Sunday, September 30, 2018

Open to Reason? The Critical Intellectual Tradition of Islam

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a Muslim philosopher at Columbia University, has just published a short work on what it means to philosophise in Islam, tracing the intellectual history of Muslim critical engagement with texts and ideas both within and without the traditions of Islam. 

Open to Reason is a short work comprising ten chapters on contemporary philosophy that draws upon an expansive notion of what philosophy is by including Sufi and theological themes. It also engages in history for the present, to make sense of why we should study the history of philosophy not as an antiquarian enterprise but as a way to make sense of our language of the problematics and to find paths and methods of untying the knots, the aporiai of the present. 

Diagne has already written quite a bit on the modern Muslim existentialist (and arguably personalist following Henri Bergson) Muḥammad Iqbāl. His work on Iqbāl and the open society and on Iqbāl and Senghor as postcolonial deployments of Bergson have been around for a while. This present work is a translation of Comment philosopher en islam? which came out first around ten years ago. Another comparative recent work in French looks at the philosophical enterprise in Islam and Christianity, and he is also very much at the forefront of the study of African philosophy and how artistic expression can be philosophical. Peter Adamson's now famous podcast will be interviewing him soon and the series on Africana philosophy seems quite influenced by him. I'm very much looking forward to that, especially since Ousmane Kane's Beyond Timbuktu was just so very disappointing as an intellectual history. 

The chapters are broadly historical but with a clear view to understanding the central relationship between religion and philosophy, between the person and society, between the rational and the mystical, between the individual and the state among others. To an extent, I can see how it might be useful to read this in conversation with Sari Nusseibeh's recent book The Story of Reason in Islam, even while the approach is quite different, perhaps at one level that continental versus the analytic tradition, to be quite grossly simplistic about it. The first chapter begins with the passing of the Prophet (and perhaps the simple idea of the passing of unquestioning authority) and finding the role of reason in the nascent religious tradition. He sees in Muʿtazilism a desire to make sense of the cosmos, to find a universal rational grammar (as one finds in the famous debate between Ṣīrāfī and Abū Bishr on logic versus grammar), and to enthrone the God of reason. He then sees in Ashʿarism a desire to dethrone the purely rational God in favour of a spiritual and more personal deity. The key point is that the debate on reason still resonates with us today - although he does not use the language of competing rationalities and is broadly not concerned with the language of relativism either. The next chapter looks at the Ṣīrafi and Abū Bishr debate in more detail and sees a tension between the need to keep open the exigencies and possibilities of reason against a desire for closure and completion. 

The third chapter turns to Avicenna, in whom Diagne correctly in my opinion sees the first coming to age of Islamic philosophy and understanding what makes philosophy Islamic. 

As one expects, the next chapter looks at the response - although it is somewhat disappointing for Diagne to continue the narrative of a Ghazālī opposed to philosophical reasoning. But Ghazālī as a pluralist is there in his Fayṣal al-tafriqa to which he returns in the final chapter and there is a certain paradox in the philosophical rejection of a certain type of speculative metaphysics. 

He next turns to ecology and Ibn Ṭufayl and the famous question of how one might encounter truth and whether one can know philosophical and moral truths isolated from the social context of our embodiment. Ibn Rushd is used to indicate the potential obligation to philosophise and while Diagne recognises that his death does not usher in the end of philosophy, he is somewhat wrong in the old fashioned idea that philosophy only continues in the Iranian - and Shiʿi - East because it is wedded to imamology. Indeed the creativity of the poles of wujūd and walāya are central to that later Eastern tradition. But it would be wrong to ignore the persistence of traditions of rationality in the Sunni East, especially in India at the same time. But Diagne's work does demonstrate once again how it is difficult if not impossible to write a non-sectarian history.

Diagne then skips to ʿAbduh and Afghānī as an enlightenment turn back to reason, in response to refute Renan. The oblivion of what happens between Ibn Rushd and Afghānī is a problem. He sees in ʿAbduh a certain type of reformist modernity: an embrace of modernity but not as a narrowly European modernity but an alternative modernity, sees modernity as 'the daughter of Islam', and searches for a reconstruction of the meaning of religion. 

The penultimate chapter is on Iqbāl, a thinker whom he has engaged already and the final chapter on pluralism as the contemporary moment and space of Islamic philosophy open to reason and possibility, drawing upon Ghazālī and Sufi traditions of West Africa. What is perhaps disappointing is that there is little explicit explanation of what sorts of contemporary encounters Islamic philosophy needs in the present. Should one engage on the ground of the person or of existentialism? Or the analytic method? Or poesis? Or mysticism? How does one see philosophy in the modern world? He sees his book as a prompt to thinking about how one might do philosophy in the present Muslim world. However, there is a certain limitation in what is being proposed. Francophone African Muslim countries inherited the role of the teaching of philosophy in schools - not the case in the anglophone. And maybe this indicates the impossibility of the universal label of an Islamic philosophy in the present. That is precisely the point. Instead of our desire at times to find our Kant, our Wittgenstein, our Aristotle, we need to embrace a proper pluralism in which we recognise that philosophising is always made in the image of the seeker and we are different persons across the globe. History consists of the moments of understanding whence possibilities arise and which options were taken and might not have. The future of Islamic philosophy therefore will rest with Islamic philosophies. 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Polemics and Rational Discourse: Sayyid Nūr Allāh Shūshtarī (d. 1610) in Iran and India

Earlier in the week, I was speaking in Leiden on Qāḍī Nūr Allāh Shūshtarī (exe. 1610), the famous theologian from the Iraqi borderlands (and relative of the late marjaʿ Sayyid Shihāb al-Dīn Marʿashī who edited his works). 

My argument was to show that his polemics defending Shiʿi beliefs - and responding to some particularly harsh anti-Shiʿi polemics produced in the Ottoman and Central Asian lands - was designed to console believers, defend the faith and decisively defeat opponents, all while speaking truth to power. Once again it shows that the nature of religious polemics are to demonstrate that they address the co-religionists as much as the opponents. It also demonstrates that we should not consider polemics to be the other of rational discourse; rather, philosophical and theological formations often involve the articulation of one's ideas through their opposition to the other. 

