Thursday, December 27, 2007

Editions of Philosophical Texts

The production belt churning out critical editions of important intellectual texts in Arabic and Persian in Iran is quite prolific. It has become quite an industry. I will attempt to give some impressions of some recent texts that have been produced beginning with the new editions of the works of Mulla Sadra produced by the Sadra Islamic Philosophy Research Institute soon. Watch this space...

Philosophy in the World of Islam

For those of use engaged in teaching Islamic philosophy, a key problem has been the lack of sources available in translation. To an extent, this situation is improving with the publication of a Classical Arabic Philosophy reader produced by David Reisman and Jon McGinnis for Hackett and with this new volume edited and translated by Khalidi and published by Cambridge University Press of a selection of mediaeval texts.

Orientalists have often assumed that philosophy played a rather marginal role in Islamic civilisation. They regarded the ‘free inquiry’ of the philosophical enterprise in Islam as antithetical to the dogmas of the faith and as mere Hellenism in an Arabic garb. However, for some time now interest in Islamic philosophical traditions has been growing prompted no doubt by a realisation that philosophical discourses impinge upon a variety of intellectual, artistic and cultural endeavours in the world of Islam. I would suggest three small reasons for stressing the significance of philosophy in classical Islam (I leave it to the readers to gauge what its significance may be in the present troubled world in which we live). First, the value ascribed to the impetus to philosophical inquiry is clear in the many stories recorded concerning the value ascribed both to translators of Greek philosophical texts and the actual translations in ʿAbbasid Baghdad. Would patrons and scholars pay so much for those precious volumes if they considered their contents to be worthless or inimical to their culture? Second, the development of the madrasa sciences in particular the ‘master-science’ of jurisprudence is almost unthinkable without the influence of philosophy, especially the logic of the syllogistic. Third, whilst many are familiar with al-Ghazali’s condemnation of key heretical doctrines espoused by philosophers, one cannot fail to notice the profound influence of philosophical doctrines and modes of argumentation upon him. Avicenna’s previous ‘discovery’ of a truly Islamic philosophy, a system of metaphysics, epistemology and psychology that naturalised neoplatonising Aristotelianism without the framework of the worldview of Islam had a decisive and lasting influence that could not be negated by al-Ghazali. Philosophy dominated intellectual inquiry. So far so good. However, the real intellectual tragedy of the Muslim world in the modern period has been precisely the forgoing of their intellectual traditions, especially philosophy, and the forsaking of a critical engagement with modes of thinking from within their traditions. The work under review is not going to signal a revival of philosophical inquiry in the wider Muslim world. But it is an important contribution within an academic wave of interest in Arabo-Islamic philosophy. Cambridge University Press seems to have recognised this with its publication of a pioneering and cutting-edge Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy and with this volume translated and arranged by Muhammad Ali Khalidi, a philosophy don at the American University of Beirut.

A welcome aspect of the renewed interest in Islamic philosophy is that researchers have taken the subject away from Islamic studies specialists (who were often suspicious of its significance and rather incapable of understanding its discourses) and have located the study of Islamic philosophy within philosophy. Philology is only a tool in the study of key texts and traditions, and Khalidi is keen to stress that his choice of these medieval texts is with a contextualising eye upon contemporary philosophical concerns. That is one of the ways in which he understands the difference between the history of philosophy and intellectual history. The latter for him is more of an inquiry that seeks to contextualise and locate ideas within their intellectual and cultural milieux. History of philosophy on the other hand is a philosophical inquiry that seeks to understand where we are and how we got there intellectually. The Cambridge series on the History of Philosophy has the laudable aim to ‘expand the range variety and quality of texts in the history of philosophy’. It seeks to provide full texts for students that have applications beyond philosophy in theology and the history of ideas as well. The question that arises is whether this present volume really fulfils that aim in its choice and vision. From a more ambitious perspective, it is disappointing to see CUP allocating a mere volume to Islamic philosophy, and at that limiting it to medieval texts. Even within the remit of medieval philosophy, CUP has a multi-volume publication on medieval philosophy divided into the sub-disciplines of logic, ontology, epistemology and so forth. Other texts that deal with philosophical theology from the early modern and enlightenment periods abound as well. Given the fecundity of the Islamic traditions, it is thus a bit of a shame that more volumes have not been considered to take their place alongside these publications. Khalidi’s selection also reveals a particular vision of ‘Western’ philosophy that considers some key Islamic thinkers to be part of their canon through their translations into Latin that influenced scholastic thinkers. Thus the familiar retinue of al-Farabi to Averroes are brought out once again. However, Khalidi could have extended this scope by including other thinkers who are not part of the whiggish story of Western philosophy and who were never translated into Latin. To take one key example, Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (d. 1191), the founder of the illuminationist philosophy tradition was never translated into Latin but is undoubtedly one of the great figures of an Islamic canon.

Khalidi has selected excerpts from five texts of which four already enjoy English translations (and in fact the fifth has translations in other European languages). He focuses on metaphysics and epistemology (bizarrely commenting that Muslim thinkers did not recognise such a branch of philosophy) and not the ‘practical’ disciplines of ethics and political philosophy. The neglect of the latter two may be due to the existence of studies and translations in particular by Muhsin Mahdi and his ‘school’. His choice is an attempt at engaging with these medieval Islamic thinkers and eschewing a condescending tendency to approach them as ‘historical oddities’. His introduction thus proceeds with brief propaedeutics and contextualisations of the texts. The first text is the Book of Letters (Kitab al-huruf) of al-Farabi and Khalidi selects the famous passages on the advent and nature of language, the relationship between religion and philosophy, and the means by which we translate philosophical concepts across different cultures. He does not mention the crucial relationship of the text with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, nor does he include two important monographs (among others) in his guide to further reading that deal precisely with these themes: Joep Lameer’s quite excellent Al-Farabi and Aristotelian Syllogistics, and Shukri Abed, Aristotelian Logic and the Arabic Language in Alfarabi. The second text is the pivotal De Anima of Avicenna, selecting famous passages on the nature of the soul and its intellection. Avicenna’s doctrine of the soul as an individual and immortal substance that can enjoy personal salvation is a critical example of his ‘Islamic philosophy’. Khalidi claims that the need for his translation of this work is due to the ‘dated’ nature of Rahman’s language in his translation (and edition) from the 1950s. The third text is arguably one of the best known of medieval Islamic texts, the famous ‘apology’ of al-Ghazali al-Munqidh min al-dalal. Khalidi selects the section of the four paths to truth. Once again this text enjoys a number of good translations already including the classic one by Montgomery Watt. Furthermore, in recent years the main debate about al-Ghazali has been his relationship with philosophy; so why not select works that deal with his use of philosophy and which are unavailable to Anglophone students? The fourth text, the philosophical allegory of Hayy ibn Yaqzan of Ibn Tufayl as an example of the famous thought experiment of how a rational agent nurtured in an isolated location comes to knowledge and mystical insight. Once again there are numerous good translations of the text. The final selection is from another famous medieval Islamic philosophical text, the Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes’ refutation of al-Ghazali’s condemnation of philosophy. Here Khalidi focuses on the famous arguments about the possibility of secondary causality. His attempt cannot possibly supplant the excellent translation and annotation of Simon van den Bergh. Compared with other volumes in this CUP series, there are very few footnotes, usually not of a discursive nature and the introduction is rather deficient in providing the wider context and the important questions about the reception and legacy of these works and upon the ideas that Khalidi focuses. What happened to these works and to the philosophical enterprise?

While Khalidi’s volume will find its way onto reading lists as an affordable paperback that collates key readings, it is a missed opportunity. It is rather old-fashioned in its approach and selection. Contrary to the aims of the series, it does not make hitherto unavailable texts known, nor does it expand one’s grasp of the history of philosophy, nor indeed does it improve the quality of existing texts. Khalidi should have opted for a fresh selection, one that would have been consistent with contemporary research and attuned to contemporary philosophical concerns. The introduction and guide to further reading should have been more substantial and the annotation to the translations more appropriate. But in his defence at least he has produced something that can be used. It is now up to the rest of us who love the philosophical traditions of Islam to produce usable translations that will expand the philosophical canon of metropolitan academia and seek to quench the intellectual thirst of students, Muslim or non-Muslim.

How not to seek beauty in Islam

Oliver Leaman has written yet another challenging and iconoclastic work. Perhaps the most surprising result of this intriguing (and it must be said infuriating) work is that he denies not only that there is such a thing as Islamic art but also that consequently there is no Islamic aesthetic. This might well be disturbing for a reader who has picked up a volume that purports to introduce the notion of Islamic aesthetics! In fact, this book does nothing of the sort; it deconstructs naïve concepts of Islamic art and its appreciation but does not offer an alternative aesthetics. Leaman’s key claim (which may seem laudable) is that one ought to move away from essentialising and objectifying disciplines in Islam. Just as philosophy is philosophy, art is art. The adjective ‘Islamic’ does not qualify anything but merely obscures, occludes and insists that one needs some special training to ‘appreciate’ it. In a sense this is worrying news for the Islamic art historian. But the real question to consider is whether it is true: is there such a thing as Islamic art? Is there a particular Islamic aesthetics? In order to answer this question, we need to reconsider Leaman’s argument and his actual aim in making it, which seems to me to be breaking the closed shop of Islamic art historians and snatching the aesthetic prism away from romantic visions of the ‘essential spirituality of Islamic art’.

Leaman begins with setting his sights upon Islamic art historians. He takes them to task for a number of misconceptions. First, by qualifying their objects of inquiry as Islamic they do not take those objects seriously as art. Second, they insist on a particular training in Islamic civilisation to understand what they call Islamic art. Third, and perhaps most importantly, they offer no serious aesthetic theory. These attacks will certainly come as a shock to a number of Islamic art historians who would certainly refuse to admit any of these points. Like Leaman’s earlier attack in the early 1980s on historians of Islamic philosophy, this present attack may apply to some practitioners but cannot really be applied to the majority. As before, Leaman’s iconoclastic zeal destroys far too much.

Leaman’s work is divided into nine chapters which all share a particular theme. The wrong-headed ways in which people approach Islamic art are merely symptomatic of their more general mistaken analyses of the Islamic faith, Islamic thought and Islamic civilisation. Chapter 1 begins with ‘eleven common mistakes about Islamic art’. Most of these relate to the sin of essentialism in which Islamic studies specialists are seen to be so heavily implicated. He rubbishes the idea that Islamic art is essentially a spiritual, Sufi meditation upon symbolism in Islam, in particular exemplified by the iconic centrality of the Kaʿba. Over-enthusiastic symbolic interpretation is an esoterist’s art; it does not explain, it merely mystifies. Calligraphy is the Islamic art par excellence; another mistake that renders other art-forms somewhat inauthentically ‘islamic’. Two of these mistakes are directly linked to Leaman’s earlier work on Islamic philosophy: al-Ghazālī is accused of having killed off painting, just as he did with philosophy, and Islamic art is seen as a marginal pursuit to the concerns of Islamic civilisation. However, none of these salient and laudable critiques amount to a proper denial of the possibility of Islamic art, let alone its actuality.

The second chapter moves on to a popular motif in the study of Islamic art and creativity, namely the postulation that in Islam only God can create and act. If that is the case, the idea that humans can create and fashion artefacts would seem to be a blasphemy. If God alone is al-khāliq and al-muṣawwir, then surely there can be no Islamic art? Leaman articulates this nonsensical contradiction to further his argument against essentialist approaches to Islamic art. Art cannot be reduced to the playful manipulation of existing symbols. Leaman invokes the related theological debate about secondary causality, that is, whether it is only God who acts in the cosmos or whether humans (among others) are real agents possessing ability, will and action. He suggests that much of the essentialist approach is predicated on the simple premiss that the essence of Islam and its theology is Ashʿarite, rejecting secondary causality, affirming an atomistic cosmos and denying true agency and creativity to humanity. Any student of Islamic intellectual history knows that this is a gross generalisation. But the nature of Leaman’s exaggerated argument is that it depends upon the construction of an oppositional position that is extremely flimsy and therefore easy to destroy.

The following chapters develop Leaman’s argument by considering particular art forms like literature (including a discussion of the miraculous literary quality of the Qurʾan), music, gardening, and architecture. Throughout one perceives the pernicious Ashʿarite thought lurking in the wings and one cannot help feeling that this present book owes much to Leaman’s earlier work on philosophy. The discussion on the nature of the Qurʾan is particularly salient because it encapsulates a particular aesthetic vision since the dogma of the scripture is so closely associated with an aesthetic judgement of its inimitability. Leaman concludes the book with two short chapters on the importance of philosophy and the desire to approach art as art and not as a mere cultural artefact or symbol. He is right to argue that philosophy does indeed determine the ways in which we see the cosmos, how we see it and what exactly it is that we see. This is where aesthetics begin to connect with epistemology. Each Islamic philosophical tradition has a specific doctrine of interpretation that define three categories of entities: things in themselves, the world in which they dwell and the words that we use to articulate them. Our very act of seeing is both a representation as well as an act of interpretation. Leaman raises an interesting question about whether there can be an Illuminationist, Peripatetic or Sufi aesthetics of representation. But would that in any case entail a consistent, timeless Islamic aesthetics? The very fact that art is respected (or was at least) in Islamic civilisation is a recognition of the importance of representation and interpretation. This is a situation quite unlike the disdain for art in a Platonic utopia. Plato famously criticised art for being a doubled inauthentic imitation: at the first level the thing in this world is already a pale imitation of the perfect form in the higher intelligible realm, and at the second level the artist produces an even paler imitation of the thing in his artistic representation. To invoke his allegory of the cave, it is as if the artist lives within a further cave and is hopelessly remote from reality. Islamic theologians and philosophers did not on the whole have such an austere disregard for things in this world or for the possibilities of beauty here. If anything, Islamic thought can (another gross generalisation yes) be considered to have an optimistic approach to the possibilities of knowing what exists and to recognise that this world and things that exist in this world possess reality as well. Two essentialist slogans (one aesthetic and the other theological albeit with a meaningful message within them) are worth bearing in mind: God is beautiful and loves beauty (as the famous aphorism/tradition has it), and this world is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Can one possibly forsake art when the theologian insists that God does not forsake the world? Would we want to live in such a disenchanted and alienated world?

Leaman’s book does raise some interesting questions: is there such a thing as Islamic art? Can Muslims countenance a secular art? Whither the study of philosophy in Islamic culture? Can one produce an aesthetic theory that applies to Islamic civilisation? These are important intellectual matters that ought to exercise Muslim minds. Perhaps because of the nature of the present world situation, Muslims (especially Muslim thinkers) seem to be in such a state of siege that discourse beyond the practicable and the tangible seems to be anathema. But intellectual life sustains and nurtures. The intellectual and cultural products of a civilisation are indispensable aspects of its identity and its sustaining power. It is thus more crucial than ever that Muslims regain the significance of ideas and struggle in the global market of ideas and for this jihad a proper understanding of philosophy (including aesthetics), its historical development and its commitment are more important than ever before. This reviewer has no straightforward answers to offer; all that he can do is to indicate the questions that he thinks are worth pursuing. Such a pursuit of doing well (call it iḥsān or following the old Zoroastrian saying call it ‘thinking, speaking and acting well’) increasingly becomes one of the few resources left to our humanity.

