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Ismail K. Poonawala honoured at a symposium

On May 23, 2013 UCLA organized a symposium to pay tribute to UCLA Professor Emeritus Ismail K. Poonawala. Prof. Poonawala is a Bohra, and a renowned scholar of Isamili Shiism. A younger generation of scholars was invited to speak at the symposium entitled “Reflections on Ismaili Studies: Standing on Poonawala’s Shoulders”. Dr. Sumaiya Hamdani, Dr. Omar Ali-de-Unzaga and Dr. Daryoush Mohammadpour presented new research in a tradition made immeasurably richer by Prof. Poonawala contributions to Ismaili Shiism.

Dr. Hamdani presented a nuanced analysis of Prof. Poonawala’s educational trajectory from his early studies with his father, a recognized scholar of Islam in his community (in the Ismaili da‘wa tradition) to his vast scholarly output.

She then assessed the impact that Poonawala’s work has had on both Ismaili studies and the greater field of Islamic studies, given that his work has restored the varied contributions of Ismaili thinkers of different centuries to Islamic history, philosophy, law and literature.

Ismail Poonawala

Ismail K. Poonawala at his home in Los Angeles.

Dr. Hamdani pointed out that the personal archive of Ismaili works of Poonawala’s father, together with that of her grandfather (Husain al-Hamdani, an Ismaili scholar and professor at Cairo University who was Poonawala’s mentor), provided the foundation for his “Bibliography of Ismaili Literature.” That publication, which presented a topography of Ismaili thinkers for the first time, said Hamdani, changed the field of Islamic studies and sparked a renaissance in Ismaili studies.

Dr. Unzaga in his presentation commended Prof. Poonawala’s articles on the creation of the Qur’an as among the best ever written on the subject and recommended that they be used to teach students. In addition, he identified the scholar’s article on an Ismaili treatise by one of the most important 12th-century Ismailis in Yemen, as one of very few attempts to place the Ismaili approach to the Qur’an within the overall context of Islamic approaches to the holy scripture.

Prof. Poonawala demonstrated, concluded Ali-de-Unzaga, that there are practically no differences between Ismaili and Sunni approaches to the Qur’an. However, he argued that a fundamental difference did exist. Whereas the Sunni see Mohammed as receptacle of the uncreated word of God, he asserted that the Ismaili conception of the Qur’an was more about the prophet. In his view, Ismaili tradition sees scripture as religion, but focuses on the people who deliver or interpret it (i.e., prophets, imans or da‘wa), understanding them as able to receive truths due to the level of consciousness that they have achieved.

Dr. Mohammadpour attempted to place the tradition of the Ismaili da‘wa within the framework of critical rationalism. He highlighted the intellectual boldness, precision and critical approach of Prof. Poonawala’s work and, to the surprise of the scholar himself, claimed he could be classified as a critical rationalist.

Dr. Mohammadpour found parallels between the research of Prof. Poonawala and the criterion of critical rationalist investigation, which selects a problem, proposes methods of investigation and applies them to the problem, and then discusses the findings. Outcomes, he continued, are never finalized, as all knowledge is tentative and subject to change. The lasting legacy of Prof. Poonawala can be found not only in his scholarly publications, but in his book reviews, said Dr. Mohammadpour, claiming that the critical observations of Prof. Poonawala are largely overlooked. His criticisms, said the speaker, reveal where theories fail and where we can learn.

Dr. Mohammadpour found a critical rationalist approach to inquiry typical of Ismaili thought in general, noting that while Ismailis held science in esteem, they also engaged with the Hellenist legacy of philosophy, creating intellectual space for critical engagement. He sees in the Ismaili intellectual tradition not only an overlapping of cosmology, philosophy, science, and religion, but a tradition of critical inquiry, pointing out that Ismaili scholars have consistently refuted and criticized one another, both in classical and other historical periods. In sum, his presentation argued for using the framework of critical rationalism to explore Ismaili tradition from a new perspective.

Reflecting on the presentations made at the symposium, Prof. Poonawala remarked, “I’m glad that the younger generation will keep the torch alive — it was good to hear . . . some fruits in my lifetime.” He then concluded, “I expect more from the younger generation.”

The symposium, held at the Faculty Centre, was well-attended and was organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies.