Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Another library goes online - Majlis

Amazing that libraries are realising issues over access. The library of the Majlis in Tehran has made its excellent collection of 35,000 mss available as pdfs online. The link is here.

Some Recent Titles on Mullā Ṣadrā

Of course, visiting Iran provides opportunities to see what’s recently been published (although I’m lucky to receive books all the time from generous friends). A few more titles have been published by the Sadra Islamic Philosophy Research Institute (SIPRIn) including a new edition of Risāla ittiḥād al-ʿāqil wa-l-maʿqūl edited by Biyūk ʿAlīzāda. The edition itself is prefaced with practically 200 pages of discussion. No doubt it should be used alongside Ibrahim Kalin’s new translation which is embedded in his recent book on Mullā Ṣadrā’s epistemology published by OUP.

Since I am currently writing a series of pieces on Mullā Ṣadrā’s noetics including the issue of eschatology and the final destination of the human, I finally got hold of the famous explanation and commentary by the late (and greatly missed) Sayyid Jalālodīn Āshtiyānī (d. 2006). All of Āshtiyānī’s works on Mullā Ṣadrā as well as his various editions of texts have been reprinted by the press of the Ḥawzeh in Qum since the late 1990s (Daftar-i tablīghāt – now known as Bustān-i kitāb). The importance of the Sharḥ bar Zād al-musāfir is all the more because the actual text of Mullā Ṣadrā (to my knowledge) has yet to be published in the critical edition – and Āshtiyānī is always worth reading. He begins by replicating the original text – around eight pages of Arabic. This text takes up the issue of corporeal resurrection in a brief manner discussing twelve principles required to understand the issue – and as such mirrors the final volume of al-Ḥikma al-mutaʿāliya where Mullā Ṣadrā mentions eleven principles needed to understand corporeal resurrection and abandon metempsychosis. This is then followed by over 500 pages of Āshtiyānī’s commentary that given his style and interests constitutes a full history of the ḥikmat tradition on this issue. Mullā Ṣadrā’s position is, of course, controversial and has often been criticised and condemned, not least by the school of uṣūlīs hostile to philosophy known as the maktab-i tafkīk. Therefore, I also acquired a new defence of Mullā Ṣadrā published by Bustān-i kitāb. Murtażā Pūʾīyān’s Maʿād-i jismānī dar ḥikmat-i mutaʿāliya published for the first time in 2009 addresses the criticisms by first showing that Mullā Ṣadrā’s position is both defensible rationally and scripturally, and then criticising the refutations or modification proposed by Mullā Ismāʿīl Khājūʾī (18th C), Mullā Muḥammad Taqī Āmulī (a famed teacher of Sabzavārī’s Sharḥ al-manẓūma), Muṭahharī, ʿAllāma Ṭabāṭabāʾī, and the maktab-i tafkīk especially Mullā Mahdī Iṣfahānī, Muḥammad Riżā Ḥakīmī, and Shaykh Mujtabā Qazwīnī.

Other acquisitions included:

· Hastī va chīstī dar maktab-i Mullā Ṣadrā on the central issue of the relationship between existence and essence in contingents written by Ghulām-Riżā Fayyāżī, a well-known ḥawzeh teacher and published by Pazhūhishgāh-i ḥawzeh va dānishgāh last year in 2009.

· Zamān dar falsafa-yi Ṣadr al-mutaʾallihīn va Saint Augustine by Mahdī Munfarid is also published in the current year by the ḥawzeh and tackles a central issue of the reality of time and its relationship to motion within a comparative context that is so popular in Iran. The comparison with Augustine is quite interesting and appropriate.

· Mabānī, uṣūl va ravish-i tafsīrī-yi Mullā Ṣadrā by Majīd Falāḥpūr is a recent contribution to the question of his hermeneutics and should be read alongside two other recent works published by SIPRIn.

· Khayāl az naẓar-i Ibn Sīnā va Ṣadr al-mutaʾallihīn by Zohreh Burqeʿī tackles a central issue in noetics relating to the imagination – which for Ibn Sīnā is the key internal sense and the one most heightened in prophets, and for Mullā Ṣadrā the one which is the seat of the creative power of the soul whence it reproduces the bodies of the afterlife. This is another offering from the ḥawzeh.

