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Islam after the death of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) spread far and wide and was accepted by different people of different languages, culture and lands. Hence it became enriched by the intellectual contribution of many individuals and communities in various diverse fields of learning such as philosophy, literature, law, theology, arts, mysticism and natural science. Thus, Islam was elaborated in a multitude of forms and interpretations and by the 1oth century, it completely flourished as a civilization
To discuss the significance of these issues, a seminar entitled INTELLECTUAL TRADITIONS IN ISLAM was organized by the institute of Ismaili studies at the Mellor centre, Churchill College, university of Cambridge during 14-20 august 1994.
This book contains the edited and reviewed versions of the papers presented at the seminar excluding Professors M. Mahdi, M. Arkoun and A Sachedina’s contributions.
The report is an overview of all the essays presented in this book excluding the essay Some Observations on the Religious Intellectual Milieu of Safawid Iran by John Cooper and Present Day Islam Between its Tradition and Globalization by Mohammed Arkoun. It discusses all the key points and topics addressed by different authors in their respective essays.
ABOUT THE BOOK (SUMMARY)
The concepts and the key points described in the book are discussed below with respect to each chapter:
The introduction is the key note address which was presented at the seminar by Dr. Aziz Esmail. He in his essay explores the key concepts of “Intellectual Life”, “Tradition” and “Islam”.
He raises many questions about concept of an intellectual life. He asks about the designation and position of an intellectual in the society. He asks whether the intellectual thoughts and the intellectual themselves are very distantly placed from the society. He further confronts the readers by asking questions such as what is the place of intellect in one’s persona. What is the relationship of intellect with feelings, character and most importantly with the faith of a person? He further explores the role of intellectual life in the development of personality and character and in the making of identity of a person. He asks what is the relation of intellect in our daily lives. What is its relation to one’s relationship with God? How does it effect the relation of an individual with its society? Does the intellect enable any participation in the society or does it retards it? He confronts the readers with such questions and enables them to think, to review and to divulge in his thoughts.
Furthermore, he deals with the concept of tradition and traditionalism. He defines the relationship of old age and youth with tradition. He says that the old age identifies with the past whereas the youth has a relationship of dependence of defiance with the past. He identifies the different models of schooling which provide the basis of relationship of an individual with his traditions. The author explains that the tradition becomes an object of anxiety and attention when it ceases to work not when it is actually at work. He says that you can’t find the idea of traditionalism or tradition in traditional societies. He explains that the main confronting question facing the people today is that in this world which is characterized by a pluralism of tradition which tradition one should uphold? The other question is what is the future of any traditions in such a rapidly changing world?
When the author talks about Islam he asks the meaning of Islam. He also asks what is the relationship of past and present in Islam. The author describes the challenge of relativism in today’s world. Relativism says that all doctrines, ideas and values can be explained by reference to time and place. But if all ideas and values are thus explained, one’s confidence in upholding a single culture or tradition is shattered. The author says that today the culture is becoming a supermarket of ideas, values and doctrines where one chooses according to taste not according to objective essence. It the past, community came first and the individuals second, today, the scenario is opposite. Today, in such a pluralistic world, there is a need of a genuine mutual appreciation between faiths. The author says that engagement with other faiths doesn’t mean to surrender, for criticism too is a form of engagement. How Islamic theology may engage with the modern world without becoming a prisoner of the modern understanding of modernity is one of the major challenges facing Islamic thought today?
2. Intellectual Life in the First Four Centuries of Islam by Hugh Kennedy:
The author in his essay surveys the intellectual life of the Muslims in the first four centuries of Islam. He also describes the development of the intellectual life in this era. He explains that the first main issue that confronted the Muslims after the death of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) was that of the leadership of the community. People raised many questions such as who should lead the community. How they should be chosen and what powers they should enjoy? There were two different groups of people who had two different view points. One group believed that the leadership should be inherited by the Ahl al-Bayt (family of the Prophet). The other idea that found favor was that of a tribal Sheikh.
The early Islamic intellectuals faced a very important issue that how they were going to preserve and record the utterances and deeds of the Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H) and his companions, secondly, they faced the issue of explanation of Quran & Sunna to the new Muslims who were Non-Arabs. Consequently, a whole series of sciences developed in order to solve these problems.
These sciences include grammar, genealogy, poetry and history and were known as the Islamic sciences. Grammar was a part of such sciences. It became the essential constituent of all the intellectual activities as it was vital to understand the basis of religion. Science of genealogy also found its way in the minds of the Muslims intellectuals. It was used to establish relations between different tribes and people. To understand the Quran completely, it was equally important to learn the language and thoughts of the Prophet’s contemporaries. So, poetry of pre-Islamic Arab and the early days of Islam became a very important part of the Muslim Intellectual life. History was another aspect of systematization of learning. Historical writing came into form just due to the need to record the life of the Prophet (P.B.U.H) and the events of the Islamic conquests.
The non-Islamic sciences that Muslims were concerned with were medicine, philosophy, astrology and astronomy. All these sciences were brought into the Islamic tradition by translations made from Greek language in the 9th century. The Muslims in the early era of Islam pursued only those sciences that they thought were practically useful for them. Philosophy was studied by Muslims because it was required for analysis of arguments and logic study of medicine was required for obvious reasons. Astronomy and astrology were regarded as practical sciences by Muslims because many of them believed in the influence of planets on people’s lives.
The author highlights that in the early intellectual life of Islam certain subjects were studied because they were perceived to be useful and there was no structure of intellectual life for there did not exists any academic profession. Thus, in the first four centuries of Islam, there was no institutional frame work for intellectual life; people who were engaged in such activities lived on their private income.
Overall, the Muslims in the four centuries of Islam were pre-occupied by Islamic sciences which developed from just being recordings of the early days of Islam to becoming immensely rich intellectual work.
3. Scientific and Philosophical Enquiry Achievements and reactions in Muslims history by Oliver Leaman:
The author in his essay describes the development of scientific & philosophical enquiry in the Muslim history. The author says that after the death of Prophet Mohammad (P.B.U.H), the Islamic empire expanded and extended to the various parts of Middle East where a variety of civilization were established for a very long time. The new Muslim rulers came into contact with people who had very sophisticated ideas about theology, medicine, astronomy and mathematics. Now they had to decide whether to reject this kind of learning or to study it. They chose to study it and learn from it and as a result a pluralistic society of different cultures and religious was formed
There were basically two reasons for using the discoveries and theories which were present in the Middle East at that time. One was the need to argue and debate with the people of other religions and to persuade them to become Muslims. It was necessary to use the methodologies of the older religious to defend Islam and to prove to people what improvements Islam has brought.
The other rational for using science and philosophy of existing cultures was a practical one. When the Muslims came to Syria, Iraq and later on Persia, they found out that those people had a high standard of living. They were relatively more educated and healthy. They had better management skills. The Muslims wanted to learn how they achieved this state of affairs. This resulted in a great deal of interest in early Islamic world for philosophical, scientific and medical discoveries which were all around them.
The author further explains that these new communities had a bulk of philosophical works especially those of Aristotle and Plato. Philosophy is all about the ability to debate, to argue. There was a great demand by the people for philosophical material with which they could persuade others about the validity of their point of views. The philosophical literature was widely read in the first few centuries of Islam and great evidence of scientific work is also found.
The author further explains that to the positive approach of the philosophers, thinkers and intellectuals towards ancient philosophy and science, the ulama had a different approach. They thought that if the Muslim intellectuals were forming a philosophy based on the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle then they were developing a philosophy based on pagan thought. They thought that Islam in itself contains the solutions of all the problems faced by the people. They argued that we need not approach ancient Greek philosophy for solutions of our
problems. But the philosophers thought that if something is good or true there is no harm in incorporating it in our daily lives.
The author says that the questions that arose as a result of all this debate were: how much is it acceptable for one to borrow from a culture that is not one’s own? How far could Muslims incorporate secular knowledge in their own culture and still maintain their culture?
The above mentioned debate was a dispute about who would sort out the theoretical problems of the Islamic world. Would it be the philosophers inspired by the Greek science and philosophy, or would it be the ulama and the fuqaha, the traditional Islamic scholars and jurists?
