Saturday, March 20, 2021

Shiʿi Exegesis in South Asia: Some Further Notes on Lavāmiʿ al-tanzīl va-savāṭiʿ al-taʾvīl

Some years ago, I wrote a blogpost on Sayyid Abūʾl-Qāsim Riżavī Qummī Lāhorī (1833–1906) and on his extensive Persian exegesis Lavāmiʿ al-tanzīl va savāṭiʿ al-taʾwīl - I have now corrected some of the links to volumes of the text available as pdfs online. The first volume was printed in Lahore in 1299/1882:

It begins with an extensive table of contents. There are seventeen preliminaries, to which I will return, followed by the discussion of the istiʿādha (formulaic seeking refuge from Satan), the basmala and the Fātiḥa. Each verse or section is divided into mabāḥis; further sub-divisions of exegetical glosses are called īrād and ishkāl. While the approach and register is scholarly - and he has an extensive key for the sources that he cites (both Shiʿi - khāṣṣa - and Sunni - ʿāmma) - the language is accessible and simple, perhaps indicating that the work was not merely intended for a scholarly Persophone audience of ʿulema but also for a wider Persian reading public (which in Lahore in this period was extensive as we know from the publishing and the literary scene onto which Iqbal emerged slightly later). 

The table of contents is followed by three (chronogrammatic) poems in praise of the exegesis by Mīr Mūsā Shāh and Maulvī Muḥammad Sharīf Kābulī (the link may well be through Riżavī's Qizilbash patron ʿAlī Riżā Khān who spent some time in Kabul and was as we know a loyalist during 1857 - I have not for the moment attempted to identify the poets but one suspects if they are major figures that some taẕkira somewhere will throw up some details). Then we have a bunch of endorsements (taqrīẓāt) starting with Mīrzā Abūʾl-Qāsim Ṭabāṭabāʾī (1826–1901),

followed by the famous leader of the Tobacco boycott from Sāmarrāʾ Mīrzā Muḥammad Ḥasan Shīrāzī (1815–1896), 

and Shaykh Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ardakānī, known as Fāżil-e Ardakānī (1820–1885)

These endorsements - and we are also told that the exegesis was initiated in 1296/1879 just a few years prior - attest to the fame and network that Riżavī and his son had in the shrine cities of Iraq and the ways in which Shiʿi scholars of North India were rather well integrated into the hierocratic networks of the period. 

Any work of exegesis tells us much about the exegete, his training and his contexts and the ways in which he seeks to engage the revelation. The preliminaries are therefore predicated on his understanding of the totality of the Qurʾanic arts that are needed to study the text. It also shows us that the exegetical uses of the Qurʾan in Riżavī's Hindustānī context went beyond merely reading the text but indicated the totality of the Qurʾanicity of the lived experience and engage with the artefact, the sonoscope and the totality sensory and cultural experience of the Qurʾan. 

In the khuṭba, he tells us that in these last days of the 13th century (late 19th century CE), in North India and Lahore in particular (cited as the place of composition), many different confessions are using the Qurʾan and the process of exegesis to put forward a defence of their 'corrupt' and 'vain' theologies, 'resisting and denying the truth' of the revelation and sound doctrine. Given this contested nature of Islam in the colonial period and the role of the Qurʾan as a primary signifier of meaning of one's confessional adherence, Riżavī invokes the convention of meaning a group of friends (and students) asking him to present the Shiʿi tradition and case through the exercise of exegesis. His function is to explain difficult issues, response to objections and removed any doubts (whether ancient or modern) about the Shiʿi tradition in a godly and precise and effective manner, eschewing fake narratives and keeping decorum and an ethical mode of presentation founded upon proofs and reliable indicators. His method is to take forward the argument and the tradition through the complete homology and confluence of the use of rational discourse as well as citation of the authority of revelation (ʿaql va naql). Following further pious supplications, he then says that the work is dedicated to - and here again a whole list of honorifics that suggest scholarly status - Nawāb (Sir) Nawāzish ʿAlī Khān Qizilbāsh (1828–1890), the son of his patron ʿAlī Riżā Khān Qizilbāsh (d. 1865).  

