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Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī: The Proofs of Prophecy: A Parallel English-Arabic Text (review)

From: Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies
Volume 5, Issue 4, Autumn 2012
pp. 498-500 | 10.1353/isl.2012.0057

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Once again the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative of Brigham Young University has added another important work to its Islamic Translation Series. The Proofs of Prophecy, or A'lam al-Nubuwwah, has been translated from Arabic to English by the well-qualified scholar Tarif Khalidi, who previously translated the glorious Qur'an into English. In preparing this translation, Khalidi used Salah al-Sawi's Arabic edition published by the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy with a detailed English introduction by S. H. Nasr in 1977. The translation is briefly annotated, and many of those notes display the careful attention that Khalidi paid to establishing the best reading of the text according to the evidence available to him.

This book tells the story of a debate between the great Persian theologians Abu Hatim al-Razi (d. circa 933,) who was the chief lieutenant and later successor to the Isma'ili da'i; and the prominent alchemist, philosopher, and physician Abu Bakr al-Razi or Rhazes (d. 925). It seems that this debate was more complex than other famous debates, such as the one on logic and grammar between Abu Bishr Matta ibn Yunus, a Christian philosopher; and Abu Sa'id al-Sirafi, a philologist who wrote commentaries on Sibawayhi's grammar. Previously, Margoliouth discussed the debate between Abu Hatim al-Razi and Abu Bakr al-Razi in a 1905 article. The debate covers a number of Islamic philosophical-theological issues, ranging from the 'five eternals', prophetic traditions, and the prophets' features to the evolution of the natural sciences. Such debates are owed to their era, for the 'Abbasid caliphate (in the second half of the ninth century) opened up the environment for such scholarly disputations. This intellectual freedom led many Sunni and Shi'a scholars to spend considerable time explaining Islamic principles and thoughts to the masses. Likewise, groups of Shi'a scholars - including Imamis, Isma'ilis, and Zaydis - devoted their lives to educating unaware or deviated people, although Isma'ili scholars like Abu Hatim were the pioneers.

Abu Hatim covers the debate in seven parts, with 33 chapters in total. It is obvious that Abu Hatim wishes to protect his faith from the hands of his enemies, who were attacking his faith using his own school of thought. Regarding his school of thought, Khalidi states, 'Abu Hatim al-Razi was an Isma'ili missionary and debater of great skill, as witnessed by this work, which portrays him as a brilliant defender of Islamic orthodoxy as well as subtle expounder of Isma'ili ideology' (xvii). Some of Abu Bakr's views attacked revelation and Islamic principles, such as nubuwwah; thus, Abu Hatim and some Sunnis and Shi'as refer to Abu Bakr as a heretic or mulhid, which is obvious throughout the book.

As a sample of Abu Hatim's approach, the debate's opening, 'An account of what transpired between me and the heretic', can be mentioned. It begins with a question about prophecy from Abu Bakr concerning why God selected only some people for prophecy and allocated specific virtues to them. As indicated by the translator and some Muslim scholars, Abu Hatim's answers in this section present an epistemological aspect of Isma'ilism regarding the need for instruction (ta'lim) for human beings. Abu Hatim continues by telling Abu Bakr about the five eternals: the Creator, the soul, substance, space, and time, as well as the issue of imitation versus independent investigation.

Then, Abu Bakr intensifies his critical statements by saying that the miracles of Muhammad were narrated by a few people (that is, not more than a hand's fingers) and are not popularly known among the community; therefore, stories of the Prophet's miracles would be the result of collusion. Abu Bakr also mentions extraordinary feats by ordinary people, such as dancing on fire. Thus, Abu Hatim explains the differences between prophetic miracles and signs. Later, Abu Hatim completely clarifies the signs of Muhammad in the revealed books and in Islam (142 & 145). Again, Abu Bakr's questions about the Qur'an emerge and he asks about challenging (tahaddi) the Qur'an; in response, Abu Hatim offers a fully developed section about these statements of Abu Bakr...



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