Monday, February 3, 2020

Translating Religion, Affective Communities in Search of a Discursive Tradition

Talal Asad's work has for some time been essential reading for those trying to make sense of Islam in the present, as a 'religion' and within the construction of the modern post-Enlightenment construction of that term, as a set of practices, as identities, and as most importantly a discursive tradition. And the need to engage with his work is evident even among those most critical of him - one thinks of Shahab Ahmed (for a critical response, see Zareena Grewal here) and his rather misconstrued understanding of the discursive tradition and more recently Kevin Reinhart's rather unusual take on the big, cosmopolitan tradition of Islam swiping at the anthropologists. 

Asad’s latest work, Secular Translations, is a continuation of his engagement with the anthropological and philosophical process of ‘translation’ combined with his major work in the last two decades of tracing the parallel and connected genealogies of the concepts of the secular and the religious. 



It is arguably also his most explicit engagement with the canon of modern European philosophy – and especially liberal thought – deployed to decentre the narratives about the rise of the liberal, secular self in the exclusive space of modern Europe. In this sense, we can connect his work to other attempts at decolonising epistemology in metropolitan academia and especially rethinking liberalism. 

Each of the three chapters – originally the first set of Ruth Benedict lectures delivered at the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University in 2017 – reflects continuities with his previous work: the first chapter on ‘Secular equality and religious language’ recalls Formations of the Secular (Stanford University Press, 2003), the second chapter on ‘Translation and the sensible body’ engages with Genealogies of Religion (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) and his On an Anthropology of Islam (DC, 1986), and the third chapter ‘Masks, security and on the language of numbers’ is reminiscent of the controversies over his On Suicide Bombing (Columbia University Press, 2007). 

Perhaps his most striking insight – and this demonstrates both the optimism and the pessimism of the work – is not just the Wittgensteinian turn to language games and forms of like in order to understand ‘sensibilities’ such as religion and secularity (one thinks of the late Ernest Gellner taking his own turn to the Austrian late in life) but that the rise of calculative reason – or what Heidegger would have called technology – is expressive of our selfhood as well as denying its agency. 


Translation as an expression of the body is similarly affective. Asad thus seems to replace the tyranny of (liberal, universalising) reason with ‘sensibility’, a notion of an inner conviction that one’s experience preponderates over any reasoned argument that might be presented. Thus we live in an age of ‘sensibility’ and not of reason despite all the rhetoric of the ‘end of history’ with the triumph of the liberal, individual self (as Fukuyama and Seidel would have it), a fact of the vacuum of moral language and understanding that MacIntyre condemned as ‘emotivism’ in After Virtue(Duckworth, 1981). 

Chapter one begins with Robert Skidelsky’s affirmation of liberal moral values and secularization as ‘Christianity’s gift to the world’ based on the notion of ‘equal liberty’. Of course, since Skidelsky is citing Siedentrop one could easily to make the point about Christian claims to equality being exclusive by also quoting Siedentrop’s identification of the enemy of the liberal self and its hard-fought liberties – Islam. There follows an extensive, broad consideration of philosophical arguments about liberty from Mill, Kant and Rawls through to Benjamin and Habermas. One of the key issues is legal equality and the notion of sovereignty; the double-edged nature of this could be well explained by Giorgio Agamben’s conception of homo sacer and the state of exception and it is somewhat surprising that Asad does not go there. Or to cite Derrida’s famous iterative sense of being equal ‘before the law’. Similarly liberalism collusion with cruelty in the name of equality is mentioned – one could quite easily extend that to the intimate relationship between liberalism, religious suppression and imperialism (on a side note, one is reminded on liberalism of the excellent recent volume edited by Faisal Devji and Zaheer Kazmi on Islam after Liberalism, Hurst, 2017). Asad finally notes the failure of Habermas’ notion of translating religious language into secular and cites the problems posed by aspects of Muslim women’s veiling in Europe. One could equally – no pun intended – cite the problem of agency in equality by considering some of the arguments posed by religious communities concerning dignity and the right to religious liberties against civil liberties which are coming to the fore in ‘secular vs religious’ clashes on matters of morality such as LGBTQ+ issues in the public sphere. Throughout this book I keep thinking of Agamben – and it really would be interesting to see Asad’s engagement with the Italian philosopher and exegete’s work. 


The second chapter begins with the late Christian theologian Lammin Sanneh’s reflection on the nature of the mission in Africa and the relative success of Christian translation as opposed to Muslim resistance to translate the word of God based on some form of theological ‘inlibration’. Asad questions the basic of untranslatability with its concomitant assumption that if that is the case then true cultural plurality in Islam is somehow inauthentic. This allows him to open a question on the relationship between the exoteric and the esoteric and the apparent and allegorical in Qurʾanic language (and the uses of our embodied existence). He moves onto discuss elements of Islamic legal practice and notions of human dualism via Ghazālī. The privileging of Qurʾanic language – and this is an interesting insight – reflects a concern about secularisation and not the chauvinistic privileging of Arabic over other languages. One might also point out – in addition to Asad – that the hadith that talk about the heavenly language being Syriac or something other than Arabic would tend to suggest that there is no special status to Arabic as such. Qurʾanic language is the performative action of the body, a ritual form of life (again Wittgenstein). Here again the discussion of intention and action recalls his Genealogies of Religion. He also juxtaposes a number of concepts: intention vs will, the authenticity of the ‘true self’ against that of the tradition. He ends up reverting to his notion of a discursive tradition. But the key point is to critique any sense of the privilege of Christian religious language over others by using a discursive, critical genealogical approach. 