Here are the headings of those seventeen preliminaries (and the two most commonly cited authorities are Majmaʿ al-bayān of al-Ṭabrisī and Majmaʿ al-baḥrayn by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Ṭurayḥī - and on Sunni positions, the authority of Tafsīr-e kabīr or Mafātīḥ al-ghayb of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī - as we have seen in the work of his teachers and the circles in Lucknow in this period, Rāzī represented authoritative Sunni positions on exegesis and kalām):

1. on the names of the Qurʾan and their meanings; 

2. on both the exoteric and the esoteric exegesis (on the tafsīr and the taʾwīl) and on the distinction between the cognitive content and meaning (maʿnā) and the exposition (bayān);

3. on the Qurʾan as the defining 'miracle' of the Prophet and on some of the Qurʾanic arts needed to make sense of this miracle (in the sense of its eloquence and order and style) - while critiquing the majoritarian (Sunni) idea of the Prophet being 'unlettered' (ummī), and asserting the the Prophet was the source of many of the sciences and arts that were latter expanded;

4. on the precedence and superiority of the Qurʾan over other scriptures; 

5. on the meaning of the seven aḥruf

6. on the seven or fourteen canonical recitations (qirāʾāt) - he presents two tables for these and also asserts their being extensively corroborated in their transmission (mutawātir);  

7. on the number of verses and sūras and the difference between the Meccan and the Medinan;

8. On the recitation and the way of pronouncing the text (tartīl and taʿyīn al-makhārij) - a practical guide to stopping points, breathing and so forth; 

9. on the rewards for correct and melodious recitation;

10. on the rewards for melodious recitation with a good voice; 

11. on whether there is any omission or change in the Qurʾan - the problem of taḥrīf on which he says that while all Muslims agree that there is none, there are broadly two positions: the first of the literalist ḥadīth-folk (among the Shiʿa) who assert that there is and the second that there is not which is the position of the scholars from al-Ṣadūq to al-Sayyid al-Murtaḍā and so forth. Given the importance of the debate on this in this period in Persian and the pluralist and polemical context of Lahore, it is clear that he wished to exonerate the Shiʿa from this charge;

12. on the periodisation of the revelation and previous revelations and scriptures; 

13. on ʿAlī and the Imams possessing the complete Qurʾan and its knowledge which is located in a polemic against Sunni polemicists like Ibn Ḥajar on the knowledge of the Imams and the question of taḥrīf;  

14. on a quarter of the Qurʾan constituting the excellences and virtues of the family of the Prophet and on this in a polemical vein, he asserts that he will only use reliable Sunni sources to establish this; 

15. on condemnation of exegesis by analogical reasoning (qiyās) or by one's own opinion (raʾy) - he includes in this Sufi exegesis of the school of Ibn ʿArabī (to whom he refers as Mumīt al-dīn al-Aʿrābī) and laments its preponderance; 

16. on his use of reliable and authentic narrations and sources from both Sunni and Shiʿi traditions in this exegesis; 

17. on the sources that he uses - and this is an extensive list that tells us how he defines the normative Shiʿi tradition and the Sunni traditions  not just in exegesis and exegetical hadith but also kalām and related arts. 

What emerges from this brief perusal of the preliminaries is the way in which Riżavī's understanding of the Shiʿi tradition is steeped in the Lucknow tradition of Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī (d. 1820) and his family with its focus on rational theology, curbing the excesses of the hadith-folk, attacking Sufi orientation and especially the influence of the school of Ibn ʿArabī and defining the normative Shiʿi exegetical tradition though the major works in the 11th and 12th century of al-Ṭūsī, al-Ṭabrisī, and Abūʾl-Futūḥ al-Rāzī. In that sense, he can been seen as a Shiʿi defender of his tradition in a polemical sense in the colonial period defining the tradition in the religious marketplace of ideas in Lahore, differentiating himself from various Sunni, ahl-e Qurʾān and ahl-e ḥadīs and even Aḥmadī and other positions, as well as separating himself from more popular 'exaggerations' of the role of the Imams and the tying of that position with the Sufi metaphysics of the school of Ibn ʿArabī. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

A Shiʿi Controversialist of the school of al-Ḥilla: Khiḍr b. Muḥammad al-Ḥabalrūdī (d. after 859/1455)

In a recent issue of Āyīna-yi Pažūhish, there is a bibliographical article on a 15th century commentary on the works of al-ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī written by Najm al-Dīn Khiḍr b. Muḥammad al-Rāzī al-Ḥabalrūdī, which provides us with further evidence of the abiding and dominant nature of the theological school of al-Ḥilla in the pre-Safavid period as well as the uses of the shortish theological primer by al-Ḥillī entitled al-Bāb al-ḥādī ʿashar as a teaching text requiring glosses. 

I first came across Ḥabalrūdī when I was writing an article on Sayyid Nūrullāh Shūshtarī (d. 1019/1610) and his polemics and I located the latter's work within cycles of polemics. In al-Ḥilla in 839/1435, he had written a work entitled al-Tawāḍīḥ (or al-Tawḍīḥ) al-anwār bi-l-ḥujaj al-wārida li-dafʿ shubhat al-Aʿwar (The Clarifying Lights through scriptural proofs warding off the objections of the One-Eyed) responding to the Ashʿarī anti-Shiʿi polemic al-Risāla al-muʿāriḍa fī-l-radd ʿalā l-rawāfiḍ (Refutation of the Rejectors) of Yūsuf b. Makhzūm al-Aʿwar al-Wāsiṭī. I then found a copy of the text in the British Library (Delhi Arabic 1953 - and there are copies of al-Aʿwar's works in manuscript there as well):

The text was published by the Marʿashī library in Qum and is available as a pdf here.

