Sunday, May 15, 2016

Building Bridges - an academic exercise in mutual Christian-Muslim theologising

For some years now, I've been involved in an academic inter-faith exercise that was originally sponsored by Lambeth Palace and really well supported by Rowan Williams but since his resignation as ABC, it has been run by Georgetown University. Here is the link for the Building Bridges seminar.

The original intention was for the seminar - which brings together around 15 or so Christian and a similar number of Muslim participants - to alternate between being convened in a 'Christian majority' and a 'Muslim majority' context; but in recent years the public events held in the latter which has basically been the Georgetown campus in Doha have been disappointing. One could spend some time analysing why that is the case - is interfaith 'mutual theologising' a concern of metropolitan western academia which has not equivalent elsewhere? Perhaps - and there are elements of how, despite our best efforts, there is a somewhat Protestant bias in what we do - the quasi-scriptural reasoning at the heart of much of our practice in small groups, for example. But there is little doubt that I've learnt much from the process and continue to do so - and it's fun engaging, disputing, arguing, theologising with some of the best theologians around such as Janet Soskice, John Milbank, Mona Siddiqui, Christoph Schwobel, Veli-Matti Karkkainen, Susan Eastman, Reza Shah-Kazemi and of course Rowan Williams himself. As well as hanging out with old friends who like myself prefer to define themselves as 'historians' like Feras Hamza, and biblical and Quranic scholars like Paul Joyce and Mehdi Azaiez.

This was the 15th instalment focused on Monotheism and its Complexities. I wasn't the only one who was concerned that such a topic could take a rather apologetic turn as a defence of the trinity. But in many ways the discussions were far more interesting than I had expected. The rich tradition of christology and the expositions and uses of the Trinity were set out for us by Schwobel. Richard Bauckham presented the Biblical texts and how the monotheism of Judaism was given a Christian reading and developed into a theology of three persons, one substance, with rather non-Aristotelian understandings of both key terms, Asma Afsaruddin presented the monotheism of the Qurʾan and hadith in her characteristically scholarly and rigorous manner, while I presented perhaps a rather complicated and complexifying reading of various arguments about the One True God in Islamic traditions, some tending towards the more transcendent theologically and others more mystically monistic.

At some point when the papers are ready for publication I will post mine on my academia.edu page. Suffice it to say that I did not help by sending one paper in and reading as a presentation something altogether a bit different and more engaged with contemporary usages of tawḥīd in Islamic discourses and trying to think through on my feet the ethical implications of the doctrine - the most difficult point being how do I square my own insistence upon the walāya and theosis (taʾalluh) centred doctrines and paths of what I consider Islam to be with our contemporary attempts at producing critical democratic understandings of faith?

Anyway, I look forward to many more years of such wonderful company and satisfying but also at times very cerebral working through key issues in our faiths. In particular, I have come to appreciate and love the Eastern Orthodox traditions and many elements of Catholic thought through these exercises and found a particular theological language for expressing my own ideas. It's always a pleasure to have the opportunity to think beyond the confines of my work as an intellectual historian and do more applied, interventionist work - doing the actual thinking and not just exegesis as a friend once put it.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Introducing Philosophy in the Islamic World - brief but state of the art

Like many others, I am very much a fan of Peter Adamson's podcast the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps which is already the go to place for quick introductions to thinkers, problems and topics in philosophy including a large numbers of very useful episodes on Islamic philosophy.The two volumes on Classical and Hellenistic Philosophy have already appeared with Oxford and the volume on Islamic philosophy will appear later this year. There is little doubt that this endeavour fills in many gaps and gives us a richer, more textured and far more nuanced sense of the course of philosophy - understood in a more expansive sense - in the world of Islam. 

Peter has also recently published a Very Short Introduction to Philosophy in the Islamic World





It is good to see this influential series of introductory texts expand their titles to include more topics within the study of Islam. And for those of us animated by intellectual history, this current offering by Peter Adamson is a welcome contribution indeed. Adamson includes a short suggestion for reading and useful timeline that overlap with his podcast and these represent the state of research and the most instructive sources for a students seeking an entry into the study of philosophy in Islam. This is essential because for too long students of the history of Islamic philosophy have had to rely upon survey works that are dated and involve questionable interpretations, sometimes far removed from the text and fail to take religion seriously. At the same time, shorter more thematic introductions tend to be either too general to be useful, seriously misleading for specialists, or textually unjustifiable. 

