Thursday, July 27, 2017

Memorialising and Narrating the Community

We often loosely describe works on the lives of Shiʿi ʿulema over time in different places and specialisations as 'biographical dictionaries' but when one considers the modern notion of a biographical dictionary, apart from the obvious point that Hayden White makes about how 'no one actually lives a life' and it is those who come later who ascribe a narrative to the events of a person's biography, most works do not really tell us about the person on their own terms or even provide useful 'biographical details'. Rather the function of these works is the memory and memorialisation of the 'heroes' of the community and narrating a continuous history of the scholarship of that community which links the present to the time of the Prophet whence all authority in an Islamic context issues. 

The recent publication of al-Darajāt al-rafīʿa fī ṭabaqāt al-imāmīya min al-shīʿa of the renowned poet and scholar of the seventeenth century Sayyid ʿAlī Khān Madanī Shīrāzī (d. 1120/1709), a scion of the Dashtakī family of scholars is a welcome addition to the literature of this kind of memorialisation. It has been published a few times before but this is the first scholarly edition based on manuscripts (although not a fully 'critical' edition) and does an excellent job of tracing sources and finding references for text cited. Once again the Muʾassasa-yi shīʿa-shināsī Qum has produced a fitting contribution with this two volume work edited by Shaykh Muḥammad Jawād al-Maḥmūdī and annotated by Sayyid ʿAbd al-Sattār al-Ḥasanī.

Sayyid ʿAlī Khān, also known as Ibn Maṣʿūm, was born in Medina in 1052/1642, and studied there and in Mecca, attesting to the vibrant Imāmī scholarship in the Ḥijāz which nowadays is unthinkable - Marco Salati has published extensively on Shiʿi scholarship in Ḥijāz in the early modern period including on Sayyid ʿAlī Khān. Then like others he migrated to India in 1068/1658, to the Deccan which had links with Shiraz going back at least to the late fourteenth century and he lived there most of his life, and then later having failing to find patronage in Isfahan under Shah Sulṭān Ḥusayn, he spent the last years of his life in the city of his ancestors, Shiraz, where he taught at the Madrasa-yi Manṣūrīya founded in 1479 by his ancestor Sayyid Ṣadr al-Dīn Muḥammad Dashtakī (d. 1497). The best account of the family is the Fārsnāma-yi Nāṣirī written by Mīrzā Ḥasan Fasāyī (d. 1898). He died in 1120/1709 and was buried in the complex of Shāh Chirāgh, Sayyid Aḥmad the brother of the eighth Imām ʿAlī al-Riḍā. 

He wrote two works memorialising the community, one Sulāfat al-ʿaṣr was on poets with his 'poet' hat on, and the other is this work al-Darajāt al-rafīʿa on ʿulema. 

The text, as he states in the introduction, is divided into twelve classes of people:
I - companions of the Imām (first those of the family of the Prophet - in each section, perhaps because he was himself a sayyid he begins with the scholars of the family)
II - the succeeding generations (these first two sections take up the bulk of what he completed)
III - those who narrated hadith from the Imams
IV - on the traditionalists, jurists and exegetes (51 notices)
V - the theologians and philosophers
VI - on specialists of the Arabic language 
VII - on the Safavids
VIII - on rulers and princes
IX - on notables
X - on viziers
XI - on poets (57 notices) 
XII - women 
Of these only I-IV and XI are extant and published. 

He later wrote a second recension which was based on successive generations (twenty classes arranged by companions of Imams and then centuries up to the twelfth) beginning with the Imams, and of which only a section on 49 figures arranged alphabetically are extant (he doesn't get beyond alif/Ibrāhīm). The extant section contains notices on people from different classes - Ibrāhīm al-Ṭabāṭabā as well as Ibrāhīm b. Sulaymān al-Qaṭīfī (d. 945/1539), Ibrāhīm Mīrzā (d. 1577) grandson of Shāh Ismāʿīl and patron of the arts, Ibrāhīm Quṭb Shāh (d. 1580, ruler of Golconda), and Ibrāhīm b. Salām Allāh, his own ancestor. 

In both introductions, Sayyid ʿAlī Khān says that he modelled his work as a memorial to the Shīʿa on Majālis al-muʾminīn of Sayyid Nūrullāh Shūshtarī (d. 1610). The need for memorialisation is due to the fact that he saw the Shīʿa everywhere and in all places and times but because of circumstances they often had to hide their identities. So in a sense like Shūshtarī he has a project of uncovering the Shīʿa of the past.

Despite the fact that it is incomplete (unlike Shūshtarī), Sayyid ʿAlī Khān's work still testifies to the ways in which Safavid thinkers conceived of their history and narrated the memory of the community. It is an important testimony to the refashioning of Shiʿi Islam by the Safavid hierocracy that remains of critical significance for us today. Given the centrality of his scholarly family to this Safavid establishment, one should read his work alongside other scholarly testimonies such as the works of ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-ʿĀmilī (d. 1691), a great-grandson of Shahīd II, al-Durr al-manthūr, as well as the anthologies of Sayyid Niʿmatullāh al-Jazāʾirī (d. 1701) and 'historians' such as Mīrzā ʿAbdullāh Afandī (d. 1717) and traditionalists such as al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī (d. 1693). Despite the sterling work of scholars such as Manṣūr Ṣifatgul, Andrew Newman, Rob Gleave, Rule Abisaab, Kathryn Babayan, Said Amir Arjomand and others, there is still much that we need to understand about the Shiʿi hierocracy in the Safavid period. 

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