By Ali A. Jenabzadeh

A philosophical order, an epistemological universe 

February 13, 2021 - 9:52

TEHRAN- “When Mr. Mesbah was studying a philosophical issue, he was trying to create a whole philosophical order surrounding the topic”, says Mohammad Legenhausen, the Southern Texas University professor in an interview with the Tehran Times.

Also, regarding the status of Islamic philosophy in the western countries, Legebhausen believes that “there is very limited knowledge about Islamic Philosophy in the West. Scholars and students in the West are more attracted to the 'Islamology', a limited part of which is Islamic philosophy. Even those western academics who study philosophy disciplines are not really that much in touch with Islamic philosophy”.
The following is the text interview.

Thanks for giving us the opportunity for this interview. As one of the students of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, tell us a little about the first time you met him. Where and how it happened? How did you get so interested in his thoughts and reflections?

I first met Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi in New York in 1990, one year before I come to Iran. At that time, I was thinking about coming to Iran and studying Islamic philosophy. I had some sort of a cooperation with Dr. Kharrazi in Iran's embassy to the UN. One day, accidentally, I was in his office and Ayatollah Mesbah stepped in. I remember that Dr. Kharrazi introduced me to him. I told Mr. Mesbah about my decision to come to Iran and learn something about Islamic philosophy. He just got straight to the point and told me, "It’s great, come to me once you arrived at the country". I was really shocked, because he didn't know me at all and we just had started talking about things. I just had met him two or three minutes earlier.

That was it. I never heard from him again. Later, I started preparing for a trip to Iran. I was waiting for the visa, but I needed a letter I didn't have. I didn’t know what I have to do. A while later, Dr. Kharrazi managed to provide me with an official invitation letter from Tehran. The Association of Logics and Philosophy had issued the invitation. So I traveled to Tehran, Iran. I had an Iraqi friend who was about to get married at the time. The girl he was going to marry was from an Iraqi family which had immigrated to Iran and was living in Iranian city of Qom. My friend traveled to Iran from Texas and joined me there. He told me that he has to go to Qom because he was going to officially ask that girl to marry him. So, he asked me to accompany him on his journey to Qom. I accepted.

We traveled to Qom. He proposed to the girl and married her immediately. Previously, I had met another Iranian religious scholar named Mr. Qara'ati in Tehran. He accidentally met me in the streets of Qom and was surprised to see me there. "While you are here, let's go and have a meeting with Ayatollah Mesbah", he told me. I answered positive and the next day, we went to Bagher al-Olum Foundation to meet with Ayatollah Mesbah. The first thing Mr. Mesbah told me kindly after the usual greetings was: "Why didn't come to meet me once you arrived at the country?"

How long was it since the first time you met Ayatollah Mesbah? Was it long after?

It was six months after I first met Ayatollah Mesbah in the U.S., or maybe a little more, but that second meeting happened at least six months after the first time. One year after the first meeting, Mr. Mesbah asked me to stay in Qom. He said, "If you don't want to stay in Qom, at least come here from Tehran once a week". "OK" I answered. This marked the beginning of our relationships. During the first year, I used to travel to Qom from Tehran once a week. Then it increased to two times a week, then three times and after a while, I moved out from Tehran and settled down in Qom permanently.

You’ve been in touch ever since?
Yes.

Could you please tell us a little about your weekly conversations sessions with Ayatollah Mesbah?

I can't remember at what point it started. The date. But it was after we produced a series of TV programs for the national television. There were renowned figures in that TV program, including Mr. Malekian, Dr. Ahmadi, Mr. Sadegh Larijani, and Mr. Fayyazi. We had deep conversations together surrounding a wide range of issues. Those sessions continued on for years and various topics like epistemology or philosophy of morals we discussed. I think the institution is preparing the transcription of those sessions to produce a book out of it. After those TV programs finished, Ayatollah Mesbah invited me to continue the discussion, this time not on the TV. The subjects were very important and this is how we kept meeting and discussing over a varying range of issues. I found it a very good opportunity. We could now do even other important things too. For example, I started surveying the philosophy of Mullah Sadra while he was accompanying me. Some of Mullah Sadra's books were translated to English and I could use those translations because it was much easier for me to understand. I established a weekly review of Sadra's works. Every week, I would read a part of his work. Then I could have a meeting with Mr. Mesbah and we would talk about it. I asked him questions to realize have I reached a proper understanding from Sadra's work, and he explained everything to me. It was perfect.

What is your current discussion with Ayatollah Mesbah now? What are you debating over?

We've had numerous topics to discuss over. Not just the philosophy of Mullah Sadra. There are a wide range of topics like the philosophy of morals, the question of science and religion and many other things. I always write down the content of this debate sessions. We've been doing this for years now. I don’t remember for how many years, but it's been a long time. We do this every week.

I think it was three years ago when Ayatollah Mesbah suggested we can also bring human rights issues into our weekly debates. I was not really that much interested in this topic. But I agreed to discuss it. I started studying different sources of human rights. After surveying each source, I prepared a report containing a brief overview and my analysis about the content of the source. During the weekly session, I presented the report and spoke about my own views and opinions on the topic. After that, I asked questions about Mr. Mesbah's opinions and he gave me his thoughts about the notion. This is what we've been doing every week for several past years.

Sometimes the debate is much of a philosophical nature. Sometimes it's more defined under the criteria of religious debates and interpretation of the Holy Quran. I am very thankful for having this opportunity to use Mr. Mesbah's teachings.

I remember during one of these weekly discussions, I told him something very interesting. I don't remember what the topic was exactly. Maybe it was about the relations of science and religion. I told Mr. Mesbah, "Something really amazes me". "What's that?" he answered. I said, "Every time I read about an issue, I feel there are thousands and thousands of other opinions both in the opposing side and in the favoring side which are impossible to take in during a short-time study. But whenever I present the subject for you, it's like as if you know everything about every opposing and favoring opinion. It's like you have a file where everything is collected and you only have to reach the file which is more related and open up the core of the debate". It was really interesting. He answered by giving me clues on how to organize my studies on different topics. He showed me how simple my problem was. He said when it comes to philosophy, my problem is 'dispersion of studying'. When I was overviewing a philosophical subject, I was just relaying on the things that I find related to the topic; nothing more. On the contrary side, when Mr. Mesbah was studying a philosophical issue, he was trying to create a whole philosophical order surrounding the topic. Everything is classified orderly in his studies. He is truly a philosopher.

To what extent you knew about Ayatollah Mesbah's travels to the Europe and the U.S. and his lectures in various western universities?

During the weekly sessions we had together, a very interesting part of the sessions was the stories he told me about his trips to other countries and debates he had with foreign tinkers. It was really amazing for me how his travels had influenced his take on western people and their civilization. He used to tell me moral tips and things like this regarding different experiences he had in other countries.

There was this specific story from a time he traveled to New York he used to repeat many times. He was going to New Jersey from New York in a car. It was the Fourth of July when Americans celebrate the independence of the U.S. and streets were jammed with people and cars. One car with a number of boys and girls in it, comes close. Those youths were not clothed properly. They started asking the driver of Ayatollah Mesbah's car to pull over. The security team didn't know what they wanted and were worried. Mr. Mesbah tells the driver to pull over and see what they want. After stopping on the street side, a girl climbs off that car, comes close, and askes Mr. Mesbah: "Are you Iranian". "Yes", answers Mr. Mesbah. The girl says, "We've heard a horrible earthquake has happened in your country in the city of Roudbar. I just wanted to offer my condolences and sympathies". Ayatollah Mesbah then used to tell us how surprised he was at that moment, seeing a girl in another country would say something like this right in the middle of having fun in a celebration. He believed things like this are proofs of the fact that there is a heavenly sparkle in heart of every person and despite all the pollutions which affect the innocence of one's heart, the sympathy with the affiliated heart of another person brings hope for a better future.

Tell us about how Ayatollah Mesbah's opinions regarding Islamic philosophy is viewed in the West? Has he ever presented a view on topics like this which attracted attentions of western scholars or changed the views of university students?

There is a very limited knowledge about Islamic Philosophy in the West. Scholars and students in the West are more attracted to the 'Islamology', a limited part of which is Islamic philosophy. Even those western academics who study philosophy disciplines are not really that much in touch with Islamic philosophy. There have been efforts to change the status quo. For example, we have translated some of Ayatollah Mesbah's books about teaching philosophy to English. But the publications company which published the book didn't have much at its disposal in the distribution department and the book was not presented in the market as it should have.

