Prashant Keshavmurthy (McGill University)
Fellow in Research Area 5: "Building Digital Communities"
May – August 2021
Humbling the Philosopher-Engineer in Amir Khusrow’s The Alexandrine Mirror
How were the relations between natural science and social power understood in pre-capitalist societies? This project aims to contribute to the rich body of scholarship on this question with respect to the Islamicate world by taking up The Alexandrine Mirror, an under-studied Persian epic retelling from 1302 by Amir Khusrow of Delhi of the two-part Persian epic narration of the career of Alexander of Macedon by Nizāmī of Ganja. Writing in Persian for a Turkic court in what is today Azerbaijan in around 1202, Nizāmī narrated his epic in two parts. The first related to Alexander’s imperial adventuring, which features feats of philosophically informed engineering, and the second to his humbling by God into the role of one of the prophets anticipating the prophet Muhammad. This arc traces the theological humbling of the putative vanity of Avicennian-Aristotelian science.
In Amir Khusrow’s retelling Alexander was a “divinely inspired” Sufi king, not a prophet. This freed Khusrow to treat his Alexander as a stand-in for what any human could undergo in principle and thus model the conduct of his patron Sultan Alāuddīn Khalaji, who had given himself the title of ‘Second Alexander’. Specifically, the epic sought to model an ethically acceptable disposition towards three kinds of royal technology: military, erotic and natural scientific. Explicating Khusrow’s models for the domination of others, the domination of one’s own soul and the domination of physical nature, this project raises further questions about how this vision relates to the place of the literary imagination in the wider Eurasian reception of Avicenna’s physics.
Prashant Keshavmurthy is Associate Professor of Persian-Iranian Studies at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He is the author of Persian Authorship and Canonicity in Late Mughal Delhi: Building an Ark (Routledge, 2016), a study of poetics and politics in the work of the poet ‘Abd al-Qādir Bidel (d.1720) and his circle, and several essays, the most recent of which are “The Limits of Islamic Civility in India” in Milani & Adrahtas, Eds., Islam, Civility and Political Culture (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2020) and “Two Interpretive Postures and Two Kinds of Friendship in Mughal Commentaries on Sa‘dī’s Gulistān” (forthcoming in the Publication of Modern Languages Association). His next book-project interprets Nizāmī of Ganja’s famous quintet of poems, against its five centuries-long mystical reception, as a meditation on the labours of the poet-artist.