Friday, November 23, 2007

Paths to God in Mediaeval Islam - A Recent Published Dissertation

Although the title suggests a broad topic, Maha Elkaisy-Friemuth's Gods and Humans in Islamic Thought: 'Abd al-Jabbar, Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali, a published doctoral dissertation originally submitted at the University of Birmingham, is quite narrowly focused upon the methods that three pivotal medieval Islamic thinkers propose for an understanding of the God-human relationship. The juxtaposition of these three thinkers could potentially yield interesting results and demonstrate the interconnected nature of intellectual inquiry in Islam. 'Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1024) is taken as a representative of the kalam tradition, Avicenna (d. 1037) of the philosophical and al-Ghazali (d. 1111) the Sufi tradition. The work comprises five chapters: a contextualising introduction, a chapter on 'Abd al-Jabbar’s concept of lutf (rendered here as ‘divine assistance’, perhaps in taqlid of Abrahamov; Madelung and Schmidtke tend to favour ‘facilitating grace’), Avicenna’s concept of 'ishq or the Neoplatonic eros, al-Ghazali’s proposition of fana' (self-annihilation), and a final chapter that compares these three in search of evaluating the approaches to the God-human relationship in medieval Islam.

In the introduction, the author explains her intentions. Religion is concerned primarily with a deep analysis of the relationship between a principle or God and its effects or humans. Religion teaches humans to make sense of their reality and suggests ways of approaching the divine. In this book, she sets out to examine three approaches, Mu'tazili kalam, falsafa and mysticism, whose common foundations lie in their use of Hellenic modes of thought and discourse. By comparing these approaches, the author at a basic level wishes to demonstrate the diversity in medieval Islam with respect to the question of the human relationship with God. Finally, a comparative analysis of these three approaches reveals their differing conceptions of the nature of humans that underlies them. While a study of Avicenna and al-Ghazali in this context is not particularly innovative, a focus on the notion of lutf in 'Abd al-Jabbar is an important contribution especially as one could argue that it is the significant concept in kalam. The choice of these three thinkers is also obviated by a focus on the tenth and eleventh centuries that the author argues was central to the development of learned culture in Islam.

Chapter one on the historical and cultural context is divided into three parts: a historical preamble on the political context focused on Buyid and Saljuq Iran with a brief description of theological schools, an introduction to the three thinkers, and finally an introduction to the three approaches. The historical sketch is broadly competent, although one wonders what it contributes; the all too brief description of the Shi'a and the Sunnis in the period is far too simplistic and questionable (e.g. the Ismailis are not those who accept seven Imams, stated in a normative manner – the early Ismaili mission was predicated on the call to the imamate of the seventh successor to the Prophet in their conception but this was no longer the case in the eleventh century). The sketch of Mu'tazili history is not useful; Heemskerk is far better (or even the Encyclopaedia of Islam entry). The school of Abu Hashim al-Jubba'i is commonly called the Bahshamiyya and not the Buhashimiyya. The introduction to 'Abd al-Jabbar is adequate but again Reynolds’s recent work is far more critical and reliable. The presentation of his ideas is based on al-Mughni but also the Ta'liq Sharh Usul al-khamsa of his follower Mankdim and al-Majmu' fi-l-muhit of his student Ibn Mattawayh. Such a method was previously utilised by Peters and Heemskerk.

The three core chapters on the thinkers have a similar structure. The author begins with an explanation of the thinker’s vision of the nature of God, His attributes and human nature, and then progresses to an analysis of the connection between them as effected by the particular idea upon which she focuses. The chapter on 'Abd al-Jabbar begins with centrality of the notion of divine justice in Mu'tazili theology and its understanding of what constitutes an ‘attribute of the essence’. God morally obligates believers and provides them with two types of ‘assistance’: the provision of physical and intellectual abilities, and lutf which guides believers to fulfil their obligation (taklif) by a series of instruments such as inner warnings or khawatir, causing pain or confirming knowledge through ‘tranquillity of the soul’. This represents a useful analysis of a key concept. Perhaps the main weakness of the chapter is that the author does not demonstrate the link between different aspects of lutf, in particular how revelation and guidance through prophets facilitates the fulfilment of one’s moral obligation.

