Monday, March 20, 2017

A couple of recent publications of the Muʾassasa-yi kitāb-shināsī-yi Shīʿa

Biographical dictionaries are essential tools of research that help us to flesh out the context of a thinker's composition and production. Of course, like most forms of narrative, they carry within them a certain rhetorical style and effect and a self-referentiality to the genre itself - these works draw upon previous works of the genre, sometimes through explicit citation and at other times through influence and unacknowledged citation. The job of a good editor at times is precisely to reveal the sources used, especially if those latter works are not extant or are difficult to obtain.

The first text I want to mention is ʿUlamā-yi ʿahd-i Nāsir al-Dīn Shāh Qājār, which is an edition of the biographical section of al-Maʾāsir wa-l-āsār of Muḥammad Ḥasan Khān Iʿtimād al-salṭana (d. 1313/1896).

Iʿtimād al-salṭana as a major courtier and one of the earliest 'European' trained officials (having studied in the Dār al-funūn in Tehran) headed up the publications bureau of the state and was responsible for editing and having published a number of important histories, gazetteers and geographical surveys. Al-Maʾāsir was written and published in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the reign of Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh in 1301-3/1884-6, and is a work cited extensively in 20th century sources such as the continuation of Nujūm al-samāʾ by Mīrzā Muḥammad ʿAlī Kashmīrī, the Takmilat Amal al-āmil of Sayyid Ḥasan al-Ṣadr (d. 1354/1935) and the massive undertaking of Āqā Buzurg Ṭihrānī, Ṭabaqāt aʿlām al-shīʿa arranged by century. It was divided into 16 chapters and the chapter on the ʿulama is chapter 10, much of which was actually written by Shams al-ʿulamāʾ Muḥammad Mahdī ʿAbd al-Rabbābādī although it bears the strong editorial imprint of Iʿtimād al-salṭana. The modern edition of al-Maʾāsir by the late Īraj Afshār was published in the 1980s in three volumes.

The text itself says that it is a listing of the 'names of ʿulama and scholars, imams of religion, eminent mujtahids, illustrious theologians, theosist philosophers, contented mystics, accomplished litterateurs, Arabists, curing physicians, great poets, unique preachers and lamenters, writers and calligraphers from the land of Iran in the last forty years'. What follows are 698 notices, some as short as a simple name (such as entry number 206 Mullā Riżā, 'a notable scholar of this land') and others fuller biographies (such as entry number 46 on the eminent philosopher of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā, Ḥājj Mullā Hādī Sabzavārī [d. 1289/1873]). The editor Nāsir al-Dīn Anṣārī Qummī has done a good job of annotating the entries so that one can cross refer with other sources especially the 20th century ones that draw upon it. The text tells us useful things about the Nāsirī period, commenting on Bābī and Bāhāʾī and Shaykhī challenges to the hierocracy, bolstering the authority of the jurists, and praising the eminent philosophers and poets who carried the tradition of Mullā Ṣadrā and of mysticism.

The second text is from the late Safavid period, al-Darajāt al-rafīʿa fī ṭabaqāt al-imāmīya of the well known poet, literary scholar and scion of the Dashtakī family of Shiraz, Sayyid ʿAlī Khān b. Muḥammad Maʿṣūm Madanī (d. 1118/1707), who also wrote an important taẕkira of Arabic poets entitle Sulāfat al-ʿaṣr fī maḥāsin al-shuʿarāʾ bi-kulli miṣr.

The text was previously published in Najaf in the early 1960s (and there is an even earlier lithograph); the Najaf edition has been offset printed a number of times. As the text has come down to us in a somewhat incomplete form, this edition is somewhat preliminary, produced by Shaykh Muḥammad Jawād Maḥmūdī and ʿAbd al-Sattār al-Ḥasanī. The text is divided into 20 sections starting with the companions of the prophets and the next generations down to his contemporaries. The sections on the companions, those who narrated from the Imams, and the early Shiʿi women are not extant as far as the editors have attempted to trace. The latter in particular is rather unfortunate given the great interest in uncovering voices and personalities from the early Islamic period. Notices tend to be rather brief and should be read alongside other contemporaneous Safavid period compilations such as Riyāḍ al-ʿulamāʾ of Mīrzā ʿAbdullāh Afandī and Amal al-āmil of al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī. Once again the published text is well annotated. His particular interest in poets and the poetic output of scholars and philosophers was what prompted me first many years ago to look at poetic taẕkire as an important source for intellectual history.

The Muʾassasa-yi kitāb-shināsī-yi Shīʿa continues to produce significant works of reference - alongside the others they have already produced including the two volumes collection of all the books lists (Fahāris) compiled by Shiʿi ʿulama of the past. It would help if the website were better updated especially in the section of their publications (manshūrāt) as often recentish books are found in the news (akhbār) section. The publications themselves might not always have the most analytical introductions, but the job of making sense of the narratives, the formation of the self, and constructions of scholarly genealogies and histories remain for us as historians to decipher and examine.

No comments: