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. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Open to Reason? The Critical Intellectual Tradition of Islam

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a Muslim philosopher at Columbia University, has just published a short work on what it means to philosophise in Islam, tracing the intellectual history of Muslim critical engagement with texts and ideas both within and without the traditions of Islam. 



Open to Reason is a short work comprising ten chapters on contemporary philosophy that draws upon an expansive notion of what philosophy is by including Sufi and theological themes. It also engages in history for the present, to make sense of why we should study the history of philosophy not as an antiquarian enterprise but as a way to make sense of our language of the problematics and to find paths and methods of untying the knots, the aporiai of the present. 

Diagne has already written quite a bit on the modern Muslim existentialist (and arguably personalist following Henri Bergson) Muḥammad Iqbāl. His work on Iqbāl and the open society and on Iqbāl and Senghor as postcolonial deployments of Bergson have been around for a while. This present work is a translation of Comment philosopher en islam? which came out first around ten years ago. Another comparative recent work in French looks at the philosophical enterprise in Islam and Christianity, and he is also very much at the forefront of the study of African philosophy and how artistic expression can be philosophical. Peter Adamson's now famous podcast will be interviewing him soon and the series on Africana philosophy seems quite influenced by him. I'm very much looking forward to that, especially since Ousmane Kane's Beyond Timbuktu was just so very disappointing as an intellectual history. 

The chapters are broadly historical but with a clear view to understanding the central relationship between religion and philosophy, between the person and society, between the rational and the mystical, between the individual and the state among others. To an extent, I can see how it might be useful to read this in conversation with Sari Nusseibeh's recent book The Story of Reason in Islam, even while the approach is quite different, perhaps at one level that continental versus the analytic tradition, to be quite grossly simplistic about it. The first chapter begins with the passing of the Prophet (and perhaps the simple idea of the passing of unquestioning authority) and finding the role of reason in the nascent religious tradition. He sees in Muʿtazilism a desire to make sense of the cosmos, to find a universal rational grammar (as one finds in the famous debate between Ṣīrāfī and Abū Bishr on logic versus grammar), and to enthrone the God of reason. He then sees in Ashʿarism a desire to dethrone the purely rational God in favour of a spiritual and more personal deity. The key point is that the debate on reason still resonates with us today - although he does not use the language of competing rationalities and is broadly not concerned with the language of relativism either. The next chapter looks at the Ṣīrafi and Abū Bishr debate in more detail and sees a tension between the need to keep open the exigencies and possibilities of reason against a desire for closure and completion. 

The third chapter turns to Avicenna, in whom Diagne correctly in my opinion sees the first coming to age of Islamic philosophy and understanding what makes philosophy Islamic. 

As one expects, the next chapter looks at the response - although it is somewhat disappointing for Diagne to continue the narrative of a Ghazālī opposed to philosophical reasoning. But Ghazālī as a pluralist is there in his Fayṣal al-tafriqa to which he returns in the final chapter and there is a certain paradox in the philosophical rejection of a certain type of speculative metaphysics. 

He next turns to ecology and Ibn Ṭufayl and the famous question of how one might encounter truth and whether one can know philosophical and moral truths isolated from the social context of our embodiment. Ibn Rushd is used to indicate the potential obligation to philosophise and while Diagne recognises that his death does not usher in the end of philosophy, he is somewhat wrong in the old fashioned idea that philosophy only continues in the Iranian - and Shiʿi - East because it is wedded to imamology. Indeed the creativity of the poles of wujūd and walāya are central to that later Eastern tradition. But it would be wrong to ignore the persistence of traditions of rationality in the Sunni East, especially in India at the same time. But Diagne's work does demonstrate once again how it is difficult if not impossible to write a non-sectarian history.

Diagne then skips to ʿAbduh and Afghānī as an enlightenment turn back to reason, in response to refute Renan. The oblivion of what happens between Ibn Rushd and Afghānī is a problem. He sees in ʿAbduh a certain type of reformist modernity: an embrace of modernity but not as a narrowly European modernity but an alternative modernity, sees modernity as 'the daughter of Islam', and searches for a reconstruction of the meaning of religion. 

