Tuesday, November 13, 2012

New trends in the social history of Sufism

Hitherto, collective studies on medieval Sufism have tended to suffer from some basic shortcomings: they have focused on mystical ideas devoid of any serious contextualisation, or upon a particular order, or a region, or have even attempted to discern an Arab or simply Persianate essence to the phenomena of Sufi practice and thought. Many of these studies have also been characterised by an ahistorical approach to the subject of inquiry. Those which have exhibited a historical approach have tended to assume that Sufi practice in the medieval period shifts from the establishment of orders and their dominance to a gradual decline into the colonial and imperial period. However, a number of recent works try to engage seriously with the historical contextualisation of Sufi movements as well as the construction of hagiographies. The present volume of papers makes at least two major contributions: first, it brings together a series of studies from the Ottoman and Indian worlds rarely combined in the same volume – and partly, no doubt, due to the fact that Curry’s research has hitherto focused on the Halveti order in the Ottoman realm and Ohlander’s on the Suhrawardī order not least in India; and second, it engages with some of the major themes in the historical study of medieval Sufism from the rise of the orders through to the cusp of the colonial period, in particular focusing on the relationship with political power, the conundrum of the ‘court of the Sultan versus the court of the Sufi shaykh’, initially raised masterfully in the Indian context by the late Simon Digby. It also complements a number of more recent studies on Sufism that demonstrate the actual agency that Sufis have deployed and make sense of doctrine rooted in social, intellectual and cultural contexts. Broadly, one can also discern a Persianate flavour in the volume that accounts for elements of cultural continuity from Turkey to India. 

The editors themselves locate these studies within two key contemporary contexts – critical insofar as history remains very much the domain of how the present makes sense of the past in the light of its own concerns and prejudices. The first is the current debate over violence and jihad and whether Sufism provides the required ‘moderate’, non-violent and ecumenical face of the religion to be bolstered against the extremists, a policy that in itself is problematic given the history of antipathy, hostility, and violence towards Sufism exhibited by the violent Salafī tradition that has spawned al-Qaeda and its cognates. One way to understand the role of Sufism within the current landscape therefore requires an understanding of how Sufis have engaged with power and violence in the past – and how the very notion of constitutes Islam has been and remains contested. Such a study can provide useful correctives to misguided attempts at promoting a 'peaceful, non-violent' and other-worldy Sufism as a bulwark against violent extremism. The second frame is the desire to provide a fuller history of Sufism and society in the pre-modern period, especially in the few centuries leading up to the colonial period, and to produce a richer account by considering different cultural and geographical contexts.

The chapters are then arranged into four sections of three papers each. The first on historiography attempts to reconsider and re-evaluate the sources that we have for the history of Sufism. Auer’s paper on the Delhi Sultanate questions the very fissure between religious and political conceptions of authority and power. A couple of key questions remain: is the relationship also a discourse about legitimation, and to what extent should we consider some of these chronicles are discursive constructions of elite life that do not allow us to hear the subaltern speak? A corollary could also investigate whether tales of baraka and karāma are always currency within elite discursive negotiations? But the article whets the appetite and suggests a more serious reading of Auer's recent book on the sultanate. Ohlander interrogates trans-regionalism and the assumption of the relative isolation of the Indo-Muslim context by examining the sources on the famous Suhrawardī Shaykh Bahāʾ al-Dīn Zakarīyāʾ (d. 1268). One additional point in favour of transregionalism and the transmission of networks and lineages associated with key figures and spaces in India is the basic question of property and patronage. It is no accident that much of the elite (including Sufi) immigration into India in the late medieval and early modern period was associated with the desire to acquire power and wealth, since India was relatively far richer in resources than anyone else in the Persianate world. Exchange and negotiation at shrines was not just about the spiritual currency of baraka. Foley discusses the network around the Naqshbandi Shaykh Khālid (d. 1827) as a means to question the use of some theoretical approaches relating to modernization and social movement theory that are sometimes deployed in the study of more recent Sufism. His paper is an important marker that frames the upper temporal limit of the scope of the study and raises the interesting question of the nature of Sufism in societies on the brink of modernity and colonization.

