Sunday, 10 June 2012

Regarding John Walbridge's recent article

John Walbridge

(Revised, December 2014)

I have known John Walbridge of Indiana University since early 1995. I started reading him earlier than that beginning with his Science of Mystic Lights a few years before I made his virtual acquaintance online via the listserv I have read all of his published writings dealing with Suhrawardī and the Illuminationist school. Likewise I have read the originals of most of the texts he has written about and translated, whether in scans of manuscripts or in the printed editions. My complaint to one side regarding his somewhat obtuse treatment of Suhrawardī and the Illuminationist school (especially with his translation together with the late Hossein Ziai of the Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq as the Philosophy of Illumination, not to mention in his two monographs Leaven of the Ancients and the Wisdom of the Mystic East), I was completely flabbergasted recently to learn when reading his recent journal piece entitled THE DEVOTIONAL AND OCCULT WORKS OF SUHRAWARDI THE ILLUMINATIONIST, in Ishraq no.2 2011, 80-97, that not a single reference or acknowledgement was forthcoming in the entire article to Henry Corbin’s work previously undertaken on this material of Suhrawardī’s. Corbin has so far been the only person to have provided a complete, analytical treatment and translation in French of Suhrawardī’s prayers and occult invocations to the planetary intelligences, which is the subject of Walbridge's article.
It should be noted that Walbridge’s piece is the published version of a presentation he gave at the 2009 annual MESA (Middle East Studies Association) conference. In late 2010, after being informed by Reza Pourjavady in email about the presentation, I emailed John Walbridge himself about his paper at MESA, also inquiring him as to whether he had access to the other two known major MSS of Suhrawardī’s al-wāridāt wa'l-taqdīsāt (The Spiritual Influxes and Sanctifications) besides Aya Sofia 2144. I never heard back from him.
Now whatever Walbridge feels personally or professionally about Henry Corbin, the scholarly canons of academic etiquette demand that he reference him and acknowledge all the work preceding his own on the subject because this is a specific area of Suhrawardi studies which has been previously dealt with by Corbin; and while the analyses of manuscripts provided by Walbridge in the article is extremely valuable and helpful for all future work in the area, nevertheless Walbridge is not altogether pioneering uncharted territory here. He should have at least given a passing acknowledgement or reference to Corbin, whatever else he thinks of him. Henry Corbin dealt with, translated and provided annotated commentary on the prayers and invocations dealt with by Walbridge's recent article  in  L'Archange Empourpré  in the chapter entitled Le Livre d'Heures (the Book of Hours). Three of the Turkish MSS Walbridge instances in his piece (viz. Aya Sofia 2144 and Saray Ahmet III 3271 & 3217) are the very same ones dealt with by Corbin in L'Archange Empourpré. Moreover translation and commentary on Suhrawardī’s hymns to the Perfect Nature and the Sun (hurakhsh) were provided more than once by Corbin. Besides that section of  L'Archange Empourpré, he also offered them in Tome 2 of En islam iranien. In an article of its scope, Walbridge only cites Corbin once in a totally tangential aside in a footnote (f11) in relation to the published edition of the text of Suhrawardi's al-Mashāriʿ wa’l-Muṭāraḥāt. So what exactly is going on here because I cannot believe this is a sloppy oversight on Walbridge's part?
Together with Dmitri Gutas, Hamid Algar, Steven Wasserstrom and the late Hossein Ziai, among others, since the 1990s John Walbridge has spearheaded the anti-Corbin agenda of the  North American and Anglophone Ivory Tower Islamic studies establishment. Much of Walbridge’s writings on the Illuminationist tradition have in a few instances included subtle ridicule or harsh criticisms (sometimes stopping short of being outright scurrilous attacks), many of them unfair, of the approach of Henry Corbin and his phenomenology of reading Islamic mystical and esoteric texts. While a few such criticisms on certain points of fact may have merit, often such attacks on Corbin miss the point entirely and venture into the territory of  ideological animus (which Wasserstrom demonstrated in his own regard) while cloaked under layers of positivist, academic doublespeak. I may be going on memory, but I believe Peter Kingsley has also drawn attention to this in regard to Walbridge, Gutas and Ziai. Be that as it may, when a scholar engages in deliberate silence and does not acknowledge the very existence of the writings of a previous researcher before him who has specifically worked on the exact same material as he has, there is more than oversight going on. At this point such scholarship becomes outright misinformation and obfuscation which has absolutely nothing to do with scholarly objectivity whatsoever, but its very opposite.
Since the early part of the last decade I have been studying this specific work of Suhrawardī’s (not to mention using its prayers for personal reasons, which I am not remotely ashamed to admit in public) and some of my unpublished translations (a few made from manuscript and others from Corbin's French) were even circulated among a small group of people online in 2006-2007, to which Trey Spruance of the Secret Chiefs3 made acknowledgement in print, see here. I have even been approached by two publishers now to make a translation and critical Arabic text of Suhrawardi's al-wāridat wa'l-taqdīsāt.[i] Because I am not a career academic nor have reliable contacts in Turkish MSS libraries, it has been difficult to obtain copies of all the various MSS needed in order to complete this. Nevertheless, with or without credentials, this is a work of Suhrawardī’s which I know a fair bit about, and, besides one major MS, I have looked at all of the current secondary literature regarding it. This is how I know, for instance, that the original text of Suhrawardi's Great Hymn to the Sun has been published in Iran more than twice, but at least three times, and maybe more. The first modern typescript of the text, which Walbridge does not mention, was originally published by Mohammad Mo'in in Yaghma #2, 1327 solar/1948 CE, Tehran pp.84-89. The Majalla-i-Āmūzish va Parvarish, which Walbridge cites in f24, is merely a collection of Mo’in's articles from Yaghmā, as well as elsewhere, published in Iran during the 1970s. From the tone of the comment in f24, it does not appear as if Walbridge even consulted these. Moreover the prayers and invocations of the Wāridat where also recently translated and published in 2007 in a largely garbled English translation by Jamal Atalla in the now defunct magazine Elixir published by the Sufi Order of the West. For a scholarly journal article of its scope, citing these, even as an aside, would be the least one would expect.
The Tehran lithograph of Mulla Sadra's glosses (taʿliqāt) on the Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq likewise contains versions of these prayers in the margins. The prayers to the planetary intelligences of the Sun and the moon can be found in  § 159,  357, in the margins (see here). Walbridge fails to cite this in his article as well. Many thanks to Sajjad Rizvi of the University of Exeter for making a scan of this relevant section for me. The versions of these prayers in the Tehran lithograph of Mullā Sadrā's glosses on the Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq further problematize Walbridge's discussion of the MSS as well. 
Another weird faux pas that occurs in the middle of the article is when Walbridge references the prayer to Venus on page 91. In the MS (at least Aya Sofia 2144) Suhrawardī addresses the planet as Awrmān Asbahr (ارمان اسبهر) which is just an Arabization of the Pahlavi Awrmān Sipihr (اورمان سپهر), being Abarmān/Abarmānīg, meaning ‘the sphere in charge’ (credit goes to Dan Sheffied of Princeton for pointing out the meaning on a facebook thread, 6 December 2014). Walbridge, on the other hand, incorrectly states: “Wārid Taqdīs Yawm al-Jum‘a li’l-Zuhra, Ayasofya 2144/1, ff. 23b11–24a9; Ahmet III 3271/4, ff. 204a8–204b8. A prayer for Friday addressed to Venus. Venus is referred to as “Ūzmān,” a name I have not traced" (my italics).
Here again is the passage in question from the MS:

Had Walbridge paid closer attention to the Aya Sofia 2144 MS itself, which he is citing here, he would have figured out quickly that Suhrawardī is actually invoking Venus as Awrmān Asbahr (اورمان اسبهر) i.e. Awrmān Sipihr (اورمان سپهر), and not Uzmān (اوزمان) as he incorrectly surmises. The reading should be self-evident given the Arabized Mazdeanisms which are replete in the preceding orations of the text. Jamal Atalla, to his credit, read this part of the MS correctly. Unfortunately, not Walbridge. Such nuanced details of reading Suhrawardī are ones Henry Corbin was quite adept at, to which Walbridge refuses to give credit.
That said, the article by Walbridge is a relatively good one. I would have liked to see him deal more extensively and analyse the instructions Suhrawardī provides for the magical usage of these prayers, and especially touch on the planetary sigils (which are also spectacle letters, i.e. aqlām) given at the end of the Aya Sofia MSS. Since I have yet to consult Saray Ahmet III 3271 or 3217, I am specifically interested in knowing what variations, if any, occur in the sigils between the MSS. Also, how well do they correspond to those given by Ibn Waḥshīya in K. Shawq al-Mustahām?
It should also be noted that sīmīya (conjuration) is a specific branch of white magic in Islam. White magic as a rubric should properly be denoted by the term ruhānīya while occult sciences by the terms ʿulūm gharība or ʿulūm khafīya. Also, Pseudo-Majrītī’s Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm (the famous Picatrix) played a minimal, if altogether absent, role in the occult history and occulture of Islam. Its preeminence was only considered as much by the Latin West. Aḥmad al-Būni's Shams al-Maʿārif  is the major Islamic occult text here, even though Pseudo-Majīrtī's text precedes it.
Finally, Walbridge's comments about the pervasiveness of the occult in all periods of Islamic history are spot on and well put. This fact, together with everything else stated in the article, also needs to be further explored vis-a-vis Suhrawardī himself to convince some quarters (including Walbridge) that the Great Master of Illumination was not merely a logician, and that, therefore, his symbolic treatises in Persian are demonstrating far, far more about his thought and philosophical situs than to reduce his thought to a rational philosophy where these symbolic tales are merely metaphorical flourishes set in narrative for his otherwise purported philosophical rationalist project of just amending the Peripateticism of his time. Corbin, who explored all of these facets to their conclusions, understood such subtleties far deeper than many contemporaries like to acknowledge. When dealing with these deeper facets of Suhrawardī, Henry Corbin (whether one agrees or disagrees) always requires citation.

[i] Since this review was first written in 2012, I have learned of Jalāluddīn Mohammad Malaki’s sitāyish va nīyāyish: panj risālih az shaykh-i-ishrāq (Tehran: 1389 solar) and especially about his forthcoming volume ten (which will be devoted exclusively to Suhrawardī’s devotional texts and poetry) of his projected fourteen volume critical edition of the complete works Suhrawardī. More recently I was approached by Polish scholar Łukasz Piątak who contacted me via in early December 2014, informing me that he had undertaken a doctoral dissertation funded by the Polish National Research Centre aiming to make a critical edition from all available MSS of Suhrawardī’s occult prayers, his supplications (munājāt) together with the Forty Idrīsid Names (arbaʿūn asmā’ idrīsīya), which is a work most likely by one of the other two famous Suhrawardīs but not by our ishrāqī Shihābuddīn Yaḥyā ibn Ḥabash. Walbridge correctly points this out. Piątak indicated he had access to Iranian MSS, the Vatican MS of this work as well as, in a brief telephone conversation, to the Ragib Pasha 1480 MS discussed by Walbridge. No indications whether he had as yet obtained the Zurich MS which is cited by Hellmut Ritter and by Brockelman in GAL.