Sharafuddin Maneri:
The Hundred Letters

Paulist Press
Translated and introduced by Paul S. Jackson S.J.
preface by Syed Hasan Askari
Paulist Press, 1980
480 pages
ISBN- 0-8091-02919 (hardcover)
ISBN- 0-8091-22294 (paperback)

The Hundred Letters—written by Sharafuddin Maneri, a 13th-14 century Indian Sufi—constitute a year-long (1346-1347) series of communications from Maneri to Qazi Shamsuddin, governer of Chausa in western Bihar. Shamsuddin had asked Maneri to advance his spiritual development through written instructions, since the governor was unable to attend Maneri’s regular audiences. In providing us with a virtually complete translation of the Letters, Paul Jackson allows us an intimate—while daunting (424 pages)—view of Sufi pedagogy. Once one has sorted through the repetitive nature of some of the lessons—Maneri emphasizes and reemphasizes the necessity of being led on the spiritual path by a well-trained guide—a comprehensive view of Sufi principles and thought emerges. Common Sufi metaphors such as the mirror (see Letters 14, 41 and 45) play a prominent role in Maneri’s tracts, as does the oft-employed Sufi dialectic between divine immanence and transcendence (see especially Letters 42, 53 and 85). Maneri also sheds light on the relationship between the law (shariah) and the inward spiritual path (tariqah) (see Letters 25 and 26), and interprets the "pillars of the faith" through a Sufi lens (Letters 31-36). If one plans on using selected letters—as opposed to the entire opus—in line with a thematic, primary source-oriented approach to teaching about Sufism, the Letters can be of significant value.

The Letters can also be useful in a more philosophical sense in regard to a broader perspective toward the endeavor to understand Sufism. Prominent among the manifold challenges emerging when teaching about Sufism is the danger of being too quick to define precisely what Sufism is. Whenever I begin to discuss Sufism with my students, they are quick to ask, "What is Sufism exactly?" I am consequently torn—a one-sentence definition would suffice, perhaps, yet could also negate the tensions that lie at the heart of the tradition. To say simply, for instance, that Sufism is the pursuit of the inward path toward God implies that God is a clear destination. Since when one travels somewhere one is leaving one place behind and heading for a different and distinct location, the suggestion is that Sufism entails leaving one self behind in the quest for a "true" self. The worldly experience must be shed, from this point of view, for the sake of a complete immersion in divine being. Such an understanding of Sufism would, however, ultimately both distort and fall short of capturing Sufism’s complexity and essence. Bruce Lawrence, in his foreward to The Hundred Letters, identifies the text’s articulation of the tensions at the heart of Sufism to be its most profound strengths. Lawrence describes the text’s "artful balance—between reflection and conduct, between explanation and advocacy, between attachment to the Law and pursuit of the Way, between sobriety and ecstasy, bondage and freedom, death and life." Maneri’s statement that "Sufism permits no stasis. Remember that water left to stand becomes stagnant! (Letter 4)" captures the Sufi precept identifying perpetual transformation of the self as integral to self-realization in the truest sense. So just as God must be experienced as subject in a way suggesting leaving this world behind, so must God also be perceived as an object of love, inflicting the pain of separation on the lover that keeps the lover constantly searching for the beloved. Maneri drives home that point in Letter 53:

There is pleasure in separation from You, and tyranny in Your presence:
That pleasure is better, for we have no strength to bear Your tyranny!

If You welcome me, then I am Your accepted one:
If You do not, I am still Your rejected servant!
I should not be worried whether You accept or reject me:
My task, in either state, is to remain preoccupied with You!

Maneri earlier writes, "You might now be pining out of grief that you are in the stage of being distant from Him. Actually, the grief of not having found Him is better than the pain of being close to Him! In amazement one finds that amazement itself is the prelude to loss, while grief is the means of finding and gaining access to Him. (Letter 12)." The suffering that keeps one on the endless path toward God also ensures that God remains beyond limitation. Likewise, Maneri, through his sophisticated articulation of the tensions at the heart of the Sufi tradition, ensures that the tradition itself will elude all simplistic and reductionistic attempts to capture it.

Pervasive throughout the Letters is Maneri’s reflection on the impossibility of capturing the Sufi experience in writing, as it must be experienced subjectively—since Sufis are aware of this limitation in their works, the challenge becomes one bound up in the writer’s self-consciousness: to what extent can the Sufi experience be related through language, which is inherently limiting? The tension between imparting objective knowledge and evoking subjective experience emerges poignantly in Maneri’s letters (see Letters 58, 60, 66, 88 and 90 in this regard). There is no doubting Maneri’s implicit message that it would behoove Shamsuddin to be with Maneri in person. Barring that contingency, how does one convey what the Sufi path entails without reifying the experience, an error that would completely undo all that a Sufi strives to realize? Throughout his letters, Maneri preserves a delicate and subtle balance between instruction and reflection, allowing Shamsuddin and us to gain a much greater awareness of the requirements and nature of the mystical journey as well as of how its esoteric dimensions will perpetually evade our rational attempts to grasp it.

review ©2003 by Jim Ehrenhaft and RSiSS
St. Albans School
Washington, D.C.