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The Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Graduate Students' Association at the University of Toronto proudly presents...
The 17th Annual NMCGSA Graduate Symposium

2013 Abstracts



Role of the Philosopher in the Islamic Faith

By: Matthew Fallings

In his work The Attainment of Happiness, philosopher Alfarabi examines the role of the philosopher in Islamic religion as he aims to achieve supreme happiness. Alfarabi suggest that a philosopher’s appeal to scientific and artistic values is similar to the function of the supreme ruler in the Islamic faith, or of the Imam. Even more, like philosophy, Islam compacts these subjects in order to establish ultimate principles that will lead to one’s ‘supreme happiness’. While philosophy and religion utilize images in order to communicate to the people, religion embodies the community through such imagery. As philosophy instead uses images to merely demonstrate its scientific superiority, while religion masters these images through forms of persuasion. However, the philosopher fails to master the Imam; since the Imam compacts artistic and scientific principles through images by “imagining them through similitudes that imitate them, and assent to what is imagined of them is caused by persuasive methods.” However, the Imam grants a true philosopher his position through having privileged disposition towards others. That is, Alfarabi argues that philosophers must realize themselves through religious instruction and informing one’s character within the community in order to master the language of the common people, through art and science, to produce the “intention of accomplishing the purpose of the supreme ruler.” As a result, according to the Islamic doctrine the true philosopher achieves happiness requires the supreme mastery - or a persuasive mastery of art and science - administered by the Imam.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) on Heavens

By: Seyed Hossein Hosseini Nassab

Despite the great importance for studying the substantial subject of cosmology within the Muslim world, not many modern scholarly works have been devoted to this field. One of the greatest Muslim philosophers of the medieval times is Avicenna (Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina, d. 1037 CE), who developed a cosmology that integrates and reconciles astronomy, physics, metaphysics, and psychology. Following his preceding polymaths, such as Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) and Farabi (d. 950 CE), Avicenna assigned the center of the universe to the Earth, around which the celestial spheres (aflak, sing. falak), that host the celestial objects (stars and planets), revolve. Similar to his preceding philosophers, like Farabi, Avicenna ascribed a separate Intellect (aql mufariq) to each celestial sphere of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sphere of the fixed stars, and the outermost sphere, which does not contain any sensible celestial objects. However, rather than following Farabi’s bipartite emanation scheme, Avicenna developed a tripartite scheme, that not only ascribes a separate Intellect (first part) to each sphere (second part), but also incorporates celestial souls (nafs falakiyya - third part) in the cosmological system. To explore Avicenna’s cosmology, this paper will analyze his contribution to the study of the heavens in his metaphysics within (1) his contextualization of the emanation (fay) theory in his modal metaphysics, and (2) his psychological explications on celestial motion.

"The Reconciliation of Knowledge": The Epistemology of Nasir-i Khusraw

By: Khalil Andani

The nature of knowledge has been a great concern for many theologians and philosophers throughout human history. Knowledge is fundamental to the worldview and thought of Nasir-i Khusraw – a renowned thinker, poet and sage of the eleventh century who belonged to the Shi‘i Ismaili branch of Islam. For him, the Cosmos has been created for the purpose of knowledge and its acquisition by human beings. However, two of Nasir’s works – The Face of Religion (Wajh-i Din) and The Reconciliation of the Two Wisdoms (Jami al-Hikmatayn) – present two different definitions of knowledge. In the former work, Nasir defines knowledge (ilm) as “to perceive (andar yaftan) things as they are” while in the latter work, he defines knowledge as “the concept (tasawwur) of a thing as it is.” This paper argues that Nasir-i Khusraw’s epistemology includes and reconciles two fundamentally distinct modes of knowledge – 1) intellectual perception and 2) acquired conceptual knowledge – and that he regards both types of knowledge as complementary phases in the actualization of the human intellect. This will be shown by first analyzing Nasir’s view of knowledge as intellectual perception in the context of his Neo-Platonist metaphysics and psychology. Following this, Nasir’s view of acquired conceptual knowledge will be explored in relation to his theories of external sense perception and internal sense perception. The third section will delineate the fundamental differences between these two modes of knowledge and then illustrate how Nasir’s epistemology actually integrates them with respect to the stages of human intellectual actualization. Thus, Nasir sees acquired conceptual knowledge and intellectual perception as two distinct yet complementary stages in a journey of spiritual and intellectual development that culminates in the recognition of the oneness (tawhid) of God.

Flowing Fount: The Dynamic Use of the Near East as a source of Thelemic Inspiration

By: Nate Schick

My project looks at how the 20th century occult organization Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) took and continues to take Islamic symbols, myths, and institutional structures, interpreted them and integrated them into their own unique and eclectic religious organization. I will present research at the 2013 AAR WECSOR that examines how the use of Islamic symbology wasn’t simply the creation of the organization’s founder and prophet, Aleister Crowley, which the group’s followers have blindly implemented. The research shows how each successive generation has taken on a different Islamic symbol, myth, or institution and interpreted and integrated those symbols in such a way that they’ve become key parts of the Thelemic organization’s very fabric.

This paper conducts a discursive examination of the current OTO generation’s most prolific Ninth degree (highest initiates and owners of the 501c3 US non-profit) authors. Examining a selection of the public works of Lon Duquette and James Wasserman, this paper looks at how the leadership of the current generation looks to the Near East broadly as a source of inspiration, not from a sectarian but rather from a plural and universal perspective. The paper contributes to my larger work by showing the dynamism of the organization and it’s published members’ engagement with Islam and the Near East more broadly. Additionally, it aims to show that the engagement is not simply with an Orientalist, crystalized concept of Islam or Ancient Near East religious complexes, but looks to current scholarship on and practice in the Near East.

A politically liberal state for a Muslim majority society? Options and limitations in translating political liberalism into the language of Islamic political theory

By: Amir Abdul Reda

This article considers political theorist John Rawls's theory of political liberalism in the light of Islamic political theory. It puts forward a proposition of what should be learnt from the idea of political liberalism for a Muslim majority nation having to deal with religious pluralism issues. Advocating for an Islamic version of political liberalism, the article outlines what it considers to be political liberalism's main tenets along with a literature review of the contemporary state of the debate over political liberalism in Islamic political theory. Drawing on these bases, it argues that political liberalism can be advocated for through the use of the Islamic tradition of political theory. In arguing for the contributive value of Rawls's theory to Islamic political theory, the debate over the ideal form of political government in a Muslim majority nation is also addressed in light of political liberalism's main tenets. Two options created by this theory are hence defined by this article in order to address the relation of identity and religion for a government ruling a Muslim majority society: one that reproduces political liberalism and another which only works on some of its tenets. These two options are put forward as being relevant to the realities of different Muslim majority nations, taking into consideration the tradition it evolves into and its identity dialectic. Advocating for the empirical worth of political liberalism to contemporary Muslim majority societies is hence done through the application of the two options to a wide array of Islamic countries. The article concludes by leading the debate over the ideal state for a Muslim majority society to a direction which takes into account both pluralist and identity issues.

The Intersection of Abbasid and Ottoman: The Caliphate comes to Istanbul

By: Mustafa Banister

In the wake of the Battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I destroyed the Mamluk Sultanate and captured the last Abbasid Caliph attached to that regime. Many historians once marked this as the moment when the caliphal authority and sovereignty invested for centuries in the Abbasid line were transferred formally and directly to an Ottoman Caliphate. Later scholarship dismisses the story as fabrication, though its existence raises interesting questions regarding the image burnished by the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph and successor of the Prophet Muhammad and thereby leader of the Muslim world.

In Mamluk Cairo by the early 16th century, little practical authority remained to the Caliphate as an institution. Yet the caliphs retained an almost talismanic power akin to sacred magic that had its most potent expression in the rituals of court ceremonial and political pageantry throughout the span of the Mamluk period and even into the earliest months of Ottoman Egypt. This ensured that the actual holders of political power, whether Mamluk or Ottoman, had to approach the Caliphate carefully.

This paper summarizes what is known about the last Abbasid Caliph of Cairo, al-Mutawakkil III (r. 914-23/1508-17) from the Ottoman conquest of Egypt until his deportation to Istanbul. This is followed by an examination of the investiture ceremony and the significance of Abbasid legitimacy to the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire of the early 16th century. The second half of the paper treats Ottoman usage of caliphal epithets in the later 16th century to buttress their dynastic legitimacy before their own subjects as well as rival Islamic rulers.

The Ottoman Reaction to the Printing Press: An Empire in Change


By: Zainab Coovadia

Though the early modern European printing press was created around 1440 and reached the Ottoman Empire by 1493 under the Sephardic Jews, it was not implemented by the Ottoman government or its Muslim subjects until the 18th century. Some scholars argue that this three hundred year delay was due to the “period of decline” experienced when government power was passed to the ulema (the religious class) whose members opposed the introduction of all European invention. Contrary to the idea of the ulema being responsible for the delayed adoption of all European invention, the Ottoman government had historically responded quickly to other technological advancements, from developing paper manufacturing methods, to using gunpowder and later utilizing European firearm weaponry. In fact, by the 1600s, Ottoman officials were composing memorandum on the necessity of reforming the traditional educational, military and administrative institutions in response to the tilting economic and military balance of power in favour of Europe. As such, this study will go beyond the conventional view that the ulema opposed the press, and it will examine the economic, social, and cultural reasons behind the 300 year delay of the press in Ottoman society. It will be argued that the Ottoman government only established the press when it was seen as having an intrinsic value to Ottoman society, by bringing the empire on technological par with Europe.

Searching for Assur

By: Kyra Kaercher

Relative to his importance in antiquity, Assur, the state god of Assyria is shrouded in mystery. Assyria, a state that existed circa 2400 BC to 600 BC, had links with the Sumero-Babylonian culture to the south as well as cultures to the west and north, but contained distinctive traits of its own. Starting around 800 BC the Assyrians began to worship a new god, Assur. He became the state god of Assyria with established cult centers at Assur (the capital city of the Assyrian Empire), Tell al-Rimah, and Nuzi. The little we know about Assur comes from textual and art historical sources. We do not know where he first appeared or the reasons for this appearance. W.G. Lambert proposed the idea that Assur is the deified city which then accumulated aspects from Hittite, Hurrian and Babylonian deities and became the head god of the Assyrian pantheon. Archaeological evidence of Assur is scarce and little published. A reassessment of the archaeological data including the layout of the temples along with the relationship of artifacts found inside is needed to advance the study of Assyrian religion. By comparing the temples and artifacts from the three sites mentioned above, this paper will demonstrate the changes in Assur over time and hence will contribute to a clearer sense of Assur. The knowledge gained will then be applied to the textual sources and other areas of investigation in order to elicit the role religion played in the daily life of the Assyrian Empire.

North Syrian Textile Traditions and the Economies of the Early Iron Age

David Lumb

My research seeks to explore the parameters of craft specialization represented by the material evidence for textile production at the site of Tell Ta'yinat located in the Hatay province of southern Turkey. This evidence is in a unique position to advance our understanding of the Early Iron Age in northwest Syria because it permits an assessment of the social, political and economic dynamics of the region during this formative period. Specifically, my research focus is on three primary question areas including the technological, social/cultural and economic aspects of textile craft production as represented in the Early Iron I strata (Field Phases 3-6) at Tell Ta'yinat. The Early Iron I period at Tell Ta'yinat has been dated to the 12th-11th centuries BCE. The current paper focuses on one element of this larger project, presenting the results of a technical study examining the stylistic attributes and performance characteristics of textile tools recovered from Tell Ta'yinat Field Phases 3-6. Preliminary analysis suggests that changes in textile tools over time may suggest developments in the type and quality of fabric being produced during this early period. A further focus on the historiographic evidence from the perspective of recent discussions about the nature of state-level society in the Ancient Near East demonstrates that an holistic analysis of textile crafts is well suited to addressing many of the long standing questions surrounding the dynamic changes that took place following the transition from the Late Bronze to the Early Iron Age in Northwest Syria.

Science and Occult in the Late Bronze Age in Canaan according to the Cuneiform Sources

By: Krzysztof J. Baranowski

Natural curiosity and practical needs pushed humans of every part of the world in every time to pursue, collect and preserve knowledge. Same had to be true of the ancient inhabitants of Syria and Canaan during the Late Bronze Age. The scarcity of written sources prevents us from a systematic reconstruction of intellectual life of the ancient Canaan. There are, however, a few cuneiform tablets which prove that Babylonians sciences reached also Canaan. Surprisingly, among just few scholarly texts found in Canaan, a number of disciplines is represented: mathematics, lexicography and divination. Some details of these texts indicate that the Babylonian tradition was not only passively received but also actively reworked. The present contribution will offer an overview of the scholarly texts from the Late Bronze Canaan and comments on their content.