The Ottoman-Safavid conflict that was part of the fabric of the disintegrating Timurid dispensations in Persianate lands in the sixteenth century led to a new round of quite bitter religious polemics as a discursive consolation and prop to the clashes of weapons on the battlefield. This round of the battle of words was harshly initiated by fatwās issued in Ottoman lands and in the Uzbek Shībanid khanate anathemising the Shiʿa as dangerous heretics whose blood was licit. Perhaps the most significant theologian to respond on the Shiʿi side, and one who looked across the history of such polemics and wrote three voluminous, practically decisive, defensive polemics to support his fellow believers and attack Sunni polemicists was Sayyid Nūr Allāh Shūshtarī (exe. 1610). A scion of an eminent sayyid scholarly lineage from the borderlands of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires in southern Iraq, his training brought together a thorough grounding in Shiʿi systematic theology, philosophy, law and legal theory, nurtured by teachers whose intellectual lineage traced back to the philosophers of Shiraz. His life was punctuated by the conflict in the West and in the East. He moved to the Safavid courts from lands precariously close to Ottoman control and when in Mashhad was acutely aware of the threat from the Uzbeks. The instability of the period after the death of Shah Ṭāhmasb convinced him of the need to flee to India where he attained the favour of the Mughal ruler Akbar and was appointed as a judge in Agra and then Lahore. 

Importantly, Shūshtarī rejected the practice of taqīya in his time and  recognised the freedom that he has at the court of Akbar. In a letter to his friend - and Shaykh al-Islām of Isfahan - Bahāʾ al-Dīn al-ʿĀmilī, he wrote: 

After traversing long distances and undergoing considerable pains and agony, I reached the Indian capital. There, fortune favoured me, and I obtained an opportunity to benefit from the luminous sun and found repose under the shadow of the great Sultan, Akbar…

Through divine grace and blessings, I obtained a lofty position and the honour of the companionship of the emperor…[whose] patronage and favours increase daily. In fact my success is due to divine munificence and the benevolence of the Prophet and the friend of God, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib. The high position and nearness to the Emperor did not, however, make me forgetful of myself. I was always conscious of the hereafter and of the ultimate end of mortal beings. In refuting the arguments and the rationale of the Nawāṣib[anti-Shiʿi Sunnis], I was guided by the holy traditions of my ancestors. In these circumstances, I came to the conclusion that in India, taqiyya was a great calamity. It would expel out children from the Imāmīya faith and make them embrace the false Ashʿarī or Mātūrīdi faiths. Reinforced by the kindness and the bounty of the Sultan, I cast off the mantle of taqīyafrom my shoulders and, taking with me an army of arguments, I plunged myself into jihādagainst the Sunni ʿulamāʾ of this country. I was convinced that active religious polemics and discussions against the Sunni ʿulamāʾ was the jihād which would make the best provision for the world hereafter. 

First of all, I wrote Maṣāʾib al-nawāṣib which refutes the Nawāqiḍ al-rawāfiḍ. My arguments in that book smeared the beard of the author of the Nawāqiḍ with filth. Then I wrote al-Ṣawārim al-muhriqa. Because of my book the bitter attacks by the author of the Sawāʾiq on the Shīʿīs rebounded upon him and reduced the Sawāʾiq, which claimed to be lightening to ashes. God also gave me the strength to perform other deeds.

And he did write other works, not least the voluminous Iḥqāq al-ḥaqq wa-izhāq al-bāṭil, which critiqued not only Sunnī attacks on Shiʿi imamology but also positions in theology such as divine agency and human responsibility, the problem of prophetic inerrancy, and other questions in theological metaphysics and epistemology. However, the situation was changing and the death of his friends at court and of Akbar, and the uncertainty of the early years of Jahangir's reign made his situation precarious. Already in 1603, he again wrote to his friend Bahāʾ al-Dīn:

For some time, fortune has deprived me of its favours. The mean and wretched India has caused me unbearable pain and shock. Not only has the Sultan ended his patronage and benevolence towards me, but he has closed the doors of my departure to Khurāsān and Iraq. When the tyranny and oppressions against me began to mount and the sufferings and anguish stepped up I began to imagine India (Hind) was the same Hind (bint ʿUtba) who ate the liver of my great uncle Ḥamza (ibn Muṭṭalib)

Philosophy after Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī: The Case of Dabīrān Kātibī Qazwīnī (d. 1277)

Mustakim Arici, on the faculty at Theology in Marmara University in Istanbul, has written a highly useful study of philosophy in the middle period with a focus on the work of Najm al-Dīn Abū-l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. ʿUmar Dabīrān Kātibī Qazwīnī (d. 675/1277), perhaps best known for his logical primer, al-Risāla al-Shamsīya. On a visit to Istanbul a couple of years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the author who presented me a copy. 

The work is divided into five chapters. The first is a life and works, and an intellectual history of the philosopher. Kātibī's main teacher was the prominent Avicennian Athīr al-Dīn al-Abharī (d. 663/1264), author of the influential Hidāyat al-Ḥikma (commented by Mīr Ḥusayn Maybudī and Mullā Ṣadrā and copiously glossed especially in India). His Zubdat al-ḥaqāʾiq has yet to be published - there is an excellent manuscript in Oxford. Kātibī lived in arguably a golden age of Islamic philosophy: his contemporaries included the logician Afḍal al-Dīn al-Khunajī (d. 646/1248) author of Kashf al-asrār, Sirāj al-Dīn Urmawī (d. 682/1283) author of Laṭāʾif al-ḥikma, the polymath Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 672/1274), perhaps the main conduit for a majoritarian reading of Avicennian metaphysics, Shams al-Dīn Samarqandī (d. 702/1303) whose Qisṭās al-afkār and Ishkāl al-taʾsīs have been published recently, and Ibn Kammūna (d. 683/1284), a rather independent minded thinker who glossed the works of Suhrawardī. 