The final chapter concerns power and politics, involving a critique of the nation state, more explicitly starting with a reflection on Mauss on masks. Our public personhood is a matter of affecting masks and presenting meaning in the public sphere. However, the act of research into the public sphere is not a mere facility of reading. Conventions and structures act as masks of subjugation and securitisation, indeed even the ritualization of public life. At the heart of this chapter there seems to be a concern with selfhood and its emergence but it is not fully developed – not even as a critique of Eurocentric accounts including Skinner et al (again one thinks of Agamben – but also of Richard Sorabji’s wonderful monograph on the Self). The state’s distrust of those masks is a reason for the reinforcement of security. He ends with the problem of numbers and democratic nation states – and here one thinks of Appadurai. The calculation of the modern democratic nation state leads to a secular logic and thus he returns to Skidelsky cited already in chapter 1. Islamophobia is merely a result of this calculus. 

The epilogue reiterates why these lectures are continuous with Asad’s previous work on language, thought, religion, secularity and politics, not least the privileging of the ‘Christian’ and the ‘secular’ in modern nation states – and one might also link this with another endeavour with Butler, Mahmood and others on the possibilities of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ critique and reason. The concern with a sort of decolonisation of thought seems to be clear: religion, secularity, Christianity, security, power and a whole set of concepts needs a radical rethink using some reflections on Islamic texts but also of the critical elements of Euro-American thought as well – somewhat like Chakrabarty on ‘provincializing Europe’, expect taking religious texts and their ‘intentions’ more seriously. This is linked to his sense of the failure of the modern will, of the modern democratic nation-state, of epistemology not least because as he puts it those structures are even ignorant of that fact that they have failed, they have not produced a collective form of life that is radically different – even from the liberal end of history signalled in a previous generation. His only solution – and it seems the next step of the decolonisation – is to take the Qurʾanic injunction of ‘amr biʾl-maʿrūf’ more seriously as a collective form of life, of mutuality, of a means for unthinking the way in which we conceive of sovereignty. In that sense his solution is both pessimistic – about the possibilities and scope of decolonisation – and optimistic that despite our intuitions and evils that humans may still bear within themselves the capacity to produce a conducive collective form of life. That conundrum – and its hope – in one sense is a very serious contribution and suggestion for contemporary Islamic thought. One hopes that people will engage with Asad – especially when they might disagree (since not everyone accepts the failures of which he talks). Asad remains essential reading - and by extension his school. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Once more on the origins of Islam - and the role of 'ordinary believers'

In recent years, the study of early Islam has become quite a vibrant field, first moving towards the consensus on treating Islam as a ‘late antique’ religion and as part of the Near Eastern oecumene on matters ranging from the relationship between religion and violence to the perpetuation of monotheism (and henotheism), and then considering that the ‘standard’ narratives of the coming of imperial Islam in the region has tended to overemphasise the uniformity of the development of doctrine and practice and to marginalise the roles of non-Sunni-jamāʿī elites in that process. More even than that, a thorough double movement decolonisation of the study of early Islam is required: a critical appraisal of the sources and methods of orientalists, as well as provincialisation not just of those methods but also of the hegemonic assumptions of what constitutes (in a singular manner) the 'Islamic tradition'. 




Jack Tannous’ study furthers the process of considering early Islam within its wider pluralistic late antique context by arguing for the role of ‘simple believers’, the illiterate and agrarian Christians who broadly constituted the majority of the inhabitants in the Near East for some centuries after the advent of the message of Muḥammad in the Ḥijāz. The proper development of the spread of Islam can be gauged by the slow rate of conversion and 'Islamisation'/'Arabisation'. 

In the preface, Tannous tells us that the study is motivated by two questions. First, what does it mean for someone relatively illiterate and theologically uninformed to belong to a church in late antiquity, especially where confessional identity might be defined by conciliar creeds that deploy sophisticated theological concepts that are not exactly quotidian? Second, how did the Middle East become transformed from being the cradle of Christianity and a Christian space to one in which Christianity was a minority? The two questions are closely linked. One cannot understand the process of conversion purely through the prism of elite transformation and power strategies. Rather, if one wants to gauge how things may have changed one ought to consider the ‘simple believer’, however difficult it may be to establish and define. It is worth stressing that his approach is not a rather dismissive attitude to equating simple with simple-minded; rather by ‘simple’ he intends a lay category of agrarian, mostly illiterate and uninitiated into theological inquiry and debate. The culture of learned theologians – both Muslim and Christian of various confessions – tell us something about intellectual history but not much necessarily in themselves about the processes of social history. Tannous also offers another angle on the debates about Islam in the early period. He contends that if we wish to appreciate what Islam brought and changed we first need to understand what it might have meant to be a Christian and the nature of intra-Christian debate and polemic in Arabic, Syriac and Aramaic – it is those religious attitudes that need to be engaged to understand that world. That much of what was happening focused on intra-Christian debates and conflicts is already apparent from a number of the early Christian (Syriac and Greek) sources which spend much time of questions of heresy, orthodoxy and the relationship with various centres such as Constantinople. 





The argument ranges over four parts, one interlude and two historiographically important appendices. Part one introduces us to the simple and the nature of the fractures between Christians in the world into which Islam emerged. Part two engages the intra-Christian debates and arguments between the council of Chalcedon in 451 (and the splits between the official imperial and dissent doctrines and the important distinction over Christology) and the emergence of Islam in the 7th century. The interlude considers some evidence for continuity through these periods into the 9th century by examining the evidence of the Syriac sources. Part three looks at what ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ may have meant in that period from the 7th to the 9th centuries and introduces broadly the notion of the simple Muslim believer as well in terms of the converts. It is useful that the main focus is not on the socio-political and economic benefits – and even the realisation that conversion in the early period may not have led to a sharp demarcation in doctrine and practice (some of the evidence from the Syriac writings from Qatar suggest that Church authorities were rather worried about the social and even liturgical mixing of Christians and converts). 



Similarly, it is important for us not to project our contemporary notions about religion, belief and conversion to the lives of people in late antiquity. But what did conversion mean and entail? – and we have the paradox from both Muslim and Christian sources over the anxiety of overlapping beliefs and practices as well as the desire to differentiate and draw up boundaries. This is significant also in the light of the recent thesis of Fred Donner on the believers’ movement and the debate over the exact point at which ‘Islam’ becomes an exclusive and highly distinct identity – Tannous criticises that thesis in chapter 12. 



