Thursday, April 27, 2017

Decolonising Islamic history through Shiʿi Texts

For over two decades now, Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi has produced a number of short studies that have challenged us with a radically different picture of Twelver Shiʿi Islam as an oppositional, alternative spiritual movement rooted in an esoteric vision of reality and comprehension of the scripture in which the everlasting countenance of God, the Imam, is present. Religion therefore is about the relationship that believers have with the Imam, and the ethical imperatives of what they do to him and to one other (who are the ahl al-walāya, the people cleaving to the sanctified nature of this ultimate Friend of God). However, this does not mean that like Corbin, he places history to one side all the while criticizing the historicism of much intellectual history; rather, his analyses of the texts are designed to rethink how we conceive of the history that is often immanent in those recensions. In so doing, he has forced us to reconsider how we analyse the contestations of Islam, identity and revelation in the classical period. His latest book is the second collection of his articles, originally published in French in 2011, and in this case rendered into English by the renowned poet – and emeritus professor of McGill University, Eric Ormsby. 

Unlike the first collection, which was more thematic constituting a series of studies in the Twelver doctrine of the Imam (imamology), this one introduces us to his readings of five classical Shiʿi texts that exemplify the nature of this esoteric tradition. While one or two of these may well be the great works of the early period, I have reservations about the others which begs the question of some analysis of the selection.  Crucially, as before, the author is making an argument about the very method by which we ought to study the history of Islam between the history of the early conflicts – what earlier was partly ascribed to the ‘sectarian milieu’ – and the redaction and canonization of Muslim scriptures, both the Qurʾan and the hadith. To put it more bluntly, the emergent ‘orthodox’ picture of early Islam that became the Sunni tradition is rather partial and too ‘neat’ a description of how the revelation was received, not least with its myth of the ʿUthmānic recension of the Qurʾan and its position on the probity and respectability of the companions of the prophet, both of which are key positions, that Amir-Moezzi argues, ought to be rejected if we take the early Shiʿi texts seriously since they categorically affirm the falsification of the revelation by the ‘orthodox’ caliphs and point out the shortcomings of such a romantic vision of a concordant early generation. The theme thus of this volume is how were the scriptures of the Qurʾan and hadith received, glossed, commented upon by the early Shiʿi scholarly community and what sort of hermeneutics did they need to apply to make sense of the violence and mess of the early history of Islam. 

The first text is Kitāb Sulaym ibn Qays (also known as Kitāb al-Saqīfa), arguably at its core the earliest work of Shiʿi literature – and indeed of any Muslim literature – extant, and the subject of recent studies by Robert Gleave, Tamima Bayhom-Daou, and the late Patricia Crone (as well as Maria Dakake before). This work demonstrates for the author the violence of what became the normative Muslim (read: Sunni, caliphal) history and the early articulation of a Shiʿi counter-history of the usurpation, injustice and evil of history. Amir-Moezzi emphasizes the popularity of this counter-narrative, briefly examines the debate on the reliability of its ascription to such a person (and whether Sulaym even existed), translates some key passages and provides the full table of contents of the 98 traditions given in the text produced in a critical edition in the late 1990s by Khūʾīnī. But this is just an introduction. I would have liked to see some further analysis of what this text – with its various layers which in themselves require some discussion – tells us about the very notion of Shiʿi history, of the nature of transmission of texts especially written transmission of which this is a prominent example, and what the reception history of this text tells us about issues such as the importance given to taqiyya in different periods of history including today (since often in seminary contexts, clerics will tend to usher people away from the text, a perhaps judicial thing given our sectarian, anti-Shiʿi times).

The second text is the Kitāb al-qirāʾāt or Kitāb al-tanzīl wa-l-taḥrīf of al-Sayyārī from the 3rd/9th century; this chapter is a version of the introduction to the edition of the text produced by Amir-Moezzi and Etan Kohlberg. As they say in the opening, the history of prophecy is also one of the falsification of the prophetic message The author uses this text to show how an exegesis can in fact be a history of this process of falsification that further academic studies that have raised questions about the redaction of the ʿUthmānic recension of the Qurʾan. However, the arguments of revisionist approaches to the codification of the text that point towards the role of al-Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf and the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik (as presented in the work of Alfred de Premare among others) is not quite that of the early Shiʿi accusations of falsification; the revisionists are not talking about an Ur-text that is changed but a late text that emerges from the sectarian milieu and conflicts of understanding, while the Shiʿi accusers insisted that there was a pristine revelation collected in a book and that scripture was with ʿAlī (who in effect defined it by his redaction as well he could given his closeness to the recipient of the revelation).  I have some criticisms of the way in which the edition itself is done with the assumption of the normativity of the reading of Ḥafṣ (which is not present in the manuscript) but that does not arise in this book but in the Brill publication of the edition itself. Some comment would also be pertinent on the relative obscurity of the text in Shiʿi scholarly circles (by comparison to the others discussed in this book).

The third text is the (probably Zaydī) exegesis of al-Ḥibarī again from the 3rd/9th century. The problem of the absence of the names of the Imams and their enemies from the Qurʾan, a clear revelation of the reality of things as they are, meant that a hermeneutics was required that would decode and uncover meaning within the ʿUthmānic recension that demonstrates that the silences and absences of the Qurʾan needed to be articulated and made to speak by the Imam. To recall one early polemical exchange, the Qurʾan as text was itself not enough for the community of Muḥammad. One can see this process of reading in a number of the classical Shiʿi exegeses but once again one wonders about the actual importance of al-Ḥibarī for the scholarly tradition.

The fourth text, Baṣāʾir al-darajāt of the 3rd/9th century Qummī tradent, al-Ṣaffār raises the key thematic of imamology: the gnosis of the Imam and the need for believers to recognize this as central to their status. Amir-Moezzi includes a table of contents of the work. For him, like other early works from the Ismaili and what became the ʿAlawī-Nusayrī tradition, al-Ṣaffār’s collection shows how the early Shiʿi community was a gnostic one with a strong initatic tradition; in fact the ‘anomalies’, as he puts, in the text, may in fact provide further evidence for this since only the initiated would be able to distinguish what is correctly transmitted from what is intended to deceive. But this does not seem so convincing – and a comparison with al-Kāfī of Kulaynī (discussed in the final chapter) shows the extent of the overlap of material. The author similarly does not discuss directly some of the recent scholarly and seminarian debates on the authenticity of the ascription of the text (raised, for example, by Hassan Ansari and Sayyid Kamāl al-Ḥaydarī).

The final (and longest) chapter – co-authored with Hassan Ansari – is on Kulaynī and is the first major contribution in a European language (there is already an extensive highly useful academic literature on him in Arabic and Persian; see also Ansari, L'imamat et l'occultation salon l'imamisme, Leiden: Brill, 2017, pp. 27-36). One sees the hand of Ansari in the historically sophisticated contextualization of the work in this chapter. The main point that they wish to present is that this first of the classical four books (I still await a proper study of whence this notion of the Shiʿi canon of four books) represents the sufficient source to establish Shiʿi Islam as an independent religious tradition. This is taken up in the epilogue – given that those who had most vehemently opposed Muḥammad became the guardians of Islam, the propaganda, censorship and falsification of that imperial Islam would have to be opposed by articulating an alternative vision, indeed religion which placed at its centre the Imam as the countenance and revelation of the divine.