4. The Rational Tradition in Islam by Muhsin Mahdi:
I would like to focus on the historical perspectives of the rational tradition in Islam. The author points out in the start of his essay that whenever in history Muslims including scientists, philosophers and mystics tried to express themselves, they had to use reason.
The author traces back the history of rationalism from the age of enlightenment and the French revolution in European culture and history in the 17th and 18th centuries. It happened that some learned encyclopaedists started destructive rationalism by trying to get rid of religion and religious ideas, thoughts and prejudices. They wanted to establish a society that is purely based on reason.
The author asks a question: how the rational tradition arose in Islam in the first place? He replies by saying that it arose after the death of the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) when Islam and Muslims faced the crisis of leadership. The question: who has the claim to rule Muslim religious community after the Prophet (P.B.U.H.)? Is it by the prophet’s designation of an imam or is it by election? The origin of Islamic religious thought and theology is based on this question. And, thus, begins the whole process of rationalism in Islam.
Within the tradition and knowledge that came in from other cultures and societies to Muslims, the concept or idea of Neoplatonism also found its way. Neoplatonism is the theory that speaks of god as something that is hard to understand, that is above and beyond reason. Thus, Neoplatonism provided the revealed religions with a support. It taught them that the divinity is active; it’s not just a mind it is something that acts and causes things to be.
Now as the rationalist ideas began to develop, the contradictions between the rationalists and the fundamentalists began. One illustration of rationalism in Islam was Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Razi, the physician who opposed all forms of human authority in matters of religious knowledge, even that of the prophet. He completely opposed prophecy and criticized religion. He proposed that organized religion was a device used by the evil men to establish their rule over mankind and that it leads to violence, conflicts and wars.
The whole idea of extreme rationalism is to get rid of all religions and to form a society based purely on reason. But no tradition ever thought of a society completely based on reason. One can make justifications about prophecy, revelations and religious transactions. The author here states his point of view that the only way that a society can be held together and the only way that people can be encouraged to pursue virtues and avoid vices which may not always be in their rational interests is by a divine law and through a doctrine of reward and punishment hereafter.
In Islam two kinds of rationalist traditions are found. One is that of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) who believed in acquiring rational knowledge to find a way to the divine. He believed that as one perfects it to its limits, then he has a vision of what is beyond it. The other tradition is that of Ibn al-Arabi who believed in practicing and learning from people and experiences to find the way to the divine.
5. The Limits of Islamic Orthodoxy by Norman Calder:
Norman Calder in his essay firstly explains that in this essay he wants to discover the outside limits of Islamic Orthodoxy with respect to the Sunni Islam. The author defines the terms Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy. Orthodoxy means “the right teachings” whereas Orthopraxy means “the right practice”. According to the author, the Sunni Islam is a religion of Orthodoxy.
The author describes that one of the places where the right teachings of Islam can be found are those books which are called Aqida or Aqaid in Arabic meaning creed. These books set out the agenda of beliefs that represent being a Muslim.
The author gives the example of Christianity, that in the first five centuries of Christianity, they faced a debate about what it was you had to believe to be a Christian and they decided a creed under the authority of a council and the pope. But there is no such source of authority in Islam. There is no such council and there is no such creed that is found in which all the Muslims believe.
According to the author one thing found common in all the creeds is the components of the Shahadat i.e. the belief that God is one and Muhammad (P.B.U.H) is the messenger of God.
The author further explains that there are five possible forms of religions beliefs including scripture, community, gnosis, reasons and charisma.
Some people claim that the way towards the knowledge of God is through scripture i.e. God’s revelation others claim that God’s self-revelation to man is through a community that has been chosen by God and in which correct belief is preserved. A third group claims that way towards knowledge of God is through gnosis i.e. mystic knowledge, experience or just mysticism. A fourth group claims that way towards understanding God is by using reason or by being rational. Finally, there are communities that believe that God has appointed throughout the generations one particular person to express His message, they are also claim that this particular person has the knowledge of God.
All great religious traditions of the world including Hinduism, Islam & Christianity have all fine elements described above. The author classifies different groups of believers according to the above mentioned forms. Within Islam, the Twelve Shi’a & the Ismaili Shi’a are the communities which lay stress on charisma as the most important form of achieving knowledge of God. There are two sets of people in Islam which lay great stress on reason as the means of achieving knowledge of God. One group is represented by philosophers like Al-Farabi and Avicenna i.e. Ibn Sina. The other group is the Mutazila which are rejected by the Sunnis because they claim that they overstress the role of reason. The group representing gnosis or mysticism in Islam is the Sufis. According to the author, the Sunnis are the group that lie somewhere between scripture and community.
The author further explains that the Sunnis have formed intellectual writing traditions, there literature to which they refer as the expression to their understanding of their relationship to God and His Prophet (P.B.U.H). This list of literary genres is as follows: – Qisas Al Anbiya, Sirat Al-Nabi, Qur’an, Hadith, fiqh, Kalam, Tafsir and Sharh Al Hadith. At intellectual level, the limits of orthodoxy are represented by the contents of the set of books defined above.
6. Intellectual Life Among the Ismaili: An Overview by Farhad Daftary:
The author firstly explains the history and beliefs of Ismailis. He says that the Ismailis maintain that the Prophet Mohammad (P.B.U.H) has appointed his cousin and son-in-law- Ali b. Abi Talib as his successor and that this designation or nass has been made divine command. They also believe that there is a permanent need of a spiritual leader with a particular Kind of knowledge (ILM) for guidance of mankind. They believe that after the death of Prophet, only Ali and succeeding imams possessed the required ILM and religious authority which enables them to act as the sole authority for interpreting the Islamic revelation. Thus, this doctrine of imamate forms the foundation of all the teachings and literary works of the Ismaili Shi’ is.
The early Ismailis developed a cyclical history of revelation and a cosmological doctrine. These two concepts became the main components of theology. These two doctrines also explain the great appeal and popular success of the early Ismailis Da’wa (the guiding mission led by teachers known as da’is or missionaries.
The establishment of the Fatimid state in 909 in North Africa proved to be a mile stone for the success of da’wa. The Fatimid period is often known as the “Golden Era” of Ismailism. After the acquisition of the Fatimid state, the Fatimid Caliph-Imams didn’t abandon their da’wa activities aiming to extend their rule over the entire Muslim Umma, they retained their da’wa and network of da’is, operating both within and outside Fatimid states.
Special institution was setup for the training of da’is and instruction of ordinary Ismailis. The da’is who were educated as theologians, themselves were the scholars and authors of Ismaili community. They produced great literary works on theology, law, philosophy and exoteric and esoteric subjects. In Egypt, the Fatimids created major libraries in Cairo, which grew into a centre of art, culture, Islamic and natural science. The Da’is themselves were trained in jurisprudence and were acquired with knowledge of Hadith and other religious sciences as well as the languages and cultures of regions in which they operated despite being the sole representative of the Ismaili Da’wa it Seems that very little is written by Ismaili authors on Da’is who acted as missionaries, teachers and judges for the Ismailis of their community outside the Fatimid dominion.
The high yearn for learning in Ismailis led them to conduct Majalis i.e. Lectures or teaching sessions for public. In 1005 Fatimid Caliph-Imam Al-Hakim (996-1021) formed an institution of learning known as Dar al-ilm, the house of knowledge or Dar al-Hikma in a section of Fatimid palace in Cairo. A multitude of religious and non- religious sciences were taught at Dar al-ilm which was equipped with a major library. Many Da’is received training in Dar al-ilm.
In the Fatimid period, the Ismaili law was codified by Al-Qadi Al-Nu’man under the guidance of the Fatimid Caliph-Imam Al-Mu’izz. His compilation the Da’a’im-al-Islam (The Pillars of Islam) served as the official legal code of the Fatimid state, Al-Qadi Al-Nu’man, on Fridays after the mid-day prayers conducted public sessions in Cairo at the mosques of Al-Azhar, Amr & Al-Hakim, to explain the legal doctrines of the Ismailis jurisprudence to Ismailis.
Much of the literary work and chronicles of Ismailis perished as a result of the Ayyubids harassment of Ismailis. These libraries were also destroyed and hence much of the literary work was also perished.
After the persecution of Ismailis by Ayyubids in the Fatimid states, Hassan Sabbah founded the Nizari state in the fortress of Alamut in northern Persia. Hassan Sabbah was a learned theologian and he established an impress library at Alamut. Other major Nizari Fortresses in Persia & Syria were also equipped with a signification collection of books, documents and scientific instruments.