The second section on landscapes considers how Sufism shapes the moral, intellectual and physical landscape and how one frames the study of Sufism in medieval society. Anjum’s piece is an ambitious attempt to understand how hierarchies of spirituality were constructed from the formative period and then challenged and interrogated later as visions of authority and reality were diversified following the Mongol invasions. The focus in the chapter is on Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1351) as the liminal exemplar between Sufism and reforming anti-Sufism. However interesting the attempt (and rather lacking in actual detailed consideration of evidence), it is pretty much impossible to provide a total account for the relationship of diverse visions of spirituality to their socio-political contexts throughout the totality of the history of Islam. Yurekli’s chapter looks at the key centres of Sufi agency, namely the tombs of saints, and demonstrates the distinction of the Ottoman sphere in which there was greatest scholarly resistance to Sufism and hence the nature of the sacred space of the tomb quite different from the rest of the Persianate world. Bukhari focuses on a specific case of patronage by the Mughal princess Jahānārā (d. 1681) and how her contribution was an attempt to inscribe her own literary and spiritual presence into some of the major Sufi spaces in India, not least at the shrine of the founding shaykh at Ajmer, Khwāja Muʿīnuddīn Chishtī.

The third section shifts to doctrine and praxis and shifts in the Mamluk and Ottoman worlds. Ingalls examines the evolution of the Sufi fatwa and the move towards accommodation such that by the sixteenth century the scholarly culture of Cairo was far more sympathetic to both Sufi thought and practice than before. Yildirim considers Qizilbash spirituality, another major lacuna in the historiography, and its relationship to the futuvvat literature and the transition to Shiʿi affiliation in Anatolia. Ambrosio examines the later history of one of the most important Sufi orders, the Mevlevi, but focuses on its later manifestations and their interaction with the broadly anti-Sufi, puritanical movement of the Kazizadelis. The final section entitled negotiations considers how Sufis negotiated the social reality of their time and context. Emre examines the Sufi Ibrahim-i Gulşeni (d. 1534) within the context of the transition from Mamluk to Ottoman Cairo. Curry considers the relationship between the prominent Halveti shaykhs in Istanbul and the Ottoman court of Murad III (d. 1595). The final chapter by Nyazioğlu studies the role of dreams in the major Ottoman text Şaka’iku ‘n-nu‘maniyye. A number of the contributors to the volume are young and creative scholars suggesting that the future of the intellectual and socio-cultural history of Sufism is bright and one expects much to emerge to transform the field.

Overall, there are more papers that deal with the Ottoman context than any other. It would have been useful to see more papers on the Central Asian contexts – and at some point, more studies need to emerge on Sufism and society in Africa, in the Indian Ocean system and others. Further research is also desirable, given our contemporary concerns, on issues of Sufism and gender, community, individuality, and not least magic and rationality. One would also like to see a discussion of how Sunni and Shi‘i affiliations flowed and intersected with Sufism in the period – Yildirim is the only one which touches indirectly upon that – especially given the fundamental shifts in the Naqshbandi, Dhahabi and Ni‘matullahi orders that emerged from the onset of the Ottoman and Safavid empires with distinction theological identities. But this volume does present a gradual step toward a richer understanding of the history of Sufism and ought to be read alongside others; most importantly it demonstrates the efficacy and facility of using theory to elucidate the social contexts and roles of Sufism. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Continuity of the Logical Tradition

There is an ancient debate over whether logic is an instrument of scientific inquiry and explanation, or whether it is an actual branch of philosophy, and each of the sides of the debate drew upon Aristotle to support their position. Even when both logic and the range of philosophical disciplines came into the world of Islam, this debate continued and found champions on each side. Whatever one’s position on the question, and its seems that the philosophers (the falāsifa) favoured the study of logic as a integral aspect of linking together the mental world of ideas with the world of language and extra-mental reality (influenced as they were by the approach of Porphyry’s Isagoge a work that linked the study of the Aristotelian organon to his Metaphysics by providing a theory for how words, thoughts and extra-mental 'things' related to one another), once theologians such as al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) had naturalised the study of logic (through works like Miʿyār al-ʿilm) as a key standard for training in fiqhī reasoning, logic (manṭiq) remained a central feature of the curricula of the seminaries. Even today the traditional Shiʿi seminaries in Iran and Iraq drawing upon the mixed curriculum of scriptural and rational disciplines (al-manqūlāt wa-l-maʿqūlāt) and the Sunni seminaries based on the dars-i niẓāmī established in north India in the eighteenth century continue to teach manṭiq and indeed privilege it as a pinnacle of rational learning. Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, based upon his British Academy funded post-doctoral fellowship at Cambridge, therefore needs to be read within the intellectual history of the course of philosophy in Islam. 

While it is a specific study of relational inferences (the central feature of the Aristotelian syllogistic), it is also a contribution to the continuing vibrancy of intellectual inquiry beyond the medieval golden age and in fact perpetuates the new approach to the study of Islamic philosophy that argues for an actual golden age of thought that was located in the early modern period – and here the insistence is upon Ottoman and Mughal logicians exemplifying this. It is therefore a challenge to the common notion of an intellectual decline, often associated with studies of Ottoman intellectual history. As a study of the history of logic in Islam, it builds upon and extends the earlier work of Nicholas Rescher (who famously argued that there is nothing to consider in post-fourteenth century logic, a point that El-Rouayheb disproves), and more recently, Tony Street, neither of whom really consider the post-classical or post-thirteenth century traditions. An important corollary of El-Rouayheb’s argument further Robert Wisnovsky’s insight about the vibrant nature of commentary culture in Islam, the focus now of a Mellon project directed by Jon McGinnis and Asad Ahmed at St Louis. A second corollary is to challenge the standard account now that philosophical inquiry came to an end in the Sunni seminary with Averroes but continued only in the Shiʿi seminaries until the present day: El-Rouayheb provides plenty of evidence for the vibrancy of logical thought in Sunni seminaries into the modern period – and as studies of the Indian madrasa will show, creativity in metaphysics and natural philosophy similarly continued into the colonial period.

The work is divided into seven chapters and a conclusion with a useful appendix charting the significant figures discussed in the book and a glossary of logical terms – essential given the lack of any serious consensus on how best to render the technical vocabulary, and useful even for those interested in metaphysical and philosophical theological works that extensively use the same terms. The progression through the work is chronological. The first chapter begins with the classical period from al-Fārābī to Suhrawardī, with a focus upon Avicenna, as he was the only one to deal with a classic anomaly of the syllogism of equality [A is equal to B, B is equal to C, therefore A is equal to C]. As in many other areas of philosophy, the later traditions of thought are responses to the pivotal contributions made by Avicenna. The second considers the development in the age of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī and Khūnjī (whose Kashf al-asrār El-Rouayheb recently edited and published in Tehran). The third moves onto the commentary culture both in North Africa and in the East leading up to the Mughal-Safavid period and establishes the fundamental school texts.  The fourth considers together the Christian-Arabic tradition, the Indian and the Iranian up until the twentieth century. The fifth and sixth chapters move to the Ottoman context, and focuses upon Gelenbevī and the logic of unfamiliar syllogisms, and the final considers whether the late Ottoman tradition was in decline. Much of the volume therefore is concerned with developments in Ottoman thought – and Asad Ahmed’s forthcoming work on logic in India will be a good complement to this study. Part of the focus on the Ottoman is ventured because of the author’s suggestion that it was in that tradition that one finds a more fruitful engagement with the syllogisms of equality than in the Iranian or the India. There is still much to do on logic in the Iranian and Indian East after the 14th century as El-Rouayheb himself acknowledges, with the only serious work conducted specifically on the liar’s paradox (subhat al-jadhr al-aṣamm) by Ahad Faramarz Qaramaleki focusing upon the contribution of Shirazi philosophers of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries.

El-Rouayheb’s book makes a serious contribution to Islamic intellectual history, to our understanding of the course of Islamic philosophy, and to the debate about Ottoman decline. It accounts for a particular case study – and one could easily select another aspect of, for example, modal logic, or elements of metaphysics or even discussion about motion and time and trace them through history to demonstrate that the old myths about the unnatural position of philosophical inquiry in Islam really do need to be put to rest. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Henry Corbin - Some audio files

The late Henry Corbin was truly a leading and controversial philosophical engagement with thought and esotericism in the Islamic East. Here are some videos that I traced. This first is from the launch of his magisterial En islam iranian in 1973:

and on Suhrawardī:

and back to Heidegger:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Philosophy in Shiraz II: Maḥmūd Nayrīzī

