Friday, February 10, 2012

Philosophy in Shīrāz I: Shams al-Dīn al-Khafrī

While the art of editing an Arabic text as part of one’s doctoral training seems to have disappeared from British academia, it is salutary to note that the situation in Germany remains healthier. Firouzeh Saatchian makes a major contribution to our study of Islamic intellectual history and particularly the development of philosophical traditions in the early Safavid period precisely because it provides us with a careful bio-bibliography and critical edition of two key texts. Thus far, Shams al-Dīn al-Khafrī (d. 1535) is best known in the secondary sources as a creative theoretical astronomer, mainly through the efforts of George Saliba, who has studied his al-Takmila fī sharḥ al-tadhkira carefully in part as an assessment of the later reception of the scientific thought of Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274) expressed in his al-Tadhkira fī ʿilm al-hayʾa. That al-Khafrī also wrote on matters of philosophy and philosophical theology demonstrates the abiding connection between theoretical approaches to science and philosophy well into the early modern period, an approach continued in the next generation with Bahāʾ al-Dīn al-ʿĀmilī (d. 1621). However, it was also the work of Henry Corbin and Seyyed Hossein Nasr who alerted us to the philosophical significance of al-Khafrī as part of the ‘school of Shiraz’ that predated and influenced the more dramatic ‘school of Isfahan’. It was the short treatise of al-Khafrī entitled On the Four Journeys that directly influenced the schema of the magnum opus of Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzi (d. 1645) and there is also plenty of evidence of the metaphysics of al-Khafrī similarly influencing the later thinker. In terms of the textual production presented here, Saatchian’s editions should be read alongside her earlier edition of al-Khafrī’s marginalia on the metaphysics section of the Sharḥ al-jadīd li-l-Tajrīd which was published back in 2003, as well as Reza Pourjavady’s edition of his short Risāla fī marātib al-wujūd published in 2005, and two short theological works on the exegesis of the Throne Verse of the Qurʾān and a collection of Prophetic dicta. Taken together these works represent the major contribution of al-Khafrī in philosophical theology and demonstrates his primary concerns with the proof for the existence of God and God’s knowledge of and agency in the cosmos – as the title puts it, a concern with the nature of God and of his agency. Pourjavady’s recent published dissertation on Maḥmūd Nayrīzī (Philosophy in Early Safavid Persia, Leiden: Brill, 2011) as well as the work done by Ghassem Kakaie (Professor at the University of Shiraz) and Ahadfaramarz Qaramalaki (Professor at Tehran University) on logic and the scholastic tradition have also furthered our understanding of philosophical traditions immediately prior to Mullā Ṣadrā and the developments in the ‘Safavid renaissance’ under Shah ʿAbbās I.

The book is divided into five chapters and contains editions of two texts. The first chapter is a very brief introduction to the research question relating to al-Khafrī’s treatment of the nature of God and his activity. The second is a detailed biography and bibliography of al-Khafrī. He studied primarily with Sayyid Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī (d. 1497), and while some suggest that he also studied with Dashtakī’s rival, Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī (d. 1502), al-Khafrī’s positions are more in line with the former. His most famous student and a significant ‘export’ of the philosophical schools of Shiraz was Shāh Ṭāhir Anjudānī (d. 1546), who left for the Deccan as an emissary of the Safavids and was secretly an Imam of a line of Nizārī Ismailis. Al-Khafrī’s own adherence to Twelve Shiʿism seems clear in his theological works as well as his association with the major jurist at court Shaykh ʿAlī al-Karakī (d. 1534) as well as the time he spent in Kashan, a town well-known for its Shiʿi adherents. With respect to the disagreement on his death date, Saatchian opts for 942/1535, which seems a fair assessment of the evidence. Apart from a few works of exegesis, Prophetic tradition and short treatises on mystical notions of being (most of which have been published), his main corpus lies in two areas: philosophical theology with a particular concern for the nature of God and his knowledge as reflected in the works that Saatchian has edited, and mathematics and astronomy. She carefully examines the contents of the text and provides a meticulous description of the major manuscripts of the texts. One shortcoming here is that her primary concern is with manuscripts in Iranian libraries; however, there are numerous manuscripts of al-Khafrī’s work in both of these major areas of philosophical theology and astronomy in Indian libraries as well as those in Europe such as the British library. The third chapter is a careful examination of the twelve manuscripts that she consulted (establishing the manuscript history and chain of transmission) and used for the critical editions of the two texts included in the book. Once again, one suspects that there are other copies especially in the British Library and Indian collections such as the Raza Library in Rampur, known for its holdings in philosophical theology.