Kātibī's students included major thinkers of the next generation such as Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (d. 710/1311), best known for his commentary on Ḥikmat al-ishrāq of Suhrawardī, and the Imāmī theologian Ibn al-Muṭahhar al-Ḥillī (d. 726/1325), whose Kashf al-murād was a major commentary on Ṭūsī's influential theological primer Tajrīd al-iʿtiqād, and author of a critical gloss on the Shamsīya as well as an original work on a cycle of philosophy entitled al-Asrār al-khafīya. Kātibī wrote a number of works in logic but the best known is his Risāla Shamsīya (although he also wrote a gloss on his teacher's Kashf al-asrār -MS Carullah 1418). Tony Street at Cambridge has a translation of the text (there is also a classical one by Aloys Sprenger). In philosophy, Kātibī's best known work is Ḥikmat al-ʿayn, divided into two sections on metaphysics and natural philosophy (like the Hidāyat al-ḥikma). He also wrote two commentaries on works of Rāzī: al-Munaṣṣaṣ fī sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ (he refers to MS Şehit Ali Paşa 1680), and al-Mufaṣṣal fī sharḥ al-muḥaṣṣal (MS Suleymaniye 782). Another work is his commentary on Abharī's Kashf al-ḥaqāʾiq (MS Carullah 1351). There are a number of commentaries and glosses on Ḥikmat al-ʿayn beginning with Kitāb al-fawāʾid fī sharḥ Ḥikmat ʿayn al-qawāʿid of Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (a good manuscript is Veliyuddin Efendi 3399 in Istanbul), Īḍāh al-maqāṣid min ḥikmat ʿayn al-qawāʿid of al-Ḥillī (edited by ʿAlī-Naqī Munzavī and published in Tehran in 1959), and Sharḥ Ḥikmat al-ʿayn of Mīrak b. Mubārak Shāh Bukhārī (fl. 784/1382, ed. Jaʿfar Zāhidī and published in Mashhad in 1976), on whose commentary there are plenty of important glosses by al-Sharīf ʿAlī al-Jurjānī (d. 816/1413), Shams al-Dīn Khafrī (d. 957/1550), Ghiyāth al-Dīn Dashtakī (d. 949/1542), Mirzājān Bāghnawī Shīrāzī (d. 994/1586 - his gloss on the metaphysics has been edited by ʿAlī Ḥaydarī Yusāvilī and published in Qum by Majmaʿ-yi zakhāʾir-i islāmī in 2012) and ʿAbd al-Ḥakīm Siyālkutī (d. 1067/1656) (as well as many other Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal philosophers). Most of the later 'super-glosses' are on Jurjānī, Khafrī, and Bāghnawī.

Arinci provides this useful picture to show Kātibī and his connections: 

The second is an analysis of what it means to argue that metaphysics is a science and how it relates to logic. It includes an analysis of the different structures of philosophical works. Again Arinci provides two useful comparative tables on works of Avicenna and after:

The third chapter is a study of the ontology (umūr ʿāmma) and considers particular issues such as the nature of being (wujūd, varlik in Turkish), of essence (māhīya), unity and multiplicity, necessity and possibility (the modalities), creation and eternity (ḥudūthqidam), and the nature of causality (ʿillīya). Here he has a comparative table on the contents of ontology:

The fourth chapter considers divine agency and the problem of the creation of the cosmos (and whether it is eternal - the theory of emanation). The final chapter analyses the human self and the rational soul. The main point to gauge is the extent to which Kātibī's positions are influenced by Rāzī and respond to Ṭusī. There is then an appendix on two important cycles of works initiated by Kātibī: the Shamsīya, and the Ḥikmat al-ʿayn

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The life of the mind in contemporary Iran

Read alongside the recent interventions in modern Iranian intellectual history by Cyrus Schayegh, Alireza Doostdar on the metaphysical and the occult, and Ata Anzali on the rise of the category of the 'mystical' (which I had the pleasure of reading for the press and endorsing in a blurb), Hossein Kamaly's new book God and Man in Tehran represents a major event that should be and can be read profitably by those wishing to make sense of the intellectual roots of modern Iran as well as working through the dynamics and complexities of the Safavid period. 

What is at stake is making sense of the visions of theology in the modern period, along the spectrum from atheologies to the most forthright political theology of absolutist notions of sovereignty. 

In seven chapters, Kamaly takes us along this spectrum from the Qajar period to revolutionary Iran, considering the impact of the sciences upon 'mediatory theology', the teaching of philosophy within and without the madraseh, the transformations in Sufism (both of the more official orders and informal networks and apparatuses), and a whole range of reformist thought within Islam. Along this journey, Kamaly introduces many an intellectual to us, unknown on the whole expect to those who read the sources and understand the more intellectual milieu in Persian well. 

That it is centred on Tehran is significant, because it is the city and the centre that since the Qajar period has taken over from Isfahan as the intellectual core of Iran and the central place in Iranian intellectual history. Chapter 3, although not actually on Khomeini, nevertheless helps us to understand Khomeini far better than much of what is published on him. Chapter 4 explains the lasting allure of uṣūlī Shiʿism. Chapter 5 analyses the reasons why madraseh philosophy embraced Mullā Ṣadrā and promoted his thought. In that chapter, Hādī Najmābādī (d. 1902) is discussed, a figure who would be worth a dissertation - perhaps alongside his contemporary, a real mover and shaker of the seminary (and a leading beneficiary of financial corruption within it) Āqā Najafī. This chapter also shows some of the keys links between the seminary and the study of philosophy in the new Tehran University (and it is no accident that the old Sepahsalar madraseh was at least for a time the theology and philosophy faculty of the new university). Chapter 6 deals with the Sufis orders and ʿerfān - the only element that could take the argument further would be the ways in which the latter is contested in post-revolutionary Iran in the public and private spheres associated with the legacies of Ṭabāṭabāʾī and others in his circle. 

