Table of contents
- 'E' for 'Eagles'
- Nasir Khusraw
- A Transformation
- The Safarnama
- A Glimpse of the Writer
- Philosophical Works
- The Concept of Creation in the Quran
- Neoplatonism and the Concept of Creation
- Nasir's God-intellect-soul-nature model
- Al-Kirmani's ten-intellect model
- Nasir's Divan
- Intellect and Action
- A Rational and a Specified Sharia
- The Soul and the Body
In thinking about the Fatimid intellectual tradition, a number of the essays in this book have taken a `big picture' approach, giving an overview of the larger cultural and historical issues. I should like to move away from this approach and focus on one compelling individual, Nasir Khusraw, who lived primarily in Khurasan during the eleventh century. In keeping with the theme of the book, I shall concentrate on a few of his ideas. From them, perhaps, one can start to see what makes him such a noteworthy character.
Ruzi zi sar-i sang 'uqabi bi haaa khwast
Bahr-i talab-i tu' mih, par o bal biyarast.
The poem tells the tale of how, one day, an eagle rose up from its rocky perch, luxuriously extended its wings and feathers, and flew off to look for food. While soaring at great heights, the eagle marvelled at his superior talents, on eyesight so keen he could even discern a tiny hair at the bottom of the sea, or a gnat moving on a twig. He boasted, 'Who is a better creature than I, anywhere on earth or sky?' But suddenly, in the midst of this reverie of self-satisfaction, he is struck by a terrible pain and falls, hurtling to the ground below. In shock, he looks around to see the cause of his disaster and spies an arrow lodged deep within him. But his disbelief continues. He cannot fathom how something made of wood and metal, two heavy and earth-bound elements, could fell a creature of the air, a creature with powers superior even to those of man. It is only when his eye catches sight of the feathers attached to the end of the arrow, the feathers of an eagle, that he understands the source of the arrow's power. The implications of this sink deep within his soul, and he exclaims:
Zi tir nigah kard o par-i khwish baru did,
Gufta: zi ki nalim ? Ki az ma-st ki bar ma-st!
He realises that it is the feathers that have brought his doom, the very feathers which carried him to the skies have brought him down. The climactic words 'az mast ki bar mast' still signify today that we, too, have within ourselves the very thing which will take us up as well as down. The poet's point is to be careful of its power. Nasir Khusraw ends the poem with straightforward advice:
Khusraw! Cast out your ego and your selfishness.
Look at this eagle full of selfish pride.
It was his selfishness, excessive sense of self,
That brought him down.
In the Safar-nama we encounter a man very conscious of the way cities are fortified and how they are administered. Nasir makes a point of telling how many gates each city has, how thick are its walls and where its water comes from. He actually paces out the length and breadth of cities. He also goes into markets and records how much certain items cost, and then gives comparisons for the people back home in Khurasan. While we may be grateful for these details, we are often not sure whether he is just writing in his administrative style, recording numbers as in a ledger, or if there is some sociological or historical reason for him to mention them. The answer always seems to be the former - that he is interested in the details of everyday life and he wants to share them with others. However, when he does offer some of the historical background to his narrative, it is often too cryptic to be very satisfying. In the story of his visit to the city of Lahsa (al-Ahsa), then still the capital of the Qarmati state of Bahrayn, he speaks about the time some people of Lahsa attacked Islam's sacred mosque in Mecca, stole the Black Stone out of the Ka'ba, and carried it off to Lahsa. Nasir Khusraw uses the anecdote as an opportunity to make a preacherly point. He criticises the people of Lahsa for foolishly thinking that the stone itself was some kind of 'human magnet' which draws people to Mecca, and for not understanding that it was in fact the excellence of the Prophet Muhammad and his message which attracted people to Mecca as a place of pilgrimage, and not the stone. After this brief criticism, which only takes two lines or so, Nasir lists the animals they eat in Lahsa. The reader is left wishing for more analysis and explanation from this traveller who is so sensitive and astute an observer, as well as opinionated.
Besides his record of the facts of what he observed in his physical environment, Nasir allows a few glimpses of himself. There was the joke he shared with his brother, who travelled with him, about the shopkeeper from Kharzavil who had nothing they asked for. Thereafter on the journey, whenever someone did not have the thing they were looking for, the two brothers would look at each other and say, 'This is just like the grocer from Kharzavil!' Then there was the other comment Nasir made after spending a day with a teacher in Simnan. The teacher had grouped his students close to the pillars of the courtyard. At one pillar a group was studying medicine, at another mathematics. The teacher kept remarking in earshot of the visitor that he had heard this or that from Ibn Sina. But in a direct conversation with Nasir Khusraw, this teacher, who had hundreds of students around him, confessed, ' I do not know anything about mathematics.'Nasir Khusraw went away wondering how the fellow could possibly teach anything if he did not even know the subject.
