Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Re-centering Foundationalist Ethics? John Rist on Platonism and Real Ethics

A constant regard to God in all our actions and enjoyments, will give a new beauty to every virtue, by making it an act of gratitude and love to him; and increase our pleasure in every enjoyment, as it will appear an evidence of his goodness; it will give a diviner purity and simplicity of heart, to conceive all our virtuous dispositions as implanted by God in our hearts, and all our beneficent offices as our proper work, and the natural duties of that station we hold in our universe, and the services that we owe.
[Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (Hildesheim, 1969), 216]

In this sentiment articulated by a leading member of the Scottish Enlightenment, we remember that the Enlightenment itself was not essentially inimical to deism and indeed to theistically grounded systems of morality. However, nowadays when the Enlightenment is evoked, it is the radical Enlightenment with its pronounced atheism and Promethean vision of humanity that is at the forefront of the ethical debate; the moral self is an autonomous self, a concept attributed to Immanuel Kant. It is for humans to develop a system of morals through agreement that be rationally justified and universalised.
Teaching religious ethics, or any aspect of religion and spirituality, in the disenchanted and de-sacralised sphere of the contemporary metropolitan university is a difficult and frustrating task. One cannot assume the basic contours and narratives of the Judaeo-Christian tradition that once informed European and American societies. Nor can one assume that students have the slightest conception of the belief systems, phenomenal practice and meaning of religious faith and ritual. One cannot even assume that one’s students have a clear, historically contextualised notion of morality, the moral self and moral agency. The ‘now’ culture is which we live affects academia as well: it is rare indeed to find a philosophy department that takes the history of philosophy seriously as an intellectual pursuit that is central to informing the framework of their contemporary concerns.
In this paper, I will investigate (quite critically) one strategy for presenting religious ethics to students of philosophy and the humanities as part of the pursuit of a liberal education, namely, a recent robust and fairly ambitious defence of realist and foundationalist ethics and moral agency articulated by John Rist, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Toronto. By way of some comparison, I will juxtapose his thought with the historically contextualised vision of narrating the moral self through a critique of the ‘Enlightenment project’ proffered by Alasdair MacIntyre, an Aristotelian Thomistic quest for the vibrancy of moral foundationalism, and Robert Adams’ Christian Platonic defence of the concept of the Good and the moral quest for being and doing good. Although they all engage with the contemporary discourse on ethics (Adams most successfully from a philosophical perspective), they deliberately place their ideas beyond the standard fourfold division of ethics: deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, and ‘anti-ethics’. But they remain committed to an account for the rational justification for morality. The rehabilitation of a metaphysical moral realism may well be worth considering as it has been so neglected by the ethical academic mainstream. For the purposes of this paper, I will assume that religious ethics are foundationalist and based on transcendent moral realism; the possibilities of a non-transcendent moral realism, therefore, lies beyond the scope of my discussion here.
In these anti-foundationalist and post-Christian (and even post-secular) times, it is a brave (perhaps foolhardy?) person who will defend a moral realism founded upon transcendent principles, rules even, of morality based upon a theistic modification of Platonic realism. The naturalistic fallacy known as the derivation of an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ lies at the heart of this study. The shift away from foundationalism and ontology was arguably initiated by Kant in his systematic critique of the mediaeval principles of metaphysics and epistemology. But the twentieth century really brought about the death knell of foundationalism, first through the rise of the Vienna circle and logical positivism and later through the linguistic turn and the rejection of ‘philosophy as we know it’ by Derrida in his oeuvre and Rorty in his hugely influential Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. The desire to return metaphysics to its original place as the mistress of the sciences remained the priority of Catholic philosophers dissatisfied with the shift in our academic understanding of philosophy and its branches. John Rist, as a Christian Platonist, has much in common with this latter tendency. Along with Catholic philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Rist offers a bleak diagnosis of contemporary humans and the inability of societies to function morally and effectively divorced from metaphysical foundations of value. We are in moral and spiritual crisis because professional philosophy fails to address ethical issues in a clear and robust manner that can be communicated to the ‘man in the street’. The academic crisis over the theoretical foundations of moral agency has translated into the public sphere:

The perception in many academic and professional circles of the seriousness and ramifications of the theoretical crisis, combined with the ignorance of ordinary people, makes way for deception, equivocations, and outright lying and humbug in public debates.

MacIntyre’s diagnosis is somewhat bleaker and based on an interesting parallel with the exact sciences:

Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successful abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single page from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are re-embodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realises that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.

MacIntyre believes that the loss of the conceptual scheme of morality and the oblivion of the tradition(s) of morality requires us to re-assess and re-acquire our familiarity with that history. Forms of postmodern Nietzschean irrationalism should be eschewed in favour of a narrative and historical understanding of traditions and their interpretive communities. The real challenge is emotivism which MacIntyre defines as:

the doctrine that all evaluative judgements and more specifically all moral judgements are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.

Rist believes that we should return to Plato’s conception of rational ethics as a moral system that is only justifiable if it is predicated upon metaphysical foundations; only with such a base can morality be more than ‘enlightened self-interest’. He blames, much like MacIntyre, Nietzsche and his followers, for the assault on ‘enlightenment values’ and morality such that one finds a contemporary philosopher like Derek Parfit articulating the modern ‘consensus’ that rejects religious ethics in favour of seeking a consensual morality through ‘principled agreement’. Rist quotes him:

Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.

The desire to axiomatize ethics is odd indeed coming from a (post-)analytical philosopher. Nevertheless, it reflects a somewhat Kantian need to achieve an understanding of the qualifications of a moral agent. As Onora O’Neill, perhaps one of the most eminent of Kantians, says:

Without a more explicit vindication of some background perfectionism, or more generally of the necessary metaphysics, it may quite simply be impossible to establish necessary and sufficient conditions for qualifying as an agent (or person), or as a subject (or holder of rights). Yet most contemporary universalists are uninclined to argue for this type of background position.