The final chapter hints at the links between skepticism and the reformists and winks at the older tradition of the rind in Ḥāfeẓ - but it is far too short. If it is a conclusion, one would want more. The book on the whole is a series of wonderful vignettes that in effect table a whole gamut of research questions that eager graduate students should take forward. This does not detract from its value as a snapshot of the various modes of understanding 'theologies' in modern Iran centred on Tehran. As a work it is also an expression of the culture of modern Tehran, at once at home with poetry and the literary greats as well as the philosophy and theology of Persian Islam. 

Whatever happened to the school of Isfahan?

I do not normally like using the concept of the school of Isfahan, not least because as I have argued in my entry on the subject in the Encyclopaedia Iranica there was no such thing. However, the question of what happened to the study of philosophy in Isfahan after the supposed persecution of the late Safavid period and then the Afghan sack and occupation remains worthy of study, especially as many including myself have written about the revival of the study of philosophy in Qajar Iran with Mullā ʿAlī Nūrī (d. 1831), as I have discussed in a forthcoming article in a volume on Qajar philosophy edited by Reza Pourjavady, and with Mullā Hādī Sabzavārī (d. 1873), as I discussed in an article in Iranian Studies that is ultimately based on research I did over two decades ago. 

I attempt to fill in some of this gap in a new article that is out in a volume entitled Crisis, Collapse, Militarism & Civil War: The History & Historiography of 18th Century Iran, edited by my friend and colleague Michael Axworthy.

In this piece, I argue that this period, far from being devoid of philosophical inquiry and study, was flush with new centres for its study and new tendencies, perhaps not the best philosophers but ones who were critical with respect to the work of Mullā Ṣadrā. It took most of the century for people to contest his key metaphysical doctrines of the ontological priority of existence in reality (aṣālat al-wujūd), of the notion of flux in existence through the idea of motion in the category of substance (ḥaraka jawharīya), and the attempt to reconcile unity and multiplicity through the dynamic idea of the modulation of existence (tashkīk al-wujūd).

Other insights from the study of the period include:
1) The Avicennian school was one that took on the reading of Mīr Dāmād (d. 1631), such that his doctrine of perpetual creation (ḥudūth dahrī) became the dominant Avicennian approach to the question of the incipience of the cosmos.

2) The interaction of Sufi metaphysics, especially the monism of the school of Ibn ʿArabī, and philosophy was creative: not only was waḥdat al-wujūd one of the most contested doctrines in the period, but the debates on the meaning of 'absolute existence' (wujūd muṭlaq) and the semantic range of existence (wujūd) continued into the modern period and extended the earlier debates that at least in their nascent form took place between Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī and Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī in the 13th century. 

3) The shrine cities of Iraq were major centres for philosophical and mystical speculation - that may surprise those familiar with their more recent intellectual history. A fuller study of philosophy and mysticism in the shrine cities in the Safavid period and beyond is a clear desideratum and would make an excellent topic of research.

4) The vogue of studying philosophy - or claiming to study and teach the Metaphysics of Avicenna for example of which there are at least 12 major sets of marginalia in the late 17th and 18th centuries - continued uncontested and unhindered and a further study of the memorials of ʿulema confirms that. 

5) Perhaps the thinkers of this period were not major ones who would necessarily enter into the canon of philosophy. Nevertheless, they were the ones who debated Avicenna and Mullā Ṣadrā and played a key role in producing the modern hegemony of Mullā Ṣadrā, about whom Hossein Kamaly argues in his recent book (about which more later) that it was MS's thought that was instrumentalised by philosophers and theologians as a defensible form of rational theology in the favour of the criticism of Christian missionaries and others in the intellectually divisive Qajar period - as Kamaly mentions (as I do in my Nūrī article forthcoming), Nūrī in his refutation of Henry Martyn (entitled significantly Ḥujjat al-Islām) makes much of the superior rationality of Islam with respect to the philosophical frailties of Christian missionaries. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Ueberweg

In this age of handbooks, companions and encyclopaedias, the Ueberweg - or to give it its proper title Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie - is something quite different, a monument to slow, careful and 'objective' research. It is designed to be definitive, magisterial, authoritative and unbiased and to stand the test of time - and given the fact that we still do not have a good sense of the full course of the intellectual history of philosophy in the world of Islam, it will end up defining for a generation at least the outline of that story.

Four volumes are planned to cover the history of Islamic philosophy of which the first volume on the early period before Avicenna has appeared in German as well as in English translation. There will also be online versions that may well be more comprehensive and updated by the authors. 

The four volumes are:

1) 8th to 10th Century - already out 

2) 10th to 12th Century - this will cover the critical period of Avicenna and includes the various initial responses including Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī - currently in final stages of editing 

3) 13th to 18th Century - the high point of the post-classical period with a long (multi-authored) chapter on the 13th to the 15th century, a ground breaking piece on the history of logic by Khaled el-Rouayheb, philosophy in Shiraz from Jurjānī to Sammākī by Reza Pourjavady, myself on Safavid philosophy (Mīr Dāmād and his students, Mullā Ṣadrā and his students, Rajab ʿAlī Tabrīzī and his students, the Avicennian tradition, and the reception of Mullā Ṣadrā up to and including Mahdī Narāqī), Asad Ahmed and Renate Wursch on India, Sait Ozervali on Ottoman philosophy and so forth; this volume will probably not appear for around 5 years

4) 1800 to the present - this is the modern volume; I have a chapter on Avicennians and the critique of Mullā Ṣadrā in this volume - this is also in the editing stage

This will supplement and act as the foundation for students for some time to come adding to the existing resources that are critically important such as the Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy, and the volume on Philosophy in the Islamic World  as part of Peter Adamson's the History of Philosophy without any gaps podcast transcripts. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Mullā Ṣadrā on the esoteric

Not surprisingly, Mullā Ṣadrā has plenty to say about the practice of esotericism, about taʾwīl and the proper attitude one needs to take on the Qurʾan and how one ought to use one's sense perception and intellect to grasp realities. Consider the following:

Know that the Qurʾan like the human is divided into what is enunciated (ʿalan) and what is held secret (sirr), and all of it has an exoteric and an esoteric aspect and the esoteric has a further esoteric aspect and so forth until the point where only God knows: ‘no one knows its meaning (taʾwīl) except God’ (Q. III.7. It is also related in the ḥādīth that ‘the Qurʾan has an exoteric and an esoteric aspect and its esoteric has another seven levels of esotericism’, which are like the levels that are esoteric in the human such as the soul (al-nafs), the heart (al-qalb), the intellect (al-ʿaql), the spirit (al-rūḥ), the secret (al-sirr), the hidden (al-khafī) and the most hidden (al-akhfā). 

What is manifest from what is enunciated (ẓāhir ʿalanihi) is the sensible and tactile artifact and the rolled up scroll that is held, but what is hidden from what is enunciated is what the esoteric sense (al-ḥiss al-bāṭin) perceives and resembles what the reciters and the memorisers store from their perceptions in their imagination and its like. The inner sense cannot perceive the pure meaning but as it is mixed with corporeal accidents even if it seems to be devoid of the sensible. Estimation and imagination like the exoteric sense are not present in the absolutely pure esoteric meaning such as the absolute meaning of humanity but rather in a sense that is mixed in extra-mental reality with accretions and veils such as [the categories] of quantity and quality and place and position. If either of the two [estimation and imagination] attempted to picture the absolute meaning of humanity without an extrinsic element, they would not be able to do so but rather all they could do is affirm a limited form with attachments drawn from the external senses…

These two levels of the Qurʾan are earthly and evident to every human that perceives. However, its esoteric aspect and its secret are two levels for the afterlife and each of them has degrees:

The first of the two is what the human spirit perceives through constituting it from the conception of meaning through definition and its essence, shorn of extrinsic properties, grasped by intelligible principles, such that it may be true of many, uniting in it opposites in unity. An example of this is that the human spirit cannot perceive what has not been stripped away from the stage of creation and shorn away the dust of the senses and not ascended to the stage of the command, since it is not a property of the sensible insofar as it is sensible to intellect just as it is not the property of the intellect to sense through a corporeal instrument. What is pictured through the senses is limited and specific to a place and a space and a time and a quantity and a quality. The intelligible essence cannot rest in what is discerned through the senses. The human spirit, rather, encounters true knowledge through an intelligible substance located in the world of the command, not located in a body, nor pictured through something internal to a sense or through estimation. 

The senses and what pertains to them deploy themselves in the world of creation (ʿālam al-khalq) and the intellect deploys what is in it in the world of command (ʿālam al-amr) and what is above both creation and command is most beloved to them both. God the exalted said: It is a dignifying Qurʾan in a hidden book that none may touch save the purified, a revelation from the Lord of the worlds’ (Q. LVI.77–80). Remember that it has properties that have stages and stations, the highest of which is dignity with God, and the lowest is descended in the world. There is no doubt that the word of God qua his word before its descent to the world of command, that is the preserved table (al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ) and before its descent to the world of the heavens of the earth, and that is the tablet of effacement and affirmation (lawḥ al-maḥw wa-l-ithbāt) and the world of creation and determination (ʿālam al-khalq wa-l-taqdīr), has a degree that is above all stages that none of the prophets may perceive except in the station of union, by forgoing these two states of being and by reaching the ‘two bows length or less’ and setting aside the two worlds of creation and command. As the most excellent of the prophets, peace be with him and his progeny: I have a moment with my Lord to which none can attain, neither an angel brought close (malak muqarrab) nor a messenger commissioned (nabī mursal). 

The possessors of this stage is chosen to encounter the Qurʾan with respect to this stage, alluding to this stage in His word, the exalted: None knows its meaning save God and those rooted in knowledge (Q. III.7), and his saying: As for one whose heart God has expanded for submission, such that he is a light from his Lord (Q. XXXIX.22). And in the narration: There is a form of knowledge that is like a hidden thing that none know except the knowers of God. God alluded to the station of the heart and of the esoteric sense in his saying: Verily in that is a reminder to one who possesses a heart or harkens while he witnesses (Q. L.37), and in his saying: Had we listened or had we thought we would not be of the people of the blazing fire (Q. LXVII.10), and in his saying: Shelter him until he hears the word of God (Q. IX.6), and in his saying: There is none among us save that he has a known station (Q. XXXVII.164), alluding to the stations of knowers in the degrees of knowledge, as he said: We raise in degrees whom we will and above every possessor of knowledge is a knower (Q. XII.76), and his saying: Those are the messengers, we favoured some over others (Q. II.253), and his saying: God privileged some of you over others in sustenance (Q. XVI.71).

In sum, the Qurʾan has degrees and levels just as the human has stages and stations. The lowest stage of the Qurʾan like the lowest stage for the human lies in its binding and cover just as the lowest degree of the human lies in its being a creature and passive. Every degree of it (the Qurʾan) has its bearers who memorise it and write it and they do not touch it except after purifying themselves from filth or from their incipience (ḥadathihim aw ḥudūthihim) and they sanctify it above attachment to their location or to their contingency (makānihim aw imkānihim). The husk of the human only pertains to the ink of the Qurʾan and its sensible form. The human of the exoteric husk cannot perceive but the outer meanings of the husk. 

The spirit of the Qurʾan and its core and its secret can only be discerned by those who discern, and it cannot be grasped by knowledge acquired by learning and reflecting, but rather by knowledge from him (al-ʿulūm al-ladunnīya), and we aim to explain these forms of knowledge and establish them by demonstrations God willing.

The reality of wisdom can only come from knowledge that is from him, and if the soul does not reach that stage it cannot be wise since wisdom is a gift from God the exalted: ‘he gives wisdom to whom he wills and whoever has been given wisdom has been given a great good’ (Q. II.269), and they are the ones who have arrived at this stage.

Know that since revelation (waḥī) has come to an end and the gate of messengership been closed, people no longer need messengers and the promulgation of the mission after the confirmation of the proof and the completion of the religion as God the exalted said: This day have I perfected for you your religion’ (Q. V.3).