· Natāʾij-i kalāmī-yi ḥikmat-i Ṣadrāʾī, also published by the ḥawzeh and written by Muḥammad Amīn Ṣādiqī addresses a further issue of the implications of philosophy for theology – I noticed other more basic titles in this vein published by the many pazhūhishgāhs now in Qum.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cusanuswerk Conference

Spent the weekend in the lovely town of Mainz near Frankfurt for the annual Cusanuswerk conference on philosophy. The Cusanuswerk is a scholarship and mentoring scheme run by the Catholic church in Germany. It's interesting that they picked the theme of Arabic/Islamic philosophy (that old debate returned again). A number of experts were invited to give talks in German and English from the Graeco-Arabic Neoplatonica and Abu Bakr al-Razi through to Mulla Sadra (no prizes for guessing who gave that talk). It was a great experience giving a paper to a collection of experts as well as enthusiastic and bright philosophy students many of whom knew nothing about the Arabic tradition or about Islam. Along the way Prof Ulrich Rudolph from Zurich gave a couple of public talks on Arabic Islamic thought as well as the history of the academic encounter with the study of philosophy in the Muslim world. Those giving papers included Prof Peter Adamson on Razi and how we can not the heretic we all think he was, Prof Heidrun Eichner (Tubingen) on philosophy and theology in post-Avicennan Islamic world engaging with the critical issue of what Islamic theology is given the current German debate on this new centre of Islamic Studies/theology, myself on Mulla Sadra's monistic noetics, Prof Rahim Acar (Marmara) on Avicenna and Aquinas on creation (drawing on his published PhD), Dr Rotraud Hansberger (King's, Cambridge) on the Arabic Parva Naturalia, and others. In the evaluation, we commented on the absence of philosophy of language and ethics and some students were disappointed with the absence of Averroes (although their reasoning was rather old-fashioned and enlightenment oriented as if only Aristotelianism was the way back and forward for dialogue).
One can of course only dream at this stage of Muslim communities in Europe getting their act together to support the education and intellectual development of their own through schemes such as this and also run such wonderful conferences of real debate and exchange.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

WPD - First Day, First Panel

The Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo had just flown in from Brazil - and flew out almost immediately not spending a day there. I missed much of his talk but what I did catch struck me as being standard for him - a denial of God but affirmation of belief and religion, a denial of objective truth and indeed of the problem within philosophy to seek universals while insisting upon a concept of truth as intersubjective negotiation. This latter makes little sense to me and I cannot quite locate it. While there are plenty of theories of truth out there (wonderfully summed up in Wolfgang Kunne's book) as well as a wide ranging epistemological belief in relative truth, I do not see how truth as inter-subjective negotiation works. I much prefer (as I mentioned before) traditionalist accounts of truth or even tradition-based ones such as MacIntyre's.

Interestingly, the celebrity Ghulam-Hossein Ibrahimi Dinani who has a regular philosophy programme and is at Tehran University took a different view - philosophy as open inquiry and questioning but which assumes a singular truth with 'many faces'. His basic position that humanity is present and alienated in language (using a verse of the poet Bedil) was well taken - and generally his performance reminded me of his excellent recent book on Nasir al-Din Tusi as 'filsuf-e guftagu' (philosophy of dialogue). Philosophy concerns dialoging and practices of discourse that are universal and global and should not be excessively parochialised as Greek, Islamic, Iranian and so forth. This commensurability is precisely what makes philosophy possible and why dialogue at its heart is most effective when it is conducted by philosophers (a probably self-serving suggestion which many in the audience enthusiastically received). To the objection that this seems unrelated to Islamic concerns, he was careful to note that philosophy is tafakkur, tadabbur and ta'aqqul and these are basic epistemological and moral imperatives in the Quran. He remains a eudaimonist at heart - since flourishing happiness arrived through understanding reality and harmonising inter-subjective relations is critical to philosophy, inquiry should keep this in mind. Change is not just about exegesis but fundamental transformation. As such this was a paper clearly geared to a strong ethical role for philosophy in contemporary societies and in Iran critical, citing along the way that change was central to philosophising, quoting Imam 'Ali on the basic point that if any two days of one are the same then one is dead - stable and still and not moving. A wonderful potential call for political change?

WPD – Final day – Analytic Ontology and Political Thought

While more interesting conflicts were ongoing else, I went to a panel on political thought with the Columbia professors Carol Rovane and Akeel Bilgrami. CR asked the question why individuals matter in the context of considering the limitations of traditional liberal approaches to rights located within a social contract tradition of how the power of the state is restraints by the rights and liberties of citizens. Her argument really asked the question –what do we mean by an individual or even a person and how this conflict brought up the conflict and tension in liberalism between two fundamental commitments that derive from the Enlightenment tradition:
• The moral importance of the individual human being that posits rights, whose integrity is central and whose rights it is wrong to sacrifice for the great good (against utilitarianism)
• The moral importance of rationality (understood minimally through the presence of a first person perspective although one weakness that is clear was the lack of an account of rationality in the presentation)
Solving this tension requires an account of the individual because of the following assumption that rights pertain to individuals:
• I possess rights because I can claim them for myself
Personhood implies membership of civil society but also that anything that can be treated as a person is a person. But how about those who are not rational such as young children, the unborn and the mentally damaged, the old – morally we still do think they are important. Nevertheless we have a basic problem that the rational idea of the individual is not equivalent to the individual human person. Humans are not basic blocks of individualism: deliberation, commitments and the totality of mental states and beliefs suggests that individuals for moral and legal reasons may either be less than one actual person (i.e. with respect to multiple personality disorders) or corporate entities with similar beliefs (and hence have 1st amendment etc rights – CR seems particularly worried about this). But some objections: what about personhood over time? How do we make sense of that? The example given of collective personhood (i.e. the married couple or corporation) does beg the question to what extent it is really position for there to be some form of shared rationality and first person perspective? Does the simple fact of having common goals and shared beliefs really confer personhood and individuality? But the basic take home message that the liberal conception of the individual as the seat for claims to rights needing to be modified and revised seems fair enough.
AB’s paper was related and focused on religious identity and why it clashes with liberal notions and for him this is because of the difference of mentality (and required him to present a schematic and rather generalised view of the too – I look forward to the fully reasoned argument in his forthcoming book). His basic point is that the clash lies at the level of moral psychology and not the rather simple conflict between individual and community. Identity relates to intense commitments and are predicated on reinforced beliefs where reinforcement concerns the linkage between different beliefs/preferences that are held and points towards coherence in will and action (although along the way the issue of weakness of will was discussed). Now in terms of liberalism, he outlined one central proposition:
• Individual citizens must be left unimpeded///to pursue their own conception of the good life
So basically two issues – non-interference and pursuit of the good but which are distinct and can be mutually exclusive (Rawls and Mill). Rawslian position is that one ought to choose liberty for itself regardless of one’s self-interest. He insisted on a present-minded approach to what would happen in the future with liberals open to reversibility of positions held and religious minded committed to irreversibility. However, it seems unclear why one should have such a simplistic opposition. There are religious minded individuals who hold reversibility with respect to postulations of religious truth just as there are liberals committed to the irreversibility of their position. This brought to mind the basic conflict that John Gray discusses between a universalist liberalism that insisted its values represent the ‘end of history’ and those who are open to reversibility and to diversity of positions within society – and in fact one finds the similar tension of positions among the religious. One objection raised including by Tu-Wei Ming was the basic point that there is a distinction between identity politics and identity in politics: the former might well be essentialist, irreversible and highly dangerous, but the latter is unavoidable. After all, none of us are disembodied autonomous selves capable of rational deliberate and its communication in isolation of others. We are rather all rational agents that are products of our communities and our contexts.
Overall, this was a key and excellent panel on analytic approaches to political thought (one of the few properly analytic panels – the absence of many analytic philosophers especially from Iran seemed to be quite striking to me).

Friday, November 26, 2010

WPD - the closing session - what to say?

Finally, at the end of the controlled nature of the event, security re-emerged - scanners. While AN had come for the opening it was unlikely that he would again. The security seemed strict but second tier which suggested a minister. But not just any minister - the minister of justice, and son of a prominent marja' Ayatullah Hashim Larijani and the son-in-law of arguably the leading marja' in Qum today namely Ayatullah Shaykh Waheed Khurasani - of course I mean Sadeq Larijani.

The three talks were by Prof Rao, Larijani and HA. Aavani seemed conspicuously absent from these proceedings - still caught between a rock and a hard place? I caught various bits (including some quite amusing ones) on video on my phone. Finally we had mention of the boycott and UNESCO and FIS's loss.

WPD Day 3

I'll come back to the previous days and the closing session later (in which we were entertained with a ramble through the totality of modern 'western' thought with a special interest in Freud it seemed with a simple take home message - I know your intellectual traditions but you fail to know me - unless you are an orientalist).
The first session was rather scholarly - Reshid Hafizovic from Bosnia gave an excellent paper on poesis within the narrative of the prophetic ascension and spoke lucidly about the need for a mythopoeic approach to thought. This was followed by Miklos Maroth's exposition of Avicenna's Topica, a response to Aristotle and a demarcation of the lines between demonstrative approaches to theoretical science and the practices of dialectic and rhetoric and their roles in ancient thought. This was the second of a couple of papers on Avicenna's logic, the other being Wilferd Hodges (emeritus professor of logic at London and now one of our regional neighbours with an interest in the Arab tradition). The final paper on this panel was my own attempt to think about how we understand philosophy and whether hikmat is more than philosophy, juxtaposing the late Pierre Hadot's readings of ancient thought with Mulla Sadra. This is the abstract:
Philosophy as a way of life in the world of Islam: applying Hadot to the study of Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1635)

Embarking on my doctoral studies on the thought of the Iranian Safavid thinker Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1635), I found myself stumped with a basic question of methodology: how do I make sense of his thought which is so removed from the categories and approaches to philosophy of our own time? Reading the existing secondary literature did not help much; confusion was a basic state of response. What was Mullā Ṣadrā’s thought and the nature of his contribution to Islamic intellectual history? How should we understand what he intended by the term ḥikma(t) often rendered as philosophy? Should we even consider him to be merely a ‘philosopher’? Does our description of him as a philosopher diminish his role of thinker, teacher, and exegete? Are our tastes in Islamic philosophy condemned to following fashions in the wider history of philosophy? What did he understand by the concept of philosophy? The basic problem arises out of how we understand philosophy in contemporary thought.
One way out of this impasse was the chance discovery of the work of the late Pierre Hadot on ancient thought. Hadot’s categorisation and conceptualisation of philosophy seems to fit much better into a paradigm that is useful for the study of later Islamic philosophy. In this paper, I critically examine the key insights of Hadot to one’s reading and understanding of philosophy and consider to what extent it is a key to making sense of what ḥikmat is for Mullā Ṣadrā.

Well received I think - had various people come up to me and I sustained conversations is my rather bad persian for the next couple of hours (!). Finally relented and gave a couple of interviews (avoided before and after) - with Radio Ma'arif. Although it was somewhat disturbing to find that instead of question about practice of philosophising as ethics, I was asked how one distinguishes between true and false religious traditions - which I tried to avoid. And the questions seemed quite different - asked about the tafkikis, I said they were philosophical despite themselves and that the so-called clash between religion and philosophy depends on how one reads and understands the two. I am uncomfortable with two definitions of philosophy commonplace during the conference (and that they were both here is testament to discussion and debate) - one in which philosophy is analytically sound reasoning through propositions, and the other in which philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom culminating in spirituality. But where is the ethics? especially of the applied kind? Which is precisely why it was wonderful to see the panels on philosophy and children that included workshops with children of different ages.
Some more controversial things did happen. I leave some of them for later. In a philosophy of religion panel, a prominent hawzawi thinker Shaykh Hasan Ramezani gave a lucid internal discussion of the basic commitment to ‘aql in religion – ‘aql here of course not being reasoning in any noticeably Enlightenment sense but one which draws heavily from the Shi‘i hadith literature. One chap raised a basic objection: the problem with hawzawi chaps is that they continually repeat old stuff and need to engage especially in this context with new thinkers to avoid obsolescence. The tension between secular trained academics from philosophy departments and hawzawi/hybrid trained philosophers is clear – and yet the latter have really leaped ahead not least in their embrace of the Kantian and analytic traditions. The most lucid and vibrant discussions on pragmatics of truth, on the Habermasian public space and on the linkages between the semantic discussions of usul al-fiqh and the philosophy of language (Kripke et al) are conducted with these hybrid mullahs. Yet one feels that this is very much philosophy as defender of the faith, deployed as the handmaiden of theology, as the key weapon in the new theology (kalam-e jadid) that has been dominant since the 1960s.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Day in Qom

Hitched a ride to Qom for the day - apart from the visit to the shrine of Sayyida Fatima Ma'suma, the sister of Imam 'Ali al-Rida (which was busy as it is the eve of eid al-ghadir), got roped into various events and still found some time to buy books (beginning to think my small suitcase cannot handle it. Picked up a series of works relating to Mirza Muhammad 'Ali Shahabadi (d. 1950), the teacher of Khomeini, from the bookshop of the Islamic Research Institute for Culture and Thought (IICT, Pazhuheshgah-e farhang o andishe-ye islami) including the Rashahat al-bihar, Shadharat al-ma'arif and other works. Later in the evening attended a very long mini-conference on Islamic perspectives on the philosophy of art.It was supposed to be from 6.30 to 8.30. Sensibly, I turned up at 8.10 not having agreed to give a paper. It still lasted until 9pm. A hall full of turbans - but bright ones. One of the papers which I did catch was an interesting account of Avicenna's notion of aesthetics based on a reading of the ninth namat of Pointers and Reminders (al-Isharat wa-l-tanbihat). Reminded me of a discussion at the WPD concerning a two-fold division of the text into theoretical and practical philosophy with namats 1-7 comprising the former and 8-10 the latter. Am tempted to go back to Pointers at some point soon to check this (when I have time...) I think I slept through most of the rest.

Earlier in the day had a tour of the Mar'ashi library - the chap had clearly done it a million times before. But it is still an amazing collection - 37,000 manuscripts. Although given my previous experiences, I did not exactly buy the story of helping all researchers and providing copies - but perhaps things are different now since I have a tenured job.

Sandwiched between were sessions at the Research Institute for Islamic Sciences and Culture (Pazhuheshgah-e 'ulum-e islami o farhang). As they are organising a conference in early March on the mind/body/soul problem, I felt going along would be fine. Had a meeting with the research unit on philosophy and Islamic theology. Interesting work being done even it is seems rather too beholden to analytic philosophy's categories. Later before lunch there was a more extensive meeting with Karim Crow, his wife Asna Husin and myself taking questions on everything from the concept of an Islamic science (I really don't understand why the islamisation of knowledge seems to be returning as a concern in Iran) to the political philosophy of the revolution and beyond.Seems there is much interesting and creative work arising out of the seminary that is potentially revolutionary (!). I also suggested that if one assumes that a faith-based philosophy is a requirement, then it would help to engage with successful examples such as the literature on Buddhist philosophy.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ma'had al-ma'arif al-hikmiyya - Institute for Sapiential Knowledge, Beirut

Finally met Mahmoud Younes the energetic editor of al-Mahajja which is published by the Institute headed by Shaykh Shafik Jaradi. It's wonderful to see a serious philosophy journal in Arabic and gives hope - especially if seen alongside the new International Society for Islamic Philosophy and its journal. There is an Arabic translation (quite excellent and I think perhaps better than the original!) of my JIS piece on Mir Damad on God's creative agency.
The Institute has also an excellent series of publications - translations of John Hick and Rudolf Otto, but also editions of texts by Muhsin Fayd Kashani such as Usul al-ma'arif and Rashahat al-bihar of Ayatollah Shahabadi.
The contact email is almahajah@shurouk.com

Sunday, November 21, 2010

WPD - The Opening Session 3 - Tu Weiming

As the opening ceremony continued, a few choice luminaries were thanked for their acceptance of invitations including Hans Poser (TU Berlin, VP of the Leibniz Society), Gianni Vattimo (more about his speech later), Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia) and Tu Wieming (Harvard/Beijing).
At which point TM was invited to give his speech, which I must admit rather disturbed me because it begged way too many questions. He began by addressing the human condition and the challenges faced which were common. Intercultural diversity entails dialogue but that cannot b solved by trading and defending particularisms (consistently I really wanted a clearer idea of what he meant by cultures since he sometimes used civilisations and even spiritual traditions as synonyms for cultures). Dialogue is required for human flourishing (the basic virtue ethics and eudaimonistic approach of his was clear and never justified as a privileged approach). He continued with a rather qualified critique of what MacIntyre has called the Enlightenment project (without rejecting the Enlightenment or the notion of a negotiation universal(isable) ethics). While the Enlightenment has become the model for values and ethics in the West, it has also become a dominant ideology stressing rights discourse, liberty, dignity of humanity, autonomy, due process and rationality – seemingly decent values. While he did not wish to raise the old bugbear of Asian values, he stressed that these also include universalisables such as justice, sympathy, compassion and communal solidarity – it is not clear why he wants the lists to be somewhat mutually exclusive. He was right to say that no government nowadays can deny its citizens Enlightenment values (was this a veiled critique of his context? I don’t think so but it could be read so). What is needed is a dialogue between values to create universals, to embrace diversity and not just tolerate it and recognise that E values are not sufficient (why exactly?). Authentic communities (meaning what exactly?) require dialogue, setting aside prejudice that defends an exclusive account of truth, even setting aside the insufficiency of the categorical imperative in search of reciprocity and reflection.
Communication is dialogical and cannot be imposed and monological but requires recognising difference in which the other is relevant (the intersubjective ethics being suggested seemed quite basic to me – I would take Ricoeur before any of this). Dialoging is part of the process of self-reflection and self-becoming (which is actually one of the themes of my paper later in the conference). Pluralism as a good cannot exist with exclusivisms: to establish and help the self one needs to establish and help the other and cultivate the art of listening as central to dialogue. Debate and dialogue are signs of a healthy and wholesome culture – neither pure acceptance nor pure rejection (perhaps some undefined manzila bayna al-manzilatayn?). While communities need identity to be coherent, they also require change and renewal especially in the light of current challenges – he consistently mentioned the ecological challenge. It is only through dialogue that universal ethics may be achievable (strange this naive adherence still to the E project) and a new human consciousness is needed that does not replicate modes of dominance and is not ineffective but holistic. Isolated cultures cannot survive – open ones adapt (again there are ironies of the context – but I must say the discussions have been remarkably open – much more so and more intellectually vibrant than they would be elsewhere in the world whether that is Jerusalem, Cairo or even one suspects DC for that matter nowadays – the boycotters I think really got this wrong). He then shifted to talking about spiritual traditions and not cultures and their need for two elements: a language of global citizenship, and another for the particularisms of their tradition, the latter sinking roots in the former and not allowing the particular to constrain the universal. There was some general notion that spiritual traditions are ecologically more friendly (evidence?). The need for revive humanity require a third turn in contemporary philosophy after the epistemological and the linguistic – this is the spiritual turn (rediscovering Aristotle etc – one sees MacIntyre in much of what he is saying here) – spiritual traditions remain a major source of philosophical inspiration. While calibrating and deconstructing the dominance of the analytic tradition is a good thing, one wonders whether the plea for the spiritual turn can be taken seriously unless one explodes the very notion of the spiritual/religious/theological in terms similar to Vattimo or de Vries and others.
In many ways the spiritual almost walawi conclusion of TM fitted well with AN’s speech that followed – classic messianic fare. Beginning with bits of duʿāʾ al-faraj and moving onto the idea the philosophy is a discourse on reality and a means for acquiring knowledge that lends to a sending down of mercy. Philosophy is needed for harmony (against some of TM’s critique of anthropocentrism this was exactly that). Humans are central to creation – know self through knowing perfect manifestations and disclosures of the divine – the dialectic of self and God is central. True knowledge lies in knowing the perfect manifestation = perfect man = imam (well the last step is clearly implicit but he did not use the word). The sanctity and ontological force of the perfect man is essential for human salvation (which is how he reads philosophy). Philosophy as soteriology and mysticism. Classic AN – and speaking to some of the others invited from abroad they just did not get it.

