Monday, November 21, 2011

Is ʿirfān islamic?

Not a new question but a timely one given the political context of the hegemony of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā as well as the rising popularity of the alliance of the maktab-e tafkīk (who call themselves maktab-e ahl-e bayt) and the Shīrāzīya against the study of philosophy especially in the ḥawzeh.

Documentary on the Life of Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn Marʿashī

A somewhat cheesy but still useful documentary on Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn Marʿashī Najafī (d. 1990) and his library and scholarly contribution.
Four parts in all
and 4th:

Monday, November 14, 2011

A recent work on Mullā Ṣadrā - Ibrahim Kalin

At the heart of much of the Neoplatonist intuition about knowledge and reality lies the identity thesis, the proposition that in any process of perception and of knowing the perceiving subject and its object are identical, because intellection is an immaterial process. The data that the intellect receives constitutes immaterial ideas or essences. The foundational text for the theory is found in Aristotle’s De Anima III.4, ‘For in the case of things without matter, that which thinks and that which is thought are the same; for speculative knowledge is the same as its object’ (DA 430a3-6). Already in De Anima I.5, Aristotle introduces the notion that the soul and the objects of its knowledge have a ‘like-for-like’ relationship. The soul is an immaterial substance and hence it knows, grasps, assimilates even, that which is similarly immaterial. However, there is one fundamental distinction between the Aristotelian sense of the identity thesis and a more radically monist or idealist turn that it takes with Neoplatonists such as Plotinus. For Aristotle, knowing and thinking are intentional acts in which the objects of knowing and extrinsic to the soul and identified through the mutual recognition of like for like in which the essence for example of a horse that exists in the memory of the thinking person is identified with the essence of the horse that is grasped through the act of perception, abstracted from the substance of the actual horse. Thus the two essences, one intrinsic to the mind and the other extrinsic are identical. With Neoplatonism, intellection is not an intentional act since all the objects of knowledge, insofar as the person perceives the truth, are intrinsic to the intellect itself. There is no object of cognition extrinsic to the intellect. Therefore, unlike Aristotelian epistemology’s approach to knowledge of the truth through representation, knowledge can only be through a direct encounter, a turning within of the intellect. There are, therefore, no ultimate boundaries for the becoming of the soul. The intellect’s ability to grasp knowledge is boundless. It is this version of the identity thesis and the assimilation of knowledge to a metaphysics that is both simultaneously monist and somewhat idealist that is the concern of Kalin’s sophisticated presentation of the epistemology of the Safavid sage Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1635), a published version of his doctoral dissertation supervised by one of the pioneers of Sadrian studies in metropolitan academia, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. 

The work comprises three chapters. The first is a historical contextualisation that is divided into two parts: a Hellenic genealogy of attempts to make sense of Aristotle’s notion of identity, and then its Islamic reception from al-Kindī through al-Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā and then Suhrawardī. The second chapter presents the epistemology of Mullā Ṣadrā, beginning with a discussion of his ontology as a framework for making sense of his epistemology which rejects representationalism and uses the identity thesis (which Kalin calls the unification argument) in favour of a epistemology of presence, the famous so-called knowledge by presence argument of later Islamic, especially illuminationist (ishrāqī), philosophy made famous by the late Mehdi Haʾeri Yazdi [The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy: Knowledge by Presence, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992]. The third chapter by way of a conclusion examines how Mullā Ṣadrā reconciles a monistically oriented metaphysics with a pluralistic order of cognition through the identity thesis. Appended to the chapters is also an excellent and highly useful (for those of us who teach Islamic philosophy and need texts in translation to do so) translation of the key text in which Mullā Ṣadrā expounds his understanding of the identity thesis, the Epistle on the Identity of the Intellecting Subject and its object (or as Kalin has it ‘the Unification of the Intellector and the intelligible – Risālat ittiḥād al-ʿāqil wa-l-maʿqūl).

