Reconciling Apophatic and Kataphatic Theology: The Neoplatonic Qur’anic Exegesis of Nāṣir-i Khusraw

By Khalil Andani
Submitted to Session P3759 (Ismāʿīlī History and Thought, 2014 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
Egypt; Iran; Islamic World;
7th-13th Centuries; Islamic Studies; Islamic Thought; Mysticism/Sufi Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines the development of Ismā‘īlī theology and Neoplatonic cosmology in the thought of Nāṣir-i Khusraw (d. 1088) – an eleventh century Fatimid Ismā‘īlī philosopher and poet. Nāṣir adheres to an apophatic theology which denies all names and attributes from God and posits a Neoplatonic hierarchy of Universal Intellect and Universal Soul between God and the Cosmos. However, numerous verses of the Qur’an describe God in positive or kataphatic language – which other Islamic thinkers understood as references to God’s Attributes (e.g. life, knowledge, speech, power, etc.). This paper, drawing upon four of Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s philosophical works – the “Face of Religion” (wajh-i dīn), “The Feast of the Brethren” (khvān al-ikhvān), “The Reconciliation of the Two Wisdoms” (jāmi‘ al-ḥikmatayn), and “The Six Chapters” (shish faṣl), analyzes how Nasir-i Khusraw reconciles his Ismā‘īlī apophatic theology with the kataphatic language found in the Qur’an. Nāṣir achieves this reconciliation through a two-stage Qur’anic exegesis (ta’wīl) of the kataphatic Qur’an verses that heavily relies upon his Neoplatonic cosmology of the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul. In the first stage, Nāṣir quotes or alludes to Qur’anic verses mentioning specific Divine Names and Attributes and reinterprets them as references to the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul as opposed to God. In this manner, Nāṣir effectively frames the Universal Intellect as “the knowing” (al-‘ālim), “the living” (al-hayy), “the powerful” (al-qādir), “the exalted” (al-‘alī), and “the eternal” (al-azalī) while describing the Universal Soul as “the creator” (al-khāliq), “the maker” (al-ṣāni‘), “the speaker” (al-mutakallim), “the lord” (al-rabb) and “the sublime” (al-‘aẓīm). Nāṣir’s assignment of these attributes to the Intellect and Soul amounts to a Neoplatonic inspired exegesis of the Qur’ān. In the second stage, having reassigned the Divine Names to the Neoplatonic Intellect and Soul, Nāṣir argues that such attributes may be ascribed to God indirectly – in the sense that God is the Originator (al-mubdi‘) of the Intellect and Soul while not being the direct object of the Divine Names. In this way, Nāṣir indirectly allows God be to associated with attributes, while simultaneously, maintaining His transcendence (tanzīh). This exegesis allows Nāṣir to integrate his rigorous apophatic theology with the kataphatic statements found in the Qur’ān. This study has implications for the history of Islamic thought since Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s position prefigures later Islamic thinkers like Ibn al-‘Arabī and his interpreters who equally maintained a metaphysical distinction between the Divine Essence and the Level (martabah) of the Divine Names.