Amir-Moezzi’s work fits within the broad approaches of rethinking both the sources for the early period and the pivotal points of conflict to show how the master narrative of Sunni historiography (taken up by Orientalist scholarship) must be questioned and ‘de-colonised’. Far too much of the study of Islam is taken up with Sunni normatively, and any serious study that opens up the question  of what we understand by Islam in the many situations and contexts in which we encounter it, and concurrently what it means to be 'Islamic' ought to look far and wide at sources that address these questions, taking us, if necessary, out of our comfort zone. While many might criticize whether the author is sufficiently source critical of the texts which he is examining (one thinks back to his recanting back and forth with Karim Crow on method and today's sectarian milieu in which the excavation of the more esoteric aspects of the Shiʿi tradition arguably leads to the targeting of innocents), there is little doubt that those studying early Islam will profit from reading this work. The historian studying early Islam needs to cast his net for sources far and wide: Arabic traditions from the different trajectories that became Sunni, Sunni traditionalists, various types of Shiʿa, Ibāḍī and so forth, as well as the many other sources in Syriac and other languages and traditions which we know through the work of Robert Hoyland, David Thomas, Kevin van Bladel, Sidney Shoemaker, Philip Wood, Mathieu Tillier, David Wasserstrom, Michael Philip Penn, Antoine Borrut and many others. The next obvious step - already initiated - is to read the Arabic Shiʿi sources alongside the others to uncover other narratives of what constitutes the sacred tradition of Islam. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ḥurūfīs: Esoteric Shīʿa or what exactly?

I guess the Shiʿi Heritage Series of the Institute of Ismaili Studies takes a rather broad understanding of 'Shiʿi heritage' since they have published works which do not, on the surface, look like they contribute anything to the study of any of the major branches of Shiʿi Islam. Most recently they have published a volume on the ghulāt which raises interesting questions about the relationship of those texts and circles in Kufa and elsewhere in Iraq and Syria with the nascent communities of Ismailis and ʿAlawī-Nuṣayrīs, but still one wonders whether one can look at elements of the ghulāt of the early period as experiments in spirituality that did not survive. Orkhan Mir-Kasimov's work raises a more intriguing question about a group, a short-lived but highly influential community of esotericists committed to the sacred roots of the Persian language as well as elements of devotion and attachment to the ahl al-bayt that was characteristic of esotericism in the middle period. 

The study of Islamic intellectual history, while existing in pockets of scholarship before, has increasingly become a dominant aspect of the study of Islam. We have moved from some piecemeal approaches to the classical period to a more carefully nuanced and thick understanding of the middle period, that critical time from the wane of the ʿAbbasids to the rise of the Gunpowder Empires. In particular, the ‘Chicago school’ has expended much effort in making sense of the critical messianic moment from around the time of Timur, the ‘lord of the junction’ through to the ‘messianic sovereigns’ of the Timurid and later Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires. Mir-Kasimov's book concerns one of the key intellectual developments of that period, namely esoteric political theology and lettrism (ʿilm al-ḥurūf), which later informed similar developments in the 16th and 17th centuries and gives us one, albeit marginal and rather antinomian, glimpse into the important of the esoteric and the occult learning that was a critical element of the scholarly underground even among elites through the middle and early modern periods in the world of Islam. Although at times one wonders whether we have, in the current esotericist and occultist turn in intellectual history, overdone the significance of the esoteric as the master science. Mir-Kasimov’s magisterial and highly textual study of Fażlallāh Astarābādī (d. 1394) and his movement of the Ḥurūfīya, neither mainstream Shiʿi nor ʿAlid-loyalist Sufis nor even complete esotericists outside the pale of Islam, makes a contribution to the processes by which elite discourses on hermeneutics of reading the word and the world filtered into more subaltern and vernacular understandings of the cosmos and the human within and the divine both within and without. It is therefore no accident that the careful lettrist calculations that places letters as a primordial signifiers and producers of the cosmos, their manipulation to make sense of the cosmos and wield power, and their role in the folding up of the cosmos focused upon the Persian alphabet and vernacular. After all lettrism need not be confined to learned disquisitions on the letters of a particular language such as Arabic – but unlike other forms of lettrism found in the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ or al-Būnī or others, there is something peculiarly transgressive about the insistence of Astarābādī on the primordial nature of the Persian language. In recent years, Shahzad Bashir and others have contributed to our understanding of this movement, not least motivated by the desire to make sense of the varying manifestations of Sufism in the messianic moment and its relationship with forms of Shiʿism or ʿAlid loyalism. For those who are interested in these processes and the way in which this impinges upon vernacular learning, Mir-Kasimov’s study will be essential. Most importantly by insisting that he is studying the ‘original’ teaching, while holding one hostage to a certain hubris, he is differentiating the later reception and understanding of Astarābādī from his doctrine, and critically separating his particular movement from the wider trend of lettrism from the middle period in the Persianate world. And it is always important to remember that interest in lettrism need not make a thinker a ḥurufī

The book itself is divided into an introduction (on the sources and a literature review), three parts on the cosmology and cosmogony of language, prophetology as the descent of the logos and process of reversion to God, and soteriology and eschatology, and a final conclusion that attempts to contextualize the Ḥurūfīya in Islamic intellectual history. I would have liked to see far more discussion of the sources and the problems one migh face in their analysis and distinction. Quite often one feels that the individual sections and even their internal chapters stand alone – the book reads somewhat like a series of broadly congruous but distinct articles on specific aspects of his thought, and the introduction and conclusion could do far more to provide sufficient background, connectors and contexts for those unfamiliar. Nevertheless, the detail, the careful philology (given that the language of the texts is usually a Khurasani/Astarabadi vernacular of Persian), the manuscript work and the coverage will make this the major reference for anyone interested in the Ḥurūfīya as a movement and their intellectual and political intersections. The introductions presents them within the messianic turn, provides a literature review of their study, and deals with the difficulties of their texts not least the Jāvīdān-nāma. On a small side note, I know that transliteration is not necessarily an exact science, but the practice of the Institute of Ismaili Studies that insists on rendering Persian as if it were Arabic is rather tedious – hence I prefer Jāvīdān-nāma to Jāwīdān-nāma and Fażlallāh to Faḍl Allāh. Mir-Kasimov provides some useful appendices on key terms, an inventory of texts found in the works that help the readers contextualize the sources as well as preliminary transcriptions of the Persian texts used. There is little doubt that this will become the main resource for our understanding of Ḥurūfism, even if some of the more recent studies in Persian are more ‘historical’. Most of the chapters are careful and close readings of the text (with copious translated passages that could be fruitfully used in class) and it is only in the conclusion that he returns to the wider picture of how Astarābādī relates to tendencies in esotericism, especially of Shiʿi varieties.

