Islamic Mysticism and Abu Talib al-Makki: The Role of the Heart. By SAEKO YAZAKI. Routledge Sufi Series. London: ROUTLEDGE, 2012. Pp. xx + 196. $145.
If Abu Talib al-Makki were applying for tenure these days, the quantity of his published work and its quality, as evidenced in countless citations by subsequent generations of Sufi authors, would no doubt pass muster. Sadly, the notorious difficulty of his Arabic prose (ranking with that of Ibn al-'Arabi and theologian al-Matundi for complexity and opacity) might very well jinx his case. Fortunately for readers eager to gain access to this pivotal figure among early authors of Sufi "manuals," Saeko Yazaki has taken the plunge. Previously, a tiny crew of intrepid souls, such as German Jesuit translator Richard Gramlich and authors of a relative handful of journal and encyclopedia articles, have ventured to publish much about him. As a result, Yazaki's new book appears to be the only monograph yet published on Abu Talib al-Makki, certainly in English.
Yazaki's first chapter offers a generally clear and helpful overview on what little is known for certain about Abu Talib's life, focusing especially on what can be inferred from general references in Qat al-qulub (Sustenance of Hearts) about people who may have been his teachers. Similar uncertainty remains concerning Abu Talib's juristic affiliation: he cites Ibn Hanbal most often, but a significant Shafi'i named al-Dhahabi was known to be partial to Abu Talib's masterwork, while the Salimiyya who influenced Abu Talib during his years at Basra were likely Maliki in law. Direct affirmation of the existence of several works obliquely attributed to Abu Talib is likewise hard to come by, and one is left to conclude, after sorting out the various claims, that, with the possible existence of an Him al-qulub, Qat al-qulub is the only extant book this author actually penned. Yazaki concludes the chapter by articulating two underlying concerns of the study: the elusiveness of Abu Talib's own notion of true piety in relation to the "Islam" of his time, and the ultimately speculative nature of assessments as to his knowledge of, opinions about, and relationship to Sufism as such.
One of the more interesting sections of the book is an overarching analysis of Qat al-qulub in the larger comparative context of the "heart theme" in other spiritual traditions and in Sufism more broadly. After passing references to the Hebrew bible and Judaism, Yazaki offers fuller...