It seems that one of the elements in the process that paved the way for conversion was that violence, disagreement, confessional chaos and the contestations over truth following Chalcedon made the simple believers perhaps somewhat sceptical of exclusive claims and more adaptable to holding positions and practices that may to the theologian seem to be contradictory – clearly such phenomena were visible in ‘exclusively’ Muslim contexts as well as we see especially from some of the historical and heresiographical literature. This is also a section that troubles – if belief was a spectrum, why would someone convert? And why then would someone apostasise (the subject of a recent volume by Christian Sahner)? 



Tannous is correct to point out the weaknesses in the method of some who have written on conversion: for example, Bulliet’s study of genealogies and the use of ‘Muslim’ names is clearly problematic – the former can be forged and the latter – at least insofar as Arabic –adopted even when their bearers were avowedly Christian. Conversion relied about structural continuities – holy men and the realm of the sacred, and the mosque taking the place of the church. This, Tannous argues, is expressed in the anxiety in the Muslim sources about influence from Christians – the prohibitions (or not) about quoting from the Christians and their scriptures, knowledge of Syriac, of traditions and so forth. Part four focuses on the shared world and reintegrates the simple Christian believers into the social history of Islam and recovers their voices. The social interaction and everyday life – not the written theological text – seems to be the place to search for the gradual processes of transformation – multi-causal as they were. 

The appendices then turn to the methodological issues of source criticism – since there is no explicit methodological preliminary to the study. Appendix II is relatively modest and argues that it is proper – if we pay attention to the Syriac sources – to refer to the conquests as ‘Arab’. Appendix I is, on the other hand, an interesting essay on the sources that may be profitable for a class on Islamic history. In the debate between the radical sceptics and the ‘gullible’, Tannous places himself somewhere in the middle suggesting that while ‘literary analysis’ (beloved of the sceptics) is a valuable tool, literary Pyrrhonism as he calls it is a dead end if one wishes to write social history. A reflective source-critical approach that engages the sources (not necessarily with a heightened hermeneutics of suspicion) is probably emerging as the consensus of the field. His case study is an element in the canons of Jacob of Edessa that he uses to shed light on the nature of the Christian sources – and then on the Islamic ones – taking into consideration the positions of Abbott, Motzki and Schoeler juxtaposing them with Goldziher and Schacht. It seems clear that he broadly concurs with the position of Schoeler. The more radical positions of Shoemaker and others are absent – but to be fair in good measure, since the function of the short appendix is to shed light on his own method and not write a monograph on Quellenkritik



The scope of the study is 500 to 1000, so there is a sense in which it parallels and acts as a foil to Garth Fowden’s Before and After Muhammad.  From the perspective of someone like Aziz al-Azmeh, his notion of Islam and ‘paleo-Islam’ and his monograph The Emergence of Islam, Tannous’ work will probably seem to be hopefully old-fashioned and orientalist no least for decentering the Arabic from our accounts of the Middle East after Islam. 




But instead of locating his work within the Crone paradigm of understanding Islam beyond the Arabic sources due to the hermeneutics of suspicion, Tannous argues for something that is more in vogue among historians: connected histories, and in this case connected ‘transconfessional’ histories of the Middle East. Just as connected histories forgo the historiography of nation-state, so too should transconfessional histories dismiss the projection of the ‘millet’ system’s religious balkanisation on an earlier period of history. Non-Muslims as imperial competitors and as shared inhabitants of the world had a part to play in the formation of Islam as much as those who claimed to be from within the traditions. 

Has Tannous convinced? As he suggests in the conclusion, in some ways the monograph is an experiment in what might happen if we change our assumptions about early Islam and the region prior to that and turn our attention away from the privileging of the learned culture of a few key garrison towns such as Baghdad, Kufa, Basra, Wasit and Fustat. If we assume that the conquests – and the link between religion and violence discussed by the late Thomas Sizgorich – were part of the late antique norm, and that the rise in literary and theological works in Syriac and Arabic tell us rather little about the numbers on the grounds being instead indicators of the transmission and reception of Hellenic learning, then it is perfectly plausible to consider that the majority of the Near East up until the 10th century may well have constituted simple believers who identified themselves as Christian. The social history of the region is not necessarily contiguous with the intellectual history of early and classical Islamdom. He makes a strong case for considering the simple believer – a history of early Islam from below perhaps in a connect transconfessional manner that accords with my own taste for a ‘decolonised’ approach to Islamic history. But, given his rather fluid approach to identity (which is not unreasonable), whether he explains how the region transformed and how simple Christians became Muslim is another matter. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Sources on the North Indian Shiʿi Hierocracy VI: Tarājim mashāhīr ʿulamāʾ al-Hind

Like the Warathat al-anbiyāʾ of Sayyid Aḥmad al-Hindī (d. 1947, discussed in the first of this series of blogposts), this text written by his kinsman Sayyid ʿAlī Naqī Naqavī (d. 1988), known as Naqqan ṣāḥib, in Najaf is a useful source for the ʿulamāʾ of North Indian not least from three lineages that I have already discussed on my blog in the context of the ʿulamāʾ of Avadh - the family of Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī (d. 1820), the lineage of Mīr Ḥāmid Ḥusayn Mūsawī (d. 1888), and the family of Muftī Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAbbās Shushtarī (d. 1889).  

I had been trying to get a hold of the text for some time so it was a matter of serendipity that I came across a reference to its publication in Karbala a few years ago via a survey of recent articles in a journal printed by the shrine of Ḥażrat ʿAbbās. I am grateful to my friend Mehdi Hamza for sourcing a copy for me. 





Naqqan ṣāḥib is a well known figure for those familiar with Shiʿi Islam in North India, the subject of a Virginia PhD dissertation in 2011 by Rizwan Zamir and a recent article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society by Justin Jones






He was also a well known khaṭīb during the Muḥarram season. Here is a video from among the many of his speeches. 
[Most of these videos have been ripped from old VHS tapes and hence are rather poor in quality - 40 years old...]

The text in question was completed in Najaf on 17 Shaʿbān 1347/29 January 1929 and contains notices on 32 ʿulamāʾ divided into six successive generations from Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī to the time of the author. The first and longest entry is on his illustrious ancestor Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī. Other important entries include Mīrzā Muḥammad 'Kāmil' Dihlavī (d. 1235/1820) the first Shiʿi polemicist to respond to the Tuḥfa-yi isnāʿashariyya of Shāh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, and Sayyid ʿAlī al-Ḥāʾirī, the exegete who settled in Lahore. The editors - who are not named - do a useful job of supplementing material by cross-referring to other accounts of these ʿulamāʾ. Compared to other works, it has a far more extensive discussion and listing of the scholarly works of these ʿulamāʾ and of their connections to the hierocracy in Najaf and Karbala. The editors also provide a very lengthy introduction to the author - far longer than the text itself as well as detailed appendices and a facsimile of some pages of the lithograph of the text that first appeared in 1350/1932 in Najaf (which actually mentions 53 figures discussed in the text). 

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Multicultural Middle Ages?

Not just a genuflection to contemporary identity, what can we mean by a multicultural middle ages and in particular multicultural medieval philosophy (or philosophies)? Clearly this volume is trying to do something beyond the classic reader for students wanting some background in medieval thought before they move onto the more serious (!) work of Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant - and beyond to the questions that we ask. On the one hand, the analytic tradition has become co-opted into a whiggish notion of intellectual progress, of hard won liberties, a tradition of imperial triumphalism in which the rationalities and intellectual traditions are not terribly significant. On the other hand, such a conception would be a travesty for the analytic tradition since some of the best thinkers working towards global philosophy and the dialogues between cultural traditions come from that training (one thinks of Jay Garfield, Jonardon Ganeri and others). But there is a sense of the analytic tradition that is in the background of the conception of this volume. 


What is it seeking to include and what is the very conception of philosophy at its heart? There are plenty of existing readers on medieval philosophy and for some time such works have included the Jewish and Islamic philosophical traditions (this was already the case with Hyman and Mahdi back in the 1960s). Hyman et al (currently in its third iteration) was more geared towards use in analytic departments but it still included pseudo-Dionysius. Other works have presented us with readers specifically on Islam (one thinks of Muhammad Ali Khalidi's volume for Cambridge University Press that like this volume is primarily selections from existing published translations, and the late David Reisman and Jon McGinnis' Hackett volume).  



What sets this new volume published by Bloomsbury apart from previous attempts? 





First, let us consider what the eminent specialist of Aquinas’ thought and of medieval philosophy Bernard McGinn says in his preface and Bruce Foltz, the general editor, in his introduction, and then consider the practice of the volume. 

McGinn points to three contributions of the volume. First, the ‘postmodern’ turn allows us to reconsider the significance of medieval philosophy within the history of philosophy and indeed within our contemporary philosophical concerns within a global context. Therefore, one needs to go beyond the simple confines of the Latin tradition (well represented in the historical and textual volumes of readers edited by Robert Pasnau and others for Cambridge University Press) and include the Eastern Byzantine tradition (pace Dimitri Gutas’ recent denial of any ‘actual’ philosophy in that tradition in the Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium), the Jewish and the Islamic traditions. Second, the definition of philosophy assumed takes us back to the very word and the notion – made especially popular by the late Pierre Hadot – of philosophy as ‘a way of life’ and a love of wisdom. That necessarily takes us beyond the narrowly ratiocinative and embraces the ‘mystical’. 



Third, the medieval thinkers presented are considered on their own terms embracing but modifying Neoplatonism and not just as adapters of the ancient rationalists. In this sense, one might consider much of the volume to constitute medieval Abrahamic Neoplatonisms. And it deliberately marginalises the ‘analyticisation’ of medieval philosophy – which may constitute an obstacle for some to adopt this text. While it is possible to rehabilitate Neoplatonism for analytic philosophers - one thinks of the work of Lloyd Gerson, the late Anthony Lloyd, and Christopher Martin - it seems that the conceptualisation of the volume assumes an opposition between the analytic and the Neoplatonic.  

Foltz gives the ‘innovative’ approach more precision. History is important even for philosophy and one needs to engage medieval philosophy for its philosophical questions and not as mere antiquarian artefacts. Descartes after all did not emerge ex nihilo (and his debt to Augustine in particular is well documented in an excellent monograph by Stephen Menn).  



The volume covers four traditions: the Latin West, the Greek East, the Jewish and the Islamic. The addition of the Byzantine is significant – and seen in the light of the separate embrace of it in Peter Adamson’s influential History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast timely. These traditions are considered on their own terms and not as satellites of Latin scholasticism, and hence what is important for them is paramount; for example, Ibn Rushd or Averroes is a pivotal figure for Latin Aristotelianism but not so for the Islamic medieval tradition and hence, unlike other readers, does not take up too much space. Mystics are also included – and since the sense of wisdom or its pursuit in these four traditions tends to embrace them, that is perfectly reasonable. Besides, one may already query the neat distinction that us moderns make between the rational and the mystical since what counts is the nature of discourse and argument and not merely the mode of language or particular logical form of argument. Knowledge is thus linked to spiritual exercise and practice. 

Foltz goes on to emphasise four points. First, one needs to reintegrate the religious into the philosophical. Denying religion makes it difficult to follow the motivations, contexts and even content of various types of argument. Second, theistic philosophy in the middle period followed Neoplatonisms in its pursuit of spiritual exercises and, ways of life and care of the self – Foltz explicitly cites the importance of Hadot and Foucault for this process (and one cannot help feel that McGushin’s excellent study of askesis in Foucault would be a useful prop to this point). 