For a broader study of the ways in which Shiʿi scholars responded to polemics, it is worth reading Sayyid ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1995) and his Mawqif al-shīʿa min hujūmāt al-khuṣūm

We do not really know much about al-Ḥabalrūdī or even those to whom he missed licenses (ijāzāt). Ḥabalrūdī's family origins went back to Māzandarān although he seems to have been born and brought up in Najaf where he is said to have died - again some evidence for the importance of Najaf as a centre of Shiʿi learning for the school of al-Ḥilla in the Turkmen and Timurid periods. The famous bibliographer Āqā Buzurg al-Ṭihrānī suggested that his father Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿAlī had been one of the students of Jamāl al-Din Abūʾl-ʿAbbās Ibn Fahd al-Ḥillī (d. 841/1437) in al-Ḥilla and in Najaf. Mīrzā ʿAbdallāh Afandī has an extensive entry on him praising his works in kalām especially but while identifying him as a contemporary of Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī (d. 908/1502) he also suggests that he was one of the court ʿulamāʾ of Shah Ismail the first Safavid ruler but there is no corroborating source for this.

One teacher of his whom we do know and which suggests that he first studied kalām, logic and philosophy in Shiraz is Sayyid Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad, the son of the renowned al-Sharīf ʿAlī al-Jurjānī. He was a well known teacher of the rational (as well as the occult) arts and famously rendered his father's Kubrā on logic into Arabic as Durrat al-manṭiq. In fact, the first work that Ḥabalrūdī wrote was a commentary Kāshif al-ḥaqāʾiq fī durrat al-manṭiq dated 823/1420. 

He may well have encountered Davānī in Shiraz as well. He also wrote two further works on logic in that period: Jāmiʿ al-daqāʾiq and al-Qawānīn (although the latter does not seem to be extant). 

He then seems to have moved to al-Ḥilla and Najaf, finally becoming the librarian at the shrine. There he began to write commentaries on the works of al-Ḥillī. Al-Taḥqīq al-mubīn fī sharḥ Nahj al-mustarshidīn was completed in 827/1424 in the Madrasa Zaynīya in al-Ḥilla. In 834/1430 he completed Jāmiʿ al-uṣūl fī sharḥ risālat al-fuṣūl of Ṭūsī in Najaf. Later he also wrote a short work on kalām Tuḥfat al-muttaqīn fī bayān uṣūl al-din which has been published:

There is also a good manuscript copy 8908 from the Majlis library in Tehran available online

Finally we have his commentary Jāmiʿ al-durar fī sharḥ bāb al-ḥādī ʿashar and its epitome Miftāḥ al-ghurar completed in 836/1432. There are plenty of extant copies of the epitome (over 70 in Iran and Iraq). Here is a still from MS Majlis 3150 of the latter:

Jāmiʿ al-durar itself is an extensive work and comes in a period in which there were a number of commentaries on al-Bāb al-ḥādī ʿashar. First there is the well known and published work of al-Miqdād al-Siyūrī (d. 826/1423) al-Nāfiʿ yawm al-ḥashr as well as the recently published commentary of the philosopher Ibn Abī Jumhūr al-Aḥsāʾī. 

As is well known the original text of al-Ḥillī is divided into seven chapters: on the proof for the existence of God based on contingency (and the impossibility of an infinite regress of causes), on the positive attributes of God especially on knowledge and power (since they arise in many of the texts on the proof for the existence of God as significant corollaries), on negative attributes or the apophatic way of dealing with the divine nature, on divine justice and theodicy as well as an account of human agency, on prophecy, on the imamate, and on the return and the afterlife and eschatology. The section on the imamate just as the corresponding section in Ṭūsī's Tajrīd al-iʿtiqād and its commentaries tended to attract widespread commentary. 

In Iran there are 6 manuscripts of the text including two from the lifetime of the author - MS Kitābkhāna-yi Gharb (Hamadan) 10343 and MS Marʿashī (Qum) 866. One hopes to see the edition of the text soon so that we can build up a better picture of the development of Imāmī kalām from the period of the initial school of al-Ḥilla and the work of Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī and his student al-ʿAllāma through to the further transformations in the Safavid period in the circle of Mīr Dāmād and Mullā Ṣadrā. Furthermore, given the recent judgments of Robert Wisnovsky and Tony Street that follow the earlier findings of Ahab Bdaiwi, it would be interesting to see the development of a Shiʿi school of logic, kalām and even Avicennism that culminated in the Shirazi thinkers in the immediate generation after Ḥabalrūdī. In that sense, Ḥabalrūdī becomes an important link in that chain from al-Ḥillī to the Dashtakīs through to the Iṣfahānī thinkers of the Safavid period. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Arabic Philosophy? What's in a Name?