The text follows the drama of the Jāwīdān-nāma as the descent of the word from the One, its manifestation in prophecy, and its soteriological return. Surprisingly given Astarābādī’s own messianic role, there is little discussed on walāya, which is such a central concept in different esotericisms, even if the other key notion of such approaches to text, namely taʾwīl is much analysed. Part one on the cosmogony and cosmology begins with the problem of creation: how does multiplicity arise from unity and how does the immaterial produce a material cosmos? It then moves onto key aspects of the cosmos – the engendering of the human with the narrative of Adam and Eve, as well as space and time and the ways in which in its very diversity the multiple universe is united by the word. In the scheme of the school of Ibn ʿArabī and his later Shiʿi interpreters, existence is a singular reality in which diversity is not mere phenomenal illusion but constitutes the very stuff of a modulated and hierarchically arranged pyramid of being; they called this doctrine tashkīk al-wujūd or the modulated but singular reality of existence. For Astarābādī, there seems to be a similar ontological description but with the word taking the place of existence; it is the word that is one and many. This phenomenon has been noted for the esotericist  Ibn Turka (d. 1432) by Matthew Melvin-Koushki. The footnotes make some brief comparisons with Hellenic neoplatonisms, but more interesting are some of the parallels and clear references to Christian apocrypha especially of a Gnostic type. I would like to know if there are any references to hermetica that would be appropriate but there is nothing mentioned. The centrality of the notion of the correspondences and the balance in the cosmos recalls both the Ikhwān al-ṣafāʾ and Jābir ibn Ḥayyān but the parallels are not analysed. The ultimate homology is between God and his form in Adam – though it is the first human couple who fully manifest the divine since for Astarābādī Eve is the form of Adam. There is no strict precedence of the male. Adam is the divine throne and Eve the footstool that together ensure the perpetuation of the balance. Similarly Adam is the soul of the word manifest while Eve is its very existence. Their bodies are the preserved tablet and the ‘mother of the book’, the essence of revelation. Astarābādī constantly refers to esoteric sayings of ʿAlī as the primordial Adam. Insofar as Adam/ʿAlī is the perfect word of God and all things he takes the place of the ‘perfect man’ of the Sufi tradition.

Part two on prophetology includes a number of esoteric contemplations of particular prophets as exemplifying the descent and the course of the word in this world and its indication towards the reversion to God. As the short excursus in part one suggested, knowledge and love are the two motivations for the descent of the word as well as the process for its reversion. Prophets take the word and fragment them into the expressions of human language; but they also provide the tools for the re-integration of the word through taʾwīl. A short chapter 9 discusses the three famous examples of this later: Joseph, Moses, and Solomon. Jesus and Muḥammad reflect a more direct revelation of the word and its reversion – the taking up into heaven of the former, and the ascension (miʿrāj) of the latter.

Part three on soteriology is remarkably short with a discussion of gnostic salvation (the salvific efficacy of knowledge overcoming ignorance), and the end of times and the relative role of those initiated and the uninitiated. Perhaps it is not paradoxical that a messianic movement shows little interest in the world to come precisely because it seems in its theological and politically radical moment to be invested in the ever present. The fall from the edenic state was related in part one to the oblivion of the complete word of God and the meaning inscribed on the bodies of Adam and Eve. The return or the reversal of the fall therefore requires through taʾwīl an enlightenment of that word and the realization of the self that comes at the end of the religious dispensation brought by Muḥammad culminating in Astarābādī. Those who fail to achieve this enlightenment join Satan in his ignorance and fiery nature and become the hellfire in which they dwell. In this section there is further consideration of the role of ʿAlī at the end of the religious dispensation. The fall of Adam reflects the reduction of the 32 primordial words into 28; it is ʿAlī who returns the four key words for the integration and reversion of the word at the end of time. There is little that is explicitly Imami or Twelver Shiʿi in the text although Mir-Kasimov suggests that might be due to the changing context under Shahrukh and the reception of the text.

Given the very detailed nature of the chapters, the conclusion plays a critical role in allowing us to see the woods from the trees. A question that remains is how did Astarābādī see himself? Can one see the Jāwīdān-nāma as an act of taʾwīl on the Qurʾan or itself a work of revelation? To what extent does he draw upon existing lettrism and esoteric interpretation and how is his legacy received? Locating him within the traditions of esoteric interpretation - on which one may consult a recent book which I had something to do with - might help one to understand some of the wider currents of interest and intersection. Mir-Kasimov discusses the links with the school of Ibn ʿArabī even if there is little explicitly from the master himself; there is a discussion of the superiority of walāya over prophecy and some ambiguity over the nature of the seal 0f saints – more explicitly Shiʿi contemporaries such as Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī followed Ḥamūya and Kāshānī on identifying the figure with the Twelver Mahdī but Astarābādī was more circumspect. The problem of contextualization is raised because the milieu of Astarābādī included the school of Ibn ʿArabī, Ismailism and other trends of esoteric Shiʿi Islam such as Rajab Bursī. Mir-Kasimov suggests that instead to tying him to a particular Shiʿi trend, one can see in his work the same revival of early esoteric Shiʿism found in both Twelver and Ismaili works – certainly matters are complicated by some later Ḥurūfīs who took a more markedly Twelver approach. We know that others attracted to esotericism and lettrism immediately after such as Ṣāʾin al-Dīn Ibn Turka rejected Astarābadī while using some of the same techniques. Rightly, the author suggests that there is much more to research on the legacy and reception of Astarābādī – perhaps a follow up volume?

In many ways Mir-Kasimov has provided us with a critical sourcebook on a major figure of esotericism in middle period Persianate Islam. It is then for those reading the work to follow up on the contexts and connections with other trends of the period especially in the great messianic turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. Bashir’s work is a much better integrated introduction but in this work we have a far more deeply textual work that can complement Bashir. But the work still leaves me somewhat baffled by the problem of esotericism and particularly esoteric Shiʿism in the period.

A couple of recent publications of the Muʾassasa-yi kitāb-shināsī-yi Shīʿa

Biographical dictionaries are essential tools of research that help us to flesh out the context of a thinker's composition and production. Of course, like most forms of narrative, they carry within them a certain rhetorical style and effect and a self-referentiality to the genre itself - these works draw upon previous works of the genre, sometimes through explicit citation and at other times through influence and unacknowledged citation. The job of a good editor at times is precisely to reveal the sources used, especially if those latter works are not extant or are difficult to obtain.

The first text I want to mention is ʿUlamā-yi ʿahd-i Nāsir al-Dīn Shāh Qājār, which is an edition of the biographical section of al-Maʾāsir wa-l-āsār of Muḥammad Ḥasan Khān Iʿtimād al-salṭana (d. 1313/1896).

Iʿtimād al-salṭana as a major courtier and one of the earliest 'European' trained officials (having studied in the Dār al-funūn in Tehran) headed up the publications bureau of the state and was responsible for editing and having published a number of important histories, gazetteers and geographical surveys. Al-Maʾāsir was written and published in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the reign of Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh in 1301-3/1884-6, and is a work cited extensively in 20th century sources such as the continuation of Nujūm al-samāʾ by Mīrzā Muḥammad ʿAlī Kashmīrī, the Takmilat Amal al-āmil of Sayyid Ḥasan al-Ṣadr (d. 1354/1935) and the massive undertaking of Āqā Buzurg Ṭihrānī, Ṭabaqāt aʿlām al-shīʿa arranged by century. It was divided into 16 chapters and the chapter on the ʿulama is chapter 10, much of which was actually written by Shams al-ʿulamāʾ Muḥammad Mahdī ʿAbd al-Rabbābādī although it bears the strong editorial imprint of Iʿtimād al-salṭana. The modern edition of al-Maʾāsir by the late Īraj Afshār was published in the 1980s in three volumes.

