Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Some Notes on al-Hikma al-Yamaniyya

It was in a conversation with Ali Owjabi in Tehran almost 8 years ago that I first seriously considered how a school of 'Yemeni philosophy' provided an alternative to Sadrian philosophy.
The school of Mīr Dāmād was known as the Yemeni philosophy (al-ḥikma al-yamāniyya). His method involved a presentation of philosophy that existed before him primarily from the school of Avicenna, which he labels as ‘Greek philosophy’ (ḥikma yunāniyya) and then a critical exposition of the position replacing it with his improved argument which he described as ‘ḥikma yamāniyya’ based on the famous saying attributed to the Prophet: ‘Faith is Yemeni and wisdom is Yemeni (al-īmān yamānī wa-l-ḥikma yamāniyya).’ He considered all previous schools of thought (Peripatetic and Illuminationist philosophy, Ashʿarī theology, and even Twelver Šīʿī theology) to be incomplete and unreliable and their understanding of reality. His Yemeni position is not a purely ratiocinative one and extends knowledge and understanding beyond the confines of discourse (baḥṯ) and reason to the non-propositional, intuitive (ḏawq), immediate and mystically disclosed (kašf). Often he presents his argument by stating that he will first examine the ‘Greek’ philosophical position and then move onto the Yemeni one. As his primary concern is with the philosophy of theistic creation, his Yemeni philosophy is deployed to solve the problems of time and creation.

In Flaming Embers and Epiphanies (Jadhavāt va mawāqīt), a thoughtful contemplation written in Persian (his only major work in that language) of Moses’ encounter with the theophany of the burning bush on Mount Sinai, he describes different conceptions and level of creation:

Causation – which is a term for emanation, ‘making’ and bringing into existence – in the doctrine of ‘those rooted in knowledge’ (rāsiḫīn ʿulamāʾ) and the metaphysicians of Greek philosophy (ḥikmat-i yūnānī) and of Yemeni philosophy (ḥikmat-i yamānī) is of four types: ibdāʿ (origination, creatio ex nihilo), ikhtirāʿ (production), ṣunʿ (fashioning or creation in the higher intelligible world) and takwīn (generation or creation in the sub-lunar world).

Later in the same text, he analyses the ‘Yemeni’ understanding of numerical order and the existence of Platonic numbers as first-order emanations from the One, an important element of the argument concerning levels of creation from the One.

In one of his most important works on philosophical theology which like many others remained unfinished, primarily concerned with the problem of creation, The Straight Path (al-Ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm), Mīr Dāmād set out what he intended to do in the work:

The one most desirous among creation for his Lord the Self-Sufficient, Muḥammad b. Muḥammad known as Bāqir Dāmād al-Ḥusaynī – may God make his afterlife good – presents to you, O brothers of mysticism, and expounds for you, O brothers of retreat and solitude, a solution to the confusion caused in you by the mass of teachers attempting to reveal the difficult relationship between the Eternal and the incipient, and [aims] to ease its difficulties with clear thought according to the method of Greek philosophy and of Yemeni philosophy and to investigate the discourse of those expounders and to wither them away with form writing and forthright exposition.

He clearly thought that those who had written before him on the issue of creation and time, including Avicenna, had failed to convince and he felt that he could produce a more robust argument and pin his Yemeni philosophy on the central doctrine of perpetual creation. Later in the text before he embarks on the main discussion of the doctrine, he distinguishes three types of prior non-existence based on Yemeni philosophy:

According to what we have acquired from the mature Yemeni philosophy ripened by the faculty of the intellect, obtained through demonstrative syllogisms and divine inspirations, it appears that incipience has three possible meanings:
First of them is the priority of the existence of a thing by essential non-existence and this is named according to the philosophers ‘essential creation’ (ḥudūṯ ḏātī)…
The second of them is the priority of a thing by its non-existence in perpetuity and eternity that is atemporal such that the thing is non-existent in a real sense through pure non-existence that is not qualified by continuity and its opposite. It then moves from this pure non-existence to existence and would appear to be the most appropriate to be termed it [incipience], that is perpetual creation (ḥudūṯ dahrī).
The third of them is the priority of the existence of the thing by its non-existence in time so that its existence is preceded by an element of time and this is called by the theologians temporal creation (ḥudūṯ zamānī).

The very notion of perpetual creation is directly related to his school of Yemeni philosophy. In al-Ufuq al-mubīn (The Clear Horizon), the text which was so popular in India, he begins by saying that the work on the nature of the metaphysics of theistic creation is the result of what came to him from ‘matured Yemeni philosophy and the pure, ecstatic philosophy of faith’.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Arguing the Just War

I am about to write a piece examining the problem of political violence and othering in the contemporary Muslim world. Here are some thoughts on a good, recent work by John Kelsay.
Jihad has become a normal English word, a term to describe irrational violence, ‘holy war’, terrorism and the generally rather nasty things that ‘bad Muslims do’. Kelsay, in this wonderfully succinct and accessible work, wants to argue that the real issue in discussing jihad is to make sense of legitimate violence and how it may be deployed and hence to locate the discourse within an existing discussion about just war theory. I am not generally sympathetic to the use of the comparable frame of just war theory because as a juridical and ethical concept it is rather limited, arising out of a particular politico-theological context of medieval Catholicism. Having said that, any serious attempt to nuance the meaning of jihad in the contemporary world, to contextualise the discourse adequately and historically, and to pose difficult questions to those who appropriate it on the basis of a claim towards establishing justice and acting in a just cause is welcome. Kelsay is interested in the contemporary debate about the nature of political ethics among Muslims. His book is not just an attempt to ‘whitewash’ Muslims and their theologies from any culpability in the acts and ideologies of the likes of al-Qaeda. While he interrogates the theological and juridical reasoning of such terrorists, he wants to show not only their distance from historically grounded narratives of jihad but also how their reasoning may be shared. It is indeed foolish to argue that jihadi ideology has nothing to do with reasoning about jihad as such; it is counter-intuitive and unhelpful. He also wants to indicate how the language of just war is mutually supportive between the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’ and al-Qaeda’s war on the ‘Zionist-Crusaders’ (which is in theological terms also the subject of a forthcoming book by Alia Brahimi to be published by Cambridge University Press).

In six chapters, Kelsay takes us from the textual sources through to the arguments about justified violence in the contemporary world. Chapter one is not so much a discussion of the sources on jihad as a basic sketch of early Islam that one expects from introductory works discussing the near eastern context, the life of the prophet and the event of the Qurʾan and raising the question of how early Islam dealt with difference in a perfunctory manner. But he does not discuss the contentious issues of how one may access this or evaluate the sources. Nor does he discuss how the sources have been used and might be used.

The next chapter indicates why this may be the case as the focus is on ‘shariʿa reasoning’. Although he begins by mentioning other forms of reasoning through right and wrong (belle-lettrist, philosophical and theological approaches), he traces the ways in which Muslims beginning with the early caliphate and taking it up to the 1980s understand political ethics. The central concern that emerges is the problem of fitna, of discord and disorder and how the function of the political order is to control and quell it. Politics therefore strives for consensus and protects the community and the faith. Along the way, we get a brief discursus on Islamic law and the development of political thinking up to the present. What is not mentioned here is that the conflation of dissent and heresy and the obsession with fitna and fasād are precisely the themes of continuity with contemporary jihadi ideology. This single-minded focus on order and the identification of the acts of the state and the caliphate with the faith have meant that normative Sunni attempts at arguing against jihadi ideology face the problem of trying to decouple a form of juristic reasoning which is clearly linked.