Wellschooled in the intellectual traditions of his day, Nasir Khusraw brought his learning to the cause of defending and proclaiming the Ismaili faith. From his philosophical books, we can see that he was familiar with the full scope of religious enquiry, from metaphysics to ethics. In them, he addresses a broad range of questions: How did the world come to be? What is meant by space, time and matter? What is the relationship of matter to spirit? What is soul and what is intellect? What are the central ethical issues a believer should be concerned with? After his conversion, Nasir used all his knowledge and intellectual curiosity in the service of the Ismaili cause, specifically to lead others to its truth and to defend it against its enemies.
Intellect thus has the closest relationship with the Neoplatonic One. In its closeness with the One, intellect overflows into another hypostasis called universal soul (nafs-i kull). When soul 'looks back' (or refers back) and sees that intellect is between it and God, it generates nature which contains within it the material world (hayula). We now have a spiritual hierarchy descending from God to intellect, soul and nature. The four principal elements of the material world are earth, air, fire and water, and from them everything else is constituted.
The hierarchy of creation now starts to ascend. At the lowest level, the four elements combine to make, first, the minerals (which occupy space but cannot move by themselves nor reproduce), then the plants (which cannot move but can reproduce), and then the animals (which can move as well as reproduce). Of the animals, the highest ranked are the humans (which can not only move and reproduce but can also think). Thus, a clear path from humans to God has been established. Once we clarify the relation of the human soul to the universal soul, as well as to the human intellect and universal intellect, we will have the necessary grid onto which religion can spread its ethics.
Notice that, for Nasir Khusraw, it is the universal soul that desires perfection. Universal intellect already has perfection. This is certainly not the gnostic idea of the soul descending to the earth and being imprisoned by desire for it. For Nasir Khusraw, the soul's desiring of perfection leads to the creation. This then provides the groundwork for an appreciation of the physical world. We can see the root, then, of some lessons in Nasir Khusraw's writings - in order to achieve the higher world, one must be in this world, and this world is a vital part of the whole scheme.
I suggest that it supported the philosophers' claim that people do not have to give up their intellect in order to have faith. The philosophers preferred this system in which man's intellect connects to the hierarchy of intellects, and through that connection gets him to God. Their concern was how to make the ontological connection between humans and a God who is so totally different, totally other. But what the proponents of the ten intellects left out, and what Nasir Khusraw did not, is the creative energy of the soul. As he points out, the soul creates the physical world and is in charge of running it. For Nasir Khusraw, the universal soul is not just that which creates and animates, though it surely is that; it is all of these at once, as well as the very thing that will be saved, that is, the human soul. We never hear of the intellect being saved. We see that the soul has the creative power to save itself. The soul (nafs), according to Nasir Khusraw, is therefore conscious of its current state and a better future; it is active and creative, and always trying to drive itself to perfection.
A good portion of Nasir's poetry - which dates from his period of exile - grapples directly with his sadness and the bitterness of losing much that was dear to him; often he is very bitter at the ignorant fools who reject all the knowledge and wisdom he wishes to bring. At such a moment, he describes his pain as sharper than anyone has ever known:
The scorpion of exile has stung my heart so,
You'd say heaven invented suffering just for me.
In another verse, he bitterly declares:
Though sinless, I have become the enemy
of the Turk, the Arab, the Iraqi and the Khurasani.
Always searching for a fault and finding none, they still
call me 'heretic' and an enemy of the Companions!
Nonetheless, at some point in each of his poems, Nasir Khusraw changes from anger or sadness to a reaffirmation of his life's work. He reminds himself of his commitment to the Fatimid caliph-Imam and the truth of the Ismaili faith. He consoles himself that the rule of this fickle world means that not only can good turn to bad but, since change is inevitable, bad will also necessarily change, some day, to good.
What we see in Nasir's Divan of poetry is a man struggling with conflicting emotions, between warning others against the physical world which entraps and ultimately betrays a spiritual person, and asserting at the same time that the physical world is essential in the effort of following the spiritual path. While it may be easy to see the puritanical tenor of this message of the seductive dangers of the physical world, it requires more thought to understand the positive value of the physical world that Nasir holds for the spiritual person. For a spiritual person, one who holds the other world more important than this world, the greater challenge is to actively and productively engage in the physical world than to reject it. The physical world is essential to a life of faith because it holds the tools for learning true wisdom, namely reason (or intellect) and knowledge, that is `aql and `ilm. In his Wajh-i din, Nasir explains that animals act without knowledge, while angels know without acting. But humans must combine both knowledge and action, just as they represent a combination of animal bodies and angelic knowledge. While among the Sufis, reason (`aql) was a boundary to be overcome, an obstacle in the path of achieving union in the wellspring of love, for Nasir Khusraw reason is not something to be surpassed or suppressed but to be used for increasing knowledge and strengthening faith. In another poem, here translated in Victorian style by Edward G. Browne (1862-1926), Nasir says:
Reason was ever my leader, leading me on by the hand
Till it made me famed for wisdom through the length and breadth of the land.