The text itself says that it is a listing of the 'names of ʿulama and scholars, imams of religion, eminent mujtahids, illustrious theologians, theosist philosophers, contented mystics, accomplished litterateurs, Arabists, curing physicians, great poets, unique preachers and lamenters, writers and calligraphers from the land of Iran in the last forty years'. What follows are 698 notices, some as short as a simple name (such as entry number 206 Mullā Riżā, 'a notable scholar of this land') and others fuller biographies (such as entry number 46 on the eminent philosopher of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā, Ḥājj Mullā Hādī Sabzavārī [d. 1289/1873]). The editor Nāsir al-Dīn Anṣārī Qummī has done a good job of annotating the entries so that one can cross refer with other sources especially the 20th century ones that draw upon it. The text tells us useful things about the Nāsirī period, commenting on Bābī and Bāhāʾī and Shaykhī challenges to the hierocracy, bolstering the authority of the jurists, and praising the eminent philosophers and poets who carried the tradition of Mullā Ṣadrā and of mysticism.

The second text is from the late Safavid period, al-Darajāt al-rafīʿa fī ṭabaqāt al-imāmīya of the well known poet, literary scholar and scion of the Dashtakī family of Shiraz, Sayyid ʿAlī Khān b. Muḥammad Maʿṣūm Madanī (d. 1118/1707), who also wrote an important taẕkira of Arabic poets entitle Sulāfat al-ʿaṣr fī maḥāsin al-shuʿarāʾ bi-kulli miṣr.

The text was previously published in Najaf in the early 1960s (and there is an even earlier lithograph); the Najaf edition has been offset printed a number of times. As the text has come down to us in a somewhat incomplete form, this edition is somewhat preliminary, produced by Shaykh Muḥammad Jawād Maḥmūdī and ʿAbd al-Sattār al-Ḥasanī. The text is divided into 20 sections starting with the companions of the prophets and the next generations down to his contemporaries. The sections on the companions, those who narrated from the Imams, and the early Shiʿi women are not extant as far as the editors have attempted to trace. The latter in particular is rather unfortunate given the great interest in uncovering voices and personalities from the early Islamic period. Notices tend to be rather brief and should be read alongside other contemporaneous Safavid period compilations such as Riyāḍ al-ʿulamāʾ of Mīrzā ʿAbdullāh Afandī and Amal al-āmil of al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī. Once again the published text is well annotated. His particular interest in poets and the poetic output of scholars and philosophers was what prompted me first many years ago to look at poetic taẕkire as an important source for intellectual history.

The Muʾassasa-yi kitāb-shināsī-yi Shīʿa continues to produce significant works of reference - alongside the others they have already produced including the two volumes collection of all the books lists (Fahāris) compiled by Shiʿi ʿulama of the past. It would help if the website were better updated especially in the section of their publications (manshūrāt) as often recentish books are found in the news (akhbār) section. The publications themselves might not always have the most analytical introductions, but the job of making sense of the narratives, the formation of the self, and constructions of scholarly genealogies and histories remain for us as historians to decipher and examine.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Sources on the North Indian Shiʿi Hierocracy III: Awrāq al-dhahab

The Shia Bibliographical Institute/Muʾassasa-yi kitābshināsī-yi Shīʿeh/Muʾassasat turāth al-Shīʿa based in Qum is doing some excellent work publishing biographical dictionaries, editions of key texts, and studies of particular Shiʿi scholars and intellectuals. In recent years, they have noticeably been contributing to the study of Shiʿi South Asia - which is, of course, highly commendable. 

As part of this effort, they produced a critical edition by ʿAlī Fāżilī in 2015 in three volumes of Muftī Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAbbās al-Jazāʾirī (b. 1224/1809, d. 1306/1889)'s biography of Sayyid al-ʿulamāʾ Sayyid Ḥusayn b. Dildār ʿAlī Naṣīrābādī (d. 1273/1856) entitled Awrāq al-dhahab aw al-Maʿādin al-dhahabīya al-lujjaynīya fī l-maḥāsin al-wahbīya al-ḥusaynīya along with some important correspondence of the author and relevant ijāzāt. There is an earlier edition of the text by the Kufa Academy based in Holland and run by Muḥammad Saʿīd al-Ṭurayḥī, which came out in 2007 printed in Beirut. However, in comparison it is a much weaker text since that editor is rather unfamiliar with South Asia and does not have the relevant grasp of Persian required (even if the actual text is in Arabic). 

The author of the text, Muftī Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAbbās, was fifth generation descendent of the Safavid theologian Sayyid Niʿmatullāh al-Jazāʾirī (d. 1701). His grandfather Sayyid Jaʿfar was the first to emigrate to India, settling in Lucknow in the early nawabi period. One of the earliest sources for Muftī was the account in Tadhkirat al-ʿulamāʾ al-muḥaqqiqīn written in 1263/1847 was his student Sayyid Mahdī Riżavī ʿAẓīmābādī. The standard account that most use is from Takmilat Nujūm al-samāʾ of Mīrzā Muḥammad Mahdī Kashmīrī. Muftī was known for his skills as a theologian and as a jurist (as Muftī of Lucknow) and as a poet and literary figure. Sayyid ʿAbd al-Ḥayy Lukhnavī (d. 1341/1923) the famous rector of Nadwat al-ʿulamāʾ in his major biographical dictionary Nuzhat al-khawāṭir wa-bahjat al-manāẓir wa-l-masāmiʿ gives a full account of him including his studies with the Farangī-Maḥallī Ḥanafī scholars ʿAbd al-Qawī and ʿAbd al-Quddūs in literature, and another Farangī Maḥallī Maulānā Qudrat ʿAlī in philosophy and logic; his main teacher was Sayyid Ḥusayn. Muftī was appointed to teach in the royal seminary (madrasa sulṭānīya) and as a judge.

The whole text is divided into an introduction on the author and his subject, then it is followed by Awrāq al-dhahab which has ten chapters (maʿdin) and a khātima, and then various appendices (mulḥaqāt): 
I: on the ijāzāt that Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī received from Sayyid Mahdī Baḥr al-ʿulūm, Sayyid ʿAlī Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Sayyid Mahdī Shahristānī and Sayyid Mahdī Iṣfahānī
II: on the ijāza that Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī gave his son Sayyid Muḥammad Sulṭān al-ʿulamāʾ
III: on the ijāzāt that Sayyid al-ʿulamāʾ gave including to Muftī Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAbbās and some more on his life and works
IV: on the ijāza that Shaykh Muḥammad Ḥusayn Najafī, author of Jawāhir al-kalām, gave to Sayyid Muḥammad Taqī Mumtāz al-ʿulamāʾ, the grandson of Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī
V: on the ijāzāt of Muftī Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAbbās
VI: on the correspondence of Sayyid Ḥusayn in Arabic and in Persian 
VII: on the correspondence of various ʿulamāʾ of the Iraqi shrine cities to Sayyid Ḥusayn
VIII-XII: various documents relating to the death and testament of Sayyid Ḥusayn
XIII: notes of condolences to Sayyid Muḥammad Taqī Mumtāz al-ʿulamāʾ on the passing of his father Sayyid Ḥusayn 
XIV: related obituaries
XV: the correspondence of Mumtāz al-ʿulamāʾ with Muftī Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAbbās
XVI: other correspondence of Muftī Sayyid Muḥammad ʿAbbās
XVII: other correspondence of Mumtāz al-ʿulamāʾincluding with Sayyid Muḥammad Qulī (d. 1844), father of Mīr Ḥāmid Ḥusayn Kintūrī [the father was a student of Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī and Sayyid Muḥammad, while the son was a student of Sayyid Ḥusayn]
XVIII: last testament of Mumtāz al-ʿulamāʾ

Taken together this is an invaluable source - hitherto only available in separate lithographs that are rare to find especially in European libraries and even Indian ones - for our understanding of the culture of the ʿulamāʾ in North India, especially in Awadh in the last days of the kingdom and in the early period of colonial rule, and their interactions with the Shiʿi hierocracy in Iraq (and Iran). What it demonstrates is just how integrated and significant the Indian ʿulamāʾ were considered in the 'centres' of learning. The ijāzāt tell us much about the curricula and how the texts were received and understood and what of them was actually studied. The correspondence tells us then more about the contexts of study. Any serious intellectual history of the Shiʿi hierocracy in North India especially in the early colonial period must engage with this valuable three volume work. 

Sources on the North Indian Shiʿi Hierocracy II: Aḥsan al-wadīʿa

Most people who study Shiʿi Islam in its Persianate contexts will be familiar with the biographical dictionary Rawḍāt al-jannāt fī aḥwāl al-ʿulamāʾ wa-l-sādāt of Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir Khwānsārī Iṣfahānī (d. 1313/1895). It is an essential source that also has its own quirks such as an uncompromising defence of the uṣūlī method coupled with a harsh critique of akhbārīs and shaykhīs. Of course, the process of reading any source - not least one heavily committed to producing in effect a history of their class, of the Shiʿi hierocracy - requires a careful consideration of the construction of the narrative and the framing of the lives as good and exemplary. 

However, perhaps lesser known is the work of his great-nephew Sayyid Muḥammad Mahdī Iṣfahānī Kāẓimī (d. 1391/1971) known as Aḥsan al-wadīʿa fī tarājim mashāhīr mujtahidī al-shīʿa, which in many ways is an appendix to Rawḍāt on the key figures of the 19th and 20th century. His grandfather Sayyid Muḥammad Ṣādiq was the brother of Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir, the author of Rawḍāt al-jannāt. Born in Shaʿbān 1319/November 1901 in Kāẓimīya, he began his studies there with Mīrzā Ibrāhīm Salmāsī and Shaykh Ḥusayn Rashtī. Later he studied in Karbala with Sayyid Hādī Khurāsānī Ḥāʾirī (d. 1368/1948) and then in Najaf with his cousin Sayyid Abū Turāb Khwānsārī (d. 1346/1926) and Shaykh ʿAlī Māzandarānī. He wrote a number of works in law and jurisprudence as well as in history and biographies of luminaries including at least one other biographical dictionary entitled Aḥsan al-dharīʿa. He received ijāzāt from his cousin and Khurāsānī as well as the leading mujtahid Shaykh Muḥammad Ḥusayn Kāshif al-Ghiṭāʾ (d. 1373/1953), and the leading uṣūlī Shaykh Ḍiyāʾ al-Dīn al-ʿIrāqī (d. 1361/1941). So he was trained in biographies as well as in law and hence had the ability to spot juristic talent and know the requirements for recognition in this area. 

I first came across the work when researching the Indian mujtahid and epigone of a major lineage of ʿulamāʾ Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī Naṣīrābādī (d. 1235/1820), finding a PDF of an old Baghdad lithograph online, and I mentioned it in a previous blog post. The text was completed on 17 Rabīʿ I 1347/3 September 1928 and first published in Baghdad in 1348/1929 replete with errors; a corrected edition was printed in Najaf in 1377/1957. This latter was reprinted in 1993 by the well known Shiʿi publisher Dār al-Hādī in Beirut. This printing is edited by Sayyid ʿAbd al-Sattār al-Ḥasanī and published by Muʾassasat turāth al-shīʿa in Qum in 1394 Sh/2015.

This work is important not only for its extensive inclusion of his own wider family and the major figures of Kāẓimīya where he lived as well as the wider Majlisī-Khātūnābādi clan, but also for its use of Indian sources and its extensive inclusion of major Indian figures in the dictionary that signals at least at one level their scholarly, social and monetary influence (the latter through the Oudh Bequest monies) in the Shiʿi shrine cities of Iraq. 

All of the major figures of the family of Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī are included as is a major entry on Sayyid Ḥāmid Ḥusayn Kintūrī. Apart from his direct acquaintance with some later figures, his major sources for these biographies are:

1) Shudhūr al-ʿiqyān fī tarājim al-aʿyān of Sayyid Iʿjāz Ḥusayn Kintūrī (d. 1286/1869) which was written in three parts as a sort of Indian appendix to Amal al-āmil of Shaykh al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī. A codex of it is available through the former Āṣafīya library in Hyderabad; another copy is in the Buhār collection in the National Library in Kolkata. [al-Dharīʿa XIII, 43 no. 141]

[Incidentally one wonders what account for the centrality of Amal al-āmil - there is a Taʿlīqa, a Tatmīm and two large Takmila-s of this text]

2) Kashf al-niqāb of Sayyid ʿAlī Naqī Naqvī (d. 1988, himself a descendent of Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī. This text was published in Najaf in 1927. However, the text is well known seems to be a refutation of Wahhābīs. It could be that this is something different. He also tells us that for some biographies he corresponded directed with Sayyid ʿAlī Naqī (for example, on the biography of Sayyid Ḥusayn b. Dildār ʿAlī). 

3) Nujūm al-samāʾ fī tarājim al-ʿulamāʾ of Mīrzā Muḥammad ʿAlī Kashmīrī which was first published in two volumes through the Marʿashī Library in Qum in 1970-80. There is a newer edition by Mīr Hāshim Muḥaddis which came out in Tehran from Sāzmān-i tablīghāt of the Ḥawza in 1387 Sh/2009.

Despite all this, and the value of this source for Indian ʿulamāʾ, it is somewhat of a shame that in the final section of the text on places of learning, Lucknow - or indeed anywhere else in South Asia such as Rampur, Hyderabad, Arcot etc - is not mentioned. 

A Golden Age of Islamic Philosophy

For those of us who remember how things were when we were graduate students, getting strange confused looks when we defined our research as Islamic philosophy or Islamic intellectual history, there can be little doubt that in fact we are now living in a golden age for the subject. Almost everyone in the study of Islam seems to define what they do as intellectual history, and philosophy has come to the heart of Islamic studies, both in terms of the areas defined in job searches but also in the conception of the field as can be evinced from Shahab Ahmed's What is Islam? for example. 

[Btw check out this really interesting review of the book by Mairaj Syed on the approach to law, as well as this forum on the book].

There are a number of reasons why this is a golden age. First, there are simply far more specialists in various periods and areas from the study of logic and dialectics to metaphysics, physics and eschatology (even if for some of the older more analytically inclined the latter does not really constitute an object of philosophical inquiry), and many more graduate students. Those of us who specialise have done well to encourage others and it is through the development of capacity in the field that we progress. 