Third, by multicultural the editors indicate the present context and realise that the four traditions are indeed living ones and not merely historical epochs superseded by modernist concerns. Decolonisation – not explicitly cited – seems to be part of the reason too in the general editor’s disavowal of the Western model of ‘cultural assimilation’. Or perhaps my decolonising assumption are reading too much in. What is required is position recognition without condescension and analysis of theistic thought without the secular bias. And whether one can use the colonisers' language and categories to decolonise (finding a new philosophical lexicon on the terms of the texts themselves can be a task since they already use the paradigms and concepts of the Aristotelian tradition even when avowedly anti-Aristotelian). Finally, the editors seek readers who are not just philosophers or historians of philosophy but also practitioners of the four traditions which in the light of the modern academic study of the field is realistic and preferable. After all, we tend to think about how we can take academic research beyond the narrow confines of the academy and consider carefully the identity of the ‘general reader’. In these terms, these are laudable intentions and ones that are consistent with the shift towards global philosophy that radically decentres the hegemony of the Anglo-American analytic tradition and proclaims a decolonisation of the field. 

The practice of the volume is divided into five parts. While quibbling about lacunae is not always that important, I will mention passages and works that are important for the themes outlined. The first is on the ancient with the emphasis on the ‘spiritual’ which explains the Platonic and Neoplatonic (Plotinus and Proclus). Godlikeness or theosis is a major theme and aim of philosophy but the relevant passages in the TheaetetusTimaeusor Phaedrus are not included. Nor is the account of the doffing metaphor of Enneads IV.8.1 of Plotinus, much beloved of mystics included. Pythagoras’ Golden Verses and their commentary by Iamblichus are similarly absent (in fact any work of Iamblichus). Given the importance of the Theologia Aristotelis and Liber de Causis (from the Plotinian and Proclean corpora) in Arabic and then in Latin, the absence of any corresponding passages is somewhat unfortunate. Aristotle remains critical but De Anima III and Metaphysics Lambda (again textual pericopes with a major influence on the medieval) are similarly lacunae.  Nevertheless, the Stoic sense of the inner citadel and the practice of philosophy and the Neoplatonic metaphysics of emanation are well covered. 

Part two on the Greek Christian tradition is far more adequate and covers pretty much all that one expects – and would be well supported in a class by the volumes on early Christian philosophy by George Karamanolis and on Byzantine philosophy by Katrina Ierodiakonou



In particular, the passages selected demonstrate how theological language and mystical insight are significant for philosophy in that tradition. This part in itself is a major contribution to any reader in medieval philosophy. Part three on the Latin tradition is more predictable – the inclusion of Marguerite Porete, Nicholas of Cusa and Meister Eckhart essential. Perhaps some Julian of Norwich or the Cloud of Unknowing and maybe even some Pseudo-Dionisius might have been salient? Part four on the Jewish tradition adds some Talmudic, Rabbinic and Midrashic material to the standard canon: but again, no Nahmanides, no David Maimonides, no Joseph Albo and no Hasday Crescas. Furthermore, it is odd that the category of Jewish philosophy still alludes those who wrote in Arabic like the Karaite authors, Abūʾl-Barakāt al-Baghdādī and Ibn Kammūna. The final part on the Islamic tradition does exactly what it should – start with the Theologia Aristotelis and its doffing metaphor and include Ibn Ṭufayl, Ibn ʿArabī and Mullā Ṣadrā. Averroes is appropriately marginalised – although one would wish to see passages from the commentary on the Rhetoric and the Metaphysics which was salient. For Avicenna, I would have also included latter parts of Remarks and Admonitions (al-Ishārāt waʾl-tanbīhāt) often called the ‘mysticism’. The final testament of the Philosophy of Illumination (Ḥikmat al-ishrāq) of Suhrawardī similarly on the practice of following a sage and on the spiritual practice of philosophy would be essential. Since the selections are based on existing translations, some of these lacunae are understandable but that does not hold for all of them. 

The volume on the whole is to be recommended. It is reader friendly and one could easily design an undergraduate course with this as the main text – and then complement it with surveys and relevant histories. However, if one accepts the provincialisation of European cultural hegemony and even of periodisation – and reads medieval as a shorthand for the pre-modern – than maybe the absence of a more thorough going multicultural approach is telling. Why should one restrict philosophy to the Abrahamic traditions and the reception and development of ‘philosophia’ even if taken in the more expansive sense that embraces the theological and the mystical? Why not include African, Chinese, Indian and other philosophical traditions? Similarly, one wonders why a more thematic approach is not taken in order to juxtapose and bring the traditions into more of a conversation. As it stands the volume has five self-contained sections that could easily be taught in isolation, not necessarily in pursuit of comparative philosophy (which is not an avowed aim) but at least to allow us to consider how the arguments and discourse in this volume constitute the philosophical. At one level that is asking too much – and given the existing extent of translated materials unreasonable especially when it comes to Islamic thought. 

The volume that I would like to see would engage these questions – and do more than that in introducing the categories of the philosophical, the spiritual and the medieval. One also wonders whether one can have a volume that satisfies the Hadotians as well as the analytic philosophers since the material of interest to the latter is rather limited. But that is not the book before me – and this particular publication still has much to commend itself, to be read, used and enjoyed. So adopt it as a text in classes. Unless you are in an analytic department in which the selection on the whole will seem rather crazy. It seems that the culture wars on what constitutes philosophy - and even how those in related fields conceive of philosophy - will remain ongoing for the foreseeable future. 


The Fātimids again - and more material for the 'decolonising Islamic studies' dossier

The Institute of Ismaili Studies has not only developed and accelerated academic research into Ismaili studies but has also it seems perfected a way of presenting Ismaili thought in an accessible manner (no doubt partly motivated by the desire to address their confessional community). In this light, two recent works have appeared from the Institute of Ismaili Studies that bring our attention back to the Fatimids, one through a volume located within the Ismaili heritage series and the other a first volume in a new series of accessible introduction in a small paperback format. In both volumes the diversity of Islam is stressed, and it is not surprising since the modern Ismaili focus has been to stress diversity to find a place for their traditions within Islam. Nevertheless, it does indicate an important insight that all theological affiliations and confessions within Islamic history always consider themselves as definitive and constitutive of the Islamic tradition. The language of sects and sectarianism thus in that sense is terribly impoverished and inadequate because it fails to understand the way in which an interpreter and religious entrepreneur considers their own agency and activity. 


