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LUSSI Seminar: What does Mecca have to do with Athens? The Language of Revelation in the Epistles of the Ikhwan al-Safar’ and other Ismaili Texts

Wednesday 27 November 2019
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

The Leiden University Shiʿi Studies Initiative (LUSSI) is proud to announce a lecture by

Omar Ali-de-Unzaga


What does Mecca have to do with Athens?
The Language of Revelation in the Epistles of the Ikhwan al-Safar’ and other Ismaili Texts

With this title I paraphrase the famous rhetorical questions posed by the Carthage-born Berber father of Latin Christianity, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, better known as Tertullian (d. ca. 240): Quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis? Quid academiae et ecclesiae? Quid haereticis et christianis? (‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? What have the heretics to do with the Christians?').

Fast forward seven hundred years and 4,500 km East and we find, in 10th century Baghdad, a similar-sounding argument, yet different in substance, put forward by Abū Sulaymān al-Sijistānī, known as ‘the Logician’ (al-Manṭiqī): Fa-ayna’l-dīn min al-falsafa? Wa ayna’l-shayʾ al-maʾkhūdh bi’l-waḥī al-nāzil min al-shayʾ al-maḥkhūdh bi’l-raʾy al-zāʾil? ('What has religion got to do with philosophy? And what does that which is acquired by revealed inspiration got to do with that which is acquired through volatile personal opinion?').

Sijistānī’s tirade was a reaction to the philosophy of the Epistles of the Pure Brethren. A philo-Shi‘i, and possibly crypto-Ismaili, group, the anonymous authors of the Epistles were active in the aftermath of the disappearance and occultation of the twelfth imam from the Musawī line, and the period of concealment and clandestinity of the imams from the Ismaili line.

What to do when the Imam is not accessible for guidance? Against this dramatic backdrop in Shi‘i history, the Ikhwan al-Safa’s proposed solution was to navigate their way between adherence to revealed religion and commitment to philosophical enquiry as inherited from the various Greek traditions, something that irritated their opponents. Their solution —that both ‘path’s lead to the truth and have the same purpose (freeing the soul from matter) while using difference discourses— is the subject of this lecture. 


Dr Omar Ali-de-Unzaga is Deputy Head of the Department of Academic Research and Publications, with particular responsibility for the academic coordination of the Qur’anic Studies UnitHe is also the Coordinator of the Scholarships and Fellowship programmes at the IIS. He was a recipient of the IIS PhD Scholarship in 1999, and is currently involved in a number of research programmes and publications at the IIS.

Dr Ali-de-Unzaga completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge, on the use of the Qur’an in the Epistles of the Pure Brethren (Ikhwan al-Safa). His thesis analyses the classical sources that dealt with the authorship, influence and criticsm of the Epistles, and provides a study on the exegesis of the Epistles most quoted Qur’anic verses, as well as a discussion on the hermeneutical theory of the Ikhwan al-Safa. It also includes an annotated index of more than nine hundred Qur’anic quotations found in the Epistles.

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