WPD - The Opening Session I

Plenty of security as we were entering the large National Library complex - for obvious reasons when later AN came in rather informally with his entourage and photographers (not quite the regal and controlled entrances that one used to expect from Khatami). There was an MC who reminded me somewhat of a game show host. As everyone sat down, we did not know what the opening session would entail - the English programme did not give details although I later found some posters with a Persian programme setting it out. The MC pointed said that it was indeed auspicious that this gathering was taking place between two great eids - al-adha and al-ghadeer - and appropriate that it was held in Iran which had a continuous role in philosophy at least from Avicenna - a phrase that was constantly repeated through the day was: 'the lamp of philosophy has never been allowed to be extinguished in Iran'. Apparently visiting philosophers from 56 countries were present - later this became 90 experts from 42 (well although the assumption was that we are all philosophers, I for one at not and I don't think that would be an appropriate label for many others there either).

First, of course, was the Quranic recitation - quite beautiful and an apt choice of the light verse. The national anthem followed (various interesting graphics came up throughout the session). Then the introductions from the president of the conference Haddad-i 'Adil and the (ex-)president and president of the 'scientific committee' Ghulam-Reza Aavani.

HA went first - after the thanks (guests, participants, president etc) and welcoming words, he addressed the theme of the meeting: theory and practice. He also mentioned messages sent in from the three major philosophers/theologians in Qum (none of whom interestingly were present) - in order - Ayatullah Javadi Amuli, Ayatullah Ja'far Subhani and Ayatullah Misbah. He even strangely thanked UNESCO (especially given their withdrawal of official status - in fact most people seem to have either forgotten or deliberately omitted to mention that UNESCO had changed its mind 2 weeks earlier). HA repeated the lamp of philosophy image and that Iran was a country at whose very heart philosophy and the spiritual quest remained (interesting how the two were equated by a number of people today), and had a venerable 1000 year old history of philosophy. He then tried to define what he meant by philosophy: attempting to deal with the thirst for knowledge, to understand universal truths not particular exigencies, to address challenges of the time and remove doubts and provide solutions - especially contemporary problem like terror, the nature of life, the family and so forth. Philosophy is not just a mental exercise - he quoted the famous definition of Avicenna about the perfecting of the human soul insofar as is humanly possible. Philosophy should have a prescriptive nature - through demonstration and dialectic it should solve problems through dialogue. Dialogue is very much a motif of this conference. And he ended with a verse of Rumi in the essential human action of thinking. But is philosophy about answers or asking the right sorts of questions, or even just of questioning and inquiring (I'll return to this later as it was raised in the afternoon)?

