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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Article Review : “Scientific and Philosophical Enquiry: Achievements and Reactions in Muslim History” By Oliver Leaman - Reviewer : Aziz

The article under review is written by Oliver Leaman, a profound Professor of Philosophy at the Liverpool John Moores University with a scholarship on medieval Islamic philosophy.

The article begins with the contextual setting of Muslim empire at the time of rapid expansion of Muslim Civilisation in the Middle East after the death of Prophet Mohammad. As the Muslims settled in various parts of Middle East, they came into contact with various people possessing profound knowledge on various themes such as theology, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. Leaman discusses various motives that encouraged Muslim Empire to learn this knowledge.

The early Muslim Empire had to decide whether to just ignore this knowledge as they were based on other religions or try to adopt within their own perspective. As they embraced the knowledge, resulting in the scientific and philosophical richness, Leaman explains the two main motives behind this adoption. The first one was the need to defend the new religion and debate with Non-Muslims for conversion. Second was the enthusiasm of learning this knowledge to attain the sophistication they saw in terms of literacy, health and education in that community. This resulted in the translation of scientific and philosophical knowledge through the foundation of academies.

Another noteworthy point which Leaman highlights regarding the interest in the other culture was to access the philosophical corpus they possessed. The Greek philosophical tradition which, through Alexander, came to Persia had made strong arguments and the classification in describing the nature, metaphysics and even the poetry helped Muslims to convince their own ideas against any opponent. This was largely taken by the Muslim world in order to develop this convincing ability through the various rhetorical ideas not only to debate with the other communities but also within the Muslims.

He further explains the need of convincing amongst Muslims of different communities but does not go into the historical details of various communities that were established after the death of Holy prophet and the unrest which was created because of too many interpretations. The need to develop a comprehensive theology was indeed very important to have a clearer understanding of the Quran. However, the article does not discuss this in detail.

Based on the philosophical inquiries mentioned above, not only the geniuses like Al-Farabi, Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd were developed but also a lot of thinkers like Abu Sulayman Sijistani whose philosophical work was not that popular but his work regarding the sayings of popular philosophers, the aphorism and adages was more widely read as they were more practical and related to common man, compared to the heavy commentaries of Plato and Aristotle which was alien to the common man.

The article gives enough arguments regarding the popularity of philosophical literature and scientific expansion in the first few centuries of Islam first in the Middle East and later in Andalusia in Spain. However, there is no mention of Egypt (Fatimid) civilization and its glory. Leaman says that the Islamic Spain had the reputation of the best learning place for science, mathematics, philosophy and technical knowledge. Leaman here also gives a very important point to reflect upon. He says that the concentration should not only be made on the great scientist or mathematicians but we should also acknowledge those discoveries which were of more importance to the lives of common people such as the work of engineers who were involved in the town planning and developing machinery to help the banal and give their contribution the due credit which usually gets ignored.

Although there was definitely a deliberate effort to take the best of ancient sciences and philosophies but this was not as smooth a process as it may appear today. There was defiance against this movement as people believed that knowledge which Muslim philosophers are so anxious in adopting is actually coming from the pagans such as Aristotle and Plato. They considered Quran and other religious work to be adequate to address any issues arising in the minds of people and hence there should be no need to refer to the pagans to find out about the world.

The debate was not between people who supported reason and those who did not since both the parties were rational and wanted their method to be accepted. The argument was whose reason should be accepted. The Muslim philosophers and scientists argued that just because Plato and Aristotle were pagans does not mean that their thoughts did not contain any wisdom and knowledge. Contrary to that some Muslim thinkers suggested that the thought of Plato and Aristotle had no wisdom in comparison to the Islamic Sciences.

An element which Leaman does not discusses during this argument is that some of the Muslim thinkers like Al-Kindi tried to make a balance between philosophy and Islamic teachings but that too came under a lot of criticism later on by Muslim thinkers like Al Ghazali.

However the argument and the struggle which went for many years poses a very important question which Oliver refers to as to how much is acceptable for one to borrow from a culture which is not one’s own. Responding to this, he gives some very thought provoking points. The Philosophers argued that it’s not about how much knowledge is being adopted from other cultures since ordinary Muslims have not much idea about science or philosophy nevertheless so they don’t know where the thought is coming from. But at the same time the common man also accesses the same truth but in a different way as compared to scientists and philosophers.

