Recent Readings

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas by David MacauleyDavid Macauley, Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010)

Whereas hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are phenomena proper to the laboratory, earth, water, fire, and air are sensuous, archetypal ideas that ravish our bodies and haunt our dreams. Central to pre-modern philosophical investigations, in the Enlightenment the four elements were consigned to the dustbin of pseudo-science, becoming a subject that, in Hegel’s words, “no educated person is permitted, under any circumstances, to mention.” In today’s deforested, smog-choked, overheated world however, earth, water, fire, and air are taking on renewed meaning as vital liminal sites in the ever-shifting human encounter with the more-than-human cosmos. Freighted with erudition yet buoyant with spirited wordplay, Macauley’s intellectual history of the four elements is a delightful tour de force of environmental philosophy.

Todd Lawson, The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2009)
The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought by Todd Lawson

Just as Abraham and Moses belong equally to Judaism and Christianity, Jesus belongs equally to Christianity and Islam. Christians and Muslims share the belief that Jesus was born without a human father. They generally disagree, however, on the circumstances of his death. The Gospels relate that Jesus was crucified, and for Christians the crucifixion is of pivotal sacred significance. By contrast, the Qur’an denies the crucifixion—or so it is frequently assumed. In actuality, as Lawson shows in this excellent study, the sole verse in the Qur’an that mentions the crucifixion is tantalizingly cryptic, and has been variously interpreted down the centuries. The verse reads: “They did not kill him and they did not crucify him, rather it only appeared to them so” (4:157). For some interpreters, the implication is that a substitute resembling Jesus was crucified in his place. For others, the verse carries a mystical meaning. The 10th-century Brotherhood of Purity, for instance, maintained that while Jesus’ humanity (nasut) was crucified, his divinity (lahut) was raised to heaven. Al-Hallaj seems to have had such a notion in mind—relative to both Jesus and himself—when, hung up on his cross, he declared, “They did not kill him…”  

Lloyd Ridgeon, Morals and Mysticism in Persian Sufism: A history of Sufi-futuwwat in Iran (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2010)
Morals and Mysticism in Persian Sufism: A history of Sufi-futuwwat in Iran by Lloyd Ridgeon

The Sufi tradition has been the subject of innumerable scholarly studies over the past several decades. Until now, however, negligible attention has been paid to Sufism’s chivalric counterpart, futuwwa. Ridgeon’s new book goes far in redressing the omission. Ridgeon traces the origins of futuwwa to the ‘ayyaran of the 8th and 9th centuries, a group of outlaws who, at their ethical best, bear a resemblance to Robin Hood’s Merry Men. Under Sufi influence, the gallantry of the ‘ayyaran was spiritualized. Charting the institutionalization of futuwwa as a Sufi discipline, Ridgeon insightfully analyzes the contributions of ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, Abu Hafs ‘Umar Suhrawardi, and Hasayn Wa’iz Kashifi. Particularly interesting, and problematic, is Suhrawardi’s collaboration with the ‘Abbasid Caliph Nasir li-din Allah, whereby for a time futuwwa became an appendage of imperial authority. Later chapters deal with the antinomian qalandar movement and the phenomenon of the zurkhana, the traditional Iranian gymnasium. Shining out from this history is an ideal well-worth reviving. Put succinctly by Yahya ibn Mu‘adh, futuwwa is “peace, generosity, loyalty, and modesty.”

Akbar by Andrew WinkAndre Wink, Akbar (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2009)

The Jesuit missionary Father Monserrate noted that Akbar’s eyes were so bright, “when he looks at you, it seems as if they hurt you by their brightness.” Certainly this was no ordinary man, as Wink’s well-researched and engaging biography attests. A scion of the houses of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, Akbar rose from precarious origins to become sovereign of a vast empire. Wink effectively details the military, economic, and political policies—some of them ingeniously novel—that paved Akbar’s path to success. Of special interest to readers of this blog will be the section on Akbar’s religious experiments. The emperor’s religious thinking can be divided into three phases: an initial period of conventional Islamic piety colored by devotion to Sufi saints; a subsequent period of comparative religious study; and a final period of syncretic innovation. In the first period Akbar made repeated pilgrimages on foot to the shrine of Khwaja Mu‘in al-Din Chishti. In the second he founded the House of Worship in Fatehpur Sikri, where leaders of many faiths gathered for weekly discussions—discussions that, to Akbar’s dismay, frequently descended into petty bickering. In the last period Akbar created an eclectic religious order called the “Divine Faith” (Din-i Ilahi), which required its adherents to be prepared to sacrifice property, life, honor and religion for the emperor, whose portrait they carried in their turban. Whatever one may think of this ritualized personality cult, Akbar deserves credit for his open-minded policy of religious freedom, described thus by his prime minister and official historian, Abu’l Fazl: “The world lord exercises world sway on the principle of ‘universal peace,’ every sect can assert its doctrine without apprehension, and everyone can worship God after his own  fashion.”  

Alyssa Gabbay, Islamic Tolerance: Amir Khusraw and pluralism (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2010)Islamic Tolerance: Amir Khusraw and pluralism by Alyssa Gabbay

Although  contacts between the cultures of the Middle East and South Asia may be traced back to pre-Islamic times, the Turkish conquest of the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century brought the civilizations of Islam and India into a fateful collision course, with consequences both tragic and sublime. Underpinning the external history of events is an internal history of perceptions. Few Muslim thinkers are likely to have exercised as great an influence on perceptions of the Hindu “other” as the famed Indo-Persian poet Amir Khusraw (1253-1325). With his mixed Turkish-Indian parentage, Khusraw was well positioned to articulate the complexities and contradictions of the “frontier” society in which he lived. As Gabbay shows, Khusraw’s work is both an index of popular negative stereotypes of Hindus (and women) and a significant contribution toward a more tolerant, pluralistic worldview. Gabbay’s definition of tolerance is elegantly succinct: “Tolerance is that state of mind which accepts diversity of all kinds and is able to see the unity underlying it.” Gabbay demonstrates that while Khusraw frequently reproduces the polarizing tropes of the rhetorical tradition to which he belongs, just as frequently he creatively subverts them, evoking a new idiom of pluralism where “the duality has disappeared from Turk and Hindu.”

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, founder of Seven Pillars House of Wisdom, is the spiritual leader of the Sufi Order International, a mystical and ecumenical fellowship rooted in the visionary legacy of his grandfather, Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan. Pir Zia is also President of the Suluk Academy for esoteric studies. Pir Zia holds a doctoral degree in religion from Duke University, is a recipient of the U Thant Peace Award, and is a Lindisfarne Fellow.

Read more about Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

Comments (1)
  • much appreciated

    — qalbi on April 7, 2011

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7 April 2011

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mysticism, religion, Earth, sacred, Sufism, Judaism, elementals, divine, Hinduism, Islam, water, Christianity, environment,
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much appreciated

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