Key Texts in Muslim History
With Dr. Sayeh Meisami
This course is designed to throw light on four key texts in Muslim history, from the Arab and Persian world. Each author studied contributed significantly to the growth and expansion of Islamic civilization. The selected works discuss political, ethical, religious, philosophical, and spiritual subjects.
Session 1 | Views on the Perfect State by Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (872-950/951), Part 1
A brief history of Farabi’s position in the history of Islamic philosophy and his works is what the first session opens with. Farabi’s book, Views on the Perfect State (Mabadi al-an ahl al-madinat al-fadila) written around 339 AH/950 AD belongs to a wider genre of utopias which began with Plato’s the Republic. Though it is theoretically based on Plato, what it reflects is the fact of the Muslim city in which he lived. More than one third of the book is devoted to an academic description of the structure of human society as it should be, and a severe condemnation of its shortcomings in Farabi’s day. A book of this nature was written at the dawn of a great civilization, when political philosophy was most useful. The book is particularly interesting at the heart of the Muslim empire where religious and political authority as represented by the Caliphs was an urgent matter. So our introduction with include 1) the significance of the book as political philosophy; 2) its structures and divisions; 3) the historical-philosophical-religious bases on which the book is built. At the end the students receive a selection of passages (English translation) which will be explained on the following session.
Session 2 | Views on the Perfect State by Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (872-950/951), Part 2
The major themes of the book are as follows: 1) Platonic model of virtuous and vicious states, 2) the role of intellect in a virtuous state and characteristics of a perfect ruler, 3) philosophy and religion in the state, 4) the meaning and possibility of human happiness. Delving into our passages from the Perfect State, we can come to appreciate the role of knowledge, both divine and human, in providing a human society with justice, understanding, discipline, moral and spiritual life, and as a result happiness both in this life and the one to come. Our class discussion can basically revolve around the extent to which Farabi’s model for a perfect state may or may not apply to our day, especially with respect to his ill treatment of democracy.
Session 3 | The Alchemy of Happiness by Abu Hamed al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), Part 1 This book is a summary of the ground-breaking Ihya al-Ulum al-Din (Revival of Religious Sciences) by al-Ghazzali from fifth century hijri. The Alchemy of Happiness is also valuable in its own right both in its spiritual and Sufi approach towards the meaning of Islamic doctrines and rituals, and its place among literary works owing to its style. Though written about a millenium ago, the language is still within the reach of modern readers and the spiritual messages very attractive for those in quest of the deeper meaning of Muslim faith. Al-Ghazzali deals with articles of faith, rituals, and laws by means of a poetically rich language replete with memorable metaphors. As the title show, the book is a summary of guidelines and instructions for those who seek to bring out the gold of true happiness out of the everyday metal of belief and worship. In this session, we shall discuss the approach adopted in this book to show the significance of al-Ghazzali in laying the groundwork for speculative Sufism. Selected passages from Alchemy (English translation) will be distribute at the end of the session.
Session 4 | The Alchemy of Happiness by Abu Hamed al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), Part 2
In this session, based on the previous discussions and the selected passages the class with learn about some key ideas and themes in the The Alchemy of Happiness including 1) knowledge of the soul, 2) knowledge of the world, 3) knowledge of God, 4) the nature of prophethood and sainthood, 5) true meaning of the acts of worship (ibadah), 6) the spiritual core of laws and rituals in Islam, 6) the meaning of free will. Going through these themes, we shall seek to decide if al-Ghazzali has been successful in reconciling orthodoxy with Sufism and to what extent he may be right in preferring Sufism over both philosophy and theology.
Session 5 | Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya by Muhyiddin Ibn’Arabi (1165-1240), Part 1
Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyyah is a voluminous book in 560 chapters. In this book, Ibn’Arabi explained in detail all the major doctrines of speculative Sufism with later turned into one of the hallmarks of Muslim life. In this book, he draws on the Quran and Hadith interpretation to explain the relationship between God and the world, the structure of the whole cosmos, the place of humans in the world and how they can ascend back to their original Edenic position. Like other works by Ibn’Arabi, this book is a mystical commentary on the Quran since for him, the Quran is the linguistic embodiment of the Truth.
Following a brief introduction to Ibn’Arabi’s life and works, we will discuss the significance of al-Futuhat in Muslim history and its influence on later mysticism and philosophy. Later Islamic intellectual traditions may not be properly understood without a background knowledge of Ibn’Arabi’s works as presented in this book. Several passages of al-Futuhat in English will be distributed at the end of the session.
Session 6 | Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya by Muhyiddin Ibn’Arabi (1165-1240), Part 2
Following our introductory remarks, some of the central themes of the book will be discussed. The discussion includes 1. unity of Being and Divine presence, 2. the breath of the Merciful, 3. divine attributes and names, 4. microcosm versus macrocosm, 5. imagination and the imaginal world, 6. return to God, 7. spiritual quest and the stations on the path, 8. sainthood and the perfect human. While going through these themes, we can also consider and discuss the question as to conciliation of Ibn’Arabi’s world view with ‘orthodox’ Islamic theology. This is a crucial matter since in the history of Islam, Sufis have always suffered the worst accusations, punishments, and executions.
Session 7 | Mathnavi by Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), Part 1
Mathnavi is a widely-read collection of poetry in Persian which is also well known to the West. It covers a wide range of themes including social-ethical, religious, philosophical and mystical. These themes are developed through poetic parables using fresh metaphors and symbols, and above all, the language of paradox. Rumi’s poetry is on the whole, the story of a soul which is ‘cut off’ from its homeland, craving to get back. His sonnets are replete with different forms of this lament, and Platonic love is presented as a way to return. What differentiates Mathnavi from the sonnets is firstly, the narrative form and secondly, the emphasis on social and ethical ideas along with Sufi doctrines. Influenced by Ibn’Arabi through the latter’s disciple and commentator Sadr al-Din Qunavi, Rumi represents Sufism in poetry.
Session 8 | Mathnavi by Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), Part 2
Based on the selection of poems distributed before, in this session we focus on the meaning and significance of the poems which include the following themes: 1) Sufi worldview and the importance of opposites, 2) love and intellect, 3) good and evil, 4) the creativeness of saints, 5) need for a guide during the spiritual quest, 6) annihilation in Divine Love. The class can discuss the value of Mathnavi as a Muslim heritage and decide whether Rumi’s Sufi worldview and attitude can be effective in dealing with the illnesses of modern life and general and the spiritual dilemmas of individuals in particular.
Time: 10:15 am – 12:30 pm
May 6; 13; 20; 27;
Location: Upper classroom, Noor Cultural Centre
Class cap: 25 students
Dr. Sayeh Meisami is a research associate at the Department and Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, where she is leading the Islamic Philosophy Reading Group. Before immigrating to Canada in 2010, she was assistant professor at the Philosophy Department of Islamic Azad University in Tehran, where she taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses on metaphysics, epistemology, and transcendental philosophy. She received her PhD from Tehran University in 2005, where she had also done an MA in philosophy and an MA in English literature. She is the English editor of The Journal of Philosophy at Tehran University and has so far published a number of translations, including Saint Augustine’s Confessions, A Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, and Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, the last of which was nominated for the Islamic Republic Book of the Year’s Award in 2006. Meaning and Truth in the Philosophy of W.V Quine is her last published book in Iran, and attracted positive attention in academia. Her current research interest, which she has been pursuing over the past few years, is the philosophy of Mulla Sadra. She is writing a book on the basics of his philosophy, which includes ontology, epistimology, cosmology, eschatology, and theology.
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