In the press
This is not the kind of book usually reviewed in a scholarly journal, yet sharing this book with my colleagues was the second thing that came to mind when I saw it for the first time. The first thing that came to mind was how amazingly this book approaches God’s 99 Names, which in turn indicates the synergy of the various skills and backgrounds of the authors. Bilal, trained in traditional madrasas, has a profound understanding of the Qur’an and an engagement with sufism spanning four decades. Faisal is a master psychologist with an intuitive awareness that deeply perceives the connections between the Names and the human psyche in its context of seeking wholeness. Shabda and Wali Ali each have been teaching students in a sufi context for almost four decades. Shabda, a long-time student of the late Pandit Pran Nath, is also an accomplished musician. This is not a cast that ever shows up on academic screens. This review is their debut.The first part of the “amazing” is that these four people got together regularly for almost ten years and managed to distill four lifetimes of combined knowledge and wisdom into a beautifully published book. How often do we in sufi studies ever collaborate with each other, much less three others? The second part of the “amazing” is how this deeply considered poetic-musical tapestry of words has approached an unprecedented level of synthesis in how it addresses contemporary people’s psycho-spiritual concerns through the Names.Physicians of the Heart begins with a chapter on the name “Allah,” and the relationship with this “100th name” to the other names of God, along with sufi interpretations of the etymology of Allah (A-L-H and W-L-H). Like the rest of the text, much of the explanation and context is based on the Qur’an and hadith. Occasionally there are fruitful (read: not superficial) very contextualized comparisons with other religious traditions. The psychological perspective chapter, without bogging down in Freudian or Jungian retrogressions, straightforwardly explains the human condition of being inevitably wounded and feeling separated, the ego’s role in this, and paths to healing. There is a pronunciation guide, a chapter outlining principles of Arabic verb forms, and a summary of each of the names. This is all preliminary to the extended discussions of families of names, which is the central part of the book.The authors have isolated eighteen families of Names based on those that share a similar root or meaning, are associated together in the Qur’an, or which collectively reveal psycho-spiritual processes. In chapter nine, for example, the names of power and strength are grouped as “modalities of omnipotence.” The authors discuss six Names, tweaking out the linguistic roots and relationships to distinguish them from each other. Al-qahhâr, the searing effect that fire has on meat to get its juices flowing, indicates (contrary to previous poor translations of this word) a burning power of yearning, while al-jabbâr is the power to do things and act in the world, to set things straight as one does to set a broken bone, one of the shades of meanings of the root J-B-R. In the forgiveness chapter, my favorite nuance in a discussion of al-ghafâr and al-ghafûr is how these two healing names forgive much in the same way as one covers “over the cracks in a leather water skin using the sticky substance that bees use to repair their hives.” (127-128) The same section includes a magisterial discussion of the Names in the context of various levels of forgiveness. Most of us in sufi studies will appreciate how the authors’ very careful translations of Names can contribute to our own nuanced vocabulary choice in the sufi context. (Here I am being idealistic since we still find the 19th-century Orientalist vocabulary of sufi order, brotherhood, and saint still being used by academics).This is not a theoretical book. The authors have intended this book to be a working manual for teaching and learning in the context of using the insights and combinations of divine Names for psycho-spiritual healing. The seven levels of the nafs are discussed explicitly in chapter 17. From this discussion, the reader is better equipped to understand the difficulties of the nafs, both in the individual and interpersonal realms, as the nafs relates to the healing modalities of the Names. Physicians of the Heart is a poignant reminder that many sufis are healers, and that the process of healing is a very delicate process requiring background and experience every bit as exacting as that of a physician.There are some details that have fallen through the cracks. Those of us who are used to the standard transliteration system used for Arabic will be more than mildly surprised at the less-than-aesthetic idiosyncratic transliteration choices of the authors. The pronunciation guide in chapter three is a travesty of the Arabic phonetic system. A very simple example of velarized consonants, crucial between pronouncing “Allâh” and “l-ilâhi” for example, would have gone a long way. In all fairness, the authors have provided a website where one can listen to various alternate pronunciations of the Names, which is arguably better than any written explanation. The second syllable of Allâh, lâh, cannot in any grammatical or phonetic way be equated with the negative particle lâ as the authors contend (2). Even on a sound level the lâms of Allâh are velarized, while the lâm of lâ is unvelarized, perhaps intentionally so this kind of incorrect twisting of Arabic could be immediately detected in speech. Nafs and rûh have both been poorly translated as “soul.” (7 and in chapter 17) With further sophistication in sufi studies the former is generally recognized as the ego-self (which the authors generally use in the book). Rûh is more correctly translated as “spirit” because of its various uses in sufi and Islamic literature (e.g., Jesus as rûh-i Allâh, the ruhaniyat of deceased people, and Sufi Ruhaniat International). Technically the spirit is initially lost in the ego-self and one has to do practices in the world of command in such a way that one can reach the station of difference (maqam-i farq) where the spirit ascends and the ego-self descends. Soul, even if it did have a clear meaning in English, simply does not have the range of meaning needed here. Neither the hamza nor the ‘ayn are vowels (19), and al-insan kamil should read al-insan al-kamil (throughout). Forget the bibliography.These are details that concern scholars more than the primary audience intended for the book. Overall, the book is beautiful, with various forms of calligraphy and black-and-white illumination (tahzîb) beginning each chapter. Its healing message is beautifully conveyed in an idiom that makes sense for a contemporary audience. Physicians of the Heart may not find a place on every scholar’s bookshelf, but it will appeal to many of our students, who are often studying sufism with more than academic interests in mind. If the approach of Physicians of the Heart proves effective, it may very well be the vibrant sufism of the future.