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Islamic Exegesis and Theology

Session VI-18, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
  • Zayn al-Din Khwafi (d. 1435), a prominent mystic of the fifteenth century, is the author of numerous treatises on Sufism. Many of his works found wide reception in his lifetime and some even continued to be copied until the nineteenth century. One work—namely, Manhaj al-Rashad—stands out among the rest not only in its very limited circulation but also in that it attracted the most scholarly attention. Recent studies on the religious history of the Timurid and the Ottoman worlds have highlighted the importance of Manhaj al-Rashad for the intellectual controversies of the mid-fifteenth century, drawing attention to how Khwafi’s perspective on Ibn Arabi was indicative of the polarized milieu of the mystics of the time. Building on this scholarship, I present in this paper a detailed study of the Manhaj with the goal of situating it in a meaningful context of mystical writing that emerged with the eleventh century authors including Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the author of Al-Munqid min al-Dalal. In agreement with these recent studies, I argue that the rightful historical context for the compilation of this work is the chaotic political climate of Shahrukh’s (d. 1447) reign in Herat. However, a deeper understanding is possible only when the work is read against the backdrop of a tradition of Sufi apologetics, which Khwafi unambiguously refers to. This comparative analysis of Manhaj al-Rashad reveals its author as an inheritor of the kind of Sufi intellectual al-Ghazali had been for his time and milieu. What emerges from this examination is the figure of a tariqa-founding Khwafi as the commanding Sufi of the Timurid capital, championing the historic tradition of shari’a-minded Sufism. I argue that one remarkable difference between the two apologies—namely al-Munqid and the Manhaj—was Khwafi’s strong defense of Shahrukh, obedience to whom he understood as the religious duty of all.
  • Today the terms “Sunni” and “Ahl al-Sunna” are applied to the majority of Muslims living in the world, chiefly in opposition to the Shiʿis and some other Muslim groups. As such, most introductions to and histories of Islam implicitly equate “Muslim” with “Sunni,” unless otherwise specified. The contemporary usage of the term is sometimes a-historically projected into the past, such that starting from the fist Islamic century onward, everyone who was not a Shiʿi, a Khariji, a Murji’i, a Muʿtazili, etc., is often called by scholars “Sunni.” The historical record shows, however, that such a usage of the term is uncritical and inaccurate. Not only did “Sunni,” “Ahl al-Sunna,” or “Ahl al-Sunna wa l-Jama’a” not mean the same thing in the early centuries of Islam as they did later, but their meaning was at times so fluid that – as late as in the 3rd/9th century – authors of diametrically opposed orientations each claimed these terms to represent his community. This included a hadith scholar, a Muʿtazili, and an Ismaili, no less. It is only a century or so later that the terms “Sunni” and “Ahl al-Sunna” assumed the meaning that is known to this day. Namely, they came to denote the majority of Muslims who adhered to one of the four legal schools of law, espoused certain theological tenets, and who now are often presumed to represent what may be termed as “Muslim orthodoxy” (the problematic nature of the latter term is well-known). This was not a spontaneous development, but the result of inter-sectarian polemics and a struggle for power and prestige in the Abbasid caliphate. Through the analysis of historical, heresiological and other texts, my paper will examine the history of the term Sunni (or “Ahl al-Sunna”) and the religio-political conditions that led to the crystallization of its usage.
  • The Aristotelian philosophy of science had a major impact on conception of sciences, not only philosophical but religious sciences in Islamic history. This can be attested to by the way sciences were presented in the introduction of the textbooks during the postclassical period. According to the Aristotelian theory which was reworked by Farabi and Ibn Sina, each science consists of three elements (ajzāʾ): subject matter, principles, and inquiries. Typically, in the introductory sections of the handbooks in a given discipline, the subject matter would be pointed out. Other preliminary issues would be also discussed in line with a long established practice of commenting on books, a practice that long preceded the rise of Islam, and was adapted by Muslim scholars in their own works. According to that tradition, a work would begin with a prolegomenon that dealt with several topics, a.k.a. eight headings (ruʾūs al-thamāniya). The Islamic philosophical and scholarly tradition appropriated both of these two features of peripatetic philosophy i.e. (1) their theory of science as consisting of three elements, and (2) their tradition of writing a proper prolegomenon that is introducing a work by discussing several topics which were also later dubbed ten beginnings. These two issues could, and in fact did frequently, intersect in the commentaries and glosses on the prolegomena of handbooks in later Islamic intellectual history. Here, we will particularly focus on the case of a handbook in Islamic legal theory which stimulated such discussions that reflect intersection of the elements of sciences theory with the practice of writing a proper prolegomenon. The handbook is the Mukhtasar al-Muntahā of Ibn Hajib. This work was subject to dozens of commentaries and glosses. In this paper, I will look at those written during the long fourteenth century, including those by Qadi Baydawi, Ḍiyāʾ al-Dīn al-Tusī (d. 706/1306-7), Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (d. 710/1311), Jamāl al-Dīn al-Ḥillī (d. 726/1325), ʿAḍud al-Dīn al-Ījī’s (d. 756/1355), Saʿd al-Dīn al-Taftāzānī (d. 792/1390) and al-Sayyid al-Sharīf al-Jurjānī (d. 816/1413). Their discussion of two preliminary sentences indicates a tension between the notion of mabādiʾ as proper beginning or principles. The paper will show how Ibn Hajib’s vague usage of that notion stimulates a lively discussion among commentators some of whom appeal to the philosophical theory of science to resolve the issue while others invoke the tradition of proper prolegomenon to a book.
  • The genre of scholarly ethics, or ādāb, exploded in popularity in the eleventh century as the Islamic intellectual elite, or ulema, underwent rigorous training at institutions of learning across Persia and Central Asia. Transforming themselves from a loosely-affiliated group of litterateurs into a cadre of highly-trained urban professionals at these institutions, ulema used ādāb as an arena to debate the intellectual and dispositional attributes they believed set themselves apart from less scholarly Muslims. They reliably listed physical endurance, emotional resilience, and a precise power of recall as paramount among such scholarly attributes. Nonetheless, disagreements arose over whether these capacities were naturally endowed at birth or acquired through education. In this paper, I will investigate the Persian philologist, exegete, and ethicist Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī’s (d. 1108) discussion of this debate in his noted treatise of ādāb, "The Expedient Path toward the Noble Qualities of the Revealed Law". In this treatise al-Iṣfahānī offers a lexicon of ethical terms to help junior scholars distinguish traits within themselves that may be improved through education from natural endowments so deeply entrenched in their physical constitutions as to be fundamentally inalterable. The terms that he defines for this purpose include nature (ṭabī‘ah), disposition (gharīzah), demeanor (‘ādah), and characteristic (khalq). Parsing this lexicon will grant insight into how the ulema conceived of and expounded the physical bases of scholarly excellence in the era of their professional formation. Moreover, it will document the natural philosophical inflections al-Iṣfahānī gives these terms, noting where such inflections betray his sympathy for Māturīdī theological teachings about divine agency and human potential prevalent in Persia and Central Asia during his lifetime. Indeed, while al-Iṣfahānī’s influence over later medieval Islamic ethics is well understood, little information has been recovered about the substance of his theological positions. This paper will therefore explore how al-Iṣfahānī distilled the ethical thought of his day into an intuitive lexicon of scholarly attributes as well as present new evidence of his constructive engagement with the Māturīdī theological school in this seminal work of ādāb.