Saturday, April 18, 2020

Greek Intellectual Heritage in Arabic: Some Notes on ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Badawī Part II

I first came across Badawī in 1996 as the editor of the famous 'Theologia Aristotelis' or Uthūlūjiyā, the text produced in the Kindī circle in Baghdad by Ibn Nāʿima al-Ḥimṣī based on paraphrases of sections of Enneads IV-VI of Plotinus (d. 270), an edition that was first published through the French Institute in Cairo in 1955 and remains the main edition that we use. I bought it in a (probably pirated but quite excellent and well bound in leather) edition produced by Intishārāt-i Bīdār a small outfit run by Muḥsin Bīdārfar himself a muḥaqqiq in Gozarkhān in Qum, a shop that opened (or at least used to) for a short time before Zuhr prayers and before Maghrib prayers. 

This was called Aflūṭīn ʿind al-ʿArab and included the edition with a useful introduction on the manuscripts as well as tables of correspondence to the Enneads and a Greek-Latin-Arabic glossary. 

The standard study on this is the Arabic Plotinus of Peter Adamson, his Notre Dame PhD dissertation published first in 2002 by Duckworth and then reprinted in 2017 with Gorgias

The ERC funded project of Cristina D'Ancona entitled Greek into Arabic on the text has yet to produce a new critical edition - although she has herself produced an excellent one on the first chapter of the text with an Italian translation and commentary

Also in the same year, 1955, he published an edition of various Neoplatonic texts in Arabic (al-Aflāṭūnīya al-muḥdatha ʿind al-ʿArab) including the influential Liber de Causis (fīʾl-maḥḍ al-khayr), which was to be more significant in the Latin medieval tradition through its translation. the text was based on the Arabic Proclus and related elements.  

At the same time, the editions of the Arabic Aristotle appeared:

The Arabic Aristotle (Arisṭū ʿind al-ʿarab) was published in 1947 by Dār al-nahḍa al-Miṣrīya (reprinted by the Kuwaiti government in 1978), and it contained book lambda of the Metaphysics as well as some of the famous commentarial glosses including Avicenna on book lambda from his non-extant Kitāb al-inṣāf (which has now been published with a French edition by Marc Geoffroy, Meryem Sebti and Jules Janssens by Vrin in Paris in 2014),

and his glosses on the Theologia Aristoteles also from the non-extant Kitāb al-inṣāf (which are forthcoming in an edition and French translation by Meryem Sebti, Daniel de Smet and Jules Janssens). These glosses were translated by Georges Vajda back in 1951.  Other important texts were various works of Alexander of Aphrodisias and the famous correspondence of Avicenna entitled al-Mubāḥathāt that was later edited and published by Muḥsin Bīdārfar in 1992. There is a slightly revised edition of this correspondence by Bīdārfar within the new Collected Works project of the Iranian Academy of Philosophy. 

The logic (Manṭiq Arisṭū) was published in 3 volumes in Dār al-nahḍa al-Miṣrīya in 1948, and reprinted by the Kuwaiti government in 1980. This was the complete organon: the Categories (Māqūlāt) translated by Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn (c. 830-910), De interpretatione (fīʾl-ʿibāra) also rendered by Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn, Prior Analytics (al-Qiyās) rendered by Theodorus (who seems to be unknown), Posterior Analytics (al-Burhān) translated by Abū Bishr Mattā ibn Yūnus (c. 870-940) based on Isḥāq's Syriac translation, Topics (al-Jadal) rendered by Abū ʿUthmān al-Dimashqī (d. c. 912), Sophistical Refutations (al-Sūfisṭīqā) in a team effort (consecutive drafts refined over generations) of Ibn Nāʿima, Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī (893-974) and Abū ʿAlī ʿĪsā Ibn Zurʿa (943-1008). 

Since it was common in late antiquity to include the Poetics and the Rhetoric in the organon (and place the Isagoge of Porphyry as an introduction to the corpus), he published an edition of the Rhetoric (fīʾl-khiṭāba) in 1959 (reprinted in Kuwait in 1979), and on the Poetics (fīʾl-shiʿr) in 1953 along with the commentaries of Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā and Ibn Rushd (reprinted in 1973).

On the discussion of why the Poetics and the Rhetoric were considered as part of the organon see the classic study of Deborah Black. Two years ago this useful study on the history of the Poetics appeared in Tehran by Sayyid Maḥmūd Yūsuf-i Sānī.