The next chapter on love in Avicenna is rather odd. The author seems to assume that Avicenna was a straightforward mystically-inclined Neoplatonist. While the Risala fi-l-'ishq takes up the theme of the divine eros and how love is the mechanism of God’s creation and the means through which humans revert back to God, it is questionable whether this is the central theme of Avicenna’s account of the God-human relationship. Yahya Michot’s study of al-Mabda' wa-l-ma'ad is a clearer explanation of Avicenna’s postulation of an ‘Islamic philosophy’, an account of how God creates humans and how humans revert to their principle. The author’s attempt to link the concept of love with central issues in Avicenna’s philosophy such as his theory of the intellect, of intuition (which she calls ‘inspiration’), and the problem of God’s knowledge of particulars is not entirely satisfactory. A more sensible theme and mechanism for focus would have been Avicenna’s concept of the intellect as process of originating from God and reverting back to him.

The concept of fana' is indeed central to al-Ghazali’s mystical theology. The author continues a recent trend in focusing upon the Ihya' as a key vehicle for the dissemination of his thought. There is little in this chapter that pursues a new line of research. The final chapter begins the process of comparison and stresses the significance of the period in which these thinkers were writing and producing. One might also at this stage ask whether there are other paths, other disciplines and approaches to the God-human relationship that the author may have considered; some Shi'i traditions, for example, come to mind as possibilities.

Gods and Humans in Islamic Thought is fairly interesting as an approach to a central issue in theology in classical Islam. A thematic approach and a more integrated mode of comparison would make for a more readable and useful book and allow for a solid dissertation to make the transition to a book that makes a contribution.