The present moral chaos, for Rist, is because ‘Western philosophers and their opinion-forming disciples have come to resemble midwives – to borrow Plato’s metaphor – to the birth of a class of intellectual lager-louts’. He argues for a return to foundationalism in ethics. As an analytical (and ill-tempered, even intemperate) polemic and an argument that eliminates alternative moralities (often willy-nilly and rather unfairly) without really offering a positive account of transcendent moral realism, Real Ethics is reminiscent of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a work that is equally concerned with showing up the failures of the ‘Enlightenment project’ not least in its inability to establish a vigorous and robust moral theory devoid of transcendent principles, of God and of metaphysics. It is a work that is indicative of one analytical, post-Thomist trend in contemporary Catholic philosophy. Those Catholic philosophers who retain an interest in philosophical theology either attempt to reconcile the demands of revelation and reason and offer an analytical ‘recovery’ and justification of transcendent principles in metaphysics and ethics (as MacIntyre and Rist do), or deconstruct the very notion of metaphysics and ethical theory, even of the ‘supra-category’ of being when talking about God, and permit a hermeneutics of revelation devoid of standard ‘reason’, ethical realism and metaphysics. A good example of the former is the work of the late Norman Kretzmann and Marilyn Adams. The latter trend is well represented by Gianni Vattimo, Jean-Luc Marion and John Caputo. Rist remains an analytical philosopher profoundly alienated by the main preoccupations and interests of analytical philosophy, and wishes to use analytical tools to criticise and condemn postmodern shifts against foundationalism and Kantian contractualism.
Rist’s argument begins with the Republic and the moral choice in that work between Socrates’ transcendent moral realism founded upon the metaphysical theory of the Forms and variations on what he describes as ‘Thrasymachian’ alternatives that are all versions of moral perspectivism or even nihilism; it culminates with the recovery of moral realism through theistic Platonism as exemplified in Augustine and Aquinas. There are three steps to his negative argument to which I now turn in detail.
The first step is rather tendentious. Rist argues that the central point of the Republic is to demonstrate that there are only two options for the first principles of morality: Socratic realist values, and Thrasymachian arbitrary values. He expresses surprise that generations of scholars in ancient philosophy have not discerned this obvious choice (including most recently Julia Annas). But this is precisely because his claim is so debatable. A corollary of this step is to argue that the core of the Republic is the theory of Forms that provides the metaphysical foundations for moral theory and inspiration for ‘how to live the good life’. Rist is not prepared (quite rightly) to justify this theory because it has become so discredited. Instead, he attempts to defend theistic Platonic realism through a via negativa consideration and rejection of some major alternatives. Adams, on the other hand, provides a more nuanced and critical examination of Platonic realism: theism and real ethics is more significant for him than a slavish adherence to a particular vision of Plato; if Plato and Platonism are indefensible and violate the need to save the appearances of theism, then Adams is more than happy to jettison Platonism. Further, instead of focusing on the Republic, he begins with the Symposium which is a more explicit meditation upon love and beauty, love defined as the attraction and orientation towards Beauty as a manifestation of the Good. Adams has no desire to defend the theory of Forms; his intention is to provide a structure for a theory of values and personhood, not of universals. Unlike Rist, he believes that we can differentiate between the language and semantics of value on the one hand and the metaphysics of value on the other. His pursuit is to ward the plausibility of objectivity, not objectivity itself. A central motif to this argument, and arguably the central concern of Platonic ethics, is the notion of godlikeness: theistic moral realism implies the existence of a God, but the pursuit of the good as a resemblance of the divine is even more pronounced. This is what the Platonic tradition calls theosis. Unfortunately, Rist’s argument fails to link to this critical feature and is more restrictive.
Rist’s metaphysically grounded theory has the following characteristics: first, metaphysical realism is the only answer to Thrasymachus; second, pseudo-moralities based on pleasure and subjective preferences will prevail if we do not accept foundations (akin to MacIntyre’s point against emotivism); third, conventional societies need true beliefs and not deception (what is a conventional society?); fourth, metaphysical realities must reveal beauty and inspire love, a critical element of they theory to which we will return; fifth, men (not the gendered language as most critics would put it) are unequal in their abilities to justify their moral beliefs; sixth, a moral society is only intelligible with the existence of a metaphysically defensible God. Nowhere in the book is a demonstration or a positive proof provided for any of these points.
The Thrasymachian alternatives that Rist criticises all engage in ‘free-floating’ moral language and take in a range of positions from Epicurean pursuit of hedonism, Humean constructivism, Hobbesian contractualism, Straussian comunitarianism and Nietzschean nihilism. Moral language, according to Rist, must be ‘more or less stable’ and have transcendent referents which can be inferred and which inspire moral agency. However, his critique fails to deal adequately with those ethical theories that include an account of human nature that constrains choice of agency (as does Hobbes). Another consistent problem, as he admits is deception, both of the self and by those entities that one assumes are transcendent beings, namely forms. He does not explain satisfactorily how his model of ethics circumvents this problem.
The second step in the argument is to present a Platonic theory of the soul that explains how humans acquire moral unity and extract values from the transcendent principles. The pursuit of the good life entails the possession and unification of the soul since we wrong ourselves and become embroiled in immoral activity once our souls acquire extraneous layers and become ‘pluralized selves’. On this point, he actually cites MacIntyre: irrationality and moral turpitude follow from our disintegrated souls. Critical for his argument is the suggestion that humans cannot achieve psychological unity without some external pull factor, whether that be the pull of love (or self-love, or the love of transcendent principles that inspire us such as the Good), or communal filial friendship or even God himself. Thus we cannot construct a robust form of moral unity within ourselves. He criticises political forms and attempts at moral unity that are devoid of ethics such as Marxism and liberal democratic values. However, nowhere does Rist provide a convincing argument to show that we need an extrinsic metaphysical form for moral unity in our selves and many political and theorists and moral philosophers would argue, especially if they are within the Kantian rationalist tradition, that the extrinsic recourse for unity is unnecessary. The concept of love is central to his argument and demonstrates his debt to Augustine. It also reveals the way in which Rist disregards Plato for Christian Platonism as soon as possible. Once again, we see that Adams provides a more satisfactory account of the need for love as the key instrument for identifying the property and nature of excellence and for recognising the Good. Ethics is thus revealed as the means for loving and pursuing the Good. As Adams’ work is aimed at both philosophers and theologians, he allows himself the latitude to discuss in this context notions of grace and idolatry.
Thus far, Rist has completed two steps of his negative argument: first, the need for metaphysical foundations and principles for morality; second, the psychology of the soul that requires unity for moral agency and factors extrinsic to the soul to effect unity. Thus two sides of the moral equation are complete: an account of the moral agent and of moral principles. The third step in the argument is to reintroduce the need for rules and principles and articulate the drawbacks of theories that bypass rules. In this part of the argument, he discusses the ‘principled’ person and the avoidance of hypocrisy. He completes the shift to theistic ethics and continues to cast aspersions upon the misconceptions and lacunae of thought prevalent in the contemporary Anglo-American analytical tradition.
At times, his polemic overcomes the argument and he lapses into a weak position and even admits the inherent weakness of a positive argument for his case:

The epistemological difficulties confronting the Platonic moral realist should not be underestimated. If there are metaphysical or religious truths which validate certain systems of morality and invalidate others (because they give the best answers to questions about what we are and therefore what we ought to be), these truths cannot be demonstrated by ordinary methods of philosophical enquiry. That may seem surprising but it is not fatal: there is no reason why there should not be truths which we cannot even know or discover for ourselves, let alone demonstrate either to ourselves or to others. Our minds may be inadequate to them or the date necessary for understanding them may not be available to us…
Of course, to recognize that a Platonic foundationalism cannot be demonstrated is not to allow that it is implausible, let alone necessarily to open the doors to crude irrationalism; it may still be the most plausible, even the only intelligible, explanation of what we are and of the nature of moral experience.

This rather bizarre apologetic begs at least two questions: what standard of plausibility for moral realism is being advocated, and what are the extraordinary means of philosophical inquiry that might demonstrate the truths of moral realism? At the end of the book, the apologetics give way to utopianism and in an interesting chapter on God and ethics he concludes that moral obligation remains a utopian dream in a non-theistic world.
While Real Ethics may be a disappointing but ambitious work, it merits engagement. His attacks on neo-Nietzscheanism (much like MacIntyre) might conform to the prejudices of many. But he fails to engage properly and adequately with the Kantian tradition that dominates the discourse of ethics and is not entirely opposed to foundationalism. He is also palpably unfair in his dismissal of alternatives to transcendent theistic moral realism. The persistent claim that there are only two options in moral theory, between Socrates and Thrasymachus, between Good and bad, is an unfair, ‘fixed’ choice. Rist may be accused of a basic double standard: he applies a rigorous critique to moral alternatives but never subjects his own theory of realism to the standard critical analysis. Furthermore, he never makes a positive argument in its favour, contenting himself with ‘counter-punching’ and bemoaning the moral crisis of our times. More problematic is his avoidance of a key critical problem: formulating an epistemological theory for explaining the rational distinction between knowledge and mere belief. Whilst many may agree with his diagnosis, few will probably adhere to his prescription. The market of moral ideas deserves a morally rigorous and balanced assessment of positions and a defence of theistic moral realism really ought to engage more critically and fairly with both its opponents and its self.
Teaching and understanding religious ethics requires an engagement with good and bad arguments. There is much in Rist’s negative argument that resonates, informs and renders the moral confusion of a believer in the contemporary world and this may well be the best contribution that he provides. It is now left to others to produce a positive argument in favour of a theistic moral realism and to engage especially with the mainstream of debates on ethics, led as they are by Kantianism. One final point: one need not insist that the pursuit of moral realism should only engage with a narrowly defined set of philosophical problems. Adams’ contribution is precisely more effective because he does not pretend that religious ethics is merely ethics in the way in which, for example, Hare presents his theory. We should not be embarrassed by religion or religious thinkers and it can often be counter-productive to reduce a religious thinker to a mere philosopher. Critical honesty is far better than slavish apologetics.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Some notes on rational fideism in Qum - or the Maktab-e Tafkik