Some other books about Islamic philosophy published [in English] after the Islamic Revolution of Iran. Some journals also were established in English which contained the views of Ayatollah Mesbah, martyr Motahari, Imam Khomeini, and others, but the readers of these journals and magazines in western country are merely the Shia population living there. They read these journals due to their interest rather than academic work. Although part of these readers are active in the field of Islamology, but philosophy is not their concern and they mainly read the philosophical content published in journals or even books as an instrument to get to know post-Revolution Iran more. They want to know what the main figures of Iran's Islamic Revolution think. So they're not necessarily interested in Islamic philosophy.

Unfortunately, the western academic and public atmosphere is not that familiar with the Islamic philosophy that well. There have been efforts to change the circumstances. We had relations with some academic institutions in some countries, but the activities of academicians in those countries are more focused on theologies rather than Islamic philosophy.

What's your personal experience on this field? Why the western scholars and students turn their faces away from Islamic teachings?

In my experience, the university professors I knew were not interested in Islamic philosophy and things like this at all. Once I converted to Islam, they thought I've gone crazy. They face these things with prejudice. This prejudice also exists when they confront Islamic philosophy, but it's not that severe yet. 

When I was a university student, many western philosophers had a very negative viewpoint against religiosity generally. This attitude has changed for better a little bit now, but they still have incorrect distorted presumptions from Islam. When someone says 'Islam', the first thing comes to their minds is ISIS and violence. This prevents western philosophers from falling interested in Islam and Islamic philosophy.

There have been some exceptions though. I remember once I lectured in one of the faculty of theology in one of these western universities. It was about Mulla Sadra's opinion regarding Plato's Theory of Form. One of the priests in the session told me about how fresh and new the content of this lecture was for scholars and students in there. He was interested to know more about these thoughts and was surprised to know debates like this actually exist within the context of Islamic philosophy.

In fields of epistemology, during all those sessions and debates you had with Ayatollah Mesbah every week, did you find something unique you never had heard of? Something you can say exclusively theorized by Ayatollah Mesbah, and nobody else?

Yes, there are lots of theories and acknowledgments put forth for the first time by Ayatollah Mesbah. One of the most important innovations of Mr. Mesbah was the criticisms he brought up about the philosophy of Mulla Sadra. It was really interesting for me as well.
But there are other initiatives one can mention, mostly regarding public issues which generally are defined under the notion of epistemology. Once I first heard about these discourses, I thought of them as being easy to understand or even as being wrong! This misconception led me to dislike these issues. When I started a more precise survey over those topics to extract their flaws, I realized my prejudice towards Mr. Mesbah's opinions on the matter. It was only during the debate and discussion with Ayatollah Mesbah where I found out how wrong I was and realized the true nature and essence of the issues. He educated me to translate those pieces of knowledge into the language of notions and concepts I had in mind from before. These are some delicate details which make big differences on the course of acquiring knowledge. I will never forget this as long as I live.

What surprises you most about the personality of Ayatollah Mesbah? What is the most important characteristic in his personality in your view?

There are lots of things I can mention here. For me, the most important characteristic of Ayatollah Mesbah is his kindness to me. I make many mistakes, and he always forgives. He tolerates the mistakes.
There is also his behavior when it comes to discussing philosophy. I remember sometimes during filming the TV programs I talked about earlier, I could see the exhaustion in his face before the program started. It used to make all of us worried about his wellbeing and sometimes I even thought maybe it's better not to go deep inside the core of the subject in that certain program. But as soon as he engages in a philosophical discourse, Mr. Mesbah acts like he is born again and continues the debate lively and cheerful. This is interesting and memorable for me.

Is there anything left you would like to mention? Something our readers must know?
Ayatollah Mesbah was always insisting on something which was really important to me: establishing a friendly scientific relationship with Christian scholars. He welcomed any Christian group from all around the world, even if it was not that big or didn't have that many members. He insisted that if a Christian group is interested in Islam, regardless of its current status, we should embrace it as our friend and it's our duty to establish a friendship with it. He believed we can use their perspectives and views on theology and religion. Nobody could believe he would actually suggest that a Muslim scholar can learn something from a Christian one. But Ayatollah Mesbah had logical firm arguments to prove his view on this and maintained the view that we should open up the doors to dialogue and respect towards others. 

* Prof. Mohammad Legenhausen is a former Southern Texas University professor and faculty member in Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institution. This interview was conducted in January 2019.
 

Leave a Comment

3 + 2 =