IBNA: Dr Najafqoli Habibi was born in 1942 in Khansar. He went to the seminary and then to Divinity School of the University of Tehran and obtained his PhD in philosophy. He is now emeritus professor of the University of Tehran.
How did you come to choose philosophy?
Before entering the seminary, I had read Sabzevari's verses and this led me to choose philosophy on my arrival in the faculty of divinity. In fact a description of his verses made me familiar with the world of philosophy. And although I believe that I did not choose the field with knowledge, I was interested in philosophy.
Tell us more about this interest…
I got familiar with philosophical matters through a description of Mulla Hadi Sabzevari's verses and this interest gradually led me through studying philosophy instead of Jurisprudence or Arabic. In fact my personal interest put me through this field of study.
And did you ever regret it?
Never. And of course I could not study other majors like sociology or political sciences given my primary choice and sooner or later I had to enter the faculty of divinity. So I found philosophy more pleasing.
When did you start working on manuscripts?
The idea was shaped in line with compiling my PhD dissertation. My dissertation was about Suhravardi's views regarding divine wisdom. While studying his writings I realized that two of his originally Arabic works of philosophy have never been published, so I decided to edit and publish them. In that time Dr Seyyed Hussein Nasr – professor of the Faculty of Letters of Tehran University – was also the head of the Society of Wisdom and Philosophy. He encouraged me to work on them and published them. Then the idea of editing old manuscripts was fortified in my mind.
The world of philosophy has many attractions. Why did you choose editing?
This is a very difficult job and needs lots of patience. Editing philosophical texts of writers of previous centuries offers a great opportunity for young students to read them as books, while professors are not usually patient enough to ask the students to study manuscripts. So I became interested in old philosophical texts. Editing and correcting these texts was a must and after the publication of the first volumes I became aware of the importance of this task. Old manuscripts had never been available in print or were, at their best, available in lithographic forms that we are not used to reading them. Therefore I decided to edit them from a scientific approach and present them to those interested. Fortunately there is a growing interest in rereading these texts but is not enough yet, as there are still piles of old manuscripts by great scholars of the past rotting in bookshelves. Meanwhile in order to write down the history of logic, philosophy, Kalam and Islamic mysticism we have to read these texts thoroughly so that we can offer a well-based analysis of a span of historical time. These texts are useless as long as they are rotting in old bookshelves and that is why we have not come up with a clear history of our philosophy. This is also true about Kalam (logos) and Mantiq (logic). All the present histories are written by Europeans and contemporary scholars have failed to produce mighty works like them as they did not have any viable sources. Therefore, editing and rereading old manuscripts is a necessity.
And you have never been concerned with producing original and independent books?
I have not written any independent work, although writing introductions to edited manuscripts is a large work in itself. I am used to writing but I apply it on rereading manuscripts. I have written articles and essays but never a single book of my own.
Besides editing that produces the raw material of philosophy, many critics have emphasized on the significance of descriptions and interpretations. Have you paid any attention to it?
No. I find my duty in editing books for publication. However, some researchers do not tolerate rereading and correcting texts and prefer to write interpretations on works of philosophy. There are researchers now merely working on interpretations.
How do you evaluate these works?
Not actually. Writing good descriptions is an ambitious task, whereas most researchers do not have enough time to do these. Each year some books are published in this field and we should encourage researchers to produce mightier works. We should first recognize what we have and then begin to evaluate them. Other editors as well as I are trying to introduce our heritage and it is the duty of other individuals to criticize them. Nevertheless, there are limited numbers of critiques at hand and criticisms are mostly published in article forms. There is a long way to success in criticism and we should not lose hope. I confess that there are promising young researchers in this field and I wish for a new critical movement that could justly assess our corrections and publications.
It is definitely hard to find these manuscripts. How do you find them?
There are some centers in Iran that keep such manuscripts the lists of which are already published. The Central Library of the University of Tehran, Majlis Library, Malek National Library, and the library of Shahid Motahari School are some of the main manuscript reservoirs in Tehran. As for other towns I can mention the library of Astan Qods Razavi in Mashhad, and libraries of Ayatollah Marashi Najafi and Ayatollah Golpaygani in Isfahan. Also there are manuscript libraries in Istanbul of Turkey and some more in Iraq and Egypt. Many of valuable manuscripts of Islamic countries were moved to Europe during the upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries. All in all these manuscripts are reachable if you spend relevant time and money.
Finding these manuscripts especially their bests needs constant searching and those in pursuit of these texts usually welcome hardships. We should not think that they are easily accessible although the job has become easier compared with the past. Most libraries today have scanned their manuscripts and offer CDs instead of the original. When I began my job in 1978, finding manuscripts was very difficult and problematic.
No doubt you have spent most of your time in the solitude of a library. Have you come across anything interesting in there?
I do not remember a particular event, but the most exciting moment in the library is when I pick up what I had been seeking. Sometimes I have incidentally found an important book that I had no idea of. These moments I feel a great joy in my heart.
Of course I have memories of my recourse to the libraries. One of my problems was that I had to rewrite the texts for myself as there were no scanning facilities then. Every day I had only two hours to go the library and rewrite the manuscripts. Sometimes the sweat of my hand during long hours of scribing damaged the original version or left spots on them. The librarians, who endeared these manuscripts watched me out to make sure that I used pencils and that my hands would not sweat! I have many memories of the kind in Malek Library. I used to go there a lot before the Islamic Revolution. The library was located in a worn out building in the district of Bazaar of Tehran. It was directed by late Ahamd Soheili codicologist and book expert. He usually watched me out… But these problems no more exist. Nowadays the libraries offer a CD of manuscripts that you can take home and zoom in for better studies. I hope that the young generation benefit from these facilities. Shahid Motahari spent long times in the library of Majlis on scribing Bahmanyar's book 'Al-tahsil'. But rewriting of a hundred page book was a minor problem, as typography with lead letters was another problem. Now the field of codicology has been developed. Yet despite all the facilities there is less interest in the job. People of my generation enjoyed hard work but today people want easy jobs and quick results.
Correction and proofreading needs utmost attention and you make sure not a single letter is altered. This requires patience. I invite all patient youth to work on our scientific treasure that is decaying under heaps of dust and soil in the libraries and present them to the society. Hard work leads to big result.
Let us get back to philosophy, you specialty. Any philosopher occupied with teaching and research sometimes comes up with theories beyond the ideas of acknowledged philosophers. Have you ever come across such ideas considering your massive philosophical studies?
I am personally obsessed with what others say. And this is my primary occupation when teaching philosophy. However, when you compare their ideas, you come up with your personal way of reading them and a personal philosophy.
Would you elaborate on this? What aspects of philosophical terms have you surpassed?
There are many, and it is not an appropriate time to probe into them.
Are they so many?
Yes and I am too tired to explain them to you.
Perhaps all those individuals inclined to philosophy are full of epistemological questions. Have you found the answers to your philosophical questions in Islamic sources?
Generally speaking, yes. But there are always minor points that are not easily found. It is part of human nature to always ask new questions. Some issues have been internalized for me, such as the fact that the world has a beginning source and everything begins with Him and ends in Him, and that the created world is well regulated. Nothing in the world is meaningless or left alone and everything moves according to certain rules. This belief helps us to understand that we are not left alone and we can rely on a strong source of life.
If man ever feels that he has nothing to rely on, he will definitely fall down. Yet this reliance differs from individual to individual. Let me tell you a narrative about Bozorgmehr that I have read in Kalileh and Demneh. Bozorgmehr says: "I wanted to find the best way to man's salvation. I thought o myself that religions can save men, but then I found out that people have different ideas of religions." He also examines philosophy and concludes that individuals should only rely on basic premises that he truly believes in. If he believes in God, this belief gives meaning to his life. And if he doesn’t, he should also actualize this belief in his life; however, disbelief in God often results in insoluble paradoxes.
As a Muslim living in Iran, how could you treat various theories in the world and study the proportion between religion and ethics when you take religion as an absolute matter?
Such questions could be solved by philosophical arguments, but people may accept or reject it. And of course no one is forced to accept them and he should not necessarily provide a logical reason for his refute. Some others do not bring any reason for their rejection and suffice to say that they feel they cannot take it. All in all philosophers have different opinions and follow different traditions of thought.
As for religion and ethics, these may be two separate issues but are congruent in many aspects. Ethics and religion usually justify each other. The opposite of this is also true as they have different bases. Religion is based on revelation and ethics is based on a series of rational arguments. So naturally there are differences between them. Ethics is also based on human spirit as an intelligent being who seeks happiness. Therefore he is in pursuit of different means of happiness and picks up the good things that help him reach happiness. Moral principles are alike in almost all human societies – like justice, although justice may have different implications. There is an argument here that questions the need for religion when human ration can choose the good from bad. And I think this is the meaning of your question. Human reason has nothing to do with the afterworld. Here religion has something to say and had supplement reason. This involves very special issues, or else many nonreligious people follow morality. Generally speaking, there is not a big deal of differences between religion and ethics. And both cases are subject to diversions. For instance, a nonreligious matter could be given religious mask or ethics may follow the wrong path sometimes. This is the job of the philosopher to discover the true foundations of ethics and morality.
Why do some philosophers get involved in politics? You have been an MP once and were also active in the last round of presidential elections…
First of all, politics is a subcategory of philosophy. Aristotle, Avicenna, and all other great philosophers have written on politics. Many European philosophers of the 17th to 20th centuries also wrote their masterpieces on the philosophy of politics. There were philosophers who had words on how to govern societies and who should govern them. Society is issue number one of our time, therefore it is the duty of philosophers to deal with social behavior in line with epistemological arguments, and define and establish social institutions. If you take a look at the subcategories of Islamic Sciences, you will find it divided into Theory and Practice. Politics is in the realm of practical philosophy that tends to teach us how to live. Its only difference with ethics is that ethics only encompasses the 'self' area, whereas politics includes social life and the public sphere.
Finding the relationship between various social groups with each other is a critical act that if it is not done perfectly it will fall societies apart; this is only done by a professor. Massive decisions for a society are made in the realm of politics and it is called social policy. Politics is an important part of philosophy. It is interesting to know that even the last part of Avicenna’s theology ends with politics. In his opinion, a society is divided into three groups of craftsmen (who run different trades), the army men (those in charge of preserving security of the country), and the literati and politicians, that have to think for the good of the society; the writers and politicians tell others what to do. I mention all these to tell you why I entered the world of politics as a philosopher. It is demanded by Islamic philosophy today that philosophers should interfere with politics. This philosophical tradition should be taken into politics so that we can decipher how to govern our society; philosophy is not restricted to individual matters.
Did you step into the world of politics based on such a view or were you led to this under certain circumstances?
Certain conditions were definitely effective on my decision. However, I have thought seriously about it. I still think about it and such issues occupy my mind. Anyone studying philosophy cannot be indifferent to the political conditions of his society; otherwise he has neglected an important part of his education.
What is the most important problem of our society, in your opinion, that philosophers should deal with?
Immorality is our contemporary problem and something our philosophers should think about. Unfortunately we see that some members of the society easily tell lies, betray, deceive, or accept responsibilities that are not qualified for. Such immoralities are not justified in our cultural system. Sociologists and politicians should really think about the reasons behind spread of immorality in society.
At the present time, philosophy is loaded with various responsibilities one of which is entering into politics and evaluating trends of thought. Current societies are involved in a series of problems that are only solved by means of philosophy.
Do you agree that books are the main means of conveying philosophy as an abstract matter?
Book is not the only means of conveyance, yet in the past history of philosophy it has been the best and most effective and lasting way of conveying human premises. Conveying arguments from one generation of pupils to others is another method but is not as lasting or valid as books.
Do you also agree that books as the only lasting way of conveying human knowledge to the future, may also contain defects or mistakes? Books were only reproduced by scribing and this included inevitable mistakes…
Definitely so; correcting old texts is primarily done in order to distinguish such mistakes. An author has written a book and it has been conveyed with mistakes and therefore means not what it should. It is also possible that a writer might be mistaken but even that misconception should be conveyed as it is. Perhaps some scriveners were not educated enough and wrote the words wrongly, or perhaps one recited a sentence and many scribers wrote it down. All these scriveners did not have equal speed or talent. I have come across such problems for many times. In fact, the main job of an editor is to correct such mistakes.
Have you ever had a wrong understanding of a text for years and future discovery of a better text helped you revise it?
Yes it has happened, especially in the field of medicine in the 17th or 18th century when writing prescriptions for the patients according to Avicenna’s book ‘Canon’. They realized that one of the scribers had miswritten a word in Avicenna’s book and had accordingly caused the death of many patients for centuries. It is written in Qotbeddin Shirazi’s book – that I am now working on – that one day an astronomer goes for venesection, but the venesector abides explaining that one should never make venesection on an astronomer according to medical pamphlets. The truth was that according to the books of medicine one should never let the blood of a person suffering from indigestion flow. But the word was misspelled as an astronomer.