The first chapter is a deliberate and judiciously selective history of the identity thesis focusing on those discussions which will best elucidate Mullā Ṣadrā’s argument and which present his own understanding of the genealogy of the thesis tracing through al-Fārābī and his Risālat al-ʿaql, the Theologia Aristotelis, that central text of significance for Islamic Neoplatonism which represented an Arabic paraphrase of parts of Plotinus’ Enneads IV to VI and was attributed to Aristotle and, of course, Alexander of Aphrodisias whose reading of Aristotle’s De Anima was so influential in the East and the West. A historian looking for a more thorough background to the identity thesis in Greek thought will be disappointed here and would be better advised to look elsewhere – Ian Crystal’s Self-Intellection and its Epistemological Origins in Ancient Greek Thought (Ashgate, 2002) would be a good place to start (and it is somewhat surprising that Kalin was not aware of it before the publication of his book, especially as it does a good job of tracing the Neoplatonic trajectory away from Aristotelianism). However, Kalin’s account is focused upon seeing the issue through the prism of Mullā Ṣadrā’s selective history and for such an account it matters little whether the Theologia was not the work of Aristotle; what matters were those texts filtered through Arabic that played a pivotal role in shaping the conception of the philosophical heritage. More important is Kalin’s contextualisation for the identity thesis as central to epistemology in both theological and mystical circles: what is clear is that a certain Neoplatonic taste marked out the learned culture of the Islamic East. He quotes major illimunationist philosophers such as Suhrawardī (d. 1191) and Shahrazūrī (d. c. 1288) who considered the identity thesis to be at the heart of Sufi epistemology and the quest for mystical union, and also figures from the school of Ibn ʿArabī such as his stepson Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (d. 1274), and Afḍal al-Dīn Kāshānī (d. 1214) who was responsible for an influential Persian paraphrase of Aristotle’s De Anima, and whose Jāvīdān-nāma on the life of the soul was paraphrased and adapted by Mullā Ṣadrā into Arabic in his own Iksīr al-ʿārifīn (as William Chittick has shown in his studies on Kāshānī and in his translation of Iksīr). A number of medieval Sufis and theologians quoted the Theologia, and especially the famous doffing metaphor derived from Enneads IV.8.1 which provided the basis for their arguments about the original existence in the life of the transcendental nous and in the presence of God and the ability of the sage and mystic to transcend this life and enjoy the beatific vision of the divine in pursuit of mystical union. And in doing so, some of them recognised that this text represented Platonic, and not Aristotelian doctrine; in one famous passage in al-Muṭāraḥāt, Suhrawardī quotes from the Theologia introducing it by saying ‘the divine Plato said’. Alexander seems to be a key link in the noetics from the Aristotelian tradition through to the Theologia and al-Fārābī, as Marc Geoffroy has shown most recently. However, unlike the Theologia, al-Fārābī’s postulation of the identity thesis was more circumspect; hence when Ibn Sīnā comes onto the scene and once and for all attacked the non-Aristotelian sentiment not only of the Theologia in his famous notes that comprised part of the lost Kitāb al-inṣāf, but also the identity thesis associated with Porphyry [in a recent article on Porphyrius arabicus Peter Adamson has suggested reasons for this association], editor of Plotinus, as false, this posed a problem for later advocates of the identity thesis such as Mullā Ṣadrā. Therefore, his fundamental task was to show not only that ‘Aristotle’ and al-Fārābī (read in a partial way) were correct, but also that Ibn Sīnā’s critique was unsound. The choice laid before later thinkers in Islam was between an Avicennan metaphysics of pluralism and representationalist epistemology, and a more Neoplatonic metaphysics of unity and an epistemology of identity. For Ibn Sīnā, the human intellect conjoins with the active intellect to grasp intelligible in an infallible manner and rejects union. However, the response by those in favour of identity and of the union of the human intellect and the active intellect (i.e. ittiḥād and not ittiṣāl) began with Suhrawardī who initiated the argument that all processes of intellection at their very base are acts of self-intellection, and since self-intellection is through union, as indeed is divine knowledge, then all acts of knowledge, all perceptions must also be based on identification.

Kalin sets up Mullā Ṣadrā’s presentation in chapter two by locating it within his ontology of the primacy of existence and of the nature of existence that is wholly singular but also graded (the doctrines of aṣālat and tashkīk al-wujūd), and his wider epistemology in which he discusses four theories of knowledge of which his own is the most appropriate because it recognises not only that the soul is an expression of existence but also that knowledge itself is existence; hence all knowledge must be an aspect of a singular and graded existence. This is the pivotal chapter in which the argument culminates with a discussion not only of the nature of the simple intellect and its knowledge (modelled on Greek discussions arising out of the De Anima and Metaphysics lambda), but also how the identity thesis and the unification of the intellect and intelligibles is the central intuition of an epistemology of knowledge by presence, whereby humans can strike a similitude to the divine. Kalin does not make this explicit, but the culmination of the argument that links knowledge by presence with God’s knowledge of things is a deliberate instrumentalisation of Mullā Ṣadrā’s very approach to philosophy as a way of life; since philosophy is a rehearsal of what is means to be like God (the notion of theosis or taʾalluh in Arabic), then ultimately perfected human knowledge needs to imitate divine knowledge.

The final chapter in which Kalin attempts to show how Mullā Ṣadrā produces a reconciliation ultimately between monism and pluralism with respect to epistemology, is also an argument in favour of the possibility of mystical experience or of what recent philosophers of religion have termed ‘pure consciousness events’. Disembodiment is a key condition of spirituality but Mullā Ṣadrā was not solely concerned with otherworldly catharsis. Rather, his synthesis was based on the idea that the intoxication of mystical union and direct experience were not the end of the process but rather a beginning and an inculcation into a practice of living. There are, however, two potential problems with the presentation in this chapter. First, does the identity thesis have to end up in mysticism? In fact, was the fate of philosophy ultimately in the world of Islam somewhat like that of late antiquity to culminate in mystery cults? Second, while it might sound like Mullā Ṣadrā’s subordination of his noetics to his ontology signals an attempt to escape subjectivism through ‘naïve realism’, one wonders whether it, indeed like his gradational ontology, is successful. This is not a critique of Kalin’s excellent analytical reconstruction of Mullā Ṣadrā but rather to ask more critically and interrogate the Safavid thinker himself. The appendix containing the text is quite useful – however, again if the author had time to revise more thoroughly the recent critical edition published is far superior to Hamid Naji Isfahani’s attempt from the mid-1990s. The annotation on the translation is adequate but could do more to point to precise influences and trace the source of some texts.

Knowledge in Later Islamic Philosophy is a major contribution to the study of Mullā Ṣadrā and indeed to Islamic traditions of epistemology. It is perhaps one of the best analytical defences of the thought of the Safavid sage; one is reminded of some of the best work of recent neo-Thomists writing on the thought of Aquinas. The eminent figures who provided blurbs on the dustcover are not wrong on their assessment. Some elements of the contextualisation could be more explicit; my own stress upon Mullā Ṣadrā’s approach to philosophy as a way of life influenced by my reading of Pierre Hadot is a useful indicator of the framework in which to place his thought. The intellectual historian of Islamic thought would not doubt be pleased and would highly recommend the work. But the philosopher trying to grasp problems of epistemology and ontology and the very conception of philosophy in the contemporary Islamic world might reflect on what it means. Kalin has in fact provided a certain idiom for the contemporary thinker to think these issues through but the answers still remain elusive. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Some books from India