The Nizari Ismailis of the Alamut period used to compile chronicles in which events of the Nizari states were recorded accordingly. But most of these official chronicles preserved at Alamut and other Nizari fortresses perished in the Mongol attacks of 1256 or later on.
After the invasion of Mongols in 1256, the Nizaris how began to observe taqiyya for extended period. Until the end of the 17th century, the Nizari Da’wa met with particular success in Central Asia & India. In the Central Asian tradition, the authentic works of Nasir Khusraw occupy a prominent role. Central Asian Nizaris have also preserved a bulk of Persian Nizari literature produced during the Alamut period & in later times. The Syrian Nizaris have also formed another literary tradition based on Arabic, in which local ideas as well as Fatimid Ismaili thought found expression.
The Nizari Khojas of the Indian sub-continent developed a distinctive tradition known as Satpanth or true path which is expressed in their hymn like Ginans written in different South Asian languages and later on recorded in the Khojki
Script in Sindh by the Khoja community. These Ginans were written by Pirs or Da’is to increase their appeal of message.
The author acknowledges Ismailis as a community with the doctrine of Imamate as their central teaching. He successfully traces back the Ismaili literary traditions in his work.
7. Nasir Khusraw: Fatimid Intellectual by Alice C. Hansberger:
The author Alice C Hunsberger in her essay focuses on the great Fatimid thinker and intellectual Nasir Khusraw. Nasir Khusraw who lived primarily in Khurasan in the 11th Century was an eminent Persian philosopher, writer and poet. He was a successful preacher of the Ismaili faith in Central Asia renown for his poetic teachings. He was so successful in preaching among people that those of other Islamic school turned viciously against him and he had to spend his last 15 or 20 year in exile in Yumgan in Badakhshan under the protection of a local Ismaili Prince.
The author in her remarkable essay sheds light on his personality and his teachings. She narrates the story of an eagle from one of his poems. The essence of the story is that human beings have it all in them that carries them to the sky and brings them to the dust.
The author is found to be saying that Nasir khusraw is far away from being a mystic and neither he is an ascetic rather he preaches his readers to become the best human beings they can by being fully in this world and using it for achieving self-perfection.
Nasir Khusraw is the only philosophical writer of his era to have written all his writings in Persian language. He leaves us with three different genres of writing: a prose memoir of his travels, the safarnama, and his poetry gathered in his diwan and a no. of philosophical works in which he lays out the doctrines of Ismailism. His famous edited and published books include: Gushayish wa Rahayish, Jami’al-Hikmatayn, Khwan al-Ikhwan, Shish Fasl, Rawshana’I-nama, Wajh-i-din and Zad al-Musafirin.
Nasir Khusraw earned his title “Hakim” through his broad training in philosophy and other sciences including finance and mathematics. In his writing, Nasir Khusraw shows a certain honesty and directness. He talks his hopes. His prose and poetry is so admired by people because it is plain and complex.
Around his fortieth birthday Nasir Khusraw underwent a spiritual reawakening and left his privileged life in the royal Saljuq court and set out for a journey which was much esoteric rather than exoteric.
The authors sheds light on a very important concept from Nasir Khusraw’s teachings that one must be in this world in order to achieve the higher world. He explains in his teachings the need of physical world for a life of faith because according to him it is the physical world that holds the tools for learning true wisdom, namely reason (or intellect and knowledge i.e. aql and ilm).
Nasir Khusraw gets irritated by people who are ignorant. He compares them to all sorts of animals including donkeys, asses and noisy birds. In his book Wajh-i-Din Nasir Khusraw explains that animals act without knowledge, while angels know without acting. But it is human beings who must combine both action and knowledge. For Nasir Khusraw, intellect leads a believer to proper faith and strengthens his faith.
The other concept that Nasir stresses in his teachings is the observance of the shari’a. He criticizes people that they must observe shari’a. He compares the observance of shari’a with taking medicine when we are sick. Although we may not like the medicine but we have to do in order to heal our body. Similarly, the Prophet (P.B.U.H) is the physician and the medicine he brings to heal our souls is the shari’a. Nasir Khusraw stresses that it is through the body that one’s soul can be perfected by carrying out shari’a. Since man is responsible for his actions, the effects of his actions are transferred to his soul leading ultimately to the purification or perfection of man’s soul by observing the shari’a. The author gives a great overview of the teachings of Nasir Khusraw in her essay.
