Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives

A symbolic depiction of Ukrainian nationalism, c. 1920

While the world probably doesn’t need any more commentary on the recent American election, I’d like to offer some anyway, though in a way that looks at happenings beyond the US to the rest of the world, where we see related patterns unfolding according to local particularities and conditions. While the US is its own case, it is also part of an interconnected world, the ties of global capitalism, human movement, globalized classes, elites, and political structures, and other things working to move American realities in directions broadly congruent with other, often quite different, parts of the world. My thoughts here—which are reflective of the halting directions my political thought have been taking as of late, but should not be interpreted as final or fully coherent—are springing off an article by Jonathan Haidt from back in the summer, but which is rather prescient and worth reading in its own right. What follows here, then, are three interlinking thoughts precipitated by, but in some cases sharply diverging from, Haidt’s article.

One, while right now the dominant options are either liberal ‘cosmopolitan’ globalism or some form of nationalism, within the framework of nation-states (whether more autonomous or more directed from supra-national entities being at question) and of some form of globalized (if not globalist) capitalism, those are not in fact the only options. To give but one example, Continue reading “Nationalisms, Globalisms, and Their Alternatives”

Notes Towards a Theory of Modernity, and Other Things

The following are some thoughts and outlines of theory that aim at encapusalating some of my developing thought on human social order, the dynamics of historical change (particularly in the modern world, as we call it), and so on, which do not really ‘fit’ into my own academic work, but which lie behind how I think about the pre-modern world and my role as an observer and shaper of historical knowledge, which is always knowledge intimately tied up with the present. These are quickly assembled thoughts-out-loud, but I hope they prove of interest and use to the reader who takes the effort to navigate them.

1. On Discontinuities and Disorder: One of the problems that particularly marks our age—by which I mean the last half century or so, though with extensions backwards through the era of Western industrialization—is the problem (which is also a potent problématique) of radically discontinuous time scales within conjunctive social, political, economic, and ecological systems and processes. While technical advances and developments, be they in socio-political organization, economic systems, or actual technology, have moved many aspects of life on this earth into incredibly high-speed trajectories, they have been unable—and are most likely necessarily unable—to effect such transformations across the board. In fact, many of the most salient and vital processes, systems, and exigencies remain on time scales similar to or the same as during any period of post-agricultural revolution human history, and in some cases—particularly ecological and geological aspects—pre-human time scales. If our technics allow, for instance, for rapid, unpredictable socio-political disintegration, it is not clear that they encourage symmetrical forms of re-integration and re-formation, processes which are slow and unsteady, and which tend to require periods of relative stability and, crucially, extended time scales. One of the results of these discontinuities, I think, has been the rapid cyclical processing of global history, with periods of incredibly rapid formation and development along many metrics, followed by equally incredible periods of collapse and destruction. The succeeding periods of re-integration and re-building tend to automatically have the seeds of their dissolution built into them, accelerating the cycle. Of course, different societies have had very different responses to this process due to vastly differing historical circumstances and contingencies, but all societies have been subject to it, and it is possible that we are seeing, in this very historical moment, convergences towards a single unitary period of dissolution, with no clear route forward afterwards. Technics are growing more and more integrated and rapid, obliterating many quotidian time scales, yet proving incapable of shoring up or replacing many of the social systems, ecological processes, and interpersonal relationships that they are helping to either obliterate or destabilize. We are faced with a situation in which stable, resilient systems are necessary more than ever, but the tools and exigencies at our disposal increasingly trend in the very opposite direction.

2. What I am Trying to Do: The sort of theoretical position, the philosophical-political vantage point I am seeking in what I think and write, is a stance that seeks, Continue reading “Notes Towards a Theory of Modernity, and Other Things”

Thoughts, Occasional to the Day, and Unsolicited

Indulge me, dear reader, some of my out-loud thinking, taken from my common-place book, where I jot down, in a sort of haze of free-form association and reckless philosophizing, unbound by genre or affiliation, and often indirectly occasioned by the dreary roll of the day’s headlines, my scattered ideas and attempts to corral my thoughts and emotions into something coherent-ish, and, perhaps, of interest to others…

1. One knows not to indulge in O tempora tropes, knowing that one’s own age is ultimately not really all that different from any other. At every age there are madnesses at the center, and the madnesses of the periphery, the strange and terrible machinations of the human heart spilling out of the prevailing discourses and modes of behavior, at once shocking, at once emerging from what is normative and central.

2. It is best not to begrudge people their fantasies, their naivety, their willful, unreasonable optimism. If people were in the habit of dealing with reality, and not their delusions, it would be utterly crippling for most. Perhaps it is better to imagine a world in which things work out they way you imagine they will—by the time the time comes and they don’t turn out that way, the infinite flexibility of human thought and perception will not be perturbed, but will merely adapt its future-looking vision, untroubled by prophets proved wrong, cheery—or apocalyptic, cheery in their own way to our odd little minds—prognostication unfulfilled, and forgotten, new ones replacing. Human memory is akin to the cellular structure of our bodies: seemingly stable and self-reproducing, but constantly in flux, dying and being reborn to meet the passage of time, the perils and presses of biology, heading towards a biological end but a spiritual and historical afterlife and extension elsewhere and in others, transformed. Memory—particularly our memory of the future—is largely unstable and flexible, at once incongruent with the world as it is and yet malleable to what the world turns out to be, or what we come to remember the world having been. The material traces, the psychic echoes…

3. I suppose it makes me a conservative in the technical, and not the ideological sense, in that I no longer suppose—and in the back of my mind, I have never supposed—that history moves on some progressive, teleological line, without terrible (or wonderful—who knows) and fundamentally unforeseen feedback loops built into that movement, which can, in time or suddenly or both, send history into new and unexpected directions, directions that belie any talk of ‘progress’ or unidirectional (or bidirectional) movement. History, time, is a welter, and there is no telling how things will move, what will become.

Proceeding from this conviction—or, I would say, observation—is the congruent conviction that for many ‘problems’ there is in fact no ‘solution.’ If time, human societies, ecology, history, so on, are infinitely complex, malleable, their ontology at once visible and invisible to us, driven by logics and processes known only to God, as it were, then why should we expect our lives capable of division into neat moral binaries, or liable to neat solutions and resolutions? That is not to deny the possibility of moral certainty, in propositional terms, or even in a deep sense of the self before the world and God: but when we attempt to arrive at a ‘social’ morality, at a morality that is dispersed, woven into our human and natural ecologies in ways that preclude personal reckoning and analysis: then we enter territory for which ‘ambiguity’ is too mild a term.

Value judgments need not collapse utterly, but we are more in the realm of tragedy and comedy wherein the sheerness of the world, its apart-from-us-ness, is the primary operative reality. In the face of everything, then, what is best…? Prayer, sorrow, the momentary discoveries of good and gladness, small comforts perhaps, unless joined to a conviction, in the movement of prayer, liturgy, and the pin-points of sanctity, human and natural, that beyond our immediate, history-bound ken, there is God, there is an eternal stability in eternal movement, as unpredictable as that of this world, but in a movement of fundamental goodness and wholeness, moving Itself and us and all towards a fulfillment beyond, behind, our temporal knowledge, into an unending, ever expanding Completion.

On True Spiritual Seclusion and Exercise

Bridging the gap between how we intuitively understand words and concepts and how people in the past, or people in the present but in quite different cultural-linguistic worlds from us, understood those same words and concepts is often a difficult task. In the text I’ve translated here from the great early-modern Ottoman Damascene mystical philosopher, poet, and traveler (to name but three of his occupations) ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731), we encounter both dissonances of meaning endemic to the gap between our time and his, as well as dissonances that ‘Abd al-Ghanī introduces. Easily one of the most fascinating and versatile thinkers of early modern Islam, ‘Abd al-Ghanī simultaneously defended the practices and concepts of Sufism, especially as embodied in the thought of Ibn ‘Arabī, while also frequently refashioning them and integrating them into a wider-ranging philosophy of Islam that embraced the rapidly changing world of early modernity, against the puritanical, ‘fundamentalist’ strains of Islam that fitfully circulated in the Ottoman world. In addition to defending the legal validity of smoking, coffee-drinking, dancing, musical performances, and other activities, ‘Abd al-Ghanī generally argued for a broad social ethic that rejected moralism and morality policing, instead encouraging positive, indeed tolerant social interactions across class and confessional lines. This is not to say that he advocated some sort of proto-liberalism or modernism: as is clear from the following text, ‘Abd al-Ghanī did not reject the practice of the sharī’a or traditional theological beliefs. But what he did with those beliefs and how he interpreted them in doctrine and practice could be quite surprising and even innovative (a term he would not have appreciated, I should note). His often bold textual moves can be quite jarring at times- as they no doubt were in some cases for people in his own day.

This text is the bulk of a letter ‘Abd al-Ghanī sent, in April of 1678, to one Mulla Aḥmad of Hayrabolu, in what is now the European portion of Turkey (it was evidently conveyed by friends of ‘Abd al-Ghanī, as the note at the end indicates). In it our author discusses ‘true’ and ‘metaphorical’ acts and states, in so doing reversing the ways in which we tend to speak now (though reflecting language C.S. Lewis used in some of his works): the really real seclusion (khalwat, a type of ascetic withdraw for spiritual purposes) takes place within the self and in relation to God and through Him the rest of the world; that of the body and in relation to physical society is merely ‘metaphorical,’ obtaining reality through its contact with the true practice of seclusion. And so on- ‘Abd al-Ghanī explains it pretty well, I think, though this English translation does not convey the word-play and subtlety of the Arabic original- always a problem in translation, especially in religious-philosophical language such as this. But so it goes- ‘Abd al-Ghanī would no doubt argue from such a state to the ultimately metaphorical nature of language, realized only through connection with the truly Real.


And I have heard regarding you, O brother, that you are firmly fixed in your religion, desiring conformity with the command and the prohibition, and I love you for that. And I love for you what I love for my own self: that you enter into the path of inner piety (ṭarīqat al-taqwā al-bāṭiniyya), so that the interior and exterior be made perfect for you. What I mean by ‘inner piety’ is your crossing from the outward ordinances to the knowable realities, so that you witness through the eye of spiritual perception that every motion out of the motions of canonical prayer and other than those from among the acts of worship possess a lordly sign (ishāra)  and merciful secrets. And every ordinance from the ordinances of the sharī’a has an application in the exterior and an application in the interior. The sharī’aic ordinance (ḥukm) is a body, while the divine wisdom (ḥikma) is the spirit of that body. Do not be content with the bodies apart from the spirits, and do not be distracted from the bodies by the spirits: rather, bring together the exterior and the interior.

And let my friend—God, exalted is He, give him peace—know that there is no recourse for that besides entering into sharī’aic seclusion (khalwat) and doing sharī’aic spiritual exercises. And I mean by ‘seclusion’ only your solitude in witnessing the true Doer apart from the metaphorical doer, then the witnessing of the true One Described, apart from the metaphorical one, then the witnessing of the true Existence, apart from the metaphorical existence. And persist in this witnessing so that the senses and the intellect are fully immersed. This is true spiritual seclusion. As for the metaphorical seclusion, it is that you enclose your body in a ḥalāl house and ḥalāl sustenance, and cut off your sight interiorly and exteriorly from all that is outside that house by negation or affirmation, until you find the true seclusion, then come out of the metaphorical seclusion.