The first question broached is exactly what do we call this field of inquiry? For some time, the question of ‘Arabic’ versus ‘Islamic’ philosophy has been caught up in polemics which Adamson does not engage directly; his earlier Cambridge Companion opted for 'Arabic' philosophy which reflected the approach of many in that volume. The proponents of 'Arabic philosophy' have tended to insist on the paradigm of Greek into Arabic and the need to stress the ‘secular’ pursuit of the hellenizing falsafa tradition. The latter tendency that prefers the appellation 'Islamic' insists upon the Qurʾanic, and sacred origins of the philosophical pursuit of wisdom, and tends to face the problem of those Christian and Jews who participated in the process. Arabic is also not terribly useful a title as there were works of the tradition written in Persian and Ottoman among other languages, and it tends to have a more narrow understanding of philosophy. This issue of how much philosophy might engage and encompass is an open question particularly nowadays when issues of inclusivity and diversity are at the forefront and we wish to 'de-center' the European analytic tradition in favour of more expansive senses of philosophy. Recently, Peter Park has raised the question - usually articulated in 'cultural studies' and not philosophy - of the racism inherent in the activity of philosophising and marginalising Africa and Asia. Mohammad Azadpur has a broadly welcoming review here.  Another positive review by Peter Fenves is here.

But returning to the debate on naming the field, Adamson, correctly to my mind, insists upon a more expansive sense of philosophy that takes religion seriously and see philosophy beyond the narrow ‘generic’ confines of falsafa. In fact, much of the philosophy in the world of Islam did not conform to the falsafa paradigm. They tended to prefer the term ḥikma, synonymous with falsafa in the early period, but even then through a translation of Nicomachus of Gerasa's Introduction to Arithmetic aware of the difference of the pursuit of the love of wisdom and sagacity itself. The latter traditions - what is commonly called post-classical now - preferred the term because it was rooted in the Qurʾan's own usage and because it suggested what was beyond the merely ratiocinative. For Adamson, even more significant – and consistent with the current trend in the field – is his desire to extend the study of the post-classical into the modern period; for too long, historians have considered philosophy in the world of Islam to be a purely marginal and historically distant phenomenon – even when most of us no longer think the endeavour came to and end in the West with Averroes, the emphasis on falsafa has tended not to take the developments further East in exegesis too seriously, partly misled to the ‘Islamic philosophy’ proponents who have at times promoted later thought as primarily mystical or arational or even illuminationist in its essence.

The main text is divided into six chapters: a historical preliminary followed by discussions on reason and revelation, God and being, eternity, knowledge, and ethics and politics. To an extent the choices emerge out of the history of the study of the field, its old transposition of the medieval problem of reason versus revelation and the assumption of the fatal nature of the attack of al-Ghazālī on three critical doctrines of the falāsifa seem to remain in the background. The historical chapter begins with the translation movement and the early theological discussions of the Muʿtazila inspired by Hellenic thought through to the centrality of Avicenna and his reception through to the middle period developments and all the way into the modern period with the re-emergence of European influence in modern thinking in the likes of Iqbāl and others. Along the way every major thinker is checked and some particular issues isolated for grey box discussion that show the relationship between philosophy and the other disciplines in Islamic culture – critical because philosophy was not as marginal as previously thought. It is thoroughly refreshing to see an account that puts philosophy back in its proper place!