Over four decades ago, Mian Muhammad Sharif collected a serious of articles in two volumes entitled A History of Muslim Philosophy, which, especially given its provenance from South Asia, insisted upon the continuity of philosophical inquiry and tradition throughout the ages and comprised studies of the Aristotelian tradition as well as the non-Aristotelian developments of the early modern period. Significantly, the collection not only included articles on Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1635) and later thinkers in the Qajar period, it also included the likes of Sharīf ʿAlī al-Jurjānī (d. 1413) and Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī (d. 1502) integrating philosophical theology (ʿilm al-kalām) into the story of philosophy in Islam. The breadth of interest in that collection and the depth of some of the contributions have yet to be surpassed. While the work of Henry Corbin and Seyyed Hossein Nasr at the same time in the 1960s did much to encourage research on thinkers of the Safavid and Qajar periods, they also recognised the important transitional role and influence of thinkers at the cusp of the new Safavid age in the transmission and transformation of the Neoplatonising Aristotelianisms of the medieval period. They dubbed that period the ‘school of Shiraz’ by analogy to the ‘school of Isfahan’, which they coined for Mullā Ṣadrā, his teachers and his students. While the concept of school is much debated, and may be rejected if we assume a singular body of doctrines and teachings, there can be little doubt of clear common intellectual inheritances and of the common teaching space that rendered Shiraz central to the study of philosophy from the Timurid to the Safavid periods.

If we want to understand the course of the history of philosophical traditions in Islam, we need a number of studies of themes and thinkers between Avicenna and Mullā Ṣadrā to understand the ethical turn towards philosophy as a way of life that became central to the later traditions without being entirely absent from the earlier ones. Recent research has not only enriched our understanding of the subsequent course of Avicennan thought, including into philosophical theology – and here the writings of Robert Wisnovsky, Meryem Sebti, Ayman Shihadeh, Rüdiger Arnzen, Asad Ahmed, Ahmed al-Rahim and Heidrun Eichner are significant – but also clarified the ways in which alternative traditions interrogated and debated Avicennism not least through the Illuminationism (ishrāq) of Suhrawardī (d. 1191) and his followers – as exemplified in the work of the late Hossein Ziai, John Walbridge, Lukas Muehlethaler, Hermann Landolt, Tzvi Langermann and Roxanne Marcotte. For that crucial period from the fourteenth century, Josef van Ess contributed a study on al-Ījī some decades ago, and more recently Sabine Schmidtke has not only focused on theology and philosophy from ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī (d. 1325) to Ibn Abī Jumhūr al-Aḥsāʾī (d. after 1501) but also organised around herself an exciting research centre on Islamic intellectual history. It is therefore no accident that Pourjavady undertook his doctoral research under her supervision and the present book under review is the fruit of that labour. The pioneering figures and rivals of the school of Shiraz, Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī (d. 1502) and Mīr Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī  (d. 1497) have been the subject of important studies in Persian – and Ghasem Kakaie and Muhammad Barkat have written on the history of the thinkers of Shiraz and most recently Firouzeh Saatchian, who also did her doctoral research in Germany, has published editions of texts and a study of Shams al-Dīn al-Khafrī (d. 1535).  It is in this intellectual trajectory – within the transformation and interrogation of Avicennism within the centres of learning of Shiraz – that the contribution of Reza Pourjavady ought to be gauged and recognised. The study is divided into an introduction on six thinkers who provide the intellectual background to Pourjavady’s subject Maḥmūd Nayrīzī, four chapters on the intellectual biography of Nayrīzī, on his relationship to the two dominant figures of Shiraz, a detailed and careful bibliography of his works based on extensive manuscript research, and his response to the thought of Suhrawardī. These chapters are then followed by four appendices: on an inventory of his works, on the Nayrīzī codex of philosophical works which gives us a valuable insight into the curriculum of the period, an ijāza from Dashtakī fils, and a list of the Arabic citations in the book. As Pourjavady suggests, the subject of the research was suggested by his father, himself a leading Iranian scholar of Islamic intellectual history, no doubt partly inspired by the need to provide another correction to the often hasty conclusions of the late Henry Corbin. It was the Frenchman who famously gave a lecture at the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy in Tehran on three thinkers of Azerbaijan within the tradition of Suhrawardī including a subtle commentator named Vadūd Tabrīzī – who was none other than Maḥmūd Nayrīzī – the confusion of the name is not the only example of a copyist’s wayward rendition of Arabic orthography leading to a change in intellectual history.  Through the prism of a careful historical study of a little known figure beyond the manuscript traditions of the transmission of Illuminationist philosophy, Pourjavady constructs a creative argument for how philosophical traditions developed in the crucial period from 1450 and 1600, the formative period for much of what passes as Islamic philosophy today and the lens through which the traditional seminary curricula read the classics of Avicenna and Suhrawardī.

The introduction presents us with intellectual biographies of Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī, Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī, Mīr Ḥusayn Maybudī (who, contrary to Corbin’s supposition, was not Shiʿi), Shams al-Dīn Khafrī, and Kamāl al-dīn Ilāhī Ardabīlī. Each one of these figures merits a monograph and thus far the only study in a European language is on Khafrī (the Saatchian book referred above). There are some Persian and Turkish doctoral dissertations and encyclopaedia entries on the figures  - and at least one American Ph.D. on Maybudī. The Dashtakīs on their own certainly merit a monograph because of their extensive influence on the later Safavid philosophers. Pourjavady’s concern is not with the geographical dissemination of thought or else he may have included studies of Mīrzā-Jān Bāghnawī Shīrāzī (d. 995/1587), critical for his influence in Central Asia (and India), and the trio of Shāh Ṭāhir al-Ḥusaynī (d. 1549), Mīr Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī (d. 1589), and Jamāl al-Dīn Maḥmūd Shīrāzī (d. 962/1554-5) credited with the establishment of the philosophical curricula of the Indian seminaries that emerged into the dars-i niẓāmī in the eighteenth century. Of course, to be fair, these figures were not terribly prolific but had an important historical role to play. Pourjavady traces the study of philosophy in Shiraz from al-Ījī (d. 1356) through to Davānī and the transmission of Avicennan philosopher from its origins to Shiraz through the pivotal role of al-Jurjānī. The historical sketches provided in this chapter are rich and allow for many potential avenues for future research. But the fundamental point is that survival and vitality of the study and engagement with Avicenna, an often critical assessment of him, and the increasingly intersection of Avicennan metaphysics with Sufi ideas and Illuminationist thought. More interesting is that, while we have plenty of evidence for the study of philosophy from al-Ījī through to the middle of the sixteenth century, there is nothing on the period from that point until the teaching of Mullā Ṣadrā a couple of generations later. Even Fakhr al-Dīn Sammākī (d. 984/1576-7), the teacher of Mīr Dāmād and student of Jamāl al-Dīn Maḥmūd Shīrāzī, studied in Shiraz but lived and taught in Mashhad where he was the leading cleric. One small slip of the pen on page 41, Kamāl al-Dīn Ilāhī Ardabīlī clearly must have been born in the second half of the 9th/15th century, not 9th/16th century. For those interested in the dissemination of philosophy to India in its earliest phase, the role of students of Davānī is crucial – Pourjavady merely nods in this direction.

The first chapter provides a quick literature survey on Nayrīzī, traces his study with Dashtakīs, and considers his legacy. Very little is actually known about Nayrīzī – and this biographical paucity and the little we know about how philosophy was studied poses major problems for method in the study of the intellectual history of the period. However, there is much that can be gauged from his texts and from the codices that he copied – Pourjavady carefully constructs a life from those sources. What is clear is that Nayrīzī was a Twelver Shiʿi – and this may signal a generational shift or accommodation to the realities of the Safavid polity in the second generation of philosophers in Shiraz since Davāni and probably Ṣadr al-Dīn Dashtakī were not – and while he admired and engaged with Avicennan thought, his tastes were more in line with Suhrawardī. His understanding of philosophy seems like a precursor to that of later Safavid thinkers such as Mullā Ṣadrā: philosophy is linked to the ḥikma of the Qurʾān and to prophetic teachings and this theological commitment is equated with the work of Avicenna and other earlier thinkers. This establishes an important conception of philosophy that was dominant in the Safavid period. Nayrīzī seems to have enjoyed good relations at court and one of his students, Shāh Mīr, – and only one mentioned in the sources – was a vizier. He also dedicated one of his works to Shāh Ismāʿīl. Muḥammad Khwājagī Shīrāzī seems to have known his works and disseminated his ideas in the Deccan. A study of Nayrīzī therefore provides further evidence for the contention that the earliest dissemination of Islamic philosophical ideas in India were in Sind through the students of Davānī and in Deccan through the mediation of the students of Dashtakī – a whole generation before the mythology of Mīr Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī, himself a study of Manṣūr Dashtakī, bringing the teaching of ḥikma to the court of Akbar in the North. In fact, Indian sources, summarised in Sayyid ʿAbd al-Ḥayy Ḥasanī’s Nuzhat al-khawāṭir, point to a number of key figures in the early and middle parts of the sixteenth century.