In recent years, the hegemony of the philosophical school of Mullā Ṣadrā in the ḥawza has been challenged from two intersecting directions, both now associated with the maktab-i tafkīk: first, there is still a traditional hesitation and distrust of philosophy associated with the ḥawza of Najaf which has been imported to Qum and Mashhad – the teachings of the Ahl al-bayt are far more significant than alien ‘Greek’ learning. Second, there is a critical attitude towards the Sadrian school and the need to engage with a new method of philosophy which is more authentically derived from scriptural reasoning within the Shiʿi tradition. Both of these tendencies have important precursors in the Imāmī intellectual tradition at least in the Safavid and Qajar periods: one may cite Qāḍī Saʿīd Qummī (d. 1696) and Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsāʾī (d. 1826) as examples of critics of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā who struck an independent path of intellectual inquiry often focused upon a meditation of the sayings of the Imams.
In the early period, the school was known as the school of the teachings of the Ahl al-Bayt (maʿārif-i ahl-i bayt) and was found by a triumvirate of scholars, the first two were both trained in Najaf but never met and the third was an important student of theirs: Sayyid Mūsā Zarābādī (d. 1353/1934), Mīrzā Mahdī Gharavī Iṣfahānī (d. 1365/1946), and Shaykh Mujtabá Qazvīnī Khurāsānī (d. 1386/1966). Zarābādī and Iṣfahānī had studied in Najaf and were closely associated with the major jurists of the period such as Ākhund Muḥammad Kāẓim Khurāsānī (d. 1329/1911), Mīrzā Muḥammad Ḥusayn Nāʾinī (d. 1355/1936), Sayyid Muḥammad Kāẓim Ṭabāṭabāʾī Yazdī (d. 1925??), and Shaykh Fażlullāh Nūrī (d. 1327/1909). Zarābādī entertained an interest in philosophy and studied with prominent students of Mullā Hādī Sabzavārī (d. 1289/1873) of the philosophers of Tehran, namely Mīrzā Ḥasan Kirmānshāhī (d. 1336/1918), Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn Shīrāzī (d. 1320/1902), and Shaykh ʿAlī Nūrī Ḥakamī (d. 1335/1917); he also wrote glosses on the famous philosophical text of Sabzavārī, Sharḥ-i manẓūma. Later he settled in his hometown where he taught until his death and was much appreciated with well-known philosophers such as his townsman Sayyid Abū-l-Ḥasan Rafīʿī Qazvīnī (d. 1975). Iṣfahānī was more mystically inclined and associated with the teachers of ethics and mysticism such as Sayyid Aḥmad Karbalāʾī (d. 1332/1914), Shaykh Muḥammad Bahārī Hamadānī (a student of the famous Ḥusayn-Qulī Hamadānī), and the renowned Sayyid ʿAlī Qāḍī Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1366/1947). He settled in Mashhad where he taught and established the centre of the school, perpetuated by Qazvīnī. The work of Iṣfahānī, particularly his Abwāb al-hudá, and Qazvīnī’s compendious set of intellectual meditations upon the Qurʾān established the foundations of the school. These were then developed by their students such as Shaykh ʿAlī Akbar Ilāhiyān Tunkābunī (d. 1380/1960), Sayyid Abū-l-Ḥasan Ḥāfiẓiyān (d. 1360 Sh/1981), Mīrzā ʿAlī Akbar Nawqānī (d. 1370/1950), Shaykh ʿAlī Namāzī Shāhrūdī (d. 1405/1985), Shaykh Muḥammad Bāqir Malakī Miyānjī (d. 1377 Sh/1998), Mīrzā Javād Āqā Tihrānī (d. 1368 Sh/1989), Sayyid Kāẓim al-Mudarrissī (d. 1414/1994), Mīrzā Ḥasan ʿAlī Marvārīd (d. 1425/2004), and Shaykh Muḥammad Riḍā Ḥakīmī. It was the latter, Ḥakīmī, who supposed coined the term maktab-i tafkīk and his book of that name which has undergone over eight printings and editions remains the manifesto of the school. In the contemporary ḥawza both the students of Shaykh Vaḥīd Khurāsānī (who had apparently studied with Iṣfahānī) and the Shīrāziyya have allied themselves in Iran with the maktab-i tafkīk to express their distaste for philosophy. Prominent contemporary polemicists and thinkers of the school include Sayyid Jaʿfar Sayyidān and ʿAlī Riżā Raḥīmiyān.
One approach to understanding tafkīk is to understand it as a fideist movement. Fideism has a venerable history back at least to the Church father Tertullian (d. 230) and articulates the view that the intellectual jurisdictions of faith and reason are quite distinct and can even be hostile (although the hostility is not acknowledged in the school). In particular and in contrast to natural law and theology’s approach to presenting types of apodictic proofs for the existence of God, ontological, cosmological and teleological, fideists insist that religious belief in the divine does not depend on rational justification and draw upon philosophers who insist upon the unknowability of reality and truth, ‘evidential ambiguity’, and the limits of human reason such as Soren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein. More recently, a number of Protestant theologians and philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and William Alston have argued for a reformed epistemology which in a sense provides a rational justification for fideism although they resist the term.
The school of tafkīk separates out the language and discourses of scripture, philosophy and mysticism and deliberately opposing the synthetical approach of the Sadrian school reflecting in the teaching of ḥikmat and ʿirfān in the Sadrian school dominant in the ḥawza. However, the proponents are clear that this does not entail a hermeneutics of suspicion with respect to the text or reality or truth and that tafkīk is not a fideist form of Derridean deconstruction.

The school also distinguishes between one legitimate form of intellectual inquiry that is described is rooted in revelation (waḥyānī), and two man-made forms of inquiry that represent the ‘deviations’ of philosophy and mysticism, namely the rational (ratiocinative) philosophical method (al-manhaj al-falsafī al-ʿaqlānī) and the intuitive, gnostic approach (al-manhaj al-ʿirfānī al-kashfī).

Monday, January 11, 2010

Charisma, Walaya and Early Shi'i Islam

For all the paranoia of the politics of the ‘Shiʿi crescent’, it is a fruitful and exciting time to be working in Shiʿi studies. New studies have emerged examining critical aspects of the early period, theology and intellectual developments ranging from Liakat Takim’s study of the networks of the Imams (The Heirs of the Prophet: Charisma and Religious Authority in Shiʿite Islam, Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), Robert Gleave on the akhbārī school (Scripturalist Islam: The History and Doctrines of the Akhbārī Shīʿī School, Leiden: Brill, 2007), Hossein Modarressi’s paradigm-shifting studies on the early period (Tradition and Survival: A Bibliographic Survey of Early Shiʿite Literature, Oxford: Oneworld, 2003) and Amir-Moezzi’s wide ranging studies (La religion discrete, Paris: Vrin, 2006; Revelation and Falsification: The Kitāb al-qirāʾāt of Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Sayyārī, Leiden: Brill, 2008). This is not to mention the many studies on contemporary Shiʿism produced by Lara Deeb, Max Weiss, Roshanak Shaery-Eisenlohr, Rula Abisaab and Laurence Louër. There are even two or three competing journals specialising in Shiʿi studies both in the United States and in the United Kingdom.

Maria Dakake’s revised 2000 Princeton doctoral dissertation makes an important contribution in this company by refocusing our understanding of early Shiʿism on two points: the cohesion of a counter-community coalescing around the concept of walāya both as an ontological status and authority of the Imams and as a devotion that believers owe to them, and the identity of this community as an elect, the praised few who are the true believers and the true guardians of the faith. These points are located within an insistence that Shiʿism developed not as a political doctrine of succession first to which a theology of discontent and dissent was later grafted but as a theological tendency attached to the family of the Prophet. In fact, Dakake is careful to assert that it is highly misleading to refer to Shiʿism as a ‘heterodox sect’, at the very least because it begs the question of the formation of ‘orthodoxy’ in Islam as well as the basic nuances of the concept of ‘sect’. She dates the emergence of Shiʿism from the First Civil War, and not from either the early Prophetic period (as many believers would), nor from the second century responses to various Alid revolts as many academics do.

Dakake puts forward three theses that comprise the three sections of the book. First, Shiʿism represents an early religious perspective rooted in basic principles such as the charismatic authority of the Prophet’s family as leaders of the Muslim community, a theology that remained ‘essentially unchanged from its inception in the first Islamic century through the period of its doctrinal solidification in the late second and early third centuries’ (page 3). This position is argued through four chapters on the nature of walāya in the Islamic tradition, a close reading of the famous Ghadīr Khumm tradition, walāya in the First Civil War, and the community in its aftermath. The notion of continuity in doctrine will surprise many specialists, not least the sceptics who are well represented in the historiography of early Islam. Her contention also draws upon the Weberian concept of religious charisma without allowing for a straight ‘fit’ between charisma and walāya. The first of these chapters is a general introduction. One would have wanted to see a more extensive analysis of walāya in the Qurʾan and in early texts, and the relationship between Shiʿi and Sufi notions of the concept needs further elaboration and analysis (too much of what is discussed is read through the prism of the more recent ʿirfānī understanding of the link between Shiʿi thought and Sufi metaphysics). Chapter two does well to focus on the Ghadīr tradition, far too neglected in the study of Shiʿism but is mainly concerned with identifying sources and the polemics around the text. There is no source-critical engagement here which will disappoint many students of early Islam. Chapter three focuses on the First Civil War and the articulation of communal identity and partisan adherence through a study of the historical accounts, and does well to draw out the importance of the dual notion of walāya and barāʾa (association and dissociation) so important to early Shiʿism as well as to its arch-enemy Khārijism. The final chapter of this section centres on the crystallisation of identity in the conflicts of the various uprisings both before and after Karbala. Both this chapter and the previous one draw upon the material of the Kūfan traditionist and historian Abū Mikhnaf but there is little assessment of him as a source. An important question which Dakake raises but does not examine adequately is Hāshimī Shiʿism and the legacy of the claims put forward for Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥanafiyya, the son of ʿAlī who was not a descendent of the Prophet.

The second thesis concerns walāya as a representation of a principle of spiritual charisma at the heart of the Shiʿi ethos and articulation of the ‘profound spiritual connection and ontological affinity between the Imāms and their followers’ (page 7). This theme comprises four further chapters on the theology of walāya, salvation in the community, predestination, and the charismatic distinction of the Shiʿa. Chapter five examines walāya in Shiʿi poetry and in the nascent ḥadīth corpus. Chapter six considers walāya as a pre-requisite for salvation and locates it within the theological debate of how best to avoid the hellfire and balance the requirements of faith as belief and works as articulations of belief. Chapter seven presents an important theme of Shiʿi tradition, namely predestination; but given the later espousal of soft determinism or at least a genuflection to free will, some consideration of the rational theological reconfiguration would have been useful. Chapter eighth articulates the spiritual hierarchy of Shiʿism as sets of relationship directed towards the Imam as master.

The third thesis of the book is that walāya and the elite spiritual status of the Shiʿa provided the ideological foundation for establishing sets of rules for social and intellectual interaction in the larger Muslim community. The final four chapters make this point by discussing the interaction between commonality and the elite through the contrast between islām and īmān, the notion of a spiritual hierarchy in the community, a discussion of women’s identity in early Shiʿism, and codes of conduct for interaction with the wider ummah. In total, there are twelve chapters, numerically significant in the context of a study on Twelver Shiʿism. Chapter nine is important especially in the light of more recent Shiʿi discussions around the notion of religious and civic pluralisms. Two concepts raised here would have benefitted from further discussion: the semantic range of the term kufr and the mustaḍaʿf. Chapter ten shifts to hierarchy within the Shiʿi community determined by the twin instruments of recognition-knowledge (maʿrifa) and obedience to the Imam (ṭāʿa). Dakake’s analysis would have benefitted from a greater engagement in this context with the work of Amir-Moezzi and Karim Crow’s masterful doctoral dissertation on early Islamic notions of intellect. Chapter eleven is on both Shiʿi women and attitudes to women in Shiʿi ḥadīth. In some ways, the chapter seems rather out of place, as if a journal article were suddenly introduced into the text to make it ‘more relevant’. Once again from a present-minded perspective, if early Shiʿism were so misogynistic, then how can one account for a radical reversal in the present period where Twelver Shiʿism is arguably the most positive about women and their role in the public sphere? The final chapter is once again brief (somewhat like the first chapter) and, one suspects, in the place of a proper conclusion (which is clearly needed and lacking). It does not really detail the twin (parallel?) codes of conduct for believers as mentioned in the title of the chapter.

The method that Dakake adopts involves an approach to early history and theology through the prism of ḥadīth material, somewhat akin to Amir-Moezzi’s studies of early Shiʿism. There is no critical assessment of the value of these sources. While Dakake has a few footnotes in which she acknowledges her use of later ḥadīth and historical sources to represent earlier events and words, her only response is to claim that there is ‘strong indications’ that the terms used are authentic representations of the early debates. While it may well be that the question of the authenticity of this corpus (and by extension I mean the various uṣūl attributed to the companions of the Imāms, some purported works of the Imāms and the famous kitāb al-saqīfa of Sulaym ibn Qays al-Ḥilālī) is somehow a pseudo-problem and obsession of source-(over)critical scholars, and indeed what is often far more important is how texts are deployed and used to interrogate positions, Dakake should have made some effort to locate and explain her use of sources. After all, one cannot simply use ḥadīth in an unreflective manner in a field that is so sensitive to usage, canonisation and integrity of that corpus. Within this context, one would also like to have seen a discussion of extremism and moderation (ghuluww, taqṣīr), or doctrinal confusion (takhlīṭ) – terms that were in the early texts and early theological critiques of the tradition, and which remain very much the core of internal debate and difference within Shiʿi communities in the present.

Despite this methodological critique and the gaps that one inevitably encounters, Dakake’s book is a wonderfully rich examination of the emergence of Shiʿism as a community of walāya at the core of Islam. One feels that this is very much a heart-felt project attempting a more inclusive approach to the study of Islam, away from the binarism (orthodoxy-heterodoxy, works-faith) of much that passes for Islamic studies. In the articulation of her three core theses, she is remarkably successful. The Charismatic Community is a significant and welcome contribution to the study of the theology and sacred history of early Islam.