Analysing Thomist Metaphysics

Anthony Kenny’s book Aquinas on Being is consistent with his analytical engagement with the Catholic tradition in which he was trained as a priest. His work on a thinker who has stayed with him all these years since his seminary days is at once an erudite and incisive, analytical critique as well as an infuriatingly unsympathetic analysis of the famous medieval thinker. Ever since his Past Masters’ volume on Aquinas, Kenny has exhibited a mixed reception of Aquinas, a reception that is entirely consistent with the tastes and concerns of the analytic tradition since the 1960s: an appreciation of the philosophy of the mind culminating in his Aquinas on Mind, and a whole scale rejection of the metaphysics expressed in this volume in which he charges Aquinas with thorough confusion in face of the problem of existence. It would be quite easy to fault and praise this volume under review solely on the basis of the contrasting methodology of the ‘two traditions’ of philosophy. There is little doubt that even without the neo-Thomism of Gilson et al, the study of Aquinas and medieval thinkers like him remains a mainstay of the ‘continental tradition’ of philosophy extending to Catholic philosophers in North America. For these thinkers, the metaphysical concerns and the holistic claims of Thomism are of great interest and consistent with the project of philosophy. Catholic philosophers such as the late Norman Kretzmann (d. 1998) have within the analytic tradition also articulated a staunch defence of Thomistic metaphysics, in particular in The Metaphysics of Theism and The Metaphysics of Creation. If, for Kenny, Aquinas’ thinking on being is so muddled, why bother writing a volume on it? Why study the history of philosophy merely to condemn past practitioners?

One virtue of Kenny’s work has been the attack on Thomism and much woolly thinking that sometimes goes under that name. However, serious inquiry on the thought of Aquinas has greatly expanded in the past decades and not just from confessional perspectives. Kenny outlines his project in the preface. He begins with an assumption, astonishing perhaps for an analytic philosopher, that ‘the subject of being is one of the most important of all philosophical concerns’ (p. v). He goes on to say that he will examine one great philosopher’s approach to being and from that demonstrate that it is ‘thoroughly confused’ (p. v), partly to allow for a critical reassessment of Aquinas that seeks to jettison those unacceptable aspects of his metaphysics that are precisely central to theological rehabilitation of Aquinas. Kenny’s aim is, therefore, no free inquiry but with a clear agenda and goal. But the foundation of this, as I remarked is peculiar. Is being such a central philosophical concern? Is it a rich concept or a simple and thin concept as many contemporary philosophers see it? Is it even fair to criticise the confused nature of Aquinas’ concept of being when it is clear, as Kenny admits, that Aquinas does not have a unified concept of being using both the Latin terms ens and esse to render the concept and describing at least twelve different senses and contexts in which Aquinas uses the term esse?

A study of the systematic failure of an elaborate metaphysics need not be in vain and one learns that Kenny thinks that there is much to be understood from these failures; after all, as he says, ‘all great philosophers have engendered great errors… It is no disrespect to the genius of Aquinas to try to dissolve some of the confusions on the nature of being to which he appears to have succumbed. We can gain rewarding insights by exploring even the false trails of a great mind’ (p. x).

Kenny sets out on this false trail by assembling a number of passages arranged chronologically in which Aquinas’ views on being as expressed. Nine chapters follow on the analysis of being in different works beginning with the early De Ente et Essentia and culminating with Aquinas’ commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Kenny acknowledges the Avicennan influence on the early text (p. 1) and the Neoplatonic influence on other works but does not adequately contextualise Aquinas’ writings. Analytic history of philosophy tends to approach texts as contemporary interlocutors and has little time of contextualisation, historicism and conventionalism (whether social or linguistic). Further, it tends to read the text of the past purely in the light of its own concerns. Kenny, therefore, writing, thinking and analysing in the aftermath of the linguistic turn, is mainly concerned with how Aquinas talks about being and existence, focusing on the semantics of existential propositions and not the metaphysical concerns of Aquinas himself. One would not wish for an obscurantist opposite extreme that would read Aquinas wholly and solely ‘on his own terms’ but one would expect some respect for the context and scholarly aims of the philosopher. Ultimately one either accepts, modifies or rejects the philosophical enterprise of the text which one encounters. For those seeking a more sympathetic yet analytic approach to Aquinas, Kretzmann or the work of Gyula Klima would be a better reference point. Perhaps the real question is how one ought to read Aquinas (or indeed any medieval thinker). The fecundity of their work and the constant re-visitation of the same questions and topics would suggest that they were continually changing and adapting the way they approached questions within the contexts in which they were posed. Those different passages therefore ought to be read alongside each other cognisant of their contexts in order to allow a clearer picture and doctrine to emerge. Kenny would have little sympathy with such an approach and does not allow for the conditions to obtain.

The general charge is that Aquinas’ views are obscure and confused. Kenny considers the twelve senses of esse to be a major obstacle which stops Aquinas from bringing into a consistent whole his insights on being. This leads him to three major critical conclusions (pp. 192-93):

1) Aquinas fails to recognise the distinction between being and existence.

2) Aquinas surrenders to a Platonic affirmation of pure forms and spiritual substances in the celestial firmament while at once rejecting it in the sublunar level.

3) Aquinas’ identification of God with subsistent being (Avicenna’s necessary of existence) is ‘deeply disturbing’.

Are these defects ascribable to Aquinas and are they in fact defects? Are these obscurities due to the language of being or to the attempt at articulating an ontological separation between this world and the divine? It is not clear what Kenny’s alternatives to these three defects are. Consider the first one. Aquinas’ main concern is the ontological distinction between divine necessary being and contingent existence. He also articulates a fairly opaque but consistent distinction between the actuality of esse (actus essendi) and existence. This does not amount to failing to recognise a distinction between being and existence. The significant of these three charges is precisely that some many medieval thinkers would be susceptible to them, not least the ‘father’ of them all Avicenna. But does that make them mistakes? Can they only signal theological affirmation and not philosophical inquiry and even defence?

Kenny finally tries to explain Aquinas’ mistakes in a final act of charity by citing these reasons for his lapses. First, even ‘better’ philosophers on existence such as Frege, the founding father of the analytic tradition as Michael Dummett puts it, made mistakes, so why not Aquinas? Second, Aquinas was remarkably prolific and one cannot expect such a writer to lack unresolved inconsistencies in his work. Third, Aquinas’ inclusive approach and style led him to overlook the errors in others’ thought and thus became susceptible to Neoplatonic errors. Each of these excuses can quite easily be set aside; they certainly do not explain Aquinas’ ‘errors’ nor are they a fair assessment of them. One can only assume that Kenny felt some obligation to try to excuse Aquinas of the gross errors of which he accused him.

Nevertheless, Aquinas on Being is challenging, captivating and exciting. It is certainly not the last analytic word on the subject, not even, one suspects, from the pen of Kenny. If the reader comes away with the sense that Kenny has not satisfied the problem and thus seeks to inquire further, then the book will have played the ultimate role in philosophical inquiry of asking questions and provoking thought.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Comparative God-talk

In 1989, Ian Netton published a provocative monograph on the concept of God in Islamic philosophical traditions entitled Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology. Apart from the rather voguish method of the work (semiotics and deconstruction no less), Netton put forward two challenging theses. First, the Qurʾanic account of the nature of God and his creative agency, which he entitled the ‘Qurʾanic creator paradigm’ was gradually discarded and at odds with developing philosophical and mystical notions of God in classical and medieval Islamic traditions. The God of the Qurʾan was an absolute, transcendent existent who created ex nihilo at will. The God of the falāsifa, on the other hand, was a causal principle from whom the ‘creation’ issued necessarily. Creative philosophers in the Islamic tradition sought to provide a defensible account of the nature of God and his relationship with the cosmos based on sound philosophical (broadly Neoplatonising Aristotelian) principles, which require a creative hermeneutics of the scripture and at times an almost summary dismissal of the literal warrant of the text. Second, Netton recognised that the doctrine of a divine cause of the cosmos implied and was underscored by a thickly descriptive account of the very nature of the divine, which in itself assumed certain parameters for the possibilities of god-talk.

