Sunday, May 27, 2012

Philosophy in Shiraz II: Maḥmūd Nayrīzī

Over four decades ago, Mian Muhammad Sharif collected a serious of articles in two volumes entitled A History of Muslim Philosophy, which, especially given its provenance from South Asia, insisted upon the continuity of philosophical inquiry and tradition throughout the ages and comprised studies of the Aristotelian tradition as well as the non-Aristotelian developments of the early modern period. Significantly, the collection not only included articles on Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1635) and later thinkers in the Qajar period, it also included the likes of Sharīf ʿAlī al-Jurjānī (d. 1413) and Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī (d. 1502) integrating philosophical theology (ʿilm al-kalām) into the story of philosophy in Islam. The breadth of interest in that collection and the depth of some of the contributions have yet to be surpassed. While the work of Henry Corbin and Seyyed Hossein Nasr at the same time in the 1960s did much to encourage research on thinkers of the Safavid and Qajar periods, they also recognised the important transitional role and influence of thinkers at the cusp of the new Safavid age in the transmission and transformation of the Neoplatonising Aristotelianisms of the medieval period. They dubbed that period the ‘school of Shiraz’ by analogy to the ‘school of Isfahan’, which they coined for Mullā Ṣadrā, his teachers and his students. While the concept of school is much debated, and may be rejected if we assume a singular body of doctrines and teachings, there can be little doubt of clear common intellectual inheritances and of the common teaching space that rendered Shiraz central to the study of philosophy from the Timurid to the Safavid periods.

If we want to understand the course of the history of philosophical traditions in Islam, we need a number of studies of themes and thinkers between Avicenna and Mullā Ṣadrā to understand the ethical turn towards philosophy as a way of life that became central to the later traditions without being entirely absent from the earlier ones. Recent research has not only enriched our understanding of the subsequent course of Avicennan thought, including into philosophical theology – and here the writings of Robert Wisnovsky, Meryem Sebti, Ayman Shihadeh, Rüdiger Arnzen, Asad Ahmed, Ahmed al-Rahim and Heidrun Eichner are significant – but also clarified the ways in which alternative traditions interrogated and debated Avicennism not least through the Illuminationism (ishrāq) of Suhrawardī (d. 1191) and his followers – as exemplified in the work of the late Hossein Ziai, John Walbridge, Lukas Muehlethaler, Hermann Landolt, Tzvi Langermann and Roxanne Marcotte. For that crucial period from the fourteenth century, Josef van Ess contributed a study on al-Ījī some decades ago, and more recently Sabine Schmidtke has not only focused on theology and philosophy from ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī (d. 1325) to Ibn Abī Jumhūr al-Aḥsāʾī (d. after 1501) but also organised around herself an exciting research centre on Islamic intellectual history. It is therefore no accident that Pourjavady undertook his doctoral research under her supervision and the present book under review is the fruit of that labour. The pioneering figures and rivals of the school of Shiraz, Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī (d. 1502) and Mīr Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī  (d. 1497) have been the subject of important studies in Persian – and Ghasem Kakaie and Muhammad Barkat have written on the history of the thinkers of Shiraz and most recently Firouzeh Saatchian, who also did her doctoral research in Germany, has published editions of texts and a study of Shams al-Dīn al-Khafrī (d. 1535).  It is in this intellectual trajectory – within the transformation and interrogation of Avicennism within the centres of learning of Shiraz – that the contribution of Reza Pourjavady ought to be gauged and recognised. The study is divided into an introduction on six thinkers who provide the intellectual background to Pourjavady’s subject Maḥmūd Nayrīzī, four chapters on the intellectual biography of Nayrīzī, on his relationship to the two dominant figures of Shiraz, a detailed and careful bibliography of his works based on extensive manuscript research, and his response to the thought of Suhrawardī. These chapters are then followed by four appendices: on an inventory of his works, on the Nayrīzī codex of philosophical works which gives us a valuable insight into the curriculum of the period, an ijāza from Dashtakī fils, and a list of the Arabic citations in the book. As Pourjavady suggests, the subject of the research was suggested by his father, himself a leading Iranian scholar of Islamic intellectual history, no doubt partly inspired by the need to provide another correction to the often hasty conclusions of the late Henry Corbin. It was the Frenchman who famously gave a lecture at the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy in Tehran on three thinkers of Azerbaijan within the tradition of Suhrawardī including a subtle commentator named Vadūd Tabrīzī – who was none other than Maḥmūd Nayrīzī – the confusion of the name is not the only example of a copyist’s wayward rendition of Arabic orthography leading to a change in intellectual history.  Through the prism of a careful historical study of a little known figure beyond the manuscript traditions of the transmission of Illuminationist philosophy, Pourjavady constructs a creative argument for how philosophical traditions developed in the crucial period from 1450 and 1600, the formative period for much of what passes as Islamic philosophy today and the lens through which the traditional seminary curricula read the classics of Avicenna and Suhrawardī.

The introduction presents us with intellectual biographies of Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī, Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī, Mīr Ḥusayn Maybudī (who, contrary to Corbin’s supposition, was not Shiʿi), Shams al-Dīn Khafrī, and Kamāl al-dīn Ilāhī Ardabīlī. Each one of these figures merits a monograph and thus far the only study in a European language is on Khafrī (the Saatchian book referred above). There are some Persian and Turkish doctoral dissertations and encyclopaedia entries on the figures  - and at least one American Ph.D. on Maybudī. The Dashtakīs on their own certainly merit a monograph because of their extensive influence on the later Safavid philosophers. Pourjavady’s concern is not with the geographical dissemination of thought or else he may have included studies of Mīrzā-Jān Bāghnawī Shīrāzī (d. 995/1587), critical for his influence in Central Asia (and India), and the trio of Shāh Ṭāhir al-Ḥusaynī (d. 1549), Mīr Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī (d. 1589), and Jamāl al-Dīn Maḥmūd Shīrāzī (d. 962/1554-5) credited with the establishment of the philosophical curricula of the Indian seminaries that emerged into the dars-i niẓāmī in the eighteenth century. Of course, to be fair, these figures were not terribly prolific but had an important historical role to play. Pourjavady traces the study of philosophy in Shiraz from al-Ījī (d. 1356) through to Davānī and the transmission of Avicennan philosopher from its origins to Shiraz through the pivotal role of al-Jurjānī. The historical sketches provided in this chapter are rich and allow for many potential avenues for future research. But the fundamental point is that survival and vitality of the study and engagement with Avicenna, an often critical assessment of him, and the increasingly intersection of Avicennan metaphysics with Sufi ideas and Illuminationist thought. More interesting is that, while we have plenty of evidence for the study of philosophy from al-Ījī through to the middle of the sixteenth century, there is nothing on the period from that point until the teaching of Mullā Ṣadrā a couple of generations later. Even Fakhr al-Dīn Sammākī (d. 984/1576-7), the teacher of Mīr Dāmād and student of Jamāl al-Dīn Maḥmūd Shīrāzī, studied in Shiraz but lived and taught in Mashhad where he was the leading cleric. One small slip of the pen on page 41, Kamāl al-Dīn Ilāhī Ardabīlī clearly must have been born in the second half of the 9th/15th century, not 9th/16th century. For those interested in the dissemination of philosophy to India in its earliest phase, the role of students of Davānī is crucial – Pourjavady merely nods in this direction.

The first chapter provides a quick literature survey on Nayrīzī, traces his study with Dashtakīs, and considers his legacy. Very little is actually known about Nayrīzī – and this biographical paucity and the little we know about how philosophy was studied poses major problems for method in the study of the intellectual history of the period. However, there is much that can be gauged from his texts and from the codices that he copied – Pourjavady carefully constructs a life from those sources. What is clear is that Nayrīzī was a Twelver Shiʿi – and this may signal a generational shift or accommodation to the realities of the Safavid polity in the second generation of philosophers in Shiraz since Davāni and probably Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī were not – and while he admired and engaged with Avicennan thought, his tastes were more in line with Suhrawardī. His understanding of philosophy seems like a precursor to that of later Safavid thinkers such as Mullā Ṣadrā: philosophy is linked to the ḥikma of the Qurʾān and to prophetic teachings and this theological commitment is equated with the work of Avicenna and other earlier thinkers. This establishes an important conception of philosophy that was dominant in the Safavid period. Nayrīzī seems to have enjoyed good relations at court and one of his students, Shāh Mīr, – and only one mentioned in the sources – was a vizier. He also dedicated one of his works to Shāh Ismāʿīl. Muḥammad Khwājagī Shīrāzī seems to have known his works and disseminated his ideas in the Deccan. A study of Nayrīzī therefore provides further evidence for the contention that the earliest dissemination of Islamic philosophical ideas in India were in Sind through the students of Davānī and in Deccan through the mediation of the students of Dashtakī – a whole generation before the mythology of Mīr Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī, himself a study of Manṣūr Dashtakī, bringing the teaching of ḥikma to the court of Akbar in the North. In fact, Indian sources, summarised in Sayyid ʿAbd al-Ḥayy Ḥasanī’s Nuzhat al-khawāṭir, point to a number of key figures in the early and middle parts of the sixteenth century.