Rather fortuitously, a few books arrived last week from India relating to my recent forays into the 18th century in North India:
1) Aḥmad b. Muḥammad ʿAlī b. Muḥammad Bāqir Iṣfahānī Bihbahānī's invaluable travelogue of North India during which he visited Benares and Lucknow in the age of Muḥammad Shāh, published by the Khuda Bakhsh Library in Patna is a wonderful facsimile edition [the text was also partially edited by ʿAlī Davānī and published in Tehran in the early 1980s but this is a far superior version]. To my knowledge, Juan Cole in his classic study of Avadh under the nawabs cites this work from a manuscript in the National Archives in New Delhi, and Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam have also cited it in their study of travellers to India. The text entitled Mirʾāt al-aḥwāl-i jahānnumā - subtitled on the front page as Safarnāma-yi Hind - was penned in 1224/1809. A scion of the Majlisī family (among whom he was far from being the first to seek his fortunes in India), he arrived in India in 1202/1787 and settled in ʿAẓīmābād [Patna]. The text itself is dedicated to Muḥammad ʿAlī Khān Qājār (d. 1237/1821) the eldest son of Fatḥ ʿAlī Shāh, and is divided into five maṭālib
Maṭlab I is a family genealogy of the elder Majlisī, Muḥammad Taqī (d. 1659) and his progeny. 
Maṭlab II is a genealogy of the younger and more famous Majlisī, Muḥammad Bāqir (d. 1699) and his family. 
Maṭlab III considers the genealogy of another ancestor of the author, the well known Akhbārī figure Mullā Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ Māzandarānī, who wrote a commentary on al-Kāfī, one of the key texts in the promotion of the study of ḥadīth in the late Safavid period. 
Maṭlab IV is a biography of the author's grandfather Āqā Muḥammad Bāqir Iṣfahānī.
Maṭlab V moves to the life of the author himself and is divided into three maqāṣid: I -on his birth and birthplace, II - arrival in India in Bombay, his travels in the Deccan and encounter with Sir John Malcolm and his journey north to Murshidabad and then west to Patna and beyond, and arrival in Fyzabad and encounter with notables in Lucknow (includes his rather critical comments on Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī and the 'supine' nature of the ʿulamāʾ at court) and elsewhere, ending with his return to the east and his arrival in Jahāngīrnagar (modern Dhaka), and finally III - on Europe and its institutions and customs [this desire to provide a comparative framework to a study of Avadh was common in a number of histories of the court written under Saʿādat ʿAlī Khān and Muḥammad Shāh. The khātima turns to the role of kings and notables and also provides a short sketch of Persian history from the fall of the Safavids to the time of the composition of the work. 

2) Muḥammad Khalīlullāh Anṣārī Farangī-Maḥallī and his family genealogy entitled Tuḥfat al-aḥbāb fī bayān al-ansāb - published by the Amīr al-Daula Library in Lucknow - the edition includes the Persian original (rather a bad facsimile copy) with an introduction and Urdu translation by Shāh ʿAbdussalām, a trustee of the library and now the director of the Raza Library in Rampur. The author does not seem to be well known but the source is a useful supplement to the existing histories of Farangī Maḥall such as Tadhkira-yi ʿulamāʾ-yi Farangī Maḥall of Muftī ʿInāyatullāh Anṣārī and al-Aghṣān al-arbaʿa of Muftī Walīullāh Anṣārī (the only copy of this I've ever seen is in the Oriental Books section of the Asiatic Society in Kolkata). The text itself is fairly short - around fifty pages. 

3) The final short work is also published by the Khuda Bakhsh Library in Patna and is a bio-bibliographical work by ʿAbd al-Salām Khān entitled Barr-i ṣaghīr kē ʿulamāʾ-yi maʿqūlāt aur unkī taṣnīfāt. Drawing mainly on Sayyid ʿAbd al-Ḥayy's Nuzhat al-khawāṭir, the standard sources of Kashf al-ẓunūn and Miftāḥ al-saʿāda and some local histories such as Tazkira-yi kāmilān-i Rāmpūr of Aḥmad ʿAlī Khān 'Shawq' (d. 1932, this text was published by the Khuda Bakhsh Library in Patna in 1986), it is a chronological list of those involved in the rational disciplines of logic, philosophy and theology from the earliest period.