Whether we call it Arabic philosophy or Islamic philosophy or philosophy in the world of Islam (that seems more popular nowadays), there is little doubt that this philosophical tradition is significant for our understanding of human history and intellectual endeavour and indeed the world in which we live and deal with one other. Of course, at one level labels and names are important: naming is an act of defining, of making connections, and indeed of including. While one may debate whether Islamic as a label must necessarily entail a narrowly defined normative theological engagement, if we have learned anything from both Talal Asad's notion of Islam as a discursive tradition, and Shahab Ahmed's consideration of Islam as a rich tradition within the Balkans-to-Bengal complex, it is that Islamic can be used in a far broader sense. And it is also the case that even for a number of the thinkers engaged in this volume (Avicenna in particular), it seems rather presumptuous to deny that their theological commitments were genuine. But even further for the current debates on the identity of Europe and the wider question of the role of Islam in Europe which is strongly resisted by the nativist right, it does matter that we embrace a more expansive notion of 'Islamic philosophy' and its receptions and indeed continuing living engagement (not in the name of tradition as such but in terms of the life of the mind with its extensive forms of embodied experience). Academic scholarship matters; it informs and identifies who we are and helps us to make sense of our world. 

This rich collection of articles, La philosophie arabe à l'étude,  represents an excellent window into the state of research in European scholarship on the intellectual history of ‘Arabic philosophy’. The fact that this latter term is chosen is in itself indicative of a certain approach: Arabic and not Islamic with a focus on the language of philosophical expression and not the cultural context and theological and ethical commitment. In theory, one might even in that sense include works written in Turkish, Persian and other languages inflected by the Arabic debates – perhaps Islamicate philosophy or philosophy in the Islamic World (as is the term used by Peter Adamson whose approach through his popular podcast the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps and his Very Short Introduction has become highly influential). 

But there is still a sense in which the term Islamic is too theologically compromised, too compromising to the analytic, precise and rational nature of philosophy. 

Of course, by that token there is a focus on Arabic as a conduit and transformation of the ancient traditions and their influence on medieval and early modern scholasticisms in Europe, but also by implication somewhat a cut off point for inquiry; ‘Arabic philosophy’ whether in the form of ‘Islamic philosophy’ with its theological commitments in the period say after the 13th century, and in the form of contemporary debates, receptions of continental and analytic traditions in Arabic are both decidedly excluded (although there is some reference to the latter in one article). Nevertheless, given the focus on the question of method, this debate is engaged in the volume.


After a brief introduction by the editors in which the volume is said to evolve from a conference in 2013 and where a brief question is raised about method and labelling and where there is an explicit comparison to studies that attempt to gauge the state of research in medieval Latin philosophy, the articles are divided into five sections. All of the major figures of the European study of Arabic philosophy are included here. Fittingly the volume is dedicated to two major figures whom we now miss in the field: Marc Geoffroy (1965–2018) who was working closely with Jules Janssens and Meryem Sebti on Avicenna’s commentaries especially on Metaphysics Lambda and the so-called Theology Aristotelis/Uthūlūjiyā (and had previously worked on Averroes and Fārābī, translating al-Jamʿ bayna rayʾay al-ḥakīmayn - a work that most people now think is pseudo-Fārābī), and Mauro Zonta (1968–2017), one of the leading specialists on medieval Jewish philosophy. Both went far too early. Requiescant in pace.


The first (and longest) part comprises eleven chapters on method and the historiography of the study of Arabic philosophy and unsurprisingly Dimitri Gutas looms large. 

The first is a reprint of Dimitri Gutas’ classic study of the historiography of Arabic philosophy focusing on four approaches: Orientalism, mysticising, the conduit connecting ancient and medieval philosophy, and Straussianism or the political and esoteric reading of Arabic philosophy. The article was originally a lecture at the BRISMES conference in Cambridge in 2000 and has functioned as a defining text for the study of Arabic philosophy since. Orientalism accounts for the attitude that sharply divides philosophy and theology and religion, insists on its heterodoxy dealt a death blow by Ghazālī’s critique, identifies Averroes as a last hurrah for Aristotelianism, for philosophy to die away. In a sense a mysticising reading of philosophy is also Orientalist in that it objectifies and essentialises Arabic philosophy as the exotic other of analytic philosophy. The main extension of this – and Gutas’ favourite thinker to critique – is Henry Corbin and his ‘theosophical’ reading which allows his to establish his polemic against the use of the term ‘Islamic’ philosophy. The clash of orientalisms and essentialisms indeed. At stake of course is the very definition of philosophy: thought, explanation and analysis that includes the uses of poesis and myth, recourse to non-propositional thought and even mystical intuition allied with strong theological commitments takes the work into the realms of para-philosophy for Gutas. In a sense, the insistence on Avicenna as the Arabic philosopher begs the question of his own commitments: did Avicenna not have a sense of what philosophy was as a way of life, did the broader context of the assumption of Islam and the processes of divinity and prophecy not affect him? But then as a colleague recently commented why should we care about narrow definitions of philosophy, not least of what is analytic given the broad inability (the irony!) to establish a clear, coherent and explanatory definition of analytic philosophy. 

