Al-Ǧurǧānī and the beginning of pragmatics

Dr. Zeinab Taha

Assistant Professor of Arabic Language at the American University of Cairo

icon-calendar Tuesday March 5ᵗʰ, 2019

There is often a difference between the meaning of words, according to the dictionary, and the intention of the speaker who uses these same words according to his knowledge, culture, religion, or context in which he lives. It is the pragmatic which can, for example, reflect the fact that one can perfectly understand the meaning of each word in a joke, but not understand what is beyond it. The same applies to certain idiomatic expressions. For example, one can perfectly understand what a “watermelon” is, what the verb “to put” means, and what “the stomach” is, yet not understand the expression “he has put a summer watermelon in his stomach” (ḥāṭiṭ fī baṭnihi baṭṭīḫa ṣayfī), which in Egypt means “he is quiet” or “he doesn’t care”.

The first Arab grammarian who explicitly inquired about the difference between the obvious/surface meaning and the speaker’s intended meaning is ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Ǧurǧānī (d. 470/1078). Unlike the grammarians before him, who organize their grammar treatises according to grammatical forms, al-Ǧurǧānī takes as his starting point the speaker’s desired meanings and studies the different ways of rendering them in grammatically correct language.

Inflation in the Mamluk Era

Mr. Oussama al-Saadouni Gamil

PhD student at Dār al-ʿUlūm, Cairo University

icon-calendar Tuesday November 13ᵗʰ, 2018

Mr. Oussama al-Saadouni Gamil is preparing his doctoral thesis at Dār al-ʿUlūm on inflation during the Mamluk era. He chose to focus on a ten-year period, from 800/1397 to 810/1408, in order to study in as much detail as possible the factors at play, the role of the various figures, and the precise evolution of the prices of essential products. The year 806/1403-1404 marks the beginning of a period of strong price hikes, up to 500% for some products. A low Nile flood, epidemics, and some unfortunate political decisions help to explain the phenomenon. Relief will only come after the implementation of a policy of imposed price reduction by the Sultan al-Muʾayyid Abū al-Naṣr (d. 824/1421) after his coming to power in 815/1412.

From the liberal education market to an Egypt on the move: a return to a path of research

Frédéric Abécassis

Director of Studies at the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) in Cairo

icon-calendar Tuesday October 16ᵗʰ, 2018

Frédéric Abécassis is the new Director of Studies at the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) in Cairo. This seminar was an opportunity for him to present the different stages of his research project. Since his first visit to Egypt, Frédéric Abécassis has worked on a diverse set of research topics: private religious schools in Egypt, car traffic in Egypt and Morocco, and Muslim and Jewish migration in the Maghreb. Yet, all deal with the question of community building as a defense against the effects of the market economy in a liberal society.

Communities are built and disappear by a) economic solidarity (e.g. the richest paid the tuition of the poorest in religious schools), b) relationships of belonging and authority (e.g. the police were at the service of car owners rather than pedestrians), or c) conflicting historical narratives (e.g. Moroccan Jews gradually saw themselves as foreigners in Morocco).

If the study of history has therapeutic value, then the historian must assist everyone record the history of the communities to which they belong and of those they have left.

Click here to watch the pictures presented during the lecture…

The legacy of al-Fārābī (d. 339/950) in the philosophical thinking in al-Andalus

Aziz Hilal

Doctor of Arabic Philosophy

icon-calendar Wednesday October 3ʳᵈ, 2018

Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Ǧābirī (d. 2010) supported the idea of an epistemological break between the philosophical thought of the Arab East and Arab West. According to him, thinking in the East devolved, especially with Avicenna (d. 428/1037), into Gnosticism and irrationalism. Whereas thinking in the West saw the culmination of the rationalist tradition in Islam, particularly with Ibn Bāǧǧa (d. 533/1139) and Averroes (d. 595/1198). This simplistic framework overlooks the influence that al-Fārābī (d. 339/950) had in Andalusia. It is clearly visible in the political philosophy of Ibn Bāǧǧa, particularly in his treatise Tadbīr al-mutawaḥḥid, in Averroes’ commentary on Plato’s Republic, or in the work Ḥayy b. Yaqzān by Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 581/1185). Although Ibn Ṭufayl declares himself as an Avicennian, and does not hesitate to criticize (unfairly) al-Fārābī, it can be said that there is a common purpose and structure between Ḥayy b. Yaqzān and the thought of al-Fārābī. Ibn Ṭufayl is so indebted to the political philosophy of the “Second Master” (aka al-Fārābī) that it is hard to understand why he treats him in such a passing way in his introduction to Ḥayy b. Yaqzān.

What complicated al-Fārābī’s reception in Andalusia was that he still believed, like all in the East, that Aristotle wrote the treatise known as Aristotle’s Theology, when in fact it is a more or less faithful translation of part of PlotinusEnneads. Thus, he desperately attempts to reconcile this Neo-Platonic text with what he knows about Aristotle. It will be Averroes who definitively unmasks the confusion. For example, unlike al-Fārābī, Ibn Bāǧǧa and Averroes conceive the agent intellect as something immanent to man. According to the two authors, the agent intellect is no longer this transcendent and completely separate intellect, which fit perfectly with the Fārābian theory of emanation inherited from Neo-Platonism.

