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Aesthetic Theodicy: Light from the Horizon of Karbala

Nicholas Boylston

Whereas classical theodicies present solutions to the problem of evil using rational means and from an objective, impersonal angle, in this presentation I seek to explore lines of inquiry into the problem of evil and suffering that are rooted in subjective experience and based on non-rational or super-rational modes of awareness. Beginning with indications in certain Sufi texts that the problem of evil can only be resolved by transcending the rational plane, I then suggest that although most of us may not have direct access to this kind of awareness, a bridge towards it is made possible by art, and particularly art that is rooted in the consciousness of levels of reality that transcend the realms in which suffering occurs. In the second half of the paper, I present a contextualized case study of how this approach is used within Shi‘i mourning traditions, offering a reading of a performance of two poems (‘A Dagger on Thirsty Lips’, and ‘Save my Heart, No one Steals the Heart of My Heart-Taker’) by Hossein Fakhri in the early morning of Ashura 2010, showing how poetry, melody, and embodied practice are brought together as part of what may be considered an aesthetic theodicy. I end by considering the avenues of thought and practice that are opened up by the perspectives presented in this presentation.

About the Presenter

Nicholas Boylston is Assistant Professor at Seattle University. Dr. Nicholas Boylston is a scholar of Islamic Studies focusing on Shii Studies, Quranic Studies, Sufism and Persian literature. He received his BA from Harvard College, his MA from the University of Tehran, and his PhD from Georgetown University, and from 2017 to 2021 taught at Harvard University as Lecturer and College Fellow.

Dr. Boylston’s research focuses on themes of diversity and unity in the writings of Sufis, philosophers and litterateurs from the Persianate world in both the Twelver Shii and Sunni traditions. He is currently investigating the role of Quranic exegesis in the development, articulation and negotiation of Shii-Sufi thought and identity, and is writing a manuscript on Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī’s Quran commentary The Greatest Ocean. He also studies the development of pluralistic modes of discourse in 12th century Persian literature, and has published on Ḥakīm Sanā’ī and ‘Ayn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī.

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