Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Current Reading: Shi`i Exegesis and Mahdism




Peace, one and all...
I'm back again today, with more posts than you can shake a stick at! This one (as the title may suggest) is a book review of sorts, or perhaps a book overview would be more appropriate. I've not finished it yet, but a few stray thoughts are in order...
The text in question is Meir M. Bar-Asher's Scripture and Exegesis in Early Imami Shiism (1999, published by EJ Brill). The book deals with early Shii exegesis (mostly pre-Buwayhid) and explores this fascinating topic from a number of angles. Firstly, Bar-Asher discusses the texts he's using: the Tafsir works of Furat ibn Furat ibn Ibrahim al-Kufi, Ali ibn Ibrahim al-Qummi, Abu-'l Nadr Muhammad ibn Mas'ud al`Ayyashi & Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ja`far al-Nu`mani. All of these texts were written during the immediately prior to the Buyid takeover, in and around the time of the Greater Occultation and thus, according to Bar-Asher, represent the views of early Shii mufassirin (exegetes).
The second section looks at features common to all of these works (which Bar-Asher sees as a 'school'). He then moves to looking at specific issues - particularly the doctrine of Imama. I must say I've enjoyed reading the book immensely. The subject is fascinating - especially the ways in which these mufassirin attempt to read Shia doctrines into the text. As an initial thought, it seems clear that the later Ismaili batini ('esoteric') exegesis has its roots in the general imami school. That is, the interpretation of particular verses is seen to operate on 2 distinct levels - with the interior meaning of a given passage not (necessarily) having to relate to the wider surface grammar and meaning.
All in all, a fascinating read and one which fits in nicely with other such works on the development of Shiism: such as A. A. Sachedina's Islamic Messianism and S. A. Arjomand's The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam. Al hamdu lillah, I feel as though I'm starting to make progress in my attempt to understand Shii history and thought. I'd certainly recommend this book, though I'm not sure of all of the points in it (though that's almost always the case I suppose).
I've also been reading Abbas Amanat's Resurrection and Renewel: the Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844 - 1852. So, from one end of Shia history to the other! Again, an interesting book - well written and with plausible arguments. Although, in days gone by, I used to read a fair bit of Baha'i stuff, I've not had the opportunity (until quite recently) to explore the Babi prolegomena (well, it would be to a Baha'i). I read Peter Smith's The Babi and Baha'i religions : from Messianic Shiism to a world religion last year and thought it was an excellent introduction. Amanat's larger, and more detailed work, is thus my first serious exploration of the Bab and his teachings. Amanat really does emphasise the Shaykhi background of the Bab and his followers, which helps situate the movement in its proper context. He also attempts to explain it in its own terms. The only criticism I had of Smith's work was that its very set up leads one to see Baha'i teaching as the natural culmination of Babism, as opposed to a faith in its own right. Smith acknowledges this as I recall, still it's hard to escape I supose.
Although my understanding of Babism is improving, it still seems unfamiliar. The emphasis on talismans seems odd (especially given the salafi dominated discourse in British new Muslim circles). Still, deeply fascinating.
On a somewhat related topic, I sent a proposal to the Head of School today for a new Level 2 undergraduate module. It's called Shia Islam: History and Theology and it will attempt to do exactly what it says on the tin (the Ronseal Approach to Higher Education)! It's an adaptation (and a conscious one at that) of my proposed LEARN module - Early Shia Islam (due to run in Sept. 2006, God willing). I've deliberately pitched it at level 2 for 2 reasons: we have a gap in level 2 modules in the School and I want to move up from the first year stuff I've been doing. I hope it comes off, insha Allah.
Anyway, that's all folks (for now at any rate).
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

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