A short video followed showing HA and A going around schools and universities promoting the work of the WPD - a bit later A in his speech mentioned the various preliminary meetings and conferences that had taken place since 2009 in various parts of Iran - Qum, Shiraz, Hamedan, Suhraward and various campuses.

Aavani's speech described the fourteen panels and their rationale stressing for example the one on philosophy and children (he did not explain philosophy and tourism - not sure many people understand what that is). Iran is the first Asian country to hold the WPD (next year it will be in India) and more about Iran as a country devoted to philosophy. The theme was taken because philosophy needs to address the practical challenges of today (but many of the papers including my own I guess in a sense do not really do that).

But after, we were rather bizarrely entertained by ostad Abbas Shir-Khuda (what a name!) on the drum singing verses from Ferdowsi (translated rather badly into English on the projector above) - was not exactly clear what a scene from a zurkhaneh had to do with philosophy or even the theme of theory and practice (theoria cum praxis).

A speech from the eminent neo-Confucion philosopher and Harvard Professor Tu-Wei Ming and AN and some of the messages - but more of that in a bit.

International Society for Islamic Philosophy

Just found out earlier today that a group of specialists who were present at the World Congress of Philosophy in Seoul in 2008 established this society. The president is Ghulam-Reza Aavani who heads the Iranian Institute of Philosophy in Tehran. There will be a brief meeting here during this conference to discuss future events including a week long meeting/round table/workshop to be held in Beirut in May 2011.

The ISIP has a journal called Philosophica Islamica. The first issue has just come out - general editor is Aavani and the editor Yasien Mohamed. I am on the editorial board along with some of usual suspects - Ghulam-Husain Ibrahimi Dinani (Tehran U), Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Hans Daiber (Frankfurt), Osman Bakar (U of Malaya), Alparslan Acikgenc (Fatih U), William Chittick (Stony Brook) etc. Contact - isisophy@gmail.com

Saturday, November 20, 2010


The official UNESCO site for the events of the last few days is here. The programme for the Tehran conference is here.

Blogging World Philosophy Day

Am currently in Tehran for what looks like being a substantial conference despite UNESCO's withdrawal of official recognition. FIS have also pulled out even though in protest some of their council members are here - a political mess it seems. Starts tomorrow on 21st. Thought I might periodically put up some reflections on it, especially as the network in the hotel we are staying at does not allow access to facebook where I would normally upload updates.

As for the programme which is constantly changing for my own interests the panels on history of philosophy, and the one on ethics are most interesting although the others are: philosophy and peace, philosophy and politics, philosophy and children, philosophy and the environment etc. My own paper in the history of philosophy section on the morning of the 23rd is on philosophy as a way of life, examining to what extent the late Pierre Hadot's work presents a method for studying philosophical texts that can be applied to Islamic philosophy, particularly the hikmat tradition and Mulla Sadra. More later.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Shii Sufism - A New Translation

The study of Sufism within a Shiʿi context has been somewhat neglected in recent academia. Part of the challenge for examining the relationship in religious studies between the two is the lack of serviceable and useful translations of primary texts from the Shiʿi Sufi tradition. While a number of works associated with two branches of the Niʿmatullāhī order (both those following Nūrbakhsh and the Gunābādīs) are available in translation, little else is. The present translator (Mohammed Faghfoory) has himself made an important contribution, rendering Lubb al-lubāb, a work by Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ḥusaynī Ṭihrānī (d. 1995) based on the spiritual teachings of ʿAllāma Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1981), into English. The work under review (Tuhfah-yi 'Abbasi of Shaykh Muhammad 'Ali Mu'adhdhin Sabzavari) is a further contribution based on a text associated with the Dhahabiyya order, a Shiʿi branch of the Central Asian Kubrawiyya that were particularly dominant in the shrines cities of Iran such as Mashhad (the shrine of Imam ʿAlī al-Riḍā, the eighth Shiʿi Imam) and Shiraz (the shrine of Sayyid Aḥmad, brother of al-Riḍā). Before saying anything further about the text, the translation, introduction and annotations, it is worth mentioning two basic critiques which should be laid before the publisher. First, the cover is not terribly evocative of the contents. The small miniature depicts what seems to be a North African prayer congregation, perhaps of Sufis – what this has to do with Dhahabīs, Shiʿis or even the Safavid period is beyond me. Second, the font and typeface is really quite inelegant – leaving aside the careful copy-editing needed to correct many small typographical errors. On this latter point, newer fonts available would improve the appearance of the text and still render ably the transliteration and ‘scientific’ elements of the presentation; though even here, on wonders why an Arabic system of transliteration is following for a Persian text and for references which are primarily in Persian.

