The Fifth Annual Duke-UNC Graduate Islamic Studies Conference

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Ali Altaf Mian

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Abstract

The annual Duke-University of North Carolina (UNC) Graduate Islamic
Studies Conference for 2008, “Practice and Embodiment in Islam,” sought
to provide an interlocutory space for engaging the somewhat nascent turn to
the body. Held on 5-6 April 2008, this event focused on the theme of practice
and embodiment in Islamicate texts and contexts. Of late, the theorization
of the body has been a sustained topic of research in the humanities and
the social sciences.
In his opening remarks, Omid Safi (UNC-Chapel Hill) highlighted the
significance of inculcating a “culture of generosity,” since academic circles
can often generate feelings of estrangement. “The real challenge for us,” he
emphasized, “is to step out of the comfort zones of our community.” Safi
then introduced the keynote speaker: Shahzad Bashir (Stanford University).
Bashir’s tour de force of fourteenth-fifteenth century Persianate hagiography
revealed how the body, as an analytic category and interpretive lens,
enables quite sophisticated and unprecedented readings and insights into
Sufi hagiographies of this period.After claiming that such texts describe the
outward appearance and movements of Sufi shaykhs’ bodies in great detail,
he suggested the accompanying miracle stories were usually, if not always,
invoked to preserve, heal, feed, or discipline the bodies of others, particularly
those on the Sufi path. Bashir said that a majority of the miracles thus
had to do with corporeal integrity and continuity. While historians usually
see the preponderance of such miracles in hagiographies as unhelpful
sources, Bashir argued that these texts constitute an argument for sainthood
and that careful analysis of the patterns found therein represent one of our
best windows into classical Sufism’s socio-intellectual world ...

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