Thursday, June 16, 2011

Shining Sun

Shining Sun was written by Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Husayni Tihrani, a close friend of 'Allamah Tabataba'i, as a tribute to the latter shortly after his passing in 1981. It has been translated to English by Tawus Raja and is now available for purchase from ICAS press.

Sayyid Tabataba'i is probably best known today for his exegesis of Qur'an called Al-Mizan (The Scale), which is notable for its methodology of using the Qur'an to explain itself. The tafsir and its methodology have both become standards for scholarship in the field.

The tribute consists of two main parts; a brief memorial of Tabataba'i followed by transcriptions of several discussions the author and/or other students of the 'Allamah had on religious topics in the fields of history, philosophy, mysticism, theology and Qur'an. As is standard for books published by ICAS, the work is graced with copious footnotes, glossary of transliterated terms, indices of Qur'anic verses, hadith, and poetry for comparison or reference between the English translation and original forms, and a general index.

If a reader approaches this book expecting a biography or a religious textbook, he may be surprised to find neither. The memorial section does contain biographical information that provide glimpses into certain aspects of Allamah Tabataba'i's life, but is in no way comprehensive enough to be considered a true biography. A reader with little or no prior knowledge of the scholar will not be able to develop a very clear picture of him as a religious scholar or as a man, but will be able to appreciate the love and high esteem afforded him by many people such as the author, and will also be able to have a basic appreciation for his importance and achievements in Shia religious scholarship. Similarly, the larger discussion section of the book may contain some religious information that educates the reader, but that would be incidental to the apparent larger purpose of elucidating methods and content of religious reasoning and discussion employed by 'Allamah Tabataba'i and his students.

These discussion transcripts cover a range of topics such as explanation of particular verses in Qur'an, logical analysis of the concept of tawhid and its ramifications on what happens to the perfected soul when it reaches a stage of annihilation or return to God, explanation of the meaning of ruh in Qur'an and the role of angels, method of delivery of Qur'an, history of Qur'an compilation, numerology, experiences of barzakh depending on spiritual status of the individual, tayy-al-ard (claimed ability of highly-advanced mystics, jinn, and others to instantaneously transport themselves to other locations), issues related to Torah and Gospel and other prophets, and more.

Many of the issues or questions discussed are the type of questions that almost everyone has at some point in his life, often beginning in childhood. For example, most people have worried or pondered about what happens to their souls after death. Do the souls continue to exist permanently? Or, at some point, is all creation annihilated and no identities remain except the one true identity, God? Was the Qur'an revealed to the Prophet (saw) through Gabriel only, or was it sometimes revealed directly to him, and if it wasn't always revealed the same way, why was that so? Who compiled the Qur'an, and when, and is it the same as what was originally revealed? Why are there minor differences in recitations, such as "Owner (Malik) of the Day of Judgment" vs. "King (Maalik) of the Day of Judgment"?

If a reader is hoping to use Shining Sun as a reference to answer these essential questions, it might not be satisfying for that purpose. The discussions do not really take place in a question/answer format. Rather, in many cases a philosophical or logical debate amongst the 'Allamah and the students takes place. The general aim in many of these discussions seems to be to use logical reasoning, grammar, and accepted reference in Qur'an, hadith, poetry, etc., to "prove" a posited answer. For example, a student may claim and provide evidence using logical reasoning as developed in the field of philosophy that all of us will at some point cease to exist and there will only remain God. Others may find logical inconsistencies in the reasoning and then try to solve those inconsistencies. The group becomes satisfied with a solution if it answers the question and has no logical inconsistencies or errors. But some of the discussions expire without any solidly arrived-at conclusion or summary of results. It is illuminating to see that students freely disagreed with the teacher or each other in some cases and yet the reputations of participants and decorum in the discussions remained impeccable, as the focus was clearly on Truth-seeking rather than egoistic tendencies.

However, a reader may be dissatisfied in following such a discussion seeking the ultimate answer, because the end result may not be an indisputable conclusion. Rather, it is more likely that a reader may come to appreciate or understand the process that was taking place as an act of scholarship and reasoning, but may not always be personally convinced that every solution or answer mentioned by 'Allamah Tabataba'i or his students is definitely correct. In fact, some readers may be a little disturbed by a few of the issues raised and the uncertainties or implications arising in their discussion. This disequilibrium may precede a reader's personal resolution of the issue, or the issue might remain personally uncomfortable and unresolved.

Shining Sun is an important text as a memorial of a master of Islamic philosophy and spirituality. It provides a unique window into processes of reasoning and discussion applied to religious topics that must be preserved and developed in the current and future generations for the sake of all mankind. While logic and reason are held separate from religion in some schools of thought, they are essential in the Shia faith. While the lay person may not need to engage in such exercises on a regular basis, every person needs to learn how to think and reason and how to apply these processes to all matters, including religion, so as not to be misguided or oppressed. If Shining Sun is read with this in mind, a general audience has much to gain from the experience.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Salaam alaikum,

I enjoyed reading your review of the book. I have also read this book and really loved it. How did you become aware of this work? I would really appreciate it if you email me and we have a discussion on it:

Be in God's care