Second, we are spoiled for choice and access to texts. Manuscripts are increasingly available online in libraries in the Middle East as well as North America. Many libraries in Europe have shifted to a policy of allowing researchers to photograph freely whatever they desire from codices. And then there are the critical editions. For some years, those interested in philosophy coming out of Iran have been well served by critical editions produced by Tehran University Press, the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies, the Mīrās-e maktūb [incidentally follow their Telegram account for latest news as well as pdfs of their journals], Anjuman-e āsār u mafākhir-e farhangī, Dāʾirat al-maʿārif-e buzurg-e islāmī, and others similar institutions. We also have people blogging on research that produces these editions and on codicology such as the collective. The study of Ottoman philosophy is also well served now. Texts from the Sulemaniye collection are being produced in facsimile editions - such as the library of Ahmed III - as well as critical editions with Turkish translations often based on autograph codices though the Turkiye Yazma Eserler Kurumu Baskanligi. Most recently following a conference on the 16th century polymath Taşköprülüzade (d. 968/1561), his works have been published in critical editions. The hive of activity at Turkish universities is great to see. The unfortunate thing is that while in Turkey and Iran there is government support for such research and publication, the same cannot be said for India (or even South Asia); for those of us interested in the South Asia maʿqūlāt traditions from the 16th century onwards, the hard slog is still the only way with many obstacles in place. 

Third, specialists and more 'general' readers alike have much better access to translations and surveys as well as more specialised studies in European languages. The Islamic Translations Series at Brigham Young University Press began the process of making dual text editions available. Others doing the same with philosophical material include the Institute of Ismaili Studies' Ismaili Texts and Translations and their Epistles of the Brethren of Purity Series, the Biblioteca Iranica Series at Mazda Publishers, the Library of Arabic Literature at NYU Press, and the Shiʿah Institute's Classical Shiʿah Library at Brill. The Ueberweg Philosophie in der Islamischen Welt will become a major reference - and probably even more influential in its English translation the first volume of which is forthcoming with Brill

Most recently another work - apart from the relevant volume of Peter Adamson's History of Philosophy without Any Gaps - that will become a main reference work is the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy

This takes the interesting step of constitutes chapters that do not tackle themes but focus on one author and usually one text in chronological order. Especially important is that approach to philosophy in the world of Islam as a series of processes overlapping, intersecting with other traditions and continuing to this day. It's great to see chapters on Iqbāl, Ṭabāṭābāʾī (I confess that I had something to do with that one), and Zaki Najib Mahmud (that force us to ask the question of what does the 'Islamic' in Islamic philosophy mean?). Taken together we could consider this to be a sort of new canon of great texts - there are all pretty much here (especially if one considers greatness to be associated with the commentary cultures of the base texts): the so-called Theology of Aristotle in many ways the foundational text, the Shifāʾ of Avicenna, the Tahāfut al-falāsifa of Ghazālī (the most famous philosophical critique of metaphysics), the Sharḥ al-ishārāt of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, the Tajrīd cycle of philosophical theology, logic texts such as the mainstays of the madrasa like the Shamsīya of al-Kātibī (d. 1277) and Sullam al-ʿulūm of Bihārī (d. 1707), and even the school texts of the later seminary such as the Indian natural philosophy text al-Hadīya al-Saʿīdīya of Faḍl-e Ḥaqq Khayrābadī (d. 1861) and the Iranian metaphysical summa Sharḥ Ghurar al-farāʾid of Sabzawārī (d. 1873). The chapters on Dawānī and Ījī were particularly illuminating; they demonstrate that often the summa of philosophical theology were the vehicle for the dissemination of philosophical ideas and for the philosophical engagement with what might seem to be non-philosophical disciplines such as law and (scriptural) theology. In all it's an excellent collection which will no doubt become the main reference text in many classrooms. Of course, the work is not without its mistakes, some of which are rather odd - for example, the wrong death dates given in the title of a chapter but the correct one  within (see the chapters on Ibn Abī Jumhūr al-Aḥsāʾī and Hādī Sabzawārī). 

Such a golden age means that we really have no excuse to start to fill out the contours and lines of inquiry of Islamic intellectual history and engage in the current and future debates on what constitutes philosophy and what role culture plays in that. We are in the age of cross-cultural philosophy and 'provincialising' Eurocentrism and thinking through the global categories of inquiry within metropolitan academia; it would be proper for the study of the traditions and continuities of Islamic philosophy in its different guises (Aristotelian, Neoplatonic, discursive, intuitive, logical, mystical and so forth) to play a role in the formation of a liberal philosophical education that we need today. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Messianism, ʿAlid loyalism, and the Millennium in Connected Histories of early modern India

Some thoughts on:

Ahmed Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship & Sainthood in Islam, South Asia Across the Disciplines. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. pp. xvii + 343. ISBN 978-0-231-16037-7 paperback.

The Millennial Sovereign is the sort of contribution to the field that forces everyone to take note and to engage. A highly original construction of an argument that draws upon a variety of sources, including especially the visual that will appeal to the art historian, Moin contends that we need to reconceive radically our notions of Mughal kingship in the light of what is becoming a mainstream position in the study of Timurid Iran and its legacies, namely that in the fifteenth century beginning with Timur there was a convergence of notions of authority that produced the king and the saint, whose progeny was a sacral notion of kingship in which the sovereign himself was both a political ruler and a messianic redeemer of the last days. The book seeks to demonstrate that we cannot divorce Timurid notions of sainthood from kingship; it also shows how the political theology of the Shiʿi Safavids of Iran was more widespread than people think, and that contrary to much Mughal historiography, Akbar was the norm rather than the exception – it is no accident that the central chapter in the study is on him, albeit a rather disappointing one. Arguably, this development was due to the fact that Sufism had, by the early modern period, become the dominant idiom for expressing sanctity, spirituality and authority in the Persianate context (if not farther beyond). Kingship was performative and socially embodied and appealed to popular notions of the sacred even if our sources for them are irreducibly elite. The argument is developed in five chapters: on Timur as lord of the conjunction, on Babur as the visionary messiah and dynast, on Humayun and his alchemical court, on Akbar as the archetypal millennial sovereign, and on Jahangir as lord of time. There is then a brief conclusion on Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. The central focus is upon the public and socially embedded iconography of the sovereign and hence it is most appropriate that the cover image in taken from a famous painting in the Smithsonian of Jahangir as the sacral king (indicated by his halo) as the teacher and pivot for the Sufi shaykh, the Rajput notable, the Sunni ʿālim, and the European savant. There is also an assumption that the world had dramatically changed by 1700 so he makes no effort to discuss eighteenth century Mughals which is a shame because the use of royal iconography and reference to 'lords of the conjunction' did not disappear from either painting or literary representation. The eighteenth century remains rather understudied outside of the teleology construction of the backdrop to colonial modernity. 