Making Ghazali Relevant

The Ghazali debate continues to rage and the arguments between Richard Frank (Ghazali was an Avicennan really) and Michael Marmura among others (the Ashʿarī school was a broad church) go back and forth. Moosa has shifted the parameters of this debate by tackling the wider question of the cultural significance of Ghazali particularly for contemporary Muslims.
Arguably for the best part of a century, but certainly for the past couple of decades, the fertile field of Ghazālī studies has been embroiled in a debate over the true nature of the ‘most prominent Muslim after Muḥammad’. Abā Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111, one of the easiest dates in Islamic history to remember), as practically all good students of Islamic civilization know, was the most important Sunni Ashʿarī theologian of the medieval period, who, by virtue of also being a Sufi, effected the reconciliation of the Sufi path to the Sunni creed. A defender of ‘orthodoxy’, he condemned Shiʿi heretics (Ismailis) in his Faḍāʾiḥ al-Bāṭinīya and anathemized philosophers in Tahāfut al-falāsifa for holding three key heretical doctrines: the co-eternity of the cosmos with God, the denial of God’s knowledge of particulars, the denial of (the Qurʾanic account of) bodily resurrection. However, some specialists (especially Richard Frank) have argued that the systematic influence of Avicennan philosophy upon Ghazālī made him a philosopher foremost; the impact of Avicennan cosmology, prophetology and indeed psychology is quite clear in Mishkāt al-anwār and his magnum opus Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn.[1] Jules Janssens has even argued that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Tahāfut should not be read as an anti-Avicennan text.[2] These scholars have argued that there are systematic ambivalences in Ghazālī that result from his attempt at reconciling contradictory epistemologies and modes of inquiry (Avicennan philosophy, Sufism, Ashʿarī theology) designed for different readerships.
A prominent South African Muslim intellectual, Moosa engages with the ongoing debate about the ‘true nature’ of al-Ghazālī and offers a ‘dialogical encounter with perhaps the most influential intellectual in the Muslim tradition’. Being at the forefront of engaged and committed scholarship on Islam with a keen present-mindedness concerned with the state of Islam, Moosa argues for the contemporary engagement and revitalization of the Islamic tradition through the reconciliatory hermeneutics of liminality advocated by Ghazālī in the quest for a new Muslim subjectivity that allows for different responses to paradigms, reconciling traditionalist Islamic scholarship with contemporary contexts and awareness. Ghazālī & the Poetics of Imagination is to an extent an extension of Ghazālī’s own rhetoric deployed by a figure who considers himself as playing a Ghazālī-like role, communicating and interpreting the Islamic tradition for the contemporary culture of metropolitan academe.
The structure of the book itself is a circle with stages of liminality, a central theme. Mirroring Ghazālī’s own journey from doubt and self-reflection on method to the certainties of esoteric knowledge (through both Sufism and philosophy), Moosa takes us through a series of chapters from the ‘Agonistics of the Self’ through to the ‘Technologies of the Self’, culminating, once self-knowledge is no longer dubitable, in epistemic encounters with others. The result is far more than just an intellectual biography of Ghazālī for the present age. Moosa’s aim is to pursue ‘a line of thought about the aesthetics of imagining religion’ (p. 29). Moosa’s dialogue with Ghazālī is animated by the relationship between knowledge and subjectivity, exemplified in the notion and metaphor of the threshold (dihlīz), a liminal space that eschews medians in favour of violating antinomies.
The function of the introduction is to provide the contexts for this journey. Two of these are historically contingent: the intellectual culture of the Islamic Persianate world of the eleventh century, and Ghazālī’s own self-conception and criticism of self and others exemplified in his famous ‘confession’ al-Munqidh min al-ḍalāl. A further historical context is the impact of Ghazālī; as Moosa says, ‘a cursory survey will show that the Muslim tradition is saturated with Ghazālī’s traces’ (p. 12). It is significant that he writes ‘Muslim’ and not Sunni; traditionalists grudgingly conceded his scholarship and Shiʿi thinkers such as the Safavid duo of Mullā Ṣadrā (d. c. 1635) and his student Muḥsin Fayḍ-i Kāshānī (d. 1679) were indebted to his thought. Finally, three further contexts are deeply contemporary: the academic reception of Ghazālī beginning with Orientalist polemics that considered him to be a renegade and thoroughly confused and culminating with the debate on his relationship with philosophy; the contemporary Islam debate between neo-traditionalists such as Hamza Yusuf Hanson and Abdal Hakim Winter who champion him as an exemplar and Salafī excoriators who dismiss Ghazālī’s scholarship as ‘so many inauthentic and fabricated’ ḥadīth; and the concern among contemporary Arab and Muslim thinkers for philosophy and the distaste for Ghazālī as the destroyer of the rational tradition. For Moosa, Ghazālī is all and none of these. The real task is to see how one can use him to do the imaginative and liminal work of tradition in a time of intellectual and cultural crisis. The present troubles are not the first to face Islamic civilization; Moosa seeks a genealogy of the past to help the present navigate an intellectual path with the critical assistance of a dialogue with Ghazālī.
Moosa has trained in two pedagogical systems: the South Asian Sunni madrasa and metropolitan academe. As a hybrid intellectual, he merges the two; the contribution of the present book lies especially in his careful attention both to metropolitan (read: Anglophone) academic scholarship and Muslim writings on Ghazālī in Arabic, Persian Urdu and other vernaculars. The dual inheritance accounts for the mixed theoretical approach in Chapter 1 on the ‘Agonistics of the self’. The Qurʾan as well as Lévi-Strauss account for the notion of ‘bricolage’: Ghazālī acted through different interpretations, concurrently, concomitantly, without seeking a ‘higher synthesis’. Moosa quotes Ibn Rushd’s famous quip that Ghazālī was an Ashʿarī with theologians, a mystic with Sufis and a philosopher with philosophers (p. 39), not by way of condemnation but to assert a rejection of formalism and the constraints of a singular tradition. The second key theoretical notion of ‘poiesis’ (whence the phrase in the title of the book, ‘the poetics of imagination’) derives from the Aristotelian tradition: poiesis