The fourth chapter is an historical analysis of the nature of God and his knowledge in later Islamic thought – particularly useful is her list of texts affirming the existence of God (ithbāt al-wājib) from Avicenna to the end of the 18th century (pp. 100-4). She argues quite successfully that the genre of such treatises was established by Avicenna and developed in his legacy – even the medieval tripartite typology of the approaches of the philosophers, the physicists and the theologians is based not only on late antique Greek methods but also on the text of Avicenna’s al-Ishārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt and a famous gloss by Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsi (d. 1274). Her discussion of al-Khafrī’s texts was prefigured in her article from 2003 on the five risālas that he wrote on the topic. She suggests that Mullā Ṣadrā’s famous version of the ontological proof for the existence of God that he called burhān al-ṣiddīqīn, and a key feature of his metaphysics of contingency, the notion that the existence of a contingent is ontologically prior to its essence (the doctrine of aṣālat al-wujūd), are both indebted to al-Khafrī.

The final chapter is a paraphrase of the two texts edited with some considerations relating to their contextualisation and attempts to trace influences on them. This chapter of seventy pages is where her analysis of the philosophical content of the texts finally emerges. She traces the thinkers who influenced him from the Greeks through to Dashtakī and also mentions some lines of influence on later thinkers, in particular Mullā Ṣadrā, of whom it is often said that his work is a veritable journey into the history of philosophy – in practice the style of argumentation of al-Khafrī and other philosophers of Shiraz is similar and of great benefit to the intellectual historian as sources are often explicitly cited. The structure of his Risāla fī ithbāt wājib al-wujūd follows the concerns of thinkers in the period: it is divided into four sections – one proving the existence of God as a Necessary Being, which at its core derives from Avicenna’s famous proof of radical contingency, next establishing that the Necessary must be one (i.e. establishing tawḥīd), the third section moves to the nature of God’s knowledge a controversial issue at least since the charge of al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) in his Tahāfut al-falāsifa that the philosophers are unbelievers because they deny God’s knowledge of particulars, and a final, long and profitable section on the doctrines of the philosophers on the topic. In that last section, his citation of Qurʾanic verses and the views of mystics demonstrate al-Khafrī’s holistic approach to knowledge. One can see how his treatise might profitably be studied in class as a primer on philosophical theology on the nature of God in pre-modern Islam. The second text, Risāla fī-l-ilāhīyāt is merely a short summary comprising the same fourfold division. These chapters are then completed with a bibliography and a useful index of terms. The texts themselves then follow in Arabic and are well set out and prefaced with a quick statement on the method of the production of the critical editions.

A fuller and much desired intellectual history of philosophical traditions in Islam can only be written once we have various micro-studies such as the present book under review which cumulatively can build up a picture of how ideas developed. Saatchian is to be congratulated for producing such a useful work, which does an excellent job of contextualising the thought of al-Khafrī and even providing some wider comparative comments of use to specialists in medieval philosophy. One obvious complaint, and perhaps not entirely a fair one, is that the book is in German and hence the readership will be limited – at the very least one hopes she publishes a Persian version shortly – and one also hopes that an English version will be forthcoming. However, given the technical nature of much of the book apart from parts of chapter five, one does not actually need that much German to profit from the book – and the major contribution of the book lies in the two Arabic texts edited. 

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