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Intellectual Networks in Timurid Iran: Sharaf Al-DiN Al Yazd and the Islamicate Republic of Letters

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By focusing on the works and intellectual network of the Timurid historian Sharaf al D n 'Al Yazd (d.1454), this book presents a holistic view of intellectual life in fifteenth century Iran. lker Evrim Binbas argues that the intellectuals in this period formed informal networks which transcended political and linguistic boundaries, and spanned an area from the western frin By focusing on the works and intellectual network of the Timurid historian Sharaf al D n 'Al Yazd (d.1454), this book presents a holistic view of intellectual life in fifteenth century Iran. lker Evrim Binbas argues that the intellectuals in this period formed informal networks which transcended political and linguistic boundaries, and spanned an area from the western fringes of the Ottoman State to bustling late medieval metropolises such as Cairo, Shiraz, and Samarkand. The network included an Ottoman revolutionary, a Mamluk prophet, and a Timurid occultist, as well as physicians, astronomers, devotees of the secret sciences, and those political figures who believed that the network was a force to be taken seriously. Also discussing the formation of an early modern Islamicate republic of letters, this book offers fresh insights on the study of intellectual history beyond the limitations imposed by nationalist methodologies, established genres, and recognized literary traditions."


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By focusing on the works and intellectual network of the Timurid historian Sharaf al D n 'Al Yazd (d.1454), this book presents a holistic view of intellectual life in fifteenth century Iran. lker Evrim Binbas argues that the intellectuals in this period formed informal networks which transcended political and linguistic boundaries, and spanned an area from the western frin By focusing on the works and intellectual network of the Timurid historian Sharaf al D n 'Al Yazd (d.1454), this book presents a holistic view of intellectual life in fifteenth century Iran. lker Evrim Binbas argues that the intellectuals in this period formed informal networks which transcended political and linguistic boundaries, and spanned an area from the western fringes of the Ottoman State to bustling late medieval metropolises such as Cairo, Shiraz, and Samarkand. The network included an Ottoman revolutionary, a Mamluk prophet, and a Timurid occultist, as well as physicians, astronomers, devotees of the secret sciences, and those political figures who believed that the network was a force to be taken seriously. Also discussing the formation of an early modern Islamicate republic of letters, this book offers fresh insights on the study of intellectual history beyond the limitations imposed by nationalist methodologies, established genres, and recognized literary traditions."

27 review for Intellectual Networks in Timurid Iran: Sharaf Al-DiN Al Yazd and the Islamicate Republic of Letters

  1. 5 out of 5

    Baris

    The fact that the learned classes in the pre-modern Islamic period had diverse intellectual interests has bothered not only today’s scholars of Islam, but also it was an important issue in the past as well, especially for one of these classes, ‘ulama, theoreticians and practitioners of ‘ilm knowledge. While ‘ulama aimed to tame these interests by classifying them as the branches of Islamic knowledge, the contemporary scholars generally tend to conceptualize them as the products of the “foreign” The fact that the learned classes in the pre-modern Islamic period had diverse intellectual interests has bothered not only today’s scholars of Islam, but also it was an important issue in the past as well, especially for one of these classes, ‘ulama, theoreticians and practitioners of ‘ilm knowledge. While ‘ulama aimed to tame these interests by classifying them as the branches of Islamic knowledge, the contemporary scholars generally tend to conceptualize them as the products of the “foreign” influences, that are the civilizations, e.g. the Sasanids or Ancient Greeks that the historical Muslim societies made a cultural contact with. In their view, these intellectual pursuits have nothing to do with the Islamic body of knowledge which is solely represented by Quran and Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad. To deal with this question, Marshall Hodgson proposed the term “Islamicate” to define the Islamic (therefore Islamicate) civilization, its cultural artifacts, its literatures, its architecture etc., reserving the term Islamic to the “religious” aspects of Islam. Challenging this religion versus culture dichotomy, the late Shahab Ahmed has recently proposed to expand our understanding of Islam from “the restrictive authority/orthodoxy”, represented mainly by the Islamic law, to “the explorative authority”, which refers to the multiple ways of gaining access to the Truth, aiming to answer the question of human role in the Cosmos; therefore Ahmed saw no problem in calling all of the discourses, be it religious or cultural, of the historical societies of Muslims, as Islamic, in so far as they all seek an answer to this dilemma. In this vein, the diverse interests of Muslim scholars in the pre-modern period, such as astrology, astronomy, alchemy, divination, mathematics etc. had some contradictions with the Islamic body of knowledge, however, since they all shared the same purpose with Quran, that is accessing the knowledge of Divine Truth, they were not only legitimate, but they were all the part and parcel of Islam. Ilker Evrim Binbas’ book Intellectual Networks in Timurid Iran mainly focuses on a particular cosmopolitan network of scholars in the Islamic lands in the 15th century, whom the author distinguishes from other networks as their wide interest in one of these intellectual pursuits of Muslim scholars, that is ilm-i huruf, the science of letters. Though, as I said, this particular republic of “letters” (in both meaning) was cosmopolitan as a common trait of Islamic scholarly communities, disregarding the flexible political boundaries, the political context of Timurid Iran constitutes the main scene of the book, in which Sharaf al-Din Yazdi (d.1454), the particular focus of the book, played an important role and interacted with some other prominent figures of this network, especially with the most prominent one among them, Sain al-Din Turka (d.1432). Both are generally known for their histories which mark the apogees of Timurid historiography, being the ideal examples of the Islamic norms of writing in the eyes of the contemporary learned classes (especially for udeba). However Binbas draws attention to another aspect of their intellectual pursuits, that is their shared interest with the science of letters. By establishing the main lines of Yazdi’s life, Binbas shows how these two figures came and travelled together at an early age under the shared interest of acquiring ‘ilm. They had similar backgrounds, coming from the notable local urban families with allegedly sayyid affiliations, who had “extensive property holdings” and were responsible for (or superintendents of) the endowments in Fars, the historical province of Iran, such as the madrasas where some members of their families had been taught. As we might expect from these ayan families, they had close ties to Mongol and Timurid rulers and their courtiers, acting sometimes on their behalf in maintaining the waqfs in the cities and in the local areas, or, in some instances, providing manpower for bureaucratic positions. Given this relationship, it is not surprising to see that throughout their careers, both Yazdi and Turka constantly sought the patronage of Timurid rulers, and performed as munshis of them. Binbas argues that in such a de-stabilized and de-centralized socio-political environment, Timurid appanages much more needed the learned classes, especially the scribes for gaining prominence among the rival courts, while Sufi networks started to exert more influence on the society as centripetal forces. Under this condition, we observe the rise of messianic-millenarianist Sufi movements such as Nurbakhsiyya, which includes in their messianic discourse the elements of religiosity of the masses, Alid loyalism and Twelver Shiism, Ghulat beliefs, Neo-Platonic Sufism, monism, esoteric and occult sciences, etc. Interestingly, messianic discourse was not only embraced by charismatic Sufi masters, who became much more involved in politics, the rulers also began to present themselves as the messianic rulers, as “the lords of conjuction”. For this new discourse of legitimacy, patronizing the learned classes who could deploy esoteric sciences in supporting the messianic claims of the given ruler became essential. Therefore, in this context, figures like Yazdi and Turka brought an enormous prestige to the rulers who employed them, in that since they were expert on the science of letters, the knowledge of deciphering Quranic letters to gain access to their secret meanings, and to the knowledge of Truth (so it is Islamic!), they could “manipulate” their recognized knowledge in “reading signs” to prophesize that their patron must be long-awaited messiah. So, now we can give a meaning to the account that Yazdi and Turka travelled together to Cairo to be disciples of Sayyid Husayn Akhlati, the renowned master of the science of letters. As Binbas puts