The second chapter does not engage in the medieval polemics that one might think from the title of reason and revelation. Instead it is divided into three sections: the first of reason as a standard of argumentation that we call logic, the second on the supremacy of reason engages with the arguments on the superiority of philosophy over religion in the thought of al-Fārābī and Averroes, and the third on the limits of reason begins with al-Ghazālī’s internal critique followed by the expanding role of mysticism and non-propositional thought culminating in the more holistic approach to knowledge and the life of the mind in Mullā Ṣadrā. Chapter three moves onto the proofs for the existence of God beginning with theological accounts and the most successful proof for God as the necessary existence in Avicenna and then the rise of monism in the later period. As Ian Netton suggested some time ago in his Allah Transcendent, the typology of proofs for the existence of God, or the very understanding of the nature of God, in the world of Islam shifted from a creator ex nihilo whose existence can be deduced from a contemplation of the cosmos and its design (and indeed the structure of the human body as microcosm) to Avicenna's rational ontological proof through to the radically monistic singular Being of Ibn ʿArabī. 

The next chapter engages with the problem of time and eternity and includes the famous attempt by Mīr Dāmād to reconcile creation ex nihilo with an eternal instrumentalist universe in favour of a model that is strikingly similar to Suarez's middle knowledge and which engages the famous Shiʿi notion of how it appears to us that God changes his mind or his decree (this latter is not in the chapter but can be analysed elsewhere in my own work, not least in my forthcoming chapter on Mīr Dāmād in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy). 

The fifth chapter on knowledge deals with it as a state of being in the soul and includes discussions of the Avicennan account of the stages of the intellect and the internal senses and the distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and by presence. A critical box within it presents the way to understand the problem of God’s knowledge of particulars, within its Aristotelian context. Later thinkers worked outside of it through reorienting knowledge towards what the ancients called the 'identity' thesis of the intellecting subject and object. The final chapter on ethics and politics begins with the reception of the tradition of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Iranian tradition of ethics and statecraft but moves onto Ibn Khaldūn’s theories on society and state and more modern reformist discourses including feminism.

The main conclusion of this brief whirlwind tour of philosophical reasoning in the world of Islam is not only to insist that philosophy played a vital role in Muslim societies and cultures but also to suggest that a more expansive sense of what is philosophy. While retaining its significance for our modern engagements with philosophy, Adamson allows us to see the course of philosophical reasoning in a variegated mode in different contexts all the way up to our own times. Critics will quibble about the lacunae and the choices of discussion but there is little doubt that the volume represents the wide contours of interests in Anglophone writings on philosophy in the Islamic world. This short introduction will be invaluable for students of the study of Islam and also those interested in contemporary trends in the study of inter-cultural philosophy and the history of philosophy. What is now needed is a collaborative effort to produce a new far more comprehensive history of philosophy in the world of Islam that adequately grapples with the complexities and the varieties and builds upon the growing picture of the intellectual history of Islam that we now possess.We need a fuller picture - warts and all - and the critical, the rational and the arational, with more careful consideration for the texts and the many 'minor' figures that animated the tradition and defined philosophy for their times even if we have forgotten who they were. 



Avicennism, the Problem of the Intellect and Cross-Cultural Philosophy

Recently on the pages of the New York Times, in their philosophy blog The Stone, there was an interesting piece about the parochial nature of many anglo-American analytic philosophy departments. See here for the piece. Jay Garfield, an eminent specialist in Buddhist philosophy in particular, and Bryan van Norden, equally significant in the study of Chinese philosophy, raised the barely hidden secret of the problem of diversity in philosophy as a discipline. What this demonstrates is that those trained in analytic methods are perfectly capable of engaging in other traditions and considering the question of what constitutes a cultural tradition of philosophy. But not always so. Similarly those of us engaged in the study of philosophy in Islamic contexts need to take our field of inquiry out of the ghetto of Islamic studies and oriental studies. 



It is in this context that one of the most exciting works of recent times has been penned by Mohammad Azadpur, professor at San Francisco State University, on a novel way of reading the work of the eminent medieval Islamic thinker Abū ʿAlī Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037): Reason Unbound


Azadpur has written an engaging and quite bold intervention in the ‘Avicenna’ debate. Should one read Avicenna as a mystagogue, a Sufi with a deep commitment to philosophy as a religious way of life in which he privileges mystical intuition over discourse and ratiocination, or is Avicenna merely the foremost empirical rationalist of the Islamic tradition, a Locke before his time? Each of these positions tends to gloss over the specifics of the Avicennan texts and has a complicated relationship with the commentary traditions upon his work, in particular the Shifāʾ and the Ishārāt which remained the primary school texts in the madrasa curriculum of the Islamic East until the colonial period. Aligned to these ‘extreme’ positions is a question of method: how and to what end should be study Avicenna? Are we interested in Avicenna as a pivotal moment in the history of philosophy and hence we ought to adopt the methods of intellectual history or at least medieval philosophy (the Greek into Arabic into Latin approach) or should we engage with him as a philosopher or at least as a thinker, perhaps even a sage? Both the title of the book as well as Azdapur’s very first sentence make his approach quite clear: ‘Reason unbound’ suggests that a ratiocinative approach to thought in Avicenna is impoverished, and his desire to read Avicenna is motivated by the need to understand the modern reception of Avicenna and its importance for a critique of modern Western philosophy’. Therefore what is at stake is the definition of philosophy as such – and the way in which he draws in a qualified sense upon the reading of Pierre Hadot is clear – as well as a critique of Western metaphysics particularly through the prism of Heidegger’s work. While this might to an extent accord with Christian Jambet’s recent and important intervention on the nature of philosophy in Islam (Qu’est-ce que la philosophie islamique, Gallimard, 2011), it is certainly discordant with other recent work on Avicenna such as Interpreting Avicenna edited by Peter Adamson (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Therefore, for philosophers interested in cross-cultural and comparative philosophy, it is quite a thought-provoking contribution, which was debated in Comparative Philosophy volume 3 issue 2 in 2013, with contributions from Sarah Pessin, a specialist on Neoplatonism, Nader el-Bizri, a Heideggerian who works on Avicenna and classical Arabic philosophy and science, and Therese Cory, a specialist on medieval philosophy. Pessin wonders whether the ‘Thomist’ assumptions of much reading of Islamic philosophy is not just being supplanted by another and wonders about the role of taʾwīl (about which Azadpur says little). El-Bizri is broadly receptive and impressed with the desire to reflect upon the spiritual in philosophy. Cory puts him in dialogue with medieval theories of cognition and worries about philosophical elitism.  

Drawing upon Hadot’s paradigm of philosophy as a way of life and a set of spiritual exercises (and one should remember John Cooper’s caveat that Hadot’s universalization of a position from a rather slender textual basis). Azadpur argues that the Islamic Peripatetic project initiated by al-Fārābī and Avicenna continues the late antique (à la Hadot) conception of philosophy with the modification that the cultivation of the soul/self – what Foucault influenced by Hadot called le souci de soi – culminated in a psychological account of the nature of prophecy. In that sense philosophy in Islamic Peripateticism was ‘prophetic’. Central to this prophetic turn was not just an ethical commitment to virtue as knowledge (itself blandly an Aristotelian observation) but also a process of taʾwīl or art of interpretation of the scripture in the direction of philosophical reasoning. Since the philosophical care of the soul culminated in prophecy, it was the latter that bridged not just the divine with the human (since it was through prophets that theologically speaking God spoke to humans and made a certain vision of reality communicable and concrete) but also the rational with the supra-rational or the discursive with the intuitive. This leads to the critique of Western philosophy through Heideggerian phenomenology: the mind is directly (contra Kant’s denial of unmediated experience) linked to the world and the role of philosophy is to clear obstacles that may cloud the mind’s awareness of its context. Whether this necessarily avoids both foundational epistemology (in the way critiqued famously by Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) or naïve realism are questions that, perhaps, remain. It does, however, suggest how a reading via Hadot of the sources can accord with a Heideggerian understanding of reality.

