Divinity School

Mystical language

Elizabeth Kendig taught English at the secondary school level for 33 years before pursuing graduate studies in religion. "When I retired, I could have gone back to school for a PhD in comparative literature, which would have been a perfectly reasonable direction," says Kendig. "But I was always interested in literature that dealt with big ideas, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, and came to realize that the biggest ideas were in the literature of religion."

Kendig began a master's program at the University of Toronto, where she decided to focus on mysticism across religions, and in the Islamic tradition of Sufism in particular. Her master's thesis revolved around a little-known tenth-century Sufi mystic named Muhammad Ibn 'Abdi' l-Jabbār al-Niffarī. Kendig started from the question of why, in the thousand years since Niffarī's death, his writing has attracted little attention, even among Sufis. Looking at his work Mawāqif, she argued that the prose is likely inaccessible to many readers: it "maintains the ability to compel attention and repulse it at the same time," she wrote. "Not the least explanation for this curious effect of much of Niffarī's writing, especially his Mawāqif, is that it takes a form which implies that it is a record of a personal divine audition. Fascinated as a potential audience might be by the idea of sharing such a private mystical experience…the form, content, and style of Niffarī's Mawāqif put up barriers which prevent a casual audience from access to this private audition with the divine."

After graduating from Toronto, Kendig enrolled in the Divinity School's Islamic studies program to work with Michael Sells, the John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature. "One of the first things Professor Sells said to me when I arrived at the Divinity School was, 'I want you to take advantage of the entire University,'" Kendig remembers. She has followed that advice, taking courses in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and throughout the Divinity School, including classes on the Qur'an, the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian Old and New Testaments.

"Scripture is a source of inspiration to millions of people—more people have read scripture or heard scripture than have read or heard any other literature that's ever been written," says Kendig. "At the Divinity School, more than I could anywhere else, I've been able to understand and appreciate that."

Kendig has yet to finalize her dissertation topic, but says that she will probably write on the work of Ibn al-'Arabi, a twelfth- and thirteenth-century mystical writer from al-Andalus.

Delve into the full text of Kendig's master's thesis on Muhammad Ibn 'Abdi' l-Jabbār al-Niffarī.

Learn more about Michael Sells, Kendig's adviser at the Divinity School and an expert in qur'anic studies.

Read a poem by Ibn al-'Arabi, translated by Sells.

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