Now, the big argument against the philosophers would be that, they claim themselves as ones who possess the intellect to go into these debates on Ex-Nihilo and the concept of (KUN) whereas ordinary man is only required to do the daily rituals, leaving it to the philosophers to go into the profundity. But Leaman mentions that philosophers in that period were not that pompous, but, it maybe from their style, the reflection seems to be more of exhibiting themselves as Elite.

Leaman explains very diligently the quality of religion by taking the example of the Holy Prophet. He says that the job of religion is to bring all people together so that truth can be accessible to everyone. Just like Prophet who not only had the theoretical knowledge of the philosophers and scientists but also had the brilliance to communicate this message in such a manner that even the most ordinary person would be able to understand it and that is why Islam achieved so much success in such a short span of time.

Since God has created people with different intelligence level, it is quite natural that He should create a mechanism through which everyone would be able to attain salvation. Mohammad knew how to cater to the complexities of the religion based on the level and understanding of different people. Islam propagates message that can be understood at different levels by people having varied intellectual capacities. Hence, the knowledge from other cultures could be adopted if it was useful in any sense.

Finally, Leaman shifts his gear into the current era and highlights some important areas inviting lot of thinking. He says that Peripatetic philosophy which flourished in the Muslim world till the 11th Century until its revival in the 19th century but this time the revival happened more so in the western world through scientific development. Now Leaman points towards two questions. The first is how much the Muslims can borrow this science and philosophy and incorporate in their own culture and make it Islamic. Second is that, thousand years ago, it was possible to create a civilisation which was a combination of Islam, science, philosophy and literature but is it possible to recreate that today in an Islamic way?

Another important point that Leaman mentions here is that whether the culture that was developed was Islamic or was it just that the dominant Muslims were able to adopt and learn from various cultures and develop the languages and sciences which are now termed as Islamic Sciences. On the contrary, Leaman also says that the way early Muslim Civilisation articulated the spirituality by using the imagery from Quran & Hadith is Islamic in its true sense. This comment can also be argued in a sense that the teachings of Quran & Hadith is evolutionary in nature, therefore, it should not be termed as Islamic as it freezes the essence and symbolic nature of Quran and Hadith.

Leaman at the end of the article gives some recommendations regarding his above mentioned queries. He emphasises on the need to reconnect and reinvent the spiritual aspect of philosophy which was present centuries back. The very basis of the intellectual tradition of first four centuries was the acceptance of early religions like Judaism and Christianity but what Islam did is to complete them and define the best understanding of God. The Muslim philosopher used to bring this out clearly that to teach the truth there are many ways and none can be negated only because of the difference in religion. This acceptance and lesser defensive attitude is perhaps what are required to bring the real change in today’s Islam.

Leaman has used an argumentative style of writing this article, making it very interesting and easy to understand. However, there are few pre-reqs to comprehend this article. These include historical knowledge of first four centuries of Islam, basic knowledge of Greek and peripatetic philosophy and the context and process of Muslim Intellectual tradition. There seemed to be no gaps in the article except few places where referencing were required especially when the author talks about various types of philosophies circulating in Persia and Andalusia. Though a simple language has been used but since this article was presented in a seminar to the academicians at the University of Cambridge along with talks from other prominent scholars, it has an academic flavour.

From the Book
Intellectual Tradition in Islam
Edited by Farhad Daftary

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Slow Death of Heroism in Pakistan

Couple of decayed back when there was practically no media available, not much technology, no mobile phones and no concept of Internet, Pakistan managed to have hero’s like Imran Khan, Waseem Akhtar, Anwar Maqsood, Moin Akhtar, Junaid Jamshed, Nazia Hassan and Shoaib Mansoor which tells you the diversity in this culture.
It is so ironic that as the time is passing by and with all the technological advancement, somehow our heroism seems to be dying and our people are no more interesting in watching our people. Some would critique that it’s because of the choices that people have in almost all the things but is it only because of that?

Everyone loves a hero and everyone tries to follow a hero because it inspires people to become like them. I don’t believe that because of the choices we are no more interested in our hero’s, I think the problem is much more profound and obscure. To be a hero demands a lot of responsibility. To be honest, true to yourself and your words, Consistent, and be inspirational. The question is how many people get inspires by Pakistani Sports man, Artists, Musicians, Scientists, Academicians? How many of us think about them as some of think about Aamir khan, George Clooney, Brian Lara, Rafial Nadal or Norm Chomsky.