is the art of acting and reflecting, of constructing narratives of ideas, insights and anecdotes. The third notion is that of the liminal threshold, dihlīz, the in-between space in Ghazālī’s imagination and in the imagining of Ghazālī, inside and outside. The fourth concept is the agonistic dialogue that he sees at the heart of Ghazālī: the present’s struggle with the tradition through heteroglossia, the privileging of context over text that he draws from Bakhtin. Finally, we have tradition caught between ‘orthodoxy’, ‘ossification’, ‘pluralistic iteration’ and the present, and here we see the influence of Alisdair MacIntyre, Talal Asad and others. Tradition has a genealogy of performance, of critical questioning centred on the study of texts; it is not the repetition or rehearsal of old forms. Being faithful to tradition therefore involves acts of imitation, questioning and interpretation. As these involve texts, Moosa appropriately concludes the introduction and moves onto the following chapters that enact these imitations, interrogations and interpretations of texts.
Chapter 2 on the ‘Narrativity of the Self’ proposes that Ghazālī’s lasting contribution was welding together rational ideas with poetic imagination. Drawing upon ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī, Derrida, and Richard Kearney among others, Moosa argues that the concept of the threshold allows one to understand the poetics of al-Munqidh, between the person and his narration. Narratives legitimise, express, bear testimony to and reveal the Self and its engagements.
Chapter 3 continues the interrogation of the narrative by considering the ‘Poetics of Memory and Writing’, drawing upon Derrida and the uses of Derrida by Arkoun in particular to deconstruct logocentrism. Traditional Muslim pedagogy, and indeed most medieval pedagogy, privileges memory and the ‘living book’ of the scholar-teacher over the inscribed text.[3] The oral has authority; but the written can be heterologous, ambiguous and therapeutic. The written text can also be a weapon wielded against the heterodox to dissolve uncertainty and doubt and was used by Ghazālī on behalf of the Sunni consensus of the caliphate against its detractors.
Chapter 4 on ‘Liminality and Exile’ is pivotal as it argues that inner belief has justification and authority. Like Abraham, one ought to heed the voice within even if it means becoming a stranger to the world. This may account, for example, for work like Mishkāt that seem to defy the official discourse of other works and represent an all too blatant flirtation, even liaison with Neoplatonism. The stranger in the midst justified by mystical insight becomes a subversive figure.
Chapter 5 on the ‘Grammar of the Self’ is about the imagining of knowledge and the encounter with Truth. Liminal intellectual practice was necessary to society but could not forgo truth; people had to have confidence in the role of the intellect. Just as philosophers may question the very notion of truth, many of them recognise that we would find it difficult to live without a concept of ‘truthfulness’. In particular, this chapter is concerned with Ghazālī’s critique of the theological tradition of kalām, a defence of ‘truth’ that was often just mere polemics. Knowledge and interpretation needed to be rooted in truth; superfluous and deracinated interpretation was meaningless (p. 163). At least at this level, Ghazālī could not be accused of being a Postmodernist avant la lettre.
Chapter 6 on the ‘Metaphysics of belief’ engages with Ghazālī and the question of philosophy. The trouble with philosophy was that it was deliciously enticing but misleading for the ordinary people while being food for thought for intellectuals. His seeming inconsistency on philosophy was a recognition of the different needs for social cohesion and its intellectual corroboration through theology and the intellectual desire to pursue truth; the liminal space between is where one finds Ghazālī.
Chapter 7 on ‘Dilemmas of anathema and heresy’ shifts to Ghazālī’s defence of orthodoxy. Recent works, including Sherman Jackson’s interpretation of Fayṣal al-tafriqa bayn al-Islām wa-l-zandaqa have argued that Ghazālī provides a useful model for tolerance in Islam, a hermeneutics of acceptance.[4] Common rational standard allow for a definition of tolerance. Ghazālī’s minimalist definition of faith eschews sectarian polemics and is especially appropriate in the present. However, Moosa is correct to point out that his writings in the service of the ʿAbbasid caliphate, works in political theology seem to obstruct his desire for intellectual pluralism. He did anathemize the Ismailis and the Avicennan philosophers (one wonders at what level this may have been self-anathemization, at the very least in the latter case?).
Chapter 8 on the ‘Hermeneutics of the Self’ is concerned with the ethics and exemplary conduct of the self through the Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, a work designed to construct the ethical subject, a self that is at once autonomous and heteronomous.
Chapter 9 on the ‘Technologies of the Self’ turns to self-transformation through the ‘alchemy of the law’ and through Sufism. As such it represents the culmination of the journey through Ghazālī and structurally once again in its affirmation of Sufism mirrors al-Munqidh. Self-knowledge of a sound human subject is the key medium, the liminal space between the self and others. The Conclusion on ‘Knowledge of strangers’ thus comes full circle. The dihlīz-ian, exilic space is precisely the location from which the Muslim intellectual should speak. The conclusion allows Moosa to complete his musings on the present and bring to the fore the main point about the role and responsibility of the Muslim intellectual in the present: ‘the contemporary relevance of Ghazālī to Muslim thought lies precisely in his critical engagement with tradition, but more specifically in the way in which he modified, adjusted, recalibrated, amended and supplemented the intellectual tradition’ (p. 269). Of critical importance for Moosa is the need for one to discuss the Muslim intellectual tradition in the present: it should not be a mere curiosity for antiquarians in the way in which the study of much ‘Arabic philosophy’ has become. Nor should it be static or inert.
Ghazālī & the Poetics of Imagination is an exciting and ambitious work. It is also deeply textual and traditional. No doubt an unconventional study of Ghazālī (and in details there are many issues of contention that specialists will raise), it has much to offer and is an exemplar of the work of a committed and engaged Muslim intellectual. If Moosa’s book facilitates our thinking of the Muslim intellectual tradition in the present, it will have been successful.

