Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mystical hermeneutics?

It is a rare event indeed when one comes across a study that radically changes our field and makes such a telling contribution by proffering a hitherto unknown text and translation and a masterful introduction and contextualisation of the work. Mayer has presented us with such a work that not only provides us with more evidence for the Shiʿi (even Ismāʿīlī) tendencies of the theologian Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Shahrastānī (d. 1153, who was previously considered to be a doyen of the Khurasani school of the Ashāʿira), but also is an excellent example of how to understand the processes of exegesis and hermeneutics of the Qurʾanic text in classical Islam. The Qurʾanic Studies Series convened by the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) is thus to be congratulated for making a further contribution to our understanding of this critical field within the study of Islam.
Scholars at least since the 1950s (and the publication of some texts and studies by Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā Jālālī Nāʾinī in Persian) have been familiar with the Ismāʿīlī affiliation of Shahrastānī. In more recent times, Diane Steigerwald’s study of some short texts and her monograph (La pensée philosophique et théologique de Shahrastānī m. 548/1153, Saint-Nicholas: Presse de l’Université de Laval, 1997), and Mayer and Madelung’s edition and translation of Shahrastānī’s anti-Avicennan philosophical polemic Muṣāraʿat al-falāsifa (Struggling with the Philosopher) provided key textual points of evidence. The publication of the first part of his exgesis here, therefore, provides further evidence. The Arabic edition based on the Tehran unicum was edited in two volumes by Muḥammad ʿAlī Ādharshab and published by Mīrāth-i Maktūb in Tehran: the thousand page work covers an important introduction and exegesis of sūrat al-Fātiḥa and al-Baqara. The present volume reprints Ādharshab’s first volume covering the introduction and the commentary on al-Fātiḥa. The volume therefore comprises a short foreword by Professor Hermann Landolt (emeritus of McGill and one of the outstanding specialists in the intellectual history of the Islamic East and of Ismāʿīlī thought in particular), a masterful introduction by Mayer, the translation of the exegesis of al-Fātiḥa, some excellent and scholarly endnotes and bibliography, and the Arabic text and indices at the end. One small quibble which I often have with the IIS’s publications concerns whether it would be preferable for them to follow the model of the Islamic Texts in Translation Series at Brigham Young University Press and provide the Arabic on the page facing the translation to facilitate easier bi-lingual reading and study.
The work, as I indicated, makes three contributions: first, it provides further evidence for the Shiʿi affiliation of Shahrastānī and tries to explain how Shiʿi taʾwīl and esoteric reading of the Qurʾanic text can coalesce – especially within a work that does not violate the exoteric reading of the text: in fact much of the introduction is taken up with a study of the collection of the Qurʾan within a broadly non-sectarian context while retaining the notion of a privileged qirāʾa associated with Imām ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib as Shiʿi exegetes have always held. Second, it offers a model for how one ought to translate and make sense of intricate exegetical scriptural reasoning – tafsīr is for many a deceptively simple genre of writing but it can be quite tricky to render into comprehensible, academic English. Third, Mayer offers some excellent advice and readings of what constitutes an esoteric reading of the Qurʾan (and takes up a theme which is to be developed in a volume edited by Annabel Keeler and myself on the theme with a contribution by Mayer, forthcoming in the same Qurʾanic Studies Series).
