Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Political Thought of Mullā Ṣadrā??

I was briefly in Iran last week having some meetings and giving a lecture. The original idea was to go to the Bunyād-e Mullā Ṣadrā’s annual conference which was supposed to be in Isfahan on the interesting topic of Shiʿi philosophy. Anyway an email came a couple of weeks before saying that it had been cancelled but given that I had a visa (and they’re quite difficult to come by these days), I decidedly to book a flight on Iran Air (not really a good idea) and go anyway. As ever, any trip to Iran involves the customary buying, receiving and exchanging of books. As I was giving a lecture on selfhood and the nafs in Safavid philosophies at the Pazhūhishgāh-i ʿulūm va farhang-i islāmī (ISCA in English) at the Daftar-i tablīghāt (a large building on the Ṣafāʾiyyeh roundabout opposition the Bustān-i kitāb shop), I spoke to the (Sharīf Lakzāʾī) chap in charge of their political thought unit – which specialises and he does in particular on the ‘political thought’ of Mullā Ṣadrā.

[One PhD student who completed with me a few years ago wrote on the ethics and politics of Mullā Ṣadrā – the dissertation is apparently forthcoming as a book in English and Persian. I remember the supervision being quite a struggle – especially over the issue of vilāyat-i faqīh]

Intriguing – since I do not think MS ever wrote on the topic and in fact as I told SL, a better candidate for a Safavid precursor to vilāyat-i faqīh would be Mīr Dāmād, MS’s teacher and not the student. So I got these books:

1) Najaf Lakzāʾī’s Andīsha-yi siyāsī-yi Ṣadr al-mutaʾallihīn – part of a long series of monographs on thinkers published by ISCA. The original edition dates from 2001. I have yet to examine the contents in details. But it comprises five chapters: the historical background to the political personality of MS (did he have one? Setting aside the fictive oppositional and anti-monarchical posture portrayed in the famous Jām-i jam serial Rawshantar az khāmushī), the place of political thought in MS’s philosophy, the political life in MS’s thought, religious government (ḥukūmat-i dīnī) in MS’s thought (read: vilāyat-i faqīh in MS), and establishing the structure of religious government in MS’s thought. The main text is followed by 10 appendices providing summaries of political thought present in his major works – al-Shawāhid al-rubūbīya being the most controversial. But much of this material relates on discussions on imāma or merely reflects the ideal of Platonopolis expressed in al-Fārābī and those influenced by him (including of course MS).

2) Four volumes of articles edited by SL entitled Siyāsat-i mutaʿāliya dar manẓar-i ḥikmat-i mutaʿāliya. Vol I is focused on MS, vol II on theoretical and practical issues, vol III on the politics of the human and the imamate and its relationship to politics, and vol IV on the relationship between ethics and politics. The Aristotelian and Platonic frames remain clear. Much of this is not really about MS himself or his thought but involves studies of those from his school including the recent great thinker ʿAllāma Ṭabāṭabāʾī (and making him a political supporter of the revolution troubles me even more than making the long departed MS one).

3) ʿAlī-Riżā Ṣadrā’s Mafhūm-shināsī-yi ḥikmat-i mutaʿālī-yi siyāsī is another short study.

These developments raise an important question about the relationship of philosophy and politics in Iran. Do thinkers in the public sphere use philosophy to justify a certain form of politics? Or is the study of philosophy an end on itself? Or do some engage in politics to defend the scope and legitimacy of a certain metaphysics? Is it even possible nowadays to study MS and his school as a critical historical-philosophical inquiry without being implicated in a politics that one finds distasteful? It reminds me of my first trip to Iran many years ago and being at a shab-i yaldā party. Engaging in small talk and being asked what I did, I said I study Islamic philosophy being naive to its connotations in those days. Those with whom I was speaking changed their attitude towards me immediately and one of them said, ‘I hate Islam – it’s the cause of all of our troubles’. I did not realise at that time that the very phrase ‘falsafa-yi islāmī’ had been political co-opted and I had foolishly placed myself in a camp without being aware of it. The legitimacy and possibility of speaking about and critically evaluating ‘Islamic philosophy’ today, thankfully, is still I think possible in other places and an endeavour worth pursuing even if to conclude that Islamic philosophy, much like Heidegger famously said of Christian philosophy, is a bit like a square circle, a nonsensical and impossible concept.

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