Chapter three moves onto juristic reasoning about war and the rules of engagement focusing on al-Shaybānī and Ibn Taymiyya and discusses the nature of rebellion in the pre-modern period, the subject of an excellent if rather turgid monograph by Khaled Abou El-Fadl. Wars are conducted by states and legitimated by their rulers. The medieval Sunni consensus insisted upon justification by power. The chapter concludes with a brief mention of Shiʿi perspectives. Chapter four on armed resistance follows and represents the use of medieval precedent by jihadi ideologues to justify their actions. Developing from the anti-colonial struggles of the nineteenth century, the discourse becomes one of establishing the role of a just state which enforces the faith. Kelsay discusses a number of key texts beginning with the Neglected Duty and moving through to various statements from al-Qaeda leaders. The possibilities of shifting and flexible uses of precedents and analogies between the medieval past and the ‘resistance’ in the present are made all the more possible because of the crisis of legitimacy in the Muslim world that affects not only expected sources of authoritative proclamations on juridical reasoning but also the state itself. It is therefore no accident that most pronouncements on the nature of resistance and the theory of the state within a juridical way of life are articulated by non-state actors.

Chapter five on militancy and authority focuses our attention to the real issue in politics and juxtaposes the argument of militants with liberal voices represented by Abdulaziz Sachedina, Abdullahi an-Naʿim and Khaled Abou El-Fadl. It is the longest chapter in the book and the real pivot that addresses the present debate. As Kelsay acknowledges, the militants’ argument is that the alternative of a proper Islamic government (brought about through the use of violence) is a liberating process and even a humanitarian one (as argued in a recent book by Faisal Devji). The question of suicide bombing is therefore one of tactics. Most of the chapter is taken up with the ‘democrats’ who resist and refute the militant argument. Perhaps the main contribution of these liberal voices is to loose up the hermeneutical binds by insisting that texts are multivocal and the totalising and monopolising readings of militants does violence to the Islamic traditions that they pretend to defend and uphold. At the same time, these democrats set themselves outside of the mainstream of Muslim political thinking. The just war is not merely about the wielding of authority by a legitimate force but also about the very conduct of the violence. But ultimately both sides of the argument are genuflecting to the text.

The final chapter brings us to the critical context of the debate, namely US foreign policy and the war on terror. What chance do Muslim democrats have in such an environment? US policy justifies all manner of excess. However, the discussion of Ahmadinejad and his discourse on justice is not entirely apposite here. He is not concerned with just was but with just and equitable social order. The two need to be kept apart just as jihadi ideology and activities are not identical. The fact that Ahmadinejad can be seen to speak for Muslims (despite his Iranian, Shiʿi and non-ʿulema states) is a symptom of the crisis of authority and legitimacy in the contemporary world, so much so that in the present political crisis in Iran after the June elections, a number of Muslim observers outside Iran support him because he ‘speaks truth to power’, opposes US policy and speak openly about the wrongs perpetrated by Israel. The basic question remains: what constitutes legitimate use of force in the contemporary world?

Kelsay’s book is nuanced and insightful in its identification of the weaknesses of Muslim liberal voices and their context. He is also quite correct to note the real conflict and debate between liberals and militants. But one would wish to see more engagement with the traditionalists who equally oppose the militants and can do so on their own ground through shariʿa reasoning. Clearly an ethical turn is required. Any serious reinterpretation of the just use of violence justified in Muslim terms needs to refocus on the notion of justice itself and locate it within an ethical framework that asks the moral questions that the shariʿa poses, and not the issues with which Islamic law becomes embroiled. A turn to moral agency and responsibility is the basic requisite in these confused times.

Shii Threat, Shii Challenge

Fear of the spread of Shiʿi power in the Middle East has seized the imagination of Arab dictatorships at least since 2003 and the hysteria surrounding the so-called Shiʿi crescent (al-hilāl al-shīʿī) has become heightened since the Israeli-Lebanese war of August 2006. Paranoia towards minorities is unfortunately not a new phenomenon in the Middle East but at the same time there are qualitative differences between the last Shiʿi ‘scare’ following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and this new hysteria after the fall of Saddam in 2003. The policy implications of the Iraq war raised issues both for her neighbours and for those powers involved in the conflict. The discourse of the Shiʿi crescent or threat is one particular type of response and further emphasises the basic problematisation of Shiʿi presences in the Middle East (not to speak of the problems of South Asia and the borrowed conflicts in the diasporic communities of Europe and North America where London and New York among others locales constitute significant Shiʿi presences).

1979 was primarily a concern for the shape of the Middle East and particularly the Gulf, after the vacuum created by the removal of the Shah, the ‘policeman’ of the region, in the face of the virulent ideology intent on exporting revolution, culminating in political shifts in places as diverse as Lebanon and Pakistan (with the formation of Hezbollah and various movements beginning with Tehreek-e Jafaria in the latter) and attempted political seizures and coups in the southern Gulf monarchies. Thus the fear of Shiʿi power articulated a concern for the containment of Iran, which had already been recognised as the paramount regional power before then. It was therefore a policy of confronting Iran led by US foreign policy, one which remains the case today heightened by the nuclear negotiations. Post-2003, the Shiʿi crescent is often described as a revival of this concern to contain the Iranian state and its foreign policy ambitions in the light of a few basic realities on the ground: the war in Afghanistan in 2001 that removed the Taliban placed a friendly pro-Iranian government in Kabul, the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran led to a revival of the rhetoric of the early 1980s concerned with the export of the revolution alongside an active promulgation of a programme to acquire nuclear power, and the removal of Saddam in 2003 led to a new Iraqi government (and parliament) that has dominated by friends and clients of the Iranian state (many of whom were Shiʿis who spent time in exile in Iran). The August 2006 war in Lebanon confirmed for many the reality of the Iranian state’s flexing of its muscle beyond its borders and its powerful role in manipulating its proxies. To a large extent, the Shiʿi-Sunni tension in the Middle East and beyond is an expression of a proxy ideological conflict between two rival versions of public Islam promoted by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Consistently since 2005 and 2006 Arab leaders especially in the Gulf have expressed concern over this aggrandisement of Iranian power, not least because of the basic assumption that their own Shiʿi communities (which in the case of Bahrain is still – just about – the majority of the citizens of the state) constitute a fifth-column, an ‘Iranian’ horde amongst them, ready to open the gate to welcome the invading Iranian armies. That such discourse is irresponsible is clear given the affect it has on people who are then subject to discrimination, harassment and violence, with the implicit and at times explicit support of the state, most notably in the case of Saudi Arabia. But the attitude of the Shiʿi communities towards the state, no doubt due to the successful acceptance of the nation-state even when it excludes them by explicitly denying any pluralistic notion of citizenship, remains remarkably non-belligerent. Perception often trumps reality in this sense. The loyalty of the Shiʿa is consistently tested: Hosni Mubarak in his strange outburst in April 2006 claimed that the majority of the Shiʿa were loyal first to Iran. As the cultural critic Nader Kadhim has shown in the case of Bahrain, the discourse of loyalty and treachery is far too simplistic when aligned with sectarian affiliation: the simplistic equation of Sunni with loyal subject and Shiʿi with rebel is belied by the evidence. Similarly one prominent Shīrāzī activist in the Gulf said in an interview with me in January 2009, people often confuse the influence of ideas with political loyalty. Even if one supports the role of ʿulema in government (an important aspect of the theory of wilāyat al-faqīh), that does not entail loyalty to Iran; in fact, both in Bahrain and in Iraq the position often comes with a staunch suspicion of Iran if not outright hostility. The political landscape of loyalty and dissent in Bahrain is far more variegated.

