I found in Islamic philosophy, what I had lost: Islamic philosopher
For a philosopher, the world is like a theater stage
Dr. Gholamreza Avani is certainly among the few most influential and remarkable people working in the field of philosophy in Iran. Avani is one of those who has found his path early in life and until now he has always been consistent and successful in following his path. Avani was chosen as one of the country›s most valuable scholars in the «Persistent Faces Conference» in 1382/2003. At the moment, he is the member of the Academie of Science (Islamic Philosophy Department), the head of the International Islamic Philosophy Federation, and a member of the International Philosophy Federation. Earlier, he had positions such as the head of Iran›s Research Institute of Philosophy and Professor of philosophy at the Beheshti University.
Unlike the usual interviews about specialized philosophical issues, we have spoken to Dr. Avani about other parts of his life. It should be noted that it is difficult to have a non-philosophical conversation with a philosopher. However, we talked to him about his student years and his family; we took him back to 134243/1963-64, when he was studying under Henry Corbin and Fardid. The following is this warm conversation.
First, I would like to know how you made your deep connection with philosophy in your life and how you got into this field?
A: Choosing a field depends on certain facts like one› family and background. Although, back then philosophy was not recognized as a separate field of study, and it was much less serious, but the atmosphere was one of love for science and thinking. Besides, back then, the goal of studying was not to make money. Nowadays, the first goal of studying is to make money. Of course, at the time, having an income was also important but studying was considered inherently desirable and in the family circles, they talked about the great scholars like Avicenna, Sohrawardi and others, and sometimes some anecdotes were told about these great scholars. Additionally, in that era, the high school classes were held from morning to the evening, namely we went to school in the morning, had a break for an hour and went back till sunset. But we were still not satisfied.
Which high school did you go to?
A: The Mehran High School in the city of Semnan. For 3-4 years, I used to go to a famous Shaikh›s classes between the morning and evening courses and study Jame-al-Moghadammat. For instance, I learned Jameal-Moghadamt from Shaikh Fazl-al-Allah Mohaghegh. Accidentally, he was also the current President›s teacher. In fact, what I want to say is that back then, learning and acquiring knowledge was encouraged and our parents also expected us to work and to have an income as well and to take care of our own expenses. To sum up, we were not satisfied just to go to school and we were always trying to learn.
Were your parents also educated people?
A: My father did not have formal education, but he had learned to read and write in adult education classes and had a wonderful memory. He could recite many verses from Molavi [Rumi], Attar, Sa›di and Hafiz. Although, he had not gone to school but he knew about Tafsir [interpretation of Quran] and mysticism. My mother was a housewife, but she was also accustomed to Quran und prayers and could recite a lot of Quran. She knew so much that if someone made a mistake in reading Quran, she would correct them immediately, asking them to read correctly. May God bless her, she passed away in 1352 (1972).
You studied philosophy in Beirut, and in fact, your friendship with philosophy started there. Why did you choose Beirut to study philosophy?
A: I have said everywhere that I have studied philosophy in Beirut and not in Iran. Back then, I got a scholarship from my high school to continue my studies in Beirut. There were only one or two others who got the scholarship in humanities. The first semester, there were general courses like mathematics, philosophy, sociology and biology, but from the beginning I was fascinated with philosophy, because they had wonderful professors.
Which university in Beirut did you go to?
A: I attended the American and International University of Beirut, which had an enormous and wonderful library. Many experienced teachers and professors from England, America and France taught there. Among our teachers I can name people like Charles Malik, Majid Fakhri, and one of Walter›s students was also there.
Why did you come back to Iran when you were so pleased with your situation there?
A: I intended to go to the United States, but around the same time (1342/1964), when I was a student in Beirut, Dr. Nasr had a series of speeches there which were very well received; in a way that there was not enough space in the 600-seat hall of the university and the speeches were transferred to the church. When I got acquainted with him, the situation changed and I came back to Iran. In Iran, I got interested in Islamic philosophy and the same year that I moved back to Iran, I took part in the MA entrance exam and after being accepted [and finishing my MA], I did my PhD. After my studies, the philosophy association was founded and I got busy with work there. During that time, some very famous scholars like Professor Shahabi, Professor Mosleh, Professor Henry Corbin and Izutsu used to teach there.
Do you mean that your interest in Islamic philosophy was your incentive for returning to Iran?
A: For me, philosophy is seeking truth; on the other hand, pure truth is lost. Although, all kinds of philosophy were taught in Beirut, but I found what I had lost in Islamic philosophy. In addition, there were some very good professors in Islamic philosophy that I attended their classes. In our time, it was not like now that lots of students are registered for classes and the quality of education is low. At the time, only the university of Tehran offered philosophy courses. Getting into the philosophy major was really difficult, unlike now that many PhD students are accepted [every year]. Before the Islamic Revolution, in the span of thirty years only three PhD courses were held. There was the year that Dr. Davari Ardakani was there, then there was the year that I got accepted and the next time, was the time that Mr. Poorjavadi and Hadad Adel and others were accepted.
Who were your teachers at the university?
A: Dr. Fardid, Dr. Mahdavi, Dr. Jalili, Dr Haeri Yazdi, and Dr. Bozorgmehr were among our professors.
What did you use as your textbooks or educational materials?
A: The main sources that we studied were original texts, we mostly read books written in English, and to a lesser extent books written in Farsi. Some French texts were also used that were taught in French. The reason was that there was no material about western philosophy in Farsi. For instance, back then we studied Descartes or Leibnitz›s books in their original language. I knew languages very well and understood [the texts] very well. I remember that at the time, a book called «Forty Odes from the great Poets of the World,» and my professor asked me to translate the book. I translated the book, but only the Nasir khosrow Volume was published and it is still being reprinted after all these years.
At the time, philosophy has not developed much in Iran, why did you not choose another Muslim country to study Islamic philosophy?
A: It was because I believed that Islamic philosophy has not continuously and constantly been alive and present in any other place except Iran. For instance, although it is true that it also existed in Andalusia, but it lived there for a short and transitory time. Additionally, all great Muslim philosophers like Avicenna, Sohrawardi and Mola Sadra were all Iranians. Even the followers of Ibn Arabi›s school of mysticism, as one of the greatest thinkers in the field of mysticism were located in Iran. For instance, even in a country like Egypt Islamic philosophy in the sense of philosophical wisdom did exist, however, philosophical wisdom has always been the prevailing stream [of thought] in Iran.
Where do you think this continuity comes from and what has contributed to Iran gaining such a status in Islamic philosophy?
A: Wisdom existed in Iran even before Islam, and the Greeks also considered Iran the land of wisdom before Islam. Additionally, in the last 2000, Iran has always been one of the great political powers, conducting campaigns to enlarge her territories. Governing a country or an Empire is not possible without practical and theoretical wisdom. Furthermore, at the time, [almost] all successful and great people were Iranian. The Prophet of Islam says: «Even if knowledge is in heaven, people from Persia will acquire it.» For instance, six writers of the Suni Hadith books [Kutub-al-Sittah] were Iranians, or the four writers of the four books of Shi›a were also Iranians. Knowledge is related to philosophy and wisdom. You cannot be knowledgeable without wisdom. Therefore, wisdom has always existed in Iran.
Based on your explanations, about the status of Iran in the field of Islamic philosophy, it seems that Iran has been on a downward spiral and nowadays philosophy is getting less attention. What, do you think, causes this negligence?
A: No! I don’t think that Islamic philosophy is being neglected now. The reason that more thinkers are paying attention to western philosophy now is that Iranians are an intellectual ethnicity and have their eyes open. Whatever happens around the world, they pay attention and follow it. Their enthusiasm for western philosophy is because they see something somewhere else and go to [get] it. In fact, they like to follow other thought trends in other countries.
You were also friends with Henry Corbin and had a good relationship with him. Please tell us a little about your acquaintance and relationship with him.
A: I got to know him around 1352/1973, when the association was founded and he came to teach courses there. At the time, I was a PhD student and attended his classes for around 5 years. He taught different courses every year and semester. His books are published in different languages and in different places, recently a philosophy book of his was published in Japan.
Of course, besides attending his classes, I used to go to Corbin›s house with Mr. Poorjavadi and study ancient Greek. We had a good relationship. In addition to Professor Corbin, I had a very good relationship with Professor Izutsu, who was Chinese. Unfortunately, he did not receive the recognition he deserved in Iran. Although, the Chinese naturally have a good relation with Iranians, and were also influenced by the Iranian Culture. For instance, there is a place called «Kho›i» near Mongolia, whose people are proud to be of Iranian descent. Many Arabs and Wahabis have gone there and have spent a lot of money to change their culture, but they were not able to do it.
Who were your classmates at the time?
A: Dr. Jahangiri, who is one of the best Professors at the University of Tehran and Dr. Naghib Zadeh were among my classmates.