Before considering elements of his argument, it seems useful to flag the theoretical contributions and developments of certain positions in the book. The first is the shift towards intellectual and cultural history in the text, away from the Aligarh school’s focus upon the facts on the ground, the elements of the social and the economic. This is history in the grander scheme with its emphasis on ideology, on self-fashioning and producing the icon of the sacral monarch, and paying attention to the illocutionary elements of royal-sacral speech acts (which de-emphasising the centrality of the narrative textual traditions). Allied to this is an emphasis on the embodied nature of these processes in which ideology is located within the body of the sovereign and this is continuous with some recent studies in Sufism (one thinks of Shahzad Bashir’s and Scott Kugle’s books in an Indian and Persianate milieu) and in political theology (much earlier with Peter Brown but more recently Giorgio Agamben and Eric Santner). In one sense, this shift is merely recognition that what we considered to be a textual in times past was far too narrow. At the same time, the obvious rebuttal could be that this is a return to history as the unfolding story of great men and a return to the narratives of elites directly rejected by both Marxist historiography and the ‘subaltern studies’ school. 

The second allied point is the turn towards connected histories as articulated by the likes of Cornell Fleischer and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, that we need to move beyond nationalist historiographies and recognise the interconnected nature of the early modern world which requires us to look at regions and across regions as well as across disciplines. Moin’s study works within the newer paradigm of looking at what Marshall Hodgson called the gunpowder empires in terms of their ideological continuities. Part of the argument is that the connectedness then allows us to spot and nuance where the links fail. At the same time, the broader context may dupe us into failing to see specificities of the local and spend too much time on the superficialities of the common. 

The third concerns the ‘Islam’ debate, most recently evoked in the late Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? We still lack a serious and nuanced study of the history of Islamic political thought (Patrica Crone’s and Anthony Black’s accounts are partial and flawed); however, what is often noted is that a stricter shariʿa-minded conception of the sovereign as expression of imperial (Sunni) Islam and as upholder of the divine law often conflicts with the Turco-Mongol-Persian conception of the King as the representative of God on earth possessing the divine light or charisma (farr-i īzadī). This was directly expressed in a number of studies on India and Iran that juxtaposed the courts of the Sufi and the Shah and considered them to constitute two opposing notions of authority. Moin suggests, rightly, and partly through the appropriation of the centrality of the occult in the Islamic sciences, that the sacral kingship of the Mughal was at once Islamic, Turco-Mongol-Persian and even Indian. In this we can see continuities with the work of the late Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi who greatly emphasised the role of the role of ideology and the political philosophy of illuminationism (ishrāq) in the fashioning of the image of Akbar. In particular, Moin’s emphasis on the occult continues a trend of recent scholarship rejecting the occultophobia of much historiography in the field of early modern Eurasia. The intellectual history of the Islamicate Eurasian plane becomes a ‘hidden history’ of the true sciences of magic in which the heroes are Aḥmad al-Būnī (d. 1225), Sayyid Ḥusayn Akhlāṭī (d. 1397), Ibn Turka Iṣfahānī (d. 1434), Shams al-Dīn Khafrī (d. 1535), Mīr Dāmād (d. 1631), Mīr Findiriskī (d. 1640), Āzar Kayvān (d. c. 1618), Abū-l-Fażl (d. 1602), ʿAbd al-Sattār Lāhawrī (d. 1624), Sarmad (d. 1661), Dara Shikoh (d. 1659) as well as the many princes who patronised the occult arts in order to deploy their power. However, apart from the consideration of two astrological sources, Moin does not really establish the centrality of the occult in the way that recent studies by Matthew Melvin-Koushki and Evrim Binbas on the Timurids of Iran do. The final turn concerns the notion of the sacred and arguably of political theology itself. Following Michael Taussig (and ultimately in one sense Durkheim’s somewhat banal notion of religion as social fact and practice) – and I would want this to be far better critically evaluated – Moin argues that the sacred is both ineffable and immanent everywhere, embedded in social processes and not in canons of textual traditions. Sacred kingship in this sense relied upon the popular practices of the sacred, of magic, superstition, predicated upon popular traditions and not the discursive traditions (apud Talal Asad) of the elites; but again the basic problem remains of using elite texts to attempt to decipher this. The conjunction of these four important theoretical postures is rather difficult to reconcile and evinces the ambition of Moin’s project.

Chapter two considers the persona of Timur as lord of the conjunction and in many ways takes up the tendency in recent scholarship to emphasise the messianic moment of Timur’s conquests and his patrimony in Central Asia and India. The chapter begins with Ibn Khaldūn’s account and the consideration of sources on Timur as messiah. These would include conjunction astrology but the sources used remain literary. Moin attempts to show how the Timurid dispensation was merged with forms of ʿAlid loyalism in which devotion to ʿAlī and his descendants mingled with messianism in the form of figures such as Sayyid Muḥammad Nūrbakhsh. It is not entirely clear how the two are connected and I would argue that the forms of ‘confessional ambiguity’ articulated in the popular visitation of shrines and the spiritual promiscuity of many people is quite different from an occultist devotion to ʿAlī, his descendants and the magical arts that they purveyed. Ambiguity between Sunni and ShiʿI, between the Mongol and the ʿAlid, between the pagan and the Islamic is central to this presentation. However, there are obvious exceptions. For example, in his poetry in praise of Sulṭān Ḥusayn Bāyqarā (d. 1506), the prominent Persian poet Jāmī (d. 1492) in his pursuit of projecting the Sunni identity of the court at Herat, described the ruler as the messiah of his time, not as heir to ʿAlī but in response to others who claimed to be Shiʿi messianic heirs of ʿAlī. How are these traditions reconciled? Moin suggest through the notion that the lords of the conjunction were considered to be manifestations of ʿAlī – but this is not so clear with Timur himself, who is more famed for his devotion to ʿAlī and his descendants, not least through his revival of the Ilkhan practice of the dār al-siyāda and the stipends that went to the sayyids. He brings forth the evidence of the Kitāb Jahmasp or the Jāhmaspnāma which he, following Rieu, dates to the fifteenth century as evidence of an astrological history in which ʿAlī is central and whose tone is messianic and ʿAlid loyalist (but not Shiʿi). However, Moin admits that the work is probably thirteenth century not least because of its negative portrayal of Chinggis Khan – however, given that the Timurids wished to reconcile the Chinggisid and ʿAlid inheritances, the use of this source constitutes a problem. As Moin says, this is ʿAlī of popular lore, of the Mukhtārnāma, Abū-Muslim-nāmas and the Dāstān-i Amīr-i Ḥamza and similar romances and not of either Sunni or Shiʿi canonical texts; but do we have any evidence that the Timurids patronised such works not least because they present rather oppositional constructions of charisma and authority and posed a threat to the social and political order of their times?