By mentioning these I would like to draw your attention to many similar mistakes in interpreting manuscripts. Another example is Fakhr Razi’s misreading of Avicenna in his book ‘Sharh Esharat’. Khajeh Nasir had realized that Fakhr Razi has misunderstood many points of Avicenna in his interpretation.
What is the main difference between the current generation of philosophy students and the previous ones?
I cannot say make any general sentence on this or claim that previous generations were more interested in philosophy than current generations. I have worked with both generations and seen thoughtful students along with uninterested ones who just need to obtain a degree. I cannot make any classification.
You mean that there is no particular difference between generations?
There is, at least in one obvious field: current students have more learning facilities but are lazier and do not work hard. These facilities are not comparable to our studentship period. We live in a period when everything is easily accessible by the net, whereas in our time even books were hard to find or not available at all. This reminds me of a memory: once I was working on my PhD dissertation on Suhravardi I had to find about Professor Corbin’s views on the subject, I learnt through Dr Hussein Nasr that Professor Corbin was residing in Iran so I went to him to ask for a visit. I found him browsing a book on a ladder in his library whose books reached the ceiling. I explained my problem and he only told me that I should read his books. I told him I already did; you know what he said? He said: read again.
After lots of searches, I found the book in the library of Astan Qods and then I had to travel to Mashhad to reread it. I am telling you this to show you the main difference between the students. Nowadays such problems exist no more. We were zealous for books and when we found them, we endeared them like sweet heart. The main problem of the current generation of philosophy students is that they do not endear their knowledge and do not try to memorize anything because everything is easily accessible. That time manuscripts even lacked page numbers and you had to go through many pages to find a particular point; therefore you saw many subjects and gradually memorized them. We mainly relied on the power of our memories whereas today the internet has replaced that power. Not using or relying on memory gradually reduces thinking abilities and this is very dangerous. Because their minds work no more and they become mere collectors of other people’s ideas. The problem is also felt among seminary students. Not having exercised their minds they lose analytical abilities; they become like vast oceans of little depth.
Besides research and correction work, what do you prefer to do?
I have no leisure activity other than research. I spend almost all my time on manuscripts. Apart from this, I would like to read recent publications in my interest now and then.
A selection of Dr Najafqoli Habibi's administrative responsibilities:
- Manager of Majlis Library 1981
- Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Islamic Premises
- Chancellor of Alzahra University
- Chancellor of the Faculty of Juridical Sciences and Justice Services
- Chancellor of the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences of the University of Tehran
- Chancellor of the University of Tarbiat Modares
- Director of Imam Khomeini and Islamic Revolution Research Center
- Chancellor of Allameh Tabatabaei University
- Member of Theological Planning Committee
- Member of Council for Promotion of Higher Education (8 years)
- Dean of Islamic Philosophy Department, Faculty of Divinity and Islamic Premises, University of Tehran
- Member of Third Islamic Parliament
- Member of Council for the Constitution Revision
Some of his introductions, descriptions and publications:
- Introduction to 'The Writings of Sheikh Ishraq', Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies (IHCS)
- Description of Sabah Prayer, Haj Mullah Hadi Sabzevari, Tehran University Press
- 'Imam Hussein Bibliography', Imam Khomeini Publishing Institute
- Description of 'Towhid Al-Sadouq', three volumes, Ghazi Saeid Qomi, Ministry of Culture Publishing Press
- 'Sharh Al-Arbaeen', Ghazi Saeid Qomi, Miras Maktoob
- 'Al-Abaeeniay Lekashf Al-Qudsiyat', (10 essays) Ghazi Saeid Qomi, Majlis Library
- Description on 'Elahiat Alshefa' of Mulla Sadra, 2 vols
- 'Rasael Alshajara Alelahia fi Olum Alhaqaeq Alrabania', Shamseddin Mohammad Shahrzoori, 3 vols, Iranian Institute of Philosophy
- 'Izah Almaqased fi Halle Muzalat Ketab Alshavahed', Master Javad Mosleh, Iranian Institute of Philosophy
- Mafatih Alqayb, Mulla Sadra, 2 vols, Sadra Islamic Philosophy Research Institute (SIPRI)
- Alhedaya, Athireddin Abhari
- Description of 'Altalwihat Allowhia val-Arshia', Ibn Kamuna, 3 vols. Miras-e Maktoob and Faculty of Theology of the University of Tehran
- 'Altalwihat Allowhia val-Arshia', Sheikh Ishraq, Iranian Institute of Philosophy