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. 


Anthony F. Shaker said...

Dear MS,

Thank you for your comments on my book, Thinking in the Language of Reality.

I hope we could correspond through some other means, if possible. However, I don't even have your name!

You have tried to render the gist of my analysis. I have three quick reactions to your otherwise interesting commentary, if I may.

One, German Idealism was totally irrelevant to my analysis of Qunawi. I used nothing from that tradition. Also, I limited all my mentions of Heidegger (whom I view as separate from what we know of "phenomenology") to the introduction, and then only on the question of language. I do find more than just a few points of shared interest between Islamic philosophy and early modern German philosophy and Heidegger, due chiefly to German philosophy's proximity to Scholasticism. Scholasticism, though has always been a nascent tradition that never quite "got off the ground." Heidegger completed their "thoughts" in surprising ways that seem to parallel Islamic thought's general drift. But I never mix the two, and I consider them together only to speak about modern problems of philosophy or other fields.

Two,I never claimed that Qunawi thought skepticism led to a higher wisdom. I compared some of his preliminary arguments to skepticism on my own; Qunawi had no part in this. Moreover, he used arguments similar to classical skepticism for specific purposes. He takes them up strictly as exercises in logic, to be discarded for more substantial philosophical positions.

Perhaps you would be kind enough to send me your e-mail address. Mine is

And please do sign your name!

Kind regards,
Anthony F. Shaker
Visiting Scholar, Islamic Institute of Islamic Studies
McGill University

Third,I do not interpret Qunawi according to Suhrawardi or even the Ishraqi school in general. These are topics best left for other kinds of works.

Mulla Sadra said...

I'll email you. Thanks for the comment - I will revisit this once I get the new published version.