I personally don’t think the we don’t have hero’s any more, but I strongly believe the inspiration seems to be disappearing and our younger generations won’t have much to talk about when they would be asked about their hero’s because all we are doing is cursing our sports players, blaming our musicians for being hypocrite and if we have nothing to talk then finally we blame our governance for all the problem that we are facing.

Unfortunately there is no answer to this slow death of the heroism in Pakistan but all I can hope that somehow we can revive a spirit by which our younger generation can see more on television then Kamran Khan, Hamid Meer and Shahid Masood’s non-stop so-called critical analysis to the corrupt Pakistani Political system or sense less advertisements. I hope our parents and Teachers can show our children that there are still some hero’s but the need is to put the spot light.

Let’s Put the Spot Light on Right People

Thursday, February 11, 2010

An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: A Shi‘i Vision of Islam

An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: A Shi‘i Vision of Islam

I.B. Tauris in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2008

ISBN (Hardback): 978 1 84511 794 8

The word ‘anthology’ comes from the Greek for ‘flower-gathering’. An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: A Shi‘i Vision of Islam is the first collection of the literary ‘flowers’ of the Ismaili tradition, offering up to its readers glimpses of a literary tradition as rich and varied as it is little-known. The extracts, drawn from all periods of theIsmailis’ pre-modern history, reflect the plural and multi-ethnic history of the community and display a remarkable diversity in style and genre.
As Azim Nanji points out in his foreword, the impulse to anthologise has a hallowed history in Muslim literature. Muslims have long compiled collections ofhadith, biographies, histories, poetry and commentaries as ways of preserving and systematising their heritages. The present volume follows in that tradition, albeit supplemented with the full apparatus of modern scholarship. With sections on ‘History and Memoir’, ‘Faith and Thought’, and ‘Poetry’, An Anthology of Ismaili Literature introduces its readers to the diverse genres of pre-modern Ismaili writing and to the circumstances in which they were produced.

The book opens with a substantial essay on Ismaili history and literary traditions by Farhad Daftary. The first section of historical extracts begins with the times of uncertainty that preceded the establishment of Fatimid rule in Egypt, as chronicled by the 10th century da‘i and author Ibn al-Haytham. Scenes from the days of the earliest Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mahdi (d. 322 AH/934 CE) are retold by his faithful chamberlain Ja‘far and by the renowned jurist and author, al-Qadi al-Nu‘man (d. 363 AH/974 CE). We hear more about the Qadi and the last imam of his time, Imam-Caliph al-Mu‘izz (r. 341-365 AH/953-975 CE), in the words of the 15th-century Tayyibi author Idris Imad al-Din. Two of the greatest luminaries of the 11th-century Ismaili da‘wa have also left detailed accounts of their travels. The autobiography of al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi (d. 470 AH/1078 CE) includes a gripping account of his escape from the hostile kingdom of the Buyids to safety in the Fatimid realms, an excerpt from which is included here. Roughly at the same time, Nasir-i Khusraw (d. after 462 AH/1070 CE) made a long spiritual journey from Persia to Egypt, then ruled by the Imam-Caliph al-Mustansir bi’llah (d. 487 AH/1094 CE). Here we include his famous description of Old Cairo and his account of the imam-caliph’s rule, in which justice was available to all, regardless of their faith. The section ends with chapters from Pir Sabzali’s narrative of a journey to Central Asia in the early 20th century, in which he and his Indian companions toiled through difficult terrain in Chitral and met with local Ismailis who impressed the Indian delegation with their fervent devotion to the imam of the time.

Part Two, on ‘Faith and Thought’, is the heart of the volume, and comprises four sections of reflections by the greatest Ismaili thinkers on fundamental questions of creation, revelation, the imamat, ethics and faith. In the first section are extracts from the work of classical Ismaili thinkers such as Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani (d. around 360 AH/971 CE), Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. after 411 AH/1020 CE) and Nasir-i Khusraw, who argued against the theology of the time by refusing to project any anthropomorphic (human-like) qualities of God, the Originator. To quote one of the editors, Hermann Landolt, these thinkers ‘also set themselves apart from the mainstream philosophical tradition, arguing that ‘existence’ itself belongs to the domain of the originated and thus cannot be applied to the Originator, whose pure identity is beyond intellectual reach.’ This section also contains al-Sijistani’s reflections on the spiritual quality of beauty in nature and art. It ends with an extract from the epistles of the anonymous Brethren of Purity who are believed to have lived in Basra in the mid 10th century. The authors used the natural world to make profound philosophical arguments: here, the parrot, appointed to argue the case for the animals of prey, attempts to explain how animals stand higher in God’s eyes than humans.

