Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Sultan's Sex Potions - apart from the orientalizing title, what else is wrong with this?

I was recently sent a copy of a new book purporting to be a short work on aphrodisiacs by the famed philosopher-scientist Naṣīr al-dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274). Many thanks to the publisher for bringing this to my attention. The editor and translator Daniel Newman is an Arabist known for his translations and professor at Durham University. The book, while aimed at a somewhat semi-popular audience - signalled by its publication by al-Saqi, contains an short and useful introduction on Arabic erotic literature, on the purported author, as well as an edition of the Arabic based on three manuscripts and an annotated translation of the English. The contemporary interest in sexualities in the Middle East is clearly the impetus for this work as the preface makes clear. The translated text is relatively short - only 40 odd pages out of the book of about 210 pages. The same text was in fact edited and translated into German for a PhD at Erlangen in 1974 - the editor there also attributed the text to Ṭūsī without any discussion (as I have been told since I have not consulted it myself). The orientalising framing is a problem - why Arab aphrodisiacs in the Middle Ages? 

The edition is based on three manuscripts: Berlin Staatsbibliothek 6383 dated 1208/1793 used as a base in the German edition and as the base here as well, Glasgow University Hunter 144.4 in a medical majmūʿa undated and as the editor suggests probably based on the Berlin one (which seems to have been the assessment of the German editor as well), and Cairo Dār al-kutub Ṭibb 582 dated 1224/1809 which is incomplete. The editor says there is also an Istanbul Şehit Ali Paşa 2068 which he did not consult.

But a number of issues suggest that the attribution to Ṭūsī is questionable - and it is clear that the editor does not know much about him, even if his brief excursus on his life is broadly defensible (I am not familiar with him being described as al-muʿallim al-thālith though it is possible someone might have).

1) All three manuscripts are late - around 1800 - and at least two of them have a number of phrases, as the editor admits, in Egyptian Arabic. The Cairo manuscript has a heading attributing it to Ṭūsī.

2) The proemium states that the author is writing/transmitting a book or set of concoctions put together by Abū-l-Barakāt Khwāja Nāṣir al-dīn Ṭūsī for the 'sulṭān Qāzān' or 'sulṭān Ghāzān'. The editor reads this as 'caliph of Qāzān' whom he identifies as Ābāqā Khān (1234-1282). However, it certainly reads as if it says Ghāzān Khān (1271-1304) who was Ābāqā's grandson and as a child of three at Ṭūsī's death could not have been the sulṭān to request such a book. I am also not familiar with this form of Ṭūsī's name and laqab being given in texts. 

3) The editor ponders why Ṭūsī would be asked to write a book for an ailing child of the Khān which is actually on aphrodisiacs. It is possible that such a book on medicine was commissioned - but how did it end up being only about aphrodisiacs? Surely there is a problem here.

4) The author of the text does not seem to be Shiʿi - neither the formulation of salutations on the Prophet nor on ʿAlī later in the text match the Shiʿi form. This may just be due to the copyist. But Sunni copyists do not tend to change the form. 

The text is designed as a self-help work - the introduction makes clear that these are tried and tested - arranged in 18 chapters. 

Now writing on medicine and sexology was fairly common and even part of the circle of Ṭūsī. It is quite possible that this book may be based on some element of oral teaching. If it were a significant work, then surely there would be an earlier manuscript tradition. It seems more likely to me that the text fits a late 18th century interest in such matters, and due to the fame of Ṭūsī as philosopher and scientist was attributed to him to lend an air of authority. And as such tells us more about the social and intellectual (and even sexual interests) of people in Egypt around 1800, and concomitantly how they received and understood the status of Ṭūsī. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Disseminating Ibn ʿArabī: the Role of Qūnawī

For a generation, research on Ṣadr al-dīn Qūnawī (or Qunyawī or perhaps even Konyalı is equally correct, d. 1274), the foremost disciple and step-son of Ibn ʿArabī [d. 1240] has been rather barren.  Michel Valsan, a doyen of the traditionalist school, was probably the first European author to write on him, translating his Risālat al-tawajjuh al-atamm back in 1968: "L'Epitre sur Orientation Parfaite (R. al-Tawajjuh al-atamm) by Sadr al-dīn al-Qunâwi" in Études Traditionelles, Vol. 67, pp. 241-268.
Back in the 1970s, there was a dissertation by Stéphane Ruspoli on him and on his Mifṭāh al-ghayb (that he renders as the key to the world beyond the senses) - the latter also translated and published in the 1980s in Paris, as well as an article by William Chittick on his will and last testament published in Sophia Perennis. Ruspoli later published some translations of the works of Ibn ʿArabī such as al-Mashāhid (Paris, 1999) with Qunawī's commentary, as if to demonstrate that a clear understanding of Ibn ʿArabī requires engagement with his primary student. Qunawī's al-Fukūk, a short summary and commentary on his master's Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam was also the subject of inquiry of a number of studies and translations back in the 1980s, the best being the edition and Persian translation by the Ẕahabī scholar Muḥammad Khājavī (d. 2013) in 1992. 

The next stage of interest was the correct identification of the pivotal correspondence of Qunawī with his contemporary and Avicennan philosopher-scientist and Shiʿi theologian Naṣīr al-dīn Ṭūsī [d. 1274] as the key to understanding the early relationship between the school of Ibn ʿArabī and Avicennan philosophy and the first stage of exchange and influence, which resulted in an edition of the surviving texts by Gudrun Schubert (by Franz Steiner in 1995), and studies by William Chittick and later Caner Dagli (as part of his Princeton PhD in 2006 on the history of waḥdat al-wujūd now forthcoming as a book entitled From Mysticism to Philosophy and Back). A useful attempt at Qunawī's biography is here.

More recently there was a conference in Konya in 2008, and the appearance of two monographs (apart from some articles going back a decade such as Elmore): Richard Todd's Oxford DPhil is being published soon, and Anthony Shaker's McGill PhD was published in 2012 and is reappearing with Brill soon. Here I want to say a few things about the Shaker work entitled Thinking in the Language of Reality. Shaker has already translated two volumes of the Iḥyāʾ of al-Ghazālī for the series published by Islamic Texts Society - in fact as a graduate student, I was the copy-editor for some of these - and is an expert on Sufism with a keen eye for philosophy. His work - I think rather revised from the original dissertation back in the 1990s - attempts at a philosophical interpretation of Qunawī and of medieval Islamic mysticism in an idiom heavily influenced by the German idealism and more recently the phenomenologists such as Heidegger. The work is divided into 14 chapters arranged in three parts: the Language of Logic, the Transformation of Logic, and the Grammar of Transformation with the last part focusing its analysis upon Qunawī's famous commentary on the sūrat al-Fātiḥa known as Iʿjāz al-bayān

[Incidentally an article on his hermeneutics focusing upon this text and al-Nafaḥāt al-ilāhīya by Richard Todd is forthcoming in a volume on Esoteric Approaches to Qurʾanic Exegesis edited by Annabel Keeler and myself to be published by Oxford University Press] 

Shaker consider Qunavī (as he spells his name) to be a pivotal and philosophically innovative figure, whose significance has been missed by specialists including Chittick and Sachiko Murata about whom he is rather critical. For Shaker, Qunawī represents a shift towards a post-Aristotelian, Islamic thought that brings out the independence of philosophy and he compares these developments in the 13th century to the new opening of philosophy in Europe in the early modern period. He draws upon Hedeiggerian notions of logic and rigour to present the contribution of Qunawī located within his context. Shaker seems to follow a somewhat 'ishrāqī' reading of Avicenna's theological science (ʿilm ilāhī) and suggests that Qunawī's works not least Iʿjāz al-bayān constitutes a shift from the former to an exegetical grammar - and therein lies his significance for the subsequent generations. He makes much of the reading of al-Taʿlīqāt of Avicenna in the Badawī edition some 30 years ago - one wonders where the new edition of the three recensions by Sayyid Hossein Musavian might lead him. From this text, he takes as indication of Avicenna's late shift to a rather apophatic approach to being, or at least recognising that grasping the 'realities of things as they truly are insofar as is humanly possible' is a tall ask indeed. It is the skepticism that one adduces from this Avicennan position that leads on towards the reality of mystical experience. However, a critic might venture that this is an excessively ishrāqī reading of Avicenna and that the thinker's position can easily be understood with recourse to his wider epistemology and psychology: if anything he tended to be an epistemological optimist, and I somehow doubt he would accept the account of Qunawī that reads the process of the intellect as a journeying towards being and an experiential learning - that is very much within the context of a mystical quest that one finds in a number of other thinkers not least in the Safavid period, but while elements of the definition and praxis of philosophy overlap, Avicenna was not really a 'philosophy as acquisition of wisdom and sagacity through spiritual practices and mystical wayfaring' kind of guy even if he knew the language. 

In terms of method, while there is an attempt at some intellectual history and contextualisation, Shaker is ultimately interested in what Qunawī can tell us about the nature of reality and how one makes sense of and reads it; this is mysticism as science. And it is an argument for Qunawī as the founder of the systematic approach - not Kāshānī as some suggest or Abū-l-Barakāt or Suhrawardī or even thinkers much later for their settled terminology, rigorous critique of Aristotelianism and clear notion of scientific inquiry. Shaker argues that it is the role of mysticism to open up the construction of language and the formation of meaning that attempts to grasp reality through the experience of the seeker - the meaning of the text that occurs through the interaction on the horizon of the self's experience of the world, that takes one beyond the restrictions of much formal logic and argumentation to this point confined by the psychology of binarism and structure in Aristotelian thought that represents an ontological commitment to alterity, metaphysical multiplicity, hylomorphism, and the basic insistence upon substances as unchanging and stable substrata that constitute the basic building blocks of reality. However, one wonder why the emphasis on Qunawī? If anything the 13th century is the pivotal period in which a number of attempts are made to dethrone Aristotelianism just as it becomes - in the modified form of Avicennism - intellectually dominant in theology, philosophy, and even in Sufism. Or is it that we have neglected the role of Qunawī and because he seems removed from the concession to Avicennism that we find in Kāshānī and subsequent commentators we find his style obstruse? In that sense is the thought of Mullā Ṣadrā and other Safavid critics of Avicenna - unsuccessful in the first instance one might add since it takes at least 150 years or so for Sadrian approaches to become dominant in the Islamic East - a proper recovery of Qunawī? And it is perhaps no accident that he is cited much by the Shirazi thinker. 

Mysticism is Qunawī's way to make sense of the problem of the hiddenness of God that is immanent in most monotheistic traditions. Hence the articulation of one of the key features of the ontology of the unfolding of the cosmos as manifestation of the divine through the doctrine of the five divine presences that finds its first articulation here: 1) God as absconditus in the supra-sensible, supra-intelligible world is that being which is beyond our ken, 2) the most material and removed presence that is fully witnessed (ʿālam al-shahāda) are those tokens that manifest the divine names, 3) the spiritual realm (ʿālam al-arwāḥ) that lies below that of the hidden God, 4) the level of the imagination that links the sensible to the spiritual and demonstrates the ability of the human to transcend materiality, and finally 5) the mediate imaginal world (ʿālam al-mithāl al-muṭlaq), the cloud of unknowing that is the true bridge between human experience and those levels of the divine deployed for human understanding. 

In terms of the sources, his main focus is upon Iʿjāz al-bayān through the famous Hyderabad edition (reprinted many times), the correspondence with Ṭūsī using the Schubert edition supplemented by MS Șehit Ali Paşa 1366, al-Nafaḥāt al-ilāhīya not based on the Yahia edition but on MS Bibliothèque Nationale 1354 and MS Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek Vienna 1913, al-Nuṣūṣ based on the Tehran lithograph, al-Fukūk in Khājavī's edition of 1992 and Sharḥ al-asmāʾ al-ḥusnā based on MS Șehit Ali Paşa 425, Aşir Efendi 431/2 and Şehit Ali Paşa 1366. 

In the end, Shaker returns to the possibility of God-talk and how the insights of Qunawī might help here, not least in the postulation of two positions that become central to the thought of Mullā Ṣadrā - and I wonder whether this represents the influence of Ṭūsī and perhaps Suhrawardī upon him? - namely, the modulated singular reality of being (tashkīk al-wujūd) and what the study of late neoplatonism calls the identity thesis, the breakdown of alterity in the identity of the knower and the known, through knowledge that is immediate, infallible, presential. Perhaps I am reading things in terms of those thinkers I know best but it seems that Shaker is basically making at least partially a claim for why the metaphysics and critique of Avicenna inherent in the work of Mullā Ṣadrā provide the sort of epistemological openings that we need in order to understand 'things as they truly are' and to know the world that we inhabit. The exegetical grammar perhaps takes us in some different directions and one wonders whether there is an interesting intersection there with the occult area of lettrism that at Qunawī's time and certainly in following generations become a dominant alternative philosophy. Certainly I think this aspect of Qunawī's thought strikes one as challenging and significant and Shaker is clear that it is the culmination of his metaphysics. This whole argument is located within what is admittedly a rather different work that may appeal to those who work in Sufism and probably continental philosophy. One suspects that those with stronger tastes for the analytical might be appalled by aspects of this.  There is much more to be said - and maybe I have the wrong end of the stick - but these are some preliminary thoughts. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sonja Brentjes on Epistles 1 and 2 of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ edition and translation

Guest post from Sonja Brentjes

A few weeks ago I posted a couple of reviews of recent volumes published from the Brethren of Purity’s epistles series. In part of it, I made a number of blunders which Sonja Brentjes pointed out and suggested I should correct. It's a pleasure to have her as a guest on my blog. To do that, here is her review of the volume on epistles 1 and 2.

Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. On Arithmetic and Geometry. An Arabic Critical Edition and English Translation of EPISTLES 1 & 2, Edited and Translated by Nader El-Bizri, with a Foreword. Oxford: Oxford University Press in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2012.

This book is part of the larger project to produce a critical edition of the 52 epistles composed presumably in the 10th century (one dating proposal considers also the first half of the 11th century) by a group of men, called the Brethren of Purity, who lived probably in Basra, may have been of Persian origin and may have adhered to Shiʿi or more specifically Ismaili beliefs (such an adherence is claimed by both the Imami Shiʿa and the Ismailis as the second institutional publisher of the series indicates, but doubted by some academics). The book’s editor and translator, Nader el-Bizri, is also the current chief editor of the entire project.

The present book contains the first two of the 52 epistles treating number theory according to Nikomachos of Gerasa (2nd c) and elementary Euclidean geometry combined with geometrical knowledge of the craftsmen in Arabic and an English translation. Before the translation is the Foreword, mentioned on the book cover, an introduction and a so-called technical introduction. After the English translation follows an appendix to the second epistle, a selected biography, a subject index and a geographical index of places. Before the Arabic edition come an Arabic appendix and two indices (subject matter, names).

There are three previous translations of the first epistle (two in German (Dieterici 1868, reprint 1969, Brentjes 1984) and one in English (Goldstein 1964)) and one German translation of the second (Dieterici 1865 (vol. III), reprint 1969) as well as several editions of the entire corpus (Bombay 1887-89,  Cairo 1374/1928, Beirut 1957,  Beirut-Paris 1995) and partial editions. None of the editions is considered to be a critical one. Hence the effort of the Institute of Ismaili Studies to prepare such a critical edition. Here begin, however, the problems. Not only is there today widespread doubt in general that something like an urtext can indeed be reconstructed for any text and author, there is also serious doubt that such a project is possible at all in particular for the epistles of the Brethren as Paul E. Walker explained in his talk at this year’s meeting of the American Oriental Society in Portland, March 15-18 (What was the original form of the Rasā᾿il Ikhwān al-afā᾿?). In his abstracts, he states the following:” A recent project undertaken by the Institute of Ismaili Studies and a team of scholars aims to produce a critical edition of this text. However work so far has revealed major problems with establishing the exact nature of the original work. The oldest and best manuscripts do not agree. Information in the existing Bombay-Cairo- Beirut edition suggests strongly that that version is itself Fatimid (or based on a Fatimid era copy). It thus may predate all of the known mss. Wide discrepancies among these textual sources indicate surely that there never was a single version of the Epistles, but instead a jumble of alternates with various additions and alterations perhaps contributed by early editors and copyists, even by the Ikhwān themselves.“ (http://www.umich.edu/~aos/2013/Abstracts2013.pdf, p. 51)

El-Bizri was aware of the difficulties presented by the different textual versions, but chose the oldest complete manuscript (MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye, Atif Efendi 1681 (dated 578h, i.e. 1182) as his basis for the edition and translation, which he altered at times by adding marginalia or passages from six other manuscripts and one printed edition (Beirut 1957). The problem with his approach is that he admits clearly that none of the other six manuscripts nor the text of the Beirut edition have the text of Atif Efendi 1681 as their archetype. He concludes that no stemma can be established (pp. 58f). In relationship to the two epistles published in this book, this evaluation applies, according to el-Bizri, in particular to the second one on geometry. Moreover, el-Bizri states clearly that Atif Efendi 1681 itself does not always offer the most reliable text (p. 51). These comments support Walker’s stance that a critical edition of the epistles is impossible. In regard to the two epistles presented in this book, el-Bizri emphasizes that the difficulties and differences concern in particular the part on geometry (p. 59). Hence, any reader of the work should be aware that what s/he will be reading is just one among several possible variants of the second epistle.

Beyond this matter of principle, the Arabic texts and their English translations suffer under severe shortcomings that reflect el-Bizri’s lack of experience in history of mathematics in Antiquity and Islamicate societies, as a translator of a technical text and as an editor. Moreover, he misunderstood or misinterpreted more than once Arabic passages and mathematical statements. Since these shortcomings permeate the entire book, the space provided for the review does not suffice for presenting a list of all these different kinds of mistakes. They are particularly frequent in the chapter on number theory, where almost every other page contains several of them. Some of the problems become already visible in the introductions. There, el-Bizri relies primarily on a few works of the historian of mathematics in Islamicate societies Roshdi Rashed, whose historiographical positions and modernizing transformations of medieval mathematics are not shared by many colleagues in the field. Due to his unfamiliarity with the subject matter and the historiographical issues at stake, el-Bizri’s summary even trivializes Rashed’s judgments.

The Arabic text and its English translation are marred by numerous kinds of mistakes and wrong decisions, the English translation more so than the Arabic edition. They show el-Bizri’s severe lack of expertise as editor, translator and historian of mathematics. The available space for reviewing does not allow me to give a survey of these mistakes with examples. Thus I decided to describe them in a general manner without specific examples.

1.            Mistakes in the Arabic texts

The mistakes in the Arabic texts result primarily from the editorial position taken by el-Bizri and the unclear procedures he followed. They encompass questionable decisions concerning the inclusion of marginalia and alternative readings, decisions to preserve clearly wrong sequences of textual passages, omissions of most likely original passages and the occasional modernizing changes of the medieval text. In addition, there are several typing and vocalization errors.

2.           Mistakes in the English translation

The mistakes in the English translation in contrast are manifold. They concern wrong decisions in regard to mathematical terminology, the lack of understanding of medieval technical language as well as historical changes in grammar or semantic, the omission of parts of the Arabic text, which indicate shortcomings in proofreading, and the replacement of medieval numerical notations by modern forms. The desire to produce a flowing english text has misled the translator to disregard issues of content.

a.           Mathematical terminology, misunderstood medieval technical language and historical changes of language

The content of the two epistles is elementary and well known through English translations of its Greek fundaments in Euclid’s Elements and Nicomachus’ Introduction to Arithmetic. As in the case with decisions on editorial issues, el-Bizri chose different approaches when translating. In a number of cases he translated, correctly so, literally, while in other cases, where such a literal rendering would have suited the text and its sources equally well, he replaced the terms by unusual expressions that have no background in the sources nor in modern mathematical language.

The opposite variant of inappropriate decision when translating can also be found, namely when translating one of two related Arabic technical terms not literally, but according to its mathematical meaning and contemporary naming, but the second, in contrast, in a literal manner, which does not make sense mathematically.

The third case, more often appearing than the two previous ones, is the wrong translation, either literal or interpretively, of a mathematical term.

b.          Omissions and additions

Several omissions of passages extant in the Arabic edition document in the English translation highlight the lack of care when proofreading. The continued additions to the translation, clearly marked by square brackets, of elementary mathematical explanations, elementary textual content already provided by the text itself in earlier passages and undisputed, well-established Arabic mathematical terms with their Greek, incorrectly transliterated equivalents are as a rule superfluous, at times false and should be placed in those cases, where they are valid, in the footnotes or be discussed in a commentary.

c.           Problems in regard to content

This lack of expertise comes also to the fore in el-Bizri’s problems with comprehending the language of the two epistles and its transformation into a modernized English text. A continuously occurring issue is the interpretation of expressions standing for finite or infinite repetitition of procedures. Phrases like bāligha mā bāligha do not indicate infinite, but finite repetitions. Expressions like ilā lā nihāya, however, mark clearly infinity. In some cases like the summation of series the confusion between these two types of expressions yields wrong mathematical statements in the English text.  In addition to such mistakes that probably result from applying modern understandings to medieval concepts substantial mistranslations of longer passages also occur.

3.           Mathematical mistakes

Some of the mathematical mistakes are the result of wrong translating decisions, while others stem from a desire to adapt medieval statement to forms taught in secondary schools today. This kind of modification illustrates el-Bizri’s unfamiliarity with standards in history of mathematics and the widely agreed upon rule that translations should preserve the kind and level of mathematical knowledge and practice of the original and avoid transforming them into something that belongs to a different period and different mathematical culture. Finally there are several elementary technical mistakes in the translation of the mathematical content.

4.           Historical mistakes and omissions

These items consist of incomplete or false historical information provided by the editor.

Numerous of el-Bizri’s mistakes could have been avoided, if he had checked the English translation of Nikomachos’ Introduction to Arithmetic and the German and English translations of the two epistles presented in this book. The problems with the editorial decisions as well as the inappropriate additions to the translated text could have been avoided in most cases, if he had consulted contemporary editions and translations of Arabic or Latin mathematical and philosophical texts by other colleagues.

Sonja Brentjes
MPIWG, Berlin