Scholars in Context: Sayed Hassan Akhlaq
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research, and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Sayed Hassan Akhlaq (SHA): My academic work includes a wide range of philosophical and religious studies—not just for intellectual curiosity, but also with the aim to bring philosophy and religion to the service of humanity. I grew up as a refugee, a second-class citizen in Iran, in both a family and society obsessed with the clash of ideologies. Thus, the question of “self” and “other” and their relation developed and stood with me while I was exploring various philosophical traditions and regional evolution. This planted seeds of a comparative approach in my mind and inspired me to observe how people see the world, what shapes their values and communications, and how they understand each other in the areas of dialogue among civilizations, human rights, modernization, and faith. I published five books in Farsi, three in Iran and two in Afghanistan, all on comparative study of philosophy and religion. My major publication in English, a co-edited volume, “The Secular and the Sacred: Complementary and/or Conflictual” (Washington, DC; The Council for Research in Value and Philosophy, 2017), echoes the same comparative approach in a broader context. My latest publication was about the failure of nation-building in Afghanistan and argued that a lack of unifying ideology was at the heart of responsible factors in the 2021 collapse (Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 45, No. 3, 2022).
I am currently working on two projects. One is studying the obstacles to the rule of law in Muslim countries like Afghanistan, considering the omnipresence of religious law (Shari’a). Another is looking at comparing the philosophers Mulla Sadra and William James. So, both projects keep me simultaneously on the earth of my homeland challenges and in the sky of philosophical appeals.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does they address?
SHA: The research on the obstacles of the rule of law concentrates on modernization in Afghanistan and elaborates on issues such as the dichotomy between the secular and sacred, not integrating law to local life, and the way secular law is explained. The research uses literature on modernity, modernization in Islam and Afghanistan, and political philosophy.
My second study, “The Shared Concepts of Mulla Sadra and James on Mystical and Religious Experiences,” explains the shared views of William James (1842-1910) and Mulla Sadra (1571-1636) on mystical and religious experiences. They came from two different traditions: Iranian Islam and American pragmatism. Through “The Transcendental Wisdom” and “Pragmatism,” they made important philosophical contributions in the concept of truth. They turned away from ratiocinative philosophy, verbal solutions, fixed principles, and closed systems. They attempted to overcome the dichotomy of philosophies. My study uses philosophical literature.
J: What brought you to these projects? What was the source of inspiration?
SHA: Teaching Plato’s treatise “Crito” put a burning question to my mind: why is the same respect for law not dominant and apparent in many Muslim developing countries? Since modernity and domestic modernization were constantly at the core of my interests, I thought of taking advantage of a comparative approach and examining both cultures and the process of modernization in the target arena.
My second study was the outcome of an insight into how opposing extremes come close together and how linguistic barriers widen unjustified gap among civilizations. While Sadra is mostly coined with abstract and transcendental wisdom and James with pragmatic tradition and common-sense tradition, they share the same view on mysticism as the heart of religious experience. In addition, they promoted the same image of religion arguing the founders of the reveled religions based their teachings in their exceptional, personal, and immediate experience of the sacred reality. To understand the pure experiences of these founders, one must transcend the dichotomy of rational and irrational, and the subject-object.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
SHA: My target audiences consist of two groups: academic professionals and public intellectuals. By the first group, I mean academics interested in MENA, Islam, philosophy, and comparative studies. By the second group, I mean policymakers and activists who think of bringing peoples and civilizations together and contributing to creating better community or networking. I hope the first group sees the original contribution, a combination of a historical tradition with a welcoming approach to Western scholarship, and that the the second group also sees the meeting points between Islamic and non-Islamic cultures and uses them as a platform for their activism and policymaking. I hope it helps them move beyond stereotypes and oversimplifying the MENA’s fluidity.
My projects reflect both my intellectual accomplishments and my life experiences. They reflect a combination of both an insider and an outsider voice. I see myself a scholar who has an in-depth insight into my native tradition and puts that tradition in a dialogue with the modern western scholarship. My work suggests a liberation from both orientalist and apologetic strands.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SHA: I do three things in my profession: teaching, conducting research, and giving service to the community. As an adjunct professor, I teach graduate and undergraduate courses on philosophy and religion. My background in philosophy (PhD) and Islamic studies (graduated from traditional Hawza), plus my life experience, has engaged me with many questions. I am working with a colleague on a volume on exiled academics in Western academia to address the complex tension between humanitarianism and intellectualism. This project highlights exiled academic voices to illustrate how they navigate between being a refugee and being a scholar. I have an unfinished project on the history of philosophy in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there is no single source in local or international languages on the subject. I began the study a couple of years ago but was not able to finish it due to lack of funds and market interest. Finally, I am thinking of a co-authoring a paper on Sufism. There is written debate between two grand Ayatollahs on a Sufi poem of Fardi al-Din Attar, one with mystical and another with philosophical preferences.
Regarding community service, I deliver public talks, media interviews, and opinion editorials to raise public awareness and contribute to relevant policies. I also provide religious consultation to students who come to the United States in exchange programs.