The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideology and Religious Identity

By Zaman, Arshad | Islamic Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideology and Religious Identity


Zaman, Arshad, Islamic Studies


Omid Safi. The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideology and Religious Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Pp. 292. ISBN 0-8078-2993-5 (cloth); 0-8078- 5657-6 (pbk.).

This intensely personal narrative is a modern argument about an ancient question: how is a moral individual to conduct himself in an immoral environment?

In a remarkable introduction, the author (born in 1970 in the United States) informs us that this project arose because of "questions of religious ideology" that led his family to return to the US from Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution, only to be confronted by a similar, ongoing, inquisition in post-9/11 America. In America, he turned to Persian mystic poets, in the hope that they would help him "recover the fluid religiosity of my childhood. Like many other expatriate Iranians, I sought to-and perhaps needed to-identify a de-politicized (and preferably de-historicized) realm of spiritual poetry out of which I could resurrect a worldview that was at once spiritual and rational, tolerant and modern" (pp. xxi-xxii).

Safi writes that he found this fluid religiosity in "an oppositional sufi" 'Ayn al-Qudat Abu 'l-Ma'ali 'Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn 'Ali ibn al-Hasan al-Mayanji al-Hamadani (492-525/1098-1131), who possessed "all the qualifications of being a powerful insider," being "a judge, a sufi [sufi], a popular preacher, etc.," but used his position "not to bargain with the Saljuqs but to rise against them, defiantly contesting their legitimacy" (p. 158) and was executed for it at the age of thirty three in Isfahan. "He was for me Rumi [Jalal al-Din Muhammad b. Muhammad al-Rumi (d. 672/1273)] and Ibn 'Arabi [Muhyi 'l-Din Muhammad b. 'Ali (d. 638/1240)], poet and social critic, lover and philosopher, all wrapped up in one." The book, originally a doctoral dissertation, represents the author's attempt "to figure out something about why he was killed." The answer, an erudite, intellectually disciplined account of a journey of the soul, is presented in six chapters. The first three set out the methodological framework, as becomes a dissertation; the last three examine three stylised responses: capitulation, negotiation, or opposition.

With some simplification of the author's complex and nuanced account the storyline may be sketched as follows. The Saljuqs were nominal Muslims, who contested and negotiated with the Caliph, and-through the vezir- coerced all (especially, notable scholars and mystics), in their quest for power. This is exemplified in the life of Nizam al-Mulk (408-485/1018-1092) whose complex negotiations on politics and "ideology" were the proximate determinants of the substance of religious orthodoxy and sufi lore of the times. In addition to personal influence, the "state apparatus" of surveillance, land-grants, madrasahs and khanqahs was employed to ensure compliance.

How did individuals respond to this environment? Abau Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (450-505/1058-1111) accepted the patronage of Nizam al-Mulk; contrary to accounts of his "allegedly spiritual quest" (p. 204) al- Ghazali "was, and remained forever, a political creature" (p. 109), not above using "the ultimate trump card, the Qur'an" (p. 120) to legitimize obedience to the Saljuqs. Less closely linked to power than the madrasah 'ulama', some sufis-Baba Tahir ('Uryan, dates uncertain), Abau Sa'id Abi 'l-Khayr (d. 440/1049), and Shaykh Ahmad ibn Abau 'l-Hasan Ahmad-i Jam, Zindahfil (d. 536/1141)-employed "spiritual blackmail" (p. 129) by asking for support for sufis and khanqahs, in return for enhancing legitimacy by their blessings, "supportive" visions, and wondrous deeds (karamat). Finally, there is the "oppositional"-the posture approved by fellow-émigré, Edward Said-sufi, 'Ayn al-Qudat al-Hamadani, a student of Abau Hamid al-Ghazali's works and his brother's (Abau 'l-Futauh Ahmad al-Ghazali, d. 520/1126) disciple, who was executed for his refusal to legitimize the Saljuqs and his opposition to their ideology. …

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