Later Rafīq ʿAjam and Gérard Juhāmī produced a new edition of the organon in the 1990s in two volumes, excluding the Poetics and the Rhetoric:

The De Anima was published by Dār al-nahḍa al-Miṣrīya in 1954 in the translation of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (809-873) along with some of the short commentaries. This was also reprinted in Kuwait in 1980. We know also from Rudiger Arnzen's work that there were other translations of the Greek and also paraphrases including one prominent one into Persian by Afḍal al-Dīn Kāshānī (d. c. 1209).

The De Caelo (fīʾl-samāʾ) appeared in 1961. 

The Physics (al-Ṭabīʿa) appeared in 1965. 

On the nature of Animals (Ṭibāʿ al-ḥayawān) came out in 1977. 

The Arabic de partibus animalium appeared in 1978. 
[I cannot say more about these works as they are in my office and I do not have access to them]

One of the critical elements of the corpus was the recognition of the importance of the commentators on Aristotle and even the realisation that some of those works were only extant in Arabic - this was Shurūḥ ʿalā Arisṭū mafqūda fīʾl-yūnānīya published by Dār al-Mashriq in Beirut in 1972, mainly Alexander of Aphrodisias and Themistius.

Badawī was one of the first to provide editions of the text of Proclus and Philoponus on the nature of the eternity of the cosmos that played a major role in the philosophical and theological debates in the ʿAbbāsid period and after. 

He also produced editions of the commentaries on Aristotle by Ibn Rushd as well as Ibn Sīnā's version of the Posterior Analytics, and on the Rhetoric by Ḥāzim al-Qarṭajannī in Cairo in 1961 and reprinted thereafter. 

As he has done for Plotinus early on, he published a volume of the corpus of Plato in 1973 - Aflāṭūn fīʾl-islām. This was the fruit of his year spent in Tehran and was published by the branch of the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies. 

Another result of that year was his edition of the Ṣiwān al-ḥikma of Sijistānī (d. c. 1000) that appeared in 1974, an important source for the history of philosophy and its conception in Arabic. 

This related interest in the history of philosophy also produced a very influential text - Ādāb al-falāsifa of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq that was published in 1985. 

Much later in his life, during his time in Kuwait, he wrote some works summarising his contribution such as Transmission de la philosophie grecque au monde arabe published by Vrin in Paris in 1968, 
and Histoire de la philosophie en islam in two volumes published by Vrin in Paris in 1972, 

[This work broadly ignored the post-classical work of Corbin and others and hence very much remained within the context of looking at philosophy up to Averroes]

His intellectual vigour and interests are further indicated by translations of literary works: Cervantes' Don Quixote and Goethe's Faust and West-östlicher Diwan

There are plenty of other works such as on the nature of Platonic forms in Islamic philosophy, on the conception of history, the thought of Ibn Sabʿīn, Ibn ʿArabī, Ibn Sīnā and many more which would require yet another post.

To do justice to the contribution of Badawī (even when one wishes to be critical of his editions, his conceptualisation and his historical vision) one would need a thorough research project to look at what he published, why he published it and to what end: did he have a vision of the nature of the tradition and how the 'Islamic' and the 'Greek' came together? Of course, elements of his memoirs and other writings give us a sense of that: that Sufism came together with Heideggerian existentialism, and in the quest for cultural authenticity the desire to recover the Arabic Aristotelian (and even the Neoplatonic) heritage. Unlike later historians and philosophers (foremost among whom is obviously Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Jābirī) who engaged with that tradition, he was not dismissive of the Neoplatonic as some 'conspiracy' to deprive Arabs of their rationality. 

Thus his career reflects various concerns of the emergence of modern Arab thought after or perhaps at the end of what Hourani famously called the 'liberal age' about the conception of philosophy that brought together tradition and the modern, the concern for the colonial subject emerging into the post-colonial space with new optimisms for the future articulation of individual subjectivity and cultural authenticity, the forging of a new liberal nationalism predicated on the dignity of the person, the liberal education, and the emergence of the culture wars to come between liberals, nationalists, and Islamists. Given the centrality of Egypt - and of Cairo University in particular - the contemporary Arab intellectual history, the story of Badawī is very much about the ebbs and flows of Arab philosophy and its dissemination into Iraq, the Levant and elsewhere, as well as its agonies and discontents after 1967.  