Chapter three moves onto Babur as a calque for Shah Ismāʿīl. While they both struggle for the control of the former territory of Timur, they were quite different. Babur certainly saw himself as inheritor to Timur even as lord of the conjunction – one is struck by the way in which destiny unfolds in his own account the Baburnāma, albeit one in which Chinggisid elements work alongside more canonical Islamic motifs and references to scripture. In fact, Moin’s account of the run up to the battle of Khanua is somewhat reminiscent of the famous Elliot and Dowson project of Indian history in which the chronicles were expunged of their Islamic scriptural content. Yes, Babur was asserted his astrological importance over the ill-fated and pessimistic ‘bad magic’ of an astrologer. But his repentance for drinking wine (itself a violation of the Turco-Mongol-Persian notion of King’s social persona in the bazm u razm) was linked with the citation of scripture. The victory in the battle indicated not only that Babur is the lord of the conjunction, but that God has chosen him for the quality of his moral personality as well. The tension with the Persian astrologer also reflects the motif of the power differential between the turk ruler and his tajik functionary. The relationship between the Naqshbandīs is another source of difference between the two rulers – and that requires a far more detailed consideration than in the chapter. Babur never quite buys the claims of the Safavid and it is clear that one needs to consider Shah Ismāʿīl not only within the context of ʿAlid millenarian movements of the fifteenth century but also in terms of his claim to descent of ʿAlī in particular – as Kazuo Morimoto has shown, the sayyid lineage of the Safavids was not ‘fabricated’ in the time of Tahmasp but was already an element of their social capital before the conquest of Herat. One also wonders whether Moin is not conflating too much – the futavvat brotherhoods, antinomian bābāʾī Sufis (studied by Ahmed Karamustafa and Ahmed Yaşar Ocak), Timurid lords of the conjunction, Qizilbash heterodox Shiʿism. And what are we to make to Babur’s dissimulation as qizilbash in order to gain the support of the Safavids against the Uzbek to regain his patrimony – just as Humayun was to do later to regain the throne of Hindustan? Moin draws upon the important Shāhnāma for Ismāʿīl but one wonders: is ṣāḥib-qirānī always particular to Timur? And how do we explain Chaldirān? There is one small detail to correct – on page 90 Moin translates yādgār as ‘monument’ to the ahl al-bayt, but it seems clear that there is a reference to a messianic epiphet here: the Mahdī is the remnant of God (baqiyyatullāh) and for someone to be the remnant (yādgār is clearly a Persian form of baqiyyatullāh) of the family of the Prophet puts him in a messianic relationship with the Mahdī. It is not clear to me how this makes Ismāʿīl a second Timur.

Chapter four on Humayun begins with a Safavid portrayal of the divine pretensions of Humayun and the historiographical neglect of the second Mughal ruler. Moin stresses his close association with Shaṭṭārī Sufis – who were, it must be said, also close to the Suri rulers in what is often teleologically considered the Indo-Afghan interregnum – and drawing upon Khwāndmīr, the lettrist nature of the entourage. This chapter is rather disjointed. One cannot see how the choice of Shaṭṭārīs was due to their popularity – and shift away from the older Transoxianian support for Naqshbandīs (especially since in the previous chapter Moin says that Babur has already moved away from the Naqshbandīs in his taqiyya with Ismāʿīl). How would the claims of Shaykh Muḥammad Ghawth (d. 1563) and his spiritual mastery over Humayun and then the case of Masʿūd Sālār Ghāzī end up bestowing sacral kingship on Humayun? The use of the Qānun-i Humāyūnī is not sufficient evidence either for the absence of ‘rational administration’ on the part of Humayun – not least because he spent so much of his ‘reign’ without the reins of power – or for evidence of his divine kingship. His later submission to Shah Tahmasb also does not fit well – and hence Moin is perhaps too accepting of the insistence upon the heterodox nature of Qizilbash and Safavid religion in the historiography – even in the 1540s – to suggest that this did not include an avowal of Shiʿi Islam. The only way Humayun fits is through Moin’s suggestion that his relationship to Akbar was like that of Ḥaydar to Shah Ismāʿīl – but there is no serious consideration of evidence for this.

Chapter five on Akbar is the most important and takes up earlier studies of his religious policy and ideology. There are no new sources considered here. But we have a fairly mainstream new approach to the controversies of his time. For example, the dīn-i ilāhī becomes the cult of the millennial sovereign and sulḥ-i kull a mechanism of including elite devotees and not an expression of Chishtī influence upon Akbar. Rajeev Kinra recently in his work on Chandra Bhan Brahman has suggested that it has more to do with the accommodation of diversity and renders it ‘universal civility’ and locates in elements of Persianate and Indian norms devoid of any messianic spirit. Moin discusses Badāyūnī’s critique that locates Akbar’s heterodoxy as a millennial madness that fits with other versions of the messianic outbreaks such as the Mahdavī movement. The fulfilment of history in the millennium with Akbar is also indicated by the official chronicle as the Tārīkh-i alfī. In the example of Akbar we have all the elements of the occult, lettrism, sainthood and kingship as messianic figure and renewer of the age. What one cannot really see is where the popular aspects are. The dīn-i ilāhī was not a popular movement but an elite process. One should also consider the dual nature of the Akbarnāma – it was very much a projection of the social persona of the monarch but also an advice to the King as a treatise on statecraft, a desire for what Abū-l-Fażl wanted Akbar to become. The contrast with Shah ʿAbbās is instructive since apart from the bizarre Nuqṭavī episode, we see a routinisation and the process of becoming Shah and leaving behind the Qizilbash past of the millennial sovereign.

The final chapter on Jahangir is perhaps the most interesting. Here is the most extensive consideration of the iconography that takes us beyond the literary sources. Consistent with revisionists, Moin rejects the Naqshbandī reaction approach to Jahangir. The sources represent him as the Complete Manifestation of the Divine. Thus his approach to the Sikhs and even to the Shiʿi martyr Sayyid Nūrullāh Shūshtarī has less to do with an Islamic reaction and more about the assertion of his own authority and as well as his sufferance of the religious choices that his subjects (especially the elites) are allowed to make. The texts and the paintings of Jahangir portray him as a sacral figure, a Sufi saint, a thaumaturge, and axis mundi. What is also clear – and this was also true to Akbar – is how much the iconography also reflects Indic themes; in this context, it is useful to consider some of the baramasa calendars produced for Akbar and Jahangir which reflect this (such as the ones at the Raza Library in Rampur). He also patronised Christian festivals. The argument is that the millennial sovereign sits above the religious particularities of his subjects. The increasingly Christian icononography of Jahangir cannot be divorced, however, from the Jesuit presence at court and their desire to win him for their cause – and no doubt he strung them along.

The conclusion considers to what extent this theory of kingship and its social process unravelled in the seventeenth century. The problem is that teleological approaches to Shah Jahan and his sons tend to obscure our reading. A fuller account of the sources shows that there was no gradual drift to ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ in which the person of Dārā Shikoh was a throwback to his grandfather and great-grandfather. The Mughals continued to see themselves as the ultimate spiritual authorities and arbiters. Moin gives us further reason to take the iconography of Mughal painting seriously. His conclusion ends with an important observation: our reading of the early modern world has become skewed by the prism of reformism and modernism from the nineteenth century seeking clear cut identity markers and expressions in the texts. In a sense this is a plea for considering the simple point: if we want to make sense of what the reformers destroyed or replaced we need to pay attention to the wide range of textual and knowledge production that came before the various expressions of colonial modernity be that Aligarh or Deoband.

One wonders whether the ambition of the work takes over and details are brushed aside rather hastily without working through their connections and implications. One can quibble about lots of details and consideration and clearly some chapters are more successful than others – to my mind, the analyses of Jahangir and Shah Jahan are the most interesting. But the presentist mode of the approach – or rather the self-conscious desire to break out of the modernist mould – offers limitations as well. It is rare indeed to find a work of this ambition being uniformly successful so perhaps we should content ourselves with enjoying the traversal through a dazzling array of sources and then those who have already been won over by the millenarian conceptions of authority in the Timurid period will find further evidence to bolster their prejudices, while those somewhat sceptical of that turn in intellectual history will focus on the mistakes and hasty judgements. But all will profit from reading the Millennial Sovereign.