The second section consists of reflections on the nature of prophecy and the imamat, many of which affirm the importance of the continued existence of the imamat and its role as a guiding principle down the generations. It begins with al-Sijistani’s demonstration of the universal process of prophetic revelation as an esoteric reflection of the history of mankind itself. The Fatimid da‘i al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi said that ‘…. all the sciences, including the rational ones… are collectively present in the sciences of the prophets’, thus establishing the importance of reason in religion. Human reason, further explains the Ismaili thinker and poet Nasir-i Khusraw, is a trace of the Universal Intellect, and thus does not contradict revelation. Another distinguished Fatimid scholar, Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Naysaburi (fl. 4th/10th – early 5th/11th century), similarly used rational tools and metaphors from the natural world to explain how the imamat is the pole and foundation of religion. Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani explains why the imamat is necessary to carry forward God’s message and the example of His Messenger. The 11th-century Persian hujja Hasan-i Sabbah, affirms, in a fragmentary surviving text, the need for the Ismaili imam as the authoritative teacher who would guide humans towards their spiritual goals. Finally, the thinker Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 672 AH/1274 CE) explains the nature and necessity of the imamat and why it is necessary for the seeker to submit to ‘the wise and perfect man’ to achieve true knowledge.
Several Ismaili texts describe individual journeys in search of spiritual knowledge. The third section begins with the tale of the initiation of a young seeker, excerpted from the account of Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman (d. ca. 346 AH/957 CE), who wrote even before the establishment of the Fatimid caliphate. Next is the account of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi who found himself dissatisfied with various spiritual paths and eventually came to believe in the necessity of a ‘spiritual instructor’ to guide his way to spiritual knowledge. Knowledge itself has an external dimension and an inner, subtle truth. Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani explains the need for higher knowledge through the interpretation of scripture and al-Sijistani explains that such knowledge is acquired by the prophets in the form of spiritual inspiration, bypassing the material world. Next are three examples by Ismaili scholars of ta’wilor subtle elucidations that bring out the inner esoteric meanings of Qur’anic phrases and the religious duties of Muslims.

The section on faith and ethics begins with al-Qadi al-Nu‘man’s distinction between iman (faith) and islam (submission) from the start of his magnum opus of Fatimid law, the Da‘a’im al-Islam. This is followed by al-Naysaburi’s ‘code of conduct’ for da‘is, which brings out key aspects of the institutional hierarchy of theFatimids. From laws and norms to ethics is a natural progression. In a passage on the refinement of character from a text attributed to Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the author asserts that ethics is governed by the recognition of and reverence for the imam of the time. Al-Tusi also wrote a short treatise on tawalla, ‘solidarity’ andtabarra, ‘dissociation’, which is quoted here in full. This is followed by an extract from a treatise by a 16th-century author, Khayrkhwah-i Harati, who asserts the importance of spiritual edification or ta‘lim and the role of the Ismaili hierarchy in leading believers towards the truth and the divine.

The third part of the volume is devoted to Ismaili poetry, the prime vehicle for devotional expression throughout the generations. As Kutub Kassam explains, poetry discloses ‘the inner, spiritual life of the poets and the communities they represent’. This part is divided into compositions originally produced in Arabic, Persian and the languages of South Asia. The Fatimid period is represented by compositions of the versatile and prolific poet Ibn Hani al-Andalusi (d. 362 AH/973 CE), famed as the ‘Mutanabbi of the Maghrib’, and the more personal, devotional verses of al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi. Nasir-i Khusraw is another one of the greatest poets of the Persian Ismaili tradition. The poems included here demonstrate his devotion to the Ismaili cause as well as his virtuosity and poetic skill. These are followed by compositions by the 13th-century Alamut-based poet Hasan-i Mahmud-i Katib, which express devotion to the imam, and the more astringent, questioning poetry of Nizari Quhistani (d. 720 AH/1320 CE). The lesser-known poets of the post-Alamut era are represented in several compositions dating from the 15th to the 18th century, which demonstrate a continuing devotion to the Ismaili imams even when the community was dispersed and fragmented. The maddah poetry of the Ismailis of Badakhshan, composed largely in Tajik Persian, is represented here in several compositions that reflect the diversity of genres and themes in devotional poetry. Rounding off the volume are selections from the ginans of the South Asian Nizaris, attributed to some of the Ismaili preacher-poets who were active in the region from the 7th AH/13th CE century. Many of the poetic compositions in this part of the anthology continue to be a source of inspiration for Nizari Ismailis today.
Although the IIS has published Ismaili texts and their English translations for over a decade, it is for the first time that a publication brings the range of the tradition to academic and lay readers. Lovers of poetry could turn to Shimmering Light: An Anthology of Ismaili Poetry (1996), translated by F. M. Hunzai and edited by Kutub Kassam. Enthusiasts of Ismaili philosophy could consult the second volume of An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia: Ismaili Thought in the Classical Age edited bySeyyed Hossein Nasr and Mahdi Aminrazavi (2008). The present volume, however, brings to its readers a greater range of genres, new translations from the foremost scholars in the field, and brief contextual introductions to every extract. It is hoped that the bouquet of this anthology will draw readers to further explore the riches and diversity of Ismaili literature.