Heidegger, Sufism and the Greek Intellectual Heritage in Arabic: Some Notes on ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Badawī Part I

The Egyptian existentialist philosopher ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Badawī (1917-2002) is well known to students of Islamic philosophy especially those interested in the Greek intellectual heritage in Islam. In this post, I examine elements of his biography and contribution to the dissemination of the thought of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) in Arabic as well as his contributions to the study of Sufism, the Arabic Aristotle and much beyond. 

Heidegger in the later period became known also through the work of Charles Malik (1906-1987), the Christian Lebanese philosopher who had studied with him in Freiburg in the 1930s. 

Badawī came from a well to do family in Upper Egypt and studied in Cairo in the 1930s and 1940s at the Egyptian University (as it was called from 1908), later Fuad I University from 1940 (later Cairo University from 1952) which at that time hosted a number of significant European thinkers, attracted by the ambitious new university which encouraged its Egyptian students to study abroad as well and also taking advantage of the situation in Europe in which scholars went into exile to avoid the restrictions and persecutions of the Nazis. Important figures teaching at the university then included the literary figure and later Minister of Education Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (1889-1973) and the novelist Naguib Mahfuz (1911-2006).

In his memoirs, Badawī mentioned that at school he had already taken an interest in literary and intellectual matters and voraciously read articles by Ṭāhā Ḥusayn, as well as the journalists ʿAbbās Maḥmūd al-ʿAqqād (1889-1964) and Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal (1888-1956). 

ʿAqqād left him cold and uninspired, Haykal evoked a nationalist fervour, but it was Ḥusayn's work that excited him and propelled him to the life of the mind. Already by the end of his elementary schooling he had encountered some work of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in Arabic translation, and later Pascal. At the Saʿīdīya school in Cairo, he completed his secondary schooling, learning English, French and German and further developing his love for literature and philosophy. He mentions reading in 1932 the Primer of Philosophy of Angelo Solomon Rappaport (1871-1950, first published in London in 1904) in the translation of Aḥmad al-Amīn (1886-1954), a professor of literature at the University. 

And he also starting reading Avicennian logic in a primer by ʿAbduh Khayr al-Dīn. At school, because at the time philosophy was studied alongside psychology (and this was the case in many places and an influence perhaps of the 'American' school), his teacher was Shafīq al-ʿĀṣī who obtained his doctorate from Vienna University in 1930 and hence was the conduit for the first interests in German philosophy. He also in that period began to read some Islamic philosophy, with works such as Maqāṣid al-falāsifa of Ghazālī (d. 1111) and al-Najāt of Avicenna (d. 1037) but as he himself acknowledged, these did not inspire an interest in Islamic philosophy as such. 

He did his BA in Philosophy at the Faculty of Letters from 1934 to 1938 developing knowledge of French as well as Latin. He mentioned other teachers such as Amīn al-Khulī (1895-1966) famous for his literary approach to the Qurʾan (and later an influence on the reformist thinker Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd (1943-2010), but he singled out Ṭāhā Ḥusayn's classes especially on pre-Islamic poetry. He also began classes in Avicennian logic with Shaykh Muṣṭafā ʿAbd al-Rāziq (1885-1947), the brother of ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq (1888-1966) and student of Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849-1905). ʿAbd al-Rāziq had been Shaykh al-Azhar and then took up a chair in philosophy at the University. 

One of the logic texts that he studied was al-Baṣāʾir al-Naṣīrīya of ʿUmar b. Sahlān al-Sāwī (d. c. 1143), a text that ʿAbduh had also been fond of teaching and whose critical approach to Avicenna influenced Suhrawardī (d. 1191) and maybe even Ibn Taymīya (d. 1328).

ʿAbd al-Rāziq also taught the Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406). Badawī extensively discusses the deep and extended commentary that he provided in his classes; at the same time he became aware of critiques of Islamic philosophy and its 'decadence' articulated by Ernest Renan (1823-1892) and others. Rather unusually in Sufism, ʿAbd al-Rāziq signalled his distaste for monistic Sufism by teaching al-Ṣūfīya waʾl-fuqarāʾ of Ibn Taymīya. In 1937, he made way as chair of the department to André Lalande (1867-1963) and in the following year became Minister of Religious Endowments. 