Chapter two is a pivotal discussion of what is meant by the school of Shiraz. Pourjavady rightly prefers to think in terms of two rival strands of philosophy associated with Davānī and the Dashtakīs, and their debates and disagreements were well attested in the manuscript tradition of philosophy of the period extant in major libraries in the Persianate world including India. He focuses on five central issues: the liar’s paradox (edited and studied by Qaramalaki), the distinction between mawjūd and wujūd that is related not only to working through Avicenna’s proof of the existence of God through radical contingency but also to the later debate on the primary of existence (aṣālat al-wujūd), mental existence (a consistent theme in metaphysics at least from the time of the original commentators on Avicenna), the nature of God’s knowledge that was much debated within commentaries on works of philosophical theology such as Tajrīd al-iʿtiqād of al-Ṭūsi (d. 1274), and the relationship of the body and the soul that again became central to the architecture of the thought of Mullā Ṣadrā. Nayrīzī takes up the position of his teachers – and importantly on the metaphysical doctrine of wujūd prefigures Mullā Ṣadrā’s famous position of the fundamental primacy of existence.

Chapter three that follows is a careful discursive bibliography of Nayrīzī’s seventeen works based on serious engagement with their manuscripts. Consistent with the period, he wrote in Arabic. Like other thinkers of his time, his Neoplatonic commitments seem clear, especially in his citations of the so-called Theologia Aristotelis (Ūthūlūjiyā). The curriculum of study can be gauged from not only the commentaries on the works of Avicenna and Suhrawardī but also those of Taftazānī and al-Ṭūsī (mediated through the commentary of al-Qūshčī that was preferred among thinkers in Shiraz). One of the important differences that he has with contemporaries such as al-Khafrī is his neglect of scientific works.

The final chapter attempts to assess Nayrīzī’s philosophical contribution in a short chapter that considers his critical reception of Suhrawardī with respect to six issues in ‘physics’: prime matter, theory of vision, the nature of the ‘imaginal’ world, sound, political thought, and the thorny problem of bodily resurrection. His consideration of this latter issue alongside his earlier concern with divine knowledge demonstrates one further important feature of Safavid philosophy, namely the need to address the objections of al-Ghazālī to the metaphysics of falsafa and attempt to find philosophical accounts for the theological doctrines of omniscience and bodily resurrection. What emerges is that the Avicennan imprint on Nayrīzī remains paramount as most of these discussions criticise Suhrawardī and reiterate the Avicennan doctrine. The final section of the chapter considers Nayrīzī’s sources: al-Shajara al-ilāhīya of Shahrazūrī (d. after 1288), as Schmidtke showed a decade ago, was a key influence on the understanding of Illuminationist doctrine in the Safavid period, and the commentaries of Ibn Kammūna signalled a critical reception of Suhrawardī that was a critical precursor for the critiques adduced by Mullā Ṣadrā and others. For intellectual historians working on this period, it is therefore useful to have good critical editions of these texts now – in fact, if Corbin had some of the resources that we do, some of his hastier judgements and mistakes would have been avoided.

One shortcoming of the book, however, is the absence of a conclusion, which cannot be filled by the presence of highly useful appendices. So what can we conclude from this study? First, the study of a seemingly minor figure can still illuminate an intellectual field and the dissemination of ideas. Second, Nayrīzī’s work provides us with plenty of evidence for the philosophical tastes of the Safavid period that we normally associate with the study of Mullā Ṣadrā: the metaphysical focus on the primacy of existence, the annexation of both logic and physics to the concerns of ontology, and a deep affinity to Neoplatonism and philosophy as a prophetic, divine commission and inheritance. Finally, it demonstrates lines of influence and transmission that will help us to understand the reception and transformation of philosophy in the Mughal-Safavid period. Much more is still required on the Mughal side of this relationship – or perhaps one should say Indian since the earliest reception was outside of the Mughal realm and the later in those states and cultural spaces that effectively succeeded the Mughals. Pourjavady has made a significant contribution to Islamic intellectual history, and any study of later thinkers such as Mīr Dāmād and Mullā Ṣadrā ought to begin with their predecessors a couple of generations before.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mullā Hādī Sabzavārī: Some corrections

I'm grateful to my former tutor John Gurney for pointing out some errors in my piece on Sabzavārī (d. 1873) in Iranian Studies last year. I will list them here just to clarify:

1) I stated that Edward G. Browne (d. 1926) had met Sabzavāri - not sure exactly where I sourced that. This is impossible as Browne was in Tehran around fifteen years after Sabzavāri died [A Year among the Persians was published in 1893]. His information, including the description of Sabzavāri that I cited, was mediated by Mīrzā Asadullāh Sabzavāri who was a student and close to the sons of Sabzavārī, Mullā ʿAbd al-Qayyūm and Mullā Ibrāhīm.