Turning to the introduction, Mayer first shows that the Ashʿarī school, in which Sharastānī was trained, was more than a simple mainstream Sunnī theological school of apologetics but rather also had important intersections with both Sufi circles in Khurasan and Shiʿi ones relating to the reading and study of the Qurʾan. In fact, in this sense, the book can be seen as offering some further evidence (as is clear in the new literature on al-Ghazālī and on Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī on how the Ashʿarī school is more than meets the eye and far more than just what Abū-l-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī, Imām al-Ḥaramayn and Ibn al-Bāqillānī argued). To an extent, the study of Ashʿarism has traditionally suffered from a somewhat ahistorical approach that arises out of the construction of Sunnī orthodoxy in the modern period. Second, he makes some comments concerning the link between the Muṣāraʿa and the tafsir Mafātīḥ al-asrār (Keys to the Arcana) on the key theological issue of the nature of God. Third, he argues that the approach to the Qurʾan is decidedly Shiʿi, invoking the existing of a codex of Imām ʿAlī alongside the ʿUthmānic recension and insisting upon the variant readings available, but without denigrating the existing vulgate – in fact, here we do not find, like among some early Shiʿi and indeed non-Shiʿi authors, a position on the corruption of the text (taḥrīf) but rather a position found in Shiʿi ḥadīth and in the theological works of al-Ṣadūq (d. 991) onwards on the integrity of the text ‘between the covers’. Understanding that text, however, requires the Shiʿi affiliation and attachment to the household of the Prophet, one of the two weighty sources, along with the Qurʾan, as indicated in the famous ḥadīth of the Prophet. True understanding arises out of the encounter with the Imam, and the internalisation of the Imam’s teaching (tamaththul), as Mayer indicates, which was an Ismāʿīlī teaching of the period. However, on the face of it, it does seem to me that there is little in the attitude towards the Qurʾan and on its hermeneutics that is explicitly Ismāʿīlī as opposed to generically Shiʿi and this may be a result of the fact that most of Shahrastānī’s Shiʿi works were written for an Imāmī (Twelver) Shiʿi audience and patronage. This address is clear as often ḥadīth are cited from the Imāmī collection al-Kāfī of al-Kulaynī (d. 941). At the same time, the general Khurasani audience for whom Sunni authorities were still of relevance is present as well. Fourth, Mayer indicates four sets of complementary notions that lie at the heart of Shahrastānī’s hermeneutics and which he sources in Ismāʿīlī thought: the dynamic of creation/command (khalq/amr) that explains cosmogony, the balance between hierarchy (tarattub) and contrariety (taḍādd), the accomplished (mafrūgh) and inchoative (mustaʾnaf) that engages with vexing issues of human responsibility and divine knowledge, and standard hermeneutic of the general and specific. To this are added two sets of standard exegetical notions of the abrogated (mansūkh) and the abrogating (nāsikh), and the clear (muḥkam) and the ambiguous (mutashābih). What all of this reveals is the simple point about how the exegesis is formulated through the horizon of the reader’s understanding, the deployment of his training and his self to make sense of the scripture.
The translation of the exegesis itself is fluent and meaningful. Like other works of the period (Laṭāʾif al-ishārāt of al-Qushayrī, the Kashf al-asrār of Maybudī and the Majmaʿ al-bayān of al-Ṭabrisī come to mind), the commentary on each verse is divided into the reading, orthography, lexicography and semantics, and then finally comes the section on the arcana (asrār). As such, it is quite distinct from other Sufi tafāsir of Kāshānī or Rūzbihān Baqlī or even Shaykh ʿAlvān among others who dispense with the need to address the exoteric. Of course, for Shahrastānī, the esoteric is somewhat uprooted from its meaning without the presence of the exoteric, as indicated in a famous ḥadīth of Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq.
Qurʾanic Studies, especially focusing on how the text is understood and what it had within the rich intellectual history of Muslims, is maturing. While others get bogged down into the polemics of the historicity of the text, its literary or theologically immaculate nature and so forth, the Qurʾanic Studies Series and others are making serious contributions to the method by which we can make sense of the text and draw upon the rich intellectual heritage that we have, which in our days cannot be simply and narrowly relegated to a particular tradition. The multivocality of the tafsīr tradition demands of us a similarly multilogical response. For this, the reading of works such as this commentary of Shahrastānī will be of immense value.

Hermeticism in Islam?

Unfortunately there is still far much by way of conjecture, innuendo, ahistoricity, ideology and basic guess-work in the study of Islamic philosophy and mysticism, at least in what passes for historical studies of these intellectual traditions. But as we have seen the serious study of intellectual history particularly in the Graeco-Arabic period and in classical Islamdom flourish, so too has attention upon those critical intersections between disciplines and bodies of knowledge. It is no longer the case that one can argue for the Neopythagorean roots of a particular intellectual tradition or make the case that the ‘esoteric’ doctrine of a thinker is due to his ‘hermeticism’. The publication of a revised version of Kevin van Bladel’s Yale doctoral dissertation is a wonderfully solid historical masterpiece that greatly contributes to our understanding of certain strands of intellectual transmission in the late antique Near East as well as disabusing us of many a myth about the presence of Hermes and hermeticism in classical Islamic learned culture. Hermetic manuscripts on the occult, on alchemy, on the esoteric doctrine of the soul of course abound, within collections of Sufis works and without; what is critical is to make sense of why they exist where they are found and a deeper sense of what constitutes the Arabic Hermes in the same way that we now understand far better the Arabic Plato and the Arabic Aristotle. The historical transmission of texts and ideas is of course not just an obsession of the positivist pedant but rather to avoid woolly thinking on cross-cultural relations and their possibilities, exigencies and lacunae. It is true that unless texts were available to translators and adaptors, they could not have emerged in an Arabic form; but we should not insist too much on strict historical orthographical trails since orality did figure as a medium of transmission (no doubt partly influenced by Platonic logocentrism) and texts sometimes disappeared and reappeared over the ages. Nonetheless, the story of how early Muslims appropriated Hermes is a case in point of how ideas and figures were taken from their Hellenic (or Hellenizing Near Eastern, or maybe even orientalising Hellenic) contexts and naturalisation within an Arabic idiom. Van Bladel rather carefully avoids the use of the terms Hermeticist and hermeticism because we have an absence of evidence of continuity of communities engaged in hermetic learning and practice from late antiquity into classical Islam.

Van Bladel’s study is divided into two parts, the former on the background and the intellectual formation of the Arabic Hermes located in the tripartite history of Islamic learned culture located in Hellenic late antiquity, Sasanian Iran, and those elusive Sabeans of Harran; the latter examines the shift from the concept of Hermes Trismegistus, the thrice-Hermes of the doxographies to the notion of Hermes-Idris as the Prophetic sage and teacher and the proliferation of wisdom sayings associated with him, some of which are extracted and adapted (though not many) from the Greek Hermetica, which in itself survives due to its existence with Gnostic corpora in late antique Egypt, not least the Nag Hammadi codices. What is, however, missing from this picture is one important element of what passed for Hermetic texts in Arabic, namely the alchemical and astrological (and generally occult) works that have interested Charles Burnett and his many students at the Warburg Institute in London for some years. The question which still remains to be considered is the relationship between the alchemical and the philosophical-mystical. Chapter one on the Hellenic heritage and the context of the translation movement does not actually tell us much about the transmission because we have so little evidence of direct translations from what we know as the Greek Corpus Hermeticum into Arabic. Chapter two moves onto the Sasanian context. The skill with which van Bladel demonstrates the existence of a middle Persian hermetica, primarily in alchemy and astrology shows the value of training in ancient Iranian languages for those studying late antiquity and early Islam. Chapter three on the Sabeans engages with a thorny debate on the transmission of modes of learning in late antiquity with the likes of Michel Tardieu arguing for a vibrant school in Syria that bore the Alexandrian tradition of Neoplatonism as well as hermeticism and which bridged the suppression of philosophy in the sixth century to its revival in ‘Abbasid Baghdad. It seems that Sabeans in Baghdad islamicized their doctrines and in pursuit of a prophet for their religious community and dispensation adopted Hermes. This may well have been one of the sources for the appropriation of Hermes into a ‘prophetic chain of philosophical initiation’. What emerges from part I is that there are elements of fragmentary evidence but unlike the transmission of Plato and Aristotle, little actual historical evidence from the Hellenic, Iranian and Syrian background to Islamic learned culture.

Part II engages with the construction of the Arabic Hermes. Chapter four deals with the confused understanding of Trismegistus and the idea that there were in fact three Hermeses. In fact, the early Muslims merely seemed to have perpetuated the notion that there were multiple Hermeses and did not misunderstand the term trismegistus as previous scholars argued. Once again the analysis is based on careful consideration of the texts. The final chapter analyses the prophetic appropriation of Hermes drawing on existing Judaeo-Christian patterns. Ismailis incorporated the prophetic teachings of Hermes as did compilers of wisdom sayings such as Mubashshir ibn Fatik. It is disappointing that so little of this chapter is devoted to the famous text the Zijr al-nafs which had widespread fame in philosophical and Sufis circles in medieval Islamdom. Ultimately van Bladel’s book seems like a prolegomenon – a solidly historical foundation on the basis of which a serious study of what constitutes ‘hermeticism’ in medieval thought needs to be undertaken.

Some Thoughts on Religion and Violence

There is a strong prejudice in the social sciences (no doubt influenced by Marxian views on ideology and beliefs as motivations that are in fact expressions of false consciousness) against taking religion seriously, a bias that faced with the category of religion finds it removed from our social and intellectual existence in a post-Enlightenment age. Even critical theory suffers from such an assumption, being broadly suspicious of religion’s ontological and epistemological commitments and claims; yet, surely a properly critical approach would be dismissal of such absolutism and apply the metaphysical critique to its very claim about religion itself.

The ways in which we perceive of religion in our time is as constructed a social reality as the development of the notion of secularity as the anthropologist Talal Asad had extensively discussed in recent years. It is an expression of the narrative of the autonomous self that has emerged since at least the Enlightenment, postulating a particular anthropology of what it means to be human and to possess critical human faculties, and how that human self interacts within his cosmos and articulates his identity. In a post-Kantian world in which the immediacy of experience as the source of knowledge is denied and our world constructed through our language and conceptual schemes, religion, history and modernity are similarly constructed. Religion in such a world is seen as a private matter guided by a reason which is not critically interrogated in the public sphere, and yet is seen as a transhistorical essence expressing discourses and beliefs through practices and conventions that yield a vision of reality. The public sphere denuded of religious expression finds it all the more perplexing when political action is justified in terms of religious motivation. Critical to the personal reason of religion is the displacement of the scripture in favour of a symbolic universe of meaning, a natural and rational order of understanding reality. But as such this is a European genealogy and faced with the case of Islam, the shibboleth of the Qurʾan as central idol and referent of the faith signals a complete absence of reason, public or private. The scripturalist approach to reality is therefore an irrational one and unfavourably juxtaposed with both scientific notions and commonsense ones.

Furthermore, if we consider the category through its opposites to understand more clearly what we mean, what constitutes the opposite of religion? Reason? Science? Secularity? Surely all of these are categories that in themselves evince particular genealogies, mythologies and discourses of asserting their power within the marketplaces of disciplinary formations. And yet to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, in a point which I cite a bit later, religion in its purest form is secularity and secularity religion. In the face of such formations, the understanding of religious even by the religious seems to have shifts in disperse directions: new age spiritualities replace institutions, religion becomes a wider and even overarching category of adherence into which even philosophy and art are placed, and the metaphysical critique of the Heideggerian tradition leads to postulation of a God who may be. Such understandings, I would contend, are for good conventionalist reasons, if not others, divergent from the historical traditions of understanding faith in the past and lead to the hermeneutical problem of the increasing gap between the reader and the text.

At the same time as understanding and contextualising jihad as violence, we need to be self-reflective about violence. Consider three definitions of violence in relation to religion. First, violence, defined expansively, is considered to be part and parcel of the original sin of being human and is articulated in the insights of the significant monograph of Hent de Vries’ Religion and Violence. At the outset, he postulates that

Violence, in both the widest possible and the most elementary senses of the word, entails any cause, any justified or illegitimate force, that is exerted – physically or otherwise – by one thing (event or instance, group or person, and perhaps, word and object) upon another. Violence thus defined finds its prime model – its source, force and counterforce – in key elements of the tradition called the religious. It can be seen as the very element of religion.