In 1936, Alexandre Koyré (1892-1964) came to Cairo on a sabbatical from Paris [he had previously come in 1932], and Badawī attended his classes first on the history of medieval philosophy, so that he became acquainted with the work of the neo-Thomist (although he himself denied that label) Étienne Gilson (1988–1978), 

and later on the history of modern philosophy after Kant. Koyré also taught a class on the history of science taking in the likes of Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus. 

Other European philosophers teaching in Cairo at the time whose classes Badawī attended included Émile Bréhier (1876-1952), a Neoplatonist who wrote his PhD on Philo of Alexandria and who later succeeded Henri Bergson (1859-1941) to his chair at the Collège de France in Paris in 1945, and Louis Rougier (1889-1982) who taught epistemology and history of philosophy in Cairo from 1931 to 1936. 

In 1937, encouraged by Ḥusayn and Paul Kraus (1904-1944), who was then Professor of Semitic Languages, he went to Europe on a 'grand tour' taking in Italy, German and France.

Koyré left for New York in 1938 and so after graduation, Badawī did his MA with Lalande (who primarily taught methodology) in metaphysics eventually writing on the problem of death in existentialism entitled Le Problème de la mort dans la philosophie existentielle in 1939, but not published until 1964. For his doctorate, once Koyré returned to Cairo in October 1940, he took over his supervision; although Badawī credited Lalande with his training in methodological rigour. All the while he had worked since 1938 ad a lecturer in the department. 

Koyré had a lasting impression: it was not only his rigour in the study of philosophy of science and his metaphysics, but also his work on the Protestant mysticism of Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) published by Vrin in Paris in 1929 as La philosophie de Jacob Boehme. Koyré was his main conduit for German philosophy and especially phenomenology as he had studied at Göttingen from 1908 to 1911 with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and the mathematician David Hilbert (1862-1943).
[Husserl did not think much of his dissertation so he did not get a doctorate and instead moved to Paris to study with Bergson and Lalande,  and later obtained his doctorate and later doctorat d'état in 1922 from the Sorbonne. He was later reacquainted with Husserl when he gave his lectures in Paris in 1929 on what became his Cartesian Meditations.]

Koyré was to write a preface to his published dissertation but he left in March 1941 for New York. Badawī complains that his dissertation and its publication was held up because of the envy of his peers and seniors since it would have been his third book. He eventually defended his dissertation in May 1944 and Ṭāhā Ḥusayn famously remarked that this was an event that heralded the birth of modern Arab philosophy - as reported in al-Ahram on 30 May 1944. His dissertation was on the notion of existential time (al-zamān al-wujūdī) that, influenced by Koyré brought together Heidegger's Dasein (that he rendered as annīya) with the Sufi notion of the Perfect human (al-insān al-kāmil) in the search for a subjectivity of the individual person and the quest for cultural authenticity. This was followed by a series of studies in existentialism as well as initial works on Sufism in the 1940s.

His first works were introductions to philosophers and philosophy which like his works in Heideggerian existentialism and Sufism was all published by Dār al-nahḍa al-Miṣrīya. The first publication in 1939 was a book on Friedrich Nietzsche followed by books on Schopenhauer in 1942, Plato in 1943 and Aristotle in 1944 as well as studies of the Greek intellectual heritage in Arabic in 1940 and on the Arabic translation movement (Rabīʿ al-fikr al-yūnānī) in 1943 and the spirit of Islamic thought on classical philosophy in 1949. 

He was appointed to a position at ʿAyn Shams University, eventually becoming the chair of philosophy in 1959. In the interim he spent 1956-1958 as cultural attaché in Switzerland. Although he was involved in drafting the 1952 constitution, he later became disillusioned by Nasser, moving to teach in Paris in 1967, followed by six years in Benghazi, an interim year 1973-1974 in Tehran  and a productive 1974-1982 at Kuwait University.
The Benghazi years are discussed in this work:

It was in Tehran that he encountered the circle of Henry Corbin - with whom he had been acquainted through his teacher in Cairo in the 1930s already since Bréhier, Massignon and others were mutual acquaintances. 

From then until his just before his death he lived and taught in Paris. On his return to Cairo in 2002, he lasted a few months. Much of the above account is taken from his memoirs published in 2000, which while at times are acerbic, are an essential guide to modern Arab intellectual history and the engagement with European thought. 

There is little doubt of the influence of Badawī - not just in the field of the study of the Greek intellectual heritage to which we will devote part II of this post - but also in the early stages of the reception of Heidegger in Arabic and of that metaphysical strand of existentialist phenomenology and its concern for being authentic. 

A small addendum. There are some useful studies of Badawī:
1) Elements of Yoav Di-Capua's excellent study of Arab existentialism basically defines him as a founding figure. Here is a good interview with him. And a good review of that book by Harald Viersen at FU Berlin. 

2) There is a useful Erlangen PhD dissertation from 2009 on him and on the concept of alienation that characterises his early political memoir Humūm al-shabāb published in 1946

3) There is also an excellent article in the volume on Heidegger in the Islamicate world by Sevinç Yasargil. 

Addendum II:
Here is a video from Arabiya TV programme Hādhā huwa from 1993: 

Another video from a few years ago from Nile Cultural channel with Gehan Seif al-din in conversation with two philosophers on him:

And one more useful video in memoriam from 2015:

Monday, February 3, 2020

Translating Religion, Affective Communities in Search of a Discursive Tradition

Talal Asad's work has for some time been essential reading for those trying to make sense of Islam in the present, as a 'religion' and within the construction of the modern post-Enlightenment construction of that term, as a set of practices, as identities, and as most importantly a discursive tradition. And the need to engage with his work is evident even among those most critical of him - one thinks of Shahab Ahmed (for a critical response, see Zareena Grewal here) and his rather misconstrued understanding of the discursive tradition and more recently Kevin Reinhart's rather unusual take on the big, cosmopolitan tradition of Islam swiping at the anthropologists. 

Asad’s latest work, Secular Translations, is a continuation of his engagement with the anthropological and philosophical process of ‘translation’ combined with his major work in the last two decades of tracing the parallel and connected genealogies of the concepts of the secular and the religious. 

It is arguably also his most explicit engagement with the canon of modern European philosophy – and especially liberal thought – deployed to decentre the narratives about the rise of the liberal, secular self in the exclusive space of modern Europe. In this sense, we can connect his work to other attempts at decolonising epistemology in metropolitan academia and especially rethinking liberalism. 

Each of the three chapters – originally the first set of Ruth Benedict lectures delivered at the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University in 2017 – reflects continuities with his previous work: the first chapter on ‘Secular equality and religious language’ recalls Formations of the Secular (Stanford University Press, 2003), the second chapter on ‘Translation and the sensible body’ engages with Genealogies of Religion (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) and his On an Anthropology of Islam (DC, 1986), and the third chapter ‘Masks, security and on the language of numbers’ is reminiscent of the controversies over his On Suicide Bombing (Columbia University Press, 2007). 

Perhaps his most striking insight – and this demonstrates both the optimism and the pessimism of the work – is not just the Wittgensteinian turn to language games and forms of like in order to understand ‘sensibilities’ such as religion and secularity (one thinks of the late Ernest Gellner taking his own turn to the Austrian late in life) but that the rise of calculative reason – or what Heidegger would have called technology – is expressive of our selfhood as well as denying its agency. 

Translation as an expression of the body is similarly affective. Asad thus seems to replace the tyranny of (liberal, universalising) reason with ‘sensibility’, a notion of an inner conviction that one’s experience preponderates over any reasoned argument that might be presented. Thus we live in an age of ‘sensibility’ and not of reason despite all the rhetoric of the ‘end of history’ with the triumph of the liberal, individual self (as Fukuyama and Seidel would have it), a fact of the vacuum of moral language and understanding that MacIntyre condemned as ‘emotivism’ in After Virtue(Duckworth, 1981). 

Chapter one begins with Robert Skidelsky’s affirmation of liberal moral values and secularization as ‘Christianity’s gift to the world’ based on the notion of ‘equal liberty’. Of course, since Skidelsky is citing Siedentrop one could easily to make the point about Christian claims to equality being exclusive by also quoting Siedentrop’s identification of the enemy of the liberal self and its hard-fought liberties – Islam. There follows an extensive, broad consideration of philosophical arguments about liberty from Mill, Kant and Rawls through to Benjamin and Habermas. One of the key issues is legal equality and the notion of sovereignty; the double-edged nature of this could be well explained by Giorgio Agamben’s conception of homo sacer and the state of exception and it is somewhat surprising that Asad does not go there. Or to cite Derrida’s famous iterative sense of being equal ‘before the law’. Similarly liberalism collusion with cruelty in the name of equality is mentioned – one could quite easily extend that to the intimate relationship between liberalism, religious suppression and imperialism (on a side note, one is reminded on liberalism of the excellent recent volume edited by Faisal Devji and Zaheer Kazmi on Islam after Liberalism, Hurst, 2017). Asad finally notes the failure of Habermas’ notion of translating religious language into secular and cites the problems posed by aspects of Muslim women’s veiling in Europe. One could equally – no pun intended – cite the problem of agency in equality by considering some of the arguments posed by religious communities concerning dignity and the right to religious liberties against civil liberties which are coming to the fore in ‘secular vs religious’ clashes on matters of morality such as LGBTQ+ issues in the public sphere. Throughout this book I keep thinking of Agamben – and it really would be interesting to see Asad’s engagement with the Italian philosopher and exegete’s work. 