After the introduction, Azadpur presents five chapters or steps of his argument and a conclusion. The introduction itself is a rather straightforward presentation of Hadot and a critique of existing approaches to the study of Islamic peripateticism: first, he raises the well known critique of Straussian esoteric reading in which it is assumed that philosophy in a religious context exists in a hostile environment and hence thinkers needed to be very careful in their formulation; second, what I would call the Greek into Arabic approach or perhaps now the ‘Gutas’ school which considers Avicenna to be a rationalist par excellence, a Muslim by accident; third, he also disagrees with Nasr’s consideration that the Peripatetics divorced theory from practice. In all of this, Azadpur is influenced by a well-known article of Muhsin Mahdi (published in the pages of this journal), interestingly himself a Straussian, on how much of the study of Islamic philosophy is motivated by Orientalist categories of thought and approach. So far, so fairly straightforward: the key issue of contention is rationality and the notion of philosophy. In chapter two he turns of Corbin and Heidegger (via MacDowell and Dreyfus) on phenomenology and the problem of how to access ‘das Ding an sich’. The turn to things in themselves is also a turn to oneself and a more reflective consideration of one’s context and involvement in the world, in being. Authenticity is merely a recognition of this awareness and one avoids naïve realism because that awareness does not commit oneself to the ‘myth of the given’: MacDowell’s form of realism posits not only that we construct the world we inhabit through our conceptions but also that the conceptual scheme in part of the world that we inhabit and in effect makes us. Chapter three starts from this ethical consideration and turns towards the technologies of the self in the thought of al-Fārābī and Avicenna. They began with the ethical understanding and indeed end of philosophy – the acquisition of eternal felicity pertaining to the existence of a soul – and through the account of intellection (and the transcendent role of the active intellect) to the culmination of the psychological account of prophecy. It is therefore the Prophet’s ability and perfection of the soul, which presents an exemplar for the philosopher of what is possible. It also demonstrates how thought is not just ratiocination but also imagination (itself the highest faculty of the intellect) as evident in the practice of the Prophet. Spiritual exercises play a role in the cultivation. The next chapter moves onto the examination of the notion of imagination and poesis (through the prophet) as a critique of Kant. He wants the intellect to discipline the imagination in order to receive the epiphany of the ‘spiritual realm’. Contra Kant, he wants the intellect to be more than a mere producer of knowledge; it must prepare and discipline imagination to receive the forms from the angelic realm/the active intellect. Chapter five gives a case study of how this works in Avicenna’s famous exegesis on the light verse that engages Ghazālī’s famous critique of Peripateticism and his eventual embrace of it. Chapter six brings us back to Heideggerian phenomenology. This involves a rehearsal of the metaphysics of the rational soul in Avicenna and in particular his famous flying human thought experiment. The function of the flying human is to make the subject aware of herself – and self-awareness is central to Heidegger’s involvement in being. This is why one needs Prophets and human exemplars to show us the work; that plays the role of Heidegger’s (in Corbin’s terms) being-towards-beyond-death.

In his conclusion, he returns to the importance of Peripateticism as an antidote to notions in modern philosophy that reduce philosophising to rational naturalism – though that already exists in various modes of the continental tradition. In effect, Azadpur is supporting the argument of the Corbin school that Islamic philosophy and its critique is more at home with the holistic, agonistic, being-centred continental traditions of philosophy as opposed to the hard ‘rationalism’ of the anglo-American analytic tradition (if increasingly in these times, it makes any sense to perpetuate such a clear division). The second conclusion is that Peripateticism’s care of the self and holistic approach to theory and practice is actually continued in later Islamic philosophy: philosophy as the practice of hermeneutic spiritual exercises is central to the tradition from Suhrawardī and beyond. If anything the phenomenology and prophetological approach to spiritual exercises was more explicit in Suhrawardī and Mullā Ṣadrā. While Azadpur presents a new long tradition of Islamic thought, I would tend to break down and emphasise the discontinuities as well not least because the thinkers themselves saw it that way. Suhrawardī explicitly considered himself to be reviving Plato and critiquing the wrong ‘rational’ turn of Avicenna, and his own commentators such as Ibn Kammūna thought they were engaged in a ‘new philosophy’. Similarly Mullā Ṣadrā’s approach while committed to philosophy as a way of life, also considers Avicenna to have failed in that endeavour (in fact there is more continuity with al-Fārābī whose Epistle on the Intellect as well as the pseudo-Fārābian Fuṣūṣ fī-l-ḥikma and al-Jamʿ bayn raʾyay al-ḥakīmayn play an important role in Mullā Ṣadrā’s corpus).  

Ultimately this is the work of someone interested deeply in comparative philosophy or the philosophical enterprise as such – and perhaps the very notion that one cannot do philosophy without a more global approach that takes in different traditions. Therefore one cannot understand Heidegger or Kant without Avicenna and Suhrawardī. The study of philosophy, which for most of us means the Anglo-American (post-)analytic traditions, therefore requires that one engage in the non-Western to refine and calibrate our very sense of the philosophical quest. Henry Corbin would certainly have approved.



Monday, October 19, 2015

Mullā Ṣadrā's death date - a new publication in favour of 1045 AH

Some years ago, based on a reading of Muḥammad ʿAlam al-hudā, the son of Muḥsin Fayż Kāshānī and grandson of Mullā Ṣadrā, I suggested that the correct death date for Mullā Ṣadrā was 1045 AH and not 1050 AH as commonly understood, and that this was on the return from his seventh ḥajj in Basra and that his body was taken to Najaf to be buried in the precinct of the Imam's shrine.

Now an article has just recently been published that provides some further evidence and correction to my report. I am grateful to Alireza Asghari for alerting me to this and to sending me a copy.

The reference for the article is:
Ḥusayn Vāsiqī, "Safar-hā-yi ḥajj-i khāndān-i Fayż-i Kāshānī', Mīrās-i Shihāb, 76-77 (1394 Sh), 121-28
[This is the journal published by the Kitābkhāna-yi Marʿashī Najafī in Qum]

siqī cites two majmūʿa-s donated to the library by the descendants of Fayż that includes plenty of useful information about the family, in particular Majmūʿa 8446 in the hand of ʿAlam al-hudā and 8447 in the hand of his son Muḥammad Muḥsin 'Vafāʾ'. The information in MS 8447 is broadly based on MS 8446 and was already partially used by Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn Marʿashī in the introduction to Maʿādin al-ḥikma fī makātib al-aʾimma (my source for the dating in the first place). In MS 8446, ʿAlam al-hudā notes that his grandfather died on his way to ḥajj in Baṣra in the year 1045 (so at the very least before Dhū-l-Qaʿda in that year). In MS 8447, his son Vafāʾ states that this was on his way to his second ḥajj (I have not checked references to his ḥajj pilgrimages in his own works but it's possible that I've overlooked them), and that his body was taken to be buried in Najaf in the courtyard to the left of the mausoleum of the Imam. Vafāʾ says that he heard this from some friends - and 'perhaps from my father'. Of course, it was ʿAllāma Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī and Sayyid Abū-l-Ḥasan Rafīʿī Qazvīnī (bi-riwāyat Seyyed Hossein Nasr) who said that he had died in Basra on his seventh ḥajj in 1050 AH and was buried there. Here is a piece that repeats the 1050 AH date but with the assertion of being buried in Najaf.

So perhaps not a huge point. It's a shame that there is little memory of this - the problem is that the books published on those buried in the precinct (such as this work) and the little map that you get from the shrine authorities only goes back 200 years at most. But then such works don't mention Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir known as Mīr Dāmād, Mullā Ṣadrā's teacher and sometime Shaykh al-Islām of Iṣfahān under Shāh Ṣafī I, who was known to have died in Najaf on ziyāra with the Shah and been buried there (as the historical works mention). It would be great if scholars in Najaf could work further on those buried there in earlier periods.

So here is some evidence - and given that none of his works are dated later than 1044 AH - that suggests strong evidence for middle to late 1045 AH which approximates to the early months of 1636 CE.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ascensions

One of the pivotal episodes in the sacred history of early Islam – and one that according to some sources took place more than once – is the famous ascension (miʿrāj) of the Prophet. The narratives in various sources that discuss it make clear the significance of the event(s) especially for both the theology of prophecy in Islam as well as the legitimation of narratives about the status of his successors. The ascension had an important reception in European literature, not least in various accounts about the ascent into heaven or the descent into hell including Dante among others. It also played a role in polemics – both intra-Muslim ones, and also Christian-Muslim ones. In recent years there has been a rise in interest in the study of the miʿrāj and its theological and artistic implications. For example, Christiane Gruber andFrederick Colby edited a volume on cross-cultural influence in different Muslim literatures published in 2010 by Indiana University Press. Earlier, Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, who has written extensively on ascension narratives in classical Shiʿi texts, edited a volume entitled Le voyage initiatique en terre d’Islam published in Paris in 1996 that included studies of the medieval European reception of the miʿrāj narratives. More recently, Brooke Olson Vucukic published a book with Routlege in 2005 on the significance of miʿrāj narratives in the formative literature of Islam. So there is an overlap between some of these studies and the concerns of Buckley who seems to be aware of these studies as well as a number of recent works in Arabic. One cannot, of course, expect Buckley’s study to be exhaustive given the many works on the narratives published in Persian, Turkish, Urdu and other languages used by Muslims.

Buckley’s work is a contribution to understanding the intellectual history in Islamic literatures and other forms of reception of Islamic narratives through a focus upon one narrative, thereby revealing the vitality of those modes of inquiry and the different ways in which broadly the same narrative can be received, understood, interpreted, and even rejected. Throughout he remains interested in how modern Muslims and other understand and try to make sense of the narrative, demonstrating quite significantly why the miʿrāj is not just an episode of early sacred history. The first chapter introduces the topic starting with the mention of the night journey (isrāʾ) in Qurʾan 17:1, moving onto the simple form in the earliest biography of the Prophet of Ibn Isḥāq (d. 768) – although he clearly means the recension by Ibn Hishām which is from the following century – onto sūrat al-Najm (Qurʾan 53) which is often associated with the miʿrāj, and then moving onto a long narrative given in the exegesis on the Qurʾanic verse by the Imāmī exegete al-Qummī (d. c. 919). The function of the chapter is merely to introduce the narrative and does not discuss what it means since that is precisely the function of the chapters that follow. The second chapter deals with the source texts in Qurʾan and hadith and how they have been debated especially in the modern period within the context of hadith criticism, rejection, and the rationalist justification of the classical texts. Starting from the theological agreement between Sunnis and Shiʿa on the necessity of belief in the ascension, he discusses the attacks on the accretion of many hadith narratives especially the common theme found in criticism of hadith among Muslims about texts that they feel are fabricated which is to identify them as corruption that came from Biblical and extra-Biblical material called isrāʾīlīyat. However, what the chapter shows is that the interpretative strategies adopted by different groups is similar including the solution to the discrepancy in narratives by arguing that the miʿrāj happened numerous times over the lifetime of the Prophet. In fact, the accumulation of narratives seems to have happened rather early in the period of the redaction of hadith narratives as al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) testifies; it also raises the theme that is taken up later in the book that the discrepancy between narratives reveals different attempts at vindicating a particular sectarian reading. While this chapter and subsequent ones show the breadth of Buckley’s reading in the traditional and modern literature, one wonders sometimes if there are criteria for selecting works and authors that he discusses. Clearly he could not have mastered the whole literature and one finds many examples of him not be aware of what he is citing: for example, on page 25 he cites a hadith on the authority of ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm al-Ḥasanī cited by the Imāmī tradent al-Ṣadūq (d. 991) but seems to be unaware of who he was. The link is significant as ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm is both a descendent of the Prophet through his grandson al-Ḥasan as well as a prominent Imāmī narrator from the later Imams and was considered to be an authority; in fact, al-Ṣadūq was later buried in the mausoleum complex of ʿAbd al-ʿAẓīm whose shrine in the southern outskirts of Tehran remains a popular place of pilgrimage. Some contextualisation would also be useful to explain who the critics are – even if ostensibly they are making the same sort of rationalist critique, it may be deployed for different uses.

