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The Nature of Time and Consciousness in Islam


By Habibuddin Ahmed (Forest Park, IL: Islamic Thought
and Science Institute, 2006), 336 pp. Price HB $59.00. ISBN
0–9787037–0–7.

Publications in Islamic studies tend to be divided into two main camps: studies
by scholars for scholars with the critical apparatus of metropolitan academia,
and studies often in a rather didactic mode written by Muslim scholars for
a broadly Muslim readership with a different set of criteria of acceptability.

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The present work under review is a rather ambitious work that seeks to
transcend this divide and addresses itself to both academic specialists and the
educated Muslim reader. The appearance of such a work written by an amateur
(insofar as he is not a ‘professional’ Islamicist) is refreshing and deserves such
critical scrutiny. Of course, the question is whether that examination will be
rewarded by new insights into the nature of intellectual history in Islam.
Through a reflection upon the teachings of what has been called the ‘sapiential
tradition’ of Islam, Ahmed seeks to inform contemporary debates on the key
problematics of the nature of time and consciousness. It is rare indeed to
encounter a text that tackles ancient notions of time—whether time is ‘real’ or
‘unreal’, a flow or a series of ‘instants’—and juxtaposes them with McTaggart’s
famous A-series and B-series as well as Bergson and Einstein. There is an element
of apologetic justification in the method and presentation that encompasses the
history of thought in Islam and beyond. Contemplation of space and time for
Ahmed is the proper pursuit of a thinking Muslim that reveals and unfolds the
divine design for humans in this cosmos. Further, as a trained scientist, there is
much in the text on which the present reviewer as a rather hopeless non-scientist
cannot comment beyond expressing suspicion about attempts at ‘reconciling’ the
Qur8:n and ‘science’ (Qur8:nic verses are cited liberally). Nevertheless, the topic
of the book is appealing, especially given my own work on the philosophy of
time and its relation to the divine in the Islamic philosophical traditions.
Drawing upon a range of thinkers and texts from the classical philosophical
tradition (such as Avicenna), from Sufism (Ibn 6Arab;, T:j al-D;n Ushn<8;), from
kal:m (Fakhr al-D;n R:z;), from the Safavid period (M;r D:m:d, Mull: 4adr:)
and more recently Iqbal, Ahmed puts forward his own reading and under-
standing of the notions of time and consciousness linking them with his
interpretations of the Qur8:n and Aad;th. The main text comprises eight chapters
on the nature of the divine, on scripture, on the notion of the spirit, the nature
of reality, the ontology of things that are, on the notion of light (mainly an
examination of an interpretation of the Light Verse), on Iqbal and finally
a chapter that attempts to make sense of the research and suggest ‘practical
outcomes’. These are followed by two appendices of translated texts from the
Sufi tradition, both of which are the results of collaborations with the late Nisar
Ahmed Faruqi of Aligarh Muslim University: the first is a rendition of T:j al-D;n
Ushn<8;’ s Gh:yat al-imk:n f; dir:yat al-mak:n, an influential series of proposi-
tions on space and time rooted in attempts at making sense of Qur8:nic
teachings, originally published and misattributed to Sayyid 6Al; Hamad:n;;
108 bo o k re vi ews
and the second comprises a series of short treatises by the Kubraw; Sufis 6Al:8
al-Dawla Simn:n; and 6Az;z-i Nasaf;, the Egyptian mystic Ibn al-F:ri@, 6Abd al-
RaAm:n Isfar:yin;, Af@al al-D;n K:sh:n;, the eponymous Chisht; NiC:m al-D;n
Awliy:8, and the Naqshbandi Khw:ja MuAammad P:rs:. These translations do
not read well and would have benefited from a closer and more careful examina-
tion. The specialist would also want to know more about the Persian texts from
which they were translated and whether the translator has cross-referred to other
works by these authors (e.g. examining P:rs:’s FaBl al-khi3:b for relevant
material).
As the author states in the introduction, his primary concern is ‘anthro-

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pological’ insofar as he is interested in the ‘reform of individuals and the
community’ through knowledge and the understanding of notions. As such, he is
interested in what contemporary Persian intellectual discourse terms ‘khud-s:z;’
(his own term, significantly in Arabic, is tahdh;b al-ins:n). His method is to
provide an intellectual history of ‘consciousness’ in Islam by examining the
concept of time in its three ‘modalities’: zam:n, dahr and sarmad, terms coined
by Avicenna to denote temporal relations between mutable entities (such as
humans) and immutable beings (such as God). Mentioning his interest in modern
cosmology (quite a different beast to the Ptolemaic concept of the ancients
and medievals), he introduces his understanding of cosmology in the Qur8:n.
Whilst it may be questionable to force the Qur8:n to adhere to Big Bang
cosmologies and the proposition of an ever-expanding universe, philosophers
of religion would also wish to question that postulation of a God who is time-
less and immutable, a key assumption of the ancients and the medievals but
rejected by most modern philosophers, including ones (like William Lane Craig)
of a religious bent. However, his use of Gh:yat al-imk:n is particularly laudable
and worth considering.
If Ahmed’s work raises interest and awareness among Muslims of their own
intellectual traditions, then it will have been a successful endeavour. There is little
in this book that will be of much use to the specialist; the approach to ideas tends
to be rather descriptive and the expression generally could be improved. On the
whole, this is a work of synthesis drawing upon translations of original texts and
existing secondary works; it is only the engagement with Gh:yat al-imk:n that
represents some fresh research (and even then is not particularly satisfactory).
Ahmed tries to cover far too much and one would have wished for a more
focused study that examined some of the theories of time and self mentioned
in more analytical detail. One final word about the production: the quality could
be improved, and if the work seeks to engage with a wider readership, the
publishers should consider a paperback edition without the cheesy planetary and
stellar images.

Sajjad H. Rizvi
University of Exeter
E-mail: s.h.rizvi@exeter.ac.uk
doi:10.1093/jis/etm073