As Franz Rosenthal demonstrated in detail decades ago (Knowledge Triumphant, 1970), a dynamic and multi-facted conception of knowledge (‘ilm/danesh) permeated the intellectual life of Islam for centuries. ‘Ulema, philosophers and mystics alike concerned themselves with what we know, how we know, and how we know we know. While one of the most striking differences, for example, was established between God’s knowledge (that is, when God is in the act of knowing) and the knowledge of a human being, distinctions were also drawn between the knowledge of the intellect (‘aql/kherad) and that derived from the heart (qalb/del). In certain Persian texts, besides the terminology of ma‘rifa, ‘ilm and danesh, the terms shenakhtan and shenakht were also introduced, thus allowing the possibility of a further conceptual refinement. This paper will focus on several key Persian texts of the 10th to 12th centuries (including works by Ibn Sina and Nasir Khusraw) which expound an esoteric interpretation of knowledge and will also attempt to place these writings in the context of the other (not necessarily larger) debates of a seemingly more exoteric nature. The aim of the paper is to show how profoundly esoteric assumptions and considerations filtered through the entire range of philosophical discussion.
Dr Hunsberger received her doctorate in Middle East Languages and Cultures from Columbia University in 1992, specialising in Persian and Arabic literatures. She has taught courses dealing with aspects of Islam as well as on the history of science at various universities in Iran and the USA, including Arya Mehr University of Technology in Isfahan, Iran and Hunter College, The City University of New York. Dr Hunsberger is the author of Nasir Khusraw, The Ruby of Badakhshan: A Portrait of the Persian Poet, Traveller and Scholar (London, 2000), and has contributed numerous papers to academic conferences and journals. Dr Hunsberger was a Visiting Research Fellow at The Institute of Ismaili Studies from 1999-2001.