[1] Hermann Landolt, “Ghazali and ‘Religionswissenschaft’: Some Notes on the Mishkāt al-Anwār for Professor Charles J. Adams”, Asiatische Studien (Etudes asiatiques) 45, no. 1(1991): 1–72; Richard Frank, Creation and the Cosmic System: al-Ghazâlî and Avicenna (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1992), and al-Ghazālī and the Ashʿarite School (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Frank Griffel,Al-Ghazālī’s concept of Prophecy: The Introduction of Avicennan Psychology into Ashʿarite Theology”, Arabic Science and Philosophy 14 (2004): 101–144.
[2] Jules Janssens, “Al-Ghazālī’s Tahāfut: Is it really a rejection of Ibn Sīnā’s philosophy?” Journal of Islamic Studies 12 (2001): 1–17.
[3] Mary Carruthers’ illuminating study The Book of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) makes this case for medieval scholarly culture in which a written text was merely an ‘aide-mémoire’.
[4] Sherman A. Jackson, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Thursday, November 22, 2007

An interesting Heidegger quotation

The context for the use of this quotation was my musings on whether there is such a thing as Islamic philosophy and even Shi'i philosophy. So I came across this quotation from Heidegger's classic An Introduction to Metaphysics:

A ‘Christian philosophy’ is a round square and a misunderstanding. There is, to be sure, a thinking and questioning elaboration of the world of Christian experience, i.e, of faith. That is theology. Only epochs which no longer fully believe in the true greatness of the task of theology arrive at the disastrous notion that philosophy can help provide a refurbished theology if not a substitute fort theology, which will satisfy the needs of the time. For the original Christian faith philosophy is foolishness. To philosophise is to ask ‘why are there beings rather than nothing?’ Really to ask the question signifies: a daring attempt to fathom this unfathomable question by disclosing what it summons us to ask, to push our questioning to the very end. Where such an attempt occurs there is philosophy.[1]

[1] Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, tr. R. Manheim, New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1959, 7-8.