Giant of Ismaili studies honored by younger generation
Professor Ismail K. Poonawala at tribute organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies. (Photo: Peggy McInerny)

Giant of Ismaili studies honored by younger generation

A younger generation of scholars recently paid tribute to UCLA Professor Emeritus Ismail K. Poonawala at a symposium organized by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies on May 23, 2013.

International Institute, May 31, 2013 — Ismail Kurbanhusein Poonawala was a Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies in the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Culture for 38 years, retiring from full-time teaching in 2012. He chaired the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Islamic Studies at UCLA for five years and has been a long-time affiliated faculty member of the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES).

A specialist in Ismaili studies, his prodigious volume of publications made many original Ismaili works — from the classical Fatimid Caliphate period (10th–12th centuries) as well as from later periods — available to scholars and Ismailis themselves for the first time, prompting a rethinking of earlier scholarship on the Ismaili tradition.

Poonawala’s publications include the monumental “Bibliography of Ismaili Literature,” a fully annotated English translation of volume 9 of Tabari’s “History,” a translation of “The Pillars of Islam” (two volumes of Ismaili law composed by Qadi Nu‘man), “Al-Sultan al-Khattab: His Life and Poetry,” and innumerable journal articles, encyclopedia contributions and book chapters.

At the center of the warm-hearted and intellectually challenging deliberations was Prof. Poonawala himself, a man as humble and friendly as he is accomplished. He began the symposium by defining the Ismailis, acknowledging that many people — including one of his own colleagues at UCLA — do not know who they are.

“The Ismailis,” said Poonawala, “constitute the second largest Shia community in the Muslim world. They are scattered over many parts of the world, including India, Pakistan, East Africa, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Europe and North Africa.”

Poonawala noted that the history of the Ismailis dates to the 8th century, but that the height of their political achievement was the Fatimate Empire established in North Africa in the 10th century, which conquered Egypt and built Cairo. The influence of the Caliphate extended to Palestine, Syria, Yemen and present-day Pakistan. “Because of a distinct literary and intellectual tradition,” he said, “they have made authentic contributions to Islamic thought and culture.”

Three younger scholars then spoke. Dr. Sumaiya Hamdani, Associate Professor of History and Art History at George Mason University in Virginia, presented a nuanced analysis of Poonawala’s educational trajectory from his early studies with his father, a recognized scholar of Islam in his community (in the Ismaili da‘wa tradition) to his vast scholarly output.

She then assessed the impact that Poonawala’s work has had on both Ismaili studies and the greater field of Islamic studies, given that his work has restored the varied contributions of Ismaili thinkers of different centuries to Islamic history, philosophy, law and literature.

Hamdani pointed out that the personal archive of Ismaili works of Poonawala’s father, together with that of her grandfather (Husain al-Hamdani, an Ismaili scholar and professor at Cairo University who was Poonawala’s mentor), provided the foundation for his “Bibliography of Ismaili Literature.” That publication, which presented a topography of Ismaili thinkers for the first time, said Hamdani, changed the field of Islamic studies and sparked a renaissance in Ismaili studies.

Podcast of Dr. Hamdani’s presentation:

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Dr. Omar Ali-de-Unzaga, Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, presented a summary of Poonawala’s work on Ismaili approaches to the Qur’an based on three of his well-known articles, then begged to differ slightly with his conclusions.

The speaker commended Poonawala’s articles on the creation of the Qur’an as among the best ever written on the subject and recommended that they be used to teach students. In addition, he identified the scholar’s article on an Ismaili treatise by one of the most important 12th-century Ismailis in Yemen, as one of very few attempts to place the Ismaili approach to the Qur’an within the overall context of Islamic approaches to the holy scripture.

Poonawala demonstrated, concluded Ali-de-Unzaga, that there are practically no differences between Ismaili and Sunni approaches to the Qur’an. However, the speaker argued that a fundamental difference did exist. Whereas the Sunni see Mohammed as receptacle of the uncreated word of God, he asserted that the Ismaili conception of the Qur’an was more about the prophet. In his view, Ismaili tradition sees scripture as religion, but focuses on the people who deliver or interpret it (i.e., prophets, imans or da‘wa), understanding them as able to receive truths due to the level of consciousness that they have achieved.

Podcast of Dr. Ali-de-Unzaga’s presentation:

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The presentation of Dr. Daryoush Mohammad Poor, also a Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, attempted to place the tradition of the Ismaili da‘wa within the framework of critical rationalism. He highlighted the intellectual boldness, precision and critical approach of Poonawala’s work and, to the surprise of the scholar himself, claimed he could be classified as a critical rationalist.

Mohammad Poor found parallels between the research of Poonawala and the criterion of critical rationalist investigation, which selects a problem, proposes methods of investigation and applies them to the problem, and then discusses the findings. Outcomes, he continued, are never finalized, as all knowledge is tentative and subject to change. The lasting legacy of Poonawala can be found not only in his scholarly publications, but in his book reviews, said Mohammad Poor, claiming that the critical observations of Poonawala are largely overlooked. His criticisms, said the speaker, reveal where theories fail and where we can learn.

Mohammad Poor found a critical rationalist approach to inquiry typical of Ismaili thought in general, noting that while Ismailis held science in esteem, they also engaged with the Hellenist legacy of philosophy, creating intellectual space for critical engagement. He sees in the Ismaili intellectual tradition not only an overlapping of cosmology, philosophy, science, and religion, but a tradition of critical inquiry, pointing out that Ismaili scholars have consistently refuted and criticized one another, both in classical and other historical periods. In sum, his presentation argued for using the framework of critical rationalism to explore Ismaili tradition from a new perspective.

Podcast of Dr. Mohammad Poor’s presentation:

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Following a luncheon break, Professor Poonawala himself briefly narrated his path to becoming a scholar of Islam and his peregrinations from Gujarat to Cairo and, finally, Los Angeles. Noting that he had been born and grew up within two irreconcilable theological schools of Islam, he claimed he had no choice but to study religion. He attributed his critical spirit to his father, who he said was a serious critic of the religious establishment — something that he instilled in Poonawala.

Reflecting on the presentations made at the symposium, Poonawala remarked, “I’m glad that the younger generation will keep the torch alive — it was good to hear . . . some fruits in my lifetime.” He then concluded, “I expect more from the younger generation.”

Podcast of Professor Poonawala’s closing remarks:

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A native of the state of Gujarat, India, Professor Poonawala completed an M.A. in Arabic and Urdu at Bombay University, then journeyed to Egypt to complete a second M.A. in Arabic at Cairo University, where he studied with Husain al-Hamdani. In Cairo, he met Professor Gustave von Grunebaum — the founder of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies — who encouraged him to apply to UCLA, where he completed a Ph.D. in Islamic studies in 1968. Professor Poonawala taught at McGill University and served as a Research Associate at Harvard University before returning to UCLA to teach in 1974.

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