While it is surprising that Rahim Acar, in the revised version of his Harvard PhD dissertation of 2002, does not refer to Netton’s work, his concerns in understanding the problematic of the God-world relationship are consistent. In the book under review, he attempts to examine, in a comparative framework, the efforts of two different philosophers, Avicenna from the Islamic tradition and Aquinas from the Christian tradition, to make sense of the nature of God and its implication for how the creation, a scriptural and ontological given comes about. In the introduction (page 1), he tells us that his initial research interest was to examine the nature of divine creative action and the medieval debate concerning whether the cosmos was eternal or had a temporal incipience. However, he soon realised that the examination of this problematic requires a preliminary examination of the nature of the divine in the thought of the two philosophers.

Acar’s method is to divide the study into two parts, the first on the nature of our language about God and the second on the language of creation. Within each section, there are a number of chapters which first examine Avicenna and then Aquinas’ views on the issue. The introduction gives the background broadly in terms of Aristotle on the eternity of the cosmos and then the de æternitate mundi debate between Proclus and the Christian John Philoponus. While this is critical for the common source of the debates in Avicenna and Aquinas, there is much missing: where does Plotinus and the remainder of the Neoplatonic traditions fit? More significantly, where is the theological background? Avicenna’s argument requires an initial appreciation of kalām positions on the problem. Another central issue that needed emphasis concerns the role of these arguments in proving the existence of God. Avicenna explicitly distinguishes his mode of talking about the nature of God and his creation by arguing in al-Ishārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt that his method is ‘nobler and better’ (ed. Maḥmūd Shihābī, rpt., Qum: Nashr al-balāgha, 1995, vol. III, p. 66). It does not rely like the theologians of kalām on the observation of a physical cosmos that came into existence at a particular time as the result of the divine cause, nor does it rely upon the ‘proof from motion’ in Aristotelianism that infers the existence of God from the motion of the cosmos. Each of these ultimately requires the assumption of the impossibility of an infinite chain of regressing causes. Avicenna’s account arguably does not.[i]

Part one is divided into two chapters. Chapter One considers the nature of theological language. Is God knowable? On this issue, he follows the propositions of an earlier comparative study by one of his doctoral advisors, David Burrell in his Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas in denying the knowability of God. God can only be known through his creation and then only because of the analogy between creatures and the divine. Acar’s evidence for this is equivocal. That God is utterly unlike anything else is a common point in Avicenna. However, his famous proof for the existence of God that begins with an analysis of the notion of existence itself which is its pure and necessary manifestation is God suggests that God can be known through himself and through analogy with contingent existents. One suspects that Acar is trying to make a clear connection between Aquinas and Avicenna on this issue even though Avicenna is less of a negative theologian. But why not argue in a different direction along with the Thomist philosopher Barry Miller who argues in A Most Unlikely God in favour of a God of limit cases with respects to existence, goodness and other perfections? But the pivotal issue is whether existence, essence or any property be predicated of God? Central to this discussion is the question of the ‘analogy of being’ (or the problem of tashkīk al-wujūd in the Arabic debates), a raging debate in medieval studies that ultimately could be said to be triggered by Avicenna’s famous distinction between the existence (the fact that something is) and the essence (the nature of what it is) of contingent entities in opposition to the absolute simplicity of the Necessary God. This is the key link for Acar between Avicenna and Aquinas. It is perhaps odd then that Acar is a bit reticent about tashkīk and states that nowhere does Avicenna explicitly state that existence (I prefer this term to the Thomist and slightly vaguer ‘Being’ that Acar and others use) is predicated of God and creatures bi-l-tashkīk. But the Avicennan tradition, Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274) for example in his commentary on al-Ishārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt (vol. III, p. 2), is very clear that this is precisely what Avicenna meant. Tashkīk al-wujūd in later Iranian philosophical traditions, most notably with Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. c. 1635), becomes the lynchpin of metaphysics. The chapter continues with the examination of Aquinas and deals in detail with three philosophical interpretations of it.

Chapter Two develops the argument by analysing components of the conception of God, and outlining the ‘formal features’ of the divine essence. The commensurability of Avicenna and Aquinas’ views on these aspects are not only indicative of the influence of the former upon the latter but also the common Neoplatonic paradigm of their inquiry, a point that again Acar does not make explicit. These formal features of the divine on which the two thinkers agree (and significantly draw rather different conclusions) are: God is simple (his quiddity or essence is identical to his existence), God is necessary and immutable (what is necessary cannot have a quiddity, only contingents are composites of quiddity and existence), God is eternal, and God possesses self-knowledge. All of these features are then examined for Aquinas as well. What they all indicate is divine simplicity. They also imply a number of issues that Acar does not treat in any detail. What is the nature of divine attributes? How does an immutable, eternal God act in a mutable, transient world? What is the nature of God’s knowledge of others (the notorious problem of God’s knowledge of particulars)? One of the drawbacks in Acar’s method is the over-reliance upon the metaphysics of al-Shifāʾ; other important works such as al-Ishārāt are rarely cited. While Acar is careful to show Avicenna and Aquinas’ convergence on these formal divine features, he does insist on the different ways in which each of these features is understood and these differences account for the divergence on the nature of God’s creative agency that is the subject of the next part.

Part Two moves onto the issue of creation. Chapter Three examines the question of whether God is a volitional creator. We begin to see the emergence of a divergence (whereas arguably the first part shows the broad consensus of Avicenna and Aquinas on theological language). Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) famously anathemised Avicenna on this issue. But Avicenna was careful to insist, perhaps paradoxically, that God was both a volitional and a necessary agent; the creation is both a necessary emanation from him and a chosen object of creation. Central to this is the notion of the divine will. Avicenna argues that the divine will is an eternal aspect of the divine essence and it is the cause of existence and the order of the cosmos. As the divine will is eternal so the cosmos must be eternal as the effect co-exists with its cause. But overall creation is natural and necessary and one could not imagine the cosmos not existing. Avicenna’s concept of the divine will is thus quite different from theological accounts available to him. Aquinas insists on God’s volition. He shares with Avicenna the medieval conflation of will and nature is determining action. But for him, the cosmos is neither necessary nor is God devoid of free choice in determining what the cosmos is (and indeed whether it is). Acar’s presentation of Avicenna’s position does seem somewhat apologetic in response to the theological critique. But the thorough determinism of Avicenna’s cosmology from its principle through to every little entity in the hierarchy of existence leaves a cosmos largely devoid of any volition.

Chapter Four makes the difference more explicit. On one side of the argument, Avicenna puts forwards the position of the eternity, that is, sempiternity, of the universe and adduces three arguments for it. Aquinas, on the other, opposes the eternity of the universe, much like al-Ghazālī, on grounds of theological and scriptural reasoning and refutes the three arguments, although he is willing to countenance the possibility of an eternal universe. It might be worth objecting that Aquinas’ refutation has clear theological import while Avicenna’s arguments are philosophical motivated; nevertheless, for Aquinas, Avicenna’s position is not rationally demonstrable. Acar concluded by insisting that the comparison is a fair one and both can be ‘philosophically assessed’. Avicenna’s notion of creation is richer than Acar suggests – what, for example, is the distinction between ibdāʿ which he does discuss and ṣunʿ which he does not? Avicenna’s arguments do not place God and creation at the same ontological level. While they extract time from the equation of difference, they insist upon the ontological and logical priority of the divine. This explains Acar’s judicious adoption of sempiternity to describe the cosmos instead of a simple eternity that is only predicated of God. The monograph begins with accord and ends in philosophical discord. But that is quite sound. It seems that Acar’s main purpose is to pose a dialogue of great thinkers within a wider context of dialogue between philosophical theologians of the two traditions, sketching a history of ideas within them. Dialogue requires the presence of difference and alterity. Agreement does not allow for dialogue. Within the objectives and constraints that Acar has set himself, this is a worthwhile and scholarly monograph that will contribute to our understanding of medieval philosophical theology. It makes significant allusions to linkages with current debates in the philosophy of religion about the nature of God, the possibilities of god-talk and the relationship between the divine and the created. One would, however, have wished for more ambition on the part of the author, to think ‘outside the box’ and go beyond the confines of the doctoral dissertation and present us with the bigger picture of the real significance of these debates and their persisting relevance to us today. That would amount to a true dialogue, not just juxtaposing two medieval thinkers but also presenting them within a contemporary debate about the possibilities of philosophical theology and a new scriptural reasoning.