This piece is followed by Gutas’ postscript, a rather short note primarily concerned with critiquing the revival of Straussian approaches (represented in this volume by David Wirmer), and while broadly agreeing with his earlier piece also condemned some recent ‘fanciful’ and plainly bad histories of philosophy. Of course, more recently he has decried the problem of the eclipse of philosophy after the classical period and its dissolution into pseudo-philosophy (thought that has distinct theological and other commitments). At the end of the day, approaches and the way in which we seek to do the history of philosophy is directly related to how we define and understand philosophy and then locate that understanding in the texts that we study. If we define philosophy in Islam as Aristotelianism (somewhat influenced by but also suspicious of the excesses of Neoplatonism) and reject the possibility of distinct theological commitments and indeed any sorts of theological and ontological commitments that are extrinsic to the syllogistic substrate of argumentation, then one wonders what philosophy in Arabic, in the world of Islam can possibly be. 

Catherine König-Pralong’s study examines the development of the concept of Arabic philosophy in European thought from the time of Pierre Bayle in the 17th century through to Ernest Renan in the 19th century. What she shows rather interestingly is the eclipse of earlier usages of Arabic philosophy in the Enlightenment (Jonathan Israel has also commented on that) to a more orientalised and racialised notion of Arabic philosophy as medieval by the colonial period as an expression of colonialist epistemology. 

Chiara Adorisio looks at Strauss’ study of Maimonides and his Muslim interlocutors as a form of true rationalism in philosophy that neither gives up on religion or politics. Rüdiger Arnzen’s contribution is a highly useful typology of eight approaches to the study of the history of philosophy in the world of Islam that relates it to wider concerns in the study of the history of philosophy and intellectual history. He makes a strong case for a broader and theoretically more serious engagement with Arabic philosophy as part of the study of non-Western philosophies. The real conundrum is a perennial one: are students of Arabic philosophy primarily historian-philologists focusing on texts and contextualisation, philosophers excavating new ground or intercultural apologists fighting the prejudices of philosophy in the world of Islam. 

This is followed by Anke von Kügelgen’s interview to Adamson’s podcast. It is the one piece dedicated to a broad study of Arabic philosophy into the modern period not surprising given her own specialisation (and indeed she is the editor of volume four of the History of Philosophy in Islam from 1800 onwards, the Gundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie published by Schwabe Verlag). 

Not only does she discuss the reception of the classical traditions as well as Kant and Heidegger in the modern Muslim world (on which now there is quite a literature from Mohsen Jahangiri and Karim Mojtehedy to Roman Siedel, Urs Gösken and the Fardid crowd - and volumes published in Iran), she also touches on the history of the critique of philosophy. 

Damien Janos’ piece is the longest piece and theoretically sophisticated. It asks a very important question: to what extent does one find development of thought and position in the thinkers that we study and perhaps all too often we assume a holism of approach in their oeuvre. It is a contribution not just to the study of Arabic philosophy but in fact to how we study the history of philosophy. David Wirmer’s defense of the Straussian method of reading follows with an even longer article as well as an exemplification in his edition and translation of Ibn Bājja’s treatise On the Desiderative Faculty

The late Mauro Zonta’s brief over of Jewish Averroism follows and how it may be compared to Jewish Avicennism. He maps out a whole tradition and shows that Averroism in Jewish contexts still needs further work. One could certainly argue that many of the articles are responses and modifications of Gutas: Lizzini takes his work as her starting point and re-engages the values and approaches that we ascribe to the terms ‘Arabic’, ‘Islamic’, and ‘philosophy’; it is a useful recapitulation of the debate with the summary that she wishes to study philosophy in Islam and not philosophy of Islam (and indeed how in some circles the two are conflated). 


Part two considers the echoes and reception of ancient thought in Arabic philosophy. Ricardo Chiaradonna’s excavation of the existence-essence distinction in late antique thought and his critique of Hadot’s suggestion that one might find the notion of hyparxis and the activity of the One above substance in the anonymous commentary on the Parmenides is an excellent example of a clear and precise work of intellectual history. Might be useful to compare Michael Chase's recollection of Hadot here

The eminent Neoplatonism specialist Dominic O’Meara looks at the Arabic reception of the opposition of Alexandrian Aristotelianism to Athenian Neoplatonism and Karl Praechter’s historiographical model and the whole question of the transmission of late Neoplatonism to the Arabs. Part of this involves a critical take on Michel Tardieu's conjecture on the thinkers of Ḥarrān. Cristina Cerami looks at the reception of the Posterior Analytics on the organisation of the physics in Averroes; another excellent philologically careful study. David Twetten studies the ‘orthodoxy’ of the notion of the Aristotelian First Mover in the thought of Averroes alongside two modern specialists Sarah Broadie and Enrico Berti.


Part three comprises there chapters and considers an area of growing concern in recent times, namely, the connections between philosophy ‘proper’ and three areas of systematic theology (ʿilm al-kalām), mysticism, and law and legal theory. Again, with reference to Adamson, this would link to the ‘expansive’ sense of philosophy – looking for argumentation, analysis and explanation regardless of the generic self-label applied in the text. Hence, one can easily find serious philosophical analysis in works of kalām, in elements of Sufi metaphysics, in Qurʾanic and other scriptural exegesis, and especially in legal theory. Parallel to this is a new series published by de Gruyter on Philosophy in the Islamic World. Ulrich Rudolph’s short piece on the metaphysics of Jāmī (d. 1492) takes up the earlier work of Nicholas Heer and shows how especially the Precious Pearl (al-Durra al-fākhira) is such an important witness and indeed conduit for how later theologians, philosophers, and even Sufis made sense of metaphysics; at some point in the 18th and 19th centuries there is some evidence that it became a major school text across the Ottoman, post-Safavid and Mughal contexts. The reception of this text as a bridge between philosophy and these related areas deserves further consideration. 

Steffen Stelzer’s rather generic chapter studies how mystics viewed philosophers as inauthentic and insincere followers of the Prophet (and hence heretics). This is a rather disjointed piece and invokes Ibn ʿArabī and at times some modern Sufi polemics; but it fails to engage with the wider observation that in the later period there is a strong convergence of philosophy and mysticism, for example, in the thought of Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1636). However, he does raise an interesting question about the nature of authority and precedence in philosophy - at least from ancient times, philosophers have not been immune to polemics, rhetoric, and indeed appeal to authority. 

Ziad Bou Akl completes this section with a study of the nature of divine volition in Averroes’ refutation of al-Ghazālī, specifically in the first discussion on whether God could choose a particular instant t at which to create (and the problem of indifference) and relates it to the famous medieval problem of Buridan’s ass, further taking the debate up to Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī. Certainly, the latter thinker is perhaps one of the most influential philosophers of the middle period and his al-Maṭālib al-ʿāliya that is studied here still deserves further recognition and engagement. 


The fourth part on the reception of Arabic philosophy considers four studies on Latin and early modern thought. Massimiliano Lenzi analyses Aquinas’ reception of both the Latin Aristotle and Averroes on the causes and essence of nature in Physics II. Roland Hissette takes up the translations of the middle commentaries of Averroes on logic, particularly on the Isagoge by the 13th century translator Wilhelmus de Luna. It constitutes a valuable study in Arabic-Latin translation and how terms draw upon both Averroes and Boethius. Jean-Baptiste Brenet’s own contribution is a fascinating study in Averroism in Descartes’ Utrecht debate of 1641 with Henrik de Roy on the nature of the human (especially the particular hylemorphic nature). It demonstrates an element of Descartes as not the first of the moderns but rather someone working within the universe of Aristotelianism and Averroism. A broader study is needed to consider further elements of Averroism and Avicennism in his thought. Remke Kruk’s contribution looks at the reception of Ibn Ṭufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān in Dutch and its transmission to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and other narratives; philosophy does have an influence further into literature and culture. Specialists have known for some time about Pococke’s Latin translation and its influence on Defoe (most exemplary in the study of Mahmoud Baroud that was originally an Exeter PhD, even if there is no direct textual transmission or evidence). 

However, there does seem to be evidence in a Dutch work published in 1752, De Walchersche Robinson of a relationship with the Arabic text. Kruk shows how literary and even philosophical influence can be present even in the face of antipathy to the religious context of Islam. 


The fifth and final part is a series of studies on particular texts and traditions and includes seven chapters. Philippe Vallat’s long article continues his rebuttal of Straussian readings of al-Fārābī in his contribution (explained in more detail in his book); for him, philosophy remains superior to religion and has a stronger claim to soteriology. 

He does affirm an esoteric reading but in a different sense to Leo Strauss (his main criticism is levelled at Charles Butterworth), and he repeats his reading of al-Fārābī as an anti-Qurʾanic and even anti-Islamic thinker. Certainly, it is fair to say that al-Fārābī’s conception of philosophy is far removed from the holistic commitments of Mullā Ṣadrā and Mīr Dāmād (and perhaps even Avicenna). For Vallat, the political theological concern for esotericism in al-Fārābī is only one of four possible functions. 

