In the Agora of Socrates

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

No one knows if it was really in the state prison, the ruins of which are visible today outside the ancient Agora of Athens, that Socrates was kept during the final days before his execution, so many times has the area been destroyed and reconstructed— walking past it sends a chill down my spine. Ancient Greece is visceral and vivid because it entered my imagination early in life; some of the most cherished tales of my childhood came from the crossovers of Hellenistic history and legend, such as the one in which Sikander (Alexander the Great) is accompanied by the Quranic Saint Khizr, in pursuit of “aab e hayat,” the elixir of immortality, or the one about the elephantry in the battle between Sikander and the Indian king Porus, or of the loss of Sikander’s beloved horse Bucephalus on a riverbank not far from Lahore, the city where I was born. I became familiar with ancient Greece through classical Urdu poetry and lore as well as through my study of English literature in Pakistan, but I would read Greek philosophers in depth many years later, as a student at Reed college; I would subsequently discover Greek influence on scholars in the golden age of Muslim civilization while working on a book on al-Andalus— the overlooked, key contribution of Arabic which served as a link between Greek and Latin, and its later offshoots that came to define the cultural and intellectual history of Europe.

Visiting the Agora in the sweltering heat of July, I am amazed by how comfortably these ruins from over two thousand years are nestled in the modern landscaping, park benches and pavements, how familiar the patchy, intensely green grass is, the deep, somnolent shade of oaks— the ancient is home once again, brought down to a child’s scale, at once snug and phantasmagoric, historic and pulsating with new life. Read more »

The Mystic Circle: Sufis, Sants & Songs of the Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Legend has it that Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the medieval Bahmani sultan of Bijapur, styled as jagadguru badshah (master of the world) and author of the famed treatise on classical music in Dakhani, kitab-i-nauras, advised Hindu litigants to go to Paithan in the Marathwada area of upper Maharashtra to have their disputes settled. The ancient imperial capital of the Satavahana kings, also known as Pratishtana in antiquity, was a seat of Sanskritic learning and justice was dispensed there through eminent courts or nyayalayas. The mid-May heat is scorching as we enter the historic inland town on the banks of the river Godavari, which featured prominently as an important town on the trade routes of the past. Ashoka is said to have sent emissaries (or missionaries?) to Petenikas and epigraphic material from the Pitalkhora caves also refer to the town, said to be one of the oldest urban centres in the Deccan. Aside from mentions in Jaina, Buddhist and Brahminical accounts, there are several references to it in outside sources. In Periplus Maris Erytharaei it is known as Paethana and described as a twenty day march from Barygaza (Baruch). Ptolemy also refers to Paithan as the capital of the Andhra king Pulumayi II (138 – 170 CE) and apart from Tagara (Ter), the ancient city was the other important inland market in Dakkhinapatha, or the Deccan. It was known for its textiles and even to this day, Paithani saris are highly regarded.


The curvy narrow streets that wind up through the town bear no indication of its ancient glory. Our destination is the temple of the medieval Maratha bhakti saint Eknath (d 1599). This is Sant Eknath's devghar, his home temple where he worshipped, says Pushkar Gosavi, a builder by profession who lives across the street. Gosavi is also the saint's fourteenth generation descendant—he conducts the affairs of the samasthan, the temple trust, looks after the devghar, and performs several of the religious functions. “It's been 415 years since Nath Maharaj has left” Gosavi tells us, “and we are merely following the ‘route' that he has laid out.” The greatest work of his hallowed ancestor, Gosavi informs us, was to bring together all kinds of folk. Hundreds of people used to gather here for a meal everyday, “typical Marathi style jevan (food), with puranpoli” Gosavi says, distracting me momentarily as my mind wanders off with inwards prayers of an opportune and delicious lunch ahead—such stray thoughts assume great meaning while travelling. He spoke to all people, Gosavi continues, reminding them in more ways than one, through various tales, songs and discourses, abhangs and bharuds (devotional songs), that there was just the one God, and all quarrels on that front are in vain.

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Cerebral Imperialism

Neurons The present is where the future comes to die, or more accurately, where an infinite array of possible futures all collapse into one. We live in a present where artificial intelligence hasn't been invented, despite a quarter century of optimistic predictions. John Horgan in Scientific American suggests we're a long way from developing it, despite all the optimistic predictions (although when it does come it may well be as a sudden leap into existence, a sudden achievement of critical mass). However and whenever (or if ever) it arrives, it's an idea worth discussing today. But, a question: Does this line of research suffer from “cerebral imperialism”?


The idea of “cerebral imperialism” came up in an interview I did for the current issue of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, with transhumanist professor and writer James “J” Hughes. One exchange went like this:

Eskow: There seems to be a kind of cognitive imperialism among some Transhumanists that says the intellect alone is “self.” Doesn’t saying “mind” is who we are exclude elements like body, emotion, culture, and our environment? Buddhism and neuroscience both suggest that identity is a process in which many elements co-arise to create the individual experience on a moment-by-moment basis. The Transhumanists seem to say, “I am separate, like a data capsule that can be uploaded or moved here and there.”

You’re right. A lot of our Transhumanist subculture comes out of computer science— male computer science—so a lot of them have that traditional “intelligence is everything” view. s soon as you start thinking about the ability to embed a couple of million trillion nanobots in your brain and back up your personality and memory onto a chip, or about advanced artificial intelligence deeply wedded with your own mind, or sharing your thoughts and dreams and feelings with other people, you begin to see the breakdown of the notion of discrete and continuous self.

An intriguing answer – one of many Hughes offers in the interview – but I was going somewhere else: toward the idea that cognition itself, that thing which we consider “mind,” is over-emphasized in our definition of self and therefore is projected onto our efforts to create something we call “artificial intelligence.”