One of the people who you were very close to, was the late Fardid. Tell us about your relationship with him.
A: Generally, I had very good relations with my professors, and the late Fardid was among them. But I got closer to him during the time I worked with him in The Cultural Foundation of Iran, where we worked on the encyclopedia of philosophy, but unfortunately it was not published after all the work we put into it.
Why was it not published?
A: Back then, the pay for writing was good, [but] we were not paid well, and it was also on a monthly basis. On the other hand, we were told to treat the work like office work, and go to work at 8. At the time, Fardid had just bought the house that is now The Fardid Foundation. He wanted to repair and renovate that house. He also needed money and time to supervise the process there. To sum up, He did not accept to continue work on the encyclopedia. Although, Mr Minavi and Fardid got the bulk of the pay from the foundation, but they needed money to do the repairs anyhow. There was some communication as well but ultimately there was a dispute between the late Fardid and the head of the Foundation at the time which resulted in Fardid leaving the project. Later, I started working as a teacher at the University of Shahid Beheshti and left the project as well.
Your sister, Ms. Avani, is also a philosophy professor, and to some extent your colleague. To what extent you were influential in her entering the field?
A: She is 11 years younger than I am. When I got into philosophy she followed me. I think if I did not study philosophy she would not have chosen this field of study as well. I helped her a lot. But now she helps me more, for example she really helped me in organizing the conferences and workshops of the Wisdom and Philosophy Association, when I was in charge of the association. During the 16 years that I was in charge of the association, we held more than 20 courses and workshops with famous contemporary professors; courses that many of which were not even offered at the universities.
It is interesting that these workshops were free of charge, unlike now, and many attended from different parts of the country. It was because we believed that philosophy is a spiritual and cultural course and one should not have to pay for it. Besides, many people interested in philosophy usually do not have very good financial conditions. You can even see now that many who do not have good financial means are very influential culturally. In addition, back then many parents came to these workshops; we believed that they should learn philosophy to be able to bring up their children well.
How many brothers and sisters do you have?
A: I had a brother who passed away. I have five sisters. One of them studied law, one has passed away, another one had an M.A. degree in Nursing from California and the other one lives in Semnan. Ms. Shahin Avani is the one who studied philosophy.
You lived in China for a while, did you not?
A: Yes, there is a very big institute in China, called The Grand Humanities Research Institute, whose head invited me to go there to teach. I accepted and I taught in English there for three years.
What other languages do you speak?
A: I can read and write French as well as German and I know ancient Greek.
Was it difficult to live there [in China]?
A: I was there with my wife, and they had given us all we needed. I have not gone there for a while, but recently they sent me a letter and asked me to go back, and they insisted that I start my work from next semester that starts shortly.
Let›s distance ourselves from studying and philosophy and talk about everyday life. It seems that your life is linked to philosophy and you don›t have much time to do other things, do you?
A: I think that people who have entangled lives with philosophy are not ambitious people and do not care much for wealth and worldly pleasures. For instance, right now, I still don›t own a car at this age, and sometimes my wife gives me a ride to the Academie and picks me up. I mean that I am not that concerned with material things. I have a very good wife and two sons, who study law and religion in the United States and I want nothing more from this world. I am not the type to waste [money] and [have no interest] in luxurious things.
Do you like movies and theater?
A: When I was young, I used to go to the movies and loved Marlon Brando›s works. But it is a long time that I have not gone to the movies and just watch TV series. I watch the TV series, «Leila›s Loneliness» these days with my wife. One cannot always read books, it gets overbearing. Last time I went to the movies with my wife, it was about 7-8 years ago. There used to be many good films, but nowadays not many good films are made.
Do you regret not being able to do fun stuff, and do you not get tired of overworking?
A: When people get to our age, they like to do something effective. Although, Cinema and theater are art and influential, but for a philosopher the whole world is like the images on the silver screen and the theater stage. Earlier, I watched movies a lot, but now I have concluded that human life span is not long and I should do the things that I have not done.
How is your relatioship with music?
A: I love Iranian traditional music and find it superb. I remeber that from 1347/1968 to 1352/1973 that my house was near Vahdat Hall, I used to go there and watch the live performances of artists such as Shahidi, Shahnaz, Ebadi and Khansari; they were really enjoyable. Accidentally, a few days ago I heard a piece on radio when I was in a taxi, which I loved, but unfortunately I did not find out who the singer was. Anyhow, I have a good relationship with traditional music.