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. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this helpful review. After reading this new translation of Amir-Moezzi's writings, I found his arguments compelling and virtually irrefutable. I think he could have supported his findings and analysis by demonstrating that the 'divinity' of the Imams is also found in the prophets and later followers of the Imams or 'urafa', as well as Sufis such as Hallaj and Bastami. There seems to be an unnecessary disconnect between the more "sober" gnosis of Ibn 'Arabi and Mulla Sadra, these "Ghulat" traditions, and the theophanic locutions of certain Sufis. This is partly due to sectarian tendencies among some Sunnis and Shi'ites, but is also perhaps related to an inability to see wahdat al-wujud in harmony with al-insan al-kamil, and thus the "Ghulat" and "Hallajian" tendencies. Much of this in western scholarship may follow from Massignon's and Corbin's works, while in the Islamic world it is related to a dismissal of the insights found in the Khutbat al-bayan and other narrations, as well as the inability to see someone like Hallaj as a natural heir of this knowledge. Were we to place Amir-Moezzi's findings within the greater context of Islamic spirituality, I think they would find greater reception. Without doing so, many Muslims, including Shi'ites and Sufis, will think that he is simply seeing the Imam the way Christians see Jesus. Yet, to point out that all who truly know the Unity of God, the prophets and friends of God included, experience the same fana' and baqa' of the Imam, may allow these findings to gain more traction. Moreover, I tend to think this interpretation is more accurate and helps explain why the Imam also spoke so much about the transcendence of God. The Prophet and Imam are also the cosmogonic source of light for the believers and the prototype of sanctity, but if light and sanctity are limited to them and do not radiate to their followers among Shi'ites and Sufis, what is the purpose of knowing that they are lights or the face of God? Is it simply a condition of salvation or perhaps an anticipation and reflection of our own inner state and the original condition of man as such?