[i] On this point, see Toby Mayer, ‘Ibn Sīnā’s burhān aṣ-ṣiddīqīn’, Journal of Islamic Studies vol. 12 (2001), pp. 18–39, and his contribution in Before and After Avicenna, eds. D. Reisman and A. al-Rahim (Leiden: Brill, 2003), both of which seem to have eluded Acar.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Reconfiguring Plato's Ethics.

Christopher Bobonich's new and challenging re-assessment of Plato's ethics comes at an opportune time. Here is another review by Christopher Rowe for the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Charles Kahn also responded in an article published in the 2004 issue of the Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy reviewed here.

This is an exciting time to be working on Platonism and Platonic ethics. From Julia Annas’ synoptic Platonic Ethics, Old and New to Dominic O’Meara’s Platonopolis, the study of (neo)Platonism(s) is enjoying a revival. A most recent expression of this is Lloyd Gerson’s challenge to us to reconsider Platonism in Aristotle, or even that Aristotle may well have been a Platonist malgré lui. Bobonich’s re-assessment and reorientation of Plato’s moral psychology and politics is not less significant. It is a challenging and vibrant piece of work that shakes us from our complacency away from the focus on the Republic and forces us to re-read works such as Phædo and the Laws. The full and detailed examination of the later dialogue in particular is one of the joys and strengths of the book. Clear within his approach are two points : first, that Plato’s ethical and political thought undergoes a radical shift from the utopia of the philosophers in the Republic that presents a pessimistic view of non-philosophers to a more ‘realistic’ optimism about non-philosophers in the Laws; second, his developmental approach requires one to rethink the chronology of the dialogues as Charles Kahn did, in a somewhat different manner with different results, in his Plato and the Socratic Dialogue. Not only this, Bobonich also shows how a full picture of Plato’s public ethics can only emerge with further consideration of yet more works such as the Phædrus and the Statesman. If Bobonich is right, then those rather lazy introductory philosophy classes that fix upon the Republic as the final statement of Platonic politics ought to be discontinued.

Let us consider his main claim (I leave aside the Dependency Theory and the moral psychology for brief remarks later). This concerns non-philosophers. Bobonich presents the problem and his answer in the following manner (pp. 7-10). In the Phædo and in the Republic, Plato denies the following claims that:

1) At least some non-philosophers are capable of being genuinely virtuous.

2) At least some non-philosophers are capable of valuing virtue for its own sake, that is, are capable of believing that virtue is good for its own sake and of desiring virtue for its own sake.

3) At least some non-philosophers are capable of valuing for its own sake the genuine well-being or happiness of others.

4) At least some non-philosophers are capable of living happy lives.

In the Laws in his accounts of the citizens of Magnesia, Plato does a U-turn and affirms these claims. Thus from the middle dialogues to the later dialogues, he moves from a pessimistic view of non-philosophers to an optimistic one. Alongside this shift, a change occurs in Plato’s view of psychology. Even if we do not raise issues to this main claim, one question that does arise is why did Plato’s views change, or rather the historian in me would want to pose such a contextual question.

There are certain assumptions that Bobonich makes that may be questionable and raise a few eyebrows. The first is a stylistic and methodological one: he assumes that Plato tells us precisely what he wishes to do and that the dialogues are merely a sounding board for his philosophical ideas. This in some ways is an old problem: is Plato offering us literature or philosophy, a dialogue or a treatise? Kahn and before him Vlastos among others grappled with this; Bobonich does not. Second, another old problem of akrasia seems to rear its ugly head in a different guise. This is what Bobonich in Chapter 2 calls the dependency thesis, simply that happiness depends on wisdom or as Bobonich puts it, virtue and phronesis are innate goods and all other goods such as health and wealth are ‘dependent’ upon it. He sets aside any instrumentalist view of virtue and opts for a rather foundationalist approach which is argues is located in the discussion in the Philebus on the relationship between reason/wisdom and the human good as a causal one. The point is not demonstrated and demands questioning. Third, he asks us to set aside the sophisticated philosophical work, the Republic, in favour of a work that on his own account is unphilosophical, the Laws, but one which he argues has a sophisticated philosophy behind it. Again, this requires some explanation and defence. Finally, Bobonich in Chapter 3 on the psychology of the Republic argues that one ought to set it aside because its tripartite division of the soul seems to violate the integrity of it and a mode of recovering the account is to argue that the non-rational parts of the soul do not lack rational agency. This claim is not fully demonstrated and is perhaps one point that would be rejected by most specialists. The suggestion that the later dialogues set aside the tripartite account is also refuted by considering the Timæus, an uber-text for the neoplatonist and very much a later dialogue. A further possible implication of his reassessment may be because the Laws represents the pinnacle of Plato’s thinking, then the non-ethical aspects of the Republic such as its metaphysics and even its notorious theory of forms (although some might deny it) can be set aside along with its politics. This might amount to an over-ambitious reading of Bobonich but seems worthy of caution.

The real virtue of Bobonich’s book is the comforting thought for us non-philosophers (we are surely on the whole historians, are we not?) that we are capable of upright moral agency and can function, contribute and even run a morally good state and society. As such, it has a democratising effect; such a revitalised Plato cannot be said to be an enemy of an ‘open society’ but rather its friend and mentor. The gaps in the arguments and undemonstrated points can be left to the philosophers to thrash out.

Islamic and Jewish Philosophy

While introductions to the life and thought of Moses Maimonides abound and studies and editions of his texts are thriving, the distinguishing feature of Herbert Davidson’s magnum opus is its detailed and exhaustive intellectual biography of all features of Maimonides’ life. An important figure of Islamicate philosophy and philosophical theology, Moshe ben Maimon or Musa b. Maymun, better known in medieval thought through his hellenized name Maimonides or among Jewish scholars as Rambam, was born in Cordoba in 1137 in the Almohad period. Probably fleeing persecution, he settled in Morroco, studying and teaching in Fez. Later in life, he moved to Egypt in 1167 where he died in 1204. His life and travels not only exemplifies the life of a scholar in the world of medieval Islam but also the itinerant fortunes of the Jewish minority in the Islamic West. What is most striking about Davidson’s excellent study is the obvious comparison that comes to mind with his contemporary Averroes (d. 1198) who like him was also a jurist, theologian and philosopher. They shared a common culture. It is heartening in the times in which we live to reaffirm and recognise commonalties: the intellectual and spiritual heritage of Jews in medieval Islam was expressed in the common language of Arabic, whether in an Aramaic or Arabic script, and the assumptions about the world and the role of faith in life was remarkably convergent. As individuals attempt to re-create such convergences and common concerns in contemporary Britain between religious specialists both Jewish and Muslim, it is well worth paying attention to the example of Maimonides, whilst acknowledging his distinction and difference. After all, dialogue and intellectual exchange take place in the presence of difference and alterity. It is symbolically significant that the British organisation that seeks to foster understanding and reconciliation between Muslims and Jews is called the Maimonides Foundation.

Davidson divides his study into ten chapters and focuses on Maimonides’ intellectual contribution. Chapter one is an exhaustive account of Maimonides’ life, sifting through the various primary sources (mainly in Arabic) and piecing together a life devoid of polemics, and one which judiciously considers the issue of persecution. Chapter two presents his education and intellectual formation and provides the critical contextualisation and background for understanding his works that follow. Chapters three, four and five consider his rabbinic works; of particular significance is the discussion of the Mishneh Torah in chapter four, the abiding authoritative work that he produced. To describe it in Islamic terms, it is an exhaustive work of furu‘ al-fiqh prefaced by a theological proemium on the nature of the divine and the imperative to seek religious knowledge. Chapters six and seven focus on his philosophical works in particular his major Arabic theological treatise Dalalat al-Ha’irin (Guide for the Perplexed, available in an excellent two volume English translation by the late Shlomo Pines with an intriguing introduction by the gurus of the neo-cons Leo Strauss). Maimonides proposes in this text a rational theology that is critical, like Avicenna before him was, of the ‘sophistries’ and rational shortcomings of the theology of kalam. Davidson demonstrates the continuity of Maimonides’ thought with the other medieval Muslim Aristotelians. The influence of Avicenna is clear and he accepts both the famous Avicennan proof for the existence of God and the theory of the emanation of the hierarchy of existence through a chain of intelligible entities from the One. Davidson had earlier written two important studies of medieval philosophy which ought to be read alongside these chapters: Proofs for Eternity, Creation and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy, and Alfarabi, Avicenna and Averroes on the Intellect. Chapter eight discusses his medical works which have been the subject of the research of Gerrit Bos in recent years. Chapter nine concludes the survey of his works, in particular discussing the famous Epistle to Yemen, whose attribution is disputed but not by Davidson. The Epistle was a response to a question posed by a Yemeni Jew concerning what one ought to do in the face of persecution. As such it is akin to a fatwa. Most interesting, Maimonides urges that there are two recourses for Jews in the face of religious persecution: suffering for their faith, which in a Muslim idiom one would call shahada, or dissimulating and pretending to convert but keeping the faith internally, taqiyya. The final chapter by way of conclusion attempts an analysis of how Maimonides saw himself and his world. Much of the material is presented in a fresh and innovative manner.

Davidson’s book will probably become the standard reference on Maimonides for some time to come. It collates and examines a large body of material; the footnotes are so detailed that it is understandable that he decided to forgo a bibliography. Whether it could be a good model for further studies on medieval thinkers is a bit more debatable. Davidson’s approach and method is quite traditional, focusing as he does upon careful reading of texts and assuming on the whole a unity in the literary purpose of Maimonides. The resultant volume is solid but perhaps unexciting and old-fashioned in its presentation. But it is difficult to fault the content.

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

The SEP is an outstanding free online resource with entries written by true specialists and peer-reviewed. What is especially encouraging is to see the many new articles commissioned and available on Arab and Islamic philosophy and philosophers. Peter Adamson's entry on al-Kindi and Frank Griffel's on Ghazali are excellent examples of this new tendency. Jon McGinnis' masterly introduction to 'natural philosophy' provides a context for understanding the metaphysical and cosmological speculations of Avicenna and others. My own entry on Mulla Sadra will appear in the new year.

Philosopher's lament

It is commonplace for intellectuals to lament the stupidity of their times. As I'm working on an article on philosophy in the Qajar period and especially on Mulla Hadi Sabzavari (d. 1873), the last 'great Islamic philosopher', I was reminded of this famous quotation from his main work Sharh-i manzumeh:

This age is devoid of wisdom and suffers from a dearth of grace of faith from the clouds of Mercy and from a multitude of sins committed by those who are negligent and ignorant. The gates of the heavens of the intellect have been barred to them, and true understanding of the Lord of Heaven has been made forbidden to them and deceit has contaminated their love. They have forsaken the Truth for falsehoods and have become addicted to ornamentation and affectation. They no longer traverse the land of absolutes nor swim in the seas of the realities of Revelation; they have exchanged everlasting, righteous deeds (al-bāqiyyāt al-ṣāliḥāt) for partial, transient deeds that will become obsolete. Their deeds reveal the conjectural nature of their aims, and the purpose of their desires is self-centred and mal-intended…

When I saw philosophy, it was woven by spiders of forgetfulness, and its character and dominance had been discarded to a corner where it languished, exiled.[1]

[1] Hādī Sabzavārī, Sharḥ al-manẓūma: qism al-ḥikma, ed. Masʽūd Ṭālibī, Tehran: Nashr-i nāb, 1374s./1995, I, 37–8.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Some notes on Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz

A number of theorists, following Heidegger, have commented upon the tendency within modernity, within the modern subject and its quest for technology and an interventionist notion of sovereign power to slide towards the limit of mechanised and planned violence that is genocide. During the furore over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1989, the Muslim intellectual and critic Shabbir Akhtar commented upon liberal modernity's quest to dissolve difference and seek scapegoats by comparing the image of the Jew in the Holocaust to the Muslim in contemporary Europe. He famously quipped, ‘The next time we see gas chambers in Europe, it will be no surprise to find Muslims in them’. This is a theme upon the notion of the experience of Muslims in Europe who find themselves within a police state, Nazi Germany being the limit of such a case.

One of Agamben’s most interesting and disturbing works is Remnants of Auschwitz. Setting aside his discourse on the messianic aspects of the notion of the remnant (one that incidentally finds a poignant echo in the Shiʿi tradition in Islam), what is most striking is his examination of the figure of the Muselmann in the camp. The term Muselmann (Muslim) was used at Auschwitz to denote a passive prisoner who had given up, had no consciousness or conscience, was despised and not object of sympathy, and was a mere staggering corpse, a bundle of physicality of no consequence [Agamben 1999b: 41–43]. More importantly, he had no agency, no dignity, and was not a survivor who could testify as he was devoid of his humanity. This state of being the Muslim is the limit case, the exception, the Orientalised and objectified Other. Survivors and witnesses speak for the inhuman Muselmann and resent it [Agamben 1999b: 120]. Following Foucault, Agamben argues that racism is the process by which biopower intervenes and marks breaks within the biological continuum of humanity and reintroduces the principle of war into the system of ‘making live’ [Agamben 1999b: 84]. Yet drawing on Levi, it is only the Muselmann as the inhuman who is truly human, a paradox as the witnesses are the mere remnants; at the same time, it is the human being who can survive being a human being [Agamben 1999b: 133]. In this sense, witnesses ‘were;’ Muselmanner. Wall 1999: 1 comments on the central concern of Agamben with inverting passivity; for example, an ontological paradox for Agamben is that a thing is simultaneously itself and its qualities without being the same thing as its qualities [Agamben 1993b: 97–8; Wall 1999: 19]; similarly presence and absence, image and reality [Wall 1999: 153].

Testimony is relation between the sayable and unsayable but archive is a system of relations between the said and unsaid [Agamben 1999b: 145]; this is analogous to the radical binaries that Agamben establishes in which the gap between the said and unsaid or rather between voice and language, and between the unwritten and the preface are articulated as key to understanding what we normally understand as philosophy of language or the politics of expression [Agamben 1993a: 6–8]. It also expresses a key feature of Agamben’s philosophy: the primacy and ambiguity of experience over its expression, of infancy over history, the ‘thing itself’ (in Platonic terms – see especially Agamben 1999c, chapter 1) over the manifest object, the deus absconditus over the deus revelatus.

Agamben references:

Giorgio Agamben (1993a), Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience,

tr. Liz Heron (London: Verso).

(1993b), The Coming Community, tr. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis, MN:

University of Minnesota Press).

(1998), Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, tr. Daniel

Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

(1999a), The Man without Content, tr. G. Albert (Stanford, CA: Stanford

University Press).

(1999b), Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, tr. Daniel

Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books).

(1999c), Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen

(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

(2000), Means without End: Notes on Politics, trs. V. Binetti and C. Casarino

(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press).

(2004), The Open: Man and Animal, tr. Kevin Attell (Stanford, CA: Stanford

University Press).

(2005), State of Exception, tr. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago


How to write about Arab-Islamic Philosophy or the Continuing Salience of al-Kindi

Peter Adamson, Reader in Philosophy and a specialist on philosophy in late antiquity and early Islam at King’s College London, has written an exemplary study of a Muslim philosopher. Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb b. Isḥāq al-Kindī (d. 870) is famous for being the first Arab-Muslim philosopher. But beyond this role and his perhaps more significant role for the later tradition as a patron and facilitator of an early phase on the translation movement from Greek into Arabic, he is much neglected in the study of Arab-Islamic philosophy. While academic studies of his thought began in 19th century German orientalism, the volume under review is the first systematic study of his thought and acts as a companion volume of translations of his philosophical works produced by Adamson and Peter Pormann (also forthcoming from Oxford University Press). The work represents a philosopher’s engagement with al-Kindī, informed by research and insights of Arabists, more first and foremost an encounter and critical evaluation of ideas.

Adamson begins with an interesting point about the history of philosophy – in competition, being first often seems like an advantage and al-Kindī certainly qualifies as such. But if the history of philosophy is also concerned with focusing upon pivotal, influential and significant figures and ideas that effected paradigm shifts in the modes of human thought, then one needs to make an argument for the need to study al-Kindī. Adamson makes a good case for why a study of al-Kindī is still informative for a number of reasons, for an understanding of the development of philosophy in the Muslim world, and as I would suggest, for theologically-minded Muslim thinking about being in the world. This highly readable account comprises eight chapters: the first two are contextualising on his life, works, influences, sources, the formation of an intellectual inquiry called falsafa and its relationship with systematic theology (ʿilm al-kalām) in the classical period; the remaining five chapters tackles various branches of philosophy such as metaphysics, eternity and the creation of the world (in which al-Kindī significantly follows the Christian philosopher Philoponus on insisting upon the creation of the cosmos in time as consistent both with the Qurʾan and with Plato, and thus prefiguring al-Ghazālī’s argument against Avicenna on eternity), psychology (which in the premodern period means the study of the soul-psuche), ethics, science and the study of the heavens (the De Caelo and meteorology Aristotelian tradition). One may argue that such an account is made manageable by the limited extent of al-Kindī’s works (and by comparison such an exhaustive account of Avicenna would be a tall order), this does not detract from the efficacy of the analysis and the insightful nature of the engagements.

Re-assessing al-Kindī today is of value. While some Arab intellectuals have championed Averroes as a rationalist before his time neglected by Muslim posterity which was corrupted by Persian irrationalism and other-worldliness (the racism inherent in ʿAbid al-Jabiri’s thesis is stark all the more so for the disinclination of most Arab intellectuals to refuse a clear disavowal), I would suggest that al-Kindī is potentially far more interesting. First, al-Kindī represents the first stage of an encounter with a ‘foreign’ field of learning, the initial cultural and intellectual exchange with the late antique tradition of Neoplatonising Aristotelianism and as such may provide some examples of how Muslim thinkers in the past appropriated, modified and embraced ideas and paradigms of thought that emerged from without their own tradition and which were recognised as being un-revealed from above. Adamson calls this early tradition of philosophy later superseded by Avicennism the ‘Kindian tradition’. Al-Kindī’s famous statement in On First Philosophy (oft-quoted in the literature) is particularly salient on the embrace of the rational in pursuit of the truth and hence I shall quote it in its entirety (p. 23, from On First Philosophy II.4):

We must not be ashamed to admire the truth or to acquire it, from wherever it comes. Even if it should come from far-flung nations and foreign peoples, there is for the student of truth nothing more important than the truth, nor is the truth demeaning or diminished by the one who states or conveys it; no one is demeaned by the truth, rather all are ennobled by it.

Allied to this concern is his criticism of those who claim to apply reason to their understanding of theology but in fact do no such thing.

Second, al-Kindī’s metaphysics is marked by two critical doctrines: the denial of the eternity of the cosmos, and the ineffability of God. God is utterly transcendent and his essence unknowable, a position within apophatic theology that he shares with the Platonic tradition and the Muʿtazila (through their denial of the reality of the divine attributes as independent entities). God is a direct and sustaining cause for all that exists and, contrary to most negative theologians in later antiquity, he rejects the instrumentalism (and the theory) of the emanation of the cosmos from a superabundantly good One. The disagreement with the Aristotelian tradition on eternity also demonstrates the critical embrace of foreign ideas: since one is interested in truth and not imitation of fashion, one need not appropriate all that goes under the guise of Aristotelianism (a salient lesson for the likes of Averroes, the commentator par excellence of Aristotle in Islam).

Third, al-Kindī, like the later tradition, made no distinction between science and philosophy, or even between the scriptural and the ‘rational’. Knowledge was a holistic field of inquiry and pursuit of truth. He wrote a number of works in arithmetic, medicine, vision (linking clinical and physical notions of perception with issues in epistemology and psychology), cosmology, and music. The latter is particularly striking: music represents a study in harmony and relationship, of homologies between different orders of things in the cosmos. Our modern, disintegrated, disharmonious selves are in such dire need to reconnect with the notion of homology and harmony in a newly sacralised and ‘enchanted’ cosmos.

Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that Adamson’s aim in writing this excellent book is a desire to discern the significant of al-Kindī for the present in the Muslim world (although I do not think he would disappointed if this led to new interest in the Kindian tradition). Nevertheless, reading is a function of one’s engagement on the horizon of one’s being, formed by one’s intellectual training and informed by one’s context. In the present, it is difficult to read and interpret anything of the rich intellectual heritage of the Muslim world without an uneasy present-minded. I do hope that Adamson’s book will reach a wider audience than specialists in mediaeval and Islamic philosophy precisely for this reason. But one’s hopes in the present are often futile.

Postmodernism and Orientalism

Old wine in new flasks? As promised, here are my thoughts on Ian Almond's The New Orientalists:

For Almond, Orientalism both in the classical Saidian sense of an imperial project of knowledge-power and forms of objectifying the oriental other in the present world share a basic insidious inability to ‘grasp the other’. The use of symbols and themes from the Islamic other that are deployed by postmodern thinkers to effect a critique of modernity can easily lapse into the distorted reification of the orient expressed in Orientalism. This new Orientalism, for Almond, represents a danger for postmodernism and for the world of Islam. In this book, the implications are clear: while we assume that orientalism is a feature of the popular right-wing media and the fear, hysteria and paranoia of the post-9/11 world, it is often those, thought to be most sympathetic to the plight of the Muslim other, who may actually represent an equally disturbing development in their objectification. Exoticisation and empathy with the Muslim other as outcaste is not the best way to promote integration and that new über-buzzword ‘community cohesion’ in Europe.

Juxtaposing Islam and postmodernism is not a new phenomenon. Akbar Ahmed in a rather bland and superficial book in the early 1990s examined the relationship and since then important contributions of Aziz al-Azmeh, Bobby Sayyid, and Ziaddin Sardar (to which list one should add Mohammed Arkoun) have drawn upon insights within postmodern theory to explain and understand the contemporary politics and intellectual history of the world of Islam. It is thus no surprise that Almond’s book reflects the influences of these authors – in particular he singles out Sayyid’s extended appropriation of postmodern thought that sees Islamists ‘narrating’ their politics through Islamic metaphors, considering Islam to be a ‘master signifier’ and ‘nodal point’ around point elements constitute and draw meaning, and examines the Prophet as a figure inaugurating a new ‘discursive horizon’.

The New Orientalists is divided into three sections. The first on the critique of modernity begins with the ‘godfather’ of postmodernism Nietzsche himself (and it is in this vein that Alasdair MacIntyre has labelled postmodernists as ‘neo-Nietzscheans’), followed by a chapter on Foucault’s engagement with the Iranian revolution (a theme of an excellent recent book by Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson) and completed with a chapter on Derrida (the neglect of Francophone Muslim scholarship is unfortunate). The second section grapples with fiction in the ‘standard sense’ with chapters on Borges, Rushdie and Pamuk. The final section switches to the context of postmodern theory and imagining Europe and its others with considerations of Kristeva, Baudrillard and Zizek. Some concluding thoughts then try to piece together the argument. In each of these sections, one discerns a basic pattern and structure: Almond chooses a thinker from the classical postmodern tradition, another from the founding figures of the Rushdie/Cold War period, and culminates with a contemporary thinker of immediate significance.