While this alerts us to the possibilities in the use of the term, it is too overarching and too elastic a definition to be helpful. It also entails a rather gendered genealogy of religion and violence, one condemned by the late feminist theologian Grace Jantzen in her wonderful critique of the death and violence-centred theological metaphysics of the European tradition in favour of one preferring ‘natality’ and life-affirmation. An imbalanced view of violence in Western metaphysics might lead one to see violence beyond in a rather skewed manner. Nevertheless it considers violence to be a form of relationship between the self and other which is akin to religion and as such both the other and the self of religion. In a post-Kantian world, religion is neither relegated to the private sphere nor are religious categories including righteous, godly violence rendered obsolete. The major contribution of de Vries’ work is to alert us to the elasticity of the terms violence and religion and show how they may apply beyond the narrow confines of what we may have assumed.

The second definition focuses on the very human act of othering. Difference may entail either the recognition and the pursuit of an ethics of identity (such as envisioned by Ricoeur), or the onset of alterity and danger. As the literary historian Regina Schwartz defines it, violence is not

a consequence of defining identity as either particular or universal. Violence stems from any conception of identity forged negatively against the Other, an invention of identity parasitically depends upon the invention of some Other to be reviled.

As such, the process of othering deliberately distorts and forges the self as a positive mirror image of the other. Identity construction is not the sole concern of religious communities, even with the need to define the boundaries of the faith community and objectify heresy although violence is the means through which the formation is effected.

Third, Slavoj Žižek’s wonderful polemic on violence urges us to take the self-reflection a further step. He distinguishes between ‘subjective’ violence, an exertion of one upon the other that is considered to be a violation, a perturbation, of the normal state of affairs such as one man stabbing another, and objective violence which is inherent in normality. The exceptionalism of violence may dissolve into its routineness. The objective is constituted both by our language and our economic and political systems, and of particular concern is ideological violence. Žižek writes:

We live in a society where a kind of Hegelian speculative identity of opposites exists. Certain features, attitudes and norms of life are no longer perceived as ideologically marked. They appear to be neutral, non-ideological, natural, commonsense. We designate as ideology that which stands out from this background: extreme religious zeal or dedication to a particular political orientation. The Hegelian point here would be that it is precisely the neutralisation of some features into a spontaneously accepted background that marks out ideology at its purest and at its most effective. This is the dialectical ‘coincidence of opposites’: the actualisation of a notion or an ideology at its purest coincides with, or more precisely, appears as its opposite, as non-ideology. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds for violence. Social-symbolic violence at its purest appears as its opposite, as the spontaneity of the milieu in which we dwell, of the air we breathe.

Violence may therefore lie in our very conceptual frameworks, our assumptions about citizenship and mutuality, in tolerance and liberalism. Tolerant reason as articulated in liberal outrage against Muslim fundamentalists in Europe is one of his primary examples. However, we need not go that far. It merely suffices to recognise that violence is not just the illegitimate actions and words of the other but also embedded in the self.

The result of this quick assessment (there is after all a far too extensive literature on the relationship of religion and violence to consider in a single lecture – perhaps a good theme for a module?) is that arguments concerning the essential relationship between the two often end up negating themselves. The ‘commonsense’ feeling that one of the major factors that discredit institutionalised religion and indeed the faith imperial is the conduct of war, internecine sectarian fighting and the suppression of liberties, deduced from an interpretation of European history and from the image of an imperial and violent Islam spread by the sword.

It is therefore not surprising that such a polemic, extended by renowned pseudo-academic ex-Muslims such as Ibn Warraq lead to both nuanced questioning by anthropologists such as Asad and theologians such as Cavanaugh as well as Muslim apologetics. Even the very idea that violence is essential to humanity, and therefore to religion as a manifestation of homo religiosus may be conceptually neat and rhetorically persuasive but requires one to step back from one’s pre-understandings. The problem of religious violence becomes acute for the Muslim reformist seeking to understand his faith and reconcile it to his context, historical, political and intellectual, not least because the Muslim reformer tends to be as much a product of a liberal intellectual formation as a non-Muslim one and similarly afflicted by the contradiction inherent within liberalism between a desire to recognise and grant liberties of diversity and the exhortation to universalising the liberal way of life as the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement.