The twenty-second and latest instalment from the Institute of Ismaili Studies’ Series on Ismaili Texts and Translations presents us with a relatively short text complemented with an extensive introduction in English on the Ṭayyibī Ismaili reception ofAvicenna’s psychology and his approach to the salvific nature of philosophy.
This is not the first collaboration between Wilferd Madelung and Toby Mayer; their previous work on Shahrastānī in particular was quite excellent.
The text and translation are together shorter than the introduction – perhaps not surprising since the poem of Avicenna on which the commentary is based is a mere 20 lines. Much of the Fatimid heritage has survived and been nurtured by the Ṭayyibī traditions first in Yemen and then in India and their continuing adherence in their philosophical works to the modes of Arabic Neoplatonism first articulated in the classical pre-Fatimid and Fatimid periods is remarkable. The Arabic edition – as ever separately placed at the end of the volume – is based on three quite late manuscripts of Bohra provenance; the annoying thing is that instead of giving us the codicological details of these, the editor merely gives us the references to where we can find these details in the catalogues of the collections of the Institute of Ismaili Studies. However, one striking improvement is in the font and typeface. The shift to Decotype away from Arabic Typesetting is to be welcomed. The Arabic typeface is a much better – one only wishes that they had used a slightly larger font.
The introduction is a major contribution to our understanding of the reception of Avicennan psychology and the role of allegory in the work of Avicenna, taking up a path in Avicenna studies which has been much neglected recently – at least since the late Peter Heath’s monograph of the early 1990s on the (apocryphal) Miʿrājnāma. Given that a number of recent specialists on Avicenna have doubted the authenticity of the Qaṣīda al-nafs or the Qaṣīda ʿaynīya (it is surprising that Mayer does not mention Gutas’ doubt since that will be well known), the translator opts to accept the ascription to Avicenna on the basis of its widely attested appearance in codices, particularly of anthologies. Throughout the work he engages with those who studied the text before including Kholeif, Corbin, and De Smet – and Madelung’s earlier discussion of the text is cited. Mayer’s introduction is broadly divided into three parts, beginning with Avicennan allegory and a consideration of his ‘visionary recitals’ as Corbin famously put it, as a context for the discussion of the Qaṣīda, and then finally an introduction to the author Ibn al-Walīd (d. 1215) and an analysis of the contents of the commentary. He tries to strike an even path between the interpretation of the two major ideological camps of Avicenna studies, between Gutas’ denial of the importance of allegory and poesis and his decided relegation of it to a lower level than the demonstrative, occasioned with his rejection of the spurious nature of some of these textual ascriptions to Avicenna, and Corbin’s whole-hearted embrace of allegory and the symbol (in quite Jungian) ways in which philosophy is articulated. At stake is the very question of what constitutes philosophy for Avicenna and the role of the symbols. Mayer’s discussion provides us with a succinct and highly interesting take on what constitutes philosophical discourse for Avicenna.
The poem itself seems to draw explicitly upon Neoplatonic psychology, of the descent or fall of the dove (soul) from the top of a mountain (intelligible higher realm) where it had dwelt for some time to become imprisoned in this plane (body) whence it seeks to transcend and return to its blissful origin. It originally forgets its happy existence on top of the mountain but gradually remembers and seeks to return. This seems to suggest the pre-existence of the body and is rather reminiscent of the account of the fall of the soul – using the same metaphor of the bird – found in Plotinus’ Enneads IV.8.1 paraphrased and adapted in Arabic in the first mīmar of the Uthūlujiyā (Theologia Aristoteles). The dual and connected doctrines of the pre-existence of the soul and of metempsychosis - as well as the notion that the soul knows through recollection of what it knew in the higher intelligible world through anamnesis - are ones that sit uncomfortably with Avicenna – he was familiar with elements of them in his own Ismaili milieu but in his own De Anima, especially the first chapter on the definition of the soul, and in his glosses on the Uthūlujiyā, he emphatically rejects them both. The question of Avicenna’s relationship with Neoplatonism remains intriguing; the soul retains a dual aspect for him – but it is one which applies to the soul as embodied in this world and not independent of it.
The final section of the introduction presents Ibn al-Walīd, a Ṭayyibī leader of their kerygma in Yemen; this section begins with a detailed history of his context, before discussing briefly his important refutation entitled al-Dāmigh al-bāṭil (and studied by Farouk Mitha among others) of Ghazālī’s condemnation of the Ismailis. The Ismaili exegete sees the poem as the work of a fellow traveller who deliberately used the tropic approach to hide his true intentions for the text. Elements of Ṭayyibī cosmology can be discerned not only in the utter transcendence of God as hidden but also in the almost gnostic approach to the cosmos as a fallen being that emerged from the demiurge (and not from God directly). Ibn al-Walīd cosmology in which the world and nature arise out of the confusion of the third intellect emanated recalls the schema found in the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ - and this is probably the same time when their encyclopaedia was being enthusiastically appropriated by the Ṭayyibī tradition – and Ḥamīd al-Dīn Kirmānī, especially from Rāḥat al-ʿaql. Other themes that come from the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ include the homologies between the cosmos and the human – the former as the macro-anthropos and the later as the microcosm. Mayer divides the commentary into six parts – the initial genesis of the soul, the ambivalence of its embodiment, a therapeutics for that embodiment inspired by Plato and the recollection of the original state through anamnesis, the happiness of the soul released from the confines of the body, the providential nature of the whole order and why the soul needed to fall, and finally the relationship of the soul and body at different levels of transit. One question that might arise is what is Shiʿi or Ismaili in this whole structure. Apart from the opening adherence, it is clear that the slow self-realisation of the soul can only occur through the guiding hand of the mission (headed by the Imam and his representatives) that acts as a ‘ladder of salvation’ (Sullam al-najāt – which is the title of a work of the earlier Khurasani Ismaili missionary Sijistānī). What the analysis shows is one of the modalities in which Avicenna was received and a key lesson: just because an author comments on a text does not mean he espouses the doctrines presented therein.
While the commentary is an exegetical one and not an aporetic one, it shifts the Neoplatonising Aristotelianism of the original towards a more determinedly Gnostic reading. The translation itself is fluent and precise and well annotated tracing the sources that are cited – one interesting one is the attestation of the Nahj al-balāgha (the compilation from the early eleventh century of the sermons and sayings of ʿAli b. Abī Ṭālib) which fits with its early reception in Yemen and in Zaydī circles whence it probably went to Ismaili ones. Overall, this Ismaili commentary on Avicenna’s short poem on the soul provides us with further evidence for the dossier of the reception of Avicenna in the later period, often critical and usually taking the reading in a direction removed from the wording of the original. It does not mean that one necessarily rethinks Avicenna as a gnostic or an Ismaili; but it does show the different directions in which later Islamic intellectual traditions took his work.