I found in Is­lamic phi­los­o­phy, what I had lost: Is­lamic philoso­pher

For a philoso­pher, the world is like a the­ater stage

Tehran Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Sara Faraji & So­maye Rezaei

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.

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