Accepted paper:

Searching for the invisible: Sufism and fieldwork in Volga-Ural

Authors:

Lili Di Puppo (National Research University Higher School of Economics)

Paper short abstract:

Sufism in Volga-Ural appears as absent yet present. I reflect on my field research to ask how to approach the elusiveness of Sufism. Sufism transcends efforts to frame it into certain categories; it invites us to go beyond a conventional mode of knowing to consider the invisible realm it opens up.

Paper long abstract:

Sufism in Russia's Volga-Ural region is considered nowadays as a marginal phenomenon and even as extinct. It appears at first sight as invisible and absent. However, Sufism starts to become more and more present the more one searches for it, following hints of its elusive presence. Sufism thus appears as one thing and the other: absent yet present. I relate the changing shapes that Sufism can take and its in/visibility to the nature of the gaze that is used to view the phenomenon. Sufism transcends efforts to frame it into certain categories and determine its nature; it invites us to go beyond a conventional mode of seeing and knowing to consider the invisible realm it opens up. I bring together two "failed" or uncertain attempts to apprehend the phenomenon that appeared in the first stages of my field research. A first attempt concerns the process of defining a local Muslim identity in Volga-Ural. When conversing with Muslim representatives and scholars on Islam, I noticed how Sufism appeared and disappeared. It was relegated to the past; celebrated as an integral component of the region's Muslim history that could be "revived"; or viewed as alien and irrational. The difficulty to frame Sufism into the conception of a local Muslim culture due to its elusiveness echoes my own uncertain attempt to "capture" the phenomenon through conventional fieldwork methods. In a second part, I relate my "failed" observation of a ritual and my difficulty to name and understand my experience of this ritual.

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