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Abstract

In 1670, Bīdel of Delhi was travelling through northern India. One night in Agra he had a visionary dream that would reframe and reconsolidate his entire life: he experienced the unfolding of the cosmos, in all its spatial and temporal totality, as it emanated from God through the planetary spheres down to the smallest atoms of the earth. The prophet Muḥammad appeared before Bīdel and interpreted this dream for him. At that moment, Bīdel understood the meaning of everything, perfectly. But as he emerged from the dream into waking consciousness, Muḥammad’s words faded away, eluding memory, and the dream’s interpretation – through which Bīdel had attained certain knowledge of true reality – “remained hidden in the manuscript of the imagination.” Bīdel would spend the rest of his life attempting to recapture that momentous insight into the innermost workings of the universe with systematic precision, by experimenting – through lyric – with that which is imaginary (khayāl). This dissertation, Worlds of the Imagination: Bīdel of Delhi (d.1720) and Early Modern Persian Lyric Style, studies the entanglements between imagination, Persian lyric poetry, and Islamic thought in early modern India and Iran. What is the role of lyric in relation to systematic discourse? How do lyric poems work? Do early modern poets have a theory of the lyric, and how might such theories be reconstructed? What kind of commerce do imagination and reason have with each other, and why is lyric considered to be uniquely suited for uniting them? Can lyric be logical, and if so, how? And what does lyric style have to do with systematic thought? Taking as a case study the Indian Persian poet, Sufi, and philosopher Bīdel of Delhi (d.1720) in conversation with premodern critics, poets, and philosophers, this study investigates how intellectuals in early modern South Asia and the Near East articulate ideas on complex subjects by turning to lyric. It is argued that this genre more than any other allows them to reflect on both the propositional content and the felt experience of Islamic thought. In other words, the doctrinal commitments of a poet like Bīdel can only be understood by examining the features, mechanisms, and ends of his lyric style. The dissertation undertakes to locate, define, and analyze what is called here Bīdel’s lyric style of steadfast imagining by taking two approaches. The first approach is that of historical and philological reconstruction: in Part I (Chapters 1-3), Bīdel is placed in direct conversation with poets, critics, and literary historians from his own time. Part II (Chapters 4-6) is more experimental. It brings to light certain ideas, shapes of thought, and modes of discourse that may have been ambiently available to Bīdel, by placing him in indirect dialogue with premodern systematic thinkers. Together, these two approaches to the recovery and analysis of style reveal how Bīdel’s lyric style of steadfast imagining traces a distinctive, phenomenologically inflected path to certainty that is just as methodical and robust as the logic-driven procedures of systematic thought. By experimenting in lyric with that which is imaginary (khayāl), and by thus training his imagination through such practices as attentive slow reflection (taʾammol), Bīdel’s lyric aim – his ambitious lifelong endeavor – is to recover the embodied, subjectively experienced knowledge of true reality that was disclosed to him in the dream that night in Agra, while also recording and conceptually accommodating what it is like when this endeavor ends in failure. By taking lyric to be a vital source of evidence for both doctrine and experience, this dissertation shows how early modern Persian lyric poetry can be no less than philosophy conducted in metaphor.

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