Among that which brings you to this is your concern for and your paying attention to the books of the knowledge of Sufism, such as the books of Ibn ‘Arabī, Ibn Sab’īn, al-‘Afīf al-Tilimsānī, and the like of them—God hallow their spirits—after washing the spiritual sight of the dirt of rejection of any of them, so that the door of their luminescent secret is opened for the heart, and the reality of their stationing upon the stations of the Muhammadan sharī’a is unveiled for the heart. And it knows that they are knowledge of it in the most perfect sense, acting according to it without innovation (bid’a) in the exterior or interior. And someone is not veiled from them through unknowledgeable rejection of their path, unreflexively being against them due to uncritical imitation [of anti-Sufi views], or from being fearful in regards to others due to his not understanding their doctrine, hiding in his [public] disavowal with faith in their doctrine without thinking evil of them—that is more beneficial for him, if such a person is not an enemy of that which he does not know. Junayd, God be pleased with him, said: ‘Faith (al-īmān) in the doctrine of this group is wilāya.’ Meaning, with neither understanding nor critical objection. For every entity among the learned has technical vocabulary which they use but others do not know, so accusing them of error without awareness of their technical vocabulary is itself a mistake. And there is a people who understand the doctrine of Sufism in accordance with the Book and Sunna, even if the exterior of the.doctrine appears to be in opposition. Its people always exist—to God belongs praise in every place and time! The one who licitly seeks them, finds them. ‘Licit seeking’ is sincere devotion, trust in God, thinking evil of the lower self, and the non-existence of thinking evil of others, whoever it may be, and submission to God in every place of His judgement and His decree, good and ill. As for the practitioner of innovationist seeking, he is not benefited by anyone he meets, even a prophet from among the prophets, upon them be peace.

And I mean by ‘exercise’ (riyāḍa) whenever I mention it, the directing of the soul towards the attaining of the realities and their habituation in every state, little by little. And that is by attachment to the clear Truth (al-ḥaqq), then by being characterized by it, then by ultimate realization—that is real spiritual exercise. As for metaphorical bodily exercise by the limiting of the eating of food and the drinking of water, as he—peace be upon him—said: ‘The sufficiency of the son of Adam are morsels which suffice his loins,’ so it is an excercise seeking other than itself, not for its own sake. It is constituted in the whole and is an aid for the fulfillment of the spiritual exercise, and is what does not go to excess and so lead to corrupt imaginings, so becoming a harmful interdicted thing—for this reason the jurists discuss it in their books.

So I have explicated for you seclusion and its conditions, real and metaphorical, and its like, exercise, but we hastened the matter due to the closeness of the travel of the brothers to you. God guide us and you on a straight path, and upright religion, in every moment, to the hour of death.

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, Risāla 6, in Wasā’il al-taḥqīq wa rasā’il al-tawfīq, edited by Samer Akkach, in Letters of Sufi Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 116-119. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2014, no rights reserved.

Advice for the Journey

In the vast field of medieval Arabic and Persian literature, it is not hard to find authors whose works seem all but impenetrable, cloaked in difficult syntax, obscure vocabulary, and constant, often infuriating motion from one perspective to another, full of occluded subjects, ambiguous referents, and unattributed references. ‘Azīz Nasafī, who seems to have lived at some point in the 13th century in what is now Uzbekistan, was not such a writer. Rather, his treatises, which defy easy categorization, are concise yet clear, carefully constructed with a pedagogical eye towards learners of varying skill levels; he is often humorous, drawing upon ‘real-world’ analogies in illustrating theological points. Some sources refer to him as a ‘Sufi,’ though this is a problematic characterization, as should be clear from the excerpt from one of his short treatises which I’ve translated and presented below, the Zubdat al-haqā’iq. He incorporates elements from the discursive tradition of Sufism, and had some sort of relationship or affiliation with a shaykh of the Kubrayi tariqa- but that is about the limit of it. He does not present himself as a Sufi shaykh, and his incorporation of Sufi material is selective. Likewise, he was clearly conversant with multiple streams of philosophy; his own particular philosophical perspective was a sort of monism, similar, but not dependent upon that of the rather more famous ibn ‘Arabi. But it would probably be inaccurate to simply call him a philosopher and be done with it.

And so on we might go with all of the conventional designations for thinkers and religious folk of this period- categories become rather difficult, if not impossible, to apply. He himself, in several of his treatises, deflects categorization: he instead tells his readers that his purpose is to present the teachings of multiple ‘schools’ of thought and practice, trying hard not to bias the reader in one direction or another. And, perhaps surprisingly given much of what we think we know about the Islamic middle ages, he is generally quite successful in his ecumenical endeavor. In the end, though, he does make sure that the most important things are clarified, the things that the spiritual seeker, he believes, cannot dispense with.

Regardless of how we classify him, ‘Azīz Nasafī was clearly a prolific enough author, with a deeply humane vision of religious and ethical practice, a vision he wished to impart to a wide audience. And he did reach a wide audience- his texts circulated far and wide, from South Asia to Southeastern Europe, both in their original Persian and translated into other vernaculars. Despite his relative obscurity in life, his texts and the mystical-ethical vision they contained have found considerable reception. I hope this short text, taken from the final section of the final chapter of the Zubdat, imparts a glimpse of that vision, as our author describes the sort of conduct the spiritual seeker ought to engage in, and what she ought to avoid, and how to truly become ‘an inhabitant of heaven.’

Finally, for more information on this figure, see the quite good Encyclopedia Iranica article on him: Nasafi, ‘Aziz.

O dervish! If you yourself are not able to arrive at the limit of spiritual stations, or spend the entire day in gazing upon the divine attributes and the spiritual stations, or persist in contemplating what no eye has seen nor ear heard nor thought entered the human heart, or always dwell in the highest heaven and in closeness to the Divine Presence in the station of absolute proximity, in the witnessing and the encountering of the Beauty of the Divine Presence, the Possessor of Magnificence—well, at least strive that you be saved from hell and become an inhabitant of heaven!

O dervish! Everything that falls into the salt mine becomes salt, and everything that falls into a filthy place becomes filthy—dirt from dirt, purity from purity! First of all you make yourself pure so that everything that comes from you is pure.

O dervish! Don’t obsess about praying a great deal, nor about fasting a lot. Don’t obsess about making the ḥajj a lot—just do what is obligatory. Don’t obsess about expanding your vocabulary, don’t obsess about reading lots of stories, don’t obsess about increasing in philosophical knowledge—just be content with the necessary amount. Rather, you should be concerned with being honest and good-hearted, for the torment of the folk of hell is mostly from dishonesty and bad-heartedness, while the comfort of the inhabitant of heaven is from honesty and good-heartedness. It is necessary that your inner self become honest and good-hearted so that you be delivered. For if you bind yourself with affectedness, you are in hell. It is necessary that you become such that, all day, goodness and comfort [towards others] spontaneously pour out of you. Do not be like those who all day, evil and pain [towards others] pour out of them. Their inner selves have become the doing of dishonesty and evil. Your inner self must be honesty and the doing of goodness.

O dervish! You will be ornamented with the characteristics of God when you entirely act with goodness, neither desiring compensation for yourself nor imposing obligation; rather, you take the obligation upon yourself. For bad-heartedness is when all day you cause pain to people and desire pain in people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of evil, it is necessary that you be far from it!

Good-heartedness is when all day you desire comfort for people and all the time cause comfort for people, whether by word, deed, or property. When you know the meaning of good-heartedness and bad-heartedness then know that everyone who is honest and good-hearted is delivered from hell and becomes an inhabitant of heaven. Then, if you seek either remaining [in this state] or a higher degree—it is well and good, in view of the fact that for the inhabitant of heaven everything that she achieves in this world or the other, her heaven becomes more expansive, while for inhabitant of hell everything she achieves in this world or the other, her hell becomes tighter.

O dervish! From the beginning to the end of spiritual journeying, this little treatise suffices for the spiritual wayfarers.

 ‘Azīz Nasafī, Zubdat al-haqā’iq.


Theories of Time and Space

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion- dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stiches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on the mangrove swamp- buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry- tome of memory,
its random blank pages. On the dock

where you will board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

the photograph- who you were-
will be waiting when you return.

Natasha Trethewey, ‘Theories of Time and Space,’ in Native Guard: Poems, 2006.

Different Diseases, Different Cures

Medieval Sufis were extremely diverse in terms of doctrine, practice, style, social status, and manner of life. As a result, establishing a common thread or unifying theme can be difficult. The  author of the work excerpted below, ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī (d. 525/1133), is no exception. Educated in all of the ‘classical’ courses of study of his time, from law to tafsīr to literature, Hamadānī came to embrace a rather idiosyncratic form of Sufism, resulting in accusations of Ismai’ali ‘heresy’ from his political enemies. Perhaps in part due to such accusations, coupled with political and social conflict Hamadānī found himself embroiled in, our author was executed in 1133 at a relatively young age (some sources give his age as thirty-three, others a somewhat older age). Before his execution—which had echoes of the execution of the famous martyr of Baghdad, al-Ḥallaj—Hamadānī wrote numerous treatises, poems, and letters. While some have not come down to us (for instance, he was said to have partially completed a Qur’an tafsīr, which has not survived), a considerable portion of his corpus has been passed down, including a trove of letters, a lengthy philosophical-theological treatise in Arabic, and his Persian handbook of Sufism, the Tamhīdāt, which I have excerpted from and translated here.

Hamadānī deals with two important themes in medieval Sufism: the question of personal epistemology, as it were, and the importance of the spiritual shaykh. His answers to these questions, while drawing upon an already well-established tradition within Sufism, also display his own interpretations and ideas. Certainly Hamadānī is eager to root his arguments in both Qur’an and hadith, while giving both a decidedly different interpretation than would be likely be found among more ‘exoteric’ interpreters. Indeed, the arguments put forward here—for the epistemological veracity of the illumined, properly disposed heart, and the absolute vitality and power of the spiritual master—found resistance and even violent condemnation among some of the non-Sufi ‘ulama of Hamadānī’s era, and afterwards; nor did all Sufis accept positions such as these, either. That is to say nothing of some of Hamadānī’s quite radical and even transgressive positions enumerated elsewhere in this treatise; he is quite comfortable with neo-Platonic philosophy and its theological implications, for instance. However, this work does not seem to have been primarily intended as an apologetic; it seems to have been aimed at initiates or potential initiates into the mystical path of Islam. It is ostensibly addressed to one ‘Aziz, an enquirer into Sufism; implicitly, it is directed to all who are sympathetically interested in the esoteric dimensions of religion. It is written in Persian, not Arabic, thus representing a relatively early vernacular work of Sufism; the language is clear and eloquent, without being overly obscure or excessively Arabicizing. That said, this text is still aimed at possessors of at least a middling education, people capable of reading and more or less understanding the Arabic of the Qur’an and hadith (italicized in my translation).

For more on Hamadānī, his life and works, see Hermann Landolt, ‘‘Ayn al-Qudat Al-Hamadani,’ in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Third Edition), 2009, Brill Online, ed. Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas and Everett Rowson. (E.J. Brill), available (for free!) here; and Carl W. Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism. SUNY Press, 1985.

Do you understand, O ‘Aziz? The scent from this hadith—The believer is the mirror of the believer—adheres to this subject. For everything that one does not know but wishes to know, there are to ways available [to come to know it]. The first is that by one’s own heart (dil) one ascend, through contemplation and deliberation, until he attains to the right knowledge of the matter. Muhammad—upon him peace—said about this: Consult your heart for legal opinions (istafti qalbaka), verily, your seeking of legal opinion are the muftis. He said: all that is brought before it, the place and mufti of that ought to be sincerity of heart. If the heart gives a fatwa, it is the command of God—do it; if it does not give a fatwa—leave it off.  It is manifest that Verily, the angel has a portion, and the satan has a portion. Whatever the heart gives as a fatwa is divine, and whatever it rebuts is satanic, and the occurrence of these two portions (dū lamma) is in all bodies, among both believers and unbelievers. Our deeds become difficult in that regard when our mufti is the commanding lower self (nafs-i amare) that is the soul commanding evil (Q. 12.53). Everyone whose mufti is the heart is God-fearing and happy, while everyone whose mufti is the lower self (nafs) is a loser and unhappy. If someone does not have the aptitude or predisposition to know [religious knowledge] by means of his own heart, he must seek the heart of someone else and ask of someone with this aptitude—So ask of the people of remembrance if you do not know (Q. 16.43), so that someone else’s heart becomes your mirror.

