Thursday, April 27, 2017

Decolonising Islamic history through Shiʿi Texts

For over two decades now, Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi has produced a number of short studies that have challenged us with a radically different picture of Twelver Shiʿi Islam as an oppositional, alternative spiritual movement rooted in an esoteric vision of reality and comprehension of the scripture in which the everlasting countenance of God, the Imam, is present. Religion therefore is about the relationship that believers have with the Imam, and the ethical imperatives of what they do to him and to one other (who are the ahl al-walāya, the people cleaving to the sanctified nature of this ultimate Friend of God). However, this does not mean that like Corbin, he places history to one side all the while criticizing the historicism of much intellectual history; rather, his analyses of the texts are designed to rethink how we conceive of the history that is often immanent in those recensions. In so doing, he has forced us to reconsider how we analyse the contestations of Islam, identity and revelation in the classical period. His latest book is the second collection of his articles, originally published in French in 2011, and in this case rendered into English by the renowned poet – and emeritus professor of McGill University, Eric Ormsby. 

Unlike the first collection, which was more thematic constituting a series of studies in the Twelver doctrine of the Imam (imamology), this one introduces us to his readings of five classical Shiʿi texts that exemplify the nature of this esoteric tradition. While one or two of these may well be the great works of the early period, I have reservations about the others which begs the question of some analysis of the selection.  Crucially, as before, the author is making an argument about the very method by which we ought to study the history of Islam between the history of the early conflicts – what earlier was partly ascribed to the ‘sectarian milieu’ – and the redaction and canonization of Muslim scriptures, both the Qurʾan and the hadith. To put it more bluntly, the emergent ‘orthodox’ picture of early Islam that became the Sunni tradition is rather partial and too ‘neat’ a description of how the revelation was received, not least with its myth of the ʿUthmānic recension of the Qurʾan and its position on the probity and respectability of the companions of the prophet, both of which are key positions, that Amir-Moezzi argues, ought to be rejected if we take the early Shiʿi texts seriously since they categorically affirm the falsification of the revelation by the ‘orthodox’ caliphs and point out the shortcomings of such a romantic vision of a concordant early generation. The theme thus of this volume is how were the scriptures of the Qurʾan and hadith received, glossed, commented upon by the early Shiʿi scholarly community and what sort of hermeneutics did they need to apply to make sense of the violence and mess of the early history of Islam. 

The first text is Kitāb Sulaym ibn Qays (also known as Kitāb al-Saqīfa), arguably at its core the earliest work of Shiʿi literature – and indeed of any Muslim literature – extant, and the subject of recent studies by Robert Gleave, Tamima Bayhom-Daou, and the late Patricia Crone (as well as Maria Dakake before). This work demonstrates for the author the violence of what became the normative Muslim (read: Sunni, caliphal) history and the early articulation of a Shiʿi counter-history of the usurpation, injustice and evil of history. Amir-Moezzi emphasizes the popularity of this counter-narrative, briefly examines the debate on the reliability of its ascription to such a person (and whether Sulaym even existed), translates some key passages and provides the full table of contents of the 98 traditions given in the text produced in a critical edition in the late 1990s by Khūʾīnī. But this is just an introduction. I would have liked to see some further analysis of what this text – with its various layers which in themselves require some discussion – tells us about the very notion of Shiʿi history, of the nature of transmission of texts especially written transmission of which this is a prominent example, and what the reception history of this text tells us about issues such as the importance given to taqiyya in different periods of history including today (since often in seminary contexts, clerics will tend to usher people away from the text, a perhaps judicial thing given our sectarian, anti-Shiʿi times).

The second text is the Kitāb al-qirāʾāt or Kitāb al-tanzīl wa-l-taḥrīf of al-Sayyārī from the 3rd/9th century; this chapter is a version of the introduction to the edition of the text produced by Amir-Moezzi and Etan Kohlberg. As they say in the opening, the history of prophecy is also one of the falsification of the prophetic message The author uses this text to show how an exegesis can in fact be a history of this process of falsification that further academic studies that have raised questions about the redaction of the ʿUthmānic recension of the Qurʾan. However, the arguments of revisionist approaches to the codification of the text that point towards the role of al-Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf and the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik (as presented in the work of Alfred de Premare among others) is not quite that of the early Shiʿi accusations of falsification; the revisionists are not talking about an Ur-text that is changed but a late text that emerges from the sectarian milieu and conflicts of understanding, while the Shiʿi accusers insisted that there was a pristine revelation collected in a book and that scripture was with ʿAlī (who in effect defined it by his redaction as well he could given his closeness to the recipient of the revelation).  I have some criticisms of the way in which the edition itself is done with the assumption of the normativity of the reading of Ḥafṣ (which is not present in the manuscript) but that does not arise in this book but in the Brill publication of the edition itself. Some comment would also be pertinent on the relative obscurity of the text in Shiʿi scholarly circles (by comparison to the others discussed in this book).

