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Monday. January 27, 2020

In the wooden panelled seminar room of the Woolf Institute at the prestigious University of Cambridge, the Greeks made a comeback. In keeping with the events theme, that’s a metaphorical claim – the topic was Greek Philosophy and its interaction with the Shi‘i school of thought and the discussion was often abstract and sometimes in Arabic or Greek with a little Chinese thrown in, and occasionally Double Dutch (to me at least!) – but never dull!

The seminar, the third in the collaboration between the Woolf Institute and the Hikma Foundation, was once again chaired by the enigmatic Seyed Ammar Nakhjavani and was entitled “Shi‘i Intellectual Traditions and the Legacy of Greek Philosophy”. The fifty or so audience members, from both Cambridge and further afield, were treated to thought provoking and inspiring presentations from two pre-eminent scholars. The first talk entitled “The Reception of Greek Philosophy in the Seminarian Traditions of Qum and Najaf” was delivered by the refreshing Sheiki Nuru, who is the newly appointed Lady Khadija Visiting Fellow in Shi‘i Studies. This post, made possible through the collaboration of the Hikma Foundation and the Woolf Institute, allows a Shi‘i perspective to contribute to the theological discourse at one of the worlds top institutions, and in his discussion of the “hawza” perspective on theology he was able to weave both the historical and the personal perspectives. He brilliantly and succinctly covered the foundations of the history of Greek Philosophy and the main thinkers and their influence over the great Muslim philosophers peppered with his own personal experiences in the seminaries of studying these subjects. 

The second talk and Q&A was with Dr Saiyad Nizamuddin Ahmad of The Shī‘ah Institute had a title itself requiring pondering on to understand: “The One Beyond the one: Unity and Multiplicity in Ancient Greek and Shi‘i Philosophy”. Through this discussion Saiyad Nisamuddin took us on a speedwalk through one portion of Greek Philosophy and linked it directly to modern Shi‘i thinking. For the non-scholars in the audience, the slew of reference, name-checks and abstract concepts (always carefully translated into English as the medium of the discussion) kept me scribbling notes for further investigation. Within a short time the often stuffy, deep and impenetrable subject was laid bare with cogency and brevity; the speaker pulling from a multitude of world traditions, geographies, eras and philosophies to explain how concepts of the One are interlinked and influenced through the ages.

A lively Q&A once again had to be curtailed as the night was drawing in – time is never sufficient with such founts of knowledge possessing the ability to render their specialist subjects comprehensible (mostly!) to the uninitiated. But hope is not lost as we look forward to future such seminars with the Hikma Foundation to open our mind with discussion and our hearts to Allah (s.w.t.) as we take an academic look at Shi‘i thinking.

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