The issue of the existence of God in Ibn Taymiyya

Adrien Candiard

Member of the IDEO and PhD student in Islamic studies

icon-calendar Tuesday May 22nd, 2018

For Heidegger (1889‒1976), if metaphysics failed in its project, it is because it identified the “Being” with God, transforming into a sterile onto-theology. This description undoubtedly applies to Avicenna (d. 428/1037), for whom the proof of God’s existence finds itself in the necessity that there be an end to the chain of causalities. God is the necessary Being who has no cause other than himself.

This proof of the existence of God is repugnant to Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), not only because it is rooted in logical human tools, incapable by definition of reaching the divine being, but also because it is valid only inside the world of logic, without saying anything about the actual existence of God.

Among all of Ibn Taymiyya’s philosophical refutations, his refutation of al-Siǧistānī (d. after 361/971) in Darʾ al-taʿāruḍ bayna al-ʿaql wa-l-naql is particularly interesting. In his Kitāb al-maqālīd al-malakūtiyya, al-Siǧistānī criticizes the Avicennian definition of the existence of God as the ‘necessary being’ (wāǧib al-wuǧūd) because it makes God a composite being, as he would share the fact of “being” with his creatures, yet would have his own kind of being, the “necessary being.” Al-Siǧistānī then explains that the “being” of God has nothing to do with the “being” of creatures. Ibn Taymiyya criticizes this position, which ultimately amounts to saying that God does not exist, because we cannot say of him that he is nor that he isn’t, which is contradictory according to the laws of logic itself.

For Ibn Taymiyya, this contradiction is based on an error shared by all philosophers, namely that they believe that existence, which is only a concept, has real existence.  “Existence,” like all universals, does not exist outside our mind. It is meaningless to seek to demonstrate God by a conceptual way that can only reach concepts without real existence; we must find a direct way. However, precisely, man knows that God exists because of an innate natural faculty, the fiṭra. There is no need to mediate concepts to know that God exists. In addition, if someone refuses to recognize that God exists, it is simply because his fiṭra is sick.

The problem with such a solution (a nominalist one for sure) is that it cannot be refuted. Anyone who questions Ibn Taymiyya’s thinking would only prove that his fiṭra is deficient.

From the Political to the Historiographical Use of Poetry

Noëmie Lucas

PhD candidate, Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne University

icon-calendar Monday April 30ᵗʰ, 2018

In his work Ansāb al-ašrāf, al-Balāḏurī (d. 279/892?) relates an episode of the construction of the canal “al-Mubārak” by Ḫālid b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Qasrī (d. 126/743), the governor of Iraq at the time. He was praised by the poet al-Farazdaq (d. 110/728?) then mocked by him, as a way to get revenge on Ḫālid who did not reward him for his initial praise. Al-Farazdaq was imprisoned for this insult, then finally released by the grace of the Caliph Hišam b ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 724-743), after which he wrote poetic verses of praise about him.

The text of al-Balāḏurī integrates these famous verses into its historical narrative in prose, to the extent that one may wonder if the narrative prose is not, in reality, the historical contextualisation of these verses, even though researchers tend to consider them as a simple illustrations of historical prose.

This impression is reinforced, for example, by the different historical contextualization that Abū al-Faraǧ al-Aṣfahānī (d. after 362/972) gives of the same verses in his Kitāb al-aġānī.

However, the reality is probably in between these two extreme points of view, one that would make poetry a simple illustration of historical narrative and the other that would make historical narrative a commentary on the poetry cited. Poetry plays a major role in pre-Islamic culture as it creates and destroys reputations, records events, builds history, relies on the authority of feared and respected characters, has an aesthetic role… In a word, it is one with the text and it is by holding the two together, verse and prose, that one must read and interpret these ancient historical sources.

No one will be saved if all are not saved

Guillaume de Vaulx

Doctor of Philosophy and IDEO member

icon-calendar Tuesday December 12ᵗʰ, 2017

It is impossible to hold these three statements at the same time: 1) “God wants all people to be saved”, 2) “God shows people a path of salvation”, and 3) “Anyone who does not follow this path cannot be saved”. Either God wants the salvation for all, in which case He cannot impose only one path of salvation; or He imposes a particular path, in which case He risks that some will not follow it. And in any case, whatever the revealed path, it is only given to a given group, at a given time, condemning those who lived prior to or far from the place of this revelation.

The author of Rasāʾil Iḫwān al-ṣafā, whom Guillaume de Vaulx believes to have discovered to be Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib al-Saraḫrsī (d. 286/899), offers an original solution within a Muslim context. For him, the world is built on complementary relationships: no one person can have all skills, per se. Rather, together, we have all skills. This principle of complementarity is valid not only in everyday life, but also for eternal salvation. individually, we cannot achieve salvation, but together, each according to his religion and beliefs, we are able to achieve salvation for all, because salvation is beyond what any of us can achieve alone.

The Plans for the City of the Dead in Cairo

Ahmed Gomaa

Doctor from al-Azhar University

icon-calendar Tuesday November 28ᵗʰ, 2017

The city of Cairo has this special feature of having neighborhoods in cemeteries where you can also find mosques, schools for teaching the Qurʾān, steam rooms, and palaces, which amazed Ibn Ǧubayr (d. 614/1217) in his Riḥla. This phenomenon, which began with a combination of circumstances in the Fatimid era (beginning in the 4th/10th century), became a conscious decision on the part the Mamluks who deliberately built houses in these quiet neighborhoods starting in the 7th/ 13th century.

This explains the existence of a very particular literary genre which exists only in Cairo. It also consists of real “tour guides” of these districts of the dead, known as qarāfa (plural qarāfāt) in Egyptian Arabic, probably in reference to the Banū Qarāfa tribe who had previously moved into this area. They are different from the kutub al-ziyārāt (“books of visits”) found in other parts of the Muslim world, especially since they never discuss the legal question of the lawfulness of these visits. Rather, they are limited to descriptions of the tombs and other buildings, as well as to the biographies of the people buried there.

There are 25 of these books, written between the 6th/12th and 13th/19th centuries, only some of which having survived to today. They are organized either geographically (grave by grave), by the order of the visit, by categories of death (scientists, mystics, midwives, etc.), or by year of death. The most famous of these works is probably the Kitāb al-kawākib al-sayyāra by Ibn al-Zayyāt (d. 805/1402).

The word āmīn in Arabic

Jean Druel

Director of IDEO

icon-calendar Tuesday November 7ᵗʰ, 2017

In his short treatise entitled A glitter in the debate about the word āmīn used in supplication and its rules in Arabic, Ibn al-Ḫaššāb al-Baġdādī (d. 567/1172) presents the state of the art of the grammatical knowledge on the word āmīn in his time. All grammarians agree that āmīn is not an Arabic word, but a Hebrew one (or Persian, or Syriac), which is however well attested in the Ḥadīṯ: the Prophet and his companions would conclude the recitation of the first sūra, al-Fātiḥa, by saying āmīn. This situation has triggered the curiosity of both Qurʾānic commentators and grammarians, who have studied the following issues: the validity of both forms, long āmīn and short amīn; the part-of-speech āmīn belongs to; its meaning; and the possibility that āmīn be a name of God.

Grammarians agreed on the analysis of āmīn as an ism fiʿl ‘verb name’ (a category refering to the verbs’ proper names, see Levin 1991), based on a commentary by Muǧāhid (d. 104/722) and ʿIkrima (d. 105/723) that the dual in Qad uǧībat daʿwatukumā (Q10, Yūnus, 89) refers to the invocation of Moses and Aaron, and that Aaron’s invocation consisted in saying āmīn. In order for āmīn to be an invocation, it has to be a full sentence. This means that āmīn is comparable to ṣah ‘sh!’, which is a ‘verb name’ whose meaning is the imperative ‘hush!’. Grammarians have thus interpreted āmīn as being a ‘verb name’, and its meaning is Allāhumma staǧib ‘Lord, answer!’

Lastly, although four ḥadīṯs transmitted by Hilāl b. Yasāf (or Yisāf), Muǧāhid and Ḥakīm b. Ǧābir mention that āmīn is a name of God, both Abū ʿAlī al-Fārisī (d. 377/987) and Ibn al-Ḫaššāb (d. 567/1172) agree that it cannot be so, although for different reasons. The former argues that an invariable noun cannot be a name of God, whereas the latter argues that it is because āmīn is a complete sentence that it cannot be one of God’s names.

Certainty and probability, from theology to the ‘servant’ sciences

Ahmad Wagih

​​Doctor in Islamic Philosophy, Faculty of ​Dār al-ʿUlūm, Cairo University

icon-calendar Wednesday October 18ᵗʰ, 2017

Muslim theologians (al-mutakallimūn) relied on the concepts of ‘certainty’ (al-qaṭʿiyya) and ‘probability’ (al-ẓanniyya) to build their theological argumentation and classify knowledge, in order to distinguish between what could be relied on and what could not. Practically speaking, however, each theological school reached different conclusions about what is certain and what is probable in their knowledge, thus leading to the differences between these schools on the mere definition of ‘certainty’ and ‘probability’.
This situation pervaded the other Islamic sciences, such as Ḥadīṯ and Uṣūl al-Fiqh, under the manifold influence of theology. This is for example the case of al-Ḫaṭīb al-Baġdādī (d. 463/1071) in his al-Kifāya fī ʿilm al-riwāya, in Ḥadīṯ sciences, where the influence of these concepts can be seen, especially in the matter of ‘uninterrupted’ (mutawātirḥadīṯ. Similarly in Uṣūl al-Fiqh, some issues have been influenced by these theological discussions: issues related to ‘independent judgment’ (iǧtihād), ‘differenciated truth’ (taʿaddud al-ḥaqq) or issues linked to the distinction between different types of semantics (dalālāt al-alfāẓ).