The third text is the (probably Zaydī) exegesis of al-Ḥibarī again from the 3rd/9th century. The problem of the absence of the names of the Imams and their enemies from the Qurʾan, a clear revelation of the reality of things as they are, meant that a hermeneutics was required that would decode and uncover meaning within the ʿUthmānic recension that demonstrates that the silences and absences of the Qurʾan needed to be articulated and made to speak by the Imam. To recall one early polemical exchange, the Qurʾan as text was itself not enough for the community of Muḥammad. One can see this process of reading in a number of the classical Shiʿi exegeses but once again one wonders about the actual importance of al-Ḥibarī for the scholarly tradition.

The fourth text, Baṣāʾir al-darajāt of the 3rd/9th century Qummī tradent, al-Ṣaffār raises the key thematic of imamology: the gnosis of the Imam and the need for believers to recognize this as central to their status. Amir-Moezzi includes a table of contents of the work. For him, like other early works from the Ismaili and what became the ʿAlawī-Nusayrī tradition, al-Ṣaffār’s collection shows how the early Shiʿi community was a gnostic one with a strong initatic tradition; in fact the ‘anomalies’, as he puts, in the text, may in fact provide further evidence for this since only the initiated would be able to distinguish what is correctly transmitted from what is intended to deceive. But this does not seem so convincing – and a comparison with al-Kāfī of Kulaynī (discussed in the final chapter) shows the extent of the overlap of material. The author similarly does not discuss directly some of the recent scholarly and seminarian debates on the authenticity of the ascription of the text (raised, for example, by Hassan Ansari and Sayyid Kamāl al-Ḥaydarī).

The final (and longest) chapter – co-authored with Hassan Ansari – is on Kulaynī and is the first major contribution in a European language (there is already an extensive highly useful academic literature on him in Arabic and Persian; see also Ansari, L'imamat et l'occultation salon l'imamisme, Leiden: Brill, 2017, pp. 27-36). One sees the hand of Ansari in the historically sophisticated contextualization of the work in this chapter. The main point that they wish to present is that this first of the classical four books (I still await a proper study of whence this notion of the Shiʿi canon of four books) represents the sufficient source to establish Shiʿi Islam as an independent religious tradition. This is taken up in the epilogue – given that those who had most vehemently opposed Muḥammad became the guardians of Islam, the propaganda, censorship and falsification of that imperial Islam would have to be opposed by articulating an alternative vision, indeed religion which placed at its centre the Imam as the countenance and revelation of the divine.

Amir-Moezzi’s work fits within the broad approaches of rethinking both the sources for the early period and the pivotal points of conflict to show how the master narrative of Sunni historiography (taken up by Orientalist scholarship) must be questioned and ‘de-colonised’. Far too much of the study of Islam is taken up with Sunni normatively, and any serious study that opens up the question  of what we understand by Islam in the many situations and contexts in which we encounter it, and concurrently what it means to be 'Islamic' ought to look far and wide at sources that address these questions, taking us, if necessary, out of our comfort zone. While many might criticize whether the author is sufficiently source critical of the texts which he is examining (one thinks back to his recanting back and forth with Karim Crow on method and today's sectarian milieu in which the excavation of the more esoteric aspects of the Shiʿi tradition arguably leads to the targeting of innocents), there is little doubt that those studying early Islam will profit from reading this work. The historian studying early Islam needs to cast his net for sources far and wide: Arabic traditions from the different trajectories that became Sunni, Sunni traditionalists, various types of Shiʿa, Ibāḍī and so forth, as well as the many other sources in Syriac and other languages and traditions which we know through the work of Robert Hoyland, David Thomas, Kevin van Bladel, Sidney Shoemaker, Philip Wood, Mathieu Tillier, David Wasserstrom, Michael Philip Penn, Antoine Borrut and many others. The next obvious step - already initiated - is to read the Arabic Shiʿi sources alongside the others to uncover other narratives of what constitutes the sacred tradition of Islam.