trix p. 123). A Bektashi talib also learns that all that
one sees, or writes in spiritual matters is in-come from
God through one's murshid. Especially nefes are such
in-come from the murshid. In Bektashi terms, inspiration in
poetry came from the heart - which is the seat of higher
faculties of perception - and it is brought to the heart by
God, Cenabi Hakk, or one's murshid as intermediary (Trix p.

When in these narratives the point is clearly made that
"the murshid is the way through which the student reaches
God", this is because the murshid has already acquired the
capacity to communicate directly with God, and the talib
has not yet. God could respond to the murshid if called
upon, but not yet to the talib. Even though for the talib
the murshid is acting as a simple "intercession" (Trix p.
123), he could speak to God for someone, in the same way
that all that one sees, or writes in spiritual matters is
in-come, inspiration from God through one's murshid. In
other words, here too, the murshid seems to be not only a
simple intermediary: "Before, I had understood it as the
means to reach God, but now with the added example of
inspiration I could see that it meant to receive from God
as well" (Trix p. 124, emphasis added).

Her story, gracefully and humbly told, is a discourse
ethnography of learning and a sociolinguistic illustration
of mysticism, but above all it illuminates the process of
interpersonal encounter. Overall what is being passed on is
not facts but a relationship and a communication, for the
relationship and communication between seeker and master
mirrors that of human and God. The experience of spiritual
learning is achieved by means of the murshid as a
communication process with the Bektashi spiritual
knowledge. Had this process led to possession of the
mystical gnosis, as normally expected in the very
'faithful' sense of the experience, the novice might have
been sanctified as a potential saint, in a mystic union
with God. But the union, involving divine inspiration would
not be possible without progressive communication through
different conceptions of divinity split into a series of
hierarchical emanations, the most accessible of which is in
fact nobody else rather than one's own master.

Finally, for the talib the difference definitely lies in
the presence of the murshid as the intermediary between
humans and God in the case of Bektashism, while the
relationship is seen as a direct one without intermediary
in the case of orthodox Islam or Christianity. Frances
Trix, as a talib, viewed the relationship in this way as
well. But for the anthropologist, however, the difference
seems to be situated in the presence of communication
between humans and God through the relationship of one's
own murshid in the case of Bektashism, and the absence of
such a communication for orthodox Islam and Christianity.

I argue the importance of this understanding lay in the
fact that the hierarchical model of religious mediation
corresponds to the dogma of orthodox faiths, whereas the
model in which all hierarchies are denied, in their real
embodiments, is closely linked to millenarian and mystical
beliefs and to the development of heresies and
heterodoxies, such as those related to Bektashism. The
former model may well support an established, hierarchical
power, whereas the latter corresponds to an oppressed or
deprived minority, seeking justification of its revolt
against the established authorities. According to this
model, the establishment of a political hierarchy within
human society goes hand in hand with the introjection of a
unified conception of divinity, a pure monotheism within
the theological system. On the other hand, a visible
hierarchical conception of the divinity goes along with an
egalitarian politics in human society. The conception of a
relational equality, derived from the idea that people are
equal in their relations with the divinity, is effectively
present alongside an ideology of substantial egalitarianism
among human beings. (For a developped account see: Doja,
Albert. 2000. "Histoire et dialectique des ideologies et
significations religieuses." _European Legacy. Journal of
the International Society for the Study of European Ideas._
vol. 5, no. 5, pp. 663<EN DASH>686.)

Now, why Frances Trix, not any more as a talib but already
as a confirmed anthropologist, did not have been able to
recognize a different meaning for her relationship as a
talib? When linguists and anthropologists are analysing
discourse and using ethnography, I wonder if it is only for
the sake of an exclusive self-reflexive methodology. To
paraphrase a pair of Bektashi couplets (Trix p. 93), -
verbal and poetic interaction is highly valued among
Bektashis and among Albanians, - I wonder myself, are they
in search of meaning or are they not, are they writing and
talking culture and cultural content or are they not?

At the end of the book is an epilogue, in which a famous
murshid from the 13th century tells his talib story and
"conveys in one page what I have taken many to suggest",
wrote Trix (p. 147) very modestly indeed. In the same way
that Frances Trix did, I think that for my conclusion as
well, the story worth retelling:

"It seems that one day Rumi [the talib] went to his
murshid's house. But when he arrived, he found that Tabrizi
[the murshid] had just left. Rumi quickly looked down the
narrow streets and saw the coattails of his master as he
turned into an alley. He followed his murshid. Yet whenever
he got near, Tabrizi was just turning another corner in the
twisting streets. Finally Tabrizi went into a house, and
Rumi followed him in. But once inside he did not see his
master anywhere, so he went up on the flat roof. But he did
not see him on the roofs either. So he jumped off, and his
murshid caught him in his arms." (quoted in Trix p. 158).

- --------------
Albert Doja hold a Doctorate in Social Anthropology from
the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.
He is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of
Hull, United Kingdom.
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