it, the occurrence of this master-disciple relationship between Yazdi and Turka and Akhlati also marks the point when this intellectual network, which seemed to be confined to Timurid context, became cosmopolitan. Akhlati was the central node in this scholarly web which connects Yazdi and Turka to other prominent practitioners of the esoteric sciences, especially the science of the letters, such as the famous ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Bistami (d.1454), who mainly devoted his oeuvre to the esoteric sciences at the service of nascent Ottoman state. Another student of Akhlati was Shaykh Bedreddin (d.1420), first and foremost an Islamic scholar and jurist who mainly wrote texts in the field of fiqh, but, according to the sources, under the influence of Akhlati, he exposed to the theosophical system of Ibn Arabi, and later in his career he was associated with the social protests and messianic movements in the Balkans. We do not know whether Yazdi or Turka met with or corresponded to other students of Akhlati, bu in order to name this particular “group” centered around Akhlati and the science of letters as a shared intellectual pursuit, Binbas uses the term “informal network” and distinguishes it from “the formal networks” of Sufis which had a tariqah organization and distinctive rituals and genealogies (Binbas is cautious about not using the term “order” for Sufi currents in this period). Binbas speculates that the term Ihwan al-Safa which Bistami used to refer to his scholarly circles, named after the original Ihwan al-Safa, a group of scholars with encyclopedic interests formed in 11th century, may be the name of this “loose, informal network”. What is interesting is that, as Binbas shows, some of these practitioners of the “science of letters”, like Yazdi and Shayh Badraddin were anxious to cleanse themselves from messianic and millennialist claims in their works, and in this vein, they openly criticized the Sufi currents, e.g. Hurufiyya, who vastly practiced the ilm-i huruf to base the messianic claims of their masters. On the other hand, Binbas observes another breaking point between this particular republic of “letters” and “formal” Sufi networks when the Naqshibandiyya movement emerged in the Timurid lands; Binbas argues that the historical accounts recounting the rather tense meeting between Jami, famous Naqshibandi litterateur, and Yazdi, shows the waning influence of the latter in particular and the practitioners of lettrism in general. That Jami accused Yazdi of begging for the patronage of Timurid rulers may imply the change in the power relationships between the learned classes and the courts. But this does not change the fact that Yazdi and his assumed network influenced the court of Husayin Bayqara as both Jami and Ali Shir Newai wrote treatises on muamma, a gematria poetry, in the imitation of Yazdi. Binbas speculates that theorizing and practicing muamma genre had something to do with the affinity with the science of letters in the case of Yazdi; but what Newai and Jami did is somewhat “to canonize” the genre. However, I must say that Binbas’ dealings with the topic is not sufficient for the readers of this book to decide whether this was the case. This also reflects the major problem of this book; that is, though we are bombarded with a lot of information about the authors who we are expected to accept that they were all the members of a particular group, the discussions about them are generally superficial, since the author content with giving the basic facts. Because the order that the author follows in the book is confusing, understanding the connections between these names and between the arguments is sometimes difficult for the readers. This also does not make easier to comprehend that why we should accept the existence of such a network, be it "informal” or “loose”, given that a shared intellectual interests and a common Sufi master is not enough to make them a group. To support this point, I can give one of the arguments of Binbas as an example. The author argues that Yazdi’s network must have had a sympathy for Jahanshah Qaraquyunlu; he bases this claim by saying that Jahanshah inclined to the science of letters as can be seen in his poetry, also he had predilection for Twelver Shiism as he minted coins bearing the names of imams. Therefore, Binbas claims, Yazdi and his lettrist fellows must have preferred Qaraquyunlus to Timurids who were known for their Sunnism and their persecution of messianic movements. Though I must admit that the line of thinking is somewhat logical, still the author cannot give clear evidence to make his arguments more than mere assumptions. Binbas’ book is opening a new field which has so long been ignored by the scholars of Islam. This field, the intellectual history of early modern Persianate world, or, as Shahab Ahmed terms it, Balkans-to-Bengal-complex remains to be understudied. We need more studies to grasp overall structure of the mentality of the learned classes of this complex, and Binbas’ book is definitely important as a first step to fill the gap between “the golden ages of Islam” and the modern periods.

  2. 4 out of 5

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  5. 4 out of 5

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  6. 4 out of 5

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  10. 4 out of 5

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  11. 4 out of 5

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  15. 5 out of 5

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  16. 4 out of 5

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  17. 4 out of 5

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  18. 5 out of 5

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  19. 4 out of 5

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  20. 5 out of 5

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  21. 4 out of 5

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  22. 4 out of 5

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  23. 5 out of 5

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  24. 5 out of 5

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  25. 5 out of 5

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  26. 4 out of 5

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  27. 4 out of 5

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