Is the “society of mind” trying to colonize the societies of body and emotion?

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Early Islam, Part 5: Epilogue

By Namit Arora

Part 1: The Rise of Islam / Part 2: The Golden Age of Islam
Part 3: The Path of Reason / Part 4: The Mystic Tide

(This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two key currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue. It builds on precursor essays I wrote at Stanford’s Green Library during a summer sabbatical years ago, and on subsequent travels in Islamic lands of the Middle East and beyond.)

Al-Kindi Muslims discovered Greek thought hundreds of years before the Western Christians, yet it was the latter who eventually domesticated it. Why did the reverse not happen? Why did the golden age of Islam (approx. 9th-12th centuries)—led by luminaries such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Alhazen, al-Beruni, Omar Khayyam, Avicenna, and Averroës—wither away? Despite a terrific start, why did Greek rationalism fail to ignite more widely in Islam? In this epilogue, I’ll survey some answers that have been offered by historians and highlight one that I hold the most significant.

Earlier in this series, we saw how three contending currents of thought dominated the Islamic golden age—orthodoxy, rationalism, and mysticism—based on three different ways of looking at the world. Orthodoxy in Islam looked to the Qur’an to justify a whole way of life. A universal, durable code of behavior and personal conduct is an understandable human craving, and so much more comforting when God Himself shows up and lays it out in one’s own language! Orthodoxy is by no means limited to ‘revealed’ religions; it took root in Hinduism via its castes, priests, and rituals. Suffice it to say that humans have been drawn to narrow and exclusive systems of belief with a dismaying alacrity. [1] The orthodox, it’s worth pointing out, are not all that otherworldly. The mullahs, bishops, and pundits are rarely disengaged from their social milieu, as the mystics tend to be. The orthodox may covet the rewards of the other world but what happens in their own—as in what norms, practices, dogmas, and rituals are followed—is profoundly important to them. They care deeply about this world and, in their own way, struggle to improve it, sometimes even waging war over it.

Whirling dervish The mystics are rather different. They don’t care much for holy books or religious clerics, and receive God as a subjective experience, beyond the bounds of dogma. An essential mystical experience lies in the believer’s sobering realization of the inadequacy of reason in knowing God and his design. Love and devotion—even rapturous ecstasy—help bridge the enormous gulf he sees between him and God. Happiness comes not from material pleasures but from surrendering to the benevolent divine. He deals with existential angst by suppressing his self and ego. Mystical teachers across cultures have appealed to a non-dualistic approach to nature, in which everything in existence is not only interwoven but is a manifestation of the divine. Clearly, a mystical worldview does not engender ideas like competition, personal ambition, or democracy, nor does it preoccupy itself with theories of justice or science or critical inquiry. Instead, it eschews religious orthodoxy and furthers a tolerant, pacifist, and private faith, often alongside a gentle, dreamy, fatalistic detachment from the world. [2] Such otherworldly mysticism flowered in Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Eastern Christianity, but barely so in Western Christianity.

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Early Islam, Part 4: The Mystic Tide

By Namit Arora

Part 1: The Rise of Islam / Part 2: The Golden Age of Islam / Part 3: The Path of Reason

(This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two key currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue. It builds on precursor essays I wrote at Stanford’s Green Library during a summer sabbatical years ago, and on subsequent travels in Islamic lands of the Middle East and beyond.)

Surrender-to-god ‘Mysticism is ultimately rooted in the original matrix of religious experience, which grows in turn out of man’s overwhelming awareness of God and his sense of nothingness without Him, and of the urgent need to subordinate reason and emotion to this experience.’ [1]

Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, first arose in Syria and Iraq in the 8th century CE. Arab conquerors, a century earlier, had taken Islam all over the Near East, which included lands with a long tradition of ascetic thought and eastern Christian monasticism—a tradition that valued religious poverty, contempt for worldly pleasures, and a secret world of virtue beyond that of obedience to law—no doubt encouraged by the fact that for three centuries, until after the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, Christians in the Near East were a minority subject to suspicion and persecution by the pagan Romans.

But old habits die hard, and even as Islam spread, many new converts, beneath a slim veneer of their new faith, persisted with asceticism and detachment. What transformed asceticism into mysticism was something quite radical: an unabashed love of God. This transformation has been symbolically ascribed to a woman from Basra, Rabi’ah al-Adawiyah (d. 801?), among the first to articulate the mystic ideal of a disinterested love of God, as in her prayer below.

‘O God, if I worship Thee for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for Thy own sake, grudge me not Thy everlasting beauty.’ [2]

SufiWaterColor Many believers who were also drawn to rational philosophy found its objective accounts of God unsatisfactory. They yearned for a God who was more immediate and sympathetic than the remote God of the philosophers and the legalistic God of the theologians (the ulema). Early Islamic mystics, or Sufis, [3] thus evolved a more subjective notion of God: each of us can experience the divine differently; revelation is an event that unfolds deep within us; each of us, through our own effort, can reach out to the divine.

A systematic destruction of the ego (fana) and surrender of the self to God became central to the Sufi ideal: one who discards his ego to discover the divine presence at the heart of his own being would experience greater self-realization and self-control. ‘Man becomes dead unto himself and alive unto God.’ [4] Many practiced celibacy as a mystic ideal, flouting the example of matrimony set by Muhammad himself. Scholars like Majid Fakhry have noted Hindu influences on ‘this bold concept of annihilation of the ego and the reabsorption of the human in the divine’ (many early mystics in Persia had Hindu teachers).

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