The second chapter begins with the late Christian theologian Lammin Sanneh’s reflection on the nature of the mission in Africa and the relative success of Christian translation as opposed to Muslim resistance to translate the word of God based on some form of theological ‘inlibration’. Asad questions the basic of untranslatability with its concomitant assumption that if that is the case then true cultural plurality in Islam is somehow inauthentic. This allows him to open a question on the relationship between the exoteric and the esoteric and the apparent and allegorical in Qurʾanic language (and the uses of our embodied existence). He moves onto discuss elements of Islamic legal practice and notions of human dualism via Ghazālī. The privileging of Qurʾanic language – and this is an interesting insight – reflects a concern about secularisation and not the chauvinistic privileging of Arabic over other languages. One might also point out – in addition to Asad – that the hadith that talk about the heavenly language being Syriac or something other than Arabic would tend to suggest that there is no special status to Arabic as such. Qurʾanic language is the performative action of the body, a ritual form of life (again Wittgenstein). Here again the discussion of intention and action recalls his Genealogies of Religion. He also juxtaposes a number of concepts: intention vs will, the authenticity of the ‘true self’ against that of the tradition. He ends up reverting to his notion of a discursive tradition. But the key point is to critique any sense of the privilege of Christian religious language over others by using a discursive, critical genealogical approach. 

The final chapter concerns power and politics, involving a critique of the nation state, more explicitly starting with a reflection on Mauss on masks. Our public personhood is a matter of affecting masks and presenting meaning in the public sphere. However, the act of research into the public sphere is not a mere facility of reading. Conventions and structures act as masks of subjugation and securitisation, indeed even the ritualization of public life. At the heart of this chapter there seems to be a concern with selfhood and its emergence but it is not fully developed – not even as a critique of Eurocentric accounts including Skinner et al (again one thinks of Agamben – but also of Richard Sorabji’s wonderful monograph on the Self). The state’s distrust of those masks is a reason for the reinforcement of security. He ends with the problem of numbers and democratic nation states – and here one thinks of Appadurai. The calculation of the modern democratic nation state leads to a secular logic and thus he returns to Skidelsky cited already in chapter 1. Islamophobia is merely a result of this calculus. 

The epilogue reiterates why these lectures are continuous with Asad’s previous work on language, thought, religion, secularity and politics, not least the privileging of the ‘Christian’ and the ‘secular’ in modern nation states – and one might also link this with another endeavour with Butler, Mahmood and others on the possibilities of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ critique and reason. The concern with a sort of decolonisation of thought seems to be clear: religion, secularity, Christianity, security, power and a whole set of concepts needs a radical rethink using some reflections on Islamic texts but also of the critical elements of Euro-American thought as well – somewhat like Chakrabarty on ‘provincializing Europe’, expect taking religious texts and their ‘intentions’ more seriously. This is linked to his sense of the failure of the modern will, of the modern democratic nation-state, of epistemology not least because as he puts it those structures are even ignorant of that fact that they have failed, they have not produced a collective form of life that is radically different – even from the liberal end of history signalled in a previous generation. His only solution – and it seems the next step of the decolonisation – is to take the Qurʾanic injunction of ‘amr biʾl-maʿrūf’ more seriously as a collective form of life, of mutuality, of a means for unthinking the way in which we conceive of sovereignty. In that sense his solution is both pessimistic – about the possibilities and scope of decolonisation – and optimistic that despite our intuitions and evils that humans may still bear within themselves the capacity to produce a conducive collective form of life. That conundrum – and its hope – in one sense is a very serious contribution and suggestion for contemporary Islamic thought. One hopes that people will engage with Asad – especially when they might disagree (since not everyone accepts the failures of which he talks). Asad remains essential reading - and by extension his school. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Once more on the origins of Islam - and the role of 'ordinary believers'