Chapter two is a pivotal discussion of what is meant by the school of Shiraz. Pourjavady rightly prefers to think in terms of two rival strands of philosophy associated with Davānī and the Dashtakīs, and their debates and disagreements were well attested in the manuscript tradition of philosophy of the period extant in major libraries in the Persianate world including India. He focuses on five central issues: the liar’s paradox (edited and studied by Qaramalaki), the distinction between mawjūd and wujūd that is related not only to working through Avicenna’s proof of the existence of God through radical contingency but also to the later debate on the primary of existence (aṣālat al-wujūd), mental existence (a consistent theme in metaphysics at least from the time of the original commentators on Avicenna), the nature of God’s knowledge that was much debated within commentaries on works of philosophical theology such as Tajrīd al-iʿtiqād of al-Ṭūsi (d. 1274), and the relationship of the body and the soul that again became central to the architecture of the thought of Mullā Ṣadrā. Nayrīzī takes up the position of his teachers – and importantly on the metaphysical doctrine of wujūd prefigures Mullā Ṣadrā’s famous position of the fundamental primacy of existence.

Chapter three that follows is a careful discursive bibliography of Nayrīzī’s seventeen works based on serious engagement with their manuscripts. Consistent with the period, he wrote in Arabic. Like other thinkers of his time, his Neoplatonic commitments seem clear, especially in his citations of the so-called Theologia Aristotelis (Ūthūlūjiyā). The curriculum of study can be gauged from not only the commentaries on the works of Avicenna and Suhrawardī but also those of Taftazānī and al-Ṭūsī (mediated through the commentary of al-Qūshčī that was preferred among thinkers in Shiraz). One of the important differences that he has with contemporaries such as al-Khafrī is his neglect of scientific works.

The final chapter attempts to assess Nayrīzī’s philosophical contribution in a short chapter that considers his critical reception of Suhrawardī with respect to six issues in ‘physics’: prime matter, theory of vision, the nature of the ‘imaginal’ world, sound, political thought, and the thorny problem of bodily resurrection. His consideration of this latter issue alongside his earlier concern with divine knowledge demonstrates one further important feature of Safavid philosophy, namely the need to address the objections of al-Ghazālī to the metaphysics of falsafa and attempt to find philosophical accounts for the theological doctrines of omniscience and bodily resurrection. What emerges is that the Avicennan imprint on Nayrīzī remains paramount as most of these discussions criticise Suhrawardī and reiterate the Avicennan doctrine. The final section of the chapter considers Nayrīzī’s sources: al-Shajara al-ilāhīya of Shahrazūrī (d. after 1288), as Schmidtke showed a decade ago, was a key influence on the understanding of Illuminationist doctrine in the Safavid period, and the commentaries of Ibn Kammūna signalled a critical reception of Suhrawardī that was a critical precursor for the critiques adduced by Mullā Ṣadrā and others. For intellectual historians working on this period, it is therefore useful to have good critical editions of these texts now – in fact, if Corbin had some of the resources that we do, some of his hastier judgements and mistakes would have been avoided.

One shortcoming of the book, however, is the absence of a conclusion, which cannot be filled by the presence of highly useful appendices. So what can we conclude from this study? First, the study of a seemingly minor figure can still illuminate an intellectual field and the dissemination of ideas. Second, Nayrīzī’s work provides us with plenty of evidence for the philosophical tastes of the Safavid period that we normally associate with the study of Mullā Ṣadrā: the metaphysical focus on the primacy of existence, the annexation of both logic and physics to the concerns of ontology, and a deep affinity to Neoplatonism and philosophy as a prophetic, divine commission and inheritance. Finally, it demonstrates lines of influence and transmission that will help us to understand the reception and transformation of philosophy in the Mughal-Safavid period. Much more is still required on the Mughal side of this relationship – or perhaps one should say Indian since the earliest reception was outside of the Mughal realm and the later in those states and cultural spaces that effectively succeeded the Mughals. Pourjavady has made a significant contribution to Islamic intellectual history, and any study of later thinkers such as Mīr Dāmād and Mullā Ṣadrā ought to begin with their predecessors a couple of generations before.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mullā Hādī Sabzavārī: Some corrections

I'm grateful to my former tutor John Gurney for pointing out some errors in my piece on Sabzavārī (d. 1873) in Iranian Studies last year. I will list them here just to clarify:

1) I stated that Edward G. Browne (d. 1926) had met Sabzavāri - not sure exactly where I sourced that. This is impossible as Browne was in Tehran around fifteen years after Sabzavāri died [A Year among the Persians was published in 1893]. His information, including the description of Sabzavāri that I cited, was mediated by Mīrzā Asadullāh Sabzavāri who was a student and close to the sons of Sabzavārī, Mullā ʿAbd al-Qayyūm and Mullā Ibrāhīm.

2) I also suggested that Gobineau (d. 1882) had met Sabzavāri - this is also incorrect. Again, his acquaintance was also mediated although Sabzavārī was his contemporary and he seems to have been familiar with the recently published Sharḥ-i manẓūme [Sharḥ ghurar al-farāʾid] in 1273/1856. Gobineau spent time in Tehran in the late 1850s and again in 1861 to 1863 and his book Religions et philosophies dans l'Asie centrale was completed in 1863.

3) I stated that Badāyiʿ al-ḥikam of Mullā ʿAlī Zunūzī (d. 1889) was written at the behest of Nāṣiruddīn Shāh. This is inaccurate. While there is a panegyric for him in the proemium to the text (which for some reason was omitted by Aḥmad Vāʿiẓī in his edition with an ellipsis - clearly some revolutionaries cannot tolerate any praise of any monarch), the work was a response to a request to explain some issues made as the text states by the philosophically-minded prince ʿImād al-Dawla Badīʿ al-Mulk.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Platonic History of Philosophy in Islam

You cannot judge a book by its cover – or even its title. Or rather, now and then, a work comes along that forces us to take notice of what the author means by giving his work a particular title. Certainly, those who pick up The Story of Islamic Philosophy might expect a conventional history of the philosophical endeavour in the world of Islam starting with the translation movement and the appropriation of Aristotelianism and ending with the ‘eclipse’ of ‘rational discourse’ in medieval mysticism and obscurantism. However, what Salman Bashier presents is Platonic mysticism with a strong interest in narrative. The study of philosophy in Islam is rather polarised: the traditional academic field of ‘Arabic philosophy’ starts with the Graeco-Arabica and is very much in the mould of understanding what the Arabs owed to the Greeks and then what the Latins owed the Arabs. It is a story of Aristotle arabus and then latinus, and hence it is not surprising that the story culminates with the ultimate Aristotelian, Averroes. Many an Arab intellectual, such as the late Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Jābirī, has been sympathetic to such a reading and wishes to revive a sort of Averroist Aristotelianism in the name of reason and enlightenment, in particular to save the Arab-Islamic heritage from its ‘perversion’ by the Persians starting with Avicenna and Ghazālī who initiated the shift from reason and discourse to mystagogy and ‘unreason’. The models for this tradition of philosophy are the Metaphysics and the Organon of Aristotle. However, the Greek heritage was always much more than Aristotle – Plato and the thoroughly neoplatonised Aristotle were critical. If anything, a serious historical engagement with the course of philosophy in late antiquity on the cusp of the emergence of Islam demonstrates that philosophy was much more than abstract reasoning, discourse and a linearity of proof. Philosophy was a way of life that involved spiritual exercises, made famous in modern scholarship by the late Pierre Hadot, and especially the practice of theurgy (conjuring up the gods in religious ritual as a means to achievement understanding) – the goal was theosis, to become god-like as Plato had announced centuries before. Those with more sympathy for ‘Islamic philosophy’ would stress the relationship between religion and philosophy and indeed mysticism, which was central to the philosophical enterprise at least since the twelfth century (which in many ways was pivotal for the intellectual disciplines in the world of Islam). For this approach to philosophy, Plato’s much debated Seventh Epistle is of critical importance. This counter-narrative makes our conception of philosophy more elastic and sits uncomfortably with those trained in the analytic tradition.

Bashier tries to argue that philosophy in Islam is not a simple dichotomy between ratiocination and poesis – but he wishes to stress the poetry, the narrative and the desire to consider what is ‘Islamic’ in this philosophy. He presents a counter history in which the course of philosophy is an ishrāqī – an illuminationist – account beginning with what the late Henry Corbin famously called the visionary recitals in Avicenna and culminating with the Andalusian Sufi Ibn ʿArabī. Anyone familiar with philosophy from the late Timurid and Mughal period will understand the incorporation of Sufism into the study of philosophy, which in this late period was no longer the Greek/Aristotle inspired falsafa but a more holistic philosophy/gnosis/wisdom of ḥikma. This account is concerned with a more holistic approach to what is means to be human – and philosophy is precisely such an anthropology. Humans are not simply rational and deliberate agents who construct and respond to discursive argumentation. Rather, sometimes they reason, sometimes they respond and act through emotion, and sometimes they are inspired and moved by narrative – and indeed narrative as a number of modern philosophers such as the late Paul Ricoeur have argued is central to the process of our becoming our selves. The ten chapters of the book focus on Ḥayy bin Yaqẓān, the famous tale re-written by Ibn Ṭufayl based on the original work of Avicenna in which a young man is born and grows up on a desert island and deprived of company begins to understand his role in the cosmos and his relationship with God. Bashier considers Ibn Ṭufayl to be the ultimate liminal and illuminationist philosopher because he successfully blends together philosophical and naturalistic approaches to the question of what is the human with traditionalist and religious ones. This idea of liminality follows from Bashier’s earlier book on the concept of the limit (or the barzakh) in the thought of the Sufi Ibn ʿArabī. The course of philosophy in Islam is therefore not about the conflict between reason and revelation seen as epitomised in the persecutions of Galileo and Bruno in medieval Europe but one at the heart of which lies the attempt to make philosophical sense of what it means to be a believer, a person of faith and a creature of God. Along the journey, the author is the first, to my mind, to engage with the work of Georges Tarabishi, the famous critic of al-Jabiri’s deconstruction of ‘Arab reason’ in an academic work written in English. That Bashier concludes his account with Ibn ʿArabī and the famous Theologia Aristotelis makes his neoplatonic taste in the history of philosophy clearer. The story begins with mysticising rationalism in Ibn Ṭufayl and culminates with rationalising mysticism in Ibn ʿArabī. 

The first chapter introduces Ḥayy bin Yaqẓān and demonstrates how the narrative is a rational argument for mysticism, drawing upon Avicenna. In doing so, Bashier critiques Gutas and others who insist not only on making a sharp distinction between philosophy and mysticism but also deny any role for mysticism in Avicenna. Similarly, here he inserts Ṭarābīshī as a foil for al-Jābirī’s attack on mysticism as the perverting force in Arab reason in the medieval period. The second chapter turns to Sufism in the text and draws upon Ghazālī’s categorisation of knowledge and the privileging of illumination through experience of tasting reality. The next chapter switches back to Ḥayy’s origins within the chain of being and links it to Ibn ʿArabī’s concept of the barzakh. The next two chapters examine how Ḥayy understands social interaction and reflects upon the primordial question of the origins of the cosmos and its eternity. Chapter six steps back to al-Fārābī and his discussion of the origins of language and logic in Kitāb al-Ḥurūf and links it to Ḥayy’s acquaintance with language. The next chapter considers another foil for the argument: Ibn Bājja. Chapters eight and nine are concerned with the quest: Ibn Ṭufayl links Ḥayy to the Sleepers of the Cave and to Moses, from where Bashier draws upon the parable of the sage and the seeker exemplified in the Qurʾanic story of al-Khaḍir, naturally leading onto one of the foundational narratives of the Near East: the epic of Gilgamesh. The final chapter culminates in Ibn ʿArabī and Bashier recognises parallels and echoes of the Theologia Aristotelis in al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīya. 

However, while a more neoplatonic approach to the course of philosophy in Islam is now rather well established, it would seem churlish to criticise the author for excessively caricaturising the purely Aristotelian sense of philosophy in the falsafa tradition. It does need to be pointed out that Bashier seems to have a slightly shaky grasp of the literature on the Aristotelian/Avicennan tradition and hence often cites inferior editions of texts. Many of the chapters are rather too short and while one detects the stream of thinking linking them, at times the connection seems somewhat tenuous and insufficiently substantiated. In a sense, Bashier is engaged in much more than Islamic intellectual history (or rather a stream of consciousness reflection on what philosophy might mean through such a Platonic lens); he is caught within a contemporary Arab debate about the very nature of turāth or the heritage of the modern Arab world. That, rather inevitably, leads to generalising and simplifying the position of ones’ opponent. Once one recognises this, The Story of Islamic Philosophy will prove to be a fruitful read. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Searching for the Essence of Shiʿi Islam

There is little doubt that Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi is one of the leading figures in the academic study of (Twelver) Shiʿi Islam. The Spirituality of Shiʿi Islam collects a number of his articles published in the last two decades cements this reputation. It is a translation, sponsored by the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London (and one hopes they do the same for his newer collection of articles Le Coran silencieux et le Coran parlant), of La religion discrète published in Paris by Vrin in 2006. Amir-Moezzi’s contribution to the field was already clear in his earlier volume Le guide divin dans le shîʿisme original: Aux sources de l’ésoterisme en Islam (published in Paris in 1992 and translated and published in English in 1994). In that pioneering work, he furthered the insight of the late Henry Corbin (d. 1978) who had also taught in Paris that the Shiʿi tradition constitutes the esotericism par excellence of Islam. His intervention in the field was founded upon a critique of two types of interest and development within the study of Shiʿi Islam in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The first was the insistence of present-minded concern with Shiʿism (which continues even today with the containment strategies towards Iran and the panic over the ‘Shiʿi crescent’) that understood the faith to be essentially an oppositional religion of protest – and in that sense, the recent contribution of Hamid Dabashi (Shiʿism: A Religion of Protest, Harvard University Press, 2011) represents continuity with such a reading. The second was the tendency within Shiʿi reformist thought of the twentieth century and before that was fundamentally embarrassed by the supra-rational elements of much of the classical Shiʿi tradition and insisted upon a rationalising reading of the faith. Hence the philosophical and theological notion of reason (nous) as a tool for discernment was used to render the ʿaql of the early texts while Amir-Moezzi argued that the term was better rendered as a ‘hiéro-intelligence’, a sacred ability divinely bestowed upon the human to better understand the spiritual leadership of the Imams of the Prophet’s household and to recognise God.

Amir-Moezzi’s re-interpretation of the study of the classical Twelver Shiʿi tradition systematically turned the prevailing orthodoxy in the field upside down: it was not the rationalising tendency of the Baghdad theologians such as al-Shaykh al-Mufīd (d. 1022) and the subsequent rational (Muʿtazilī) tradition that developed the intellectual disciplines of Shiʿi learned culture in conformity with and convergence to the development of Sunnī learning in law and theology that represented the essence of Shiʿi Islam but rather it was the supra-natural and supra-rational doctrines about the absolute and almost divine qualities of the Imams, often dismissed as theological extremism (ghulūw) that was the heart of the tradition as a discipline of arcana, of the marginalised and happy few who kept the difficult faith with the family of the Prophet. At the heart of the debate was the very nature of the Imams: were they privileged rational jurists and theologians, the pious scholars (ʿulamāʾ abrār) of the reformist tradition represented in the modern period by thinkers such as Shaykh Muḥammad al-Khāliṣī, Ḥaydar ʿAlī Qalamdārān and more recently ʿAbdol-Karim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar, or were they the face of God on earth, the deus revelatus, as the mystical tradition understood them possessing a pivotal cosmic role in the universe? What is the nature of their walāya, their status of being intimate friends and representatives of God? Is walāya a delegated authority within the religious dispensation of the Prophet in which the Imam has a rather limited role as a teacher, or is an ontological status called walāya takwīnīya in more recent times in which the Imam is the pivot of the universe and has absolute authority over it as the face of God? Amir-Moezzi has always stressed the latter as the authentic early Shiʿi position which stressed the divine nature of the Imam. 

Amir-Moezzi’s intellectual project has therefore been one of reorienting the study of Shiʿi Islam towards a serious consideration of the esoteric name of Imamology prevalent in the earliest ḥadīth collections such as Baṣāʾir al-darajāt of al-Ṣaffār al-Qummī (d. 290/903), which predates the ‘canonical’ four books of al-Kulaynī, al-Ṣadūq and al-Tūsī, and the earliest exegeses such as the one attributed to ʿAlī b. Ibrāhīm al-Qummī (fl. 307/919), and secondarily tracing this tendency within later traditions of what nowadays is known as walāya takwīnīya, the authority and cosmological power that the Imams hold and wield over the creation, associated with Safavid thinkers such as Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1635), and the Shaykhīya from the nineteenth century. This concern with the Iranian ḥikmat tradition in itself is a continuation of Corbin’s esoteric reading of the later Shiʿi tradition. It would have been a useful addition to the volume under review to have included some other articles which make Amir-Moezzi’s method clearer such as his piece in Studia Islamica in 1997 on the criteria for studying the authenticity of ḥadīth in the Shiʿi tradition and its implications for juristic authority, and his article on al-Ṣaffār al-Qummī in Journal Asiatique earlier in the 1990s. The question of method is absolutely central to any assessment of Amir-Moezzi not least because the reading of the classical Shiʿi tradition that one gauges from Hossein Modarressi’s (reformist) Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shiʿite Islam (Darwin Press, 1993) is quite different. As Robert Gleave has commented in a recent article, the debate between Modarressi and Amir-Moezzi mirrors the perennial internal Shiʿi debate between moderation/shortcoming (taqṣīr) and authenticity/extremism (ghulūw).

The fourteen chapters (the number itself has significance for the Twelver Shiʿa) of this volume are divided into four sections on the early emergence of the tradition, the nature of the Imam, the spiritual practice of Shiʿi Islam, and eschatology. Each piece is a wonderfully executed tour-de-force based on a careful reading of the relevant texts - the chapter on the divinity of the Imam focuses on the text of the khuṭbat al-bayān attributed to Imam ʿAlī which expresses the idea of the cosmic authority of the Imam. As such, they encompass the various aspects of the notion of walāya that lies at the heart of Shiʿi thought: the status of the Imams as walī, the devotion and intercessary relationship that believers have with them, and the role of the Imams at the beginning of time and at the folding up of the cosmos at the end of time.  It is therefore not insignificant that the pivotal chapter is the one discussing the very notion of walāya in Shiʿi thought. Overall, the volume is essential reading for anyone interested in Shiʿi Islam. 

Toward an Islamic Public Theology of Others

In an attempt to understand the role of religion in the public sphere as an inspiration for the integration and complementarity of citizens and communities, I offer thoughts on some of the philosophical reasoning that is required, focusing on the major issue of an Islamic theology of pluralism.[1] While I do not adhere to the notion that conflict in our contemporary world is primarily religious in nature, I am also not convinced that religious people can provide a theological solution to conflict.[2] Conflicts, like much else in life, are neither monocausal nor monosoluble. Similarly, family resemblances among the Abrahamic faiths require that we recognise the extent of the common grounds, common mutualities of trust but also common challenges that people of Abrahamic faiths share in the contemporary world.[3] But clearly, people of faith do need to articulate reasons for co-operation, for mutual respect and compassion to live fruitful and fulfilling lives in this world. My argument will proceed from knowledge to being and then onto ethics, not necessarily indicating this as a foundationalist order of causality but to save the appearances of much of the Islamic philosophical and theological traditions that begin with how we know and proceed to who we were and where we are going – the whence, what and whither of the famous saying attributed to the cousin and successor to the Prophet, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib when he was asked about the essence of wisdom.

I: Knowledge and Truth
We live in a world of mutually contradictory truth claims; peer epistemic pressure and anxiety dominate, predicated upon the basic notion that each of us is capable of providing a rational account for our beliefs and that we take our truth claims seriously.[4] For many, this is the basic reason why we ought to hold a relativistic concept of truth and to embrace pluralism.[5] While many theological approaches to truth seem to be predicated on the notion that propositions about the nature of God or the world or humanity are predicted on their correspondence to some reality, these approaches would lead to an even more heightened anxiety. One possible response articulated by the contemporary Iranian thinker ʿAbdol-Karim Soroush is to make a distinction, drawing upon John Hick, between the religious truth an sich and our understanding of it.[6] However, a more pragmatic approach to truth could also be useful: the Qurʾan’s recognition of difference as a basic social fact, which is of no consequence, only privileges the moral as a mark of distinction and not the epistemological (al-Ḥujurāt verse 43). Similarly, the famous poet Rūmī expresses this perspectival pragmatism and lack of understanding through the famous Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant. Mutuality actually assists us in understanding – and pragmatism may well be the best approach to epistemic pluralism.

II: Ontology of persons
One of the fundamental features of modern life is the desire to be true to oneself, to seek authentic being that is predicated on the individual’s exclusive, introspectively determined personhood.[7] This notion is based on the idea that each of us possesses a basic autonomy and ability to choose and assert our will, unencumbered by processes of coercion – thus, negative liberty becomes one of the foundational myths of our time. A further problem with such a notion of using the inner self as a guide for moral agency (apart from the wider philosophical debate about whether such a self exists and acts as the ground for moral agency), is that one finds any exercise of morality lapsing into subjectivism and emotivism.[8]

The converse of this liberally grounded notion of an atomistic autonomy is the communitarian insight that in fact we are selves embedded in contexts and communities and that our personhood, identity and ability to exercise moral agency is deeply attached to those contexts in which we find ourselves.[9] The danger with this position is that we see individuals purely in terms of their membership of such groups and therefore consider both religious and political relationships to exist between those groups: the personhood of the individual is therefore dissolved in an extended corporate personhood of the community.[10] Autonomy and selfhood are multilogically determined and socially embodied. We need a philosophy not so much of the ‘I’ but of the ‘We’ in which the ‘I’ does not dissolve but is nurtured and nurtures the moral impulses of the ‘We’. Muslim societies need to appreciate the need for balancing the individual and the community in these terms and to deal with the non-Muslim other at both these levels as well. The theological traditions of Islam address the individual as a person with obligations to fulfil moral agency (taklīf), but they also address persons as believers with mutual ties and obligations (ayyuhā l-ladhīn āmanū) and as humans (ayyuhā l-nās). ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib summarised this dual-level mutuality when he is reported to have said: ‘People are of two kinds: either your brothers in faith or your brothers in humanity’.  The social play and interaction of everyday life is not about the relationships between minds or between disembodied selves but between real persons in real mutual situations.