Reason it was which gave me the crown of faith, I say, and faith
hath given me virtue, and strength to endure and obey.
For Nasir Khusraw, then, reason is not opposed to faith, nor does it represent an alternative way of life. Rather, it is integral to both, leading a believer to proper faith and then strengthening that conviction.
On the other hand, for Nasir Khusraw, knowledge without proper action is hollow. It is not sufficient to know what is true; and it is not enough to know the Imam of the time. To him that would be 'like a string of pearls in which you have placed a common stone in the centre.' One must also act in accordance with this knowledge. He preaches the usual ethics, but he always grounds them in practicality; he explains that good deeds are not advocated simply because they are good, but because they bring you good either in this world or the next. He says that the scorpion that causes you pain will one day also suffer equal pain, so there is no need to fear suffering because you will get your reward later. Nasir Khusraw's popularity may indeed spring from this practical sense; he has his feet very much on the ground and gives this world its proper due, no matter how dangerously attractive it may appear. Since a part of Nasir's virtuous behaviour is to guide others, his ethics call for a dual path of using the intellect: to learn for oneself and to teach others. It is not enough to acquire knowledge; one must also point out the path to others. For example, in the dream that turned him around to a spiritual life of preaching, the voice proclaimed: 'He cannot be called wise who leads men to senselessness; rather, one should seek out that which increases reason and wisdom.'
Nasir notes, further, that besides this parallel multiplicity, physical and religious things share a parallel internality as well, in that each can be shown to derive from four things. That is, just as all physical things can be shown to derive from the four elements, in the same way all religious things are derived from four spiritual elements, that is, the Qur'an, the shari'a, ta'wil and tawhid. Furthermore, not only is everything, therefore, based on four things in both the physical and the spiritual worlds, but the four are also connected to each other. For example, air and water join together to make moisture, and fire and water join together to make warmth. The world's existence thus depends on the connection of the elements. From these pairings has come good. Nasir writes that the good things join each other in the same way in the spiritual world. Each prophet brought a shari'a which is dependent on its parts, and if these are all taken apart, then disaster would result in the spiritual world. He also compares the observance of the shari'a with taking medicine when we are sick. We may not want to do it, he says, and we may not like it when we do it, but we do it because the one who has prescribed this action is a physician who can heal the physical body. The one who brings medicine for souls is the Prophet Muhammad and the medicine he brings to heal our souls is the shari'a. Thus, by means of this parallel external and internal multiplicity, parallel derivations from four things, and the interconnectedness of the four elements, Nasir Khusraw lays out his arguments to prove that the believer must carry out the requirements of the shari'a properly so as to attain the highest level of knowledge. It is through the observance of the shari'a and its physical actions that believers can bring about the arrival of the Imam into the heart.
True pleasure for mankind, then, lies in seeking perfection, that is, in repeating the pattern by which the whole cosmos began and returns to its source. Nasir Khusraw makes this spirituality of pleasure and desire a critical feature of his philosophy. He connects pleasure and desire with the human will, the process of self-realisation, and the relationship between the universal soul and the individual soul. While the superiority of the spiritual or intelligible world over the material or physical world can be sustained in pure metaphysics, we encounter a difficulty when we try to translate this superiority into the actual functioning of physical bodies in space and time. That is why religion has to deal both with theory and codes of conduct. Nasir Khusraw's detailed analysis of human salvation reveals the limit of the Neoplatonic dualism of body and soul.
Moreover, as a conscientious and responsible thinker, Nasir Khusraw lets the consequences of the theory lead him to its logical conclusion, one in which the body is not just the lowest form of the Neoplatonic realm, but is raised to an instrument of spiritual perfection. For it is through the body that the soul can be perfected by carrying out the shari'a. In this way, by modifying the Neoplatonic system, Nasir took what could have been its metaphysical limit and transformed it into an enriched dynamic between the power of the soul and its use of a bodily instrument for human perfection. Since man is responsible for his actions, the effects of his actions are transferred to his soul. This transference will lead to the purification or perfection of man's soul, which can only occur by observing the shari'a. What Nasir Khusraw achieves in his theology is to make the body an intermediary agent in the purification of the soul - the soul is purified by acts of the body. While he allowed Ismaili philosophical theology to remain Neoplatonic in its metaphysics up to this level with its emanations and hierarchies, and in conformity with the Ismaili polarity of zahir and batin, he created a critical synthesis by making the ethical scheme clearly Islamic. In this way, Nasir Khusraw reveals the centrality of the body and the material world in not only the day-to-day intellectual and ethical processes of our lives, but also in the ultimate perfection of the soul.