The short volume on the Fatimids by Shainool Jiwa (which is to be followed with another short introduction to the main Fatimid Imam-caliphs) is divided into five chapters that takes the story from the death of Muḥammad to the foundation of Cairo as the seat of the Fatimid caliphs. It is designed to be accessible: fluently written with copious citations of primary texts in translation, minimal endnotes, very simplified transliteration and an attempt to contextualise and link the study to its Mediterranean context and wider trends in the study of pre-modern empires (although perhaps because it is accessible, there is little consideration of the use of empire to describe the Fatimids and others). There are plenty of colour pictures of high quality which are great to see in a book that is priced also in a very accessible manner. Figures tabulate and explain relations such as the descent of the differing lines of Imams from Muḥammad, timelines and so forth. A useful glossary explains key phrases and a guide to further reading helps the potential student take their interests forward. 

In the introduction, Jiwa makes it clear how she sees the function of history: it helps us to grasp what it is that we share as part of the common human concern and it helps foster mutual understanding. This is very much history deployed for didactic and inter-subjective ethical ends. The global concern with Islam means that we need to appreciate the rich diversity of Islam of which the Fatimids were an element – a lasting empire in North Africa reaching into the Levant, at times Andalus and Sicily with a rich intellectual heritage. Chapter 1 on origins considers the narrative from the conflict at the death of Muḥammad, the development of Shiʿi lineages, the beginnings of the Ismaili mission with the grandson of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and the development of that mission among the Berbers and others in North Africa leading to the establishment of the rule of al-Mahdī at the beginning of the 10thcentury, the so-called Shiʿi century. The next chapter looks at the Mediterranean context and the development of the new state and establishes one key feature and theme: the constant problems of rebellions and the need to establish the legitimacy and authority of those who were confessionally a small minority in the context. It also shows the universal ambitions of the Fatimids, extending their rule to Sicily and their mission to Andalus and even to Sind. Jiwa is the best authority on these developments having translated the relevant section of Idrīs ʿImād al-Dīn and al-Maqrīzī’s general histories on the early establishment of the Fatimids. This chapter ends with the death of al-Mahdī in 934. Chapter 3 takes up the state in transition and the consolidation under al-Qāʾim and the key role of al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān in establishing the theology and jurisprudence of the state. Chapter 4 is the intellectual core and looks at the development from al-Muʿizz, the composition of al-Īḍāḥ and Daʿāʾim al-Islām as key works of the tradition, the function of the majālis al-ḥikma to impart doctrine and spread the doctrine of the walāya of the Imam-caliphs, and the further expansions. The final chapter takes the story through to the foundation of Cairo as the centre of the empire. At each level, the relevant sources for our understanding are indicated – although perhaps the problems that one might face in analysing them elided.  The uneasy relation with the Kutama Berbers is acknowledged but the relations with non-Ismailis examined in the last chapter through the guarantee of safety after the conquest of Cairo. The question remains how the Fatimids dealt with their Sunni, other Shiʿi, Jewish, Christian and other subjects. As an accessible work, it is a successful introduction to the establishment of the Fatimids and their doctrine and public rituals. There are some indications of their role in the diversity – but not much in the main text after the introduction. 


The Jiwa and Daftary volume on the Fatimid caliphate is a collection of seven essays that originated in Fatimid panels at the annual MESA conference. As such they are loosely connected, although apart from the first chapter, they broadly concern the ways in which Fatimids engaged with others. The first chapter is a short and useful ‘official’ account of the Fatimids’ rise to power and their lineage back to the Prophet and early Islam. Jiwa’s chapter draws upon the well-known early attack on the claims to ʿAlid lineage of the Fatimids but refers to the common manifestoes of the 11thcentury in which the ʿAbbasid authorities drew upon Sunni and Shiʿi notables in Baghdad to delegitimise the Fatimids, and in the case of al-Sharīf al-Raḍī, to balance his own claims to authority and independence from the ʿAbbasids without an element of positivity towards the Fatimids. Jiwa shows that the manifesto of 402/1011 and 444/1052 tell us more about unrest in ʿAbbasid Iraq and concern for combatting the Fatimid threat. They also indicate ways in which states attempted to begin the process of regularity claims to lineage that later results in the institutions that verified ʿAlid descent in the middle period. Walker’s piece is like a short note on the meaning of the vizierate of Badr al-Jamālī (d. 487/1094) and seems to be here primarily because of his eminence as a Fatimid specialist. Calderini examines al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān’s position on women leading the prayer, inspired by contemporary debates on this issue nowadays and along the way she shows how Fatimid law is related to other Muslim schools. The conclusions are not terribly exciting or unexpected and underscore the importance of the development of Fatimid in relation to Sunni schools and a shift from earlier ‘pan-Shiʿi appeals’. Fierro’s learned study of the Mālikī critique of the Fatimids’ legal thought and structures by al-Ṭurṭūshī (d. 451/1059) tells us something about the Sunnis who are often neglected in the study of the Fatimid period. Most of the paper is a study of al-Ḥawādith wa-l-bidaʿ as a ‘covert critique’ of the Fatimids. Cortese extends this by studying Sunni female scholarship, re-inscribing women into history, and their role in Alexandria and Cairo. But this piece seems to be entirely divorced from any consideration of the Fatimid context – I would have wanted to know more about the women associated with court and whether there were famous missionaries. The final chapter is Beben’s study of the modern Nizārī usage of the legacy of the Fatimids. He argues that prior to the post-Safavid Nizārī emergence (especially through Nādir Shāh’s patronage of ʿAlī Ḥasan), the Nizārī referred primarily to the Alamūt period and remained firmly in taqīya. But with the modern period, the recognition of the importance of the Imam’s followers in Khurasan and India (that prompted the transfer of the imamate to Kirmān), the Imams began to draw upon the Fatimid heritage – one could add that the modern invocation and stress upon the Fatimids by modern Nizārī institutions such as the Institute of Ismaili Studies is a continuation of that process. As such, it recalls the notion of the Fatimids as representing a pan-Shiʿism and even a sort of pan-Islamism that is strategically useful in the modern world. In this sense, the Fatimids are imagined as the primary signifiers and embracers of diversity in Islam. Beben’s recent edition and translation of ʿIbrat-afzā is an important event – although one needs to read it in terms of internal debates and critiques among followers and critics of the Agha Khan in Iran and India that so far has only really been a study of the British archive (by Teena Purohit and others), and the sources in Persian, Gujarati and other languages broadly neglected. 