Meryem Sebti’s excellent edition and study of the Risāla fīʾl-kalām ʿalā al-nafs al-nāṭiqa places it within the pseudo-epigraphical works of Avicenna and suggests that it was written by an ishrāqī author in the later period (and her evidence certainly seems quite conclusive). Given the abundance of pseudo-epigraphica in Arabic and Islamic philosophy (often attributed to Avicenna, Ibn ʿArabī, Mullā Ṣadrā and so forth), this is a careful philological and philosophical model of how to establish an incorrect attribution. Yamina Adouhane studies the modal and causal distinction between the possible and the necessary in Avicenna and their reception in al-Ghazālī and Averroes. Significantly she points to the distinction between the notion of being necessary in itself and being without a cause. Jules Janssens takes up a wider task looking at the importance of Avicenna studies, the need for historical work and translation, of appropriate historical analysis, of not smoothing out the problems and tensions within Avicenna, of avoiding anachronistic readings. If one accepts that Avicenna is one of the greatest philosophers in history and a thinker with influence in the study of the sciences and medicine as well, he deserves a serious engagement not just in the world of Islam but beyond. This is very much an argument for the study of Avicenna within the history of global philosophy. Matteo di Giovanni considers an important polemical issue taken up historically but also in recent Arab intellectual history: how Islamic is Averroes’ philosophy?  The question speaks directly to this debate on Arabic versus Islamic philosophy. It provides evidence for the contestation of Islam and indeed philosophy in Averroes’ time. The final contribution by Fouad Ben Ahmed looks at Ibn Ṭumlūs’ logic and medicine and acts as a brief introduction to his editions and book published with Brill; it provides an account of an important student of Averroes and his tradition. In a sense the recovery of Ibn Ṭumlūs tells us something about the imagining of an Arab Averroist tradition. 


This is little doubt that this is a valuable collection of interventions, summaries and particular studies which tells us much about the field in its European manifestation: lots of Gutas, Avicenna, and Averroes. While there are hints that the editors and the volume want to go beyond that, the absences are notable: no real Suhrawardī (and this is a classic problem of distaste for Corbin and Nasr leading to the neglect of one of the more creative thinkers in the post-Avicennian period), no Mīr Dāmād (who is seriously neglected), no Mullā Ṣadrā, no Ottoman or Indian thinkers, no ethics. Of course, with any such volume, it is always churlish to expect it to conform to one’s own understanding of the field – and it is unreasonable for any volume not least one that emerged from a relatively small conference to be exhaustive. But then it is also the role of the reviewer to point students in the direction of other works: while a number of contributors warn against false leads and even fake friends and news (not least the works of Jackson and Campanini – I for one strongly disagree with that ascription of Jambet, which is a very serious philosophical engagement but as ever philosophical taste semper est disputandum), some indications of excellent recent work in Safavid and Qajar philosophy, the Oxford Handbook, studies of Ottoman philosophy and so forth are still important to make. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Shahrastānī Dossier: His Persian Ismailism

For some time, specialists have been aware that the famous theologian and heresiographer Abūʾl-Fatḥ Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Karīm Shahrastānī (1074–1153) was more than just the run of the mill Shāfiʿī trained jurist and Sunni Ashʿarī theologian. His Nihāyat al-aqdām fī ʿilm al-kalām was considered to be an Ashʿarī textbook of the seminary and acts as a supplement to his heresiography. 

This text begins with the classic problem of the eternity of the cosmos which he rejects citing Ashʿarī authorities such as Abūʾl-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (874–936) himself, as well as Abū Isḥāq al-Isfarāyinī (and Imam al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī (1028–1085).

And of course the work for which he was best known was al-Milal waʾl-niḥal, an extensive heresiography and doxography (first edited by Cureton in 1846) in which not only does one find one of the best accounts of Ismaili thought but also in which in the long discussion of the roots and reasons for dissension in the early Muslim community one finds a rather sympathetic (to say the least) presentation of the Shiʿi position. 

On the former, we have this distinction between the 'old' kerygma of the early Ismailis in the name of the messianic Imam Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl b. Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq and the new one of the Fatimids:

Then we have a bit further a more detailed examination of the Fatimids and after since Shahrastānī was active in Iran and familiar with the Nizārī mission that would make sense (and one finds reference to the Fuṣūl-e arbaʿa of Ḥasan-e Ṣabbāḥ):

Similarly in his presentation of the early dissension in Islam, one cannot help but feel an element of a philo-Shiʿi stance at the very least:

Anyway beyond these indicators, three further sources are well known for Shahrastānī's Shiʿi (Ismaili/Nizārī) inclinations. The first of these is his Qurʾan exegesis, Mafātīḥ al-asrār or Keys to the Arcana, a partial work mainly on sūrat al-Baqara with some important preliminary discussions on hermeneutics of which the first volume has been translated into English by Toby Mayer. 