The gate to inspiration is not closed and the support by the light of guidance has not been cut off since people – drowning as they are in these devilish whisperings – need warning and reminding but God has closed the gate to revelation (waḥī) and opened the gate to inspiration (ilhām) as a mercy from him to his creatures.

Mullā Ṣadrā, Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, I, 65-69.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Conceptualising Theology in Islam: Beyond kalām

There is little doubt that Islamic intellectual history is enjoying quite a vogue at the moment and areas such as the historical study of Qurʾanic exegesis, philosophical traditions, mysticisms and even theological traditions are flourishing in academia. Recent and contemporary interest in what exactly Islam is (partly inspired by Shahab Ahmed's posthumous monograph What is Islam?), its diverse historical and contemporary manifestations and the problem of understanding what sort of category Islam is and how meaningful the notion of the islamic is, are all central to academic concerns of those in the study of religion and contemporary thought. There is a sense in which the study of Islam is being dragged into a number of important current debates in method in various disciplines, and it is no longer the cases that articles and works on Islam are confined to the ghetto of Islamic studies or area studies journals and publication series alone. 

The appetite for students to consume some of these ideas - partly no doubt intrigued by the ubiquity of Islam-talk in the public sphere - has also led to the need to provide materials that will provide nourishment for that curiosity. There is a perennial need for textbooks and aids for the the ubiquitous Introduction to Islam classes in metropolitan academia. Hence the recent proliferation of handbooks, companions, encyclopaedias and other sourcebooks that can be profitably used in the classroom. 

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology is precisely one of these aids for the student available on the market - and in most cases probably accessible in e-book format through university libraries. Thinking in terms of possible rivals, it is difficult to come up with a comparable volume. Despite the recent flourishing on studies on kalām, especially on particular thinkers and sub-traditions, and the many texts now available to us, there is no decent single volume introduction to Islamic theology on the market. The older volumes by Tritton, Anawati and Gardet, Watt and others are rather outdated and tend to focus on the narrow 'formative' period. The formidable achievement of Josef van Ess' Theologie und Gessellschaft I'm 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra, now appearing in English translation with Brill with three volumes published so far, is focused on the early period and far too specialised for that sort of readership. 

There is also plenty of new material on contemporary thought - with an emphasis often on violence, politics (Islamisms in particular) and gender - but little that is joined up to provide us with a useful textbook for the classroom. Notable volumes on contemporary theology including the pioneering Progressive Islam volume edited by Omid Safi and the recent volume Men in Charge which is a significant contribution on the range of feminist theology (there are of course many other monographs including the influential earlier one by Amina Wadud and more recently Kecia Ali). What some of these contemporary studies demonstrate is that the line between legal, ethical and theological reasoning is at times difficult to discern as the three fields often explicitly overlap - the legal renders the ethical and expresses the theological to put it in one way. 

Having taught an undergraduate module on Islamic theological traditions for well over a decade, I have always struggled to find a singular work that I could set for my students as an introductory text. My interest - and that of my students - is not merely historical but also theological in itself trying to make sense of what we understand as theological reasoning in Islam and to what end such discourses are articulated. From next year, this handbook will become a core element of the reading list for that class.

Handbooks of this type tend to be either fêted or damned, the former through affiliations and excessive praise, and the latter through picking on lacunae and the choice of selections. The former can also be somewhat tedious - one thinks of other recent volumes which are praised beyond reason to stress the paradigm shifting nature of the questions asked, although on closer scrutiny neither the questions asked nor the insights offered are actually that exciting. What cannot be denied is that this handbook is a very solid volume that brings together the various research interests of people working on kalām in Islamic thought, primarily from the perspective of intellectual history with a singular nod or two to the modern and contemporary period. Rich in detail and historically organized, the volume is divided into five sections: Islamic theologies in the early periods concerned with the formation of schools, four case studies of interactions with pre-Islamic thought and different disciplines such as logic, Islamic theologies in the middle and early modern periods or the scholastic age, the interaction of political and social history with theology (partly a study in types of contextualism), and Islamic theological thought in the modern period. If you want to know who is working on what in Islamic intellectual history focused on theology, this is the place to check – and if you’re looking for an excellent bibliography of kalām, you need go nowhere else. However, this may also be a significant weakness as it does point to the rather indexical nature of much of the content.

The introduction is divided into two sections – the former attempts a rather vague and somewhat inadequate definition of theology in Islam that is reduced to ʿilm al-kalām, and the latter presents a useful historical overview of the historiography on that field of inquiry. If you ever wanted to teach a history of the academic study of kalām, the bibliography is here in that section. The first section narrows onto two particular concerns of kalām: the nature of God and the nature of her agency and begins with a consideration of a normative set of statements about the central belief in God and her attributes in the Qurʾan. Historically - and a diachronic study of elements of kalām discourse - may well demonstrate the sound nature of such an approach. But does this render what one might mean when one asks the historical and normative questions about the nature of theologies in Islam? What is also conceded is that the Qurʾanic approach to the presentation of divine agency brings into detail the fallibility of creation and in particular the human. The Qurʾan in that sense is as much the story of humanity, its whence, where and whither. But that of course is also true of theology that historically and certainly through a presentist prism of inquiry focuses upon the inter-subjectivity of humans with respect to God and the cosmos. 

The introduction does not take up issues of theoretical approach: it does not address the central question of hermeneutics, the exoteric and esoteric approaches to texts, the kataphatic and apophatic discourses of the nature of the divine, or the relationship between kalām and other disciplines such as Qurʾanic exegesis, philosophy, and mysticism. Some of these interdisciplinary concerns find their way into chapters by Pink, El-Rouayheb and Nguyen – at least there is recognition that mystical reasoning in Islam constitutes a form of theology but even here there is all too brief mention of the school of Ibn ʿArabī and no systematic consideration of apophasis (the subject incidentally of an excellent forthcoming monograph by Aydogan Kars). Nevertheless, there is a sense that the basic dichotomy of considering theology through the lens of rationalism and traditionalism remains a paramount organizing principle. The absence of a more engaged consideration of what we mean by kalām and theology means that the bounds of the discourses are not clear – nor is the very notion of theology problematized; after all, far too much of our language of the study of religion and especially one such as Islam arises from the desire to apply comparative language and categories that are usually derived and defined from the normative case of the study of the Church. Thus we tend to talk of theology, of orthodoxy, of creeds, of clashes between reason and revelation, of the structure and ecclesiology of authority, of magisteria and political theology.