The penultimate chapter is on Iqbāl, a thinker whom he has engaged already and the final chapter on pluralism as the contemporary moment and space of Islamic philosophy open to reason and possibility, drawing upon Ghazālī and Sufi traditions of West Africa. What is perhaps disappointing is that there is little explicit explanation of what sorts of contemporary encounters Islamic philosophy needs in the present. Should one engage on the ground of the person or of existentialism? Or the analytic method? Or poesis? Or mysticism? How does one see philosophy in the modern world? He sees his book as a prompt to thinking about how one might do philosophy in the present Muslim world. However, there is a certain limitation in what is being proposed. Francophone African Muslim countries inherited the role of the teaching of philosophy in schools - not the case in the anglophone. And maybe this indicates the impossibility of the universal label of an Islamic philosophy in the present. That is precisely the point. Instead of our desire at times to find our Kant, our Wittgenstein, our Aristotle, we need to embrace a proper pluralism in which we recognise that philosophising is always made in the image of the seeker and we are different persons across the globe. History consists of the moments of understanding whence possibilities arise and which options were taken and might not have. The future of Islamic philosophy therefore will rest with Islamic philosophies. 


Saturday, September 29, 2018

Polemics and Rational Discourse: Sayyid Nūr Allāh Shūshtarī (d. 1610) in Iran and India

Earlier in the week, I was speaking in Leiden on Qāḍī Nūr Allāh Shūshtarī (exe. 1610), the famous theologian from the Iraqi borderlands (and relative of the late marjaʿ Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn Marʿashī who edited his works). 


My argument was to show that his polemics defending Shiʿi beliefs - and responding to some particularly harsh anti-Shiʿi polemics produced in the Ottoman and Central Asian lands - was designed to console believers, defend the faith and decisively defeat opponents, all while speaking truth to power. Once again it shows that the nature of religious polemics are to demonstrate that they address the co-religionists as much as the opponents. It also demonstrates that we should not consider polemics to be the other of rational discourse; rather, philosophical and theological formations often involve the articulation of one's ideas through their opposition to the other. 

The Ottoman-Safavid conflict that was part of the fabric of the disintegrating Timurid dispensations in Persianate lands in the sixteenth century led to a new round of quite bitter religious polemics as a discursive consolation and prop to the clashes of weapons on the battlefield. This round of the battle of words was harshly initiated by fatwās issued in Ottoman lands and in the Uzbek Shībanid khanate anathemising the Shiʿa as dangerous heretics whose blood was licit. Perhaps the most significant theologian to respond on the Shiʿi side, and one who looked across the history of such polemics and wrote three voluminous, practically decisive, defensive polemics to support his fellow believers and attack Sunni polemicists was Sayyid Nūr Allāh Shūshtarī (exe. 1610). A scion of an eminent sayyid scholarly lineage from the borderlands of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires in southern Iraq, his training brought together a thorough grounding in Shiʿi systematic theology, philosophy, law and legal theory, nurtured by teachers whose intellectual lineage traced back to the philosophers of Shiraz. His life was punctuated by the conflict in the West and in the East. He moved to the Safavid courts from lands precariously close to Ottoman control and when in Mashhad was acutely aware of the threat from the Uzbeks. The instability of the period after the death of Shah Ṭāhmasb convinced him of the need to flee to India where he attained the favour of the Mughal ruler Akbar and was appointed as a judge in Agra and then Lahore. 

Importantly, Shūshtarī rejected the practice of taqīya in his time and  recognised the freedom that he has at the court of Akbar. In a letter to his friend - and Shaykh al-Islām of Isfahan - Bahāʾ al-Dīn al-ʿĀmilī, he wrote: 

After traversing long distances and undergoing considerable pains and agony, I reached the Indian capital. There, fortune favoured me, and I obtained an opportunity to benefit from the luminous sun and found repose under the shadow of the great Sultan, Akbar…

Through divine grace and blessings, I obtained a lofty position and the honour of the companionship of the emperor…[whose] patronage and favours increase daily. In fact my success is due to divine munificence and the benevolence of the Prophet and the friend of God, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib. The high position and nearness to the Emperor did not, however, make me forgetful of myself. I was always conscious of the hereafter and of the ultimate end of mortal beings. In refuting the arguments and the rationale of the Nawāṣib[anti-Shiʿi Sunnis], I was guided by the holy traditions of my ancestors. In these circumstances, I came to the conclusion that in India, taqiyya was a great calamity. It would expel out children from the Imāmīya faith and make them embrace the false Ashʿarī or Mātūrīdi faiths. Reinforced by the kindness and the bounty of the Sultan, I cast off the mantle of taqīyafrom my shoulders and, taking with me an army of arguments, I plunged myself into jihādagainst the Sunni ʿulamāʾ of this country. I was convinced that active religious polemics and discussions against the Sunni ʿulamāʾ was the jihād which would make the best provision for the world hereafter. 

First of all, I wrote Maṣāʾib al-nawāṣib which refutes the Nawāqiḍ al-rawāfiḍ. My arguments in that book smeared the beard of the author of the Nawāqiḍ with filth. Then I wrote al-Ṣawārim al-muhriqa. Because of my book the bitter attacks by the author of the Sawāʾiq on the Shīʿīs rebounded upon him and reduced the Sawāʾiq, which claimed to be lightening to ashes. God also gave me the strength to perform other deeds.

And he did write other works, not least the voluminous Iḥqāq al-ḥaqq wa-izhāq al-bāṭil, which critiqued not only Sunnī attacks on Shiʿi imamology but also positions in theology such as divine agency and human responsibility, the problem of prophetic inerrancy, and other questions in theological metaphysics and epistemology. However, the situation was changing and the death of his friends at court and of Akbar, and the uncertainty of the early years of Jahangir's reign made his situation precarious. Already in 1603, he again wrote to his friend Bahāʾ al-Dīn:

For some time, fortune has deprived me of its favours. The mean and wretched India has caused me unbearable pain and shock. Not only has the Sultan ended his patronage and benevolence towards me, but he has closed the doors of my departure to Khurāsān and Iraq. When the tyranny and oppressions against me began to mount and the sufferings and anguish stepped up I began to imagine India (Hind) was the same Hind (bint ʿUtba) who ate the liver of my great uncle Ḥamza (ibn Muṭṭalib)

Philosophy after Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī: The Case of Dabīrān Kātibī Qazwīnī (d. 1277)

Mustakim Arici, on the faculty at Theology in Marmara University in Istanbul, has written a highly useful study of philosophy in the middle period with a focus on the work of Najm al-Dīn Abū-l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. ʿUmar Dabīrān Kātibī Qazwīnī (d. 675/1277), perhaps best known for his logical primer, al-Risāla al-Shamsīya. On a visit to Istanbul a couple of years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the author who presented me a copy. 



The work is divided into five chapters. The first is a life and works, and an intellectual history of the philosopher. Kātibī's main teacher was the prominent Avicennian Athīr al-Dīn al-Abharī (d. 663/1264), author of the influential Hidāyat al-Ḥikma (commented by Mīr Ḥusayn Maybudī and Mullā Ṣadrā and copiously glossed especially in India). His Zubdat al-ḥaqāʾiq has yet to be published - there is an excellent manuscript in Oxford. Kātibī lived in arguably a golden age of Islamic philosophy: his contemporaries included the logician Afḍal al-Dīn al-Khunajī (d. 646/1248) author of Kashf al-asrār, Sirāj al-Dīn Urmawī (d. 682/1283) author of Laṭāʾif al-ḥikma, the polymath Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 672/1274), perhaps the main conduit for a majoritarian reading of Avicennian metaphysics, Shams al-Dīn Samarqandī (d. 702/1303) whose Qisṭās al-afkār and Ishkāl al-taʾsīs have been published recently, and Ibn Kammūna (d. 683/1284), a rather independent minded thinker who glossed the works of Suhrawardī. 