2) I also suggested that Gobineau (d. 1882) had met Sabzavāri - this is also incorrect. Again, his acquaintance was also mediated although Sabzavārī was his contemporary and he seems to have been familiar with the recently published Sharḥ-i manẓūme [Sharḥ ghurar al-farāʾid] in 1273/1856. Gobineau spent time in Tehran in the late 1850s and again in 1861 to 1863 and his book Religions et philosophies dans l'Asie centrale was completed in 1863.

3) I stated that Badāyiʿ al-ḥikam of Mullā ʿAlī Zunūzī (d. 1889) was written at the behest of Nāṣiruddīn Shāh. This is inaccurate. While there is a panegyric for him in the proemium to the text (which for some reason was omitted by Aḥmad Vāʿiẓī in his edition with an ellipsis - clearly some revolutionaries cannot tolerate any praise of any monarch), the work was a response to a request to explain some issues made as the text states by the philosophically-minded prince ʿImād al-Dawla Badīʿ al-Mulk.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Platonic History of Philosophy in Islam

You cannot judge a book by its cover – or even its title. Or rather, now and then, a work comes along that forces us to take notice of what the author means by giving his work a particular title. Certainly, those who pick up The Story of Islamic Philosophy might expect a conventional history of the philosophical endeavour in the world of Islam starting with the translation movement and the appropriation of Aristotelianism and ending with the ‘eclipse’ of ‘rational discourse’ in medieval mysticism and obscurantism. However, what Salman Bashier presents is Platonic mysticism with a strong interest in narrative. The study of philosophy in Islam is rather polarised: the traditional academic field of ‘Arabic philosophy’ starts with the Graeco-Arabica and is very much in the mould of understanding what the Arabs owed to the Greeks and then what the Latins owed the Arabs. It is a story of Aristotle arabus and then latinus, and hence it is not surprising that the story culminates with the ultimate Aristotelian, Averroes. Many an Arab intellectual, such as the late Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Jābirī, has been sympathetic to such a reading and wishes to revive a sort of Averroist Aristotelianism in the name of reason and enlightenment, in particular to save the Arab-Islamic heritage from its ‘perversion’ by the Persians starting with Avicenna and Ghazālī who initiated the shift from reason and discourse to mystagogy and ‘unreason’. The models for this tradition of philosophy are the Metaphysics and the Organon of Aristotle. However, the Greek heritage was always much more than Aristotle – Plato and the thoroughly neoplatonised Aristotle were critical. If anything, a serious historical engagement with the course of philosophy in late antiquity on the cusp of the emergence of Islam demonstrates that philosophy was much more than abstract reasoning, discourse and a linearity of proof. Philosophy was a way of life that involved spiritual exercises, made famous in modern scholarship by the late Pierre Hadot, and especially the practice of theurgy (conjuring up the gods in religious ritual as a means to achievement understanding) – the goal was theosis, to become god-like as Plato had announced centuries before. Those with more sympathy for ‘Islamic philosophy’ would stress the relationship between religion and philosophy and indeed mysticism, which was central to the philosophical enterprise at least since the twelfth century (which in many ways was pivotal for the intellectual disciplines in the world of Islam). For this approach to philosophy, Plato’s much debated Seventh Epistle is of critical importance. This counter-narrative makes our conception of philosophy more elastic and sits uncomfortably with those trained in the analytic tradition.