In conclusion, Almond argues that the aim of the book is to establish the genealogy of a gesture, of the use of foreign value-systems to elucidate, evaluate and re-present one’s parent culture. Juxtaposing monolithic alterity with pluralisms and multiple identities seems fairly obvious; but does one need postmodern thought to recognise the basic fact of plurality in Islam? More perceptive (and this renders some of the claims slightly undermined) is Almond’s basic conclusion that the study of perceptions of Islam in postmodernism tells us more about postmodernism. If one realises the continuities of post-modernism with the ‘Enlightenment project’ it often critiques and recognises the incestuous canonicity of the inter-textuality in which postmodern thinkers indulge, should this really surprise us? Just as Almond ends with an important question about the ethics of representation (already raised in Said’s Orientalism), one is minded to worry both about the Muslim apologist using postmodernism to critique Western modernity without realising that he who deconstructs will be deconstructed (a clear warning to Akbar Ahmed among others) and the Muslim seeking a ‘career in the West’ through the acceptance and appropriation of the fashion of metropolitan academia (a salient critique that Aijaz Ahmad makes of many a postcolonial theorist). But I say this not in condemnation or contempt nor do I wish to proscribe the nine authors discussed in the book: reading Derrida as well as Pamuk, Rushdie and the others is a joy from which I would not wish anyone to be deprived. A simple caveat suffices.

Specialists of Islamic studies and politics will find this mélange somewhat odd but Almond is an academic working on literature and his many years teaching the subject in Turkey no doubt have inspired his choices and interests. Much of this book, the title and its presentation seem faddish and this will encourage its sales. In recent years, we have seen cultural studies encroaching on the study of Islam perhaps because Islam has become a master signifier of our (European, multicultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic) society. This is not necessarily a good thing. Of course, as an interested specialist, I would obviously bemoan the democraticisation of Islamic studies that cultural studies brings not because of my own desire to establish norms and ensure that those norms are adhered but because academic inquiry needs to retain standards of disciplinary excellence. The blurb of the back cover describes the book as timely and suggests that the new orientalism has implications for Islam. In this very statement lies the basic paradox of orientalism as a theory of analysis: it insists upon knowledge and perception as a distortion of reality but at the same time suggests that perception changes reality. But it further begs the question: what does one mean by Islam? Muslims may well be transformed (and then only those engaged with metropolitan discourses) by postmodern thought but does that affect the doctrines, beliefs, and theology of a faith system such as Islam? Or should one agree with al-Azmeh that not only are there are many islams as situations that sustain it (in itself an interesting vagueness of the general and the particular) but that Islam does not exist outside of the practices and beliefs of Muslims in history, in the present and in the future?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Paths to God in Mediaeval Islam - A Recent Published Dissertation

Although the title suggests a broad topic, Maha Elkaisy-Friemuth's Gods and Humans in Islamic Thought: 'Abd al-Jabbar, Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali, a published doctoral dissertation originally submitted at the University of Birmingham, is quite narrowly focused upon the methods that three pivotal medieval Islamic thinkers propose for an understanding of the God-human relationship. The juxtaposition of these three thinkers could potentially yield interesting results and demonstrate the interconnected nature of intellectual inquiry in Islam. 'Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1024) is taken as a representative of the kalam tradition, Avicenna (d. 1037) of the philosophical and al-Ghazali (d. 1111) the Sufi tradition. The work comprises five chapters: a contextualising introduction, a chapter on 'Abd al-Jabbar’s concept of lutf (rendered here as ‘divine assistance’, perhaps in taqlid of Abrahamov; Madelung and Schmidtke tend to favour ‘facilitating grace’), Avicenna’s concept of 'ishq or the Neoplatonic eros, al-Ghazali’s proposition of fana' (self-annihilation), and a final chapter that compares these three in search of evaluating the approaches to the God-human relationship in medieval Islam.

In the introduction, the author explains her intentions. Religion is concerned primarily with a deep analysis of the relationship between a principle or God and its effects or humans. Religion teaches humans to make sense of their reality and suggests ways of approaching the divine. In this book, she sets out to examine three approaches, Mu'tazili kalam, falsafa and mysticism, whose common foundations lie in their use of Hellenic modes of thought and discourse. By comparing these approaches, the author at a basic level wishes to demonstrate the diversity in medieval Islam with respect to the question of the human relationship with God. Finally, a comparative analysis of these three approaches reveals their differing conceptions of the nature of humans that underlies them. While a study of Avicenna and al-Ghazali in this context is not particularly innovative, a focus on the notion of lutf in 'Abd al-Jabbar is an important contribution especially as one could argue that it is the significant concept in kalam. The choice of these three thinkers is also obviated by a focus on the tenth and eleventh centuries that the author argues was central to the development of learned culture in Islam.

Chapter one on the historical and cultural context is divided into three parts: a historical preamble on the political context focused on Buyid and Saljuq Iran with a brief description of theological schools, an introduction to the three thinkers, and finally an introduction to the three approaches. The historical sketch is broadly competent, although one wonders what it contributes; the all too brief description of the Shi'a and the Sunnis in the period is far too simplistic and questionable (e.g. the Ismailis are not those who accept seven Imams, stated in a normative manner – the early Ismaili mission was predicated on the call to the imamate of the seventh successor to the Prophet in their conception but this was no longer the case in the eleventh century). The sketch of Mu'tazili history is not useful; Heemskerk is far better (or even the Encyclopaedia of Islam entry). The school of Abu Hashim al-Jubba'i is commonly called the Bahshamiyya and not the Buhashimiyya. The introduction to 'Abd al-Jabbar is adequate but again Reynolds’s recent work is far more critical and reliable. The presentation of his ideas is based on al-Mughni but also the Ta'liq Sharh Usul al-khamsa of his follower Mankdim and al-Majmu' fi-l-muhit of his student Ibn Mattawayh. Such a method was previously utilised by Peters and Heemskerk.

The three core chapters on the thinkers have a similar structure. The author begins with an explanation of the thinker’s vision of the nature of God, His attributes and human nature, and then progresses to an analysis of the connection between them as effected by the particular idea upon which she focuses. The chapter on 'Abd al-Jabbar begins with centrality of the notion of divine justice in Mu'tazili theology and its understanding of what constitutes an ‘attribute of the essence’. God morally obligates believers and provides them with two types of ‘assistance’: the provision of physical and intellectual abilities, and lutf which guides believers to fulfil their obligation (taklif) by a series of instruments such as inner warnings or khawatir, causing pain or confirming knowledge through ‘tranquillity of the soul’. This represents a useful analysis of a key concept. Perhaps the main weakness of the chapter is that the author does not demonstrate the link between different aspects of lutf, in particular how revelation and guidance through prophets facilitates the fulfilment of one’s moral obligation.

The next chapter on love in Avicenna is rather odd. The author seems to assume that Avicenna was a straightforward mystically-inclined Neoplatonist. While the Risala fi-l-'ishq takes up the theme of the divine eros and how love is the mechanism of God’s creation and the means through which humans revert back to God, it is questionable whether this is the central theme of Avicenna’s account of the God-human relationship. Yahya Michot’s study of al-Mabda' wa-l-ma'ad is a clearer explanation of Avicenna’s postulation of an ‘Islamic philosophy’, an account of how God creates humans and how humans revert to their principle. The author’s attempt to link the concept of love with central issues in Avicenna’s philosophy such as his theory of the intellect, of intuition (which she calls ‘inspiration’), and the problem of God’s knowledge of particulars is not entirely satisfactory. A more sensible theme and mechanism for focus would have been Avicenna’s concept of the intellect as process of originating from God and reverting back to him.

The concept of fana' is indeed central to al-Ghazali’s mystical theology. The author continues a recent trend in focusing upon the Ihya' as a key vehicle for the dissemination of his thought. There is little in this chapter that pursues a new line of research. The final chapter begins the process of comparison and stresses the significance of the period in which these thinkers were writing and producing. One might also at this stage ask whether there are other paths, other disciplines and approaches to the God-human relationship that the author may have considered; some Shi'i traditions, for example, come to mind as possibilities.

Gods and Humans in Islamic Thought is fairly interesting as an approach to a central issue in theology in classical Islam. A thematic approach and a more integrated mode of comparison would make for a more readable and useful book and allow for a solid dissertation to make the transition to a book that makes a contribution.