The introduction does a decent job of explaining the author and contextualising the text in terms of Shiʿi mysticism (ʿirfān-i shīʿī). But what of the historical context – since the text is dedicated to ʿAbbās II, the famous Safavid Shah known as the friend of the dervishes (shāh-i darvīsh-dūst)? How was the text transmitted? What role does it play within the Dhahabī order? Is it still a living text of instruction? Where does one locate the Dhahabiyya in contemporary Iran and elsewhere? All we are given about the provenance of the text is that it was edited by a Dhahabī of Azerbaijan called Mirzā Muḥsin son of Ḥasan ʿAlī Ardabīlī in 1918 and published on the order of the head of the Dhahabiyya Āqā Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Ḥayy Tabrīzī. Little is given about the author Muḥammad ʿAlī Muʾadhdhin beyond his official post as the caller to prayer and as a Dhahabī master who, initially hostile to Sufism became converted by his master Ḥāṭim-i Zarāvandī (d. 1057/1647), and died in 1078/1667. The apology for the Sufi path in the text makes more sense if one understands the background of the debate on the permissibility of Sufism in late Safavid Iran leading to the wholescale suppression even of Shiʿi Sufi order after the death of Muʾadhdhin. A thicker description and analysis of the context of anti-Sufism and the need for Sufi apologetics in the period would have been an excellent contribution.

The text itself is divided into two parts: on Sufi approaches to Shiʿi core beliefs – somewhat similar in scope (although much briefer) to Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī’s Asrār al-sharīʿa (Secrets of the Path) albeit in a more apologetic vein – and a section on stations and techniques on the path. A very short discussion on divine justice is appended, written by Najīb al-dīn Riżā Tabrīzī (d. 1108/1697) who succeeded Muʾadhdhin at the head of the Dhahabiyya; it is not clear why it is there or who placed it there. The only indication is that the first printing was on the margins of Tabrīzī’s Sabʿ al-mathānī. Apart from insisting that the Sufi path and the Shiʿi way are entirely interchangeable, the first part has sections on Sufi approaches to the unity of God, prophecy and the imamate, the afterlife, and crucially the relationship of Sufis and the family of the Prophet (ahl al-bayt). Famous Sufis are therefore appropriated for Shiʿi Islam in a way that is familiar from Muʾadhdhin’s older contemporary Sayyid Nūrallāh Shūshtarī (d. 1610) in his Majālis al-muʾminīn in which all the famous classical Sufis are associated with the Imams or with Shiʿi Islam. One of the more surprising claims is that the sober Sufi par excellence of Baghdad, Junayd is identified as a descendent of the seventh Shiʿi Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓim even though it is widely agreed that he came from an Iranian family of artisans who had settled in Baghdad. The final chapter in this section also includes the silsila of the order back to the golden chain of the Imams. Another feature of the text worth mentioning is the importance of Ghawālī al-laʾālī of Ibn Abī Jumhūr al-Aḥsāʾī (d. 1504) as the source for many of the ḥadīth.

The second section deals with stations along the Sufi path and is divided into twelve chapters (the number is significant – just as significantly there were five chapters in the first section) ranging from the excellence of knowledge and asceticism (or perhaps renunciation is a better rendition for zuhd) to invocation of God (being a better term for dhikr) and ecstasy. Two chapters in particular relate to Safavid debates and would have benefited from some annotation or discussion in the introduction: the first is on the permissibility of listening to music – the samāʿ of the Sufis – and the second is on the need for a spiritual master on the path. Although not explicit, the author clearly engages with the attacks of Ḥadīqat al-shīʿa among other texts and this may allow us to date the Tuḥfa. If one assumes that the text is not heavily interpolated, and given that it is dedicated to ʿAbbās II who died in 1666 and given that the Ḥadīqa was probably written in the Deccan in 1648, that would place the text within this period, possibly after settling in Isfahan in 1655. So one can date the text in the period between 1655 and 1666 – the nature of the apologetic and the maximal claims would also indicate that increasingly the legitimacy of Sufism, even in the rule of one so sympathetic to Sufism, was questioned.

The text itself is smoothly rendered and could profitably be used in undergraduate classes in Islamic spirituality and mysticism (and perhaps even in Shiʿi studies). The criticisms raised particularly with respect to a greater need to provide an introductory and contextualising apparatus would vastly improve the published text and make an even greater contribution to the field.