The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning

by Ismail K. Poonawala
Citation
Title:
The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning
Author:
Ismail K. Poonawala
Year: 
1999
Publication: 
Journal of the American Oriental Society
Volume: 
119
Issue: 
3
Start Page: 
542
End Page: 
542
Publisher: 
Language: 
English
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Reviewed work(s): The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning by Heinz Halm
 

The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning. By HEINZ HALM. London: I. B. TAURIS, in association with the INSTITUTE OF ISMAILI STUDIES, 1997. Pp. xv 112.
 
We have here for the first time a comprehensive account of the traditions of learning among the Fatimids, written by a distinguished scholar and an authority in Fatimid/Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili studies. The Fatimids came to power on the strength of their powerful organization and propaganda machinery (da[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]wa). Well-knit and highly sophisticated, the da[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]wa's doctrine was refined and perfected by competent scholar-missionaries called da[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]is The central figure of the da[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]i with his learning and versatility, intrigued the author of this monograph and that led him to explore the da[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]i's training, education, and accomplishments. Halm has succeeded in his task of illuminating the many-sided personality of the da[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]i.
 
The book under review is the second in the Ismaili Heritage Series published by the Institute of Ismaili Studies, under the general editorship of Dr. Farhad Daftary. Paul Walker's Abu Ya[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]qub al-Sijistani: Intellectual Missionary, published in 1996, was the first. Dr. Daftary deserves all the credit for initiating this series, which aims at making available to a wider audience the results of modern scholarship on the Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ilis and their rich intellectual and cultural heritage. Since he joined the Institute, Dr. Daftary has infused new life into it. Within twenty years of its establishment the Institute now holds, under one roof, the largest collection of Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, and Indian vernaculars. Scholars can, therefore, no longer complain of the inaccessibility of Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili sources.
 
The situation, however, with regard to the availability of the original sources in reliable and critical editions has remained unchanged. The inaccessibility of Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili sources in the past was used often as an excuse for disregarding acceptable standards in editing Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili texts. Most of the works published by Mustafa Ghalib and [CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]Arif Tamir are unreliable. At several places they have distorted the text and at times have rewritten sentences and passages in their own words. (I have pointed this out in detail in the introduction to my edition of Kitab al-iftikhar by Abu Ya[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]qub al-Sijistani, to be published.) One might have thought that the establishment of the Ismaili Institute would have put an end to this state of affairs. Unfortunately, the Institute has done little to rectify the situation. The publication of original texts in critical and annotated editions should set straight the many misconceptions about Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ilis, their history, doctrines, and their relationship to the wider Muslim community of w hich they are and were an integral part. Publication of Arabic texts in the West, however, faces dim prospects unless heavily subsidized. Let us hope that the Institute will realize its importance and embark on a new series of critical and annotated editions of Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili masterpieces both in Arabic and Persian.
 
 
In addition to a brief introduction, this slim volume is divided into seven short chapters, two of them on the historical back-ground that attempt to contextualize the subsequent topics dealing with the mission of the da[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]is, Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili teaching and learning, the organization of the da[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]wa, al-Hakim's House of Knowledge, and scientific institutions under the Fatimids. The book's preface traces the history of the author's interest in studies. In 1969 the library of the University of Tubingen acquired a number of Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili manuscripts, most of them of Indian provenance. By this coincidence, Dr. Halm, who was searching for a subject for his Habilitation, was drawn into Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili studies, which have since benefited substantially by his numerous publications.
 
Halm is quite right in stating that his most exciting experience was the discovery that, far from being a rigid dogmatic system, Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili thought manifested an impressive evolution, always keeping abreast of contemporary developments. Halm's brief sketch of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim is quite refreshing because he is generally depicted by the historians as a mad caliph. In the later Sunni sources, al-Hakim is noted for his excesses, persecutions, cruelty, and for supporting a group that attributed divinity to him. Halm dispels those distorted and hostile accounts, stating that the anti-Fatimid tradition tried to make a real monster of this caliph.
 
The great benefit of this monograph is that it brings together a wealth of information about the da[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]is and their traditions of learning which was hitherto accessible to scholars only in widely scattered sources. Unfortunately, the English renditions of some of the Arabic terms and book titles are not accurate. For example, ghulat (p. 39) is translated as "exaggerators," al-awliya[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (p. 45) as "saintly," bayt al-hikma (p. 72) as "wisdom cabinet," and al-awda[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] al-shar[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]iyya (p. 83) as "lawful destinations." Kitab al-iqtisar, by al-Qadi abridged version of Da[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]a[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]im al-Islam (p. 45); rather it is yet another abridgment of the Idah (see my "Al-Qadi al-Nu[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]man and Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili jurisprudence," in Mediaeval Isma[CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ili History and Thought, ed. F. Daftary [Cambridge, 1996], 122). The following typographical errors should also be corrected: adlati on p. 58, 1.8 from bottom--the word is unclear or it is an error; despisable, p. 65, 1. 2: should read despicable; nafsihi, p. 68, 1. 15: should read nafsih or nafsihi.
 
COPYRIGHT 1999 American Oriental Society

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