Monday, February 8, 2010

How Can a Muslim Philosopher Love God?

Since I have started my philosophical endeavor, I have been thinking hard about an inquiry that many people have in their mind. How can a philosopher specially a Muslim Philosopher love God when he distant himself so much from him? If one looks at the Philosophers of the Classical Period, one can clearly see that the very principle of Tawheed has been defined as something, which is incomprehensible to human faculty. Be it Sunni Theologians or Ismaili Muslim Philosophers, Kindi, Farabi, Ibn Sina or Nasir-e-Khusro, the very principle notion of Tawheed was explained in a way which makes you wonder that if one cannot possess the knowledge of Divine then what is the point of understanding Tawheed and how can you develop an affection towards such a distant God?

After giving a lot of thought, I have come up with a thought might lead to a very interesting debate on this topic. The old epistemological debate provides us with the notions of human knowledge having various levels. Now if take his primes that human knowledge does have levels and stages then understanding God would also vary from people to people. Now a Muslim with a limited understanding of logical sciences would see God differently than a Muslim Philosopher. A common Muslim would worship God and maybe love him because he would think that his needs and desires would get accomplished by doing it. He might be an imitator like a majority, but if we talk about a Muslim Philosopher, his understanding of God has developed through logical sciences. Although his God is far away from his human comprehension but through his logical understanding, he knows God is actually inside him. God can see him but he cannot, God can feel him but he cannot, God can help him but he cannot, God can assist him but he cannot. Therefore, he wonders and asks himself that what can he do?

After a lot of contemplation and thinking the answer comes that all he can do is Submit. Once he submits then he would eventually develop a love for that almighty who he knows is far away from his intellectual capacity. The point that i want to emphasize is that a philosopher can never love God until he understands that since he cannot understand he does not have many choices. All his mental faculties would tell him that he cannot comprehend God with the empirical senses. The beauty to love is not in understanding but in submitting and thats what a philosopher needs to understand.

Living in One Country and Thinking about Another

ironic when one moves from a developing country to a highly developed country. The experience that you get is very cheerful if you look at it vey superficially but when you dig deep into the rabbit hole, thats where the real sadness comes. It's been one month and few days Since I have shifted to Singapore after listening to the overwhelming comments like "this is the best move buddy" or even more clich├ęd “Pakistan main Rakah hi kya hai- Nikal Ja”, I am thinking more and more about the ‘so-called’ my country Pakistan.

It’s not that I don’t like Singapore or there is anything bad about it (except food). I think Singapore is really nice, Hi-Tech, friendly, discipline place where you can roam around in the streets at 12:00 PM with your family without having any fear from losing your mobile phone to your life. Everything seems to be in place and everything looks brilliant and radiating. One look ask then why in the world I am thinking about Pakistan. Some would answer maybe because of the initial nostalgia but I am not too sure about that.

The reason I am thinking about Pakistan is because of this comparative analysis that people make between these two countries or between Pakistan and any developed country so-to-speak. The reason why I am thinking is because no one wants to say anything good about Pakistan especially when they get a chance to come to a place like Singapore. It’s like you got freedom from the jail and you don’t want to talk about the traumatic experience that you had inside the bars.

I understand and agree that the country has problems and does posses a huge security threat to a common man. But my question is that what satisfaction are we going to get by saying only bad things about the country which in the end has given us our cultural identity? I am not been dramatic here but the inquiry that I want people to do is to think. Can there be a day when they talk only good things about Pakistan? Is that possible or its just another dream like one Allama Iqbal had hoping that one day it might come true.
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