But the new ‘threat’ is about much more than Iran. The key factor, particularly for the Gulf, is in fact Iraq and the new Iraqi government. In fieldwork interviews in Kuwait, Bahrain and Iraq in 2008 and 2009, it was clear to me that Shiʿi (often Islamist) politics has taken a more activist turn because they have seen what is possible in Iraq. The bolder claims and statements made by opposition figures in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (in the latter case the events of February 2009 and the ‘Nimr’ affair in ʿAwāmiyya), in contexts in which their communities are severely disadvantaged by those states, allies and clients of the American and British states in particular, are clearly a direct result, as they themselves admitted, of events in Iraq. The Shiʿi rise to power expressed by the United Iraqi Alliance (al-iʾtilāf al-muwaḥḥid al-ʿirāqī) in elections since 2005 has emboldened and encouraged them.

The wider regional issues and their policy implications are discussed in the two influential books by Vali Nasr (now a major policy player at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Yitzhak Nakash. These books in some ways pre-empted (encouraged?) the discourse of a Shiʿi threat in the Arab (Sunni) media. The assault of al-Qaraḍāwī in September 2008 (significantly during Ramaḍān) reveals the continuing conflation of the sorts of political and theological challenges that Shiʿi thought poses in a majoritarian Sunni context. In the vacuum of legitimate authority that exists in the Arab Middle East, any shift of allegiance and embrace of an alternative struggle against ‘imperialism’ is bound to disturb. Charismatic authority that appeals to the ‘Arab street’ is the greatest threat. The state does not seem to discuss between the embrace of Nasrallah as a symbol and a theological adherence to a doctrine. In some ways, the roots of this problem lie in the dual failures of medieval Sunni political thought and theology. First, authority in the theory of al-Ghazālī, Ibn Jamāʿa and al-Māwardī was seen as stemming from the successful deployment of power. Power defined the political order and not the successful promotion of justice in society. Legitimacy and authority were considered to be secondary to the naked use of power in pursuit of defining the community within particular set parameters, and then objectifying heretics as those who would not be accommodated. The construction of heresy, the process of heretication, was central to the legitimation of power. Second, they often were incapable (or unwilling) to distinguish adequately between heresy and political dissent and confused the two. A radical misreading of early history meant that the tax rebellion known as the ridda was defined as heresy, while the theological dissent of the Khawārij was primarily seen as an issue of political rebellion. A dystopian assumption prevailed with an associated distrust of the human. In response, various forms of Shiʿi Islam posed an intellectual challenge because of a clear notion of legitimacy, underpinned by the charisma of the family of the Prophet, and a utopian and even messianic notion of how proper governance should be established rooted in justice. In the present scenario, the political power of Shiʿi state and non-state agents is conflated and confused with the missionary aspects of faith. This confusion is most clearly at play in Egyptian public discourse. Of course, the real worry for Mubarak and other authoritarian rulers is not that their populations will convert to Shiʿi Islam as a faith but that they will adopt it as a political identity, empathising with Sayyid Ḥasan Naṣrallāh and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Nasr sees the tension and competition between rival Shiʿi and Sunni conceptions of power and authority to be the key dynamic for change in the Middle East and indeed the wider Muslim world. This poses a problem for Shiʿi political actors because it places them in the role of being perceived as agitators promoting a neo-conservative agenda in the region, as was precisely the problem with elements of the Iraqi Shiʿi opposition pre-2003 embracing the likes of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. As Nasr sees it, there are opportunities for both sides. For far too long US policy in the Middle East has been mediated through Sunni authoritarian regimes. The change in Iraq in 2003 signals a possible shift. Identity politics is here to stay. What he is not arguing for is the promotion of sectarian conflict (although it may well have been seen in such terms). Competing concepts of authority and the state are healthy aspects of politics which is after all concerned with managing difference. Violence is the breakdown of such politics. Nasr’s concern in the book is to explain to a general American audience who the Shiʿa are, what effect the Iraq war has and how the conflicts will shape an emerging new Muslim world. But the delicate balance between description and prescription is a difficult one to sustain. Certainly, his work has been read as being more prescriptive and policy-oriented, not least because of his professional role.

The nine chapters of the book move from a basic account of the Shiʿi faith and the development of Shiʿi political thought, through to the modern period and the failure of secular and socialist nationalisms coupled with the competition of ‘fundamentalisms’ both Iranian since 1979 and Wahhabi sponsored by the Saudi state, played out in proxy conflicts in locations such as Pakistan. The final few chapters focus on Iraq and the impact of Iraq as an Arab Shiʿi state with a friendly Iran on its borders. Writing towards the end of 2006, the afterword focuses on the triumvirate of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiʿi government in Iraq post-Samarra and after the death of Zarqawi, and Iran in the ascendency under Ahmadinejad. The height of the sectarian violence and the war for Baghdad was still to come. At that point, Nasr raises the question of whether the constitutionalist politics of Sayyid Sīstānī in Iraq will prevail or whether the Hezbollah model will dominate Shiʿi politics. This was and remains a policy concern for the US and for Britain as well as for the regional actors. Allied to this question is the fear of radicalisation among the Shiʿa and how Shiʿi intellectual figures and actors can be deployed against the problem of Sunni radicalisation. This is misleading and dangerous policy. Given the vehement anti-Shiʿism of the jihādī (and salafī) spectrum in which the talk of the Iranian, ṣafawī, rāfiḍī enemy within is the first one to attack, it is difficult to see how policy can engage. Besides, US policy towards Iran vitiates against this as does the unwillingness of authoritarian Sunni regimes to make alliances with the Shiʿi communities against the jihādīs.

Such policy concerns also set up a false dichotomy of quietism and activism, based on the assumption that Shiʿi political history has fluctuated between these two poles. If anything, Iraq demonstrates that this is not the case and that activism is often a function of the context – the shifting roles and positions of Sayyid Muqtadā al-Ṣadr is a case in point.
What one misses in the political analysis is that Shiʿi intellectual discourse is not primarily minoritarian. In fact, it is based on the notion that the Shiʿi ʿulema are the true guardians and custodians of Islam. This basic fact is missed by many analysts. Reform and intellectual development will not come from jihādī circles.

Nakash’s book represents a descriptive recognition of this. The policy focus on Sunni radicals has led to a serious neglect of policy towards Shiʿi actors in the Middle East and this is more acute since 2003. His book is in many ways similar to Nasr’s although he is more optimistic about the policy implications of the Shiʿa allying themselves with US interests in the Middle East. This has not happened, not only because the surge for democratisation was quickly jettisoned as policy, but also because a suspicion towards US intentions is rife among Shiʿi political actors in Iran, Lebanon and Gulf (and even in Iraq where anti-Americanism is a feature even of the governing parties such as Maliki’s Daʿwa Party). The strength of Nakash’s work, following on from his earlier book on Iraq, is to identify the Arabic discourses and place Iraq at the centre of the debate on Shiʿi politics shifting the emphasis away from Iran. He is quite correct to focus on the role of history and memory as key components of identity and conflict and draws out the main contours of Arab Shiʿi communities in Lebanon and the Gulf. Written somewhat earlier than Nasr, Nakash sees Iraq as critical either to a serious shift in legitimacy based on constitutional arrangements (and the hero of the book is clearly Sīstānī) or a descent into civil war. We have witnessed both, especially in Iraq. The question that many have is what impact does this have on communities in the Gulf and the sporadic rioting and violence since 2008 in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia alongside the electoral successes of Shiʿi parties in the Kuwaiti elections of 2009 suggests that the two track development of political relations remains the case. A serious consideration of Shiʿi politics in the present necessarily needs to refocus on Iraq but also to consider more widely the communities in the Arab world and beyond. Nakash limits his study to the former, but one quibble with Nasr is the weakness of his analysis of South Asian Shiʿi communities (including Afghanistan) which given his previous research is quite inexcusable. Studies on contemporary Shiʿi Islam in South Asia remains academically a rather weak field. Since arguably South Asia hosts the largest communities of the Shiʿa, this lacuna and academic weakness is deplorable.

