Universal Science

An Introduction to Islamic Metaphysics

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Mahdi Ha'irï Yazdï
Translator(s): 
John Cooper
Modern Shï'ah Library

Review

Mahdī Ḥāʾirī Yazdīoriginally published Universal Science: an Introduction to Islamic Metaphysics as a Persian-language philosophy textbook, ‘Ilm-i kullī, in the mid-1950s. It is mainly a presentation of the ontology of MullāSadrā (d. 1640), whose ḥikmah mutʿāliyah (sometimes translated as “transcendent theosophy”) has long been the dominant school in Iranian seminaries’ philosophy curricula. The occasion of the Universal Science’s publication in English offers readers an opportunity to reflect on the many challenges associated with translating a book that aims to synthesize and represent an entire philosophical tradition. 

Even in its original language, Universal Science was something of a translation, given that it was composed in Persian, while Islamic philosophy’s technical vocabulary is Arabic-derived; MullāSadrā wrote mainly in Arabic, as did many other Iranian scholars of his day. In light of this, it bears asking how much Islamic philosophy might change when conducted in a less-Arabized-than-usual Persian. How much can an English translation illustrate these changes? Is Ḥāʾirī modifying the tradition by, for example, appealing to the Persian term dil when defining metaphysics as bringing “the world of existence into his mind in all its order and regularity, until the pages of the heart (dil) are filled with the design of the universe” (57) or by including the Persian hastī (“being”) alongside the traditional Arabic wujūd (“existence”) (63)?

Both the editor’s introduction and Universal Science itself raise interesting questions about Ḥāʾirī’s engagement with Western philosophy. The introduction mentions that after his education in traditional philosophy and the religious sciences in Iran, Ḥāʾirī took up the study of Western philosophy in the United States. The editor notes that the ‘Ilm-i kullī“ pre-dates his move to the United States, and full immersion in Western philosophy” (7). Although this seems to leave open the question of whether a less complete immersion in Western philosophy was already at work while Ḥāʾirī wrote ‘Ilm-i kullī, there is some evidence of an interest in Western philosophy within Ḥāʾirī’s work. When defining God as Pure Existence, Ḥāʾirī quotes not only traditional Islamic philosophers like Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā, but also cites Descartes (81) and the German philosopher Oswald Külpe’s (d. 1915) history of philosophy, Einleitung in die Philosophie (95).

A later portion of the editor’s introduction, which discusses the recent history of logic, adds a problematic layer to the exploration of Ḥāʾirī’s relationship to Western philosophy. The editor justifies his inclusion of this section by explaining that Ḥāʾirī “assumes a certain measure of philosophical preparation on the part of his readership”; a modern reader without “a thorough grounding in logic” would be “placed at a disadvantage” (28). He goes on to explain, though, that the logic in which the reader should be grounded is traditional Aristotelian logic as opposed to modern symbolic logic. According to the editor, modern logic, has, as a result of both Humean skepticism and Kantian idealism, been reduced to “the mere manipulation of symbols by agreed upon conventions” and does not share the realist assumptions that guided traditional logic (33). This section of the introduction goes on to dismiss a variety of philosophical positions including the common receptions of Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, Kurt Godel, Georg Cantor, and the entire nominalist tradition as sophistry. Given Ḥāʾirī’s close study of Western philosophy, this conclusion is particularly jarring; it seems unlikely that Ḥāʾirī himself would have found “sophistry” a suitable heading for these diverse trends, having chosen to pursue a graduate-level education in Western philosophy.

Aside from the fact that it makes it difficult to find grounds for an engagement with, rather than a rejection of, Western philosophy, this portion of the introduction is longer than necessary; the effort expended in rejecting the conclusions associated with recent philosophers might have been better used by providing more context on Ḥāʾirī’s work. This portion also rests on distractingly faulty assumptions. For example, the editor claims that recent receptions of Gödel “are guilty of a gross misunderstanding and misrepresentation of his position” when they interpret his Incompleteness theorem to establish “that logic is incapable of arriving at necessary truths through apodictic proof”; the editor terms this the “fallacy of incompleteness” because such a conclusion contradicts Gödel’s personal view that his result was “evidence of an eternal objective truth independent of the human mind” (39). We can note that the editor might be guilty of a fallacy of his own in taking this position: he privileges authorial intent over reader reception, assuming that Gödel’s “Platonist conception of mathematics” and belief “in God after the fashion of Leibniz” should limit the uses to which the Incompleteness theorem can be put. This, of course, rests on the assumption that authorial intent can or should limit the interpretations of a work, a position regarded in critical scholarly circles as questionable at best for decades. Faulty arguments aside, such an excursus does little to elucidate any of Ḥāʾirī’s positions in Universal Science. This is especially unfortunate because an introduction that did supply more background information on the philosophy handbook as an Islamic genre, 20th century developments in Islamic philosophy, or even on traditional education in Iran, would do much to clarify the ʿIlm-i kullī. 

These issues aside (for which neither the author nor the translator, both deceased, can be blamed), Universal Science offers a fascinating glimpse into an under-studied period in the history of Islamic philosophy. For a long time, the dominant narrative in Western scholarship has held that Islamic philosophy withered after al-Ghazālī declared philosophers unbelievers in his The Incoherence of the Philosophers. More recent scholarship has recognized that philosophy survived and thrived even into the thirteenth century, and the narrow (if growing) sub-field of Sadrian studies recognizes the tremendous impact of the aforementioned MullāSadrā. However, studies of Islamic philosophy in the modern period are few and far between, so, a volume like Universal Scienceis a major contribution to a field that would benefit from a great deal more material on the 19th and 20th century contexts of philosophy in Iran.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Landau Ames is Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at St. Francis College.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mahdī Hāʾirī Yazdī (1923–1999) was an eminent Shīʿah intellectual. He taught at Harvard and Oxford, and was Professor of Islamic Philosophy at the University of Tehran. He was the author of several diverse texts ranging from epistemology to political theory.

John Cooper (1947–1998) was E.G. Browne lecturer in Persian at the University of Cambridge. He studied at Cambridge and the Qum Seminary in Iran. He was the general editor of Encyclopaedia Iranica, as well as a prolific author and translator.

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