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.

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