Monday, March 20, 2017

Ḥurūfīs: Esoteric Shīʿa or what exactly?

I guess the Shiʿi Heritage Series of the Institute of Ismaili Studies takes a rather broad understanding of 'Shiʿi heritage' since they have published works which do not, on the surface, look like they contribute anything to the study of any of the major branches of Shiʿi Islam. Most recently they have published a volume on the ghulāt which raises interesting questions about the relationship of those texts and circles in Kufa and elsewhere in Iraq and Syria with the nascent communities of Ismailis and ʿAlawī-Nuṣayrīs, but still one wonders whether one can look at elements of the ghulāt of the early period as experiments in spirituality that did not survive. Orkhan Mir-Kasimov's work raises a more intriguing question about a group, a short-lived but highly influential community of esotericists committed to the sacred roots of the Persian language as well as elements of devotion and attachment to the ahl al-bayt that was characteristic of esotericism in the middle period. 

The study of Islamic intellectual history, while existing in pockets of scholarship before, has increasingly become a dominant aspect of the study of Islam. We have moved from some piecemeal approaches to the classical period to a more carefully nuanced and thick understanding of the middle period, that critical time from the wane of the ʿAbbasids to the rise of the Gunpowder Empires. In particular, the ‘Chicago school’ has expended much effort in making sense of the critical messianic moment from around the time of Timur, the ‘lord of the junction’ through to the ‘messianic sovereigns’ of the Timurid and later Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires. Mir-Kasimov's book concerns one of the key intellectual developments of that period, namely esoteric political theology and lettrism (ʿilm al-ḥurūf), which later informed similar developments in the 16th and 17th centuries and gives us one, albeit marginal and rather antinomian, glimpse into the important of the esoteric and the occult learning that was a critical element of the scholarly underground even among elites through the middle and early modern periods in the world of Islam. Although at times one wonders whether we have, in the current esotericist and occultist turn in intellectual history, overdone the significance of the esoteric as the master science. Mir-Kasimov’s magisterial and highly textual study of Fażlallāh Astarābādī (d. 1394) and his movement of the Ḥurūfīya, neither mainstream Shiʿi nor ʿAlid-loyalist Sufis nor even complete esotericists outside the pale of Islam, makes a contribution to the processes by which elite discourses on hermeneutics of reading the word and the world filtered into more subaltern and vernacular understandings of the cosmos and the human within and the divine both within and without. It is therefore no accident that the careful lettrist calculations that places letters as a primordial signifiers and producers of the cosmos, their manipulation to make sense of the cosmos and wield power, and their role in the folding up of the cosmos focused upon the Persian alphabet and vernacular. After all lettrism need not be confined to learned disquisitions on the letters of a particular language such as Arabic – but unlike other forms of lettrism found in the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ or al-Būnī or others, there is something peculiarly transgressive about the insistence of Astarābādī on the primordial nature of the Persian language. In recent years, Shahzad Bashir and others have contributed to our understanding of this movement, not least motivated by the desire to make sense of the varying manifestations of Sufism in the messianic moment and its relationship with forms of Shiʿism or ʿAlid loyalism. For those who are interested in these processes and the way in which this impinges upon vernacular learning, Mir-Kasimov’s study will be essential. Most importantly by insisting that he is studying the ‘original’ teaching, while holding one hostage to a certain hubris, he is differentiating the later reception and understanding of Astarābādī from his doctrine, and critically separating his particular movement from the wider trend of lettrism from the middle period in the Persianate world. And it is always important to remember that interest in lettrism need not make a thinker a ḥurufī

The book itself is divided into an introduction (on the sources and a literature review), three parts on the cosmology and cosmogony of language, prophetology as the descent of the logos and process of reversion to God, and soteriology and eschatology, and a final conclusion that attempts to contextualize the Ḥurūfīya in Islamic intellectual history. I would have liked to see far more discussion of the sources and the problems one migh face in their analysis and distinction. Quite often one feels that the individual sections and even their internal chapters stand alone – the book reads somewhat like a series of broadly congruous but distinct articles on specific aspects of his thought, and the introduction and conclusion could do far more to provide sufficient background, connectors and contexts for those unfamiliar. Nevertheless, the detail, the careful philology (given that the language of the texts is usually a Khurasani/Astarabadi vernacular of Persian), the manuscript work and the coverage will make this the major reference for anyone interested in the Ḥurūfīya as a movement and their intellectual and political intersections. The introductions presents them within the messianic turn, provides a literature review of their study, and deals with the difficulties of their texts not least the Jāvīdān-nāma. On a small side note, I know that transliteration is not necessarily an exact science, but the practice of the Institute of Ismaili Studies that insists on rendering Persian as if it were Arabic is rather tedious – hence I prefer Jāvīdān-nāma to Jāwīdān-nāma and Fażlallāh to Faḍl Allāh. Mir-Kasimov provides some useful appendices on key terms, an inventory of texts found in the works that help the readers contextualize the sources as well as preliminary transcriptions of the Persian texts used. There is little doubt that this will become the main resource for our understanding of Ḥurūfism, even if some of the more recent studies in Persian are more ‘historical’. Most of the chapters are careful and close readings of the text (with copious translated passages that could be fruitfully used in class) and it is only in the conclusion that he returns to the wider picture of how Astarābādī relates to tendencies in esotericism, especially of Shiʿi varieties.