III: Religiously-inspired humanism
So where does religion impinge in this open, social and public sphere upon the ontology of mutual personhood? It is perhaps not too great a generalisation to argue that religious ethics often concern the moral psychology of persons: our selfhood emerges and is negotiated in the public sphere, and our morality enacted on the basis of what we are. If modern, post-Enlightenment ethics is primarily concerned with the value one ascribes to the act, then most religious ethics is concerned with the person. Both scripture and the philosophical traditions of Islam discuss the modes of human becoming, the life of a self that comes into existence with a body to define the person and the human, traverses and develops in an almost unlimited manner in this world existence and continue the process of renewing and becoming with the death of the body, with its resurrection and with the further resurrections and lives of the self in the afterlife. The Safavid thinker Mullā Ṣadrā describes these processes of becoming of mutual personhood, focusing on the individual but recognising mutuality in the important introduction to his Qurʾanic exegesis, precisely because the process of reading scripture is a means to self-becoming.[11]

The act of reading the Qurʾan is therefore a ‘reading act’ which has both lectionary and illectionary aspects. The illectionary has the force of reading as a spiritual practice in which the words and utterances strike the heart and have the effect of self-transformation leading one to realise one’s mutuality.[12] The lectionary is the consistent reading of the exhortation to the good: for the human rooted in a religious consciousness to do good, to seek good and to cooperate for and in the good: ‘.[13] The good cannot be achieved by the individual nor even just by a small group but rather through mutuality and cooperation: the Qurʾan exhorts competing with one another for the good in the context of recognition of religious diversity (al-Māʾida verse 48). It also exhorts people to cooperate for the good and not to cooperate for evil (al-Māʾida verse 2). The exhortation to the good and to justice is complemented with the disavowal of evil and of injustice – again in the famous statement of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib: ‘Be a support for the oppressed and always challenge the oppressor’. This religiously-inspired humanism is about activating the human imagination to see the other as the self.[14] This moral mandate for procedural pluralism has roots in the classical period in what Lenn Goodman has classified as ‘Islamic humanism’.[15]

IV: Political theology and accommodation
An important corollary of this humanism is to account for the possibility of states to recognise and allow for religiously-inspired public policy and to accommodate what are sometimes called theocratic communities within the public sphere as long as they agree to certain ground rules, whether identified as the Rawlsian ‘original position’ or within the rubric of the overlapping consensus within deliberate rational, public discourse required of thinking citizens.[16] However, this entails retaining a basic liberal architecture of the polity and also assumes that we define faith primarily in terms of belief, very much a central dogma of post-enlightenment study of religion. An ethics and public theology of mutuality needs to be more than placing one’s beliefs in the same basket as others and engaging in rational debate in the public: it must also allow for the practice of faith, of ritual engagement and of sharing of experience which far too often we find uncomfortable.

[1] Two useful collections of Muslim theological positions on pluralism are Roger Boase (ed), Islam and Global Dialogue: Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace, Aldershot: Ashgate Publications, 2005, and Mohammad Khalil (ed), Between Heaven and Hell: Islam, Salvation, and the Fate of Others, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
[2] William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
[3] Cf. Paul Heck, Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009.
[4] David Basinger, Religious Diversity: A Philosophical Assessment, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.
[5] Manuel Garcia-Carpintero and Max Kolbel (ed), Relative Truth, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
[6] ʿAbdol-Karīm Surūsh, Qabż va basṭ-i tiʾūrik-i sharīʿat, Tehran: Ṣirāṭ, 1989.
[7] Charles Guignon, On Being Authentic, London: Routledge, 2004.
[8] Most famously critiqued in Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd edition, London: Duckworth, 1981.
[9] E.g. Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[10] This danger within communitarianism is highlighted in Javeed Alam, ‘Public sphere and democratic governance in contemporary India’, in Rajeev Bhargava, Amiya Kumar Bagchi & R. Sudarshan (eds), Multiculturalism, Liberalism and Democracy, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999, 323-47.
[11] Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-karīm, ed. Muḥsin Bīdārfar, Qum: Intishārāt-i Bīdār 1987, I: 2-3.
[12] Cf. Sara Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism: Non-discursive Thinking in Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ‘Reading act’ – analogy with ‘speech act’.
[13] One of the best arguments in this light and with a view to pluralism is Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; idem, ‘Advancing religious pluralism in Islam’, Religion: Compass 4.4 (2010), 221-33
[14] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
[15] Lenn Goodman, Islamic Humanism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
[16] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971; cf. Lucas Swaine, The Liberal Conscience: Politics and Principle in a World of Religious Pluralism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006; Andrew March, Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.