The next two chapters deal with one of the central debates about the ascension: was it a physical and material movement, or was it a spiritual event? The first of these links a physical ascension with the miraculous power of the Prophet and shows how even modern ‘scientific’ interpretations are used to justify such a reading – it does seem to be the case that most major theologians held that the miʿrāj was both in body and spirit. Once again one wonders about the selection of sources: on page 84, the views of a certain Aroj Ali Matubbar is mentioned denying a physical ascension – it is not clear to me what this adds to the argument or what justifies the inclusion of his opinion. Chapter four that follows considers the spiritual ascension. Proponents of a spiritual journey could also cite early texts in support. But it seems that the real impetus for the position seems to be a broadly philosophical and Neoplatonic context that privileges the spiritual over the physical. In this vein, Buckley cites the famous Persian miʿrājnāma attributed to Avicenna (d. 1037) – without discussing the scholarly debate that tends to reject the attribution. He discusses a number of South Asian and Egyptian modernists who rejected a physical reading of the ascension, and ends the chapter with an interesting discussing from the Imāmī thinker Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī (d. 1826) on the nature of the ascension in the archetypal, non-material world of Hūrqalyā. Once again, what the discussion reveals is how thinkers set forth positions are part of a manner in which to distinguish their theological contribution: Shaykhīya in the case of al-Aḥsāʾī and his followers, and the Imāmī philosophical tradition in the case of Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1981) and his. And once again we see a synthesis emerging: the ascension is both spiritual and bodily but with a body unlike any other body. Chapter five that follows and is very short seems rather redundant: it reiterates the point about some interpreters rejecting a rationalist interpretation and affirming the miraculous. It also indicates one of the weaknesses of the book: the absence of a meticulous edit that would tighten the argument and extricate unnecessary and irrelevant discussions.

Chapter six moves onto the miʿrāj narrative in the Shiʿi tradition and how it is used to vindicate Shiʿi theology and sacred history. In practice this requires Buckley to discuss Sunni usages as well for the same effect. For the Shiʿa, the ascension, like other significant episodes in the life of the Prophet, is interpreted to demonstrate the fulfilment of prophecy in the imamate of his family starting with ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and to vindicate Shiʿi rituals and practices. This chapter ends with a brief consideration of the dating and redaction of Shiʿi hadith, a topic on which Buckley has written elsewhere; the important point concerns the idea of a common Islamic heritage of narratives that make their way into different redactions, and to critique much of the practice of Orientalist scholarship that tends to study Sunni material alone and dismisses much Shiʿi material as later fabrication. A careful study of the texts suggests that they originate in the same period. Once again we have a case of Buckley not knowing whom he is quoting: he cites a modern English translation of a Persian text on the miʿrāj by the Safavid thinker Muḥsin Fayḍ Kāshānī (d. 1680) on page 169 and suggests that he is a contemporary cleric and has him citing the contemporary jurist Nāṣir Makārim Shīrāzī – this is a classic case of mistaking the notes of a translator for the work of the original author and signals one of the problems in some contemporary Muslim publishing in which the original author of a translation is not clearly and adequately introduced.

The final chapter on Western perspectives collects a series of what he calls vignettes on the reception of ascension narratives from medieval Christian polemics to recent forays in literature. This happens to be the longest chapter. Along the way he discusses the thesis of Asin Palacios of the influence of miʿrāj narratives upon Dante. There is much new and interesting material here. But one wonders how it is related to the other chapters. The absence of a conclusion means that when one has finished reading what is an interesting set of studies, one wonders what the overall argument is and how this study actually works as a book. There is much to enjoy in this book and details and references to follow up; a number of important themes are raised concerning Muslim theological positions on proof texts, on prophecy, on the miraculous, on the nature of the human and whether a dualism of body and spirit is affirmed or denied. But overall, Buckley’s The Night Journey and Ascension in Islam is difficult to assess because ultimately there is no argument. 


Interview with Gary Gutting for The Stone blog at the New York Times

Here is a link to an interview developed over email with the eminent philosopher Gary Gutting:

It really was a great opportunity which did turn more on religion. I have much more to say about the philosophical traditions but grateful for the chance. The comments below show the range of responses which I have to say surprised me. There is much more to do to make the intellectual and spiritual traditions of Islam better known not only among the wider public but also those who describe themselves as thinking, educated Muslims.