The second is his critique of Avicennian philosophy, Muṣāraʿat al-falāsifa or Struggling with the Philosopher as translated by Wilferd Madelung and Toby Mayer that one ought to see alongside other critics of Avicennian metaphysics such as al-Ghazālī (1058–1111), Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī (1155–1191), Says al-Dīn al-Āmidī (1156–1233), and even ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī (1162–1251). 

While one would reconcile elements of the critique with Ashʿarism (even the critique of the notion of God as necessary existent which by the time of Shahrastānī was increasingly absorbed into Ashʿarī metaphysics and cosmology), there are also clear indications of an apophaticism and cosmology that are consistent with some Eastern Fatimid and Nizārī ideas. 

The third text that I want to discuss here has been recently edited and translated by Daryoush Mohammad Poor and published in the same series as the previous two by the Institute of Ismaili Studies. 

We have known about these two Persian sermons on cosmology since the appendix of Sayyid Muḥammad Riżā Jalālī Nāʾinī's appendix to Afżal al-Dīn Turka (d. 1446) and his Persian translation of al-Milal. ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn Zarrīnkūb, Guy Monnot and later Diane Steigerwald in her doctoral dissertation all discussed the Ismailism of Shahrastānī with respect to this work. Of course, the current edition is clearly an improvement: unlike Jalālī Nāʾinī's singular manuscript, it is based on three manuscripts: MS Marʿashī Qum 12868 dated 685/1286, MS Majlis-e Shūrā-ye Islāmī 10117, and finally MS Tehran University Central Library 643/24. The first is these is the only dated one, the earliest one and the basis for the edition. And of course a fluent English translation is presented along with appendices on terms and citations. One observation on the aesthetics of the Persian font - it strikes me as being rather clumsy and rounded. There are surely better Persian fonts to use out there. 

Mohammad Poor provides an excellent and rather full introduction that is actually longer then the text (almost double in length) that presents the author and his work, examines the question of his Ismailism, contextualises the text here and brings out key elements of why this text provides evidence for Shahrastānī's Ismailism: the Nizārī doctrine of the qiyāmat, the comparison with other important Nizārī works such as the Fuṣūl and others as well as (ps-)Ṭūsī's Rawżat al-taslīm which is often said to be influenced by Shahrastānī. 

There is little doubt that much of what Mohammad Poor presents here is rather convincing. In the Majlis, Shahrastānī clearly identifies himself with the new Nizārī mission and on the question of cosmogony critiques Ashʿarī, anthropomorphist, and Avicennian ideas among others in his quest to explain the nature of the divine command. There are clear echoes of the work of Ḥasan-e Sabbāḥ (in the Fuṣūl-e arbaʿa) and of Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī (perhaps through the prism of Nāṣir-e Khusraw). While we know that the genre of the majlis was well known in Iran at this time - especially among preachers such as the Karrāmīya as well as among Sufis (one thinks of the work of ʿAbdullāh Anṣārī and the later majālis that led to the redaction of the exegesis of Rashīd al-Dīn Maybudī) - Mohammad Poor links it here to the Ismaili genre of preaching sermons that one found at the Fatimid court (the works of al-Muʾayyad fīʾl-dīn al-Shīrāzī and even al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān come to mind) as well as later in the Nizārī tradition. He even speculates on a direct meeting and teacher-disciple relationship between Ḥasan-e Sabbāḥ and Shahrastānī. While some elements to the Shiʿi affiliation (for example, in the exegesis) might suggest that Shahrastānī was Twelver Shiʿi (and of course his patron for most of these works was the Twelver Shiʿi naqīb al-ashrāf of Tirmidh) and this is the argument that Mustafa Öztürk has made recently; Mohammad Poor is correct to designate this argument as weak - and we know that the middle period Imāmī tradition never claimed Shahrastānī and in fact Ibn al-Muṭahhar al-Ḥillī (1250–1325)  the famous student of Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī made it clear that Shahrastānī's positions were contrary to Imāmī theology. Perhaps the most convincing and interesting section is the discussion of the intertextuality of the text read alongside Nizārī works and intriguing (one wonders about this in the Mongol Persian context) of Shahrastānī's work as a modification of Ashʿarism, perhaps even a Ismaili evolved or supplemented Ashʿarism? Of course, if one were to bracket Imamology, there is an interesting line of inquiry to be pursued on the theological relationship of Ashʿarī and Nizārī Ismaili positions. 

Anyway, while Mohammad Poor is careful not to be too categorical in asserting Shahrastānī's Nizārism - he does say that he probably was. In the absence of clearer expressions in favour of the Imams of the time, this is understandable. Regardless, he is to be congratulated for producing this work as a intertextual intervention in the intellectual history of Persian theological writing in the pre-Mongol and early Mongol period. Certainly it is a further piece of evidence in the Shahrastānī dossier on his not-so-crypto-Ismailism. And one can imagine using the text fruitfully in classes on theology in Islam on the cusp of the Mongol invasions.