From its inception in 1966 with 50 founding members, Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has increased its membership to more than 3,000 and now serves as an umbrella organisation for more than sixty institutional members and thirty-nine affiliated organisations. Today MESA has become a renowned learned society that brings together scholars, educators and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world.
Every year the MESA sponsors an annual meeting that is a leading international forum for scholarship, intellectual exchange and pedagogical innovation. The 2010 annual meeting was held in San Diego, California, at the Grand Manchester Hyatt Hotel.
The number of attendees in this year’s meeting comfortably exceeded 2000 – the majority of whom were US-based scholars and academics working on Middle East and Islamic Studies, however a considerable number of attendees travelled all the way from the Arab world, Iran, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Japan, Russia, and Europe. The event was packed with a series of engaging and interactive activities throughout the entire duration of the meeting, which traditionally take place on the last weekend of November; on offer was an international book exhibition drawing renowned academic publishers such as Cambridge University Press and I.B. Tauris, film festivals, academic recruitments, art exhibitions, and thematic conversations between leading intellectuals in the field.
In total there were approximately 800 panel papers presented and over 80 panels convened with each being chaired by a leading academic in the field; the number of Shi’i-related panels numbered around 20 with a heavy focus on contemporary Iranian and Iraqi affairs. I was able to attend almost all the Shi’i panels and was pleased to find a trend of growing interest in the field of Shi’i studies, be it contemporary religious authority, classical and medieval Shi’i thought, or Shi’i politics.
I also presented a paper highlighting and examining recent scholarly debates in the seminary of Qom relating to the role of philosophy and its envisaged role in effectively dealing with current challenges to the Shi’i community around the world. The paper, part of a wider panel on Tradition and Change in Contemporary Shi’i Islam, was well received and I have plans to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal in the foreseeable future.
The popularisation of Islamic philosophy, particularly the writings of Mulla Sadra (d. 1640), following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran have recounted many vicissitudes and open condemnations by Qom's scholarly community. The writings of Mulla Sadra represent the fullest and grandest expression of philosophy in Islam, one that not only benefits from a millennium of Islamic thought before it but also formulates and crystallizes in an unprecedented manner, the various latent modes and dimensions of "prophetic philosophy"; consequently, following the Islamic revolution, the figure of Mulla Sadra became that of the philosopher par excellence.
Khumayni seems to have encouraged the linkage of the study of philosophy and mysticism with the political theory of vilayat-i faqih rooted in a philosophical paradigm known as the 'Unity of Existence' by which man is led to God, learns to open himself up to spiritual wisdom, and then returns to the world as one who has become united with God thereby reflecting God's divine attributes, placing Khumayni in a privileged position to maintain order in the realm of worldly politics.
However, following growing dissatisfactions with clerical hegemony and the popularisation of claims by Khumayni's adepts linking their right to govern the state with divine authority, significant segments of the clerical community in Iran have begun to align themselves politically with a pre-1979 school of thought, namely maktab-e tafkik, that has made it its prime concern to separate non-Shi'i elements from so-called Islamic philosophy. How this links to dissident clerical politics is the central theme of this paper. Based on my recent field research in Qom and Tehran, and drawing on the small number of extant Arabic and Persian manuscripts by proponents of the maktab-e tafkik, my paper will argue that dissident members of the clergy in Iran have mounted an intellectual (and sometimes, ad hominem) attack on Mulla Sadra in order to break the link between Khumayni's philosophical extrapolations based on Sadrian philosophy and, the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, thereby challenging the foundational pillars that uphold the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It will be seen that recent assaults by maktab-e tafkik thinkers and their political allies on state-linked philosophers are contributing to the polarisation of Qom's scholarly community and concomitantly challenging the very legitimacy of the system of vilayat-i faqih which, in the eyes of tafkikis, is built on un-Islamic foundations, a phenomenon rapidly catching on with elements of the anti-government movement.