Are the generic boundaries heuristically useful? We notice that the lines between the issues discussed in philosophy (ḥikma), kalām, exegesis and mystical texts seems to blur in the later period – and one way of lumping them together is to consider them to be a unity that we might call the rational humanities or the maʿqūlāt. But does that mean that the practitioners themselves felt that the generic boundaries were meaningless? Consider two historically divergent definitions, one that distinguishes kalām from philosophy and the other that distinguishes philosophy from kalām and mysticism. The Avicennian philosopher and (soft) Ashʿarī theologian Mīr Ḥusayn Maybudī (d. 1504) in his widely glossed commentary on the Hidāyat al-ḥikma of al-Abharī (d. 1265) examines the definition of philosophy and at one point discusses whether philosophy and kalām are the same ‘science’ because so many of the issues overlap but then decides that there is a meaningful distinction: kalām discusses no doubt ontological, epistemological and cosmological views alongside the nature of God but it does so within the parameters of the law and ethos of Islam (qānūn al-islām). Strictly speaking, philosophy is not so constrained. But one wonders about that in practice: Avicenna famously postulated an onto-cosmological proof for the existence of God and tied it – in a self-described philosophical work – to an exegesis of a verse of the Qurʾan, and elsewhere in his psychology he linked his theory of the stages of the rational soul with an exegesis on the light verse in the Qurʾan. In the later period, especially from the Safavid, the concept of ḥikma takes on a life of its own and cannot be divorced from onto-theology even if the claim is that the metaphysical study of being qua being or of the absolute mode of being is not reducible to God as its primary referent. The modern Iranian Shiʿi mystically inclined political theologian Ayatollah Khomeini (d. 1989) in a number of his early works on the school of Ibn ʿArabī similarly tried to differentiate philosophy from mysticism and kalām by considering the subject matter, a classic way of defining and bounding a ‘science’. From the classical period, a science was defined as an inquiry that studied the essential accidents of its subject matter and within that, philosophy studied the essential accidents of being qua being (namely, issues such as modalities, unity and multiplicity, causality and other issues that pertained to things that obtain in extra-mental reality but are not considered insofar as they are physical objects or creatures of a God). Khomeini opined that the absolute mode of being (al-wujūd al-muṭlaq) when considered in philosophy was abstract and included a study of God, but for the theologian, it was precisely how God was understood, and for the mystic, the absolute mode of being was exclusively for God because nothing exists save God.

Perhaps such distinctions are somewhat scholastic – but there is little doubting that their articulators took them seriously. Another sense in which the definition of theology postulated in this volume is perhaps too narrow is to take more seriously other disciplines in Islamic learned culture that rendered theological reasoning. The most obvious broad lacuna in the volume is the theology of the legal theorists and hermeneuts who engaged with scriptural texts and the dictates of reason in order to derive the law and effect moral agency. On the more practical side, the narrowing of theology to kalām misses a whole area of practical, applied and pastoral theologies that are highly pertinent today in which, while the older forms of rational and natural theology relating to proving the existence of God and the possibility of the immaterial as well as justifying beliefs in revelation and so forth still hold, contemporary thinkers are far more focused on theology as a set of inter-subjective relations and perspectives that arise in the human sphere and within the cosmos as sacralised, enchanted faces of the divine – as one set of theological engagements in the present put it, one does not need to defend God but rather one ough to focus on issues of justice, diversity, equality and ethics among humans and others in the cosmos. Even the life cycle of the Muslim experience, the range of ritual practices, the texture of life in quotidian living as well as extraordinary acts of pilgrimage, is largely unconsidered. A further lacuna relates to the occult and the link between kalām and science that was central to the middle period. 

This points to the second organizational principle of the volume – it is a collectivity of schools and school positions. It is not a thematic or problem based approach to the study of theology that could be highly useful, drawing upon the range of persuasions and confessional affiliations that defined themselves as within Islam to address issues. In that way, the stark distinction between the pre-modern and the modern could be resolved. Thus we have a historical survey, beginning with the Qadariyya and the Jahmiyya, moving onto the Muʿtazila and the Ashāʿira, continuing into their scholastic periods and their later manifestations in Sunni and Shiʿi schools as well as alternative trajectories with the Ibāḍiyya and the Ismailis, then the geographical spread of these schools followed by a final consideration albeit too brief on modern developments. Themes are raised within chapters and if one wishes to trace how ideas on free will and determinism developed, one would select a certain path of reading through the volume. The emphasis on thinkers and texts tends to obscure that or even miss the larger trends; for example, within the study of Imāmī theology, if one wished to see how sets of doctrinal positions and arguments that were often condemned in the formative rationalising period as 'extremist' (ghulūw) became normalised certainly by the Safavid period as core to Imāmī theology, how would one set about understanding that process? If the Safavid period was indeed formative for Imāmī (political) theology in the present, then without simply following a whiggish method, how might one interrogate that? How diachronically did the notions of walāya develop, and can one discern distinct traditions overlapping, debating and opposing each other into the present? Perhaps a short reading guide at the end, or even at the beginning, could help readers negotiate that. 