Bashier tries to argue that philosophy in Islam is not a simple dichotomy between ratiocination and poesis – but he wishes to stress the poetry, the narrative and the desire to consider what is ‘Islamic’ in this philosophy. He presents a counter history in which the course of philosophy is an ishrāqī – an illuminationist – account beginning with what the late Henry Corbin famously called the visionary recitals in Avicenna and culminating with the Andalusian Sufi Ibn ʿArabī. Anyone familiar with philosophy from the late Timurid and Mughal period will understand the incorporation of Sufism into the study of philosophy, which in this late period was no longer the Greek/Aristotle inspired falsafa but a more holistic philosophy/gnosis/wisdom of ḥikma. This account is concerned with a more holistic approach to what is means to be human – and philosophy is precisely such an anthropology. Humans are not simply rational and deliberate agents who construct and respond to discursive argumentation. Rather, sometimes they reason, sometimes they respond and act through emotion, and sometimes they are inspired and moved by narrative – and indeed narrative as a number of modern philosophers such as the late Paul Ricoeur have argued is central to the process of our becoming our selves. The ten chapters of the book focus on Ḥayy bin Yaqẓān, the famous tale re-written by Ibn Ṭufayl based on the original work of Avicenna in which a young man is born and grows up on a desert island and deprived of company begins to understand his role in the cosmos and his relationship with God. Bashier considers Ibn Ṭufayl to be the ultimate liminal and illuminationist philosopher because he successfully blends together philosophical and naturalistic approaches to the question of what is the human with traditionalist and religious ones. This idea of liminality follows from Bashier’s earlier book on the concept of the limit (or the barzakh) in the thought of the Sufi Ibn ʿArabī. The course of philosophy in Islam is therefore not about the conflict between reason and revelation seen as epitomised in the persecutions of Galileo and Bruno in medieval Europe but one at the heart of which lies the attempt to make philosophical sense of what it means to be a believer, a person of faith and a creature of God. Along the journey, the author is the first, to my mind, to engage with the work of Georges Tarabishi, the famous critic of al-Jabiri’s deconstruction of ‘Arab reason’ in an academic work written in English. That Bashier concludes his account with Ibn ʿArabī and the famous Theologia Aristotelis makes his neoplatonic taste in the history of philosophy clearer. The story begins with mysticising rationalism in Ibn Ṭufayl and culminates with rationalising mysticism in Ibn ʿArabī. 

The first chapter introduces Ḥayy bin Yaqẓān and demonstrates how the narrative is a rational argument for mysticism, drawing upon Avicenna. In doing so, Bashier critiques Gutas and others who insist not only on making a sharp distinction between philosophy and mysticism but also deny any role for mysticism in Avicenna. Similarly, here he inserts Ṭarābīshī as a foil for al-Jābirī’s attack on mysticism as the perverting force in Arab reason in the medieval period. The second chapter turns to Sufism in the text and draws upon Ghazālī’s categorisation of knowledge and the privileging of illumination through experience of tasting reality. The next chapter switches back to Ḥayy’s origins within the chain of being and links it to Ibn ʿArabī’s concept of the barzakh. The next two chapters examine how Ḥayy understands social interaction and reflects upon the primordial question of the origins of the cosmos and its eternity. Chapter six steps back to al-Fārābī and his discussion of the origins of language and logic in Kitāb al-Ḥurūf and links it to Ḥayy’s acquaintance with language. The next chapter considers another foil for the argument: Ibn Bājja. Chapters eight and nine are concerned with the quest: Ibn Ṭufayl links Ḥayy to the Sleepers of the Cave and to Moses, from where Bashier draws upon the parable of the sage and the seeker exemplified in the Qurʾanic story of al-Khaḍir, naturally leading onto one of the foundational narratives of the Near East: the epic of Gilgamesh. The final chapter culminates in Ibn ʿArabī and Bashier recognises parallels and echoes of the Theologia Aristotelis in al-Futūḥāt al-Makkīya. 

However, while a more neoplatonic approach to the course of philosophy in Islam is now rather well established, it would seem churlish to criticise the author for excessively caricaturising the purely Aristotelian sense of philosophy in the falsafa tradition. It does need to be pointed out that Bashier seems to have a slightly shaky grasp of the literature on the Aristotelian/Avicennan tradition and hence often cites inferior editions of texts. Many of the chapters are rather too short and while one detects the stream of thinking linking them, at times the connection seems somewhat tenuous and insufficiently substantiated. In a sense, Bashier is engaged in much more than Islamic intellectual history (or rather a stream of consciousness reflection on what philosophy might mean through such a Platonic lens); he is caught within a contemporary Arab debate about the very nature of turāth or the heritage of the modern Arab world. That, rather inevitably, leads to generalising and simplifying the position of ones’ opponent. Once one recognises this, The Story of Islamic Philosophy will prove to be a fruitful read.