The text follows the drama of the Jāwīdān-nāma as the descent of the word from the One, its manifestation in prophecy, and its soteriological return. Surprisingly given Astarābādī’s own messianic role, there is little discussed on walāya, which is such a central concept in different esotericisms, even if the other key notion of such approaches to text, namely taʾwīl is much analysed. Part one on the cosmogony and cosmology begins with the problem of creation: how does multiplicity arise from unity and how does the immaterial produce a material cosmos? It then moves onto key aspects of the cosmos – the engendering of the human with the narrative of Adam and Eve, as well as space and time and the ways in which in its very diversity the multiple universe is united by the word. In the scheme of the school of Ibn ʿArabī and his later Shiʿi interpreters, existence is a singular reality in which diversity is not mere phenomenal illusion but constitutes the very stuff of a modulated and hierarchically arranged pyramid of being; they called this doctrine tashkīk al-wujūd or the modulated but singular reality of existence. For Astarābādī, there seems to be a similar ontological description but with the word taking the place of existence; it is the word that is one and many. This phenomenon has been noted for the esotericist  Ibn Turka (d. 1432) by Matthew Melvin-Koushki. The footnotes make some brief comparisons with Hellenic neoplatonisms, but more interesting are some of the parallels and clear references to Christian apocrypha especially of a Gnostic type. I would like to know if there are any references to hermetica that would be appropriate but there is nothing mentioned. The centrality of the notion of the correspondences and the balance in the cosmos recalls both the Ikhwān al-ṣafāʾ and Jābir ibn Ḥayyān but the parallels are not analysed. The ultimate homology is between God and his form in Adam – though it is the first human couple who fully manifest the divine since for Astarābādī Eve is the form of Adam. There is no strict precedence of the male. Adam is the divine throne and Eve the footstool that together ensure the perpetuation of the balance. Similarly Adam is the soul of the word manifest while Eve is its very existence. Their bodies are the preserved tablet and the ‘mother of the book’, the essence of revelation. Astarābādī constantly refers to esoteric sayings of ʿAlī as the primordial Adam. Insofar as Adam/ʿAlī is the perfect word of God and all things he takes the place of the ‘perfect man’ of the Sufi tradition.

Part two on prophetology includes a number of esoteric contemplations of particular prophets as exemplifying the descent and the course of the word in this world and its indication towards the reversion to God. As the short excursus in part one suggested, knowledge and love are the two motivations for the descent of the word as well as the process for its reversion. Prophets take the word and fragment them into the expressions of human language; but they also provide the tools for the re-integration of the word through taʾwīl. A short chapter 9 discusses the three famous examples of this later: Joseph, Moses, and Solomon. Jesus and Muḥammad reflect a more direct revelation of the word and its reversion – the taking up into heaven of the former, and the ascension (miʿrāj) of the latter.

Part three on soteriology is remarkably short with a discussion of gnostic salvation (the salvific efficacy of knowledge overcoming ignorance), and the end of times and the relative role of those initiated and the uninitiated. Perhaps it is not paradoxical that a messianic movement shows little interest in the world to come precisely because it seems in its theological and politically radical moment to be invested in the ever present. The fall from the edenic state was related in part one to the oblivion of the complete word of God and the meaning inscribed on the bodies of Adam and Eve. The return or the reversal of the fall therefore requires through taʾwīl an enlightenment of that word and the realization of the self that comes at the end of the religious dispensation brought by Muḥammad culminating in Astarābādī. Those who fail to achieve this enlightenment join Satan in his ignorance and fiery nature and become the hellfire in which they dwell. In this section there is further consideration of the role of ʿAlī at the end of the religious dispensation. The fall of Adam reflects the reduction of the 32 primordial words into 28; it is ʿAlī who returns the four key words for the integration and reversion of the word at the end of time. There is little that is explicitly Imami or Twelver Shiʿi in the text although Mir-Kasimov suggests that might be due to the changing context under Shahrukh and the reception of the text.

Given the very detailed nature of the chapters, the conclusion plays a critical role in allowing us to see the woods from the trees. A question that remains is how did Astarābādī see himself? Can one see the Jāwīdān-nāma as an act of taʾwīl on the Qurʾan or itself a work of revelation? To what extent does he draw upon existing lettrism and esoteric interpretation and how is his legacy received? Locating him within the traditions of esoteric interpretation - on which one may consult a recent book which I had something to do with - might help one to understand some of the wider currents of interest and intersection. Mir-Kasimov discusses the links with the school of Ibn ʿArabī even if there is little explicitly from the master himself; there is a discussion of the superiority of walāya over prophecy and some ambiguity over the nature of the seal 0f saints – more explicitly Shiʿi contemporaries such as Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī followed Ḥamūya and Kāshānī on identifying the figure with the Twelver Mahdī but Astarābādī was more circumspect. The problem of contextualization is raised because the milieu of Astarābādī included the school of Ibn ʿArabī, Ismailism and other trends of esoteric Shiʿi Islam such as Rajab Bursī. Mir-Kasimov suggests that instead to tying him to a particular Shiʿi trend, one can see in his work the same revival of early esoteric Shiʿism found in both Twelver and Ismaili works – certainly matters are complicated by some later Ḥurūfīs who took a more markedly Twelver approach. We know that others attracted to esotericism and lettrism immediately after such as Ṣāʾin al-Dīn Ibn Turka rejected Astarābadī while using some of the same techniques. Rightly, the author suggests that there is much more to research on the legacy and reception of Astarābādī – perhaps a follow up volume?

In many ways Mir-Kasimov has provided us with a critical sourcebook on a major figure of esotericism in middle period Persianate Islam. It is then for those reading the work to follow up on the contexts and connections with other trends of the period especially in the great messianic turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. Bashir’s work is a much better integrated introduction but in this work we have a far more deeply textual work that can complement Bashir. But the work still leaves me somewhat baffled by the problem of esotericism and particularly esoteric Shiʿism in the period.

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