O friend, hearts are divided into two divisions: the first is that which stands facing what the Pen of God has written upon it: God wrote in their hearts faith (Q. 58.22), and the right hand of God is the scribe. Then whatever he does not know by means of the elevation of his own heart he will come to know. The second division, however, neither attains nor has aptitude to stand facing the Pen of God. When such a one seeks out and comes to know from one whose heart is a mirror and tablet for the Pen of God, he knows from this that it is God who is seen in the mirror of the  soul of the spiritual master (pīr). The spiritual master sees himself in the mirror of the soul of the disciple (murīd), while the disciple sees God in the mirror of the spiritual master’s soul.

And it is like all that we said: all who are sick arise and go to a physician each one seeking a cure. The physician gives them different prescriptions in view of the assuaging of different diseases. If someone says, ‘These different prescriptions are due to the ignorance of the physician,’ he has spoken in error, and this speaker is ignorant of the fact that the difference of prescriptions occurs due to the difference of diseases. For diseases are of various sorts, and prescribing for all diseases with one disease in mind would be ignorance and error. Those who understand what has been said understand the matter. For the formal cause of religion and of the Islam of form is of one sort. Islam is built upon five. The essential prescriptions [of Islam] are fixed, which are the five prescriptions that are the healing and curing of all believers. As for internal works and the illumination of the heart, they are unbound and innumerable. Without doubt, every spiritual master must act as an adroit physician who treats the disciple, and for every different disease command a different medicine. For all those who have abandoned cure and physician it is better that they go under the disease, for If God knew of any good in them, He would have made them hear (Q. 8.23). So it is necessary to travel the Path with an adroit physician; in accordance with the consensus of the shaykhs—God have mercy on their souls—it is a legal obligation. Because of his they say: Whoever has no shaykh has no religion. The shaykh also has obligations, to accept successorship (khilāfat) and to teach disciples the obligations of the Path. If you desire from God the best of perfection, listen to His words: It is He Who made you khalifs on the earth and raised some of you over some of you in ranks. And in proof of internal successorship (khilāfat-i bāṭin) in another place He says: He will make them succeed them as He made those before them to succeed (Q. 24.55).

ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī ʿAyn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī

Mu’tazila Exegesis: ‘Abd al-Jabbar’s Tanzih al-Qur’an

I have featured on this blog a number examples of several different modes of scriptural exegesis in the medieval world (and a couple relating to the ‘early-modern’ era). The following represents yet another ‘mode’ of exegesis, here hailing from the Islamic theological tradition known as Mu’tazilism specifically, from the philosophical-theological tradition of kalam more generally. To make a quite long story short, kalam– literally, ‘speech,’ or perhaps more aptly, ‘talking’- is ‘dialectical theology,’ developed in the Arabic milieu of late formative Islam, but adopted by Christian and Jewish theologians as well. It seems to have initially developed as a way of dealing with theological and politico-theological issues in the early Muslim communities, eventually solidifying into distinct ‘schools’ of theological thought and practice, all more or less committed to a clarification of and defense of Muslim orthodoxy (the definition of which of course varied depending on who you asked) through the use of rational, discursive inquiry and methods. The Mu’tazila represented (or rather, represent, as there are some representatives of the tradition still about) what is sometimes incorrectly regarded as a more ‘liberal’ view of orthodox theology, a view that seems to have arisen among contemporary Western commentators due to the Mu’tazila insistence upon free will, on the one hand, and the createdness of the Qur’an, on the other. While both positions were indeed held by the Mu’tazila, it was not out of some commitment to ‘liberalism,’ a meaningless term in this case. Rather, the Mu’tazila saw themselves as upholders of both proper orthodoxy and of a deeply rational system of thought and doctrine; many of their doctrines, such as the status of the grave sinner, would no doubt strike many contemporary Western observers as ‘harsh.’

But all of that is beside the point of this post, which is rather to highlight the rational-theological commitments and techniques of the Mu’tazila in particular, and of the mutikallimun (dialectical theologians) in general. These commitments are very much on display in the exegesis generated by the dialectical theologians; the theologian I have selected for translation here, ʻAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Asadābādi (935-1025), was one of the most productive and astute theologians the Mu’tazila produced. Coming towards the end of the so-called ‘classical period’ of Mu’tazila thought, ʻAbd al-Jabbār both recapitulated previous doctrinal and philosophical developments and formulations in addition to his own creative additions to the tradition. Among his contributions were exegetical works that reflect the concerns and methods of both the tafsir tradition and that of kalam in general. The following excerpt comes his work the Tanzīh Al-Qurʼān ʻan Al-Maṭāʻin, in which ʻAbd al-Jabbār selects particular passages from the Qur’an due to problematic, theologically productive, or ambiguous nature in terms of grammar, arrangement, or vocabulary. For instance, in the following excerpt, dealing with verses from Surah Ta-Ha, ʻAbd al-Jabbār examines a verse that might seem at first to support an anthropomorphist reading of the Qur’an; he presents an interpretation in accordance with Mu’tazila theology. The other passages have to do with difficulties and ambiguities of other sorts; all are solved by ʻAbd al-Jabbār using rational, discursive methods, reflective of the methodological commitments of the Mu’tazila in general.

Finally, for a more in-depth analysis of mutikallimun tafsir, including that of ʻAbd al-Jabbār, the following paper of mine and the bibliographical references contained therein might prove useful: Kalām at the Interstices of Tafsīr: Theology, Contestation, and Exegesis in the Qur’an Commentaries of al-Maturidī and ‘Abd al-Jabbār.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, A revelation from Him Who created the earth and exalted heavens (Q. 20.4)—what is the purpose of His saying after this, The Merciful rises (istiwā) over the throne (Q. 20.5)?

We answer: God magnified the prestige of the Qur’an in that it is a revelation from Him Who created the earth and heavens, then He followed this with His being more magnified than that, saying: The Merciful rises over the throne. The intended meaning is possession and power over it because the throne is among the most magnificent things He created. He makes it clear that He is powerful over it with His magnificence and over the heavens and over the earth, and He rules what is the heavens, the earth, what is between them, and what is under the surface of the earth. So people know the magnificence of the place of the Qur’an through His description of it, and hold fast to its rules of behavior and judgments, for that was sent is from God regarding the overseeing office of the Qur’an.

And we have made clear beforehand the nullity of the doctrine of the anthropomorphists regarding God’s rising over the throne.[1] We said that from accepting that [doctrine] as sound, God is made to be a sensory object, possessing shape. And from this condition it follows that He is temporally originated and dependent upon being in a shape. So, rather, the intended meaning [of istiwā] is possession and power, as we have mentioned.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, If you speak publicly—then behold, He [also] knows the secret and what is more hidden (Q. 20.7): What is the meaning of His saying the more hidden, as there is nothing more hidden that the secret?

We answer: What alights upon the heart and arises in a one’s soul is even more hidden than the secret, so He points out the glory of His rank and knowledge of that, then says: God—no god but He; His are the beautiful names. So He points out by that what is incumbent upon one who remembers His names which inform about the magnificence of His rank, in accordance with His preceding words: A revelation from Him Who created the earth. And there is no avail in remembering the names of God except that one have in mind what they inform about Him—in regards to what His magnificence and glory require.

Question: Perhaps it is said, what is the meaning of His words, Verily, I am your Lord, so take off your sandals (Q.20.12): if it was permissible that he continue wearing the rest of his clothes, why was he forbidden from wearing his sandals while in the Holy Valley?

We answer: Sandals are not worn within the same parameters as other types of clothing. For one does not wear them inside his house, as he wears them [outside] in order to repel injury in places filthy refuse and other things accumulate. It is because of this purpose that in customary usage, when one wishes to honor a place, he takes off his sandals. God wanted to make clear to Moses the magnificence of the site of the Holy Valley, and He desired that the grace (baraka) of that valley adhere to Moses, so Moses touched the valley with his bare feet. God wished for Moses to know the magnificence of his location through that deed. It has also been related about his sandals that they were made from the skin of a donkey not killed in accordance with ritual purity. If that was the case, then it has precedent [as an explanation] in regards to the taking off [of the sandals]; if not, then what we previously discussed is a sound point of view.

Question: Perhaps it is said about His saying, No god except Me—so serve Me and attend rightly to ritual prayer for My remembrance (Q.20.14). What is the meaning of His words for My remembrance, as ritual prayer is not properly carried out unless it is for His remembrance?

We answer: His words for My remembrance are directly related to the ritual prayer and to service to God together. It is as if He had said: Serve Me for My remembrance and attend rightly to the ritual prayer for My remembrance. Neither are sound unless one remembers God and confesses His oneness, because the one heedless of that is not prepared for what he is doing. It is in view of this that one struggles (yajtihad) to be on guard against distracted inattentiveness. So one who remembers God is on the straight path in his performance of his service towards God. God specifies [here] ritual prayer with remembrance, but it applies to all acts of worship, being emphatically important for them.

ʻAbd al-Jabbār ibn Aḥmad al-Asadābādī. Tanzīh Al-Qurʼān ʻan Al-Maṭāʻin. Al-Ṭabʻah 1. Dirāsāt Ḥawla al-Qurʼān 2. (al-Jīzah: Maktabat al-Nāfidhah, 2006), 278-9.

[1] ‘Anthropomorphists’ interpreted the term istiwā in its most literal fashion, as reference to God corporeally rising above the material throne. At least, such a literalist, rather crude position is attributed to certain opponents by ‘Abd al-Jabbar; whether it was actually held in such a literal fashion by anyone, or more than a few, is another question.

Vice and Virtue

The following translation is another excerpt from the philosophical-mystical Qur’an commentary of ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kashanī (d. 730/1329), previously discussed here. In this excerpt, which is ostensibly related to a large chunk of verses from Sura al-Nur (Q. 24), most of which have to do with ‘legal’ matters. Our commentator, however, takes these verses as an opportunity to expound upon the nature of vice and virtue and proper moral behavior and nature. In the Western Latin exegetical tradition, similar material might fall under the label of ‘tropological’ exegesis. In the tropological mode, a commetator seeks to locate the moral meaning or message behind a particular passage, usually for the purpose of presenting a lesson or example for good behavior. In this case, al-Kashanī is interested, first of all, in expounding on the ‘ontology’ of good and evil acts, reflective of his general philosophical-mystical purpose. Secondarily, his ontological exposition serves to draw out a moral message and a warning against the cultivation of vice.

Readers familiar with Western Latin moral philosophy and theology from the same period in which al-Kashanī is writing will probably recognize some common themes and concepts. This is, of course, not accidental: al-Kashanī is drawing upon many shared elements, particularly those often labeled ‘neo-Platonic.’ Of course, the paths taken by al-Kashanī on the one hand and Western philosophers and theologians on the other were quite different in many ways, and the systems and final forms which they created and used varied considerably. In al-Kashanī’s case, his philosophical commitments are filtered through and transformed by his engagement with the mystical theology of Ibn ‘Arabi. In this passage, however, the Great Master’s influence is not especially evident; philosophical language and concepts, creatively interpenetrated with the Qur’anic text and concepts, are front and center.

[From] Those who come with a lie to His words, Theirs is forgiveness and noble sustenance: verily, the magnitude of the matter of falsehood, and the harshness of the threat (al-wa’īd) attached to it—in that no other matter of disobedience is so harshly dealt with, and the seriousness of the punishment for it, in that neither adultery nor murder are treated so seriously: this is because of the magnitude of the vileness, and the weight of the disobedience. It is in relation to the potency (al-quwa)[1] that is its origin (maṣdaruhā). And the condition of the vices, in veiling their practitioner, diverts away from the divine presence and the holy lights, and is involvement in physical destruction, a darkened gulf in view of the disharmony with its locus of manifestation. For the more that the potency that is [a vice’s] origin and its initiatory source is exalted, the vice that derives from it is all the worse through opposition. For vice is what stands opposite virtue, and when the virtue is especially exalted, what stands opposite it as vice is especially base. Lying is the vice of the potency of speech, which is the most exalted of human potencies. Adultery is the vice of the desiring potency, murder is the vice of the irascible potency. On account of the exaltation of the first [the potency of speech] over the other two [lying] increases the baseness of its vileness.

And that is because man is man on account of the first [potency of speech], as it raises him to the higher world, and it turns him to the divine side, and is his attainment for mystical knowledge and miraculous wonders, and is his acquisition for good deeds and happiness. He is by it, so if is corrupted by the overcoming of satanic influence upon it, and is veiled from the Light by the overwhelming of darkness, it becomes a great unhappiness, and incurs the punishment of the Fire. For it is the stainer and the total veil: Nay, rather, it stains their hearts, what they have acquired; they will be on that day veiled from their Lord. (Q. 83.14-15) And for this the eternity of the punishment is necessary, and the persistence of the torment is by the corruption of belief apart from corruption of deeds, as God does not forgive that one associate another with Him, though He forgives all other than that to whomever He wills.

As for the other [potencies], as each of them traces back in its external manifestation to the reigning potency of speech, then perhaps [the vice] is effaced by its [the potency’s] reassertion, and it subjects it to itself through the stilling of its agitation and the calming effect of its sovereignty through the overwhelming of the strength of the light. It exercises sovereignty over [the vice] naturally, like the state of the censuring soul during repentance and contrition. Or, perhaps [the vice] persists through obduracy, and the abandonment of seeking forgiveness. In these two states the vices of the two [potencies] do not overcome the station of the mystical secret, nor the locus of [divine] presence, or intimate conversation with the Lord, nor do they overstep the bounds of the heart, nor bring about the veiling of primal human nature from reality, inverting through variance with these, except that you see the satanic temptation towards humanity, making him further from the divine presence than the predatory and the beastly, and further from his own natural capacity. For man, by the rootedness of the vice of the potency of speech becomes satanic; rootedness in the vices of the other two cause him to become animalistic, like a predator or beast—and every creature is morally sounder and closer to joy than Satan.[2] And for this reason God said: Shall I reveal to you upon whom the satans descend? They descend upon every lying, evil one (Q. 26.222).

And He forbids here from following the footsteps of Satan, for verily the perpetration of the like of these vile deeds is only through following after him and obeying him. And [Satan’s] companion is part of his army and his following, but is even baser and lower than him; he is cut off from the grace of God which is the light of right guidance; veiled from His mercy which is the overflowing of perfect grace and happiness. He is accursed in this world and the next, odious towards God and the angels. His limbs bear witness against him; he changes their forms, their outward manifestation is made unseemly by the wickedness of inner essence and soul, entangled in filth. Verily, the like of this wickedness does not originate save from the wicked, as God said: Wicked women belong to wicked men. As for the good who are free of the vices, their originates from them good and virtue—Theirs is forgiveness, through the veiling of their attributes by the divine lights, and noble sustenance, from the mystical meanings and the mystical knowledge found in their hearts.

[1] This word might also be translated as ‘faculty’ or ‘capacity.’

[2] Translating al-shayṭān as ‘Satan’ is problematic, as the term can mean both the individual, singular Satan familiar to Western religious discourse, as well as ‘satans,’ or evil spirits of the sort usually referred to in English as ‘devils’ or ‘demons’ (the latter word being especially apropos, as one often encounters, especially in Sufi writings, the idea of ‘personal’ satans, malevolent daemons as it were). I have tried to preserve the ambiguity by translating al-shayṭān as ‘Satan’ when the singular individual is referred to; ‘satans’ when the evil spirits are meant. See Andrew Rippin, ‘S̲h̲ayṭān.’ Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012.

Ghazali on Plants, Astrology, and Some Other Stuff

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (450-505 AH/1058-1111 AD) wrote about pretty much everything. He is best known for the work from which the translation below comes from, the Ihya Ulum-al-Din, the Revivification of the Religious Sciences; he is often referred to- not incorrectly in many respects- as the great synthesizer of Sufism and ‘mainstream’ Islam. He is also remembered for his engagement with philosophy, which included both thorough-going critiques and (sometimes unintentional) integration with his theological and mystical concerns. In this passage, drawn from volume four, book two, section four of the Ihya, Ghazali describes the operations of nature as understood through his particular reckoning of Islamic philosophy. He limits his analysis to the nourishing nature of food and where it comes from; this however leads him down several paths, including a short excursion into a critique of astrology. Most of it is pretty self-explanatory; some terms like ‘traces’ are rather technical but I think are still understandable in the context. There are a couple of spots where I was not entirely sure of the meaning- as always, suggestions for a clearer or more accurate translation are always helpful.

Know that there are many sorts of food, and that God has, in creating them, given great wonders beyond reckoning and consecutive causes without end, and the mentioning [of these things] in every food can be stretched out on end- food providing healing, pleasure, and nourishment. But let us take nourishment [as our topic], as it is the root of the rest. And let us take from all we have gathered the grain of wheat, leaving off every other nourishing thing. So we say: When you find a grain or grains, but do not eat it, but rather resolve [to save it] and so remain hungry, then what you need is for the grain to grow in itself, to increase and multiply until it meets the full measure of your need. God created in the grain of wheat potency (al-quwa), which nourishes it, just as He created in you. While He divided you up into sense and motion, unlike in a plant, He did not make you different in nourishment, because a plant is nourished by water and draws it up into its insides by means of roots/veins [the Arabic word means both roots and veins], just as you are nourished and draw up [water].

But we will not remain mentioning the means of the plant attracting nourishment to itself, but instead we will simply point out its [sources of] nourishment. So we say: Just as wood and soil do not nourish you, but rather you need specific food, likewise grain is not nourished by just anything, but rather has need of something specific. For instance: if you leave grain in your house, it will not increase, as there is nothing there for it other than air, and air alone does not suffice to nourish it. And if you leave it in water it will not increase, and if you leave it in land without water it will not increase. On the contrary, whenever earth has water in it, its water mixes with the earth making mud, and this is pointed to in His words: ‘Let man look to his food: We pour out water, then we split the earth, and we plant in it seed: grapes, herbs, olive trees, palms…’ et al. However, water and dirt do not by themselves suffice. If you leave it in damp, hard, packed earth, it will not sprout due to the lack of air. It needs to be left in in ground that is stirred up, worked loose, so that air can penetrate it. But then air cannot move to it by itself, so it needs winds to move the air, and to strike with power and force upon the ground until it penetrates it- and this is pointed out in His words: ‘We send vivifying winds.’ Verily, their vivification is in the occurrence of the coupling of air, water, and earth. But all of that does not profit you if it is excessively cold or in wintertime, but rather the seed needs the heat of spring or summer.

So, inasmuch as its nourishment needs these four conditions, see what it needs of each one: if it needs for water to be led to agricultural land from large rivers, springs, and streams, then see how God created large rivers, gushing of springs, and streams flowing from them. But perhaps the land is elevated and water does not rise to it- then see how God- exalted is He- created clouds and how He directs the winds upon them in order to lead them, by His permitting, over the quarters of the earth (they are the rain-bearing clouds). Then see how He sends rain-bearing clouds over the earth during the spring and fall, according to need, and see how He created mountains conserving water, springs flowing out of them gradually- for if they burst out suddenly, then the lands [below] would be flooded, and the crops and cattle would be destroyed. And it is not possible to enumerate all of the graces of God in mountains, clouds, rivers, and rain.

And as for heat, it does not arise by means of water and earth- rather both are cold, so see how the sun dawns and how He created it distant from the earth, warming the earth at times and not at others, so that cold arises according to need for cold, and heat arises according to need for heat. And this is but one of the wise matters concerning the sun- the wisdom evident in it is more than can be reckoned. Then the plant, when it rises from the earth, the fruit becomes congealed and hardened, so that it requires moist softness in order to ripen. So see how He created the moon and made among its specialties the capacity of making moist and soft, just as He made among the sun’s specialties the capacity of heating. So it [the moon] ripens fruit and transforms it, through the power of the Wise Creator. And because of that, if there were trees giving off shade which blocked the shining of the sun, the moon, and all the stars, then they would rot and decrease, just as small trees rot if large trees overshadow them. And you can know the moist softness of the moon in that if you uncover your head at night, then moisture that passes over from it through clouds will alight on you head. And just as your head is moistened, so fruits are also. But we will not linger, as we do not here desire a deeper investigation.

Rather, we say: every star in the heaven manifests some sort of benefit, just as the sun manifests heat and the moon moistness, and not one of them desists from great wisdom which the power of man is incapable of enumerating. And were it not so, then He created them as jest and emptiness, and His words would not be sound: ‘Our Lord did not create this in vain,’ and His words, ‘We did not create the heavens and the earth and is between them in vain.’ And just as there is not in the limbs of your body any without use, so is there none among the limbs of the earth a limb without use. And the whole world is as a single person, and the units of its bodies are like limbs- the limbs of your body are mutually reinforcing and aiding in the whole of your body, and the explication of that is lengthy. And it not seemly for you to speculate; rather, faith [holds] that the stars and sun and moon are subject to the command of God, glorified is He, in occasions which were made as means of wisdom. The differing with Revelation is under the heading of prohibition against the belief of the astrologers and the ‘knowledge of the stars.’ Rather, the prohibition against faith in the stars is twofold: One: that you believe that they are the doers of the actions, independent in them, and that they are not subservient to the power of a Director which created and controls them- and this is unbelief. Second: the belief of the astrologers in the detailed description of what they report regarding the traces which are not comprehended by the whole of creation, for they say that out of ignorance. And know that the precision of the stars is deficient before but one of the Prophets, upon them be peace. Then that knowledge is obliterated and does not subsist until it is unmixed, the right in it not being distinguished from the wrong. So belief that the stars are a means for traces which occur through the creating of God, exalted is He, in the earth, plants, and animals- [this belief] is not repugnant to religion, but on the contrary is truth. However, the allegation of knowledge by means of these traces regarding unknown particularities is repugnant to religion. And that is as if you had a garment that you washed and wished to dry out, and someone said to you: Take your garment out and spread it out, and the sun will rise and the day and the air will become hot- his deceit is not thrust upon you, and attribution of wrongdoing by the speaker is not incumbent upon you through his assignment of the heating of the day and air. And if you ask someone about the change of his face and he says: The sun beat down on me in the road, and my face was darkened- he is not being deceitful towards you.

And so it is with all the traces, other than that some of the traces are known, and some unknown. As for those which are unknown, it is impossible to allege knowledge in them, while of those which are known, some are known to everyone, like the occurrence of light and heat through the rising of the sun, while others are limited to some people, like the occurrence of dew through the rising of the moon. Therefore, the stars were not created in jest; on the contrary in them is abundant wisdom beyond enumeration. For this reason, the Prophet of God, upon whom be peace and prayer, looked to the heavens and recited His words: ‘Our Lord did not create them in vain-  Glory to You! Deliver us from the torment of the Fire.’ Then Muhammad said, ‘Woe to the one who recites this verse, then wipes his moustache with it’- meaning that one would recite but abandon further contemplation, limiting his understanding of the realms of heaven to knowing the color of the sky and the shining of the stars- things even the beasts know. So the one who is content in knowledge of that is ‘the one who wipes his moustache’ with the verse. But God- exalted is He!- possesses in the realms of the heavens, the stars, people, and animals wonders which those who love God seek to know.

Whoever loves a certain knowledgeable person, he does not cease being occupied in seeking out his writings, in order to increase in the full measure of understanding regarding his wonders out of love for him. It is likewise regarding the craftsmanship of God, exalted is He: verily, the entire world is of His composition; indeed, the composition of writers is from His composition, which He composes by means of the hearts of His servants. Are you amazed over the composition but not amazed at the composer? On the contrary, whoever makes the composer subject to his composition according to what benefits him in guidance, payment, and knowledge, it is as if you thought that it was the playthings of the juggler that were themselves dancing and moving in rhythmic, proportionate movements. But in fact you do not marvel at the playthings- they are clumsy things, without motion- rather, you marvel at the skill of the juggler, moving them through subtle connections hidden from sight. Likewise, the nourishing of plants is not accomplished save through water, air, sun, moon, and stars, nor is that accomplished save through the celestial spheres in which they are embedded. Nor are the celestial spheres complete save through their motion, and their motion is not complete save through the celestial angelic beings which set them in motion. And so the mention of the distant causes could be extended, but we will leave off their mention, letting what we have mentioned clarify whatever we have neglected- so let us confine mention of causes to the nourishing of plants.