Kātibī's students included major thinkers of the next generation such as Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (d. 710/1311), best known for his commentary on Ḥikmat al-ishrāq of Suhrawardī, and the Imāmī theologian Ibn al-Muṭahhar al-Ḥillī (d. 726/1325), whose Kashf al-murād was a major commentary on Ṭūsī's influential theological primer Tajrīd al-iʿtiqād, and author of a critical gloss on the Shamsīya as well as an original work on a cycle of philosophy entitled al-Asrār al-khafīya. Kātibī wrote a number of works in logic but the best known is his Risāla Shamsīya (although he also wrote a gloss on his teacher's Kashf al-asrār -MS Carullah 1418). Tony Street at Cambridge has a translation of the text (there is also a classical one by Aloys Sprenger). In philosophy, Kātibī's best known work is Ḥikmat al-ʿayn, divided into two sections on metaphysics and natural philosophy (like the Hidāyat al-ḥikma). He also wrote two commentaries on works of Rāzī: al-Munaṣṣaṣ fī sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ (he refers to MS Şehit Ali Paşa 1680), and al-Mufaṣṣal fī sharḥ al-muḥaṣṣal (MS Suleymaniye 782). Another work is his commentary on Abharī's Kashf al-ḥaqāʾiq (MS Carullah 1351). There are a number of commentaries and glosses on Ḥikmat al-ʿayn beginning with Kitāb al-fawāʾid fī sharḥ Ḥikmat ʿayn al-qawāʿid of Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (a good manuscript is Veliyuddin Efendi 3399 in Istanbul), Īḍāh al-maqāṣid min ḥikmat ʿayn al-qawāʿid of al-Ḥillī (edited by ʿAlī-Naqī Munzavī and published in Tehran in 1959), and Sharḥ Ḥikmat al-ʿayn of Mīrak b. Mubārak Shāh Bukhārī (fl. 784/1382, ed. Jaʿfar Zāhidī and published in Mashhad in 1976), on whose commentary there are plenty of important glosses by al-Sharīf ʿAlī al-Jurjānī (d. 816/1413), Shams al-Dīn Khafrī (d. 957/1550), Ghiyāth al-Dīn Dashtakī (d. 949/1542), Mirzājān Bāghnawī Shīrāzī (d. 994/1586 - his gloss on the metaphysics has been edited by ʿAlī Ḥaydarī Yusāvilī and published in Qum by Majmaʿ-yi zakhāʾir-i islāmī in 2012) and ʿAbd al-Ḥakīm Siyālkutī (d. 1067/1656) (as well as many other Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal philosophers). Most of the later 'super-glosses' are on Jurjānī, Khafrī, and Bāghnawī.

Arinci provides this useful picture to show Kātibī and his connections: 


The second is an analysis of what it means to argue that metaphysics is a science and how it relates to logic. It includes an analysis of the different structures of philosophical works. Again Arinci provides two useful comparative tables on works of Avicenna and after:



The third chapter is a study of the ontology (umūr ʿāmma) and considers particular issues such as the nature of being (wujūd, varlik in Turkish), of essence (māhīya), unity and multiplicity, necessity and possibility (the modalities), creation and eternity (ḥudūthqidam), and the nature of causality (ʿillīya). Here he has a comparative table on the contents of ontology:


The fourth chapter considers divine agency and the problem of the creation of the cosmos (and whether it is eternal - the theory of emanation). The final chapter analyses the human self and the rational soul. The main point to gauge is the extent to which Kātibī's positions are influenced by Rāzī and respond to Ṭusī. There is then an appendix on two important cycles of works initiated by Kātibī: the Shamsīya, and the Ḥikmat al-ʿayn