These two books are quite different in their approach, presentation and content. But they both represent well the way in which modern Ismaili institutions and thought embraces and promotes the issue of diversity as a strategy for marking out a space for Ismaili activity within the context of Islam in the modern world. They demonstrate not only a strategy of survival and claims for inclusion but also the way in which different confessions make claims upon the Islamic traditions - and in that sense further the exigency to decolonise thoroughly Islamic studies. Some of the chapters of the volume may be of interest to specialists and the short introduction can be productively used in introductory courses and classes and may be of interest to the general reader. 

Early Ismaili Hermeneutics

As I try to complete an old commission editing a volume of papers on Ismaili thought and thinkers (which hopefully should appear with Tauris/Bloomsbury and the IIS in the new year), I seem to move again back to an examination of different periods in the development of Ismaili doctrine and confessions. I have also recently supervised an excellent dissertation on Qāḍī Nuʿmān's hadith methodology that throws up much interesting methodological insights on understanding the development of Fāṭimid doctrines and genres of writing. 

As most people in the study of Islam know, the Ismailis represent an esoteric approach to scripture and symbols of the faith and are particularly associated with a hermeneutics of taʾwīl par excellence as a means for establishing a dynamic and unfolding understanding of the faith. Despite this reputation, already articulated in studies by Corbin, Ivanow, and De Smet, the nature and purpose of taʾwīl as an allegoresis of scriptural exegesis is little understood and studied. Taʾwīl was essential to the early Ismaili kerygma/mission (daʿwa) and the means for the dissemination of the notion of salvation history and of salvific knowledge itself. The unconventional modes of this interpretation often led to the characterization of the Ismailis as socially radical and transgressive in their esotericism by particularly Sunni authorities such as, in perhaps the most famous case, al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) in his Calumnies of the Esotericists (Faḍāʾiḥ al-bāṭinīya). David Hollenberg's monograph Beyond the Qurʾān focuses on the early Ismaili period in which the mission was active, dynamic, militant and sectarian in a conflictual manner and perhaps by implication an interesting question is when that the mission’s approach come to an end or radically transfigure after the Fāṭimid perod into the current notions of pluralism that dominate especially the modern Nizārī tradition. He presents a tightly argued five chapters and an epilogue (in a relatively short book) that attempts to reconsider how we make sense of taʾwīlby refocusing on three themes: the sectarianism of the dynamics of the mission, the apocaplyticism of it (especially in the pre-official Fāṭimid period), and the sources of allegoresis and the objectives of the mission. The main thrust is to argue that taʾwīl constitutes a ‘cognitive re-training’ and habituation into a sectarian identity. Recent research and publication of texts has tended to focus on the Fāṭimid and post-Fāṭimid period (especially in terms of the publications of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London) and hence the early period has been somewhat neglected. Hollenberg attempts to rectify that and locates his study within the study of esotericisms and knowledge systems of hermeneutics in the study of religion in his preface; elsewhere he also draws on sociological theories. A more thorough introduction would have been useful to locate his contribution within Ismaili and Shiʿi studies more properly especially since he provides a number of correctives and objections to existing norms in Ismaili studies. 

[For other reviews of the same work, see



Chapter one on competing islands of salvation distinguishes the Fāṭimid polity’s campaign and mission from the early Ismaili mission and locates the latter in a pan-ʿAlid rhetorical strategy aimed at converts (especially from Twelver Shiʿa and from Zaydīs as we know from some early works by Ibn al-Ḥaytham, Ibn al-Ḥawshab, and Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr al-Yaman). In a sense this is a literature review chapter that covers the development of Ismailism and criticizes the positions of a number of experts such as Daftary and Hodgson on sectarianism, Sanders and Bierman on Fāṭimid material culture and its integration into the mission, and Brett on the role of the Imam in the mission. He begins with a consideration of what is meant by the term daʿwa and how it ought to be associated with sectarian identity and often beliefs in esotericism, imminent messianism, gnosticism, and eschatology. Hollenberg presents the mission as a new religious movement. The focus on taʾwīl and the nature of the daʿwa helps to explain the different stages of splits within the ranks and attempts to change the direction of the daʿwa first under the Fāṭimids and then later with the two new branches of the Ṭayyibī and Nizārī missions. The early daʿwa’s broader appeal and its somewhat distant relationship to the Imam gave way to a narrower sectarianism. This, however, still begs the question – which we may not be able to answer in the absence of sources – of how that mission functioned and the absence of the active role of the Imam in articulating the learned culture of the Fāṭimids does not tell us what may have been happening before then. Furthermore it would be useful to show how the sectarianism and inculcation of the mission was similar to other sectarian movements including proto-Sunnism. It would be unfortunate if some readers took away from the study the idea of a new re-entrenched idea of the Ismailis as sectarians going against some developing Sunni normativity. In that sense, the formative world of Islam was the venue for competing islands of salvation, orthodoxy and apostasy. 

Chapter two moves onto the daʿwa literature and its focus on taʾwīl. This literature is not really an esoteric hermeneutics of the Qurʾan but rather uses the scripture as a set of prompts to establish a more radical, gnostic doctrine that claims revealed status. As such taʾwīl should not – and this is contrary to the earlier work of Strothmann, Steigerwald and Bar-Asher – be assimilated into the general study of Qurʾanic exegesis or tafsīr but rather associated with the privileged knowledge of the Imams as bearers of truth, as the holders and professors of taʾwīl as opposed to the Prophet’s role as bearer of the revelation (tanzīl). It is that esoteric truth revealed by the Imams that is deployed in taʾwīl. Thus taʾwīl is not the esoteric other of tafsīr but of tanzīl and brings to mind the narration famous in Shiʿi circles in which the Prophet addressed ʿAlī stating that just as he fought for the revelation so will ʿAlī fight for the taʾwīl. It is then the role of the missionaries to use rhetoric including devices of taʾwīl to disseminate that esoteric truth. Hollenberg then considers the sources that he is using and acknowledges the problem of ascertaining authorship partly because so little is known about the authors of what the later Ṭayyibī tradition calls ḥaqāʾiq literature. His periodization into pre- and Fāṭimid works makes sense; however, it is not clear how he establishes and authenticates the attribution of a text, not least because of uncertain manuscript provenances and the relatively modern copying and survival of codices. For example, the Kitāb al-kashf and other works that are highly lettrist and occult in content are allocated to the pre-Fāṭimid period and unlike the previous specialists are anonymized and not attributed to Jaʿfar al-Manṣūr al-Yaman (although no strong reason is given for rejecting the previous attribution). What is interesting about the early taʾwīl texts is that there is a strong overlap with Nuṣayrī and similar material which begs the question of how we understand the milieu whence the Ismailis emerged. Hollenberg notes this connection but does not take it further. In that sense, it would be useful to compare his findings with recent work in that tradition by Yaron Friedman, Bella Tendler and Mushegh Asatryan

Chapter three examines the ways in which taʾwīl constitutes a cognitive re-training through symbols, patterns, and logics of that material. The ‘rearing’ of acolytes is through the appeal to these elements in the work of al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān and Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr al-Yaman. This process undergoes stages: the first is the recognition of the Imam in a series of anagnorisis events (briefly studied before by Philip Kennedy with respect to the work of Ibn Ḥawshab); the second is the pledging of allegiance as the rebirth of the acolyte; the third is the imparting of the knowledge of the daʿwa; the fourth is the repetition and inculcation of that knowledge through training in the symbols; the final one is the rearing in the logic of the daʿwa. This is then followed by some examples of the prophets. One thinks of cognate examples in the exegesis of al-Shahrastānī (d. 1153) which deals with binary pairs: the one that ends this chapter is the coupling of the familiar with the obscure, that partly accounts for the early Ismaili embrace of Neoplatonism as a rhetorical strategy.  

Chapter four moves on to the practice of Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr al-Yaman in his taʾwīl of prophecy in the Qurʾan and beyond it. This chapters engages the enunciator prophets and the establishment of laws and religious dispensations. The difference to some other forms of esotericism in Islam is that the composition of those religious dispensations and laws is tied to the agency of the Prophet and not just something given in revelation. Hollenberg also makes an interesting observation about the incorporation of philosophical elements into the work of Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr as part of a strategy of debating in the East and critiquing some of the missionaries there who remained with the old mission (contra the Fāṭimids); the example given is the creation of Adam and its assimilation to the theory of emanation. The examples of Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muḥammad are also considered. The key point is that this articulation of the law and those who oppose it is a critique of those who failed to recognise the Fāṭimid Imam and hence rejected the previous prophets. Previous religious dispensations are abrogated and the corrupted scriptures recovered through the skill of the Imam to ascertain the esoteric truths.  The final chapter continues the examination of the hermeneutics of Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr al-Yaman and this time considers the Biblical and Israelite material to establish types and anti-types. What Hollenberg shows – and I would contend that this was true generally of Shiʿi strategies of the text – was that the usage of the Torah was not merely the extrapolation of Israelite materials in order to gloss and fill in the narratives of the Biblical prophets (as was often the case in Sunni exegetical contexts), but constituted an act of taʾwīl in which the Torah was used just like the Qurʾan. The notion of cyclical time and the repetition of types and anti-types suggested that in the Torah were plenty of examples that spoke to the nature of a daʿwa, the role of an enunciating Prophet and Imam and the ways in which their mission was obstructed and thwarted and even their scriptures tampered. It was the role of taʾwīl to bring out the significance of those account and ascertain the truth. As Hollenberg correctly notes, this could be possible because that strategy was already used by Imāmī authors in Kufa and elsewhere before the Fāṭimid daʿwa.

The short final epilogue raises an interesting connection between the daʿwa, apocalypticism and imperialism. He connects his findings on the Ismaili mission and its transformation from an ‘imminent’ apocalypticism to an ‘immanent’ and otherworldly (one might say routinized and institutionalized) apocolypticism to recent scholarship on the ʿAbbasids and indeed on the early modern messianic empires of the Timurids, Ottomans and Safavids. In doing so, he suggests that we need to go beyond our archetypes of scholars of the past with whom we are primarily concerned, with the jurists, the belles-lettrists, the philosophers and the Sufis and consider a critical fifth category of politically and socially active thinker and esotericist the dāʿī

Hollenberg presents us, in this rather brief argument, with a radically distinct approach to the Ismaili kerygma that forces us not to fall back onto platitudes such as defining it as esotericist, counter-cultural or occult but actually demands of us the need to ask: esoteric in what sense, or glossing the text in what way? That is indeed the very question - and defining the esoteric almost by definition is wrought with problems and hermeneutical problems.The absence of the texts and a clear notion of their provenance for the early period makes this difficult to understand. What is clear is that he presents us with certain starting points, and from there we need to locate this early kerygma within other esoteric and Shiʿi strategies in the early period that will help us to distinguish between Imāmīs, Ismailis and Nuṣayrīs. In that sense, Beyond the Qurʾan is really one of the best recent contributions, from the perspective of the study of religion with its strengths and weaknesses, of early Shiʿi intellectual history.