Dr Omar Ali-de-Unzaga and Dr Daryoush Mohammad Poor presented papers at a conference honouring Professor Ismail Poonawala’s career held at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) on 23 May 2013.
The conference, ‘Reflecting on Ismaili Studies: Standing on Poonawala’s shoulders’ was organised by the G.E. Von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies of UCLA to recognise the achievements of Prof. Poonawala, one of the most prominent contemporary scholars in Ismaili Studies.
An author of numerous studies on Ismaili thought, Prof. Poonawala has produced a number of critical editions of classical Ismaili texts, and is best known for his seminal work Biobibliography of Ismaili Literature, which he published in 1977. Prof. Poonawala’s Biobibliography is one of the most complete records of its kind, as it offers a survey of all known Ismaili authors (more than 200) and their works (around 1300 titles). He also identifies the collections in which these manuscripts are located. Prof. Poonawala is currently preparing a new edition of this monumental work. He has also published several edited and annotated volumes from the literary, legal and philosophical works of the Fatimid period including Qadi al-Nu‘man’s Pillars of Islam and Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani’s al-Iftikhar and al-Maqalid al-malakutiyya.
Omar Alí-de-Unzaga’s talk was divided into two parts. First, he surveyed those publications by Prof. Poonawala that represent a contribution to our understanding of the Ismailis’ approaches to the Qur’an. Secondly, he analysed selected texts by Ismaili authors, particularly focusing on a fragment from al-Qadi al-Nu‘man’s Ta’wil al-Shari‘a and its stance on the nature and language of the Qur’an.
Daryoush Mohammad Poor’s presentation discussed how Prof. Poonawala may be regarded as a scholar whose work provides a foundation for a critical rationalist approach to how Ismaili thinkers dealt with philosophy. He explored the historical evidence of the favourable treatment of philosophy and rationalist traditions by Ismaili thinkers of the Fatimid and Alamut periods and discussed how the Ismailis engaged with cosmology and science. The paper proposed a critical rationalist reading of the Ismaili intellectual tradition not as an effort to revive the legacy of earlier generations but to demonstrate that at various junctures in their history, prominent Ismaili scholars were able to engage in dialogue and critical debate among themselves and with others.
Dr Sumayya Hamdani, an Associate Professor of History and Art History at George Mason University in Virginia, also presented at the conference, giving a nuanced analysis of Professor Poonawala’s educational trajectory from his early studies with his father onwards.