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Al-TawhldFs historical and ethical background. The continuity of religion, philosophy, and politics

And he applied himself intently to seek knowledge (‘ilm), and his departure in the evening and journey in the morning were linked to the acquisition of wisdom (hikma). The beautiful word (hasna) was for him nobler than a virgin slave girl, and the well thought out meaning (muqawwam) was more preferable to him than money accumulated; and according to the extent of his effort, he would obtain nobility in the two abodes, and would be adorned with the ornament of the two dwellings.1

Al-Tawh-dfs birth, provenance, and death

The long period of scholarly neglect that al-Tawhldl has undergone makes it hard to determine the details of his life. There is a lack of biographical sources during the two centuries following his death, and medieval historians and biographers offer contradicting reports about his date of birth, death, place of birth, and creed. Yaqut b. ‘Abd Allah al-Ruml al-Hamawl (d. 626/1229) is the first biographer to show an extensive interest in al-Tawhldl, expressing his astonishment that al-Tawhldl was not mentioned “in any book and was not part of any dialogue”.2 He wrote an eloquent biographical sketch of al-Tawhldl, describing him as faylasuf al-udaba wa adlb al-falasifa (the philosopher of litterateurs and the litterateur of philosophers), “a Sheikh among the Sufis”, “the investigator (muhaqqiq) of the kalam and the mutakallim (theologian) of the investigators”, and “the leader of the eloquent”,3 statements which indicate the difficulty of applying a single label to al-Tawhldl.

Neither Yaqut nor any other medieval biographer gives a date of birth for al-Tawhldl.4 The only mention of al-Tawhldfs age is in a letter, quoted by Yaqut, which was written in Ramadan (400/1011) and addressed to a certain judge named Abu Sahl and in which al-Tawhldl apologised for the burning of his books.5 In this letter, al-Tawhldl mentions that he was in his ninth decade.6 From this, most modern scholars agree that he must have been born between 310/921 and 320/932, and died between 400/1011 and 414/1023.7 This assumption is further supported by an indication given by al-Tawhldl about his age in his book al-Muqabasat. He said, “What then would one hope for after looking back over five decades, most of which were wasted while the remainder was short on achievements?”8 Thus, al-Tawhidi must have been well over fifty while he was in the process of producing the manuscript of al-Muqabasat, which he finished in 382/993. In addition to uncertainty about al-Tawhidi’s date of birth, there is uncertainty about the date of his death. Except for Mu‘In al-Dln Abu al-Qasim Junayd al-Shlrazl, who reports that al-Tawhidi died and was buried in the city of Shiraz in Iran and gives the date as 414/1023, other medieval sources agree that it must have been around 400/1011.9

Al-Tawhidi’s birthplace is also variously given. Nishapur, Shiraz, Wasit, or Baghdad have been suggested. Yaqut is in favour of a Persian origin, referring to al-Tawhidi as “Abu Hayyan al-Farisi, the inhabitant of Baghdad”.10 He gives Shiraz as the birthplace for al-Tawhidi, although he also mentions reports in which other people state, “He is of Shirazi origin, it is also said that he is from NishapUr, and I also found that some excellent people (al-fudala) call him the man from Wasit”.11 Shams al-Din al-Dhahabi (d.748/1348) describes al-Tawhidi as a stranger from Persia and calls him al-Baghdadi because of his long stay in the capital.12 Al-Subki (d.756/1355) and Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d.852/1449) also state that al-Tawhidi originated from Shiraz.13 Ibn Khallikan (d.681/1282) suggests that al-Tawhidi originated from Baghdad, drawing inferences from al-Tawhidi’s nickname (nisba), stating that he did not come across this nickname (al-Tawh. -id-i) in any genealogy, and that it must rather be attributed to a certain type of date that was sold in Iraq and which al-Tawhidi’s father used to sell.14 Not surprisingly, then, the question of al-Tawhidi’s origins has remained unsolved in modern scholarship.15

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