In recent years, the study of early Islam has become quite a vibrant field, first moving towards the consensus on treating Islam as a ‘late antique’ religion and as part of the Near Eastern oecumene on matters ranging from the relationship between religion and violence to the perpetuation of monotheism (and henotheism), and then considering that the ‘standard’ narratives of the coming of imperial Islam in the region has tended to overemphasise the uniformity of the development of doctrine and practice and to marginalise the roles of non-Sunni-jamāʿī elites in that process. More even than that, a thorough double movement decolonisation of the study of early Islam is required: a critical appraisal of the sources and methods of orientalists, as well as provincialisation not just of those methods but also of the hegemonic assumptions of what constitutes (in a singular manner) the 'Islamic tradition'. 

Jack Tannous’ study furthers the process of considering early Islam within its wider pluralistic late antique context by arguing for the role of ‘simple believers’, the illiterate and agrarian Christians who broadly constituted the majority of the inhabitants in the Near East for some centuries after the advent of the message of Muḥammad in the Ḥijāz. The proper development of the spread of Islam can be gauged by the slow rate of conversion and 'Islamisation'/'Arabisation'. 

In the preface, Tannous tells us that the study is motivated by two questions. First, what does it mean for someone relatively illiterate and theologically uninformed to belong to a church in late antiquity, especially where confessional identity might be defined by conciliar creeds that deploy sophisticated theological concepts that are not exactly quotidian? Second, how did the Middle East become transformed from being the cradle of Christianity and a Christian space to one in which Christianity was a minority? The two questions are closely linked. One cannot understand the process of conversion purely through the prism of elite transformation and power strategies. Rather, if one wants to gauge how things may have changed one ought to consider the ‘simple believer’, however difficult it may be to establish and define. It is worth stressing that his approach is not a rather dismissive attitude to equating simple with simple-minded; rather by ‘simple’ he intends a lay category of agrarian, mostly illiterate and uninitiated into theological inquiry and debate. The culture of learned theologians – both Muslim and Christian of various confessions – tell us something about intellectual history but not much necessarily in themselves about the processes of social history. Tannous also offers another angle on the debates about Islam in the early period. He contends that if we wish to appreciate what Islam brought and changed we first need to understand what it might have meant to be a Christian and the nature of intra-Christian debate and polemic in Arabic, Syriac and Aramaic – it is those religious attitudes that need to be engaged to understand that world. That much of what was happening focused on intra-Christian debates and conflicts is already apparent from a number of the early Christian (Syriac and Greek) sources which spend much time of questions of heresy, orthodoxy and the relationship with various centres such as Constantinople. 

The argument ranges over four parts, one interlude and two historiographically important appendices. Part one introduces us to the simple and the nature of the fractures between Christians in the world into which Islam emerged. Part two engages the intra-Christian debates and arguments between the council of Chalcedon in 451 (and the splits between the official imperial and dissent doctrines and the important distinction over Christology) and the emergence of Islam in the 7th century. The interlude considers some evidence for continuity through these periods into the 9th century by examining the evidence of the Syriac sources. Part three looks at what ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ may have meant in that period from the 7th to the 9th centuries and introduces broadly the notion of the simple Muslim believer as well in terms of the converts. It is useful that the main focus is not on the socio-political and economic benefits – and even the realisation that conversion in the early period may not have led to a sharp demarcation in doctrine and practice (some of the evidence from the Syriac writings from Qatar suggest that Church authorities were rather worried about the social and even liturgical mixing of Christians and converts). 

Similarly, it is important for us not to project our contemporary notions about religion, belief and conversion to the lives of people in late antiquity. But what did conversion mean and entail? – and we have the paradox from both Muslim and Christian sources over the anxiety of overlapping beliefs and practices as well as the desire to differentiate and draw up boundaries. This is significant also in the light of the recent thesis of Fred Donner on the believers’ movement and the debate over the exact point at which ‘Islam’ becomes an exclusive and highly distinct identity – Tannous criticises that thesis in chapter 12. 