8. Reason and Mystical Experience in Sufism by Annemarie Schimmel:
The author in her essay sheds light on the concept of love, intellect, reason and experience in mysticism and in religion. She sheds light on different concepts by using references of Maulana Rumi and Iqbal. She starts her essay with some verses by Maulana Rumi and Iqbal in which they both in their own words point out the difference between intellect and love. According to them, intellect first ponders over things whereas love just jumps into the hearts of the matter without thinking of the consequences. Intellect is necessary to give us information i.e. Khabar whereas love gives us the direct vision i.e. nazar,
The author quotes the story of a moth and a burning candle which Al-Hallaj has written in his Arabic book, Kitab al-Tawasin in which the moth is not satisfied with the sight and feeling, it want to burn itself and led to a new higher life. The Sufis present the idea of “die before you die”. The Sufis desire for Nazar i.e. the true experience that comes from love.
The author also describes in the analysis of intellect and love, two other modes of perception, dhikr and fikr. Fikr literally meaning thought is necessary to understand the creations of this world. And dhikr literally meaning the constant remembrance of god is supposed to polish human heart and make it shine like a mirror. These two modes of thinking of fikr, intellectual thinking and of dhikr remembering god with love are always used together.
Iqbal presents another idea about the intellect that as it makes to think and ponder over things it creates new idols every moment. But again in his poetry he tells us that these idols of intellect bow to love.
The author highlights another aspect of mysticism that is expressing the love in words. She quotes Rumi as saying that when the pen comes to write the word ‘love’, its break into pieces. The pen breaks when it comes to write about love but the same pen has written a bulk of books and poetry about this very love. It is a paradox in literature that the mystics who stressed that ones who wrote numerous books.
The mystics have been found to say that whatever they write is not by their intellectual powers it is all waridat “things that come’ to the mystics. These literary works are produced even by illiterate people and when you read them if it looks as if it has been crafted with much intellectual effort. We have the examples of such writers such as Ibn al-Arabi and khwaja Mir Dard who claim that they didn’t even think of it.
These mystical writings have been opposed by Ulama and many scholars as dangerous and poison for untutored minds. The traditional saying finds its way here that: “think about the work of god and the qualities of god, but do not think of god’s essence.” Again Iqbal quotes in his works that Qur’an also invites to seek signs in the horizons of this world and in ourselves.
Thus, the author concludes by saying that intellectual activities are not to be excluded from the way of Sufis or the Muslims. The idea of looking at signs and pondering over them may be of great help to understand religion in a better context. At the end she quotes a verse by Rumi that I quote here: “when you make a house for your chicken, a camel does not fit into it.” And she concludes that “intellect is a chicken and love is a camel- a great, proud and beautiful camel.”
10. Woman, Half-the-Man? The Crisis of Male Epistemology in Islamic Jurisprudence by Abdulaziz Sachedina:
The author introduces the readers to the shari’a, the Islamic sacred law and the two spheres of human activity: those actions that relate humanity to god categorizaed as ‘Ibadat’ (literally ‘acts of honouring god’, technically ‘god-human relationships’), and those actions that relate humans to fellow humans categorized as ‘Mu’amalat’ (literally ‘transactions’, technically ‘inter-human relationships’ ). According to the author the area of inter-human relationships demands rethinking and reinterpretation of the normative sources like the Qur’an and the sunna, under changed social conditions.
One area particularly in inter-human relationships which is retarded in progress by interpretation by Muslim jurists is the personal status of muslim women. The madrasa tradition of learning in Islam has disregarded female voices in emerging issues of women and human rights. The redefinition of status of a muslim woman is a major issue that confronts the Muslim jurists in today’s modern world. Muslim women’s participation in legal-ethical matters where situational aspects can be best determined by women themselves only, is very essential. Without their participation in such discussions, women’s rights will always depend on the patriarchal society.
The author further discusses the male jurists and their female related rulings. He narrates his exp
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