Along the way, there are two sections of case studies: one on some intriguing theological concepts such as occasionalism, the theory of ‘states’, ethical value and the relationship of theology and law, and the other on historical events such as the miḥna, the rivalry of Sunni theologies in the middle period, and the religious policy of the Almohads. In the latter section of cases studies, I do not see why these discussions could not have been subsumed into other chapters – but then with handbooks often it is not a simple case of rational organisation. Whenever we put together a collected volume, we often have the ideal structure and arrangement in mind, but that ideal cannot always be mapped onto the possible or even the practicable. In the former section, one wonders what happened to these debates or are they merely mentioned for antiquarian reasons? For example, Rudolph’s masterful piece on occasionalism is an excellent entry to the topic but various questions come to mind: what is the relationship between atomism and occasionalism, did not Avicennism render occasionalism obsolete, what do we make of the neo-Ashʿarī, neo-occasionalists of today in the Arab and Turkish Sunni world? Similarly the piece on states by Thiele is a solid analysis of the reception of Abū Hāshim in Ashʿarī circles, and as such an interesting case study of doctrines and positions in schools that bleed across boundaries, but it does not say anything about the later Muʿtazilī reception of the theory and why it failed to provide a solution to the nominalist and eternalist problems of the divine attributes. The only contribution in that section that brings us close to our time is El-Rouayheb on logic but even then the question of the permissibility and use of logic within theology remains a live debate in various circles today.

There is still plenty in the volume that demonstrates the best in research on kalām and why we should take theology in Islam seriously in any study. Treiger’s piece on the origins of kalām is a good mix of the state of research on the Christian dialectical context and the early debates on the nature of the Qurʾan. The two excurses of the first part are similarly important: Griffith on the early development of what we call Christian kalām – and one cannot help but think that the language of Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī and Ḥunayn and others in Baghdad was central to the development of arguments on tawḥīd in early Islam – and Crone on why we should not take the march of monotheism to have been uncontested by dualists and others. In fact, taken together they represent a good way of problematizing tawḥīd – both from Christians and especially from dualists. It was precisely the commonality and divergence on the issue of monotheism that one could see as a central theme in early Islamic theologies. However, and not without some irony, I am more skeptical about taking the sources at face value on these forms of alternative cosmologies in early Islam and certainly I would question attempts to project atheisms in particular back to this period. And one small quibble – it might seem neat to translate khulliṭa as ‘became unhinged’ (page 123) but surely the more literal is more accurate. The Imāmī sources used it to describe people who became ‘confused’ through their debates with the zanādiqa and hence mixed up correct with incorrect beliefs. The third excursus by Schwarb is a further excellent example of how the boundaries of kalām are not so straightforward and we should consider it to be a type of discourse that could be tied to the defence or postulation of different theological confessions.

To my mind, the very best contributions are in fact the last two by Wielandt and Pink on modern developments. The Wielandt chapter is certainly something that could be profitably set for a course – a dizzingly diverse approach to modes of modernist thought that takes into consideration different genealogies of the present, across Sunni and Shiʿi contexts from the 19th century to the current Iranian reformers. It raises the critical question of what theology is and can mean today. Pink similarly shows the continuities and discontinuities of current Qurʾanic exegeses. She briefly discusses feminist approaches within the category of purposive exegesis. But this signals perhaps the last major lacuna of the volume that I wish to highlight: the complete absence of feminist and other types of intersectional critique in contemporary Islamic theologies. Given that this is becoming a rich area of research and activism with numerous publications and some of the most vivid and virulent debates in the contemporary study of Islam and in Islamic studies, it is somewhat surprising that it is absent from the volume. Some of the other Oxford handbooks relating to Islam do have a greater assessment of feminisms. But the absence here is disappointing because for too long, feminist approaches have been dismissed as ‘inadequately theological’ but it is difficult to justify such a position on the work of Barlas, Wadud, Chaudhury, Ali, Mir-Hosseini and many others. Similarly there are other geographical absences – Africa, especially West Africa, and South East Asia in particular come to mind: if a study on Ashʿarī theology in the Islamic West, then why not in South-East Asia where it arguably was a more lasting and significant influence? And what of the growing forms of Islamic theologies in North America and Europe, not least through strange experiments with governmental interventions in social policy and religious engineering? It is perhaps unfair to focus on these lacunae - one is after all disappointed with not finding the volume one would have liked to see in print. Ultimately it is the choice of the editor and that is where the questions need to be posed. The historiographical health of the field depends on rigorous debate and disagreement based on methods, approaches, textual rigour, and creative readings and misreadings of texts. 

One can see how students and those interested in theology in Islam can use the volume profitably and it will certainly become the main resource for that. As I said before, it cannot see it being absent for reading lists on courses on Islamic theology. But perhaps because of that utility, that comprehensive survey and that indexicality, it is unlikely to enthuse readers with a desire to study theology in Islam. But to be fair, that was not the remit.

But then I should say something about what I would like a volume on Islamic theology to do (thinking quickly off the top of my head):

1) An introduction that explains what one means, normatively speaking, by theologies in Islam and how one might define them, study them, and relate them to their historical contexts and to their intellectual contexts by examining the other related disciplines and humanities associated with them

2) An analysis of initial issues and themes of debate - the origins question but also about the formulation of a theological language and its possibilities and the nature of that form of communication as a sets of terms exchanged within a certain language game bounded by reference to Islam or beyond as well

3) An examination of the sources that one would use to study theologies and their generic manifestations and the porous nature at times of the boundaries of these genres; the importance of the post-classical compendia would be critical here 

4) Diachronic studies of particular themes in their different contexts such as the reality of divine attributes, the problem of free will, the presence of evils, the possibilities of theology, the status of the Qurʾan, reward and punishment, authority and sovereign and so forth

5) Tracing in broad terms how particular theological confessions have developed since the classical period and their trajectories in the present

6) The nature of the epistemological shifts ushered with modernity and the new assumptions about the reality that we inhabit - whither theologies in Islam in a post-Kantian, post-Einstein/Heisenberg, post-Derridean, post-analytical, post-Beauvoir/Butler/Irigaray/Jantzen world? 

This is a tough ask - and perhaps can only be done through a rigorous and massively collaborative new set of historically informed systematic theological accounts in the present. Nevertheless, there remains a distinction between academically informed systematic theologies and the historical critical study of theologies and their intellectual development in contexts. Is the exigency of the age a new kalām or a new way of conceptualising theology?