It seems that one of the elements in the process that paved the way for conversion was that violence, disagreement, confessional chaos and the contestations over truth following Chalcedon made the simple believers perhaps somewhat sceptical of exclusive claims and more adaptable to holding positions and practices that may to the theologian seem to be contradictory – clearly such phenomena were visible in ‘exclusively’ Muslim contexts as well as we see especially from some of the historical and heresiographical literature. This is also a section that troubles – if belief was a spectrum, why would someone convert? And why then would someone apostasise (the subject of a recent volume by Christian Sahner)? 

Tannous is correct to point out the weaknesses in the method of some who have written on conversion: for example, Bulliet’s study of genealogies and the use of ‘Muslim’ names is clearly problematic – the former can be forged and the latter – at least insofar as Arabic –adopted even when their bearers were avowedly Christian. Conversion relied about structural continuities – holy men and the realm of the sacred, and the mosque taking the place of the church. This, Tannous argues, is expressed in the anxiety in the Muslim sources about influence from Christians – the prohibitions (or not) about quoting from the Christians and their scriptures, knowledge of Syriac, of traditions and so forth. Part four focuses on the shared world and reintegrates the simple Christian believers into the social history of Islam and recovers their voices. The social interaction and everyday life – not the written theological text – seems to be the place to search for the gradual processes of transformation – multi-causal as they were. 

The appendices then turn to the methodological issues of source criticism – since there is no explicit methodological preliminary to the study. Appendix II is relatively modest and argues that it is proper – if we pay attention to the Syriac sources – to refer to the conquests as ‘Arab’. Appendix I is, on the other hand, an interesting essay on the sources that may be profitable for a class on Islamic history. In the debate between the radical sceptics and the ‘gullible’, Tannous places himself somewhere in the middle suggesting that while ‘literary analysis’ (beloved of the sceptics) is a valuable tool, literary Pyrrhonism as he calls it is a dead end if one wishes to write social history. A reflective source-critical approach that engages the sources (not necessarily with a heightened hermeneutics of suspicion) is probably emerging as the consensus of the field. His case study is an element in the canons of Jacob of Edessa that he uses to shed light on the nature of the Christian sources – and then on the Islamic ones – taking into consideration the positions of Abbott, Motzki and Schoeler juxtaposing them with Goldziher and Schacht. It seems clear that he broadly concurs with the position of Schoeler. The more radical positions of Shoemaker and others are absent – but to be fair in good measure, since the function of the short appendix is to shed light on his own method and not write a monograph on Quellenkritik

The scope of the study is 500 to 1000, so there is a sense in which it parallels and acts as a foil to Garth Fowden’s Before and After Muhammad.  From the perspective of someone like Aziz al-Azmeh, his notion of Islam and ‘paleo-Islam’ and his monograph The Emergence of Islam, Tannous’ work will probably seem to be hopefully old-fashioned and orientalist no least for decentering the Arabic from our accounts of the Middle East after Islam. 

But instead of locating his work within the Crone paradigm of understanding Islam beyond the Arabic sources due to the hermeneutics of suspicion, Tannous argues for something that is more in vogue among historians: connected histories, and in this case connected ‘transconfessional’ histories of the Middle East. Just as connected histories forgo the historiography of nation-state, so too should transconfessional histories dismiss the projection of the ‘millet’ system’s religious balkanisation on an earlier period of history. Non-Muslims as imperial competitors and as shared inhabitants of the world had a part to play in the formation of Islam as much as those who claimed to be from within the traditions. 

Has Tannous convinced? As he suggests in the conclusion, in some ways the monograph is an experiment in what might happen if we change our assumptions about early Islam and the region prior to that and turn our attention away from the privileging of the learned culture of a few key garrison towns such as Baghdad, Kufa, Basra, Wasit and Fustat. If we assume that the conquests – and the link between religion and violence discussed by the late Thomas Sizgorich – were part of the late antique norm, and that the rise in literary and theological works in Syriac and Arabic tell us rather little about the numbers on the grounds being instead indicators of the transmission and reception of Hellenic learning, then it is perfectly plausible to consider that the majority of the Near East up until the 10th century may well have constituted simple believers who identified themselves as Christian. The social history of the region is not necessarily contiguous with the intellectual history of early and classical Islamdom. He makes a strong case for considering the simple believer – a history of early Islam from below perhaps in a connect transconfessional manner that accords with my own taste for a ‘decolonised’ approach to Islamic history. But, given his rather fluid approach to identity (which is not unreasonable), whether he explains how the region transformed and how simple Christians became Muslim is another matter.