Interest in the Shiʿi question is not merely the concern of European academics. More recently the Nasr, Ibrahim and Nakash have all been translated into Arabic by Dār al-Sāqī. They have also published a number of relevant monographs and collections in Arabic particularly concerned with the development of politics in Iraq and in the Gulf. These include one collection focused on the so-called Sunni-Shiʿi problem in the Middle East, the subject of a Chatham House conference in the summer of 2008. What is striking is the new literature which is being produced by Shiʿi intellectuals relating to their communities particularly in Iraq and the Gulf. London has for some time been a major centre for the exchange of ideas and the presence of Shiʿi oppositions and their activities through the Gulf Club, the Abrar Foundation and other organisations provides the forum for debate of ideas and shifts in positions and policies.

A key member of these diasporic politics is Fouad Ibrahim, a major thinker and member of the former Iṣlāḥiyya in Saudi Arabia who has spent many years in exile in London. Ibrahim’s book is the first serious work in a European language on the Shiʿa of Saudi Arabia. It follows a groundbreaking work on the topic in Arabic by his friend and colleague in the Saudi Shiʿi opposition, Ḥamza al-Ḥasan which was published in London and Beirut in the early 1990s in two volumes. Ibrahim’s work is a slightly revised doctoral dissertation from London University (SOAS) and is an insider’s account of the development of Shiʿi oppositionism in Saudi Arabia, and in particular its links with the Shīrāziyya political networks that arose out of Iraq. Of course, the political shift post-1979 was towards a more Iran-oriented politics of encouraging the export of the revolution and the key ideological doctrine of the authority of the jurist (wilāyat al-faqīh) associated with the movement that became known as Hezbollah al-Hijaz. In seven chapters, Ibrahim begins with a history of the Shiʿa in the Eastern Province, one that is quite contested, and he does well to indicate some of these. The basic fact that no one can agree on how many Shiʿa are in Saudi Arabia is a problem that affects policy. He then traces the history of Shiʿi activism as a response to Saudi state repression, examining the early impact of Daʿwa in the region and work of the Shīrāziyya in promoting revolutionary ideals leading to the troubled 1980s. The 1990s and beyond signals an approach towards accommodation as the revolutionary leaders Shaykh Ḥasan al-Ṣaffār and Tawfīq al-Sayf moved towards a more conciliatory position. The work ends with a few speculations about the impact of Iraq post-Saddam, but this is a topic that requires a more careful investigation. Clearly, as the events of February 2009 and other flashpoints before suggest, the impact of Iraq has been a source of encouragement for the more radical Shiʿi opposition exemplified by Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr and Khalāṣ led by Ḥamza al-Ḥasan in London and expressed online through the Shīrāzī website al-Rāṣid. Ibrahim’s book is not a critical examination; it is in many ways a vital primary source for understanding the role and positions of Saudi Shiʿi intellectuals. A consistent feature, and one finds this among other opposition intellectuals in the Gulf, is the insistence that the treatment of the Shiʿa and their response are not expressions of primordial Sunni-Shiʿi hatreds; rather, the political situation is the result of tensions between ruling Sunni elites and Shiʿi subjects. However, state policy is expressed in a salafī idiom and the government has done little to curb anti-Shiʿi excesses of the salafī ʿulema and their media outlets, taking advantage of the discourse of a Shiʿi threat. No doubt most Shiʿi Saudis want a normalisation of their identity but it is difficult to see how the question of loyalty can be postponed as long as the Saudi state refuses to internalise the forms of pluralism that it has been espousing in the last few years on the international stage for political expediency.

The simple choice often imposed is that the Shiʿi opposition in the Gulf has either to find accommodation with the rulers of their state and buy into a system of quasi-representative politics (although in practice this is rarely a serious step towards constitutional politics) or to continue the revolutionary and rejectionist position articulated by the Shīrāziyya in the 1970s with the Organisation of the Islamic Revolution (Munẓamat al-thawra al-Islāmiyya) established by Shaykh Ḥasan al-Ṣaffār and Shaykh Tawfīq al-Sayf. The former tendency in Bahrain is represented by al-Wefaq and their engagement in the assembly and in politics since 2004 following the National Pact of 2002 and amnesties of those involved in political activism. In Saudi Arabia, it is represented more recently by Shaykh Ḥasan al-Ṣaffār who embarked on the accommodationist path with the publication in 1990 of his influential work al-Taʿaddudiyya wa-l-ḥurriyya fī-l-Islām (Pluralism and Freedom in Islam). More recently, al-Ṣaffār has written a work that tries to articulate a path between the exigencies of sectarian and national politics, and he has already dealt with the question of how the Shiʿa ‘fit’ within a kingdom whose identity is so staunchly salafī. Those advocating direct action in Bahrain include al-Ḥaqq led by Ustād Ḥasan Mshaymaʿ and Khalāṣ led by Ḥamza al-Ḥasan based in London. But there is a sense of a false dichotomy here. A constitutionalist approach would benefit the opposition more and seek wider participation and alliances against the basic injustices of a monarchical absolutism in the Gulf, drawing upon secular and Sunni liberal opinions and activists. Tawfīq al-Sayf’s path from revolutionary politics has taken the form of a serious engagement with political thought, making sense of the possibilities of Shiʿi political philosophy and the implications of Iranian reformist policies and intellectual shifts for Shiʿi communities in the Gulf and beyond.

These wider regional dimensions and the role of the Shīrāziyya in them is also the focus of a more recent volume by Laurence Louër. She examines the regional impact of Iraq and rather neglects the Iranian politics arising out of the Hezbollah tendency that is difficult to quantify in Bahrain and Kuwait. Shiʿi politics in the Gulf has to an extent always been lead by events and debates beyond their shores: first, it was Iraqi politics and the Daʿwa, then the Iranian revolution and the Shīrāziyya, and now arguably we are seeing a return to a competition between Iranian led ideas and organisations and those looking more towards Iraq. Mere use of the symbolism of Khamenei and Iran does not entail loyalty to Iranian politics. The importance of Louër’s analysis lies in the re-orientation of the Shiʿi question in the Gulf to links with Iraq, historically significant with the Iraqi Daʿwa Party which established cadres in the Gulf in the early 1970s, through Shaykh ʿĪsā Qāsim and Shaykh Sulaymān al-Madanī in Bahrain, and the Shīrāziyya through the work of Sayyid Hādī al-Mudarrissī and his Karbala origin network. These transnational and yet localised networks remain prominent in the contemporary Gulf and it is of significance that the present Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki is a Daʿwa-led coalition government.

It is often said that the politics of wilāyat al-faqīh in the Middle East is organisationally led by two figures in two locations: Shaykh ʿĪsā Qāsim acts as Khamenei’s representative in the Gulf (and as such is paramount over other important figures such as Shaykh ʿAbd al-Hādī al-Faḍlī based in Dammām in Saudi Arabia), and Sayyid Ḥasan Naṣrallāh in Lebanon. Shaery-Eisenlohr’s anthropologically informed volume pursues the Iranian-Lebanese link in greater detail as a way of understanding Lebanese politics and society and the wider impact of Iran in the Middle East. In many ways, the Lebanese context is the most interesting and relevant to other multicultural spheres such as those in the diaspora.

She takes up a critical theme in the work of Louër, namely how to reconcile local and national concerns and negotiations on identity with transnational networks and affiliations. Given the nature of minority status of the Shiʿa in the Middle East lacking a state (or at least one espousing the political cause of the Shiʿa before Iran became such an entity in 1979), transnationalism was always a strong feature of Shiʿi communities. But just as globalisation has made transnationalism somewhat more normal and accessible, those Shiʿi movements such as Hezbollah that are seen as international actors have had to respond increasingly to local concerns. The shift from a revolutionary resistance movement to a politically normalised player on the Lebanese scene has come about due to the demands of the context as the Shiʿa have moved from the margins to the centre, confronting the cultural biases of the urbane non-Shiʿi Lebanese. Shaery-Eisenlohr does a good job of emphasising the significance of such cultural factors. While a series of recent books have analysed the rise to political awareness of the Shiʿa in Lebanon since the 1920s, she focuses on two themes which comprise two parts of the book. The first analyses the creation of Shiʿi nationalism within Lebanon as a modular form of Maronite nationalism (also a minority in an Arab context), and the creation of a discourse that links piety, belonging and cultural citizenship among the Shiʿa as manifestations of what Usama Makdisi has called the culture of sectarianism in Lebanon. What emerges from her study is the perceptions among the Lebanese and even among the Shiʿa tend to be rather caricaturised. Iranians are considered to be pious, political hezbollahis and resented as external interference; Khatami-style reformists are not the first who come to mind. Others have commented on how liberal and reformists voices in Lebanon, while exhibiting some influences of the Iranian reformists, tend to reflect local exigencies. Faḍlallāh’s open-handed and open-minded jurisprudence is an example of this given the assault upon his integrity and credentials by the Qum juristic establishment.

Perhaps this is the main point that the author is making: that we need to disaggregate when discussing the Shiʿa either globally or within a national context. Any talk of a Shiʿi crescent begs the question: which notion of the Shiʿi political? Sīstānī or Khamenei? Hezbollah or Soroush? The problem thus with sectarianism is that it becomes self-fulfilling; in the quest for find sectarian politics and conflicts we inevitably confirm them.

The Translation Movement - a Real Step Forward

The Late Antique Aristotelian tradition that was inherited by the world of early Islam in the Near East considered the Rhetoric to be an integral part of one’s training in logic and reasoning. However, thus far there has been little academic interest in it, apart from the ground-breaking monograph of Deborah Black published some two decades ago and the recent edition, translation and study of Averroes’ commentary on the Rhetoric by Maroun Aouad. Vagelpohl’s revised Cambridge dissertation is a careful historical and linguistic study of the translation of the Rhetoric and its naturalisation in Syriac (less so) and Arabic learned culture in the Near East. As such, he considers the text to be a case study that raises wider questions about the whole process of the translation movement, which after a relative absence of interest, is again inspiring a new vague of academic literature. Since translation is a process of cultural exchange, it is important to pay attention to details and formulations. The choice of the Rhetoric requires some justification, as Vagelpohl admits, for two reasons: first, the Aristotelian text was not that significant in the antiquity; more practical manuals were more widely used and taught. Second, the Arabic tradition distinguished between two traditions of rhetoric, an indigenous genre of balāgha (and bayān) that was essential for the training of preachers and functionaries drawing upon classics of the Arabic language, and a more philosophical and hellenizing khiṭāba represented by the Aristotelian text and its commentary such as Averroes’. Clearly the former tradition dominated, and a cursory examination of the manuscript traditions and texts in libraries attests to this imbalance. However, Vagelpohl’s argument is that the challenges posed by the text reveal strategies and approaches used by the translators to deal with the cultural exchange that may assist our understanding of the wider translation movement.

The study is divided into four chapters. The first analyses the translation movement as a whole and locates the Rhetoric within this context. The author argues for a contextualised approach in opposition to a narrow philological isolationism. While positivism has been the order of the day stressing the need for historical transmission and consistently wishing to find the missing links between the Aristotelian text and its translation, Vagelpohl suggests that an element of the oral should not be overlooked. The wider history and sociology of the transmission of knowledge in early and classical Islam suggests that oral transmission occurred alongside the written and cannot be discounted as a serious mode of dissemination (as Schoeler has shown in a work that Vagelpohl translated from German). The rest of the chapter is a summary of the state of research on the translation movement drawing upon Rosenthal, Gutas and Endress, especially on the Kindī-circle and that of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq.

The next chapter is a careful examination of the translation of the Rhetoric with a consideration of the Syriac tradition. The Paris unicum has been edited twice by Badawī and Lyons and Vagelpohl weighs up the relative merits of the editions. The discussion of the Syriac tradition is significant because of Lyons’ hunch that there must have been a Syriac intermediary, an assumption often made for many of the works of Aristotle. However, while the Arabic and Syriac Aristotelian traditions were linked, and the translators themselves often knew both languages, they were formed and perpetuated in pedagogical contexts that were quite distinct. As ever, we are left with a situation in which there is little historical evidence to make firm conclusions.

The third chapter is the longest and most substantial philological examination comparing the Arabic and Greek and raising issues. Around one sixth of the text is sampled using the translation theory of Basim Hatim and Ian Mason. Vagelpohl concludes that the translation must be a fairly early one. The difficulties of the Greek and the literary context from which it arose constituted obstacles. The translator struggled with the text and produced something with significant terminological variation. Assessing the internal terminological evidence in its context, he concludes that it must have been produced in the Kindī-circle in which the language was often preliminary and terms not as fixed as the latter translations of Ḥunayn. This would tally with the assumption that the earliest texts produced in the translation movement were eminently practical elements of logic and argument and some preliminary metaphysics. Given the place of the Rhetoric in the organon, this clearly makes sense.

The final chapter, which is far too brief, analyses the legacy both East and West of the translation. The author recognises the importance; after all the translation itself is only a step in cultural transmission. The three great philosophers of the classical period all engaged with the text in different ways. For al-Fārābī, the text was an inspiration for his own thinking on rhetoric and its logical function. Ibn Sīnā wrote two relevant works: the short sections of al-Ḥikma al-ʿarūḍiyya functions somewhat like a manual of rhetoric and focuses upon the practical elements, while his own work on the rhetoric in al-Shifāʾ is a more extensive and complete contemplation of the Aristotelian text, often responding to the long commentary of Ibn al-Ṭayyib, one of the Baghdadi Christian Peripatetics he often criticised. While some other authors wrote small epitomes, the most significant contribution which signalled (as it did for his whole corpus) a return to Aristotle was the Middle Commentary of Ibn Rushd, so magisterially analysed and translated by Aouad. It is also a controversial text given the attempts by Straussians such as Butterworth to relate Ibn Rushd’s understanding of rhetoric to political philosophy. The Latin afterlife of the influence of Ibn Rushd’s commentary continued interest in the Rhetoric, although it died out (as did formal interest in the works of Aristotle) after the thirteenth century in Islam. It would have been interesting for Vagelpohl to discuss the influence of the rhetoric in balāgha and in other genres of writing and disciplines of the madrasa since the approach of the middle period led to a more holistic vision of intellectual inquiry. But that, in itself, might merit a monograph on its own. The conclusion follows appended with a good, extensive glossary of relevant terms Greek-Arabic and Arabic-Greek, acting as a wonderful complement to the argument.

The author concludes with an important insight: what the Greek into Arabic tradition often sees as mistakes in translation and transcription are in facts attempts by the translator to find a cultural fit. Any translation is a new literary text and needs to be taken seriously as that. This is precisely why it is the Arabic Aristotle that is of relevance to understanding classical philosophy in Islam and not the Greek. Overall the text is well produced although inevitably there are a number of small typographical errors. Vagelpohl has produced an excellent text that contributes to our understanding of the translation movement, even if the title does not entirely indicate it.

Assessing a recent book on Mulla Sadra by Bonmariage

The history of ideas is punctuated with philosophers who attempted to grapple with questions which were often considered to be perennial. One of the most significant of these was how to reconcile one’s desire for a totalising monistic account of reality with one’s phenomenal experience of pluralism, namely the problem of the One and the many. This question had a venerable tradition in the ancient and medieval trajectories of philosophy and was a major source of intellectual inspiration for philosophers and mystics in Islam. Broadly speaking within Islamic intellectual tradition, pluralism was seen as being championed by the modified peripateticism of Avicenna and monism promoted by the Sufi school of Ibn ʿArabī. A number of thinkers in the later period, especially from around the fifteenth century attempted a reconciliation of monism and pluralism beginning with the Shiraz philosophers Jalāl al-Dīn Dawānī (d. 1502) and Ṣadr al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Dashtakī (d. 1498) and their students. The eminent philosopher who attempted this synthesis as a means towards a new method and meta-philosophical and a ‘transcendent’ conception of philosophical inquiry, which he named ‘al-ḥikma al-mutaʿāliya’ in homage to the Peripatetic Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274) and Akbarian Sufi Dāwūd al-Qayṣarī (d. 1350), was Ṣadr al-Dīn Muḥammad Shīrāzī (d. c. 1635), popularly known as Mullā Ṣadrā.
Bonmariage’s monographic study of this issue in the philosophy of Mullā Ṣadrā is a revised version of her doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of Louvain, supervised by Yahya Michot and Jules Janssens. The publication comprises in one volume the academic study and a selection of key passages translated from the work of Mullā Ṣadrā. This second part includes thirty-six texts chosen from his two major philosophical works al-Ḥikma al-mutaʿāliya fī-l-asfār al-ʿaqliyya al-arbaʿa (commonly called Asfār), and its epitome al-Shawāhid al-rubūbiyya fī-l-manāhij al-sulūkiyya. These are organised under three headings: on being, on the Necessary Being and the deployment of being from it, and the relationship between the Necessary and the contingent. The translations are good and well-supported by footnotes which refer the reader to relevant passages in other works by Mullā Ṣadrā, to works in the Peripatetic tradition that influence or contrast with the passages (such as works by Avicenna, his student Bahmanyār and al-Ṭūsī), to the Neoplatonic tradition exemplified in the pseudo-Aristotelian/Plotinian Theology of Aristotle, works of the Illuminationist tradition, and to the Sufis school of Ibn ʿArabī. What is clear from these selections, and this is confirmed in the analytical first part of the book, is that Bonmariage attempts to explain Mullā Ṣadrā primarily in terms of the Avicennan tradition. This is not surprising. Avicenna remains the most important figure in Islamic intellectual history and it is constantly with respect to his work that subsequent philosophers comment, object, refine, criticise and condemn. Mullā Ṣadrā’s work is an engagement with the history of Islamic philosophical traditions in which he deals dialogically with the major thinkers of the traditions, especially Avicenna. The extensive nature of the relationship between Avicenna and Mullā Ṣadrā still requires further investigation although a number of scholars (Ibrāhīmī Dīnānī, Saʿīd Raḥīmiyān, Jules Janssens, Yahya Michot among others) have written about it.
Bonmariage’s argument concerns the notion of tashkīk al-wujūd in the philosophy of Mullā Ṣadrā, a notion that she translates as the modulated singularity of being. The translation of ‘modulation’ seems to be drawn from Yahya Bonaud’s Paris dissertation on the philosophy and mysticism of Khomeini. Being for Mullā Ṣadrā is a singular reality (following the Akbarian theory of the oneness of being or waḥdat al-wujūd), but it comprises the Avicennan regard for plurality through undergoing gradation and degrees, in itself also an indication of a Neoplatonic synthesis of the one and the many. That being admits of degrees was a common position in Platonic traditions.
The analytical part comprises three sections: preliminaries on his biography, influences and the nature of ḥikma mutaʿāliya, the fundamental aspects of Sadrian ontology (namely, the three doctrines of the self-evident nature of being, the ontological priority of being over essence, and the modulated and singular nature of being), and the structure of the Real and of reality, the critical examination of the nature of God and his bestowal of being upon all that is other-than-God. The theological implications of such philosophy are clear. Ever since Avicenna, philosophers have sought to incorporate theological questions in their inquiry and claimed that their demonstrative methods of examining questions about the nature of God, for instance, are more effective and conclusive than kalām arguments. Thus the question of being for Mullā Ṣadrā is not extricable from the question of the nature of God and his relationship with the world. Bonmariage’s method of analysis is deeply textual; positions and arguments are well-supported with reference to the works of Mullā Ṣadrā and to those who influenced him. This is refreshing change from some who work on Islamic intellectual history and pronounce on elements of thought with any reference to the relevant texts that may substantiate their claims. The Sadrian conception of philosophy is textured and comprises a tasting of reality, a deep meditation on scripture and the notion of a Prophetic inheritance of wisdom, as well as the Greek heritage of Plato, Aristotle and the Neoplatonists. Pierre Hadot’s insight into the nature of philosophy as care for the self and as a spiritual exercise and commitment to a way of life is extremely useful for understanding Mullā Ṣadrā, and perhaps Bonmariage should have indicated this wider context for explanation. The main analytical chapters require a more substantial introduction to the nature of philosophy and the impacts of influences on Mullā Ṣadrā.
The chapters on Sadrian ontology are careful historical reconstructions of the development of key notions like being, the doctrine of its ontological priority and rehearsal of the main arguments about tashkīk. The ontological priority of being (aṣālat al-wujūd) demonstrates Mullā Ṣadrā’s critique of the Illuminationist tradition and a refutation of Suhrawardī’s argument against existence having reference. It also indicates the shifts in his own understanding from an early period, when under the influence of his teacher Mīr Dāmād (d. 1631) he was an essentialist, to a shift towards a monistic understanding that focuses upon being as ontologically prior. Bonmariage rightly traces the history of the notion of tashkīk to the Neoplatonic commentaries on Aristotle particularly on the Categories and relates the notion to the ancient tertium quid, and to kalām arguments about discourse concerning God and contingents, as well as the idea of modulation of lights in the Illuminationist tradition. However, the Sadrian notion is richer than such a logical concept. The concept for Mullā Ṣadrā entails and reflects an ontological commitment to a particular vision of reality. It is not mere semantics.
The presentation of the Necessary Being includes a discussion of his arguments for the existence of God, including the famous ‘proof of the veracious’ (burhān al-ṣiddīqīn) and engages extensively with the kalām tradition. It also shows how Mullā Ṣadrā draws on the Ibn ʿArabī’s tradition’s formulation of the three modes of being and how being is deployed, disclosed and emanated from the One. A key mode in which the One relates to the many is epistemological. Bonmariage does not remark that the discussion of divine knowledge was central to arguments for God’s existence in the theological tradition of commentaries and super-commentaries on al-Ṭūsī’s famous work Tajrīd al-iʿtiqād and hence it influenced this line of argumentation in Mullā Ṣadrā’s work. The real question with respect to contingents regards in what sense they can be said to exist. Rahman’s position was that monism dominates and the unreality of particular existences means that tashkīk fails to provide an adequate reconciliation of monism and pluralism. The affirmation of human will and the rejection of theological and Avicennan determinism implies that Mullā Ṣadrā’s commitment to the reality of contingents is not merely a conventional genuflection to a synthesis. The Sadrian formulation is paradoxical but multiplicity is confirmed under the rubric of unity. This is better understood through a Neoplatonic paradigm in which the logical and metaphysics of unity and multiplicity are akin to the Sadrian reconciliation. Of course, the final question is whether it works. How does a reader overcome the apparent contradictions in the work? This is where one returns to the cultural question of the conception and role of philosophy which is not a straightforward ratiocinative and discursive exercise but a commitment to cognising reality through reason, inspiration and intuition. It is ultimately rather difficult to both verify and confirm the Sadrian vision. But the creativity of the approach and the strong rejection of rehearsing positions needs to be adhered. Bonmariage has little to say about the legacy of Mullā Ṣadrā. His dominance of the intellectual life of the Shiʿi seminary in Iran is clear. But a more engaged and critical approach to his work and to his ontology is still requires. Tashkīk in this way is not merely a modulated approach to reality as such but is also an equivocation and suspension of a simple binary and discursive hermeneutics of the text.
Bonmariage’s book is a successful historical and analytical exposition of this key ontological position of Mullā Ṣadrā. It deserves to be read and to push people to engage with the later traditions of Islamic philosophy. One feels that it would have been improved by a more careful contextualisation of his thought and a consideration of the wider legacy of Sadrian thought which continues to resonate today.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Shiʿi Ethics in the 21st Century: Beyond Jurisprudence and Politics

