Tuesday, July 17, 2018

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. 

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