The Conference that Left Us Hanging & a Lone Afghan Soldier

On Tuesday November 24th, 2015 at 4 PM a seminar was being held at one of the smaller institutes in Qom. The topic was: “Khwaja Nasir al-Din Tusi: A Peripatetic Philosopher or a Shia Theologian“. The speaker was Shaykh Dr. Ali Sheerwani; a couple of us friends decided to attend. Attending these type of seminars was something I would do very often while in Qom. They were a good opportunity to meet and see experts and specialists in different fields up-close and possibly even build a connection with them. While most seminars and workshops were of decent standards, this specific seminar scarred our memories and we still have a laugh about it till today.

Shaykh Sheerwani was a name I knew of because his works on logic and philosophy were being used as text books or commentaries in the seminary. It was a good opportunity to see what he had to say on the topic and also for me to put a face on the author whose books we were exposed to. The time for the seminar was 90 minutes; me and some of my friends got there early & I set up my laptop to take notes as always.

At least 60 minutes into the talk, the speaker had yet to begin addressing the main point of the seminar. Our good friend Syed Hadi Rizvi had quietly walked out of the small hall 30 minutes into the talk, foreseeing that the way the speaker is going, he had no plans to give us any significant substance that evening. As I typed away the transcription hoping it would become a good paper to publish, a 1000 words later, the speaker was still talking about what books Khwaja wrote in which era, his role during the Mongol era, what ‘Allamah Hilli says about him and so on.

In the last 10 minutes, the speaker essentially blurred the lines of what it means to be a theologian and philosopher, and concluded that Khwaja was a “theological philosopher”. It seems either he was unprepared for the seminar, or mismanaged his time, or what have you. Those who know Farsi can read the summary of the event here and can judge for themselves:

The disappointing talk had just ended and we were leaving after grabbing chocolate chip cupcakes and chai, when we suddenly heard loud voices from a turban-wearing Afghan student sitting in the very front row. He must have been in his late 30s or early 40s. We were taken back and wondered whether a fight broke out. As the shouting got louder we went up to see whether we could calm the situation between the student and Dr. Sheerwani. At that point, we realized that the student was a proponent of Maktab-e Tafkik (school of anti-philosophy) who was on a mission to prove that Khwaja was indeed a theologian. He was angry at Dr. Sheerwani for beating around the bush and not explicitly admitting that Khwaja had abandoned his philosophical views. The back and forth between the two became very entertaining, especially due to the extreme passion of the Afghan student, the books he had brought with him, all referenced with post-it notes attached, ready to pull out. In fact, when he pulled out his Kashf al-Murad, he had neatly written out all his key references inside the front cover with the page numbers. I thought to myself in that split moment, “What a great and handy way to keep track of references!” I ended up using that method many times. It’s important to always be on the look out for learning opportunities!

The rather dull seminar which left us hanging ended with a touch of comedy, provided by this student from the school of anti-philosophy. Interestingly, this lone soldier was also seen by another friend of mine a couple of years later in another philosophy conference and he was critiquing the panelists with just as much passion as we had seen before.

Alas, while this seminar was a huge flop, I continued to benefit from Shaykh Sheerwani’s works later in my studies, especially his 4-part commentary on Bidayah al-Hikmah.