Shiʿi Islam has been for centuries a minority trend, the praised few defending the light in a world of darkness, adhering to the devotion and the cause of the friends of God and promoting the notion of being virtuous agents in the world, believers whose faith demanded testing, striking a path of being a muʾmin mumtaḥan. The pursuit of moral agency and excellence was therefore a pathway towards realisation, an examined life, and a commitment to living the multilogical walāya of the Imams. Contemporary Shiʿism finds itself at odds with this tradition, forced to rehearse the conflicts of the past between ghuluww and taqṣīr, and locked in an argument about whether the faith is an other-worldly denial of this dystopian world, or a call to establish a utopian order of the faithful who inherit and realise the true purpose of creation, or whether the faith articulates an essential opposition and dissent speaking truth to illegitimate power or provides the basis for authority that justifies the exercise of power within the modern state. The de-centring of a moral and spiritual core in the de-sacralised present is not peculiar to Shiʿi Islam; in fact, elements of what I want to discuss are clearly discernable in modern developments within Sunni Islam, various Indian religions and the like. This is not an argument for exceptionalism. But the particular details of features that I suggest inhibit the full realisation of moral Shiʿi selves in the present are rooted in the historical contingencies of modern Shiʿism. I would like you to consider this presentation as an introspective provocation, a search for the core self, an articulation of the famous statement and call to action man ʿarafa nafsahu fa-ʿarafa rabbahu. As such I will not deny that this is more of a polemic than a dispassionate, academic consideration of the nature of ethics, jurisprudence and law in contemporary Shiʿi Islam. At the same time, I do not claim that I am expressing something new – many before me have already indicated the malaise of our situation and many others will no doubt continue to do so.

I want to suggest that developments since the 19th century especially pose a threat to the nature of Shiʿi communities and belief in our contemporary age through the wilful obliteration of the tradition in two key areas of jurisprudence and law. In many ways, some of the themes that interest me have already been discussed by my colleague. The crisis of authority that is posed in the idiom of the contestations around the marjaʿiyya is symptomatic of the loss of the Shiʿi self in the contemporary, or rather of the oblivion of the confidence of being a minority alienated in this world. We live in the age of the oblivion of the self in which the question of authentic living and what it means to be Shiʿi is entangled in cultural identity politics and not a pursuit of moral agency. The basic dichotomies of understanding the nature of the world have been sidelined which have been part of the intellectual traditions of our inheritance and perhaps require a quick rehearsal:

· The complementarity between ḥaqq and ḥaqīqa, between the underlying reality of the divine and the manifest reality of our cosmos – the idea of the gracious and just God producing a world of grace and justice that allows us to fulfil our moral obligations by realising our humanity

· The desire to see the two poles of the world as a pursuit of understanding and recognising wujūd and walāya, being and becoming, striking the balance between the utter transcendence and immanence of the Divine, and

· The need to balance the exoteric and the esoteric, neither straying too far into the denial of the heart of one or a rampant antinomianism of the other

Of course, there is an idealism and elitism and perhaps essentialism in what I have said so far but the institution of the marjaʿiyya, the privileging of jurisprudence over all else in the madrasa and the politics of religion and state in more recent decades, exemplified in the theory of state known as wilāyat al-faqīh, have robbed ordinary believers of their basic moral agency and obligation and left us in a state in which we are reliant on a small group of individuals, some of whom are of rather dubious moral ethics, to fulfil our humanity, surrendering personal and even collective responsibility to the few. I am interested in how one can effect the ethical turn and reinvigorate communities, thought and spiritual life, an exigency of our diasporic communities in Europe and North America as much as those in the Middle East and South Asia. That there is a reality is not contested; but it is not a given, assumed and accepted, but rather interrogated and disclosed. Understanding and making sense of that reality requires a critical hermeneutics that balances the three sets of dichotomies that I have mentioned. I want to indicate some suggestions forward that focus on the ethical turn and the requisite hermeneutics of the text for our time.

But first I want to begin with the diagnosis, with the legal turn and the statist shift of modern history.

The Legal Turn

That the Shiʿi community has, on the whole, become the juristically compliant people par excellence is rather difficult to deny. It is not entirely a joke to suggest that in certain household the presence of a risāla ʿamaliyya on the bookshelf is more evident than other works, the site of Sayyid Sīstānī for example, holding an enviable slot in the favourites folder of many a web browser. I remember when I was 10 going to madrasa, in effect Sunday school in Hammersmith, we were barely trained in the fundamentals of the faith, not assisted in making sense of what it meant to be Shiʿi in London, but rather were made to memorise the risāla of Sayyid Khūʾī, perhaps a useful mnemonic exercise in itself although with rather limited implications for the future. You may think that I am generalising from the experience of a middle class South Asian experience but this anecdotal understanding is corroborated by many others who have grown up in Iranian, Iraqi and other contexts. The minutiae of compliance take precedence over the basic understanding of the central concept of Shiʿi Islam, namely walāya.

The privileging of positive law (fiqh) and jurisprudence and legal theory and hermeneutics that comprise uṣūl al-fiqh within the ḥawza is not entirely a new phenomenon and no doubt reflected the quotidian exigencies of believers. The faith has thus become purely about law. The slogan that Islam is comprehensive and provides a complete set of rules and guidelines for life makes the notion of the shariʿa a totality but in the privileged hands of jurists, in effect, it telescopes fiqh into a mechanism that covers every aspect of life, even more so in recent decades with the extension of the scope of the law into the public space, the political arena and the realm of finance and economics. What are the features of this obsessive focus on fiqh?

· The narrow scholasticism of the text in which the context is purely the text itself and the juristic tradition that discusses the text. Little attempt is made to draw out the relevance of the text and to situate it either historically or in the present. The hermeneutics of the text certainly genuflects towards a multivocal reading and understanding but in practice often avoids it.

· The dual mechanism of ijtihād and taqlīd does not produce moral agents, but complaints humans who was been absolved of the responsibility of their actions by jurists who take on the burden. We pride ourselves on having retained the tradition of ijtihād for centuries and yet little actual independent legal reasoning is performed and the provisional nature of much of what accounts for the uṣūl al-fiqh tradition is made permanent. There is no ijtihād, no new thinking, and certainly no creative hermeneutics in uṣūl. No doubt one of the factors determining this is the very modes of teaching and training jurists in the ḥawza.

· The institution of the marjaʿiyya (itself a rather recent phenomenon I would argue and indeed has been argued by Ahmad Kazemi Mousavi and others being traceable to Mīrzā-ye Qummī, Shaykh Najafī and Shaykh Anṣārī in the nineteenth century) and its centrality has led to the abnegation of moral responsibility, the imitation of practice authorised by the traditional hermeneutics that is called taqlīd. This is enough in itself, without the scandals of corruption, impropriety, lack of moral conduct on behalf of the representatives of the marājiʿ and indeed at time of the marājiʿ themselves that are elements further indicting the institution. The very conditions of marjaʿiyya articulated in works of uṣūl fail to live up to their definitions. In practice, it is not aʿlamiyya or taqwā or waraʿ or any such high virtue that defines a marjaʿ; it is rather cold hard cash raised through khums, social and political organisation, and astute manipulation. If indeed, for example, Shaykh Fayyāḍ is the most learned and pious uṣūlī in Najaf as many say, why is he not the paramount marjaʿ?

· We have become a sharʿia compliant people and not a moral people. Elements of the language of morality are retained in the value range from ḥarām to wājib but there is little reflection on what constitutes ethical living. Fiqh is a vehicle for understanding and fulfilling our moral obligation, our taklīf, the burden that we place on ourselves once a rational decision has been reached to believe. It is not co-extensive with ethics as such. The reduction of ethics in Islam to fiqh does a fundamental problem. While some in nineteenth North India attempted to balance this by focusing on akhlāq and ādāb, this remained an elite discourse and has been quickly forgotten.

It is not sufficient to absolve the non-juristic disciplines of the ḥawza either. The tendency towards ḥikmat and ʿirfān does not balance the stress upon the fiqh but becomes an expression of a staunch ba-sharʿ spirituality.

Scholasticism of maʿqūlāt

But before I move onto the statist shift, a quick corollary of the legal turn is the scholasticism of the seminary. The discrepancy of actually philosophical and ethical/political within the ḥawza is disturbing indeed. Ideas are rehearsed and much like the modern academic philosophy department, people trained in the history of thought but rarely inspired to think themselves. The hegemony of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā is one of the central problems. The quite brilliant but flawed Shirazi has not escaped the spectacular presumptions or the abuses of posterity. His philosophical method of tashkīk has been interpreted as a system and then become the system or the definition of Shiʿi philosophy that is juxtaposed and then compared to everything from Advaita Vedanta to Aquinas to Wittgenstein. But for Mullā Ṣadrā, our hermeneutics of the books of the Qurʾan and the cosmos are inherently unstable. Our grasping of reality is fleeting; our reification and essentialisation of it a wilful distortion and misrepresentation. The strong condemnation of intellectual taqlīd articulated by Mullā Ṣadrā seems to have been totally forgotten.

There is a true lack of independence in matters intellectual and the truly original marginalised. Let me cite one example, again from North India. Sayyid Murtażā Nawnehravī was one of the most creative Shiʿi thinkers of the early twentieth century, entirely trained in the dars-e niẓāmī curriculum in India but having spent most of his life in his hometown of Ghāzīpūr in Eastern UP. His Miʿrāj al-ʿuqūl fī sharḥ duʿāʾ Mashlūl published in Ghāzīpūr in 1914 is a wonderful text, perpetuating an honourable tradition of the expression of philosophy through exegesis. But it has been sorely neglected – copies are rare to find and he himself never achieved any recognition at the intellectual centre of Shiʿi Islam in India, Lucknow. The clear reason for this was his independent minded approach to texts and his time. He wrote works on the ritual purity of Hindus and encouraged social discourse against the isolationism of the Lucknow ʿulama, and even strongly condemned the insistence on slaughtering cow. He also made the mistake of vehement criticising the two main idols of the hierocracy in matters of belief and rational theology, namely ʿAllāma Majlisī and also Ghufrān Maʾāb Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī Naqvī. The result is that a work that is truly liberal in both its jurisprudence and hermeneutics, inclined to the spiritual life and contemplation, eloquent in its Arabic expression, is not even known to specialists.

A New political theory – Wilāyat al-faqīh

While the relationship of Shiʿism and politics is not a new one, the well known theory of the legitimate authority of the jurist or wilāyat al-faqīh marks a significant statist shift in Shiʿi thought and the absurd culmination and implication of the marjaʿiyya. I will not rehearse the theory which requires little introduction but instead focus on some critical remarks:

· The juristic context of the emergence of the theory is clear and represents a new opening of the area of public fiqh. However, as a political theory based on the notion that the ruler should be qualified as a jurist, a conception that conceives of the qualifications of political power in legal terms and indeed sees the ruler primarily as judge and arbiter, it is clear that the theory has little to do with traditional Shiʿi conceptions of authority and rather is much concerned with a Sunni conception of the caliphate. In the twentieth century, it was Rashīd Ridā’s notion that the head of the state ought to be a mujtahid which is closest to wilāyat al-faqīh. Beyond this, Muḥsin Kadīvar has done an excellent job in Naẓariyya-hā-ye dawlat dar fiqh-e shiʿeh to contextualise the theory and place it as one among many others.

· While it is no doubt an innovative political theory, the lack of serious political philosophy among the Shiʿa in the ghayba, consistently decried by a number of thinkers including Sayyid Javād Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Sayyid Muḥammad Khātamī and Jamīleh Kadīvar is not really compensated by it.

· Wilāyat al-faqīh represents the culmination of the abnegation of individual moral and collective responsibility initiated by the marjaʿiyya. But even more than that it infantilises believers in the ultimate act of condescension. Traditionally it is of course minors and the intellectually infirm who deserve the guardianship of senior members of the community, especially the jurists as general representatives of the Imam. At the same time, there is a basic contradiction. As the late great Mihdī Ḥāʾirī put in it in his excellent critique entitled Ḥikmat va ḥukūmat, published not surprisingly in London in 1996, the theory at once assumes that the people are like children and the mentally challenged and yet gives them the democratic right through the ballot box to determine who is the valī-ye faqīh.

· Of course, once one gets to the maximal conception in the absolute authority of the jurist things are taken further still. The power of such a jurist is beyond the constitutionality of parliamentary politics and the transparency and accountability of the separation of powers. His authority over the basic rituals of the faith makes the denial of ethics complete.

Before I conclude with some comments on the ethical turn and the need for a new hermeneutics, let me digress slightly on a further issue of the descent of moral agency.

Cultural Authenticity versus the pursuit of the good

In many of our communities, we have sacrificed the pursuit of the good and the practice of moral agency in favour of an identity politics of cultural authenticity. One good example and a controversial one at that is the practice of taṭbīr. The demands for culturally authentic and exclusively Shiʿi practices sanctioned by the state can be seen especially in Pakistan, India and Bahrain where political alliances inimical to the welfare of believers, that fail to enable the flourishing of the moral life have been made in the name of cultural authenticity. Political rights and claims upon the state in the public sphere forsaken in return for the state’s indulgence to practice taṭbīr. I am not making any value judgements as such about the nature of taṭbīr, its moral or legal status but just trying to point out the myopia of such a position.

So how do we regain our moral agency?

By Way of Conclusion

· Taqlīd must be forsaken and moral responsibility for the self and for one’s own actions regained; it is after all we ourselves who will stand before our Lord. This does not mean that one confines fiqh to the dustbin of history but one needs to be more watchful and critical of jurists.

· The state needs to become either neutral with respect to moral agency or an enabler of the pursuit of the good and not a hindrance. Wilāyat al-faqīh as an experiment has come and failed and we need to move on. The essential intellectual work now is to de-couple the concept from the theology of the imamate with which it has been confused and conflated by the likes of Āyatollāhs Miṣbāh and Javādī Āmulī.

· Believers need to be empowered to regain their moral agency and the role of education is critical to provide them with the intellectual tools to understand their situation, to privilege a critical intellectual culture placing philosophy properly at the foundation, and training people in the basics of belief, and both strands of theology, namely the understanding of the human condition within this cosmos and the big questions of the nature of God and his communication and interaction with us. We need the ʿulama to be public theologians and not jurists and judges foremost.

· Finally, we need to be more sophisticated with the text and recognise that our understanding of our situation and who we are evolves and hence so should our engagement with the text on the horizon of our experience. At times, the silences of the text need to be retained and at other times the noises of the text perhaps politely ignored.